Subtract to Add: On Weeding Your Mind Garden

("Zen Garden" | Eddi van W.)

("Zen Garden" | Eddi van W.)

As a martial artist, I make art from the world. My body, my brush; space and time, my canvas. I only need room.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

It looks simple, but it's often not simple to do — such is the beauty of mastery. People want to believe martial arts is simple yet it is not. Beating a bigger man is no easy task. Martial arts began as a study of the effortless actions of nature. Man mimicked these actions, recreating powerful movements until it took little effort — through practice. Techniques, approaches, and a lifetime of repetition was the path to understanding natural order and harmony. What does one do when they cannot distill a concept from a technique? Repeat it. Still unclear? Do a thousand more. Repeat it until it until it is clear. A meditation is not in sitting still, it's within the breaths between repetitions.

Subtract to Add

The tactics, doctrines, and principles are complex. What martial arts does is it simplifies the delivery. Instead of knowing five hundred throws, learn five throws well. Fighting stance, load, perfect strike, ready stance. The swordsman learns to unsheathe, strike, and re-sheathe. They need no more, no less. The archer pulls, aims true, and yields to the results. Readiness, potential, action, readiness.

This noble practice is one meant for a lifetime. We will never achieve perfection, but it is in the attempt that we become better people. This is the Way.

In As a Man Thinketh, James Allen writes:

A man’s mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will, bring forth. If no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weed seeds will fall therein, and will continue to produce their kind.

Mind No Mind

Mushin no shin (無心の心) means the removal of all that is unnecessary. Mind no mind — readiness, open to everything but distracted by nothing. During a time when decisions were life and death, this mindstate was critical. This is what martial artists strive for. In neuroscience, they call it "flow" or the "zone." Michael Jordan is often referenced for this ability. It is why he is considered so rare. There have surely been better athletes, but none with his game winning ability to transcend.

With no training or background, some of us have had glimpses of mushin. During a pivotal game, when a life was in danger, when there was a need, we were almost superhuman. It may have been unintentional; there was urgency and rather than panicking, we went beyond capacity.

Now we panic every day, during activities with no significance. Without the immediacy of death, we no longer have a barometer to compare all other events to. Looking for a purpose to serve, fight or flight kicks in regardless of the situation. In the absence of danger, everything becomes life and death. Danger is no longer literal, but figurative. Subjectively used in nearly every circumstance.

As a student, you add; as a master, you subtract. Remove all that is unuseful and master what is important. We only have time for a few things, and even then the time given is not sufficient. We must act accordingly. Subtract the meaningless to add more value to your life.

Minimalism and Clutter

The Eastern arts take complex information and creatively prioritizes them for the best outcome. Decluttering and minimalism allows room for movement. A cluttered house has no room for play, no room to lie on the floor. Creating space to move about and sit on the ground can be called "feng shui," but in an Eastern home, this is seen as a matter of practicality.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, Marie Kondo writes:

When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too.

A minimalist is an artist who is creative under chaos. Taking the actions of the universe — disorder — to create order, flow, and free will. The Western term "martial art" was named after Mars, the Roman god of war. The focus in the West is one of combat and killing, which is different in purpose than the Eastern arts that focused on the Way of living. Perhaps then, it is better to think of "Mars" as the planet rather than a god, then without much confusion, the martial artist would mean simply: the student of the universe.

As a martial artist, I make art from the world. My body, my brush; space and time, my canvas. I only need room.

In The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life, John Maeda writes:

Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.

Only you understand how difficult your life is. To cope, you may attempt to add more elements to an already full plate. They're meant to be helpful, but they don't counteract what is already there. Just as 200 calories of carrots will not offset 200 calories of candy. It does not bring your count down to 0, it brings up your count to 400. After a certain threshold, you only overload yourself. Sometimes we add classes or practices that are meant to be mind-body. Yet often what we are feeling isn't a spiritual high, it is mania. Many activities in this arena have grown more sweat-inducing and intense, purposefully replacing peacefulness with delirium, confusing mindfulness with neuroticism.

Marie Kondo writes:

The act of cluttering is really an instinctive reflex that draws our attention away from the heart of an issue.

