Lessons From the Samurai: The Secret to Always Being at Your Best

7 minute read

Reading a few books by samurai there was one thing I saw repeated again and again and again that surprised me.

It has nothing to do with swords, fighting or strategy. Actually, quite the opposite when you think about it.

What did so many of history’s greatest warriors stress as key to success and optimal performance?

“Being calm.”

And it wasn’t one random samurai mentioning it off the cuff.

We’re talking about some of the greatest samurai who ever lived writing about it over and over for five hundred years:

Shiba Yoshimasa (1349-1410):

For warriors in particular, if you calm your own mind and discern the inner minds of others, that may be called the foremost art of war.

Suzuki Shosan (1579-1655):

When you manage to overcome your own mind, you overcome myriad concerns, rise above all things, and are free. When you are overcome by your own mind, you are burdened by myriad concerns, subordinate to things, unable to rise above. “Mind your mind; guard it resolutely. Since it is the mind that confuses the mind, don’t let your mind give in to your mind.”

Kaibara Ekken (1630-1714):

A noble man controls frivolity with gravity, awaits action in a state of calm. It is important for the spirit to be whole, the mood steady, and the mind unmoving.

Adachi Masahiro (1780-1800):

The imperturbable mind is the secret of warfare.

And, of course, the man probably considered the greatest samurai of them all, Miyamoto Musashi, in his classic, The Book of Five Rings:

Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined though calm. Meet the situation without tenseness yet not recklessly, your spirit settled yet unbiased.

Nobody really needs to sell us on the value of staying calm.

You know the benefits: you think clearly, you don’t make rash decisions, you don’t get scared.

But how do you get and stay calm?

Our society is energy drinks, 24 hour news cycle, Starbucks on every corner and relentless social media feeds. GO GO GO.

And even funnier, much of what we know about relaxing and being calm is dead wrong.

The samurai had answers. And they line up with the science. Here we go.

The Scientific Samurai’s Guide To Staying Chill

The samurai trained in martial arts a lot and they thought about death a lot.

Really, they thought about death a lot.

Via Code of the Samurai: A Contemporary Translation of the Bushido Shoshins:

One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year’s Day through the night of New Year’s Eve.

Hey, you would too. Death was pretty much in their job description, right?

But research shows training very hard and imagining the worst that could happen are two powerful techniques for promoting calm.

Samurais trained relentlessly. They strongly believed you should always “be prepared” (they were like the deadliest Boy Scouts imaginable.)

Research shows that preparation reduces fear because when things get tense, you don’t have to think.

Who survives catastrophic scenarios like samurai battles? The people who have prepared.

Via David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart:

According to Johnson and Leach, the sort of people who survive are the sort of people who prepare for the worst and practice ahead of time… These people don’t deliberate during calamity because they’ve already done the deliberation the other people around them are just now going through.

And how about all that thinking about death?

“Negative Visualization” is one of the main tools of ancient Stoicism and science backs it up.

Really thinking about just how awful things can be often has the ironic effect of making you realize they’re not that bad.

From my interview with Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking:

It’s what the Stoics call, “the premeditation” – that there’s actually a lot of peace of mind to be gained in thinking carefully and in detail and consciously about how badly things could go. In most situations you’re going to discover that your anxiety or your fears about those situations were exaggerated.

Okay, but you don’t want to spend all day training in swordfighting or thinking about death. I get that. Frankly, neither do I.

So what’s the key here?

Research shows the most powerful way to combat stress or anxiety — to stay calm — is to have a feeling of control.

For samurai, training tirelessly and visualizing the worst that could happen gave them a feeling of control while in battle.

The US military dramatically increased Navy SEAL passing rates by teaching recruits psychological methods for gaining a feeling of control.

Without a feeling of control, when stress gets high we literally can’t think straight.

Via Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

Amy Arnsten studies the effects of limbic system arousal on prefrontal cortex functioning. She summarized the importance of a sense of control for the brain during an interview filmed at her lab at Yale. “The loss of prefrontal function only occurs when we feel out of control. It’s the prefrontal cortex itself that is determining if we are in control or not. Even if we have the illusion that we are in control, our cognitive functions are preserved.” This perception of being in control is a major driver of behavior.

Anything that gives you a feeling of control over your situation helps you keep your cool.

So what does it for you?

More information? Practice? Support from others?

That’s the thing that will help you keep your cool like a samurai.

Note I said “feeling of control” — it doesn’t even have to be legit control, just feeling like you do can work wonders.

Even a good luck charm can help — because good luck charms really do work.

Good luck charms provide a feeling of control, and that feeling of control actually makes people perform better with them.

Via The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver:

…people with a lucky charm performed significantly better than did the people who had none. That’s right, having a lucky charm will make you a better golfer, should you care about such things, and improve your cognitive performance on tasks such as memory games.

Sum Up

I know what some of you are thinking: Calm? Aren’t samurai the ones always screaming at the top of their lungs while waving a sword?

Thing is, that was a deliberate tactic to frighten their enemies. Musashi explains:

In single combat, also, you must use the advantage of taking the enemy unawares by frightening him with your body, long sword, or voice, to defeat him… In single combat, we make as if to cut and shout “Ei!” at the same time to disturb the enemy, then in the wake of our shout we cut with the long sword.

Sneaky. These are the kind of smart ideas that come from a cool head.

The samurai were great warriors. They fought against their enemies in epic battles.

But as Musashi and the others make clear in their writings about being calm, the most important battle is to overcome yourself.

Via The Book of Five Rings:

Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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