The Highest Purpose of the Martial Arts

I train in the martial arts for many reasons.  It keeps me in shape, I improve my ability to defend myself, it is mental chess, it builds my confidence, I make friends, it is fun, and it’s my livelihood.

No Mind: Mushin

But there is a deeper reason why I practice martial arts.  There is something interesting that happens to me when I train.  It is this state of being where I am not thinking, and I feel totally alive.  Japanese  martial artists refer to it as mushin.  It means “no mind” in Japanese.  In some sports they refer to it as “the flow” or “being in the groove.”

In modern society we are bombarded by so much sensory stimulation, we lose ourselves.  Thinking about your average day.  In the car you listen to the radio, at work you are looking at a computer screen, talking on the phone; you come home and watch tv, talk to your family, then go to bed.  Except when you are sleeping, the whole day your focus and energy is going out.  And when your energy finally retreats within, you are mostly unaware, because you’re asleep.  There is very little silence and peace in most people’s modern lives.  Most people actually avoid silence!

There is a lot we can learn from other cultures and other ways of life.  Generally speaking, in the West, the emphasis is on the outer life: nice house, nice car, money, lots of toys and technology.  In the East, the emphasis is on the inner life: inner peace, calmness, inner development.  Many in the West have a lot of outer “comforts” and little to no inner peace.  Many in the East  are connected with others and some have some inner connections but lack adequate food and shelter.

Mother Theresa said that in the West we have the worst form of poverty: loneliness.  She said that in the East you can give someone bread and they are content.  In the West it doesn’t solve the problem.


In the East, there are many art forms that point you in the direction of peace.  Each art form is a form of moving meditation.  Meditation can be defined as taking your attention away from the outer world and directing it within.  The idea is that happiness, wisdom, peace, love, spiritual understanding and connection are found within.  They are not found in things or through the senses.

True meditation, whether seated or moving, requires one pointed concentration.  The tea ceremony of Japan is an example.  The purpose is not just to drink tea.  It is a ritual that gives the mind a focus point.  The ceremony is done at the highest level when the practitioner does not think of anything other than what they are doing in the moment.  They are not thinking of what they will eat later, money, what someone said to them, etc…

There is a story about a samurai that was learning the tea ceremony from a tea master.  The students of the samurai were upset that their teacher was spending his time on such a “soft” art form.  They decided they would kill the tea master.  They approached the tea master while he was performing the tea ceremony, and could not find the time an opening to attack.  They then understood why their teacher studied the tea ceremony- to develop awareness and greater concentration.

What is the point for a martial arts practitioner?  When you can practice without thinking and going through lots of emotions, you will find a state of peace and flow that is remarkable.  If the state is deep enough, it is referred to as “satori,” or an awakening, as if during our entire lives we are asleep to who we really are, and our true purpose.

To achieve this state of concentration, heightened awareness, and peace, you have to let all thoughts pass.  Do not continue in that line of thought.  The first thought may happen, but don’t follow through on that first thought.  If you think, “what will I do after training?”  Let it go.  Do not think, “Well I want to eat, but I could call my friend, and I …”

The yogis of India say that the mind is like a dog.  If you don’t train it, you will lose control of it, and you will regret it.  Seated and moving meditation train the mind.  You have heard people say that the mind is so powerful.  What if you could harness it’s power?  The secret is to meditate!  I have heard it said that the last frontier is space… I disagree.  It is the mind and spirit.  I believe that finding an 11th planet that revolves around the sun pales in comparison to finding out more about who I truly am.

Even if you do not train martial arts for any deeper purpose, unbroken concentration is a huge advantage for self defense.  If you are walking down the street and someone were to attack you, you would be much more likely to recognize the strange body language of an attacker before they attack.  If you didn’t see them, you would hear them move before they ambush.  You would recognize the feeling/intuition that something wasn’t right that most people experience before attacked.

In your daily training, almost every thought and emotion that you experience hurts your timing.  If you can make you mind calm, you will notice a lot about your partner.  Most fighters telegraph most of their moves most of the time!  A master is one who takes advantage of these opportunities.  Most fighters have a lot of static running through their mind and heart, like listening to a few different radio stations at once.  Whenever they are entertaining one of these thoughts or feelings, they are vulnerable to an attack.

Many of these thoughts and emotions create tension.  A famous martial artist, teacher, training partner, and friend of mine, Sifu Robert Brown, says that the condition of the breath reflects the condition of the mind, and the mind reflects the condition of the breath.  The goal is to keep the breath calm, the mind calm, and the body ready.  When you afraid of getting tapped, or losing in front of others, or getting hurt, you will become tense.  Your muscles begin to work against each other.  Your breathing speeds up and gets shallow, taking is less oxygen.  You get tired more quickly.   Your concentration weakens.   Any of the negative emotions create this same state.

The ability to concentrate without being distracted by your outer or inner environment is an amazing skill to have.  There are many stories about great martial artists being involved in car accidents, being attacked, and other fear inducing events that did not affect them. Think about it- when you become afraid, you have less control over your body and mind, and are not able to respond well as easily, whether it is a self defense situation, a conversation, or any mudane daily event.  They stay calm because they have developed that state of evenmindedness in training their art form as a moving meditation, and by doing seated meditation.

Whenever I think about the state of mushin, I think about the samurai.  When the end of each battle ended in one or both participants dead, the mental and emotional state is of paramount importance.  If one samurai lost concentration for even a moment, and the other warrior attacked at that moment, it’s almost instant death.  There have been many Karate, Kung Fu, and other martial art masters that had developed this ability to see and feel when their partner wasn’t ready.

So this is a powerful idea, a huge benefit of training a martial art as an art, a method of personal development, and not just a sport.  What if you could live your life not in fear?  What if you could control your emotional state?  What if you could keep tension in your body to a minimum?  What if you could control your reactions to things and people that you could be calm, and not emotional?  This is possible through practicing this state of mushin, or evenmindedness, of calm detachment, that is practiced in meditation and is practiced when you train a martial art as an art.

The samurai have a fascinating culture and history.  They developed one pointed focus and heightened awareness through training and battle, in order to stay alive.  And the interesting thing is that when there were no more wars to fight, no one else to kill, they began to practice the tea ceremony, calligraphy, poetry, flower arranging, seated meditation, and other “softer” arts.

Would your life improve more from a better win / loss record, or from inner peace?  The samurai had found that fighting the inner battles gave much greater returns than outer ones.

man in gi meditating

6 Responses to “The Highest Purpose of the Martial Arts”

  1. Leo says:

    Excellent words of wisdom. I passed this on to all who train with me.


  2. Dustin says:

    I appreciate this blog. I left you a phone message about you school and BJJ work. Let’s be in touch after the holiday.

    Take care.

  3. Shel says:

    Wow. This is so refreshing to read…I’m glad I’m reading this in the early stages of my training. Really inspiring Ryan.

  4. Kosta says:

    Great article, I’d be interested in reprinting it or adding a link on my site.
    I’ll contact you to see if this is possible.
    Either way very interesting and informative article.

  5. Ryan says:

    No problem Kosta. Let’s talk soon!

  6. Unknown says:


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