Musashi meets the Catcher: Strategy Lesson One

I am a terrible athlete.  I studied martial arts for years–I worked and worked to memorize kata and I did a stint in tournaments.  I was bored. You can only break stuff and do choreographed routines for so long. I was bored in martial arts, but also bored in life.

Sometimes, at just the right time, just the right person appears in your life, and if you’re paying close attention, you might make the connection. This single conversation changed the direction of my life: I was at a martial arts gathering in Chicago looking at a table of  history books. There was an unassuming man in a perfectly crisp hakama standing there too. I was in my own universe.

“What are you reading?” he inquired.

“History,” I replied. “I like history.”

“Me, too.” It turned out to be an understatement and a coincidence–we were both from Rhode Island. We met “to talk history.” My studies progressed from there–it turned out, you see, that martial arts weren’t about breaking things.They were about fixing them; repairing disconnect and restoring balance and harmony to life. Samurai knew this–sometimes they needed to fight to restore balance–but often they gained their victory by avoiding fights and resistance. They were trained in both paths–the physical and the mental arts, being emotionally prepared to die, yet spiritually available to live and pass on the arts.

I turned my studies in this direction, and discovered the truth about martial arts, which was ultimately the truth about many other things as well.

My favorite swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, fought over 60 duels, then wrote The Book of Five Rings on his deathbed, passing down lessons as a teacher of war, but also a teacher of life. I’ve been asked to write a little about what he taught. Here’s the first installment in that short series, which I’ll spread out over time.

“In all things have no preference”–Musashi

 American culture is deeply entrenched–we have our favorite products, ideas, political ideology, and habits. The swordsman couldn’t afford that luxury. Fighting resistance head-on was the surest path to death.

I’m left-handed. There were no left-handed swordsmen in Japan.  They were right-handed or dead.  I’m not sure why–but that’s the way it was. As such, I converted the Japanese arts I studied–sword, shodo (Japanese calligraphy) and sumi-e (Japanese painting) to my right side. I’ll confess to painting a spare bamboo stalk or chrysanthemum with my left hand when no one was looking in sumi-e, but never shodo, and never sword. Those were  right-handed only.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been at a left-handed disadvantage–I played baseball. I was a catcher, and occasionally I jumped in center field if there was someone slow to either side.  I wanted to play third base, mostly because it wasn’t allowed. No left-handers ever play third base. This made me desire it more.  Finally, Coach threw me there so I’d shut up.

“Casey,” he said, “I’m sending that runner home, and you’re going to throw her out.”  The runner sprinted.  I took the ball in my left hand–inside the diamond–and began the process of humming the ball across the baseline into the glove of the right-handed catcher–which was placed squarely the outside of the diamond.

The runner left third. I wound up to throw, nearly releasing the ball to whip it to the substitute catcher. I stopped. I dropped the ball, realizing that executing that throw would indeed decapitate the runner, which was why there was no flexibility in this assignment.

Swordsmanship–it seemed similarly rigid. It turned out it was not. The study is regimented, as is the preservation of art, but the mentality requires us to consider all possibilities–to learn them, then forget them and let them flow.

In life, obstacles present themselves. I usually fight them head-on. When I remember to “have no preference,” I open my strategy box to a million possible solutions rather than one fight. In a real sparring match, opponents expect people to fight strong-side. Being able to “have no preference” strategically makes it possible to capitalize on the opponent’s weakness or seize an opening he has not protected.  Musashi designed his strategies for war, but they are just as effective in daily life, too.

How many things go wrong on a day-to-day basis–in life, in business, in relationships? We are accustomed to doing things our way; the way we have always done them. We develop such a preference that it handicaps us.  We can’t change–we lose business opportunities, hurt relationships, hurt ourselves, because we remain entrenched and fight things head-on.

My first lesson from Musashi–one that I learned on the baseball diamond years ago and only recently connected to life, was that there is a time to do things the “right” way so you don’t decapitate your friend, but more often than not, there’s a time for “no preference.” The more I practice “no preference,” the less resistance I encounter. The less resistance, the more possibilities, and it remains only up to me to choose the right one.

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