My mother died in the small bedroom of a run-down house that she shared with three other people, when she was just fifty-eight years old. She died broken and alone, prey to demons of her own making.
Drugs and alcohol were the official cause of her death, but in truth she had given up living long before she died. My mother was a mental prisoner, a slave to circumstance, tightly chained to her past and unable to escape the carnival of thoughts in her head.
She was a beautiful woman, but her physical beauty was merely a façade, a shell, that served only to hide the brokenness within.
My mother was unable to look at her actions objectively. Nothing was ever her fault; no action was ever egregious enough for her to accept responsibility for its outcome. Whether she was hiding empty bottles of vodka in my backpack when I was in elementary school or getting arrested for driving my infant brother around when she was blackout drunk. Nothing ever made her stand up, take note and say, this is my fault, I created this situation with my actions, and the only way I can fix it is by exercising my agency.
This blindness was, no doubt, the consequence of her upbringing. Her whole life she had been coddled by my grandparents. She was the youngest of three children and the only girl in an immigrant family. In seeking to protect her, my grandparents created a fundamental disconnect from reality, which made my mother incapable of seeing the correlation between actions and outcomes. Especially and most importantly, the correlation between her actions and negative outcomes.
Life, however, doesn’t operate on our terms, and that blindness crippled her. When she was inevitably handed defeat, as we all are, she was unable to cope and turned to alcohol to heal what hurt. Rather than profit from her pain and learn the lesson that adversity had to teach, she chose to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye. Looking at reality, in all of its naked glory, was just too painful for her to bear.
This disconnect made the obstacles of her own making insurmountable. Her inability to gain momentum in life only caused her more pain, which in turn made it even harder for her to objectively analyze her actions, a vicious cycle that would continue for the rest of her life.
Growth is always painful. Whether it is physically when we are young or emotionally as we age, growth hurts. This pain means we are alive and evolving as human beings. It is the by-product of a correct perspective and an active life. Rather than embrace this pain and learn from it, she ran from it.
In seeking to escape the unpleasant aspects of her reality, my mother destroyed everything in her life and alienated every single person that loved her. Which, of course, only caused her more distress. She had three failed marriages, two estranged sons (from different fathers), and was incapable of maintaining steady employment, finding real friends, or having deep relationships with anyone. Each small bump on the road of life only added to the sum total of her pain.
With no mechanism by which to heal and learn, she saw herself as the perpetual victim to malicious circumstances. Taking ownership of the circumstances we find ourselves in and believing that their outcome is our fault (good or bad) is power. It means that we have agency to effect change. When we believe ourselves to be at the mercy of circumstance, we are powerless. This feeling of powerlessness creates a vacuum in our soul.
My mother chose to fill this vacuum with booze and pills. She chose not to fight, not to field an army against the forces of life. She let her demons conquer her inner citadel without resistance. Unfortunately, my mother’s story is not unique. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 450 million people in the developed world suffer from a mental health disorder—depression and anxiety being chief among them. WHO claims that one in four people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.
But why? Even in the midst of a global pandemic, we, as a species, have never been more prosperous, interconnected, and safe than we are today. Yet despite this safety and comfort, we aren’t happy. Reality simultaneously bores us and overwhelms us. We are, on average, fat, sad, and devoid of purpose. The former likely a result of the latter. We aren’t happy because safety and comfort are antithetical to the personal evolution that leads to self-actualization, which is the only source of lasting satisfaction.
Our lives lack the basic struggles that were commonplace in generations past. We have strived to eliminate strife and continue to succeed. Without strife and bereft of purpose, our mind turns the need for struggle inward. An unending carnival of thoughts consumes us, and unexamined patterns of behavior become us.
Yet somewhere in the recess of our mind, we cling foolishly to hope. But we don’t act on it—instead, we expect things to get better without any organized effort to this end. As if it is a natural consequence of existence that our lives should improve by virtue of simply being alive.
When reality fails to meet our unrealistic expectations, we become disheartened and lose faith in our agency without ever having really put it to the test. This leads to feelings of powerlessness. We believe ourselves to be at the mercy of circumstance and our mental state to be a matter of luck rather than a product of our efforts.
We see others who are masters of agency, bending reality to their will, and we invent reasons (meaning excuses) why we are not in their position (and with this perspective never will be). We grow resentful, sarcastic, pessimistic, and passive aggressive. We lose ourselves with each passing year, drifting further away from the person we once hoped we would become. Death finds us suddenly because we never really began living. We die afraid, resentful of how little time we had and how foolishly we spent the time we were given.
This crisis of purpose is a unique modern affliction. Previous generations were defined by strife and driven by purpose. They fought world wars, lived through rampant poverty, and fought for civil liberties (and that is only recent history). The further we delve into the past, the more dire mankind’s situation becomes. The grit of the ancients is unimaginable to us today.
