Mind Like Water

“In karate, there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact. 

The power in a karate punch comes from speed, not muscle; it comes from a focused “pop” at the end of the whip. It’s why petite people can learn to break boards and bricks with their hands: it doesn’t take calluses or brute strength, just the ability to generate a focused thrust with speed. But a tense muscle is a slow one. So the high levels of training in the martial arts teach and demand balance and relaxation as much as anything else. Clearing the mind and being flexible are key.

Anything that causes you to overreact or underreact can control you, and often does. Responding inappropriately to your email, your staff, your projects, your unread magazines, your thoughts about what you need to do, your children, or your boss will lead to less effective results than you’d like. Most people give either more or less attention to things than they deserve, simply because they don’t operate with a “mind like water.”

-David Allen, “Getting Things Done”

Whatever your discipline, whether music, martial arts, or maths, if you can reduce it – in practice – to applying the Mind Like Water principle, you have achieved part of what Zen masters talk about when they say “From one thing, know ten thousand things.”

“The Natural Classical Guitar” by Lee F. Ryan is an important piece of my music pedagogy library, as well as “Effortless Mastery” by Kenny Werner, and “Zen Guitar” by Philip Toshio Sudo. None of these books are Method books, but what they teach is to put exactly the right effort at the right place for the the desired outcome. It’s within this context that I also sometimes reference Aikido in lessons, because it’s primarily focussed on the management of physical and mental, even spiritual energies. In music, too much force results in a poorly executed note, too much tension results in plodding, uneven rhythm, too much energy results in playing too fast and making sloppy mistakes, too much focus on one section of music can cause one to forget about other parts.

It is the principle of least effort.

One exercise that I use to teach this is to instruct a student to play a scale on the guitar. It can be any scale, C major, E minor pentatonic, or just a chromatic scale. Here’s the important part – I tell them to *Intentionally* Buzz every note, i.e. to press the string to the fret with just barely enough pressure to sound the note, but not enough pressure to sound it clearly. The result is a slight ‘buzz’ or fuzziness to the sound. Every student I’ve ever taught has trouble with this at first – they want to squeeze the guitar neck. But by learning to Buzz the notes, they learn to play with the least possible effort. After successfully buzzing each note in a scale, I then tell the student to play it again and add 1 oz of extra pressure to pinch the string to the fret. The result is a beautiful, clean tone, and usually much smoother playing of the scale because they don’t have to release all that excess tension when moving to the next note.This is the same principle as the Kung Fu master who hits with the exact force necessary, never wasting energy on excess force, or the mathematician who learns to balance focus on formulae with taking mental breaks to allow the mind a moment’s recess from contemplation.