The martial arts train us to deal with the enormous stress of being attacked. Hopefully that’s something that won’t ever happen to most of us. But the training teaches us skills that are transferrable to other stressful situations in life.

I’ve compiled some of the skills and techniques from the martial arts that we can apply to the stresses and overwhelm of modern life. For each one, there is a quote from Sun Tzu, military strategist and author of The Art of War. 

Zanshin — Awareness

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Being aware of ourselves and the world around us makes us less likely to get into difficult situations, and better able to escape them if we do. In the Japanese martial arts this is called Zanshin. 

In daily life, being aware of our own internal state helps us identify when we’re beginning to struggle and need to take a break. Being aware of others allows us to ask for help from the right people, at the right time. 

It’s also about being aware of how we spend our time, understanding all of the various tasks we have to do, and how we can plan and schedule our activities around our energy.

In order to develop Zanshin, we have to take our time to see things as they are. For now, just take a moment to pause, close your eyes, take a deep breath and feel the sensations of your body. 

Fudoshin – Immoveable Spirit

It is the unemotional, reserved, calm, detached warrior who wins, not the hothead seeking vengeance and not the ambitious seeker of fortune.
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Fudoshin is about remaining calm in the face of stressful situations. This can trained through meditation and breathing practices, as well as the gradual exposure to increasing stressors. 

Stretching our comfort zone allows us to feel confident in a wider range of situations. This requires us to push ourselves to do things that make us a little uncomfortable. Of course, we have to be careful because pushing too far outside our comfort zone is what leads to stress and overwhelm in the first place. 

Being comfortable with some amount of discomfort is the key here. This can be trained through deliberate exposure to discomfort — taking cold showers, having difficult conversations, generally doing things that make us uncomfortable in the moment but are good for us in the longer term.

Fighting multiple opponents

Feeling overwhelmed with the sheer number of tasks and responsibilities we face is similar to being faced with multiple attackers. There are lessons from the martial arts that we can apply to our daily lives here too.

The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

When facing multiple opponents, the aim is to position yourself so that your opponents are lined up behind one another. This way you only need to face one at a time.

Similarly, we can tame our our email inboxes and never-ending tasks lists by categorising and prioritising, aiming to focus on one task at a time without distractions.

Strategy

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

While we can try to make our task list less stressful, the larger strategy should be to reduce the number of incoming tasks. Here are some ways we can do this:

  • Say ‘No’ to new commitments
  • Automate repeated tasks
  • Delegate tasks that don’t require your skills or expertise

Taking some time to think about the things we find stressful, and applying new mindsets and techniques (like the ones in this article) is another way we can apply strategy in our stressful lives.

Manage your energy

When the enemy is relaxed, make them toil. When full, starve them. When settled, make them move.

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

A key part of martial strategy is to manage your energy. You must know when to rest and when to attack with full force. If you become exhausted you will be easily defeated.

In daily life, keeping our energy levels up will help us be more productive and resilient. Taking regular breaks is especially important. We should also manage our energy with good sleep, nutrition and exercise. 

We should also recognise that our energy levels will vary through the day. Usually our energy starts fairly high and stays that way through the morning, dropping into the afternoon before picking up again later in the afternoon and through the evening. We will do best if we tackle difficult tasks when we have more abundant energy and take breaks or do simpler ones when we’re more lethargic. 

Dealing with difficult people

“To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Although the martial arts may at first appear to be about training to fight, it soon becomes clear that the best thing is to avoid having to fight at all.

“There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.”
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

This quote is from the chapter entitled ‘Waging War’. It is actually mostly a list of the various costs incurred when going to war. The commentary by Ts`ao Kung on this chapter has the note: “He who wishes to fight must first count the cost”.

It’s important to note here that this doesn’t mean giving in all the time and allowing people to walk all over you, but there are ways to disagree and overcome others’ resistance without getting into conflict. As my grandfather said, “You can slide further on syrup than on gravel”.

Many of the ‘softer’ martial arts like tai chi or aikido place a great deal of importance on yielding. This involves following your opponent’s movement to direct it where you want it to go, rather than meeting it head on.

Once a confrontation has begun, it will easily escalate and it can be very hard to return to a mutually beneficial relationship. If you’ve not been able to avoid conflict, this final quote from Sun Tzu may be helpful:

Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War