They acquired this mettle through exposure to extreme conflict—in other words, fighting wars of various kinds, overseas, at home, and in the workplace. War puts things into perspective. When consequences are dire and time is in short supply, priorities become clear and the superfluous falls away. What really matters is brought to the surface.
War, however, is not synonymous with violence. War is simply the highest form of struggle. It’s a contest with a critical outcome. A game where all the chips are on the table and all the marbles are on the line. As Yagyū Munenori, the samurai philosopher, once wrote to the warriors in his command, “It is missing the point to think that the martial art is solely in cutting a man down. It is not in cutting people down; it is in killing evil.”
Evil comes in many forms, among them the distraction, noise, and weakness that keeps us from becoming our higher selves. If war is a contest with a critical outcome, then what could be more of a war than our life? What necessitates more thought, preparation, attention, energy, and strife?
We battle different enemies in different seasons of our lives (ignorance, fear, mediocrity, hubris, and atrophy), but we are always on the field of battle till we breathe our last, and that too is a battle, to die with dignity, devoid of fear.
To deny that we are at war is to not field an army against the forces of life. It is akin to surrendering everything we love to the barbarian hordes. Failing to field our army leads to ennui, a feeling of listlessness that is dark, directionless, and devoid of purpose.
I know this feeling well. It’s what I felt for most of my adult life. I was lost in the wilderness of my mind for a long, long time. Plagued by hereditary weakness, paralyzed by inertia, blinded by ego, consumed by hollow desires, and unable to generate any traction toward purpose. This was my reality for longer than I care to remember.
Then something changed. At the behest of a friend, I stumbled into a Brazilian Jujitsu class. At first, I was worse than terrible. I had smoked cigarettes for years and barely had the stamina to make it through a five-minute round of sparring, what is commonly referred to as “rolling” in Brazilian Jujitsu. The idea of defeating anyone was a farfetched fantasy. Merely surviving a five-minute round felt like a monumental victory.
This forced confrontation with my own weakness left me with two choices, quit or improve. For perhaps the first time in my life I chose the hard road. Admittedly my overinflated ego was the key driving factor in this decision. I could not stomach the image of myself as a weakling, physically incapable of combat.
So I kept going back, and, as is common among new practitioners, I began to notice a change in myself, subtle and barely perceptible at first, then drastic and sudden. Unbeknownst to me, what was happening was the personal evolution that accompanies the pursuit of excellence in any arena.
Practicing martial arts is a vehicle for self-transcendence. We discover ourselves as we sharpen our skills and ultimately learn to leave the self behind as we ascend to ever-higher levels of proficiency. In the beginning I couldn’t articulate this, but I could feel it. Every time I stepped on the tatami mat, I felt free and alive, and every time I stepped off, I felt a sense of accomplishment and improvement.
This was the exact opposite of what life was like outside of the gym. My journey into martial arts coincided with a tumultuous time in my life, both professionally and personally. I desperately wanted the same combination of purpose and peace of mind that I had on the mats in my everyday life.
As a natural extension of that desire and curiosity I began to study the roots of the art I was practicing, and I discovered a rich history—generations of warriors who often faced seemingly impossible odds and bleak circumstances with resolute conviction and a stout heart.
I was mesmerized by their seemingly superhuman strength of will. I not only read stories of their escapades but studied the principles that drove their actions and formed their world view.
It became abundantly clear to me that if I wanted that same strength of character and clarity of purpose, I, too, must live by the principles of martial philosophy. So I made a list of aphorisms (cited throughout this book) to use as guiding principles as I defined my purpose and began to execute my mission. This list became my manual, a road map for me to navigate difficult landscapes, both professionally and personally.
Executing my newly defined mission required me to free my mind from the heavy shackles grounding my ascent. The end of a long romantic relationship, my mother’s untimely death, insecurities, fears of inadequacy, and a severe lack of capital, connections, and resources were all noise-emanating obstacles blocking the stillness needed to make objective observations and take effective action.
By absorbing the principles of martial philosophy and applying their lessons uniquely to my life, I was able not only to overcome the aforementioned barriers but turn them into the fuel needed to execute my mission with expediency. It is my hope that this writing will have a similar impact on your life. For this to come to fruition, however, requires not only absorption but a unique and diligent application of these principles to everyday existence.
The wisdom collected here is not my own. I’ve merely gathered the timeless insights of warriors from generations past and organized them in a way that was applicable to my life.
Nor have I mastered these teachings. I’ve just found my path and have but begun walking it. I’m not enlightened. I’m not a guru, life coach, yogi, or healer, and I am prone to all kinds of errors and folly. Yet it is my hope that by walking my path I may serve as a guide to others seeking to find theirs.
This book is not an exercise in futility. It is not chockfull of catchy sayings meant to paint a pretty picture of existence. It is a road map for a systematic application of philosophical principles to daily life that changed the way I view and live my life in very real and tangible ways. This is my recipe for a meaningful and joyful existence. This approach, the acquisition of the warrior’s spirit, will not work for everyone, but it did work for me.