Monday, April 12, 2021

21 Teachers for 2021 - Teacher 2 - Musashi

 21 Teachers for 2021 - Teacher 2 - Musashi

“The teacher is as a needle, the disciple is as a thread. You must practice constantly.”*


*Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings, Translated by Victor Harris, The Overlook Press, Woodstock New York, 1974 [all subsequent quotes and page references are to this addition/version - and all subsequent references to the author will simply say “Musashi”]


In the spirit of repetition, practice, and redundancy - I will begin my comments regarding Musashi with a set of disclaimers similar to those I provided regarding my thoughts and feelings about Xenophon (‘Teacher 1’)... No one should strive to be exactly like Musashi. The man was, in no small part, a cruel cold killer. Many people died by his hand (expertly wielding a sword). Like Xenophon, he comes from (and thrived in) a time and place in history which is very nice to visit in the imagination - but none of us should want to live there... By today’s standards (and with anachronistic, inappropriate, and un-credentialed diagnosis across time and culture) we would likely consider him a psychopath.


Re-reading A Book of Five Rings, I couldn’t help but think of two disparate (and somewhat disturbing?) points of reference. One, is The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh by Shi Naian [my preferred translation is by J. H. Jackson, but I have also read the Pearl S. Buck version, All Men Are Brothers). The second is Rogue Warrior by Richard Marcinko (his 1992 book about his military service and the creation of [US Navy] Seal Team Six). 


When thinking of Musashi’s exploits, I thought of The Water Margin because it has long been my favourite Classical Chinese novel (I even have two of the “outlaws”/“heroes” from it tattooed on my shoulders). Yet, as I have re-read it over the years I find it more and more disturbing... It is full of many of the most vile, hideous, atrocious, brutal, and horrific scenes and episodes of outright mayhem and murder one could imagine. It is likely loosely based on some historical events, and it may be, in some ways to my mind, a Chinese Iliad. That is, it is one hell of an exciting and blood-soaked adventure story, but not the best place to search for role models (other than perhaps, if being generous, the [unbalanced] virtues of loyalty and courage). As I get older, I find it more and more difficult to defend the stories and characters in the book. Of course, the book has withstood the test of time for over seven hundred years (and it’s a book) so it doesn’t  really need me to defend it. Despite all my concerns, I remain a loyal fan (although not blindly so).


I thought of Richard Marcinko, because, well, I was 17-years-old when I (repeatedly) read Rogue Warrior and I figured that he was about as bad assed as bad assed could get... I remember reading a review for the book back in 1992 (I can’t remember the source) where his ex-wife (I think it was) described “Demo Dick” as a man who should be kept (in waiting, in training) behind glass with a big warning sign that reads, “Break glass in case of war!” Man, my angry-scared 17-year-old self thought that was pretty tough and supremely cool. In some ways Marcinko (and some others like him - the “former Navy Seal” book/podcast genre has grown considerably since then...) are probably real, ‘modern day’ Musashi’s. They are people who dedicated much of their lives (most of their waking hours) to combat. To destruction. To serving their masters (of war). To killing.


Love or hate these people. Respect or despise them. It doesn’t matter. They have withstood, survived, and conquered in ways that most of can only dream of (and for most of us dealing with their reality would actually be the stuff of our nightmares). These are people who have gone into some very dark territory. In my humble opinion, they deserve some respect. They deserve some thanks. Of course, they are flawed (i.e. human) people, too. Just like the rest of us - only a whole lot better at legally sanctioned violence. They also probably don’t really need me to defend them - as they are more than capable of defending themselves (!).


As time (be it ~700 years for Water Margin, or ~500 years for Five Rings) has a way of smoothing things out a bit, I’m going to stick with ‘good old’ Musashi for the remainder of this commentary. Just know, however, these sorts of people are still among us. We should probably cut the contemporary ones a bit more slack, and we should probably be a bit more critical of those out doing what they did hundreds of years ago. That all said, Musashi is certainly still worthy of learning from (despite all the disclaimers that should go along with the risks of idolizing anyone - particularly those so adept at dealing out death).


