At the beginning of every training session, most budoka will have a time of silence known as mokusou (黙想). The purpose of this silence varies from dojo to dojo, but at its heart mokusou is about silencing the distractions and thoughts that crowd our minds and keep us from making good decisions.
Most of what is asked of me in studying budo is difficult. I am not an overly coordinated person, so physical movement takes a lot of discipline. I am also quite used to just using bull strength to accomplish things while aiki is about the exact opposite. Nothing, however, was harder for me than learning mokusou.
When I was young and wanted to study martial arts, I had someone tell me that this kind of thing “empties your mind so demons could get into it.” This of course terrified me, and so I decided I would never let that happen. It is not hard not to silence your mind when you have a mind like mine, which is always trying to think about fifteen things at the same time.
There is nothing about mokusou that opens the doors for demonic activity. It is not about emptying your mind at all or opening it up to suggestion. It is about silencing your mind.
During this time, we sharpen our focus on budo. We set aside the burdens that we all bear and enter the dojo mentally as we have already entered it physically. We are ready to learn and move.
This morning, I was considering the value of this discipline not only in budo but in life. We have a brief time on this world, and as a result many of us try to jam as much in as we can. The availability of the internet and mobile devices has allowed us to jam even more into our lives. We drop into bed exhausted by the rush and fury of our minds.
In evangelical Christianity, we often talk about our daily “quiet time” but all too often this “quiet time” is not quiet at all. We are reading our Bibles and working through prayers, all while making sure we finish promptly so we can get on to other activities. Our quiet time might be outwardly quiet; but it is often just as crowded and rushed as our “regular” time.
Jesus modeled a pursuit of silence in his own spiritual life. From time to time, the gospels describe him as going off to be alone, and it is usually when he is surrounded by a crowd. (Mark 1:35, Luke 4:42) Without cellphones or email, it was easy for him to find the quiet of a dark hillside and let the silence wash over him. It prepared him for the turmoil of the day ahead.
In a world that did not have our kinds of noise and distractions, the Psalmist referred to this as stillness (דמם).
Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over the one who prospers in the way
Over the man who carries out evil devices! (Psalm 37:7)
Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10)
Likewise, Jesus taught his disciples the lesson of stillness in the midst of chaos when they were confronted by a great storm on the Sea of Galilee. When the fearful disciples woke Jesus from his rest, He commanded the seas, “Peace! Be still!” (Σιώπα! Πεφίμωσο!) The command was not just for the sea but also for them. They were so worried about what could happen that they were unable to find the stillness to recognize that if Jesus was not worried, they had no need to be either. (Mark 4:35-41)
(As a sidenote, in the 1955 Colloquial Japanese translation of the Bible, Jesus’ words “Be still!” are translated as 黙れ, the same kanji as appears in mokusou.)
If I could make a recommendation to every Christian I know, it would be to do something that will force you to learn the discipline of a silent mind. Call it “quiet time” or call it mokusou; but begin your day with a few minutes in which you discipline your mind to be quiet.
Do it before you get into reading your Bible or journaling, or going through your prayer list.
Then ease into your other spiritual disciplines and from there meet the day.