KOJIRŌ SASAKI stood on the beach waiting for his opponent. He looked out along the shore, and across the rolling waves, but there was no sign. He had waited for hours; they had all waited for hours.
The year was 1612 and the location was Ganryu island, located off the coast of the Bizen Province in Japan. Sasaki was a masterful swordsman, who eschewed the traditional katana in favor of a ‘No-Dachi’; a long and heavy two-handed sword considered by most to be too cumbersome to be effective. But despite its length and weight, Sasaki wielded the sword with incredible speed, accuracy, and grace; basing his strikes off of a swallows tail in flight.
He had fought many duals before, and he had never lost. That’s why they called him ‘The Demon of the Western Provinces.’
His opponent was a man named Musashi Miyamoto. A vagabond and Ronin, Musashi was known for his heavy drinking, his unkempt appearance, and his flagrant disregard for the conventions of the Samurai. Despite this, he, like Sasaki, was rumored to have fought many duels and never have lost.
For each man, the other was to be his greatest opponent. Yet Musashi was nowhere to be seen.
Stood on the beach, surrounded by officials and the noise of the ocean, Sasaki began to wonder. At the very least this was a sign of disrespect, at the worst it was a sign of cowardice and his opponent had fled.
As if to confirm his suspicion, the officials around him began to whisper to one another. “Perhaps he has fled.” “Yes, he has run away in fear!” They said.
Sasaki wondered. Perhaps he had fled.
A few miles south of the beach, in a small inlet, a fisherman sat in his dingy. The sun was hot but wasn’t a bother. He had been paid handsomely by his passenger; a strange, disheveled looking man who sat hunched over at the end of the boat. The man, who as was usual for him, was hungover, wiped the sweat from his brow stared up at the sun, then grinned at the fisherman. Almost in contrast to his unconventional appearance, he looked happy.
Reaching down into the belly of the dingy, the man picked up a spare oar, and drawing a knife from his belt began to carve strips of wood from it. After some time and many blade-strokes, the belly of the dingy had been filled with shavings and the oar was long and curved in a smooth angle like a katana. The man smiled at his work.
“Let’s go.” He said.
Musashi Miyamoto had woken up drunk that day, and spent most of his journey to the island passed out; but his strange appearance and lateness were not accidents or flaws of character, but rather his strategy itself. Having won his first duel at the age of 13, Musashi was no stranger to combat and was something of an expert at killing samurai. Over the course of his life, he had fought in wars, killed entire dojos, and traveled far, killing famous, notable warriors; all whilst being a masterless Ronin himself.
Killing samurai wasn’t just what he did, it was what he was. Not only did he know their techniques, but he also understood their code and culture. He knew how to get under their skin.
It was some hours into the afternoon when Sasaki spotted the boat on the horizon. Stepping forward and shading his eyes from the sun one of his officials shrieked “It’s him! It’s Miyamoto”, which sent all the officials running back and forth, flocking to and fro from Sasaki, unsure of what to do.
Grabbing the nearest man, Sasaki looked into his stunned eyes and said “My sword.” The man stared, mouth agape then fled up the shore to a small hut, shouted at a peasant woman, then hurried back carrying a large, sheathed weapon. Sasaki took it from him and securing the sheath and hilt in each palm strode down the beach towards the shoreline.
The boat was parked just offshore, in the shallow water. A small fisherman sat in the back, fixing a wide-brimmed straw hat to his head, and in the front, a ragged looking man cut the final touches on a large wooden carving, then sprang from the boat into the knee-high water.
The man waded to the shore, drenched from the knee down, and once free of the water stopped a few up the beach to brush the sand from his feet. Saski walked forward and took in his appearance. His clothes looked unwashed like they’d be worn for days. His face was pockmarked and unshaven. But it was his gaze that affronted Sasaki most. Behind his serious composure, the man’s eyes seemed to say “Oh, so this is Sasaki – Well, what of it?”
Sasaki’s face was a carved stone, and his eyes did not blink. The two men stared at each other for some time, until an official ran between the two, followed the flock. “Miyamoto,” he said, and Mushashi nodded. The officials all stared, and their heads turned between the two, back and forth, waiting for some kind of movement. Some were stunned, some were scared, and all of them standing on edge.
Striding forward, Sasaki gripped the hilt of his sword, adopted his footing (never too wide, never too short, with his feet loose and agile), and drawing the katana from its sheath, tossed the scabbard onto the sand.
Musashi looked at the sheath, then him, and with a new wildness in his eyes said: “if you have no use for your sheath, you are already dead.”