If you’ve never heard of Musashi, go look him up. There are multiple videos out there on the ‘interwebs’ (not to mention articles, biographies, biographical novels, graphic novels, etc.) about his life and his greatest duels. It is also worth looking at the beautiful calligraphy, paintings, and sculptures he made later in his life. It is also worth reflecting on the fact that this is a person who sat in meditation in a cave for two years after retiring from active duelling and wartime service. He is not considered the Japanese “Sword Saint” without good reason.


He wrote A Book of Five Rings very near to the end of his life. He wanted to pass on his knowledge (which he did in life, face-to-face) to his students in written form, too. The book is, primarily, about individual swordsmanship and how a deep knowledge and understanding of that can also apply to broader military strategy. Of course, the “Way” (Do / Dao / Tao) of the sword and Way of the general were earned through constant study, practice, action, and reflection. The concept of gradually, repeatedly putting in the time and effort and work to excel at combat (or anything one wants to do very well - “Men must polish their particular way” p. 47) is, as I and others have discussed before, central to the concept of gong fu / kung fu.


Musashi’s 9 keys to (his) strategy (elaborated throughout the book) are [p. 49]:

  1. Do not think dishonestly.
  2. The Way is in training.
  3. Become acquainted with every art.
  4. Know the Ways of all professions.
  5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
  6. Develop intuitive judgement and understanding for everything.
  7. Perceive those things which cannot be seen.
  8. Pay attention even to trifles.
  9. Do nothing which is of no use.

It is hard for me to imagine a better starting point, when endeavouring to get good at anything important, than a list like that above. I need only think of the hardest moments in my own life, where I needed to use my martial arts training to survive and recover (not from opponents wielding weapons but from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”) - and I only wish that I had been exposed to Musashi [and Xenophon] earlier and I had studied his Ways even closer (and applied them to my life and my Ways). 


Whenever I train or teach martial arts to people (in the 21st Century, in a time when we’ve never been safer), I always emphasize that I don’t ‘care’ whether they get particularly good at ‘fighting’ or not (although I’d certainly prefer they become good enough to defend themselves when they need it!). What I care much more about, however, is that they use what they learn through martial arts to survive and thrive in life. That they develop a discipline and a courage and a Way through martial arts - for themselves - that they can apply of use, to be of use, in the messy, complex world in which they live and work. 


It is highly unlikely that we will face an opponent with a sword trying to strike us down (thank goodness). It is unavoidable, however, that life will rain down pain, and struggle, and, eventually, death - upon those we care about and ourselves. 


In the darkest moments of my life (so far) back in 2007/08, I certainly could have been more gentle and graceful. I wish my (metaphorical) footwork had been more smooth walking - than so many trips and falls (mind you, at least, I always got back up again...). There are certainly things I regret. But, for my part, I realize that I (to use one of the cliches I most hate), “did my best” (with what I grasped and who I was at that time). 


Now, I am stronger, more flexible, more patient and kind, and - when I work hard to ensure that I access it - more “wise” than I was then (e.g. I try not to grasp so hard at anything anymore!). I keep trying to improve. I am glad that I found Xenophon and Musashi (among many other teachers of many other sorts) on my journey so far. I hope you find them (these teachers and/or others) earlier in life than I did (or at least when you need them). They sure can help on those thousand mile journeys...


Look again (above) at those nine keys to “strategy”. Read Musashi closely. Apply his lessons - as they apply to your life and circumstances.


For me, at this point, at least one way I can adapt and conceptualize those nine lessons (at least for me, at this point, on my journey) would be:

  1. Don’t fool yourself. Accept the reality of a situation for what it is.
  2. Training is a good in-and-of itself. Train for it’s own sake as much as for your own good. Practice daily the things you want to master.
  3. Be willing to learn about, and enjoy, a wide variety of (other) things without ever seeking to master them. Don’t be a perfectionist!
  4. Be curious and open-minded. Ask everyone questions. Be quiet and listen to their answers. Ask them more questions.
  5. Understand opportunity costs. Do not fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. Always consider the calming logic of a cost-benefit analysis.
  6. Listen to your guts - but then check it out with your brains (and with all the tools and skills of evidence-based practice that you can bring to bear!). 
  7. Be willing to sit with things, think through things, and feel uncomfortable doing so. Seek out opinions different from your own.
  8. Sometimes it’s the little things that can make a bit difference in the long run. Don’t lose sight of the low-hanging fruit, either, though! Remember to be as nice, as possible, to everyone - they are journeying, too.
  9. Strive to do things mindfully. Even goofing off can be of great use when done with a purpose (such as rest - or not taking yourself too seriously). 

