How can we live like warriors?
Throughout the past four months, we’ve been exploring different warrior traditions, starting from the very beginning in one of the oldest cultures on Earth, we thematized the battles we go through in our daily lives.
Passing through ancient Japan, we saw how important discipline and the acceptance of death can be if we want to live fully.
After a quick turn to the vikings in pre-christian Scandinavia, we saw the bonds that are created and must be upheld to succeed in dire times and hostile environments.
It’s time we broaden our sights and, instead of observing single cultures and clans, we start looking at warriors as a whole. It’s time we abstract the intricacies of each of those people so we can understand what it means to fight, understand what it means to dedicate our lives to something bigger than ourselves, understand what it means to be a warrior.
But before we go on, we have a decision to make. If we decide to embark on such a journey and dedicate ourselves fully to war—the internal war—we must be willing to give up a few things. We must be willing to give up our pride and superiority. We must be willing to give up our excuses and cover-ups. We must be willing to give up fundamental parts of our selves—only to rise stronger as a result of that.
I’ve made my decision, have you?
When exploring the archetypal warrior, we come across a set of virtues and principles that apply to every clan that found fame through fighting. Be it one that carries a sword, a bow, a hammer, or an axe. Whether they originated in Japan, China, Rome, Sparta, or Scandinavia, the most successful warrior clans always seem to abide by a set of rules and aspire to a set of ideals.
If the warrior’s code and lifestyle were only about killing and staying alive, it would matter little what principles they held, what they aspired to be. However, a quick look at history shows us that this is not the case. We see many clans starting and dying off within a generation or two for lack of principles. If skill were all that sets one warrior apart from others, the most effective training regime would win every time. It would conquer lands, subdue others to their training and eventually dominate the world. If training and skill were all that matters, I wouldn’t have written this series of posts; there would have been nothing to write about.
We’ve all heard the classic story of the CEO who forgets the reason why he started the company in the first place, leading him to focus on the profits and ultimately causing the company to close. As it turns out, leading a company isn’t too different from leading an army. A set of principles is needed. Workers as well as fighters need to feel they’re part of something bigger than themselves. The values of the army must resonate with the values of the individuals.
So why do we fight? Why are we warriors? What is at our core?
To me, the most important word is “service.”
What we serve doesn’t matter quite as much as the fact that we do indeed serve something or someone. And that doesn’t apply only to the warriors in the front lines, but to the sergeants, generals and kings as well. They’re all serving (or should be serving) something bigger than themselves. As long as our servitude comes from a place of love, care and willingness, we’re on the right path.
Only through service would someone risk their lives. Only by knowing that they fight for something bigger than themselves would people want to fight. We’ve all heard about the Peloponnesian war and how the 300 chosen were deemed lucky. How they were honored to be able to march straight to their deaths. This is an act of service full of love. Empty service wouldn’t have drawn those people, but love for the cause did, and that’s why they fought fiercely, knowing full well that they were at death’s door.
But not only out of service live warrior people. Although it would be possible to go on and on about that specific word (and I certainly will be coming back to this topic in the future), for the purposes of this article, it’s worth moving on. We can all be willing servants, but we need all of the rest to truly be considered a Warrior in the truest sense of the word. In my research I’ve singled out three other main factors among the several other intricacies that constitute warriors:
Discipline: This one almost goes without saying; a quick google search for the Spartan training regime would give you the exact meaning of the word. Skill training is important if we want not only to fight, but to win, and discipline is the only way we can be held accountable for the constant progress. How else would someone rise before the sun every single day to put on his training gear and head out? The moment spent not training, the moments spent arguing with ourselves about whether or not we should head outside are moments when the enemy is training. When the enemy is getting stronger and coming up with new strategies. For warriors, there’s no time to be lost.
Honor: Much like service, honor is what draws us to protect ourselves and our brothers. Back in the day, honor wasn’t individual, but collective. As base as the fear of ridicule might sound, there’s something to be said about it driving us to reach for and accomplish more. In saying honor, I mean everything that it entails, elements such as trustworthiness, responsibility, respect, and fidelity.
Wisdom: Only by knowing and understanding what we serve, can we serve lovingly. A warrior is wise in that he doesn’t accept things at face value, but instead always asks questions and tries to get to the bottom of the issue. There’s little differing a warrior from a philosopher in this respect, as they’re both people in the pursuit of truth, and they’re both willing to get there through hard work and sacrifice. When philosophy was about action, it wouldn’t be too far fetched to claim that philosophers were warriors in their own right, and vice versa.
How do we apply it?
It’s a good idea to take a good hard look at our principles. I don’t mean that the only way to live like warriors is by having the exact same ones they did, but by being aware of ours and living in accordance to them. What set warriors apart wasn’t merely having the set of principles they did, but following them to the letter.
