For many years I have heard the term 'strategy' (in Japanese 'heiho') and for many years it remained an esoteric concept for me in the martial arts. Not esoteric from a knowledge viewpoint, but from a holistic concept. I can define strategy and maybe even give examples, but how does that knowledge transcend to behavior. I've read Sun Tsu, Musashi, George Silver and others, but only now am I coming to grips with the issues these famous strategists faced when trying to describe their experiences and actions in writing. You need to see things from a strategists viewpoint to truly understand what they are saying, otherwise it is just the tools of strategy. Strategy is a way of being not a way of knowing, and that concept is extremely difficult to describe. Therefore, this article attempts to open a discussion about the concept of strategy as applied in the martial arts.
Writing presents subject matter from the perspective of the writer's experience, but rarely are anything but broad concepts or clear examples truly understood by the reader. Famous books usually raise more questions than they answer. This is also true of strategy, and strategy books. Current situations and events dictate strategy; not history. In this world of chaos, specific situations never occur twice. Broad understanding of strategy principles is essentials, specific details are interesting but restricted, but even broad principles have undone many people if they did not truly understand the whole system. Strategy is a complex combination of tools, thoughts and actions. Therefore without an understanding of the principles and a freedom from structure, most people wallow in the realm of copying rather than creating, and this is not strategy.
Using music as an example, when I learn an instrument and can play a number of songs, am I a musician? Technically yes, and it is possible for me to continue learning songs forever, but always within the constraints of what others have created. There are huge gaps in my knowledge, and how would I know what else exists without being told. If you desire to continue learning songs, you will never know all the songs ever written, but you can play music. I call this a technical competency. However, if you truly understand music, then you are free from all the constraints and free to do as you choose, your options and applications are endless, therefore, you can transcend the structure. There is nothing you don't understand. This is the road to true strategy. Endless study of techniques may lead you to a higher plain, but this is a long uncertain route.
Most martial artists reside in the realm of technical competency, and even then to a limited capacity. They know their martial art, the moves, the Kata, the training exercises, some which have been passed down over generations. But this is not the only technical aspect available to a martial artist. For the strategic practitioner there is also knowledge of people, the environment, other styles, the weather, terrain, equipment, materials, processes, atanomy, medicine etc which are the related technical competencies.
Training in one dimension or aspect, like in the Dojo, limits people to the full range of tools available and could deny them the technical competencies they need to complete the picture. Classical martial artists teaching self defense in the dojo based on 'the one style' may increase their income, but they are not really teaching practical self defense. The martial arts is not just about kicking and punching.
Sun Tsu spoke a great deal about the technical aspects of strategy in war including terrain, use of information, maneuvering, dealing with troops, spies etc, these are all technical aspects of martial arts and essential tools used to this very day. However, that is not the whole picture of strategy, as some would have you believe. How the technical assects are combined to win the battle is the central point of strategy and the combinations are infinite. Therefore, many can analyse what happened, but few can indulge in the future and predict the outcome in the infinitely variable combinations. Every situation is completely different so it is imposible to cover them all. Full understanding of all the tools available (including action and reaction) and how to apply them (behavioural competency) is pivotal, this is the skill of the master strategist.
Behavioral competency is knowing what tools are available to me, and to recognize what is actually occuring and then applying those skills in the correct way to overcome my opponent.
On a superficial level, practitioners do this in sparring and at tournaments, they are assessing the opponent and applying the techniques they have learned. Unfortunately because of ignornce, youth, lack of practise and training, or poor teaching most are constrained by a 'copy' mentality rather than supported by freedom of application; as my musical example illustrated.
The most common observation in sparring is people trying to put in techniques that don't fit; sometimes they pull it off but mostly they don't. This is an example of sole reliance on technical competency, it is not enough, and it more often highlights their ignorance of strategy.
There are two main components of behavioural competency, action and mental processes.
Actions in strategy
A martial artist needs to know how to use the technical competencies they have gained to the best advantage, with restricted or tightly structured knowledge they will always be at risk against someone with broader knowledge. Someone who is copying technique will always be behind someone who is creating technique. The different techniques school's teach are designed as a learning base and are mostly created as a response to one single type of attack. The style is a means to an end, not the end as some truly believe. Western arts like boxing and fencing are sports where winning is important, they recognise the negative results of complexity and have minimal technique and maximum training in application. Some Asian martial arts have over 100 techniques and no training in application. Given the chaos in the world, the chances of you encountering a single predetermined action is rather remote. Therefore applying it in the wrong place or tying to force it in, will have dire results. Many martial arts or artists never transcend this.
