Some of you may be surprised to learn that in his 17th century martial arts treatise, The Book Of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi says that it is not power but preemption that is “the foremost concern in martial arts.” His advice to those finding themselves in an adversarial situation is to “thwart the opponent’s very first impulse to try something, thus foiling everything.”
As I have said in a previous post, Miyamoto Musashi’s advice is often applicable to many different types of competition and conflict. His preemption policy is wise council for everyone from battlefield leaders to Girl Scouts fighting for cookie sales in the same neighborhood. Hey, when every box of Samoan Crunch counts, girl, don’t hesitate to hit ‘em up Five Rings style.
Most of Miyamoto Musashi’s teaching revolves around the ability to “cause upset” to your enemy. A good strategy will: disrupt, confuse, surprise, scare, irritate, and generally “cause upset” to your adversary.
Related to both preemption and the causing of upset, is what every good military leader knows is important in war: the element of surprise. Says the author of The Book Of Five Rings: “It is critical to attack resolutely where enemies are not expecting it; then, when their minds are unsettled, use this to your advantage to take the initiative and win.”
One specific suggestion he has for surprise is to appear weak and slow to react— and then spring into action. Another idea is to fake a defensive outlook; Miyamoto contends that moods are as infectious as anything else. Therefore your opponent may “catch” your projected mood and slide into the same heels-down posture— then you act quickly and firmly for the win.
Miyamoto Musashi points out that since people are frightened by the unexpected, a good scare will inhibit an opponent by clouding the mind with fear. For this reason, anything you can do to startle your adversary will be helpful. “You may threaten by sound, you may threaten by making the small seem large, and you may threaten by making an unexpected move from the side. These are situations in which fright occurs. If you can seize the moment of fright, you can take advantage of it to gain victory.”
Notice how easily the master slides from concepts of preemption to those of surprise, to those of seizing the initiative, to those of pressing the advantage once gained. Everything is fluid, adaptable, and forward moving. Even a defensive move may prove to be an organic piece of the following offensive strike.
Miyamoto Musashi is very keen on two fighting concepts especially: 1) seizing the initiative, and 2) pressing the advantage:
“You would rather take the initiative and put opponents on the defensive,” he says. “In the midst of battle, as soon as your opponent tries to get out of the way, you have already won.”
A few examples of seizing the initiative include the “Single Beat” strike and the “Second Spring.”
The Single Beat is “the stroke with which you strike an opponent before he has thought of whether to pull back, parry, or strike.” It is an “intervening stroke.”
The Second Spring is described in this way: “You are about to strike and the opponent quickly pulls back or parries. You feint a blow, then strike the opponent as he relaxes after tensing.”
Both the Single Beat and the Second Spring are about rhythm. You are striking between beats so as to catch your opponent at his most vulnerable half-second. When the struggle is intense, the slightest advantage can prove the difference between winning and losing.
Even the battleground, itself, can become a weapon in a fighter’s hands if he knows how to use it. Says the author: “It is essential to make sure that obstacles are to the rear of your opponents, then chase them into an obstacle any way you can. When you get opponents to an obstacle, in order to prevent them from observing the situation, press your attack without let-up so that they cannot look around.”
Miyamoto Musashi drills home the importance of pressing the advantage throughout his treatise. He counsels “instantaneous and unyielding follow-up” after you’ve made a successful move against your opponent. “It is essential not to let him catch his breath. Mow him right down without even giving him time to blink his eyes. The most important thing is not to let him recover.”
The master abhors the idea of a missed opportunity caused by sloppiness or over-confidence. “If you are striding calmly and do not notice when opponents are demoralized and crumbling, you will let victory elude you and will be unable to effect a quick settlement of the contest,” adding elsewhere that, “if you miss the timing of vulnerable moments, there is the likelihood of counter-attack.”
Speaking of counterattack, Miyamoto Musashi says that the best strategy here involves “knocking the heart out” of your opponent: “The main thing is to see that adversaries feel defeated from the bottom of their hearts.” […] “When your enemies have completely lost heart, you do not have to pay attention to them anymore.”
Not so different from surviving a long term relationship, eh?
Miyamoto Musashi’s style, literarily and martially, is not flashy. He disparages schools of martial arts that involve a bunch of fancy “twisting and twirling.” “It is essential that the physical aspect and the mental state both be simple and direct,” he says, “gaining victory by causing opponents to strain distortedly and go off kilter, causing the hearts of the adversaries to do the twisting and twirling.”
The Book Of Five Rings is a thin book, full of good advice that can be put into practice in all sorts of competitive arenas. I have only been able to give a glimpse into its contents. This book should be added to any list of books on war or business strategy.
One final piece of advice: if you attempt using any of these precepts in your relationship, make sure the beneficiary information in your life insurance policy is up-to-date. Happy Valentines Day!