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Shengxin, Mind of No Mind

April 29, 2009

Pete Starr

The following is the second installment in Pete Starr’s monthly column. A practitioner of the Chinese martial arts for nearly 50 years, Pete is the author of Martial Mechanics and The Making of a Butterfly. Also, check out Pete’s upcoming summer 2009 release, Martial Maneuvers.

All traditional martial arts make reference to a peculiar state of consciousness in which the mind/awareness/intention is aware of, but not fixed or “stopped” upon, everything which passes through it’s field of awareness.  In Japanese and Okinawan martial arts this condition is referred to as “zanshin.”  In Chinese it is called “shengxin” (it’s pronounced shung shin).

The character for “sheng” means “to remain, to be left over.”  “Xin” is usually taken to mean “mind,” but the character actually is a pictograph of the heart which indicates that there’s more involved here than just what we Westerners typically think of as “mind.”  The heart is the seat of the emotions; of our inner feelings as well as the home of the “mind” (which, by the way, is not the same as the “brain”).

So, the term “shengxin” refers to feelings and awareness that “remains” or is “left over”.

I have often told my students that the art we practice (Yilichuan) is an art that is based almost entirely on feeling rather than physical sensations such as sight, sound, and so forth.  This statement is understood pretty easily but putting it into practice can be more than a little difficult, and few there are who realize that the condition of “shengxin” is what the Yilichuan practitioner, as well as devotees of other traditional martial disciplines, should strive to attain.

It’s easier to describe what “shengxin” is not as opposed to what it is.  For instance, many people refer to it as a special type of awareness.  This can lead students to think that “shengxin” is sort of “focusing the awareness/mind on one particular thing.”  And that ain’t it at all.  In fact, that’s the opposite of what “shengxin” is.

When you “keep One-Point” you must necessarily acquire “shengxin.”  Your body and mind are centered and calm.  “Calm” shouldn’t be taken to mean “flaccid” or “empty.”  It simply means calm.

Imagine that you’re walking through a forest.  You let the forest “come to you”, as it were.  You don’t try to focus on every bird, on every tree or bush, on every sound…you remain tranquil and simply take them all in.  If you hear a sudden rattling sound and, concerned that it might be a rattlesnake, you focus all of your attention on it, you will not hear the growl of the bear behind you.

If an opponent feints a strike to your left side and your awareness shifts to that side, you won’t see the real attack moving in on your right.

If your attention is focused on blocking or evading an opponent’s attack your mind stops there, on his attack just at that moment.  Because the mind leads the body your physical posture, your movement(s) sort of “hiccup” and you will be easily defeated.

Some people say that “shengxin” is comparable to “being in the zone.”  The definitions of this condition seem to be as varied as the people describing it, but as I understand the concept, I would have to say that the two are not the same.

One author described a situation wherein one of his pupils was competing in forms competition at a local karate tournament.  As the student was performing his form, a toddler ran into the ring and the mother bolted after him.  It happened so suddenly and quickly that there was no time for the judges to stop them and as it happened, the student completed his form without running into either of them and without hesitating even for a second.

Needless to say, the judges were very impressed with his concentration and he was awarded a first-place trophy.  Several officials applauded his “zanshin” but when his teacher congratulated him he admitted that he hadn’t noticed the toddler or mother at all; he was completely unaware of them and it was just dumb luck that he hadn’t accidentally struck one of them.

This lack of awareness (caused by focused concentration) is certainly not “shengxin” and his instructor told him so…  The student was “in the zone” and performed a beautiful and nearly flawless form.  But he had no “shengxin.”

The same author goes on to say that zen (in Chinese, “chan”) enthusiasts sometimes equate “shengxin” with the mental state known as “mushin” which is usually translated as “no-mind.”  This is a condition wherein the mind is free; it doesn’t grasp, it doesn’t try to “hold onto” any particular thing.  It simply flows freely from one thing to another with no stopping, no “grasping.”

I think it is important to note that “mushin” does not mean “no mind.”  It means “no-mind.”  There’s a difference.

In the practice of forms (as well as two-person training exercises such as one-step or sparring) it is essential that students strive to understand and then achieve “shengxin.”

You must necessarily achieve this skill in order to truly “connect” (in Chinese, lianjie, which means, “to connect, join together”) with your partner/opponent.  Think on that—because it is through connecting that Yili’s eight shapes are applied.

Shaolin Headstand

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