For example, I hate taking care of my yard. To me, taking care of my lawn is a minor thing. I don’t want to spend my time taking care of a lawn. Plus, I’m no good at it. I don’t have the knowledge or patience to maintain a healthy lawn. For the past three summers I have tried to take care it myself and each year and each season my yard gets worse and worse. One of my mentors said to me, “You’ve got to stop spending time on things that frustrate you and don’t make you money. Hire some one to take care of your lawn.” So this summer, I hired a professional lawn care company to service my lawn. Within 3 weeks, I had the best-looking and arguably healthiest grass on my block. Surprisingly, I spent less on the professional lawn care than I had doing it poorly myself.
I grew up being taught by others how to do things myself to “save” money. Now, I know that that’s wrong. Doing things myself, in the overwhelming majority of tasks, simply wastes my time and my money. This is just one simple example of where I have taken Musashi’s advice of not focusing on the less important tasks of strategy and not wasting my energy on insignificant matters. I would encourage you to explore this yourself.
“Stand with the sun behind you… so that there is no obstruction to your rear…
(and) look down at your opponent by standing in a slightly higher place.”
Translation: Set up the game to win. Don’t deliberately, knowingly, put yourself in disadvantageous situations at work, in traffic, in nature, in social circles, and, of course, on the Aikido mat. For example, when on the Aikido mat practicing “randori,” be sure to position yourself in such a way that you only have to take on one opponent at a time. If possible, try to throw one opponent into another. Expend only as much energy as is necessary. Take this strategy into your personal life as well and take advantage of the principle of leverage in every aspect of your life. For example, so don’t waste time and hard-earned money on things like renting apartments or houses. Do whatever it takes to become a home owner. If you buy right, homes can make you a lot of money in tax-free capital gains. Renting, on the other hand, does nothing but makes you poorer. In most cases, when you rent, you have no leverage. As Musashi says, be sure to “stand with the sun behind you” so that you don’t have to squint your way through life.
“Chase your enemy to uncomfortable places…
(and) always chase your opponent into places of awkward footing.”
Translation: Defeat the monster while it’s small. Don’t let up. Put off procrastination. Do it now. Defeat your weaknesses now. If you have a challenge such as being overweight or a problem with a personal relationship, address it now while the problems are small. Take corrective action now while the pain is modest. Don’t wait until you are 50 pounds overweight. Don’t wait until you are on the brink of divorce. And, once you’ve addressed the problem, set up rules for yourself to maintain the correction. Don’t let that weight slip back on. Chase it to an uncomfortable place. Never let it be welcome in your body.
“It is possible to be victorious quite quickly if you take the lead at the beginning.”
Translation: Know what it is that you want and act now! Be decisive. Don’t waver. When walking, walk. When sitting, sit. But, above all, don’t wobble. Remember the golden rule of your life: You are in control. Power cannot exist without control. Therefore, you cannot have or exhibit power in your life if you are not first in control of your life. If you feel out of control of your life, start first by looking in the mirror and fixing the issues there. If you can learn to control and master your body, you will have a much easier time getting the rest of your life under control. This is a physical universe and the human experience is largely a physical one. Take the lead of your physical self now and it will be much easier for you to be victorious in your life.
“…attack with a calm mind and spirit,
strongly maintaining the feeling and the intention of victory…”
Translation: Always know your outcome ahead of time. Begin with the end in mind. See your goal with clarity and align your mind and body with that intention. Then, act decisively! In other words, if your mind wants something, but your body hesitates, or vice-versa, you’ll be hindered in its attempted execution. A “calm mind and spirit” are an aligned mind and spirit. The sign of a calm mind and spirit is when your body (or your physical action) moves with confidence. Your body moves with confidence because your mind and spirit are aligned. There is no hesitation because there is symmetry between the physical and non-physical aspects of your intention.
“You do not always need to be the first to attack.
You must assess each battle accordingly.”
Translation: Don’t just do something… stand there! Often, we over-respond in life to things that don’t require a big response or don’t require a response at all! Sometimes, when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Be sure not to treat every situation in your life the same way. Every enemy (inner enemy) is different. The way you quit smoking or overeating may not be the best way to work through anger issues or client-relation issues.
Many years ago, when I was a teenager, there was a classmate who loved to push my buttons. He would find things to tease me about. I always attempted to go head-to-head with him. That is, he’d offend me and I would do my best to offend him back. But, truth be told, he was far more talented at spontaneously crafting offensive quips than I was. When I shared this with my father and asked him for help, my father turned away from me and ignored me. I asked again and my father ignored me once again. Finally, after asking for a third time, I shouted,
“Hey! Answer me!”