Given that we are free from technical restrictions and we have studies all the martial technical competencies available to us, we must learn to recognize and apply those technical competencies in the correct sequence at the correct time. On a everyday level, this is common sense and we live out lives like this, but on a wider scale and in life or death situations (like self defense) it is essential the practitioner is free to assess the situation correctly and apply the correct tools to get the best result - there are no right answers. This requires specific mental training. Military minds have been grappling with this for thousands of years, how do I best apply what I have technically in te best combination to become successful action.
Mental processes in strategy
When we have time to work through a strategy, as a company may do or an individual when faced with an issue, there is time to consider the technical aspects of your assets and consider how they should be combined in action to achieve the best possible outcome. In considering the martial arts, we don't have the luxury of time. In fact, if you do try and consider all of the possible factors and the limitless combinations for applying those, you will freeze in information overload. Your mind cannot possibly process all that information. Given that, how do we deal with this issue? The answer is what the Japanese call Mushin - no mind - and it is the final stage of a warrior's strategic training.
The conscious minds is the enemy of the warrior, although it may process thoughts at 700 wpm, that is clearly not fast enough to deal with an event that occurs over seconds. Mushin frees you of the past and future so you can let go of attachment to rising thoughts which allows you to pay attention to what is really happening and to respond accordingly. I suggest this is the last stage because the practitioner needs to have a thorough understanding (not knowledge) of the technical aspects and the ways they are actioned, so much so that they are stored in the subconscious to be applied as needed.
Mushin is part of the Zen tradition and the reason Zen was adopted by Japanese warriors. The principle is understandably esoteric, but each of us exhibit examples of applying mushin to everyday situations. A fire fighter describes rescuing a child from a burning building and never had a thought until it was all over, many of us driving a car encounter close situations where our instincts take over and we recover without conscious thought. Alternatively, those without the proper practise and training, our youth, do not fair so well in these situations. This state of mind mainly occur in situations that appear to be out of our control, we do not live in that state, however the ultimate in strategy and Zen is to perminently live in a state of Mushin. The basis for correct action is endless practise and training. If we have the technical competency, can apply action to those competencies, and know them so well that they happen without thought then we are in the realm of Mushin and truely a martial strategist.
For the everyday martial artist, the answer to transcending conscious thought is meditation, teaching your mind not to think. For most people, there is never a time when they are awake that they are free from conscious thought. Just try to think of nothing even for 5 seconds, for most this is not possible or you may not even know how to start. You must train yourself through meditation. Making sense of what we see, hear of feel is naturally human. Thinking about the past and our experiences and how they apply to what is happening is basic to humanity but when we suppress or ignore our natural instict through the questioning mind, we destroy our sponitniety and sometimes our ability to solve the problem. Animals never question there actions of survival, they are continualy learning, applying those learnings and surviving. The difference is that, as human, we continually rationalise this or that within the context of our created reality.
That a thought is not conscious does not mean it doesn't exist, otherwise most of us would forget to breathe. Applying conscious though to what we see based on our own beliefs is the basis of the problem, we create our own reality of a situation and rarely see it for what it really is. This means our reaction to the situation is invariably wrong - a frightning thought.
Strategy is therefore a combination of a number of factors, many of which allude the majority of the people today, or at minimum are discussed and pondered but rarely turned into behavior. Learn your technique very well by repetitively embedding it into your being, then open your eyes to all the other options you have available to you at any time and understand them, continually add to your technical arsenal. Next, think about how to apply everything you have at your disposal, the actions you would take with them and then how to apply tools in different combinations. Look at the basic principles of tools and actions in order to transcend the notion of 'this applies to that'. Finally meditate and free your actions from conscious thought to allow yourself to see things for what they really are and to react accordingly. Never allow yourself to be locked into one way or system, this is the realm of pride and ego and they have no place in the strategic mind. Subconsciously we all know the right actions to take if we are trained well, it is only the conscious mind questions and hesitates. In life or death, we must free ourselves from that questioning. True strategy in martial arts is always about how you use what you know, this is the same as life.