3 Things A Murderous Swordsman Can Teach You About How To Live: Lessons from Musashi

(All Credit to historyoffighting.com for picture.) Musashi murking an opponent in a famous duel. 

(All Credit to historyoffighting.com for picture.)

Musashi murking an opponent in a famous duel. 

Miyamoto Musashi

Miyamoto Musashi was a 17th-century Japanese swordsman who was supposed to have killed more than 5-dozen people in fights. He was essentially a traveling duelist who had a primary hobby of finding the most badass dudes he could, then challenging them to a scrap. Believe it or not, strolling around looking for other trained killers to have mortal combat with,  was not an all too uncommon thing to do with your time back in the day in Japan. 

To put this accomplishment into perspective, Floyd Mayweather is famous for being 49-0 in boxing, Musashi was more than 60-0 in sword fights for fuck sake. In boxing, an undefeated record after dozens of fights is super impressive because all it takes is one shot to sneak through and you could go to sleep. In fights involving spears or 3-foot razor blades called Katanas, if a shot sneaks through, you fucking die. Considering that this was a man who successfully partook in an activity that is possibly the most extreme imaginable, then afterwards was both self-aware and intellectually capable enough to write his teachings down in a way that is world renowned to this day: it is pretty safe to say there is probably a lot we can learn from him about how to live.

(All credit to Daily Mail for Floyd Mayweather picture and historyoffighting.com for the Musashi picture.) Floyd may have had faster hands and nicer shorts, but in terms of accomplishments, 49-0 in boxing isn't even on the same planet as being 60-0 in fucking sword fights. 

(All credit to Daily Mail for Floyd Mayweather picture and historyoffighting.com for the Musashi picture.)

Floyd may have had faster hands and nicer shorts, but in terms of accomplishments, 49-0 in boxing isn't even on the same planet as being 60-0 in fucking sword fights. 

Luckily for us, in his final years of life he retired to a cave and poured his knowledge into the phenomenal book, "The Book of Five Rings." Now while the vast majority of the book is about how to kill people really efficiently with specific "cuts" etc, there are lessons in it that apply to every aspect of life (whether you want to make mortal combat a hobby or not). Below are some of what I think to be his most powerful teachings. 

 

1. Relentless self-improvement

Study strategy over the years and achieve the spirit of the Warrior. Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men. - Musashi

There are two ways to read the above quote. The first, is that you need to get better every day so that you can beat other people eventually. The second, is that getting better every day is the absolute priority in life and that defeating other people is a bonus.

Either way, you just need to get better every single day. This focus on self-improvement as a way of life is something that people all over the world and throughout history have realized. This concept of relentless self-improvement is not just echoed in other Eastern philosophies such as Taoism ("The Way") or the Japanese principle of Zanshin (which basically means to live your life with intention and focus), it is also echoed all over Western philosophy. For example, French philosopher Marcel Proust went so far as to suggest that art was the meaning of life in his epic novel "In Search of Lost Time" (which I have yet to read fully because it is literally the longest novel ever written). What has "art" got to do with self-improvement you may ask? 

"Artists are people who strip habit away and return life to its deserved glory." - Marcel Proust

When you "strip habit away", you are simply exposing yourself to new things and thereby improving through new exposures. Hence, when you really think about it, "art" is simply continuous self-improvement and self-expression through your chosen medium. Your chosen medium can be something that is classically considered to be "art" such as music, painting etc. Or, it could even something like engineering or school teaching. It really doesn't matter in the least so long as you are on a path of relentless self improvement in whatever direction excites you the most

This drive to continuously seek to improve and excel at whatever our chosen craft may be, is something that can give meaning and purpose to everything you do by providing a direction and focus. Whatever your craft(s) may be, ask yourself: what have you done today to be better than you were yesterday? (Side note: if you have yet to discover what your craft may be, a good place to start might be "Mastery" by Robert Greene.)

 

2. Do Not Be One-Dimensional (aka, a boring bastard)

It is said the warrior's is the twofold Way of the pen and the sword, and he should have a taste for both ways. - Musashi

Even though Musashi made a lifestyle out of fighting people to the death for the fuck of it while an active swordsman, then went on to train other people how to to murder people with swords once he started teaching, he still thought it was important to be well balanced in methods of self-expression. As you can see from the above quote, he saw it as important for even warriors to not be totally consumed with their single primary craft, but to also have intellectual pursuits through the "Way of the pen". Musashi himself was a painter, calligrapher, and poet for example. 

