The True Meaning of Mokuso: Karate’s Essential Mental Tool

Facts:

  • It has been called “the silent killer” and can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, chest pain and irregular heartbeat.
  • It is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, liver cirrhosis and suicide.
  • It damages, shrinks, and kills brain cells by flooding the brain with powerful hormones that are meant for short-term emergency situations.
  • It causes abdominal fat to accumulate and enlarges individual fat cells, resulting in the shocking fact that more people today die of obesity than starvation.

What am I talking about?

What is “it”?

Stress.

Of course.

We’ve all experienced it. Work, school, Karate, family, friends, free time… successfully combining all essential elements of everyday living, in our modern cycle of “life”, is not the easiest thing to do nowadays. Hence, people become fatigued – both physically and mentally.

This fatigue, then, is what we commonly refer to as stress.

See, millions of years of evolution have endowed us humans with a set of automatic weapons that take over in the event of an emergency. If you were a caveman being attacked by a tiger, your hypothalamus would send a message to your adrenal glands; and within seconds you would run faster, hit harder, see better, hear more acutely, think faster, and jump higher than you could only seconds earlier. Your heart would also pump at two to three times the normal speed, sending nutrient rich blood to the major muscles in your arms and legs, along with a host of other awesome physiological stuff and reactions.

This is Mother Nature’s way of quickly supercharging our body, designed to help level the odds between us and our attacker (in this case, a tiger).

But here’s the funny thing: In our modern society, we are rarely attacked by tigers. Yet, despite our huge amount of technological development during our evolution, we are still walking around with essentially the same set of internal body parts and functions as that of the caveman. External environment has changed a lot, internal has not.

Example: When you are at work, in the break room, hunting for coffee, gathering donuts, you might hear your boss say those dreaded words: “Could I see you for a moment in my office?”. Boom. At the sight of the tiger, er, umm…”boss”… your hypothalamus sends a message to your adrenal glands and within seconds your body summons all the same powers that your stone-age ancestor needed to fight a vicious tiger.

Crap.

You can almost feel your blood pressure soar as you take the long walk down the hall to your boss’s office. To top it off, you now remember a rumor you heard about an upcoming round of layoffs. “I might get fired!” you think, as you gradually get nearer the office. Now your mind is racing, your heart is pumping, your blood pressure is soaring, your mouth dries up, your hands feel cold and clammy, your forehead is perspiring and you may even feel a sudden urge to go to the bathroom. As you imagine your boss firing you, the caveman inside of you wants to come out. Maybe you’d like to run and hide or maybe you’d like to punch your boss in the nose, but you can do neither.

Welcome to the modern era.

As your boss ushers you into his office and closes the door, you’re experiencing a full-blown episode of the fight or flight response. Stress. But since you can’t fight and you can’t flee, all of that energy is pent-up inside of you with no place to go. It consumes you. You feel like you’re going to explode.

But all he wanted to do was promote you!

Regardless, every time your body triggers the fight or flight response, for situations that are not truly life-threatening, you are experiencing a “false alarm”. This is called stress. Too many false alarms, as we know, can lead to a ton of stress-related disorders like the facts I mentioned in the beginning, including:

  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • immune system disorders
  • migraine headaches
  • insomnia
  • sexual dysfunction
  • mood swings

So what has this got to do with Karate, then?

Well…

Somebody once asked me what I thought the meaning of “mokuso” was.

You know, mokuso, that “meditation” thing you always do (while sitting in seiza) at the beginning of Karate class, just before you collectively bow to the dojo, your sensei and/or sempai.

So, since I have never talked about it, I believe it is time:

I really think mokuso is an exercise in Karate that could prove vital to coping with stress. It is an exercise that is always performed in Japan in every dojo I’ve been to, but not always done here in the West – even though it almost seems to have been made specifically for our stressed-out 21st century brains.

Commonly translated as “meditation”, mokuso literally means “silent/still” (moku) + “thoughs/thinking” (so).

In other words, mokuso is the act of silencing one’s thoughts.

(Or, as Bruce Lee would have put it, “emptying one’s cup”.)

If you ask me though, mokuso is the act of “compartmentalizing one’s thoughts”.

The perfect antidote to stress.

See, as we modern people gradually get more and more boring work to do, while at the same time wanting more and more free time on the side, we need to start compartmentalizing stuff. Meaning, we desperately need a quick mental exercise to separate things from each other, in order to not make a mess out of everything. We need to separate business from pleasure, work from hobby, activation from relaxation. We need a mental switch to flip, so to speak.

