I just completed Miyamoto Musashi’s 17th century martial arts treatise, The Book Of The Five Rings. I read the translation by Thomas Cleary. Miyamoto Musashai is well aware that he can only teach so much martial arts via the written word, but he is determined to pass on what principles he can in this way. And because core principles are what he is transmitting, and not specific training regimens, the work lends itself to a broader application than merely martial arts, which I think is part of the book’s wide appeal— especially in the business world. Many of the strategies in The Book Of The Five Rings can be employed in almost any situation that involves competition or conflict… be it a political campaign, a fundraising project—or a trip to the mall on Black Friday.
Of course, some of you may say that the best way to handle conflict and competition in life is to avoid them entirely. And perhaps in a sheltered existence where others are keeping one’s person and family safe and protecting one’s food, clothing, and shelter from theft or spiteful destruction— then perhaps a zero conflict ideal could be largely maintained.
Or if one selfishly and narcissistically were to choose a hermit or “homeless” lifestyle in which all one’s energies are egotistically focused on the self while contributing little or nothing back to the well-being of the community that is providing the apparent access-to-plenty that enables one to never have to compete for food and shelter with men or other beasts, then perhaps (…pause for breath…)—perhaps by this severe limiting of interactions with the human race and the brutal “real” world, then one could avoid most conflicts and competitions.
However, let us take as our starting point today, the typical human life.
And two primary characteristics of the typical human life —actually of all Life as it has been so perversely designed for us by some ethically challenged DemiUrge—are, like it or not: Conflict and Competition.
Perhaps it is worth stating here that, when we are part of a larger group, these conflicts and competitions often take place mostly at the perimeter of the group, where different clans or organizations or states bump up against each other; nevertheless conflict and competition are always present, and they are therefore part of the life of every individual comprising the group; no one is truly without blood on his hands.
Under Miyamoto Musashi’s style of fighting, defensive and offensive skills form one large continuum without thick defining lines between what is “defense” and what is “offense.” His approach to martial arts is like a wheel: Defense bleeds into Preemption, Preemption into Surprise; Surprise into Seizing The Initiative, and Seizing The Initiative into Pressing The Advantage.
His Book Of Five Rings stresses time and again that one should not lock one’s self into any particular mindset. This is especially true of the defensive mindset. When one is locked into the defensive mindset, the opponent will always have the initiative, and thus, the advantage.
“Whatever guard you adopt,” says Miyamoto Musashi, “do not think of it as being on guard. Think of it as part of the act of killing.”
To broaden the applicability of the teachings, I like to mentally substitute the word “winning” for “killing.” Winning should always be on your mind, even as you’re making an evasive maneuver or regrouping. A retreat is not a surrender; it is a pulling back for the next blow.
One should also not adopt a defensive frame of mind that is focused on countering whatever the adversary is doing. If you “think of blocking, think of tying up, or think of obstructing—you will thereby become unable to make the kill. It is crucial to think of everything as an opportunity to kill.”
Even good tactics can be put to bad use if they throw you mentally off-balance. For instance, there’s nothing wrong with looking for gaps in an enemy’s defenses, but to focus too much on this is bad. Says Miyamoto Musashi: “When you watch for gaps, everything else is neglected, and there comes to be a sense of entanglement, which is to be avoided.”
I enjoyed this approach of The Book Of The Five Rings so much—this idea that everything is the kill— that I wanted to dedicate my first entry on the book to it. Tomorrow I hope to post about the rest of the wheel, especially the notions of 1) seizing the initiative, and 2) pressing the advantage… Two campaign-saving or project-protecting concepts every good world-engaging, non-narcissist should know.