Jujutsu on the Right side of the Brain

TITLE:           Jujutsu on the Right side of the Brain

Date: Oct, 2014

Author:               Zen Hou Christopher Fearon, Shihan


Jishukan Ryu

NCAS Senior Coach Level 3


Published to members library Australian Jujitsu Federation www.jujitsu.com.au



In 1994 I accompanied my 11 year old, budding artist, daughter to a “Drawing on the Right side of the Brain” course as she was too shy to go alone. I was amazed that in ten, two hour classes I learnt to draw. I was even more amazed that it taught me so much about training martial arts. Specifically, the Zen concept of Mushin. Something I had read much about but struggled to practice.

In her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain [1] Betty Edwards advocates the notion that the brain has two ways of perceiving and processing reality – one verbal and analytic (left-brain), the other visual and perceptual (right-brain). Edwards’ method of teaching drawing advocates suppressing the left-brain in favour of the right-brain. It focuses on disregarding preconceived notions of what the drawn object should look like, and drawing what is seen: the edges or lines, spaces, relationships, and lights and shadows. Learning to draw means learning to see.

It is also quite revealing that many of the Zen masters and martial art masters were accomplished calligraphers and artists in their own right.

The subconscious and conscious mind

The notions of conscious/unconscious mind and left/right brain perception are much the same.

The subconscious mind is like the operating system of a computer. The conscious mind is like the application programs – Word, Excel etc. The latter will not work without the operating system. The operating system is the basic, predefined set of instructions which coordinates the use of the hardware and other, more sophisticated applications.

When the user types a letter, a request to start the program is sent to the operating system. What then appears on the screen is a blank page, and as the user types, a letter appears. But behind what is seen are millions of signals that have been programmed so the letter can be typed. What the user is consciously aware of is the image on the screen.

Our mind operates in a similar manner.

The conscious mind is our current awareness. It makes decisions.

The sub-conscious mind is like the operating system, and contains all our memory, habits, beliefs and personality. It controls our store of memories and it is the performer of tasks: The beating of our heart, the flow of blood, breathing and muscle movement. We do not have to consciously think about these things.

Our body is like the computer hardware. It responds to commands from the operating system, the subconscious mind, automatically.


If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.                                                                                                             Shunryu Suzuki

Samurai warriors adopted Zen philosophy to optimise fighting strategy.

Zen allows us to understand ourselves. It allows us to optimise our technique to perform at our best.

Traditional jujutsu and other traditional martial arts focus on concentration, and mindfulness, with the aim being the destruction of the ego to help one gain personal and spiritual growth.

“…mere technical knowledge of an art is not enough to make a man really its master he ought to have delved deeply into the inner spirit of it. This spirit is grasped only when his mind is in complete harmony with the principle of life itself, that is, when he attains to a certain state of mind known as Mushin, “No-mind”.”[2]

Mushin is a mental state into which warriors enter during combat. It is often described as a state in which ego and emotions are set aside and whereby the warrior reacts intuitively and moves instinctively. Mushin is the capacity to discern the true nature of something directly, whether it’s a rock, a work of art, or another human being.

Engaging the subconscious mind

Dr Edward’s questions regarding her students’ struggles with drawing were informed by the work of Nobel Prize winning neurobiologist Roger W. Sperry and colleagues who, in 1968 published research showing that the two halves of the brain have very different yet specific functions.

The idea of the different parts of the brain having specific functions suggested to Dr Edwards that when we draw we experience a shift from our usual mode of thinking. Being able to make this shift deliberately and consciously is crucial to learning to draw from observation. It is also crucial to mastering Mushin in martial arts.

The exercise we started each drawing class with was to draw a face in profile.

This was very easy. It was drawn from memory, what we know a face looks like: first the forehead, next the eyes, nose, upper lip, lower lip, chin then neck.

The next part of the exercise is to draw exactly the same face profile as a mirror facing the first face.

This requires the drawer to draw what they see, not what they know, doing away with preconceptions or judgments and merely observing.

This exercise was repeated many times to “switch on” the right brain.