Mokuso is the perfect thing.

“What is mokuso to you?”

I asked a couple of guys at the dojo the other day.

“Meditation”, “relaxing”, “waiting”, “setting goals”, “thinking about training”, “stillness…” the answers were numerous.

To me, it is only one thing:

Flipping the switch.

Mokuso is the act of wiping away work, friends, Facebook, e-mail, bosses, stress, teachers, school or whatever else you were doing before training from your mind, in order to focus 110% on yourself for this hour or so of Karate.

Then, when class finishes, you do the opposite.

This is vital

After training, you need to mentally wipe away punches, kicks, kata details, stances, kumite combinations, kihon techniques and muscle soreness in order to go out and enjoy regular life again.

People seem to not understand this.

I mean, sure, being a Karate Nerd™ is all nice and stuff, but I personally don’t dress in Karate t-shirts on my spare time. I don’t talk Karate stuff with my friends. I don’t watch Karate movies every evening. I don’t have Karate posters on my walls. Sure, I carry over the same ethical and moral principles to my private life (as I believe everyone should), but I compartmentalize Karate practise to the dojo or other setting suited for that specific activity.

Or else I would become stressed.

(Especially since it’s my job!)

Question: Do you think a police officer has his favorite mug shots stuck to his bathroom mirror? Do you think a MD walks around with his stethoscope at the grocery store? Do you think a pilot plays his favorite flight-simulation games before bedtime? Do you think a chef loves making dinner for his family when he gets home? Do you think a part-time MMA fighter brings his grade-A asswipe personality to his regular job?

Nope.

Because if they always did, they would get stressed out.

Simple.

That’s why mokuso is equally important at the beginning and at the end of everything you do. Separate. Compartmentalize. Write lists. Delegate. Prioritize. We might be modern people, but we have ancient brains that can handle little more besides eat, sleep, eat, sleep.

Begin Karate.

End Karate.

Mokuso.

Mokuso.

And the same should apply to all the different areas of your life. Leave work at work. Leave school at school. You get the idea. And no, please, I’m not saying you should deny your identity! Karate is obviously a big part of your life (since you’ve been reading this far!). You most likely hang out with other Karate people, tell Karate jokes and watch some Kung-fu movies now and then. I sure do. You might even be a Karate instructor. That’s fine. Awesome even.

But… it’s not you.

It’s a part of you (however big).

So unless you understand why, how and when you should separate the two, I believe you might be in for a disaster down the road.

And that, my friend, is what I believe mokuso is really for.

Treat it with utmost seriousness.

