We've all experienced it at one point or another - a state of no mind. For many of us, it happened more often in childhood, where we were lost in the process of something, fully immersed in the experience.
In the martial arts and zen tradition, this state is known as mushin. A shortened form of mushin no shin, or the mind without mind, refers to a state where we are free from emotion, ego and deliberation, and simply lost in the output of our work.
In the martial arts, this flow state allows us to respond with natural and unconscious movement. If we were to stop and think of what was happening, it would already be too late. To embrace a state of mushin is to rely on our automatic behaviors over our conscious ones.
How then could we actively work towards this flow state?
In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear references a balance between difficulty and ease, known as the Goldilocks Zone. In this state, we are neither too challenged, nor uninterested in a task. If it were too easy, we'd grow bored and likely become distracted. If it were too difficult, we'd grow frustrated and potentially give up. The middle path can be considered a balance between the extremes of our ego. In the Goldilocks Zone, we achieve a state of flow by doing something that challenges us, where there is always a small chance of failure, but not so much that we anticipate it.
Imagine the Olympic athlete. They are at the pinnacle of their domain, among a small group of individuals within the top of their field. Even so, the olympian walks into the arena still considerate of the fact they may lose. They know they are good. They know that could win, but it is not guaranteed. In this circumstance, the athlete must rely on the automated behaviors from thousands of repetitions of practice. They mustn't look at the score board, but focus on the now. If we wish to achieve the flow state of mushin, we must be like the performance athlete - good enough to pursue our task with competence, but challenging enough to keep us on our toes.
From Zen master Takuan Soto:
"The mind must always be in the state of 'flowing,' for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind. In the case of the swordsman, it means death.
When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy's sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man's subconscious that strikes."