Of course, we do not only use only one side of our brain at any one time. Drawing, or participating actively in any of the arts, including martial arts, demands the entirety of ourselves, both brain hemispheres, the subconscious and conscious minds – these undertakings engage bodily, intellectual, analytical and emotional capacities. The act of perception itself — making sense of what we see – and the subsequent complex process of interpreting and translating to paper what we observe, are extraordinarily active and consuming tasks, and they require the whole brain. Martial arts, like drawing, is not a single ability, but a set of abilities, working simultaneously. The issue is how do we consciously engage our subconscious mind.

The part of the brain that controls all of the body’s muscular movement and is responsible for such complex activities as playing music, dancing, and other intricate co-ordinated movements is often called our “muscle memory”.

Muscle memory involves consolidating specific motor tasks into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems.[3] 

Our subconscious mind’s language is visual and emotional. To improve our muscle memory we need to train using the brain’s language: repetitive movements with positive visual imagery and emotion.

“Nerve cells that fire together wire together”, the continual firing together forms a neural pathway. The more this pathway is used, the stronger and more established it becomes. Actions become automatic because “muscle memory” takes over.

Muscle memory consolidation involves the continuous evolution of neural processes after practicing a task has stopped. The high amount of stimulation coming from practicing a movement with visualisation and emotion causes the repetition of firing in certain motor networks; leading to an increase in the efficiency of exciting these motor networks over time.[4]

When we switch on our subconscious mind and quieten the internal chatter of our brain we are using the frontal lobes of our brain in focused concentration to develop the neural networks in our neo-cortex of whatever it is that we are working on to achieve with our mind. Doing this over and over using great emotion develops the neural pathway. When it is automatic the memory of it moves into the seat of the subconscious – the cerebellum. The cerebellum houses all our automatic actions – it is the keeper of what the body learns from the mind and is directly connected to all the circuits that fire in the neo cortex.[5]

Allowing ourselves to lose our ego and desire to control and rely on our “muscle memory” brings us into the moment. There is just reaction. There is no anticipation of an attack or threat. We rely on our instincts and all the training we have stored in our muscle memory. We allow our natural faculties to act, we are a blank canvas: munen, in a state of mind of “no thought” and “no reflection”[6].

This is why martial arts is often referred to as moving or active meditation.

Using our conscious mind to anticipate an attack and plan a defence against that attack, and then not be attacked in the preconceived manner requires a plan B or even plan C; requiring the brain to process a lot of information. Reaction is fastest when it comes from complete physical and mental relaxation. The conscious mind is not very efficient under duress. To un-process Plan A and re-process plan B takes valuable time and places unwanted stress on the brain making it much less efficient.

“But”, your student asks “what do I do if an attacker does ……”.

The answer: We don’t know, nor do we want to know! To know is to consciously or subconsciously plan. To even want to know is giving in to ego and the desire to control.

Of course this doesn’t mean the jujutsuka should not train for specific attack scenarios. He should train truthfully and repetitively, storing all knowledge and experiences in muscle memory. This trains the mind to know all strategies innately so at any moment the correct reaction to any given situation will be released without thought.

“Like a full circle, the mind must be empty, yet complete.”[7]


Mushin and munen do not imply mindless “no-thought”, but rather no attachment to any thought or strategy.

Have the mind devoid of all fear, free from all forms of attachment, and it is master of itself, it knows no hindrance, no inhibitions, no stoppages, no cloggings.[8]

This detachment requires the jujutska to not try to read his or her opponents movements, but become his opponent and become those movements allowing flawless actions. The actions simply flow in precise harmony with whatever is happening which of course is an advantage over a calculating opponent.

Watch a cat stalk and attack its prey. Every part of the cat’s body not required in movement is relaxed, but when it pounces, moving from complete relaxation to action, it is fast and efficient. Pick up a relaxed cat, and they pour out of your hands like water. A jujutsuka must be like the cat in body and mind.

Where to locate the mind.

The question is often asked: Where is the mind [or attention] to be directed? When it is directed at the movements of the opponent, it is taken up by them. When it is directed to his sword it is taken up by the sword. When it is directed to striking down the opponent, it is taken up by the idea of striking. When it is directed at your sword, it is taken up by that. When it is directed to defending yourself, it is taken up by the idea of defence. When it is directed to the pose the opponent assumes, it is taken up by it. At all events, they say they do not know just where the mind is to be directed.