14 Comments

  • Te'o
    Jesse, thanks for this post, it's very timely and I relate completely. As much as I believe in this concept, I've yet to master it. I find myself many times rushed to leave after a workout. Or the head instructor puts us into a 15 second quiet time because he's in a hurry. One of my goals for this year was to start incorporating this into my personal life, not just my karate life. I have created a space in my home in the room where I do many workouts, "my mini-dojo". I have ordered a 3'x 3' tatami with a cushion, for comfort of course. Like I tell my high school students, when you do your homework, you will have better results if you do it in the same place all the time, make your homework space. So I've applied this to my meditation practice, and I hope to make it perfect, one day. Interesting side note...when I was typing the previous sentence I first typed "medication" instead of meditation. Could mokuso be the medication we need to relieve the stress in our life? Perhaps. Ossu!!!
  • Matthew
    I never thought of using mokuso as a "switch" to help me focus on other activities besides karate. This may be the tool I need to improve my productivity at home. Osu!
  • Usually I try to empty my mind before executing katas, to better focus on the techniques i'm going to perform. I will try to do mokuso before the whole lesson, to improve my training.
  • I understand and agree with what you're saying concerning the need to leave the outside outside, and training your mind to focus on the task at hand. However, I would like to point out that for some people, it benefits them to inject their passion/work into their daily lives. Iron Chef Bobby Flay, for example, loves to cook for his wife, he even told her once, "What's the point of going out to eat all the time when you're married to a chef?" For him, cooking is a passion first, then a business, hence it still relieves his stress. Some martial artists may make the same argument.At the same time, I also remember this Danish movie, Fighter, about a Turkish girl from a traditional Muslim family. She absolutely loves kung fu, but because her culture frowns on women fighting, she continually get a hard time from her family and community. The only reason why her father allowed her to do it was because her first club was all-girls. Due to frusration from family issues, inner turmoil, and the need for a bigger challenge in class, she joined a co-ed class against her father's wishes. Her biggest issue in a fight was to forget about all the drama, focus on the fight, and look her opponent in the eye. Only then was she successful. So I believe it varies for different people.
  • pete ampil
    Jesse, thank you for reminding us to try TO LIVE IN COMPARTMENTALIZED COMPARTMENTS...... we should do the current job on hand/ CONCENTRATE on whatever it is we are doing whether in our workplace, the DOJO, shopping, leisure, chow, etc.......peteampil@yahoo.com
  • Bitsy
    While I appreciate the idea of compartmentalizing, I'm not sure that I can flip off the switch in the way you've described. After all, mentally reviewing what you've done once your outside the dojo (or any other place) helps you retain what you've learned there. I'm also not sure if you actually turn off the switch, Jesse-san,... when you're outside the dojo you write a karate blog, write a karate book, take awesome videos, etc. So is the switch ever truly off?
    • Some people claim the best ideas are generated in your subconscious - in other words, when you're doing something completely else. For me, as an example, my "best" blog post ideas have never come during Karate practise. More like; sudenly while in the shower, during a Japanese lecture, while driving, eating breakfast, trying to sleep... for what it's worth ;)
      • Marina Varga Lovric
        A flow in life gives more suprices ?
  • Dave
    My other hobby, beside karate, is .22 prone target rifle shooting. I definately do this 'mokuso' as a part of the process every time I get down to shot. I empty my mind, concertrate on breathing, and relaxing all the muscles - especially the shoulders & neck - where you hold the most tension. You need 100% concentration if you are going to perform to your personal best.Interestingly I often feel much better for going shooting, I think becasue you have gone through the process of letting go of everything else that the day has thrown at you. There is definately a longer term benefit to self for focusing on one thing completely.I have not, however considered applying the same technique to other areas of my life. We do not do seiza, or meditaion berofe or after training at Karate. I will however now try it.Thankyou for an interesting post
  • Ramon
    you are an excellent writer
  • Jenny
    Thank you! I have recently discovered your site and enjoy reading now and then. This one I found particularly insightful, not just because what it said about Mokuso. Now I clearly see what bothers me about one of my friends. She started relatively recently and never "switches." It's all karate, karate, karate for her. No college, no other friends, no other interests, no other facebook posts, no other activities, nothing else is important. She treats me as a senpai and really looks up to me, so I feel kind of responsible. Sensing that this is wrong, yet thinking that maybe I lack the devotion she has, I wasn't sure how to act. This gives me more confidence.
  • Lukas
    Thanks for this post that helped me a lot and points out again a problem i seem to have with my training. The problem is not the training itself (of course otherwise i wouldn't be doing it) but the urge of constantly needing to think about it. How to apply/improve it and whatever. Honestly i couldnt do karate without combinig it with the teachings of Eckhardt Tolle (his basic message: it is always now). I think this problem you talk about only starts with karate but ends in one of our biggest problems, the problem of more and more being unable to focus on what is now and instead already wanting to be somewhere or being trapped in past thoughts. Theres is always ONLY this step, this punch, maybe try this when you look at the clock ;) Only right now all of the improvement you think about can happen. This is something which really took me a huge step forward not only in my karate life. The not-so-easy part seems to be more and more putting this words into practice.Yes, Jesse-san you can get an amen for that ;)I would love to know what it is you do when you "flip the switch" is it more trough thinking or how do you do it? Could also be helpful with faster getting in contact with real-life again after a computer science-learn-session;)
  • Samantha
    Yes! Very well put. :)
  • Mokuso "saved my life" once. I started karate when I was a child. Being very young, althought we didnt usually made Mokuso, my first sensei taught us how to do it a time or two after special hard trainings. I guess he did it everyday or in his personal trainings. I instantly recognized Mokuso puts the stress away. Years after (it was some years since I wasnt able to practice karate) I was not doing ok in my life for a long time and needed to readjust a lot of negative emotions. The first thing I did was seiza on my bedroom rug and Mokuso. That was the moment my life started to change. From that day on I started to practice sports again, learn and practice meditation and positive thinking books I needed. Mokuso was the foundation of it all. Later on I came bak to karate and started in zen buddhism. Zen is the best thing I have done in my life, althought I have to thank karate for previous (and present lessons) and credit it for taking me into zen/mokuso. I would even dare to say that Mokuso is perhaps the most important part of Karate.

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