And, tomorrow, it could all change. And it will change. Reserve the right to change to face change! But don’t get all bent and twisted out of shape [see p. 88]... 


I simply have to love (at least aspects of) a man like Musashi who could write such an incredible work about his hard-earned insights and who could also say things like:


“This is first time I have written about my technique, and the order of things is a bit confused. It is difficult to express it clearly.” [p. 82]


Or, even more simply put - and which I continue to apply to my own lists and rules (and the fight against dogmatic thinking) as they change with age, and time, and learning, and experience:


“Accordingly I dislike passing on my Way through written pledges and regulations” [p. 92].


Keep studying and practicing. Keep re-writing your own personal pledges and regulations. Keep going. Heart and mind bound together. Needle and thread.

Friday, March 19, 2021

21 Teachers for 2021 - Teacher 1 - Xenophon

21 Teachers for 2021 - Teacher 1 - Xenophon


The March of the Ten Thousand


Xenophon has apparently inspired many - from Alexander the Great, to the early Stoics, to Niccolo Machiavelli, to Peter Drucker, to people this very day... He will likely inspire people well into the future. He was a direct student of Socrates twenty-five centuries ago. He has, apparently often been negatively (and perhaps unfairly) compared to his contemporary, Plato. I won’t go into any of this, other than to say that if one simply starts with Wikipedia (e.g. see “Xenophon”, his influence on the very word for “Management”, etc.) and then delves much deeper into popular writings (and other media such as websites, podcasts, etc.) as well as academic publications about Xenophon - then one will find many fascinating reflections and insights on this prolific thinker, writer, and person-of-action of antiquity. 


The Expedition of Cyrus / The Anabasis / The March of the Ten Thousand, etc. (all various names for the same work) is well worth reading. Other works of Xenophon are, too.


Here are a few (of many) resources that I found useful (in my personal journey of trying to understand this work) and which I would therefore recommend, for anyone wanting to explore Xenophon and The March of the Ten Thousand:


[Book] Xenophon: The Expedition of Cyrus: A new translation by Robin Waterfield (Oxford World’s Classics), 2005 [Note: The Introduction to this translation by Tim Rood is well worth reading and the Select Bibliography is rich with ideas for additional readings]


[Book Chapter] Why Read The Classics? [Chapter 3 “Xenophon’s Anabasis”], Italo Calvino, translated by Martin McLaughlin, Vintage Books (A Division of Random House, Inc.), 2000


[Article] Xenophon’s Philosophic Odyssey: On the Anabasis and Plato’s Republic, Jacob Howland, The American Political Science Review, Dec., 2000, Vol. 94, No. 4 (Dec., 2000) pp. 875-889


[Article] Being Greek, Henry Day, London Review of Books, Vol. 28, No. 21, (Nov, 2006), https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v28/n21/henry-day/being-greek


[Article] Redeeming Xenophon: Historiographical reception and the transhistorical, Tim Rood, Classical Receptions Journal, 2013 vol. 5 (2) pp. 199-211 


[Podcast] Xenophon - BBC Radio 4 - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b011cffd


I feel that it is important to acknowledge (loudly) that no one today would, or should, strive to be exactly like Xenophon. He was certainly a (great) man of his times but we would, and should, quite rightly, find many of his views, and the context in which he held those views, quite appalling (e.g. he lived at a time when slavery was widely accepted - and he traded in slaves, among other spoils of war!). So, I am going to loudly proclaim (in case any reader is seriously confused...) that clearly we should neither admire, nor emulate, all aspects of Xenophon (nor, necessarily, any historical figure...) and we should never whole-heartedly long for the (real or imaginary) past


As I once voiced my frustration - ‘There may be nothing so dangerous as combining nostalgia for an imagined past with ignorance of the actual past’ (and this sentiment and concept has, also, probably been better said by others). To put it simply - no person (or period, or age) was ever perfect (or even particularly “great”). No person, living or dead, should be idolized. And no, there really never was a pure ‘golden age’ or actual ‘garden of eden’/‘paradise’ to which we should return. The good life is what we individually and collectively strive to create each day. It is not something we can find in the past.  


