Confronting the adversaries of Heijoshin by Joey Lynn Monaco

Joey Lynn Monaco

Joey Lynn Monaco, Kumdo&Siljun Dobup 1st Dan, Officer

According to Masayuki Shimabukuro, heijoshin refers to an abiding peaceful mind, or a constant peaceful spirit. I had never heard of heijoshin before writing this essay. At the same time that I started researching heijoshin, however, a friend loaned me an audio book – Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. In Blink, Gladwell describes the benefits of what psychologists call “rapid cognition.” Gladwell analyzes the instantaneous reactions that take place in our subconscious minds before our conscious minds can name those reactions. Gladwell argues that the division of the conscious and subconscious minds is very important to human beings, because our conscious mind tends to overprocess and move very slowly. In a life or death situation, for example, letting the conscious mind dictate our actions could be fatal. The unconscious mind is better at making split-second decisions, and frees up our conscious minds for tasks that require more deliberation. Gladwell could easily be describing a mind in the state of heijoshin verses on that is not.

While Gladwell never mentions heijoshin or martial arts at all in his book, I think he would recognize how heijoshin fits into the framework of rapid cognition. Heijoshin seems to be deeply aligned with the unconscious mind – the mind that is receptive to the signals of the world around it. Gladwell says that one function of the unconscious is to ascertain the motives of those around us and determine their intentions, and if they pose a threat. When I’m sparring against someone who’s really good, I feel almost as thought that person can read my mind and know where I’m going to strike almost before I do. That person, by inhabiting a state of heijoshin, is in touch with the unconscious, the pure part of the mind that can act without the burden of overprocessing.

When I’m fighting someone who seems to be able to predict my movements instantaneously, I recognize that I am clouding my own access to heijoshin with the overprocessing of my conscious mind. I think that the main adversaries of heijoshin are fear and desire, which are really two manifestations of the same idea – expectation. While the unconscious mind in the state of heijoshin sees what is and reacts accordingly, the conscious mind attaches what it wishes or expects to what is. Expectations impede the ability to act, and as I’ve faced both fear and desire in my own practice, I’ve struggled to perform as well as I’m capable of. By peeling away the layers of expectations – both fear and desire – I feel as though I’ve come closer to heijoshin, though I have a long way to go. Kumdo has helped me to put the expectations of the conscious mind to rest, and not just inside the dojang. I take every lesson I learn in training back to my daily life. It’s been a long process, and sometimes I feel as though I lose ground. But overall I feel as though I’ve been able to take away the noise of the past, and to learn to return to the more natural, unburdened state of the unconscious mind.

Fear is sometimes called the mind killer, because once it takes root in the mind, your mind replays the worst case scenario, over and over again. If you let it, fear can paralyze you to the point where it’s easier to walk away than act. When I began to practice, I confronted escalating levels of fear. For the last few years I’ve been experiencing foot pain. About two years ago, I had to have a series of painful shots in my foot because of a nerve irritation. When I first made the appointment to try kumdo, I had forgotten that I would have to be barefoot. When I remembered that, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make it through a whole class. Had I let that fear overwhelm me, I might never have known what a powerful experience kumdo would be in my life. Because I was open to trying I started taking classes, but another fear soon took its place. I wasn’t prepared for the terrible blisters I would get on the bottoms of my feet. I remember one blister in particular that really frightened me. My father is a diabetic, and year after year I watched him struggle with blisters on his feet that wouldn’t heal. In fact, he lost a toe because of an infected blister. Before I saw that particularly ugly blister on my foot, I didn’t realize the deep, unsettling level of fear that his health issues had burned into me. I don’t have diabetes, but because of my family history, the fear has always been with me that I would develop it. Had I let that fear overwhelm me, I might have quit and, again, never known the powerful impact that kumdo has had on my life.

But fear wasn’t done with me yet. Eventually I put on armor and started sparring. I had severely underestimated how intimidating it would be to have a man in a mask charge at me waving a big stick. I’ve been in a few physically intimidating situations in my past, and sparring seemed to take me back to a time I felt powerless, like some sort of Technicolor post-traumatic stress nightmare. I really thought that was the end of my all too brief kumdo career. Why didn’t I quit? Only because my desire to stay outweighed my fear – but more about desire later.

A wise friend once said that our fears are like dragons at the gates of our minds. They try to keep us tied to our old lives, instead of venturing out to see what else the world holds for us. She said that if we hold our ground, they usually prove to be less fierce than we expected. Even though she wouldn’t have identified it as such, I think she was talking about a form of heijoshin – the ability to stand calm in front of our fears so we can see past them to how things really are. Taking her words to heart, I tried to neutralize my fears with the truth. I told myself that my body knew how to heal itself, and that my classmates cared about me as a person and were helping me to become stronger. Being able to see beyond my fears freed me to enjoy a calmer state of mind.

If fear is one adversary of heijoshin, desire is another. Many people don’t see desire as a problem, but desire can distort the world as much as or even more than fear. How many relationships have been ruined because someone saw their partner through the lens of what they wished them to be instead of how they actually are? Sometimes desire is a twisted expression of fear. We fear that we won’t be complete until we possess what we desire; that somehow possessing what we desire will compensate for our perceived inadequacies. Even with the best intentions, however, desire can inhibit our sword practice. It seems that the more desperately I want to do something right, to feel like I have achieved the movement or to please my teachers, the harder it gets. My focus leaves the actually movements and settles on my desire. My desire clouds my unconscious mind from doing its job and guiding its movements. Heijoshin is a much more fluid state. When I clear my mind – when there’s nothing but the practice – that’s when I do my best, especially when I’m practicing sword. When I’m really in the moment with the sword, it’s as if everything else melts away. I can feel my vision change, as if I’m seeing from inside more than from my eyes. I think sword practice is the closest I come to heijoshin.

Obviously, fear and desire serve necessary roles in the human psyche. In some cases, fear can save your life – if you listen to it but don’t let it master you. Desire to achieve can encourage us to do great things. Desire becomes a problem when you let it consume you. I think that the mind in a state of heijoshin experiences these emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them. I have a lot left to learn before I can rest in heijoshin for more than fleeting moments. But even in the short time that I’ve practiced I’ve felt myself change. I’ve pushed back some of the dragons from the gates of my mind, and outside the gate I’ve seen a better way to live. I hope that, as I continue to practice, I can keep learning to embrace a fuller state of heijoshin.

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