Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Ancient Attention Techniques

Quit thinking and just pay attention.

The dojo has taught me many lessons. For one, winning generally comes easiest when I remember to quit thinking and just pay attention.

This lesson came to me twenty-five years ago, during the early stages of my martial arts training. One day, my sensei (instructor in Japanese) noticed me stressing to remember the movements of a kata, (a sequence of martial arts postures that looks like a dance) that I was practicing.  I wanted to perform the kata powerfully and gracefully. But I found myself having to stop and think about each posture before doing it.  Was it right hand first or left hand first?  Did I take one or two steps forward?

“Stop thinking and just pay attention,” my teacher said.

Little did I know—then—that these words would become a mantra in a book I would write years later on what goes on in our heads when we pay attention, why we lose focus, and how we can regain it.  But there was (and still is of course) much to learn.  Although I understood his words intellectually, it would be a while before I got it.

The same lesson on paying attention is learned by Tom Cruise’s character, Nathan Algren, in The Last Samurai.  Algren’s sparring partner explains:  "Please forgive,” he says.  “You have too many mind...mind sword, mind people watch, mind enemy.  Too many mind.  Must have no mind."  Algren has difficulty at first, but eventually, when he learns to stop thinking so much, he wins.

 “It’s like when you’re playing tennis and the ball is coming at you faster than a car or someone throws a lightning-fast roundhouse kick at your head,” my sensei said.  “You are alert.  You see it coming.  You make decisions, you react—fast.   It just happens. Ever watch a tennis pro running around the court making what look like superhuman shots?   They just lay into it.  It’s more or less automatic.”

Just as Cruise’s sparring opponent in The Last Samurai, my sensei was describing a state of mind the Japanese call mushin, which literally means “no mind.”  According to the ancient masters, mushin is operating when your mind’s attention moves from one action to another, without the interference of thought.  Your mind flows like a stream of hyper-alert water, filling every space in your environment.  Mushin is a coveted state of mind all martial artists strive to reach.

“I don’t want you to stop thinking completely and forever,” my teacher explained. 

He just wanted me to think a lot less.  That way, he explained, when I did think, it would be fast and efficient, unfettered by the usual bundles of other thought. 

Then he gave me a good comparison to help me understand.  “When you’re ‘lost’ in one of those movies you like watching, you are not really lost, are you?” he said.   “Your mind is open wide and you are actually very aware.   You are relaxed and paying attention to everything on the screen. You’re right there, but not thinking about it.   Once in a while you pause to think, and your mind stops.  When that happens, you are there with your thought, but then you have lost sight of what’s happening on the screen.  Do you see?” he asked.  “It’s like that.”             

“Is that a bad thing?” I asked.

“Yes and no,” he said.  “It’s all in what you are giving up.”

It almost seems as if nature has forced us to choose between having a sharp thought in place of seeing the big picture or seeing the big picture instead of having a sharp thought—sometimes that doesn’t seem like much of a choice. 

Martial arts teach that toggling your attention from the big picture to a narrower one is natural, necessary, and doesn’t have to be a problem.  The process is as follows:  You focus on a specific task, execute it, empty your mind, and move on to the next task. Your mind learns naturally to flow from wide open, to tight, to wide open again.  So—focus, execute, empty your mind, and move on.  And eventually, with enough repetition, you will make this process automatic. 

“One single thought is all it takes to create an interval in your actions,” my sensei cautioned. “That’s when you are most likely to make a mistake and incapable of acting fast enough to correct it.”

Martial arts teach that the best thing you can do if you have an interrupting thought is accept it—whatever you do, don’t resist it or the interval will only intensify, creating a tangle of thoughts and uncertainty. 

The idea is to let your mind flow like water.  Whenever you have an interrupting thought, let it float across your mind like a reflection, undisturbed.

Mushin is a tool in our attention toolbox.  It helps us rinse our slate clean and maintain a state of hyper-alertness.

Note:  See my post titled Train Your Attention: Two Easy Ways to Get Started, which discusses thought and attention in meditation, visualization, and reflection.  

Acknowledgement:  For a scientific adventure into the world of human attention see my newest book [amazon 1601630638]. 

(Image by scottfeldstein)