One of the practices I recommend is having a personal manifesto where our principles are outlined. There are several articles on the internet on how to write the manifesto 1 so I won’t be rewriting that all over. But of course writing it isn’t enough, we have to keep it in front of our eyes, easy to find. Read it every morning on waking up and before going to sleep. Make sure your principles are clear to you before going into any interaction or setting out to do anything valuable. It’s about being true to yourself, after all. Nothing more, nothing less.
I also don’t think principles like those are unchanging. Much the opposite, they evolve with us as we do. I revisit my manifesto once to twice a year to make sure it’s still relevant. Chances are the most part will be, but some details will be changed. We don’t want to set a blueprint for how to live the rest of our lives, we want to remain flexible and be willing to roll with the punches. Perhaps on a certain date the pursuit of wisdom is more important than service, or I should focus on my discipline if I notice that it’s lacking. Refusing to take good hard looks at ourselves is a surefire way to stagnate sooner rather than later, and stagnation in the battlefield means one thing: death.
Before their training even started it was already very clear to each of those kids what they would become; sons of warriors become warriors themselves. Before their training even started they were already immersed in the culture. A culture where each part of the core was considered a virtue in itself, one of the highest possible degree. Kids grew up seeing their idols right in front of their eyes, admiring their bravery, admiring the looks on their faces after getting home from a long day of hunting or after an even longer battle. To those kids, being a warrior was the only option.
And what an option it was. What an honor must it have been for them to become just what they always dreamed of. Imagine if when you were a kid, someone came to you, extended their hand and said “come, you’ll be an astronaut.” I don’t know about you but I’d have jumped right in without a second thought.
Of course it comes with its difficulties. There’s a moment you start missing mommy and that moment doesn’t take long to happen. Ultimately, though, they had to accept it. They had to accept that family would go to the second place, if even that, if becoming a warrior was what they really wanted. Many must have rebelled. Many must have tried to run away, back to their mommies.
Poor them, because their mommies could be fiercer than their generals.
Plutarch tells the story of a Spartan mother whose sons ran away from battle and came back to her. On seeing them, she lifted her skirt and asked, “Where have you come now in your cowardly flight, vile varlets? Do you intend to slink in here whence you came forth?” 2
It’s not hard to imagine the same happening if they ran away from training.
“If it were not for men who demonstrate valor on the tatami, one could not find them on the battlefield either.”
— Hagakure, Tsunetomo Yamamoto
When a society needs to be hardened, hardened it will be. When turning to our mommies isn’t an option, we have to turn to our brothers, and we have to love them as we did our own families, if not more. If we want to win the war, we need to care more about our brothers than about ourselves. The only way to do that is by leaning on them and letting them lean on us time and time again when times get tough during training, so that we know that we have support and are capable of supporting them during the battle.
And lean on them we’ll have to, because the training will be tough. It will be martial, it will be just like the battle itself. We won’t die because of a simple mistake, but we’ll have to pay the price in sweat. And not only we will, but everyone else around us as well. It’s the army paying pushups for the mistakes of one soldier.
We’ll run, we’ll squat, we’ll lift weights, we’ll wake up early, we’ll be ridiculed by our superiors, we’ll be broken down until there’s nothing left of us, only to be rebuilt again as a stronger individual and as a united team. Then and only then we’ll be ready for war.
How do we apply it?
It sounds simple, but it’s the part that needs the most work: we need to get moving.
Get that butt up from the chair and start running. Once you feel you can go no more, you keep running. When that feeling comes for the second time, push it away again. The third time you feel it, you can take a break.3
Get martial arts classes from a reputable dojo. A dojo that will teach you not only how to fight, but also about the philosophy and beliefs upon which the sport you’re practicing is based.
Most important of all, when you put your running shoes, or when you enter the dojo, leave your problems at the door. Forget about dinner, forget about the bills you have to pay, forget about the asshole that cut you in traffic, forget about the problems you’re having in your relationship. Your mind should be with each move and anything else is doing yourself a disservice. If you have the opportunity to practice fighting after the training, do it. Don’t miss a chance to put your skills to test. To quote fight club, “how much can you know about yourself, if you’ve never been in a fight?”
Enjoy the sweat, enjoy pushing your body to its limit, enjoy training beside people who relish the same thing. Go out with them, have a beer, have a blast. There’s nothing quite like sitting with your sparring partner over a drink and talking about anything and everything.
Just remember that no matter how good your teachers, sensei or masters are. You’re only gonna get as much as you give. Be willing to go and be destroyed, be willing to go and emerge a better person. Be willing to forget your problems at the door. You might see that on coming back they’re not as relevant anymore.
The most fun part comes after the training, so suit up; we’re going to war.
That’s where the killing takes place, so the warriors must have been prepared, if they weren’t ready to kill and be killed, the training was in vain.
