A calm man with his eyes closed sits in a chair, practicing mushin in the middle of chaos

What is mushin? Is it the same as mindfulness? How can it help you remain calm and even de-escalate a high-stress situation?

A core skill in Verbal Judo is cultivating a mindset called mushin (wushin in Chinese), which practitioners of many Japanese and Chinese martial arts aim to achieve. In his book Verbal Judo, George Thompson explains mushin and how you can cultivate it and use it to great advantage.

Read more to learn what mushin is and how to apply it.

What Is Mushin?

What is mushin? When Thompson describes mushin, he’s describing a state of mind that originated in Zen Buddhist teachings and went on to inform the practice of the martial arts. In The Way of Zen, Alan Watts explains that wu-hsin (or wuxin), as it’s taught in Zen Buddhism, is a state of “no mind” or “un-self-consciousness” you can experience when you let your mind work without trying to direct it. Some people consider mushin analogous with mindfulness, which involves stepping back from your thoughts and feelings to simply observe them, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are.

To martial arts practitioners, mushin is also known as one of three “states of the warrior’s mind.” Zanshin is the “fighting mind,” a mental state where you’re alert and prepared to act. Fudoshin is the “immovable mind,” a mental state where you’re determined to reach your goal. Mushin is the “mind without mind,” a mental state where you don’t feel preoccupied by anything and instead remain open to everything. Martial arts students learn that when you let your mind go quiet, you avoid making assumptions about the situation or trying to force a specific outcome. That’s exactly what Thompson advises when someone yells at you: Instead of jumping to conclusions, calmly listen and figure out how to proceed.

Mushin in Verbal Judo

Thompson explains mushin as a mental state where you remain calm even amid a chaotic situation, intentionally observe what’s happening around you, and stay in control of how you respond. He explains that staying calm enables you to stay centered, no matter how stressful the situation or how much the other person resists resolving the conflict

Thompson notes that cultivating mushin also enables you to let go of any fear or anger that you might naturally, even justifiably, feel when someone is insulting or berating you. Mushin ties into another lesson of Verbal Judo: It’s better to deflect, rather than engage with, verbal abuse, particularly if you work in a public-facing role, like customer service. For example, you might draw on mushin when a customer yells at you because their delivery was late, the shipment was wrong, and on and on with more complaints. Even if you feel frustrated, you can focus on listening calmly. That way, instead of struggling to get a word in edgewise or obsessing over what you’ll say when they finally pause to take a breath, you can focus on engaging more thoughtfully with the conversation and resolving the problem.

(Shortform note: Thompson advises staying calm in the face of verbal abuse, but sometimes it’s not so simple. For example, many women find it scary or dangerous to turn down advances from men, who can view women as owing them attention and sometimes respond to rejection with abuse. In Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit writes that society teaches men they have a right to control women: how they behave, when they talk, and even if they’re allowed to live. In the same vein, Margaret Atwood has noted that while men fear that women will laugh at them, women fear that men will kill them. And for some groups of women—women of color, trans women, and women who do sex work—refusing men’s advances is particularly likely to result in aggression and violence.)

What Is Mushin? Cultivating Calm in the Middle of the Storm

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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