My father turned to me and said, “Bothers you doesn’t it?”
“Doesn’t what?” I said.
“Being ignored. Try that and see what happens.”
Though doubtful, I gave it a shot. The next time my classmate tried to goad me, I simply ignored him. I didn’t response. He tried harder to offend me. I continued to ignore him. Within one day, he’d given up on me and had moved on to someone else. I learned that I had been giving him what he wanted by responding. He like the attention he got from me. He enjoyed knowing that his efforts were provoking a response. He was an attention seeker and I was giving him exactly what he was after. As soon as I stopped responding, he got bored with me and moved on. We must learn to asses each battle accordingly and recognize that we do not always have to be the first to attack (or retaliate). Some things do, in fact, go away if you ignore them.
“The main thing in strategy is to disallow your opponent’s efficient actions.”
The more you understand your personal weaknesses, the more aware you are of them, the less they can control you and the more likely you can be successful in your life. For example, when I work with people on weight loss I tell them that “discipline occurs at the grocery store, not in front of the refrigerator at 3am.” What I mean by this is you can set the game up to win by demonstrating discipline when shopping for food. That way, when you are weaker, such as when you are tired and can’t sleep at 3am, you are not tempted to eat something unhealthy in your pantry or refrigerator because you were strong enough not to buy it at the grocery store. This is one way to disallow your opponent’s actions.
“There are many events in a lifetime where a man is required to “cross over.”
You must sail across (a body of water) even though it means
leaving your friends behind… If you achieve this spirit, you will use it in all of your dealings in life. You must always have the intention to cross over.”
This metaphor is quite poignant and its principle is quite possibly one of the most difficult lessons adults experience in life. In short, it means you must always be willing to change. When I was in practice (as a doctor), I found “change” to be one of the most feared things in a patient’s world and this is precisely what kept them from healing in many instances. Children have far less difficulty with this concept than adults do. When children move to a new town or state, they may miss their old friends, but they very quickly make new friends and the sense of loss fades. Adults, however, often never believe that they will make new friends, or, as the metaphor implies, they may never find a new relationship, job, career, hobby, or regain their health. “Crossing over” requires a faith and trust in oneself. Change is an unknown that is better embraced as exciting, instead of shunned as frightening. Musashi utilizes this metaphor as being willing to commit and fully attack an enemy at their weakest point. Perhaps in your life this may mean consciously recognizing at a time of great weakness, an adverse habit or behavior of yours that needs to be “crossed over.”
“It is not possible to be victorious when attacking only in reaction
to the enemy’s slash of the long sword.”
You can’t win in life by always taking a back seat and just reacting to what happens to you. You must know what you want, inquire how to get it, and take at least one action toward its attainment every single day.
So many people wait until they have been attacked by someone or something like a colleague, spouse, or disease before they take an action. Then, the action they take is inappropriate to the attack: it may be excessive or it may be ineffective. Instead, if we can practice being calm in mind and in spirit, if we can learn to observe our lives with honesty and integrity, we can often head off an attack and, much like in Aikido, we can promptly enter, blend, and redirect the attack’s energy in to a non-attack. For you left-brainers, this simply means “be proactive.” Musashi also calls this “Stamping on the sword”
“Becoming the enemy means thinking of yourself
as if you are in the opponent’s body.”
Learn to see things from other people’s points of view and you’ll be surprised at how many people start to think that you are a psychic! This, in my opinion, is one of the most valuable skills in effective communication and, ironically, is one of the easiest to acquire. It simply requires self-awareness and the strength of character to be willing to step outside of your ego – your vantage point – and try to perceive a situation from another’s value system or perspective.
“In single combat if you have arrived at a four-hands situation (or stalemate) you must change your frame of mind, and switch to a proper technique as befits your situation.”
Stephen Covey would call this: “The way you see the problem, is the problem!” Change the way you fundamentally “see” the problem and a new solution will suddenly present itself. For example, many of us could easily and quickly solve the chronic challenges we face in our daily lives if only we mustered the courage to choose to perceive the challenge differently than we have in the past. I have benefited immensely from this in many areas of my life.
“There are many things which are infectious, such as a yawn… If the enemy seems rushed or agitate, you must not be infected by this. Behave with complete calm, and act unaffected. The enemy will see this and become relaxed also. Now that you have successfully infected him with relaxation, you can defeat him by moving decisively.”
