Nen — Mindfulness 念 [edition 2024]

Nen is the fundamental power of the "now mind" sharpening focus and increasing mindfulness.

Nen [pronounced “n-ehn”] is mindfulness (or focus), the state and power of being in the “now mind.” In fact, the kanji itself is composed of two kanji components— the upper portion is “now” or “this moment” and the lower portion is shin (or kokoro), “mind” (or “spirit”).

It is hard to imagine a better definition for focus — to have a mind firmly centered in the “now” moment. And of course, the power and benefits of having nen are probably quite clear. Being able to be firmly present in this moment means we can bring to bear all of our strong spirit, developed skills, and determination to the challenges at hand.

Nen 念 is focus, pure and simple.

And as such, it is the "ignition" or the "implementation engine" of our goals (mokuteki read more here) and our purpose (ikigai read more here). As such, it effectively is our to-do list, making our goals actually come to life, and our purpose come to fruition.

(Nen is so important that it generally is one of the four main concepts in the Cycle of Four lecture sequence given every year by Sensei.)

The Power of Concentrated Focus

The difference between having nen and not having nen is like the difference between the light from a lightbulb and the light from a powerful laser. Both are waves of light, but the light from a laser is focused on a particular point, all going in the same direction. The light from the lightbulb is diffuse, spread-out, going in all different directions. Both are light, and both illuminate. But only one of them is strong and powerful, bringing all its energy to bear on one point.

(In fact, it’s interesting to note that light from a laser is said to be “coherent” — that is, all the photons moving in waves in the same direction. Mindfulness is certainly allied with being coherent, and having coherent thoughts contributes to mindfulness.)

Focus is the Sword that Cuts through the Noise

We are surrounded by tremendous calls on our focus, and worse, a tremendous cacophony of nonsense that seeks to drown our focus in the inanity of trivia and meaninglessness.

Think about it for a second: how much "news" actually is actionable and important to you? And yet, our "news" feeds in all their forms – social media, email newsletters, news alerts, and even news publications – are full of either trivia or information that has no real bearing on either your daily life or your long-term thinking.

And in addition to this, there are many calls on our focus that seek to engage us, usually for their own purposes. We are inundated with requests to spend time on projects, meetings, and causes. We are constantly beseeched to buy products and services, most of which we don't really need, and sometimes, don't want.

The combination of all this is an assault on our nen 念 – and if we practice a strong mindfulness, we can use nen as a shield against all these diversions and distractions that seek to take us off the course we have plotted for ourself.

Focus as a Strength Multiplier

We can also view the top part of the kanji as representing a mountain, or a roof perhaps. In both cases, the graphical depiction of “now” calls to mind the protection of a roof over our mind, or the steadfast focus of a mountain in our mind.

Nen, though, is much more. Mindfulness has a multiplying effect in our lives.

Those things to which we are mindful grow stronger, more powerful. Those things of which we are mindful become central to our focus, and therefore get the benefit of our resources and our skills. To be mindful about something is like adding sunlight, water, and fertile soil to the flower of our existence: our lives will grow, blossom, and make great beauty because of it.

Mindfulness, however, is not about being self-absorbed. In fact, self-absorption can lead to many negative things. Many health professionals point to the repeated dwelling on negative ideas, experiences, and concepts as being harmful to us, making us vulnerable to the mistakes and pain of the past.

Rather, Nen teaches us to stay “in this moment, this moment now” rather to creating a false mindfulness, where we are instead present in an imperfect past.

Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is difficult to practice, and even harder to achieve when we are in difficult situations.

It has often been observed that Nen is easier if we “lead” with our body, instead of our mind. Sometimes focusing on a physical task, even an exercise (kata, as an example) helps to focus our mind to such an extent that extraneous thoughts are pushed aside, and we can focus on Nen.

Need help focusing? To practice Nen, lead with your body, not your mind — especially when Nen is difficult to achieve.

There are many aspects of karatedō that support this kind of mindfulness practice, but none is more apropos than the practice of kata. It has been often observed that

Focus is the Magnifier of Life

And finally, consider this: your experience of life is not based on your life, but on what you pay attention to.

In other words, be mindful to, and with, the important things in your life. Push aside the rest. Those things to which you apply Nen, and which inhabit your Nen, will become your life. You can choose those things, and you can actively cultivate those things.

Do not be the bottle cast adrift on the sea of life, bobbing up and down, and going where the currents might take you. Instead, use Nen to guide the ship of your life on its journey, and choose the ports of call that are important and meaningful to you on your journey, on your path.

If you do this, your goals will move to completion and become real achievements, and your purpose in life will be fulfilled.

Kanji/Katakana Meaning
focus, mindfulness (nen) literally, the "now mind"

Editor's Note: This lecture was first delivered by Sensei in San Rafael, California on 5 February 2014, and then again at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo on 9 March 2022, and then more recently at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo on 25 January 2023 and at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo on 24 January 2024.