But Sasaki heard nothing. His hands did not tremble, his body did not move. His pulse was steady, his breathing was rhythmic. This, he had practiced. He was Sasaki Kojiro and he had never lost a duel. He knew this from experience, from what others told him, and from what he told himself in comfort, whenever he felt pangs of doubt or moral discomfort. He was Sasaki Kojiro, victory was as certain as it ever was, as it always was, not simply for the work and achievement he had so far accrued, but because of the being that he knew he was in relation to other men. The knowledge of his superiority to other men and his habitual expectation of their deference was why, despite his outward and internal physical calm, his mind blazed with fury. He was Sasaki Kojiro, and here was his opponent; a filthy, unkempt man who kept him waiting and arrived carrying a piece of wood. To any Samurai this would be a mark of dishonor, but to Sasaki, this was a disgrace.
Musashi stepped forward and their eyes met. He raised his weapon, an enormously long carved wooden oar, as long, if not longer than Sasaki’s own No-Dachi. His internal state was hidden, Sasaki detected that much, but his stance was fine, comfortable and confident; all the details of his body, his expression and the position of his sword spoke clearly; disgrace or no, Sasaki knew, as any master of a profession knows, that he was in the company of a man equal in his craft. Sasaki stepped forward, Musashi back; it seemed he too, had come to the same conclusion.
The officials gasped and sprang back. Many who were friends of Sasaki said nothing and simply stood horror-struck, tearing at their beards. A few seagulls had flown down to the shallow water, bobbing like boats, to watch the proceedings. All were silent, save for a young boy who at a slight movement from Sasaki burst into tears and fled towards the trees.
Sasaki felt calm now. His body was relaxed, but his grip was firm. His eyes, locked on Musashi, felt like dew drops. There was little sensation in him except for his breathing; but behind it, there was a disgust that was held for Musashi. He cared little for him and wanted to disgrace him by killing him on the beach.
A wave crashed and Sasaki struck a swift blow, Musashi moved and lashed out with his oar. “Ah ha!” Sasaki thought to himself, “that was the fatal strike!” Sasaki moved forward towards the sand. “He is defeated!” But there was a glare in his eyes, and he thought “What is this?” And could not recall where he was and what had occurred. “Yes, this is the beach.” He thought. Then, lying on his back in the sand, he grew tired, cared nothing for fighting, and forgot about that and everything else, and only wished for the sun to leave his sight.
— — —
Musashi Miyamoto stood above his opponent, watching him die. The officials were half-mad, some screaming and others stooping over to look at Sasaki.
Musashi, still trembling with nerves, felt great unease at how important the man had seemed only a few seconds earlier, only now to die peacefully on the sand, with a childlike smile on his face that was quite detached from the reality of everything that had occurred. He couldn’t help but think the man was quite beautiful, and he had destroyed something beautiful for no reason at all. He wished he could end all of this nonsense, wake the man up and talk to him. Instead, the man slowly stopped breathing, as the blood pooled around his chest.
Musashi felt a pang of sadness. Here was one of the greatest swordsman that ever lived, and now he was dead, and that was that. Musashi looked at him and bowed, then, leaving the officials with the body, he turned and marched down the beach, through the waves, and climbed back onto the boat. Some of the officials who loved Sasaki ran down the beach into the surf after him, swinging katanas and shouting, but it was too late, the tide had gone out and Musashi had gone.
— — —
Musashi Miyamoto* had fought in countless duels, but it would be this one that would change his life. Self-taught from a young age, Musashi had his first duel at the age of 13, where he struck down a Samurai. Continuing on to fight in wars and dueling, Mushashi came to know everything there was to know about combat, going so far as to develop his own style; which ignored most of the accepted teachings at the time, and was based largely on efficiency and practicality, removing all flowery movements.
Later in his life, he retired to a cave and would go on to write his treatise on life and strategy called “The Book of the Five Rings”, as well as his “Dokkodo”; his 21 rules for a disciplined life. Remembered mostly for his incredible fighting ability and for the wisdom of his later writings – Musashi has always struck me as a fascinating figure, not so much for what he accomplished, but because of the principles that allowed him to accomplish it. He’s a man who sought complete perfection in what he did, but at the same time completely spat in the face of the accepted culture of his time.
There are many lessons to learn from Musashi, but I believe it is these principles that serve to teach us the best lessons. Not just on achievement, but on living itself.
Here are the lessons of Musashi Miyamoto.