Many things in life are infectious. Musashi’s use of the word infectious could be substituted today for the word: persuasion. However, in my opinion, one of the most infectious things is negativity of one’s attitude or disposition. That is why I have not watched or listened to the news for more than a year now. And, what do you know! I feel much better, I’m more productive, and I’m generally much more positive and optimistic than I have ever been.
“Many things cause us to lose our balance. Some of these are
fear of danger, being in a difficult position, and fear that
something is about to creep up from behind.”
As Aikido students, we know this principle well. We, of course, do not try to disarm or defeat our opponent/partners until we have broken their balance. Musashi acknowledges fear as a primary means of losing one’s balance. Metaphorically, we can see this in many areas of our lives. I think we can all agree that the things we engage in that we’re most successful at are those in which we do not exhibit or harbor fear within us. Conversely, more often than not, those areas we find ourselves lacking in are those in which we carry fear. Many injuries in Aikido originate as fear in the body, which, in turn, manifests as rigidness, and ultimately leads to injury.
“In battles involving many as well as in one-on-one combat, you can often win by using knowledge of being absorbed, if you are careful to remain engaged and not to disentangle which would cause you to be defeated.”
In Aikido class, Albright Sensei frequently speaks of ‘musubi’ or connection. He emphasizes how important it is to maintain a connection with your opponent/partner in the proper and efficient execution of each technique. Many newer students are often perplexed by such a concept because Aikido is a martial art and martial arts are for self-defense, which by most people’s understanding, means to keep an opponent at bay. Of course, Aikido is different. It is a much more intimate art based on the principle of “blending” with the energy of an attack. To blend anything together requires that at least two elements be mixed together; mixed together, of course, means that things are going to touch one another. Musashi recognizes this principle of ‘musubi’ and describes it as “to be absorbed.” He noticed that you can win a battle by absorbing with your enemy, but is then careful to say “if,” “if” you are careful to remain engaged and not disentangle. I believe this is what Albright Sensei means by “maintaining connection” in each technique.
“When trying to move something heavy, you will have difficulty if you push directly against it. You must ‘injure the corners’ in order to make progress.”
Again, this is very reminiscent of another Aikido principle of “getting off line” to an attack. Albright Sensei teaches us that in order to blend with the energy of an attack we must first get off line of the attack – or “injure the corners.” Getting off line, not only protects us, but then places us in the position to throw the enemy off balance (a Musashi principle discussed earlier in this essay). Metaphorically, getting off line now grants us the opportunity to “see” the attack from the other person’s perspective (another principle discussed earlier “becoming the enemy”). Sometimes, this, in and of itself, can lead to a peaceful resolution to a civil conflict.
In social or work environments, “injuring the corners” can also be applicable. Best selling author of the 1939 classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie refers to this approach as “calling attention to people’s mistakes indirectly. Think about how you could “injure the corners” to make more progress in some “heavy” area of your life.
“Shouting before, during, and after battle is important.
Your voice is a vital element. The shout has energy.”
In Japanese martial arts, the shout Musashi refers to is called a ‘kiai’ (pronounced ‘key’-‘eye’). In my opinion and experience, the volume and frequency of a person’s shout is directly proportional to their confidence in themselves. When used honestly, it is often (but not always) an accurate measure of one’s capabilities. This applies in the work place also. For example, people who possess a commanding voice are often perceived to be a person of charge or authority even if they are not. A commanding voice is a product of personal confidence. That personal confidence manifests in the body as erect posture, shoulders back, chest out, and chin up (not dissimilar to that of an opera singer).
As a result of this physical posture a strong, commanding voice, shout, or “KIAI” is the product. Believe it or not, published medical research and sociologic research has documented that people with strong, erect posture are perceived as taller, more charismatic, in charge, and have even been shown statistically to make more money than those with poor posture and poor voice command. On the Aikido mat, a strong ‘kiai’ can mean the difference between an effective and an ineffective technique.
“Attack the enemy’s force in one area… and then, after having gotten into a rhythm, attack one after the other of his strong points.”
Although touched upon in a previous essay, Musashi takes the time to re-emphasize the importance of attacking one area at a time, not two, not three, but one. Trying to fight wars on multiple fronts is a frequent mistake nations make. Companies frequently collapse because they try to expand too rapidly. The infrastructure deteriorates, they never truly define their market, and the demise of the company shortly follows. People do this, too, in their personal lives. We all want so much out of life that we often try to do it all at once, instead of getting good at one thing first – then moving on to the next thing. A friend of mine once told me to remember that sometimes, slow is fast. That is, what may initially seem like the slow route is often the route that will produce the most lasting, most rewarding effect. The fast route sometimes feels good, at first, but ultimately burns out way too soon like a one-hit-wonder rock band from the 80s.