If you have too much on your balance sheet, your body and mind won't care if it's "good" or "bad." It's strained and all it feels is pressure and expectations. Perhaps not during the activity but definitely after. This only avoids the bigger issue, you're cluttered. And no amount of meditation or breathing will solve that. It's taking too much effort to get too little done. You must slice away at your plate; opening up space for reflection and leisure.

With industrial systems and technology, we have less vital work than before. We do have more time for decompression. It is that we allow this time to be filled with anxiety and busywork. We can't tell sore from hurt, stressful from demanding. Rather than reducing our neuroticism, we've increased it. Rather than being less worried, we have taken classes to become flexible neurotics. We can touch our toes while worrying about things that do not matter. Rather than creating health, we get injured. Rather than focusing on betterment, we concentrate on the burn. Rather than mind no mind, we voluntarily "burn" ourselves to lose our minds. We punish ourselves for our weakness and our flaws. These are coping mechanisms, added medication rather than reducing for meditation.

The good fighter takes minimal damage and requires less recovery. The bad fighter takes much damage and compensates with bandages and surgery.

We believe we can't change our nature, but we can. The mere act of making it worse shows an ability to change. You say you can't change how busy you are, but you can. You prove it every time you add a new item. Each one compensating for the last one. Don't mistake greed for need. What are the essential things needed? We want more, but that doesn't mean we need more. Needs can be met, greed cannot. A fool searches for more things to accumulate. The wise journeys to cultivate a better self and a better world. Must one give up everything and become a monk? No. Somewhere between that and keeping up with the Joneses is balance.

Tend to Your Mind Garden

("Zen Garden" | Hartwig HKD)

("Zen Garden" | Hartwig HKD)

In Othello, William Shakespeare writes:

Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners.

If you have a weed infested garden, there is no point to add more flowers to make it beautiful. The flowers will be choked by the weeds, never to see sunlight. Eliminate the weeds, simplify your garden. Only then should you add more to increase beauty. I love to meditate and breathe, but those are attempts at simplicity. What's most important is simplicity itself rather than any activity related to simplicity. The purpose of these practices is not to increase productivity to take on more load, they are activities to maximize our freedom.

We're so out of tune, we don't know how to relax unless it's a regimented version of relaxation. Needing an appointment to relax is a contradiction. Work less, worry less, breathe more, move more, shine more. You say you can't, but you can.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
— Leonardo da Vinci

Winnow it down; blow things away until you are left with what you need, the grain from the chaff. If an attacker charged at you and your family, it would be life or death. You don't have time to scratch your nose, take a call, answer an email, or worry about work. Then what's most important is the life of you and your family.

The Art of Balance

Too much wood is just as likely to kill a fire as too little wood. A business consultant told me there are two common ways to kill a business: too much money and too little money. We tend to only see the "too little money" problem.

The amateur believes more is always better. Double the input, double the output. But just as often, halving the input can double the output. This is the bell curve, where once you pass a certain tipping point, you no longer increase output. If you keep adding more, it only further decreases yield. So how do we find the middle? We must constantly search for it, for the middle is fluid and ever-changing. Balance is not a destination but a process.

When throwing a punch, the target will not stay in place. We must use our training and skill to aim true, then continuously submit ourselves to the results.

In Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes:

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

The Remaining Mind

Zanshin: a state of awareness — of relaxed alertness. The remaining mind. If actions are not prioritized rightly, you get hurt — whether in the dojo or in life. When confronted with a daunting to-do list, people panic because they believe each item is of equal importance. Each check mark in their daily ledger is added burden. When being punched in the face, not all actions are of equal importance or urgency. Yet when there is no physical gravity to priority, we don't prioritize. Or perhaps what matters most is unclear without that added duress. We get easily distracted, giving less attention and time to critical tasks — such as spending time with our loved ones. It's all check marks in our ledger and it all looks the same. We fret more and get less done. Zanshin then is the ready state where we get things done. We don't need danger to reach clarity, it takes practice and repetition. The opposite of a frenzied mind, but rather a mind that is remaining.