YOU’RE GOING ABOUT LEARNING IN ALL THE WRONG WAYS
It’s easy to think that in our desire to acquire mastery of a skill we have to rigorously adhere to the way of mastery that has gone before us. We ask “how do I write a book?”, “how do I start a business?”, “how do I have good relationships?” and we search and consume information that we believe will show us the way to master and achieve these various goals.
But in many cases, this is failing before we’ve even begun.
In many cases, there is no way, there’s only your way.
Musashi defeated every opponent he came across. No matter how much they trained, no matter which style they’d mastered, no matter how many people they’d beaten; they all lost.
Yet Musashi never had a master or even a formal style. He taught himself. In his own words:
“You can win with a long weapon, and yet you can also win with a short weapon. In short, the Way of the Ichi school is the spirit of winning, whatever the weapon and whatever its size.”
A Ronin from a young age, Musashi was forced (or rather, compelled) to wander through life figuring everything out for himself. His approach was unconventional from the outset, and in many ways seems to have been set in tone from his first duel, when, at the age of 13, he defeated a master samurai using the man’s own short sword and a wooden pole.
Because he taught himself, Musashi didn’t have a fighting style that was particular to anyone else; in fact, he invented his own. It’s a style that’s best captured in his own words: “I practice many arts and abilities — all things with no teacher”
Musashi approached the craft of fighting from a place of reality. Taught entirely through his own real-world experience and ruthless desire for perfection, Musashi was quick to disregard many of the accepted practices of other fighting styles – considering many of their movements unnecessary, impractical, and serving only to impress onlookers. Instead, his style was quick and efficient, utilizing both hands and simple, practical movements. The clearest embodiment of this was his choice to weird two swords, instead of one.
When we’re attempting something new we almost inevitably come to a head-on collision with our fear of failure. We feel constrained or withheld, we avoid and procrastinate, and we doubt and deny our ability. This is normal, hell I feel it every day, but it also causes us to look for ways to circumvent our fear and find a path towards our goal that will make us feel safe.
Like a guide, a teacher, or a master.
But if we stop for a moment, and really consider the skill we are trying to achieve, how often can the skill we desire not be learned with common sense? Is writing a book really that complicated? Is starting a business truly that confusing? Is having good relationships really a mystery?
Or are you just scared you’ll fail and not sitting down and using your own imagination and problem-solving abilities?
Musashi is an example I always return to when I think of self-trust. When I want to try something frightening and doubt myself, I always think:
- How can I solve this problem?
- What do I need to achieve in order to solve this?
- What do I need to do in order to achieve that?
- What do I need to learn in order to do that?
- What is the best way to learn this?
- Is there any reason I can’t learn this by action and reflection?
- Will I learn more by teaching myself than by having anyone else teach me?
This is nothing new. Experience has long been touted as the best teacher, and I’m not here to say anything different. What I’m suggesting is that when fear strikes, and you begin to doubt your ability to do this on your own; fight doubt with doubt. Doubt your reasoning up until now and instead break down the problem you’re confronted with. Engage your brain and figure out solutions for yourself. Because it’s going to force you to come to the conclusion you’re desperately trying to avoid:
That you need to take action. You need to try.
Instead of reading how-to guides, your attempt to write a book becomes a process that evolves as you write the book. Instead of going to seminars and taking lessons on entrepreneurship, you start building a useful product that you can either pitch to investors or start selling. Instead of reading blogs on the internet on how to have good relationships, you go outside and start talking to girls, getting rejected and learning from it.
Because in doing so, you don’t learn someone else’s way, you learn your way. And that’s something nobody else knows and nobody else can teach, and the world has never seen before.
STOP LOOKING FOR SUCCESS IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES
I imagine that after killing Sasaki, the greatest rival of his age, Musashi looked upon his dying opponent and wondered why it was that instead of feeling happiness, he felt only sadness. He was finally the greatest fighter of his age, but instead of feeling joy, he felt only the sadness that he had killed this warrior for no reason at all.
It’s been noted that this was the moment Musashi refused to kill in duels ever again but I would imagine it was also the genesis of what he came to express later in life:
“There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside yourself.”
Everything is within. Seek nothing outside yourself.
A product of his age and ambition, Musashi was a killer, but he was not a psychopath. He came to realize that despite achieving what he’d wanted to achieve, it did not bring him anything he wanted, it only came with the cost of a great man’s life. Something he ultimately did not want.
