In Any Physical Art, Craft or Sport
Boyé Lafayette De Mente
Many years ago when I was a resident of Tokyo and spent most Sunday mornings bowling with journalist friends I had a new kind of experience that was to have a profound influence on my understanding of how the body and mind work together—or more to the point, how they work against each other.
I was serious about honing my bowling skill and was always fully conscious of every aspect of the physical movements involved in moving down the lane runway for two or three steps and releasing the ball.
But on this particular April morning I had been in a contemplative mood since getting up and walking the few blocks to the bowling alley in Meiji Park. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom, there was a mild breeze, and the sky was a seductive blue. My mind virtually disassociated itself from my body and I was not conscious of the act of walking.
When I joined my friends there was none of the usual banter and my mind remained more or less outside of my body. I was the first one up. I made my approach and let the ball go without thinking about it, and made a strike.
This body-mind disconnect continued and I got three more strikes in a row, when the thought suddenly occurred to me: “I’m in a state of muga (muu-gah)! This is fantastic!”
I became intensely conscious of what I was doing, and on my next time up my ball went into the gutter. I was beside myself with disgust at having broken the spell of muga.
The dictionary meaning of the Japanese word muga is self-effacement, a spiritual state of selflessness, to be in a state of ecstasy.
But thanks to Japan’s famous samurai class the term had come to mean much more than this esoteric definition. From the age or six or seven boys in the samurai class went through a rigorous training process to develop incredible skill with the sword, and while they were mastering the physical process of wielding a sword they were also developing the ability to enter the mental state of muga—a state in which the mind did not interfere with the actions of their trained bodies.
The samurai were not the only Japanese to make use of the element of muga to achieve mastery in their profession. The training of all Japanese artists and craftsmen traditionally began in childhood and continued until they were in their thirties or forties and sometimes until they were in their fifties.
In this long process of mastering every physical element of their art or craft they also gradually got to the point that they did not have to think about the movements that were required to create a masterpiece. Their actions were spontaneous.
All people everywhere, especially those engaged in arts, crafts and other skills demanding precise, coordinated physical movements—from jugglers and musicians to sportspeople—must achieve some degree of muga in their actions to reach an impressive level of skill. But only those who are able to perform automatically on the highest level, without thinking about the movements they must make, become true masters.
It helps to have a word that explains the relationship between the body and the mind in developing a physical skill, and I recommend that the term muga be adopted by all cultures.
If young people are able to relate a long period of physical training with achieving the muga mind-state—during which performing a physical function perfectly becomes spontaneous—they might take their training more seriously.
Copyright © 2007 by Boyé Lafayette De Mente
For a more definitive discussion of muga and more than 450 other key Japanese terms see the author’s The Japanese Have a Word for It (McGraw-Hill) and Japan’s Cultural Code Words (Tuttle Publishing); both available from Amazon.com, other online booksellers, and bookstores worldwide. To see a full list of his 60-plus books, go to his personal website: http://www.phoenixbookspublishers.com/.