The Experience of ‘No Thought’ – Progressive Relaxation and Edmund Jacobson

Mushin_Painting - prprm_KN_SFrom time to time, I read and hear about the experience of ‘No Thought’ in the context of meditation, martial arts and kendo [KendoNotes MushinResources] [KendoNotes MushinQuotes] [KendoNotes MushinEiga].  It is also referred to as the gap or silence between thoughts, flow, being in the zone and the ‘mind of no mind’ (mushin no shin 無心の心).  Of course, it’s one thing to hear about it second hand and another to actually experience it.

I describe here some recent encounters with the experience of ‘No Thoughts’ in two sections:  Brief Experiences and Prolonged Experiences.  Before describing them, I note the following:

  • I suspect that we have all experienced ‘No Thoughts’ to varying degrees and may or may not have been aware of it.
  • A common feature in my experiences, apart from the absence of thoughts, is the gradual disappearance of muscle tension and the shift to a very relaxed physical state.
    • This is consistent with the observations of Edmund Jacobson who studied this phenomenon in the early 1900’s and developed a relaxation technique known as Progressive Relaxation [Jacobson_Relaxation].
    • That portion of Jacobson’s work related to ‘No Thoughts’ is summarized nicely by Jon Christianson in [Christianson_Jacobson].
    • Quotes by Edmund Jacobson explaining the concepts in much more detail are provided in [KendoNotes_PMR_Quotes] .

Brief Experiences

  • I believe that the brief gaps between thoughts are experienced occasionally when aware of and very present to my senses and/or thoughts.
  • The “Whispered Ah” technique [KendoNotes WhisperedAh] has been particularly helpful.
    • It seems to facilitate the brief experiences of ‘No Thoughts’ and the awareness of any tension that may exist in the muscles around the eyes and mouth.
    • This is important since as noted in [Christianson_Jacobson]:
      • Dr. Jacobson asserted and demonstrated in his laboratory that it is impossible for human subjects to think verbally without subtly activating the muscles of the speech mechanism.
      • He showed also that it is impossible for human subjects to think in visual images without subtle eye movements. In short, Dr. Jacobson proved in the laboratory, that thinking is a measurable muscular activity.
    • My experiences seem to confirm this.
      • When “I” notice that I have been thinking, sure enough, tension is present in the eyes and/or mouth area.
      • The experience of ‘No Thoughts’ seems to arise when the eyes and mouth areas are soft and relaxed.

Prolonged Experiences

The most prolonged and unmistakable experiences of ‘No Thoughts’ came about with the Wim Hof method of Deep Belly Breathing [KendoNotes WimHof].  As described therein, the method includes: 1) many iterations of an inhalation that is deep and fast (building-up tension) followed by an exhalation (releasing that tension), 2) a pause where the breath is held and can be held for a long period of time (e.g. 2 mins) and 3) several repetitions of this sequence.   When completed, there is a very long sustained period of “No Thought” and a very heightened sense of awareness.  My guess is that it lasts for roughly one to two minutes before the thoughts gradually return.

  • I suspect that the Wim Hof breathing method is quite related to Progressive Relaxation.
    • It alternates between tension and relaxation just as in Progressive Relaxation.
    • There, however, may be a major difference.  The Wim Hof method seems to oxygenate the body (perhaps excessively) and exhaust it, too.  I wonder if this is what helps sustain the ‘No Thought’ experience.
  • I have experienced the Wim Hof breathing method multiple times and it consistently produced the prolonged experience of ‘No Thought’.
  • If you are interested in trying the Wim Hof breathing method but have never done it before, I would recommend for safety reasons either having a certified Wim Hof trainer with you or watching Wim Hof’s safety video cited in [KendoNotes WimHof].

By the age of seven most of us “think (that) we are our thinking” and it’s our thinking that largely defines us. This is the lie that meditation helps us unravel. – Richard Rohr

May all be well with you!


References

[Christianson_Jacobson] Jon Christianson, “On Keeping the Eyes Still,” seeinganew.tripod.com

[Jacobson_Relaxation] Edmund Jacobson, Progressive Relaxation:  A Physiological and Clinical Investigation of Muscular States and Their Significance in Psychology and Medical Practice, 2nd ed., University of Chicago Press, 1938.

[KendoNotes_MushinEiga] “Some Quotes from a Documentary on Eiga Sensei and Mushin-no-Waza (無心の技),” KendoNotes.com, Oct. 15, 2018.

[KendoNotes_MushinQuotes] “Quotes on Mushin, Flow and Open-Focus – Overview,” KendoNotes.com, Dec. 13, 2017.

[KendoNotes_MushinResources] “Resources on Mushin-no-shin (the Mind of No Mind),” KendoNotes.com, Nov. 21, 2017.

[KendoNotes_OpenFocus] “Open Focus, Mushin and Kendo,” KendoNotes,com, May 3, 2016.

[KendoNotes_ProgressiveRelaxation] “Progressive Relaxation: ‘Mother Knows Best,'” KendoNotes.com, Dec. 27, 2020.

[KendoNotes_PMR_Quotes] “Quotes on Progressive Relaxation,” KendoNotes.com, Jan 25, 2021.

[KendoNotes_WhisperedAh] “The ‘Whispered Ah’ – for Calmness, Muscle Relaxation and the Posture,” KendoNotes.com, Dec. 4, 2019.

[KendoNotes_WimHof] “Deep Belly Breathing and the Wim Hof Method,” KendoNotes.com, Jun. 21, 2020.

Copyright 2020 KendoNotes.com

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