Although a dramatic example, it taught him the example he needed; we cannot find what we want outside of ourselves without first finding it inside. For him, this was satisfaction that came from dueling, but for yourself, it might be a sense of importance from fame, a sense a manliness from having a lot of sex, a sense of superiority through becoming successful – all of this isn’t going to work. You’ll just end up like Musashi, wondering where the feeling you thought you’d have has gone. If you don’t already have it internally, you’ll never find it.
You have to change how you feel inside. Nothing else will work.
I believe this is why a lot of guys I know continually find themselves chasing women. They believe that aside from the satisfaction of getting laid, they’ll feel a sense of internal fulfillment; but when they do finally get laid, they never feel this sense of fulfillment, and instead of questioning this, they simply chase the next girl hoping she will be the one do it for them. They crave more, thinking that will solve their problem rather than confronting the problem itself.
I see this with sex, money, success; any form of material ambition that once achieved doesn’t live up to what we think it would. We either reevaluate or we chase more.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the same people who chase more, only to feel nothing, often end up spouting nihilistic beliefs. They looked for meaning outside of themselves. And as Musashi says “there is nothing outside yourself.” When you’ve lived a life finding nothing, you start beginning to believe life is meaningless.
This perspective is often the most challenging to take on because it directly confronts our ego. But ultimately that is the choice. We have to let it go, or let it win. We have to keep feeding it externally, or instead look internally, and find what we were always searching for in the first place.
THE COMPOUNDING OF SHITTY LIFE CHOICES ™
One of the most harmless ways to ruin your life is to waste your time on pointless crap. At the time, it might seem like you’re enjoying yourself, but as these small moments of waste pile up and compound on each other, suddenly it’s 5 years later, and you’ve spent nearly a quarter of your life staring at a smartphone. It’s moments like this that make people wonder where their youth went, and why they can’t seem to achieve their dreams, or even worse, never did at all.
Aristotle said that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” The way we use our time then determines the person that we are. And when we use our time poorly, this poor use of time compounds and grows until years have passed and we are no longer a person we ever wanted to be.
Queue the panic attack and mid-life crisis.
I call this the Compounding of Shitty Life Choices™ and it’s acting on you every day. It’s acting on you right now. Each time you take an action which is poorly chosen, worthless or completely negative, this adds to the pile of shitty actions you’ve already taken, stored away in your life like a bank vault of fuckups. And like a bank, you get interested on this in the form of the resulting poor self-esteem.
And the more you add, the more it grows; and the more it grows, the more you hate yourself.
This brings me to two quotes I’ve always liked by Musashi:
“Do nothing which is of no use.” And “Today is a victory over yourself of yesterday.”
The first is probably my favorite, exceptionally brutal qualifier on how we spend our time. Once it’s in your brain, it sticks like a virus and questions “is this useful?”, and then if it isn’t “why are you doing this? What could you be doing instead?”
When we orientate our lives into useful activity, our choices compound into massive results that are massively useful; like a book, a business, or a good relationship. When we orientate our behavior into useful activity, we actively medicate ourselves against the ever building effects of the Compounding of Shitty Life Choices™.
When we get all stuffy and bogged down with crap, all it takes is one useful decision to start setting it right. And when we start building the habit of doing that every day, we’re not just setting our days right, we’re setting our lives right.
This is not to say that things like playing video games and watching youtube videos are something you should never do. Fun is useful after all, it just comes down to moderating excess, knowing whether your actions are truly making you happy, and being conscious of how you are spending your time. If all of your actions are like water that spills into either one of two cups, a good choices cup, and a bad choices cup, make sure the majority of your actions flow into the former, so that at the end of the day, it’s as close to the brim as you could get it.
Try it and see if you aren’t satisfied.
Musashi’s second quote is a useful reminder and antidote to the ever-present and ever negative berating of self-esteem.
“Today is a victory over yourself of yesterday.”
It’s easy when we’ve consistently failed to develop ourselves to get caught in patterns of negative self-talk where we endlessly reinforce an idea of who we are (usually, that we suck), telling ourselves that we cannot achieve what we want to achieve because not only have we failed but that we are a failure.
Sometimes, the argument can seem pretty convincing.
But just because you’ve failed in the past doesn’t mean you are a failure, it just means you need to do something different today. You need to take a different action to the one that resulted in failure. You need to start the day anew and try something new. And then you need to do that tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that, until finally, you are that ‘something new.’
Don’t get hung up on the past. Defeat the past.
*In Japanese, the last name is typically said first, so the correct way to say his name would be Miyamoto Musashi, although, as I’m writing in English I felt it better to stick to English conventions. The same can be said for Sasaki Kojiro.
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