Some would say: Wherever the mind is directed, the whole person is liable to follow the direction and the enemy is sure to take full advantage of it, which means your defeat.[9]

It is often said that the jujutska should focus his or her mind on Ki, just below the navel. But this is still limiting one’s focus to the lower abdomen and inherently preventing it from operating elsewhere.

The answer is therefore not to consciously focus the mind anywhere, but allow it to flow freely and fill one’s entirety – “no-mind”.


Mizu no kokoro

There is a Zen saying: Mizu no kokoro which helps describe Mushin. A strict translation is “A mind like water”.

What this teaches us is:

n  When water is calm there are no ripples one can see ones reflection on the water surface clearly without distortions. This is the mind of insight, perfectly relaxed, still, calm and collected. The mind of an observer. In more practical terms it means to show calmness in the face of adversity.

n  When still water is disturbed ripples are created distorting the reflection of one’s image on the surface; disturbing one’s insight and calmness.

n  The ripples are never more than that caused by the disturbance. Water does not over-react nor under-react. When reaction is complete, perfect calm is restored. Our reactions should be measured and appropriate to the situation.

n  A mind like water is reactive, not passive. Water can change from stillness to movement and back to stillness. Our reactions are born from the unconscious mind.

n  Water is formless. It adapts to a changing environment and circumstances. Put a hand into a running stream and the water will immediately move around the hand and continue downstream. We must adapt to circumstances that present themselves.

Tsuki no kokoro

Another Zen saying: Tsuki no kokoro also helps describe Mushin. A strict translation is “Mind like the moon”.

What this teaches us is:

n  Just as moonlight shines equally on everything within its range. We need a peripheral or wide-angle view of the environment, both physical and psychological, to be constantly aware of the totality of the opponent and his movements, without making judgements. Thereby, the consciousness will be immediately aware of any opening in the opponent’s defences.

n  Clouds blocking the moonlight are likened to nervousness or distractions blocking one’s clarity of vision and which interfere with correct apprehension of the opponents movements.


Wabi-Sabi is solitude, aloneness and contemplation in blankness. Its essence is intrinsic in Zen gardens, in bonsai, in haiku, in calligraphy, in sumiye and the martial arts. It tells us: in nothing is everything. In art it is often revealed in “one corner” style painting: where one may expect to see a balancing element in a painting it is not there; but because it is not there one is drawn to it.

To show who only pray for the cherries to bloom,
How I wish to show the spring
That gleams from a patch of green
In the midst of the snow-covered mountain village![10]

What this teaches us is:

n  We must rely on and trust ourselves and our abilities.

n  Our actions are straightforward. Nothing is wasted on ornate embellishments—as in calligraphy—or excessive movements—as in the tea ceremony.

n  We avoid immediate judgements of an opponent.

n  We do not intellectualize the situation or circumstances. We accept them as they are.


Traditional jujutsu and other traditional martial arts focus on mushin to optimise fighting strategy.

The training required to develop mushin is not magic or spiritual. It is very practical, but it does develop a sense of mindfulness and “spirit” in the practice and development of our art.

Repetition of movement with the triggers of visualisation and emotion stimulate our neural pathways and store these movements as reactions in our muscle memory.

Switching on our subconscious mind by consciously turning down the volume of our left-brain chatter takes us into the moment, into “no‑mind” and allows us to access our muscle memory as simple and efficient reaction.


[1] Edwards, Betty (1979) Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Penguin Putnam

[2] Suzuki, Daisetz T (1993) Zen and Japanese Culture. Bollingen Foundation Inc., New York. P 94

[3]  Krakauer, J.W., & Shadmehr, R. (2006). Consolidation of motor memory. Trends in Neurosciences, 29: 58-64

[4] Ma, L., et al,. (2010). Changes in regional activity are accompanied with changes in inter-regional connectivity during 4 weeks motor learning. Brain Res.doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2009.12.073

[5] Dispenza, J. (2008).Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind. Health Communications Inc.

[6] Suzuki, Daisetz T. Ibid. p 126

[7] The Sansei Page 2008 www.koryugojuryu.com

[8] Suzuki. Ibid p 144

[9] Soho Takuan’s letter to Yagyu Tajima no Kami Munenori on the mystery of Prajna Immovable translated by Suzuki, Daisetz T Ibid p 105.

[10] Fujiwara Iyetaka (1158-1237)

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