The Truth About Muscle Memory in the Martial Arts

Muscle Memory Martial Arts

The definition for Muscle Memory in Wiki states: ‘a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition.’ This is a good definition, but totally inadequate when one considers what the martial arts are designed to do. This article is designed to complete that definition.

There are basically three parts to a human being on planet earth.

There is the body, which is pretty much a meat contrivance of bones and blood and hair and skin and all sorts of things. This is where we find muscle.

There is the mind, which is memory. Memory is not contained in the brain.

And there is the spirit. The great intangible, that awareness which can’t be measured by the physics of this universe.

So somebody figures out a great martial arts move, and he starts practicing it. He is basically telling his muscles to remember, and this is all fine and good.

Now, let’s step outside of muscle and memory-and modern definitions-and consider the ancient concept of mushin no shin, or ‘mind of no mind.’

Take mushin no shin literally, and it is saying that one does not use the mind, including the muscle pattern in the mind, when doing martial arts or other activities which have resulted in this state.

The point is that when one builds Muscle Memory, using muscle and mind, they are building a circuit. This is just like an electrical circuit, energy charges through synapses and the body lumbers about. Saying it is in the neurons of the mind, or the neural connections in the nerve system doesn’t matter. It is just a circuit, and Muscle Memory is the building of a circuit to enhance the operation of body.

But, if one relies only on the circuit one is now limited by the body, so we have to go beyond circuit, we have to figure out what to do with the circuit so that it disappears, and in its place is…intuition, imagination, and all the higher abilities of the human being.

Here we all agree. Practice, practice, practice. Eventually the circuit just goes…poof. It disappears, and the method of motion becomes not muscle and memory, but merely a light thought of the body being moved from one place to another.

We have used Muscle Memory to instill a pattern until we knew the pattern well enough that we didn’t need the the mind and the muscle. We could move the body directly, just by applying a thought, and this is the state of mushin no shin.

This is when the martial arts become a religion. This is when the human being itself, the ‘I am,’ the point of awareness behind eyes and ears and physical perception tools becomes isolate and in charge.

The problem here is not with Muscle Memory, for Muscle Memory is valid…it exists. The problem is how far does the instructor go with the concept. If the instructor uses the Muscle Memory concept to teach fighting to the exclusion of any spiritual reality, then Muscle Memory is not of use. It relegates the human being to the status of animal.

On the other hand, if Muscle Memory leads to mushin no shin, if it leads to a human being who can direct his body without the mind/memory, but just with a thought, then it is a valid martial arts tool.

If Muscle Memory leads to mushin no shin, the student will experience a realization of the self (I am!), and he will understand the true meaning of budo…’to lay down the spear.’

He will give up fighting for the sake of fighting, give up his animalistic nature, and ascend to the reality of art and intuition and imagination and all the things that are the true province of the human being, and which elevates him above all other life forms on this planet.

He will, in short, be using his true abilities, things like thoughts and whims and imagination, and this is the goal of concepts like Muscle Memory in the Martial Arts.

zen martial arts

This has been an article about how to use muscle memory in the martial arts.

3 thoughts on “The Truth About Muscle Memory in the Martial Arts

  1. doordirt4creations

    And so this is where the “Karate Doctor” in your later post, the one who wins over the MMA fighter, excels. Not in the use of Karate as a tool, but Mushin No Shin. Being able to use the TOOL of the SKILL to deliver a product. Knowing his actions well enough to combine them creatively, not reactively, to defeat his oponent… and still be honorable at it. (clear when the fighter, on the ground, tries to kick him as he steps back…)
    Thanks for the post and direction!

  2. Daffyd Landegge

    Its nice to see some people are still working at achieving and seeking methods beyond what is currently understood as the “absolute.” You forgot to mention that the spirit is nothing more thant he entity comprised of our own mental and emotional matrix which aim to express the soul. And that it can be tainted when one seeks to feed the ego and allows it to become an entity of its own. THis alone taints and blocks the soul from being fully expressed (uncorrupted).

    What I am getting at is the idea that we humans are the highest form of life is rather ego feeding, don’t you think?

  3. Daffyd C. Landegge

    There are 2 levels that transcend Muscle Memory: 1) Fighting Intuition, and 2) Intuition. Muscle memory is generally trained reflexes—which are fast, but not that fast. Muscle memory is effective, but not that effective. When solely trained for, muscle memory it is in fact a weakness that can be exploited due to “predictability.” The enemy or opponent can rely on your muscle memory (reflex) and therefore set up for their own victory.

    Training to respond rather than react is far superior. It begins to train the “mind” of muscle memory if you will. If given enough patience and sensitive practice once can begin to feel the unique sensations of each situation, circumstance and movement. Then be able to automatically respond to any threat in an intuitive fashion while in the moment and speed of combat (i.e., fighting intuition). This eventually expands to be able to sense danger that has yet to manifest so as to avoid being at the wrong place at the wrong time (i.e., intuition).


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