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An Unfettered Mind

If you had an unfettered mind, what would that be like?

It would be to have a mind that “does not stop at one thing even for a bit” [Takuan Soho, The Unfettered Mind (N.Y.:  Kodansha, 2002; W. S. Wilson, tr.).].  What, though, does that mean?

This is a descriptive phrase that is initially confusing and difficult to understand.

It’s a bit like the phrase ‘straight back.’  Initially, you might suppose that that phrase is used to refer to a backbone that is straight like a ruler.  If you lie on the floor and pull the bottoms of your feet near your buttocks with your knees in the air, you can press down your lower back until it is flat against the floor.  Is that having a straight back?

No!  That’s actually having a rounded back!

To experience a straight back, relax and push your legs out so they are flat on the floor.  You will notice that your lumbar spine is a few inches off the floor, which is its natural position.  Notice that a sitting baby has a back like that.  So the phrase “straight back” actually means having a concave back in which your stomach is naturally pushed forward so that your spine is naturally in its strongest position.

Takuan (1573-1645) was a famous Zen monk and master who wanted to teach others about right mind, which he described as “a state of No-Mind-No-Thought” [p. 35].  That is an unfettered mind.  What sense does that make?  How can there be a state of mind that is a state of no mind?  That’s confusing.

He claims that the concept of affliction in practicing the Way is the state in which the mind is stopped or stuck.  What prevents flow?  What stops mind?


For a mind to be taken by thoughts is incorrect.  To put the mind in a place in incorrect.  To have the mind congeal somewhere is incorrect.  To stop the mind from functioning freely is incorrect.

What is correct is to “leave aside thoughts and discriminations” [p. 46].  To put the mind nowhere is correct, because then “it will be everywhere.”  To be without thought is correct.  That is an unfettered mind.

This means to let go of (incessant) conceptualizing.  Why?  Two points together suffice for an explanation.

First, since a concept is a principle of classification, to think conceptually, to make judgments, is to separate (divide, sort, discriminate, classify).  For example, anyone with the concept of lion can separate objects into lions and non-lions; to use that concept affirmatively about an individual is to judge that this object is a lion and, so, different (separated) from all non-lions.

Second, separation causes suffering.  If you miss your dead grandfather or the lover who dumped you or the energy you had as a child, you are afflicted (suffering, hurting, dissatisfied).

If so, the more you stop thinking conceptually, the less afflicted you will be.  “If one thinks, he will be taken by his thoughts” [p. 45].  To be taken by thought is to be afflicted (fettered, bound, hijacked).  To reduce affliction, reduce conceptualizing.

“Completely forget about the mind and you will do all things well” [p. 55].

This argument is coherent.  Is it sound?  To find out, test it for yourself.  How?

Practice.  Disciplined practice.  “The effort not to stop the mind in just one place-this is discipline” [p. 47].

If so, the disciplined practice of zen is one way to free yourself from the bondage of your thoughts and let your life flow.  Since it is impossible to think your way to an unfettered mind, mastering some kind of meditation is the only way to experience it.

Would it be worth it?  All the sages say so.  There’s only one way to find out for yourself.

Posted in spiritual well-being


Jim Redel - posted on 19/01/2017 12:24 am

Thoughts are not the abiding places that Soho describes – they are not obstacles to an unfettered mind. Please, please do not write about such things so flippantly. You must understand that attachments must be our prime concern … the simple act of choosing. You do an individual’s potential realization of the human condition such a disservice. Be more cognizant!

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