If anything, we currently live in the most flourishing period of human history - for the most humans in history - in almost any way that can be objectively measured (and Steven Pinker will also be one of the “100 Teachers” I have learned from regarding the facts of human progress). That doesn’t mean, however, that our (current) time is not fraught with actual suffering and potential perils. And, it doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from reflecting on the past. But, we do need to be self-aware and mindful that our current reflections on the past are as much (or even more so) our distant, imagined reflections as contrasted with whatever actually happened in the past. And, it is our reflections and meditations and recreations - and then our subsequent actions - that matter most in our own minds and our own lives and in the lives of those around us. 


Caveats and disclaimers regarding Xenophon (and any teacher) fully acknowledged, as well as my own limited knowledge regarding Xenophon, the history of Ancient Greece, Greek Philosophy, etc. - I simply want to set down some of my thoughts and feelings, at this moment, after reading The March of the Ten Thousand a couple of times over the past couple of years. I was fortunate to have personally ‘discovered’ Xenophon a couple of years ago (through my readings about Machiavelli). Both Machiavelli (another often severely misunderstood figure - and another of the 100 Teachers I will reflect upon) and Xenophon have been sources of inspiration and resilience for me the past few years. 


Concerning Xenophon, I have delved into translations of the Memorabilia and the Cyropaedia, but the book that I keep returning to is the Anabasis / March of the Ten Thousand / The Expedition of Cyrus (and there are other titles for it). After reading a couple of Gutenberg Press editions, and listening to an audiobook version, I finally bought a paper copy of “Oxford World’s Classics” - “Xenophon: The Expedition of Cyrus: A new translation by Robin Waterfield”. I mention this version, in particular, not necessarily because I hold it above others, but because I actually hold it in my hands - and any direct quotes or page references below will be using this (excellent, IMHO) translation/version.


What stands out for me, above all else, is that this is a story of survival. I have always loved survival stories. There is something so ‘simplifying’ about having a single mission - to survive. One of the (many) things that makes this particular survival story so interesting to me is how Xenophon and his peers and his leaders are lured deeper and deeper into enemy territory - and farther and farther from home. What started out as a fairly simple military expedition (don’t they all start out appearing that way...) turns into an epic disaster for all involved. What is undertaken for glory, and gold, and, yes, greed, ends up becoming a (more admirable - although still morally problematic...) quest to escape and survive and help others to survive. 


There is so much to learn from this story. Most of us will never be in the military, and, if we are, we are unlikely to be in the thick of an expedition that goes horribly wrong and results in being trapped far behind enemy lines just trying to get home alive... To those that actually have been in this scenario - the account of Xenophon is not metaphorical. It is hopefully a source of comfort (if not a somewhat horrifying déjà vu) - and I thank you for your service and am glad to hear you survived.


For the rest of us, however, what can we learn from such a tale? There are leadership and management lessons we can glean (as per Peter Drucker supposedly saying it was the most important leadership book ever written?). There are military tactics. There are psychological insights. There are personal moments of epiphany (such as when Xenophon realized that if he doesn’t step up and do something now, he’s not going to live long enough to step up later...) 


[From the Robin Waterfield translation, page 57] 


“Why am I lying here? The night is passing and at dawn the enemy will probably arrive. If we fall into the king’s hands, we’ll inevitably die inglorious deaths, after witnessing all the most ghastly scenes one could possibly imagine and suffering the full range of the most gruesome tortures. Yet no one is showing the slightest interest in defence or doing anything practical about it; we’re just lying here as if we were in a position to take it easy. From what other city do I expect a general to come and organize things? Why am I waiting? How old do I have to be? I won’t get any older at all if I just surrender to the enemy today.”


There is just pure inspiration that one can survive hard times.