“For what can be more noble than to slay oneself? Not literally. Not with a blade in the guts. But to extinguish the selfish self within, that part which looks only to its own preservation, to save its own skin.”
— Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield
As made very clear in the Bhagavad Gita, a warrior’s war is as much internal as it is external. The fight against the enemy becomes a fight against our baser desires at the same time.
And when the battle starts, we’ll have to forget such base desires. We’ll be too busy to worry about our lethargy, about our need for pride, about our greed, about our envy. When we step on to the battlefield, we’ll see our enemies face to face. We’ll taunt them, we’ll be taunted by them. We’ll cut, we’ll be cut. We’ll be maimed, we’ll be scared, we’ll leave scarred.
But each and every single one of those scars will make us stronger. We might lose a few fingers, a hand, maybe an arm and a leg, but we’ll find out in the end that we didn’t need any of that to begin with. We’ll return humbled and our wounds will make us stronger as soon as they heal.
Nothing can prepare the warriors to war. No matter how harsh their training was, no matter the stories they’ve heard, no matter the paintings they’ve seen. The battlefield is different. It’s one thing to know how it is—knowledge that is little more than a rough idea—it’s one thing to hear stories and try to imagine. Another thing is to live. Another thing is to hear the clash of clubs, spears, swords, axes and shields. Another thing is to try and make out the enemies from the allies in the middle of the mess and blood. Another thing is to yell, knowing that nobody can hear you because you’ll never yell louder than iron greeting iron.
The training does its job in ensuring we can remain mindful, in ensuring our mind is free of distractions. The war happens when we start to notice our enemies and have the strength needed to cull them.
“There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.”
— Hagakure, Tsunetomo Yamamoto
In war, there’s only the moment. In war, there’s only the battlefield. In war, there’s only our brothers. The enemies stand in opposition, and cut them we must.
The war is nothing more than a means to an end. The end can be dominating the opposition, riches, land, or whatever you might name. But a result of fighting, independent of what the generals have in mind, is the individual growth in each and every one of those soldiers.
If training is done in the dojo, war is done in the streets, in our workplaces, in our homes. Each warrior can choose how to fight their war, each warrior has their own war that belongs to them and only them. It’s each warrior’s responsibility to identify their enemies and strategize. It’s each warrior’s responsibility to find their enemies’ weaknesses and fight them. It’s each warrior’s responsibility to become better and ultimately win the internal war. It’s their goal, it’s their purpose, it’s what they were born for.
It’s what we were born for.
How do we apply it?
This is the simplest of all at first glance, but by far the most difficult one to execute.
Applying the war to our own lives is as simple as constantly looking for flaws, it’s as simple as constantly looking at ourselves and asking what we still have to learn, what we still have to change, where we still have to improve on.
It’s tough, I won’t mince words. All that we sweat working out, all the pain we wake up feeling on the next day is nothing compared to changing a habit, a thought, an action. All of that is nothing compared to trying to stay mindful every single second, trying to choose our words, trying to know how we feel, trying to change our feelings, trying to change our thoughts, trying to stop ourselves before saying something. It’s nothing compared to apologizing for a mistake, to promising we’ll do better next time, and to actually doing better.
My personal recommendation is to carry around a pocket notebook or something to write on. If you can keep track of whatever you said, if you notice immediately or a little later that you made a mistake, write that down. If relevant, apologize to the person afterwards. If not, make it a point to go over your notes and try to find what made you act the way you did. What made you feel the way you did. By understanding the causes we can often find the root of the problem and fix it then and there.
It’s also helpful to find people who are as committed to their personal development as you are. Your changes might be abrupt (I know mine often are) and people close to you might often be taken aback and show some resistance to the “new and improved you.” It’s impossible to surround yourself only with people who are gonna support your changes, but I found that even something as simple as informing others what you’re working on changing about yourself makes them supporting of that change. Several offered their help in calling me out on things.
Like brothers-in-arms in a battlefield.
The most interesting thing about history, I would argue, is not how something starts, but how it ends. Or rather, why it ends.
It’s blatantly clear to everyone that none of the warriors seen in the post are still alive today. Sure, you can make a case for practitioners of kenjutsu keeping the samurai art alive and for the rise in popularity of the Norse mythology including people training their style of fighting, but for all we know, their arts, belief systems, and training regimes as they were hundreds of years in the past are dead. And we don’t even have to stop there. Sparta fell, Macedonia fell, Rome fell, the Mongols fell.
It’s simple. At one point in time, they stopped fighting.
It didn’t happen all at once, there was a progression, a chain of events as there is with everything else. A whole class of people didn’t simply wake up one day and say “meh, I’m tired of all this training, gonna chill for a bit” and then never returned to their old (and healthier. There, said it) habits.
