Mushin – Peak Performance States in Aikido Philosophy

Mushin – Peak Performance States in Aikido Philosophy

In Aikido we learn how to enter into a peak performance state that in the Japanese arts is known as “mushin.” In Seishindo work, we often call “mushin” a state of “embodied presence.”

What is Mushin?

“Mushin” is similar to the term “flow state” as used by many people to describe the conditions for peak performance. For several years now I have been defining “embodied presence/mushin” as follows:

“When the structure of your body is balanced, and your thinking mind is fully present but not engaged in any form of internal dialogue, you will tend to release any extraneous thoughts or actions and enter into the flow state of ‘mushin.’

“Your thoughts, feelings, and actions occur simultaneously and spontaneously. Nothing comes between your thoughts and your actions, and nothing is left over. When we embody such a state, we greatly improve our ability to learn with grace and ease.”

At such times we have a pleasing sense of fullness and great potential. We do not attempt to eliminate or control our thoughts, feelings, or actions. Instead, we move with our thoughts and feel into our experience.

Breath, movement, action, and rest.

Breath, movement, action, and rest.

Mushin is achieved when your mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego during combat or everyday life.

State of Peak Performance

So when I talk about peak performance states and how we can live our lives with a greater sense of ease, grace, and power, I am referring to how to enter into a special learning state where our thoughts, actions, and feelings occur simultaneously and spontaneously.

This state of “mushin” is one that we very much strive to experience in Aikido (and in other Japanese arts as well) knowing full well that it is not a state that we will maintain throughout our everyday life.

Indeed, what we do when we find we are NOT in a state of embodied presence and instead mired in a difficult situation, tells us much about our spirit and our deeply held beliefs. Mushin is an ephemeral state that is to be experienced and released. An experience that is meant to be lost and found again, many times over in the course of our life. I consider peak performance states to be an enjoyable quest and not just for some select few who are professional performers of one sort or another.

When we enter into mushin for even brief periods of time, we find that we receive what I call “a residue experience.” By this, I mean that even when we enter back into our everyday mind, we find ourselves living our life with a greater sense of vitality and wellbeing. Our relationships with others tend to be more heartfelt, compassionate, and aware. We find ourselves feeling more connected to our “self” and our everyday experience while living our life with a greater sense of meaning.

If you are at all like most of the human beings I meet every day – and the one that I meet in the mirror every morning – during much of your life, your thoughts, actions, and feelings occur somewhat independently of each other. And you lack a certain sense of spontaneity. To some extent, this is part of the human condition, and yet we can definitely also achieve from time to time a much fuller way of learning and living.

Aspects of Embodied Presence

One of the unique elements of embodied presence is that we do not have internal dialogue when we are fully present in the moment. By “fully present in the moment,” I mean remaining relaxed while fully engaging in an activity, without internal dialogue taking up any of our attention or awareness.

Mushin = Embodied presence
Embodied presence = Fully present in the moment
Fully present in the moment = Michael Jordan during an NBA final; Tiger Woods at the Masters; My daughter watching her Saturday morning kids program.

Being free from internal dialogue at times is quite an interesting phenomenon. One of the main questions I always ponder in this regard is “Who is talking to who?” during internal dialogue. Another thought that I often have is

“Why in the world do I need to tell myself what I am feeling? Why not just feel?”

And of course, asking myself such questions is just another form of internal dialogue!

To me, the fact that we have internal dialogue in the first place leads me to understand that each person has at least two different selves that they experience life through. One self is a rational/cognitive self with its “headquarters” being just that, in the head. This is the self that generates our internal dialogue and likes to critique what we are doing.

Our other self is an emotional/somatic self with its command center being in the body. This appears to be the self that the cognitive self is trying to inform via words. The problem is that the somatic self thinks in feelings and not in words, so really the only thing it understands from the verbal communication of the cognitive self is the tone of voice, volume, and phrasing.

Seem hard to believe?

If you have a dog bring it to a foreign country some time, you will notice that it does quite well in understanding the basic conversation directed towards it by the local populace. In Japanese, they would say “Kawaii! Kawaii!,” and your dog would soon be wagging its tail. Either your dog is a heck of a lot better at learning foreign languages than you are (which is entirely possible if you are like many of my fellow Americans), or your dog is picking up the basic meaning of what is being said via the tone of voice, volume, and phrasing.

Rational versus Somatic Self

Your rational self thinks with the aid of verbal language. Your somatic self “thinks” like all other mammals, and such thinking involves making meaning out of what is sensed, rather than distilling meaning from the spoken word. When entering into a state of mushin, we want the feeling, intuitive, mammalian mind to come to the forefront, while the rational mind is encouraged to take a bit of a holiday.

When things are going well for us, our two selves seem to cooperate rather nicely, and at such times, it is likely that we will not have internal dialogue. We easily reach this cooperative mushin state when walking in a beautiful mountain range area, playing with a young child, or perhaps when watching a compelling movie.

In my way of thinking, the three examples offered here are everyday examples of a peak performance state. The whole self is actively aware of, in touch with, and absorbed by, what is transpiring. There is no need to comment on what is occurring because every part of you already “knows” what is going on. Your thoughts, feelings, and actions occur simultaneously and spontaneously. If you take a moment to think about it, most any state that we find highly pleasurable could be defined as a peak performance state. Interesting to think about how peak performance relates to pleasure.

On the other hand, when we get worried, frightened, or angry, we usually find our two selves (rational and somatic) in conflict with each other. In fact, what becomes most obvious during times of stress is the very different methods that your rational and somatic selves have of processing and understanding what is occurring.

When your rational self becomes upset, it uses words to express what it is feeling. “What’s the matter stupid? I thought you knew better!” might be a common complaint uttered by your rational self. Your somatic self, on the other hand, communicates that it is upset by releasing various enzymes that lead to an upset stomach, or by tensing up the muscles of the body until you find yourself with a headache.

What is important to note here is that both selves can be quite adept at communicating that something is wrong, but often the cognitive self delivers this message in the form of self-criticism rather than really helping you to note compassionately just what needs to be different. Your rational self is sort of like a scientist or news commentator. It comments on what is being felt, much more than actually feeling the experience.

Keeping a Mushin Peak Performance State

One of the main tasks of entering into and maintaining a mushin peak performance state is keeping your rational self and your somatic self cooperating with each other and supporting each other. In most instances what we invariably find, is that instructions delivered by the rational mind via internal dialogue, almost always get in the way.

What to do then?

The Seishindo Practice “Peak Performance Coach #1” can help you to begin to understand the early stages of peak performance states. Rather than “trying” to achieve a certain way of being, and wondering why it isn’t quite happening yet, this exercise is designed to help you start from where you are, and begin the journey from there.


About the Author:

Charlie Badenhop is the originator of Seishindo, an Aikido instructor, NLP trainer, and Ericksonian Hypnotherapist. Benefit from his thought-provoking ideas and a new self-help Practice every two weeks, by subscribing to his complimentary newsletter “Pure Heart, Simple Mind” at

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