One thing that I reflect upon (as someone passionate about prevention and upstream thinking) is the that for all his knowledge and wisdom, for being a student of Socrates (!), for having other options in this life - Xenophon got lured in... He got lured into going. He got lured into going further and further ‘up country’... The whole thing was preventable! 


But sometimes in life we got lured in... We get promised one thing and delivered another (e.g. in relationships, at jobs, etc.). We often fool ourselves - or let ourselves get fooled (and Buddhism might argue that we are always fooling ourselves that the next thing we chase and try to grasp will provide lasting satisfaction). Or, we choose to believe things will be different despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (ah, wishful thinking...). We like to think of ourselves as exceptions to the rules - but the rules and laws of nature and other powerful forces will always win in the end (i.e. think death and taxes).


So, I love and respect Xenophon for everything he has to teach us about how to get unstuck once we’ve gotten really, really stuck. But his book should also be read backwards (and the book is actually titled backwards - i.e. it is called the march ‘up country’ when actually it tells the much more harrowing story of the march down/back/out). 


We all should know how to gird our loins, grit our teeth, and grind and fight our way out of hell, if we need to. That said, we should all learn something about the boundaries of hell and how to avoid going there whenever possible. If you’ve survived that abusive relationship... If you’ve survived that abusive boss... If you’ve survived this “worldwide global pandemic” - then you have a duty to try to prevent going there again. You have a duty to try to prevent future “ghastly scenes” and “gruesome tortures” - because you don’t even have to read about or imagine them. You’ve lived through them. You could live through them again, if you had to... But why would you want to? Why would you want others to?


Of course, sometimes ending up in hell just isn’t preventable. Sometimes hell descends upon us. Sometimes even with good intentions and the best of motivations night throws down nightmare upon nightmare. Sometimes we get lured in. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes random lightning strikes. Sometimes people just get terrible diseases. 


But today, while you’re awake for a while, consider actually doing something to prepare for the inevitable struggles that life will provide. What are you waiting for? How old do you have to be?

Saturday, January 9, 2021

21 Teachers for 2021 - Introduction - March On

MARCH ON


“Step by step walk the thousand mile road.”


Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings 


I have been revisiting my “100 Days of Xinyi” (http://www.sixharmonyconsulting.com/p/100-days.html blog posts from back in 2014... Yes, some of my views have changed a bit (because I’m, you know, a genuine, fallible human being who strives to change and evolve...). And yes, I might, now, have written some of those posts with a slightly different tone (a la “I wish I knew what I know now; When I was younger” - Ron Lane / Ronnie Wood). But, still yes, I stand by my blogging at the time, for that time, and I am even planning on re-posting and re-visiting those original “100 Days” posts over the course of 2021. 


That said, I am starting a new series of posts entitled “21 Teachers for 2021”. In 2018, I completed my “MSc Public Health, With Distinction, Health Services Management” from University of London / London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). That was a five-year journey that included continuing to work as a health care professional and during which my wife and I started our family. Suffice to say, after completing that (third) university degree I needed a couple of years off from academic reading and writing (rest and recovery and regrouping are underrated, but good things). Of course, I still (some habits don’t change) kept reading many articles and books - but the thought of doing more academic writing, particularly after completing my ‘Final Project’ for my masters degree, was not particularly motivating... [Note - these blog posts will not be academic writing!]


Then, in 2020, we all got to contend with the “worldwide global pandemic” (one of my most favourite, overused, annoyingly repetitive, tiresome, redundant phrases - insert winking emoticon here)... My reading - and ongoing quest for evidence-based knowledge - went into overdrive and I can say (for better or worse) that I have (as of now) read in excess of one-hundred peer-reviewed articles about COVID-19 (not to mention several times more than that in terms of popular press and opinion pieces). 


Day to day, I work in health care, in direct care, in a mental health setting. And, as I went to work, ‘masked-up’, day after day for every scheduled workday of 2020 (and a few extra shifts, too), I tried to truly ‘practice what I preach’ in terms of applying the best knowledge available to the task at hand. In addition to my, and those of my clients, actual ‘tasks at hand’ (activity-based therapeutic activities) this meant working at staying safe, too. Armed with my additional, formal education and self-study, the goal of translating knowledge to practice has involved trying to help to keep myself, my clients, and my co-workers safe - in addition to striving for more positive overall health (while, more than ever, recognizing that ‘surviving’ is prerequisite to that whole ‘thriving’ thing). 