Musashi states, “after having gotten into a rhythm” you can then attack another area. What he is referring to is momentum. When we try to do too much too soon – all at the same time – we often end up producing nothing of value, although we may appear quite busy. Busy and effective are not necessarily the same thing. We may have an attractive “story” about all of the fancy, exciting stuff we are involved in, but little of it really has any substance behind it. For example, if you were training three different martial arts at the same time, you may sound very posh, but do you really think you will ever attain mastery over any of them if you are not full, 100% committed to each of them? Certainly, not.
“Mountain and sea means that you should not repeat the same thing over and over when fighting your enemy. (Instead) while your opponent thinks about mountains, you should attack like the sea; while he thinks of the sea, you must attack like a mountain.”
Many people are lazy. They do the same things over and over again. They never change, never grow, never learn something new, and then one day they wonder why they’ve suddenly become irrelevant. For example, I rarely feel sorry for the industry employee who finds himself without a job after technology has rendered his skills obsolete. If that employee had been paying attention to their environment, he very likely could have seen it coming. Who planted it in his mind that you learn a skill and then will do nothing but that skill for the rest of his life? Some call this job security. But job security, in general, is a fictitious illusion. We must all be able, willing, and ready to change; to learn, and to do something different when the occasion presents itself. To think otherwise is to ignore reality.
This is directly applicable to the Aikido mat as well. If you do nothing but the same technique over and over again, without diversifying your skills, without growing, your opponent/partner will very quickly learn to defeat your techniques, thus rendering you irrelevant and ineffective.
“If the enemy’s spirit is still strong, you may defeat him only shallowly, while he remains undefeated deep beneath the surface. When this happens, we must use the strategy of Hitting Bottom in order to undo his spirit and demoralize him to the very depths of his being.”
I liken this concept to defeating our personal, inner demons and life challenges. It is not enough to simply practice techniques aimed at modifying an adverse personal behavior. We must get to the very root of our demon, understand it emotionally, at its deepest levels, and identify how it is that we on some level of our psyche believe this demon actually serves an emotional need to some extent. Only then do we possess the capacity to defeat it. Whether it is a habit such as over-eating or reverting to anger any time we feel uncomfortable or threatened, we must hit bottom in our own personal challenges before they will no longer hold us prisoner over our own lives. If we can hit bottom and come up from it, we no longer need crutch-like “techniques” to just “get by.”
“You must consider the enemy as if he is one of your own soldiers. As such, you will command him to move around according to your intentions.”
After “getting off line,” after “blending with an attack” and seeing the attack from your opponent’s point of view, after “throwing your enemy off balance” we must then, as Musashi refers to it, understand the principle of “The Commander Knows the Soldiers.” We must remember that we are in charge of our lives, not our spouses, not our parents, not our children, not our employers, but we – and no one else. We must acknowledge that no matter what our predicaments, it is ourselves who got us here. It is our responsibility and it is our fault. We should want it to be our fault, because that means that we have control over our lives. If we shun responsibility, if we refuse to accept fault, then we do not possess the capacity to change our circumstances. Any enemy we have within ourselves, such as a substance addiction such as food, alcohol, or prescription drugs, we must own it and treat it as Musashi suggests “as if he is one of your own soldiers.” Only then do we have the capacity to conquer it and win. We are in charge, not the vice.
“There are several aspects of Letting Go of the Hilt.
(For example), there is the spirit of winning while not holding a sword.”
Victory does not always require a sword. Sometimes it is the very absence of a weapon that can lead to victory. There are many examples of this in history and in literature. Mahatma Ghandi was a developer and practitioner of civil disobedience. His “Letting Go of the Hilt” paved the way for India regaining its independence from Britain occupation. In fiction, characters John Galt, Dagny Taggart, and Howard Roark created by philosopher Ayn Rand are other examples of “letting go of the hilt.”
“When you have completely understood the Way of Strategy, you will have the ability to become as if your body is a rock. You will be stuck, and untouchable. This is the Body of a Rock.”
Musashi’s language here is different than perhaps we would use in Aikido. In Aikido, we value fluidity and flexibility. However, the context in which Musashi here uses the metaphor of a rock, he is symbolically saying that when you embrace the Way of Strategy it becomes a permanent part of you. It becomes a fixed principle in your life. A rock you can always rely on being there, unchanging and unwavering, forever dependable.
I hope you have enjoyed and even benefited from my personal interpretation of Musashi’s The Fire Book. Next month we will jump into the wind and explore the 4th chapter of the Book of Five Rings: The Wind Book.