Distraction is the enemy of simplicity, the ally of regret. You don't only live once, you live all the time. You only die once. Don't spend the majority of your life doing the things that don't matter. Saying you can't do anything about it is spiritual suicide. Don't give up. What is actionable? What actions are you taking? Don't allow self-limiting beliefs to stop you from growing.

The Way of Priority

An inbox full of a hundred emails is stressful if I count total emails, not total important emails. Organizing my plate helps me eliminate the clutter. What you shouldn't do is do it as a checklist in the order you received it or in order of convenience. Important and urgent things are most pressing. Things that are only important, I can plan to do it before it gets urgent. Things that are only urgent, I can handle at my leisure or possibly look for a way to delegate it. I use several services to simplify these tasks: mailing lists, virtual assistants, prewritten templates, FAQs, texts, relationship managers, blind carbon copy (Bcc) emails, or I'll dedicate one hour a week to address them all at once. Technology is useful, leverage it. Anything other than those categories, I eliminate it (which are most things). What this does is reduce hesitation. Hesitation is a waste of time and during a crisis, for instance if you must flee for your life, hesitation will get you killed. Prioritizing then always matters.

Marie Kondo writes:

Life becomes far easier once you know that things will still work out even if you are lacking something.

Here Are Some Other Ways to Prioritize:

  • Risk and reward
  • Value and meaning
  • Attitude and performance
  • Time and cost
  • Effort and effectiveness

Focusing on the Things You Shouldn't Do

Psychotherapist Amy Morin is an expert in the elimination of bad habits to create mental strength. Her book, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do is about cutting away unhelpful behaviors to allow for the good thoughts to bloom. I reached out to Amy and asked her why she focused her book on the need for less. She said:

Sometimes we spend so much time focusing on good habits, that we overlook the fact that our bad habits can be counterproductive. Building mental strength is similar to building physical strength. If you wanted to grow physically stronger, you’d need good habits — like going to the gym — but you’d also need to give up bad habits — like eating too much junk food. Otherwise, your workouts wouldn’t be all that effective. Mental strength also requires good habits — like looking for the silver lining in a tough situation — but it also requires us to give up bad habits — like shying away from change.

I think people are familiar with lots of the good habits we need to build mental strength — there are already plenty of books on those subjects. So I wanted to talk about those bad habits that we’re all prone to sometimes that can hold us back if we’re not careful. By avoiding those unhealthy pitfalls, our good habits become much more effective.

Take Action

My parents used to tell me, "The hand is closer than the mouth." I didn't know what they meant until I did, then it was clear. The hand is close to getting things done, the mouth has many steps before it can start. Actions build, talk imagines building. It's the thought that counts, but actions count more.

The more I practice the luckier I get.
— Arnold Palmer

What we do know from years of evidence is, the seemingly impossible can be made to look easy through faithful practice. We went from walking on four legs to two, with practice. From no language to a spectrum of languages through practice. That's not blind luck or chance, it took effort and commitment. We practice when we think it's the only option. We stop practicing when we believe there are other ways to get the same results. That's what we're told. We're told there is no need for mastery, no need to cultivate craft. To only do those things we get paid to do. Yet some do not listen, they keep plugging away at it. They are our superhumans. Our great ones. Regular people who never stopped. For the ability gap to widen, they must improve, but we must also do our part by doing nothing. Being deliberate in practice is only important if you can stick to practice.

The Way

To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.
— Lao Tzu

Selfishness can grow wild in a mind that isn't gardened. Before trying to be someone great, try being a good person first. Before chasing your dreams, work to help others. Before conquering the world, try tying your belt correctly and start from there. In a life with less danger, gratitude and appreciation is our new barometer to compare all other events to. There's always time to be great but by the time you've made it, it may be too late to go back and be a virtuous human being. Once you lose your path, you may never find your Way.

Summary

My mind, and to a greater extent, my life is my garden. It must be carefully tended to. In ages past, there wasn't enough in our garden. Today there is too much; it distracts from the natural beauty. We must throw away the unnecessary for the necessary to have room to grow. We must subtract to add. Finding this balance isn't a destination, it is a process and needs a devoted participant. It's our job to appreciate the complexities of life and find simple applications for it.

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