By Shihan Mary Bolz
Master of Science Oriental Medicine
Doctoral Fellow, FBU
Master Martial Arts Instructor
“Simplify your life – easy empty,” it says on the label of the new vacuum cleaner sitting up so straight against the wall. This is a great way to live.
Simplify your life and you are easy to be “empty.” There is a word in the Japanese language, “Mushin,” which, literally translated means “empty mind.” It means to not have extraneous and unnecessary, wasteful thoughts. It means to just “be.” It means not to have judgment, prejudices, jealousies, fearfulness, worry, anticipation, stress, laziness, or any of that “baggage.” Nearing the end of the year, it is a good time to think about how to simplify your life and be empty– “easy empty”–do not make it difficult or “try hard” to simplify. People will say all the time, “I really am trying to change my life and my thoughts. I try to think positive.” Do not try, just do it.
Start by cleaning. Cleaning house, cleaning the garage, cleaning the office, cleaning your body, cleaning your mind. Get rid of too much stuff and give it to someone who really needs it. In addition, do not buy more junk! The same is true of our thoughts. Get rid of the needless thoughts, empty the heart and mind be free and clear.
The end of the year symbolizes cleaning out the old to get ready for the new. This is probably true for all peoples of the world, regardless of what calendar they use. In Japan, everyone spends the day of December 31 cleaning his or her home from top to bottom and corner-to-corner to prepare for the coming of “O-shou-gastu” (the honorable New Year). For martial arts practitioners in Japan, the cleaning also includes cleaning the dõjõ (the martial arts training hall, or here, the martial arts school), where all the students get together for the cleaning. At midnight on December 31, people in Japan go to the shrines and temples to pray and meditate, ring the temple bell 108 times and eat traditional soba (buckwheat noodles in hot soup). The bell is rung 108 times, symbolizing the 108 sins of the humans according to Buddhism, to remind them of how they should live and behave in the coming year. The soba are very long; these long noodles are symbolizing the connection between the past and the future, the old year and the new; realizing that one cannot throw out the past, but that it is a path and connection to what one does in the future.
The body, mind and spirit of any one being cannot be separate as long as we are living in this dimensional world, so all must have a synchronized relationship. All must work together in harmony. How can a person achieve that? One very effective way is by regular, planned exercise. People learn a lot about themselves physically and mentally, how all of their parts are connected, and how to connect the body and the mind through disciplined exercise and training. Martial arts training are one endeavor that is especially good for developing discipline of the mind, body, and spirit in unison.
That is because martial art is built upon the idea of survival and self-defense. To be able to do that effectively, a person must become “empty,” the person must have no extraneous or unnecessary thoughts and be ready to die at any time. If the warrior thinks frivolous thoughts, has jealousies, prejudicial judgment and subjective thinking, he/she will be more likely to lose. By being ready to die and keeping an open mind, the warrior has much more chance of survival because he/she will be able to make the correct movement when necessary. If the warrior’s mind is full of petty thoughts, the body cannot move well. If their mind is full of trying to think about what the opponent’s next move will be, they cannot move when the time is right. The warrior must just “be.”
To get the most out of life, we should not try to get the most out of it. We just practice. We just live. We can start this real training, this real practice first by cleaning out. In the martial arts, much time is spent on practicing breathing. Inhalation and exhalation. The most emphasized part of breathing training is the exhalation. It is longer, it is deeper, and it is the focus. Inhalation is not stressed in training and one should not even think about it. Exhalation is getting rid of the old, stale air and “ki” (Japanese) or “Qi” (Chinese), so we can take in new air and new energy. (“Ki” or “Qi” is often described in English as life-force energy.) Modern people forget about training in breathing and tend to breathe very shallow. They are not getting rid of enough of the old and cannot bring in enough of the new. They become stagnant and “full.”
Therefore, some ways we can start to clean is by beginning with our own home, we clean our home. We clean our bodies; we can take a bath. We can clean our insides, we can fast. New Year’s eve would be a great time to fast, so would New Year’s day. After all the holidays that most people live, this would probably be an excellent thing to do to prepare for the New Year. We can practice our breathing and clean out the old air. We can practice martial arts or other exercises. We can clean our mind. Ah, here is the big problem. That mind. What can we do with it? We can quit making New Year resolutions, we can quit making unobtainable goals, we can quit competing, we can quit striving for all the things that symbolize success, we can quit smoking, we can quit eating too much, we can quit drinking too much, we can quit hating too much, we can quit loving too much, we can quit worrying too much, we can just quit, quit. That’s it, quit. We can just accept the world the way it is, accept our true nature, trust our true nature, and just practice what we do. Practice. Martial arts are a practice. Any work is a practice. Life is a practice.
Here is a quote from Master Shunryu Suzuki, a deeply respected Zen master in Japan, who lived from 1905 to 1971. “Whatever we do is the expression of our true nature, but without practice it is difficult to realize. It is our human nature to be active and the nature of every existence. As long as we are alive, we are always doing something. However, as long as you think I am doing this, I have to do this, or I must attain something special you actually are not doing anything. When you give up, when you no longer want something. alternatively, when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something. When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something. ….as long as you think you are practicing for the sake of something that is not true practice.”
He goes on to say, “As long as you continue a simple practice every day, you will obtain a wonderful power. Before you obtain it, it is something wonderful. After you obtain it, it is nothing special.” Martial art practice is just that. Life practice is just that. Have a happy, clean New Year, and an empty one, too!