Example of some art work created by Musashi when he wasn't busy swinging swords at people (all credit for image to japanbrandonline.com)

Example of some art work created by Musashi when he wasn't busy swinging swords at people (all credit for image to japanbrandonline.com)

But what benefits come from being invested in a few simultaneous pursuits you may ask? Well, apart from not being a boring bastard at parties because you know a tonne about fuck all but fuck all about a tonne, there may be other benefits.

A second potential benefit was eluded to in a podcast I listened to a few months back in which Tim Ferris was on episode 50 of Jocko Podcast. In this episode,  Ferris talks about the importance he himself places on having a number of pots on the stove with regards to creating his own personal anti-fragility by "diversifying" his identity. He discusses how he tries to always have at least 3 "primary" goals. Now while this statement may sound like an oxymoron, Tim places huge importance on this concept so that he does not have to deal with the pressure of having all of his eggs in one basket. These "primary" goals do not need to conflict with each other in the least and may simply involve seeking improvement in your 5km time or deadlift personal best while simultaneously pursuing your accountancy qualifications or whatever. Therefore, according to Tim, should one of your pursuits not be going so well, at least you have an inbuilt buffer of having another pot on the stove that you can be working away on. For example, if you fail an accountancy exam that sets you back a little bit in your career, you will still have your physical pursuit such as your 5km running time to work on while you re-evaluate your accountancy progress. Skip to the 1.00hour mark of this video to hear Tim talk about this approach....

A third potential benefit I can see in having a few pots on the stove, is that it may help maintain a white-belt mentality. The phrase, "white belt mentality" comes from martial arts as a white belt is the first belt one receives upon starting. Having a white belt mentality basically means that you are constantly hungry to learn and that you do not get complacent, which can happen to someone in any field as one progresses to more advanced stages of ability. The reason maintaining a white belt mentality and presenting yourself with new challenges all the time is so important, is because the learning process is the same regardless of the medium. 

"If you know the way broadly, you will see it in everything." - Musashi

Whether you are a musician or an martial artist, the fundamental skills are the foundation stones upon which you can gradually layer more complex skills. By continuing with your primary medium, but taking up new outlets every so often, you will be forced to constantly return to a white belt mindset. When you first learn a new skill, such as an instrument, a clever teacher will force you to begin with learning a foundational understanding of the fundamental principles upon which you can build. This may in turn help your primary medium by frequently reminding you of the importance of the fundamentals which you may have inadvertently drifted from over time.  

 

3. Being Comfortable With The Worst Case Scenario

Imagine you were told that you were eventually going to end up in a fight to the death with a razor sharp sword, would you be afraid? How would you prepare for such an event? How do you deal with fear as a whole? 

A common practice not just by Musashi himself, but by Samurai culture as a whole, was to meditate on their own demise. Samurai would regularly visualize the scariest ways of dying they could imagine and become comfortable with the potential that this may occur.

"Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death" - Musashi

This practice of becoming comfortable with worst case scenario then allowed them to approach actual combat in a cool and collected manner thereby allowing them to perform at their best. Essentially, the more comfortable they became with their death, the more they could get out of their own way, ironically decreasing their chances of actually dying. 

What the fuck can the average person ever do in their own life that is more intense than a sword fight to the death? Musashi and his Samurai counterparts were guys who knew a thing or two about mental preparation and fear. Learn from them. 

 

Bonus Lesson: Stop wasting your fucking time doing silly bullshit

The only thing we are guaranteed in life, is that we will at some stage we will have to return our borrowed carbon to the universe. As such, what we do with the time we have during our temporary existence is of the utmost importance. Now I am not saying that we should just work all the time, far from it. I am simply saying that everything we do should have a purpose and should not just be to fill time, or to satisfy the addiction our simple ape brains have to the dopamine release we get from our phones. For example, if you have free time, do not just aimlessly fill it by brainlessly scrolling through some social media feed. Consider using your phone to listen to a podcast or read an interesting online article in a subject area that excites and challenges you. I am not saying we totally avoid social media, it for sure can have a time and place. However, rather than allowing yourself to excessively drift around in that black hole we keep in our pockets in a completely rudderless manner, we can use that phone as a tool rather than a crutch. Life has far more depth and clarity when what we do has a purpose and direction. 

"Do nothing which is of no use." - Musashi

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