I particularly like the history and background of the samurai when thinking about the downfall of a class, because that is as textbook as you’ll find, and since it’s relatively recent and their decline happened after their rise to the power, it’s also accessible and public. During my research for that post I read Yamamoto’s Hagakure, a book that was written about 100 years into the period of peace in Japan. At the time, the samurai were transforming into an administrative class and Yamamoto looks back fondly at their history and years of glory.
Before that time of peace began, the samurai were fierce and always ready to put their lives in line. Their descent happened slowly, much like other warrior clans.
The progress leading them up to the point where they stop fighting starts with the clans getting too big. The more people converted to their cause, the more it’s necessary to keep them in check and the more it’s needed to manage them.
Recent research shows that people are most effective in their workplaces when the offices are limited to 150 people, that this seems to be a hard limit for the amount of stable inter-personal relationships each individual is able to hold. 4
After the clans reach that size, it’s necessary that some tasks start being delegated. It’s impossible for the leaders to manage everything properly and often they have to sacrifice something. As administrative tasks are arguably more important to maintain order within the clan than the fighting itself, that’s what the leaders tend to focus on and prioritize. It’s “easy” to train and fight, if that’s all that we’re looking for, but it takes another type of mindset to manage, to keep an overview of things and to be sure everything is getting done within the deadlines. That often needs confidential information, a strategic mindset and… you get the picture.
And there’s no problem with that. There’s nothing wrong with delegating and with choosing to manage rather than to fight. The problem arises when the principles that brought you here are forgotten. When the ideas of service, mastery, and honor are lost.
Coincidentally, that loss happens when the leaders think they’re more important than the fighters. When they think that anyone can fight, when they think that getting land and subduing people is the goal. That loss isn’t caused by the lack of fighting per se, but by the disconnection that it brings with it. Fighting for the warriors was the primary way to connect them to their core. If managing doesn’t keep that connection up, the leader will crumble. And when the leader crumbles, everything else falls apart too. The identity of the clan, the ideas they upheld, their principles are all lost.
That is, unless the leader decides to lead from the front.
How do we apply it?
The most important part in avoiding such a downfall in our lives being disciplined enough. We need to form good and healthy habits and have that down for when everything else gets way too confusing for us to keep up. It helps to have a “sacred time” dedicated for training or whichever other practice you choose, so that no matter how crazy life gets (because it does get crazy), we have stability during those hours. We have our minds during those hours and nothing can take that from us.
It helps if we find friends and partners who support our principles and who will keep us in check if we’re at any point not fulfilling our objectives, but it’s worth remembering that no matter how good our friends are, no matter how willing to help us they might be, discipline and motivation need to come from ourselves. Our friends can only push us to excel so much before we have to get our butts off the chair and get moving. The work is always ours, and we better do a damn good work.
Once again the constant reminders of our own mortality are very helpful. Knowing our lives are fleeting causes us to use them that much more, to live that much more fully. Ultimately, the way to avoid a downfall in our personal lives is as simple as to just keep moving. To truck along despite the circumstances. To have our habits and rough routines and to know we won’t let ourselves down. To create high expectations and to strive to meet them.
It wouldn’t have made sense to even start one of these series if I didn’t have a certain amount of respect for war and warriors before I started writing, but that respect came from a rather shallow knowledge of the topic. Although I wouldn’t call myself an expert now and still have lots to learn, I do believe I know them a little better and that respect now comes from a place of more understanding than before. Yes, I might be idealizing their lives, but if that idealization brings me motivation, it’s okay in my books. I never in any moment wrote this as a dogma, but simply as my interpretation of something that has been driving me for the last several months, if not years.
One comment in my “Sharpness of Mind” post might have done a better job at concluding this series than I ever could:
“A good military doesn’t give a damn about killing the enemy; it wants to kill its own soldiers’ fear, selfishness, laziness, shortsightedness, and all the other vices that plague anyone (and everyone) who doesn’t actively train against them. And that, as anyone can see, requires no war to be desirable. You’re never unfree if you’re Wisdom’s slave.”
I hope this series brought you something. At the very least I expect you have some more fun facts to spill out during dinner parties, but I of course hope it’s more than that. I hope this series brought you a new way to look at warriors, war and your own life. I surely learned a lot while writing it and felt more motivated with each passing day of research and writing. I felt motivated to run faster, jump higher, get stronger, read more, write more, and get wiser.
I like to believe that’s how warriors felt in their daily lives. I like to believe that being surrounded by the cultures and tribes I only very briefly explored here had them just as motivated as I felt during the past few months. Although this might not be completely true—we of course can’t know how people felt hundreds of years ago—this belief brings me a certain peace and happiness.
Like warriors, I am wisdom’s slave, and as Anjelus so eloquently pointed out, I will never be unfree as long as that remains true.
You may also like:
- Here’s one I recommend: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/02/13/how-and-why-to-write-your-own-personal-manifesto/
- I feel I have to mention that this isn’t to be taken literally.