I did my best in 2020 - and I put my knowledge out there, while I also put my body on the line, too. While all citizens were encouraged to maintain “tiny bubbles” (sadly, not of the Champagne variety...), “essential” workers continued to plug away and adapt their practices. In my job, I worked across three units and across two staff shifts, however, and I therefore found myself ‘exposed’ to not only multiple clients a day - but also to dozens of rotating coworkers. It felt ‘weird’, to say the least, to retreat home each evening to my family bubble - while then being expected to (and willing to) cross paths with so many people at work each day! That said, I have nothing but profound respect and empathy for those workers even more exposed and vulnerable than myself (e.g. Emergency Room and Intensive Care Unit and Long Term Care staff [obviously!] - as well as grocery store clerks, school teachers, etc., etc.).


As I watched the science evolve and self-correct (precisely as scientific knowledge is supposed to) over 2020, and I simultaneously watched the tragedy of nations that ignore science and let themselves be damaged by dogma, partisanship, and willful ignorance... I found myself reaching not only for science to try to get through the first year of the pandemic, but reaching for the ‘wisdom’ of various ‘teachers’ and ‘masters’. Both those that I have learned from personally (e.g. my various mentors, instructors, coaches, parents, etc.) and others vicariously (e.g. through general reading, studying history, studying rehabilitation, studying public health, etc.). While trying to convince those not-so-convinced by science, reason, randomized-controlled trials, evidence-based medicine, etc. (and just trying to survive and thrive myself) - I found myself as often reaching for the wisdom of Xenophon and Machiavelli and Grandmaster Yu Hua Long and my mother, as I was simultaneously reaching for peer-reviewed journals and meta-analyses...


Yes, there are many ways of “knowing”. Yes, diversity of opinion and various means of examination and persuasion are necessary when facing any messy, wicked problem. But no, not all opinions are of equal value or merit. Interestingly (at least to me), I found that even teachers as diverse as Machiavelli and my mother are significantly more rational and practical (and clearly worth listening to and learning from) than the anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, and purveyors of far-right and far-left misinformation, conspiracies, intolerance, hate, etc...


So, what will follow in the coming days of 2021 are simply my thoughts and feelings and reflections on life and lessons learned (so far). Meditations on continuing to march forward, and on continuing to reflect upon the teachings of so many great teachers that have inspired me and continue to inspire me. As I keep on marching forward, this project is also about looking back at some of the things I’ve learned over the course of 45 years on earth, reflecting on it, and using any light that I’ve gleaned to guide me towards the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ (as hopefully the “worldwide global pandemic” may be mostly under control by the time we reach 2022). This seems like as good a year as any to take stock of where I’ve come from, where I am, and where I want to go. I think that many other people, individually and collectively, are (or ‘should’ be - to assert a ‘normative’ statement) doing the same (at least those of us who are lucky enough to literally be ‘surviving’ right now and therefore in a position to seek better ways of ‘thriving’ in the future).


As I quoted Lao Tzu from the Dao De Jing at the beginning of my “100 Days of Xinyi” project back on June 15, 2014 - “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step...” Note: journeys may not always be a pleasant. Not every journey is a vacation! And, even a vacation may involve many ‘less than satisfactory’ moments and experiences. Many aspects of the journey of the past year (and of our lives) are ‘less than satisfactory’, if not downright “suffering”. 


This is why I chose to begin my “100 Teachers” with Xenophon (and, in particular, “The March of the Ten Thousand”). Because, well, sometimes things can appear particularly hopeless - and seeing what Xenophon went through can help one to put things in perspective, inspire one to keep marching, and remind us that as bad as things seem - we can, and should, not lose hope. Early on in 2020, I re-read “Memorabilia” and “The March of the Ten Thousand” [aka “Anabasis”]. Xenophon’s wisdom has been but one of many sources of courage and intention (i.e. both Xin and Yi).


To all those good who are fighting the good fight - keep going forward (and sometimes even backward when necessary). Just keep going.


All good things to all,


Sean Boulet - January 9, 2021