Meditating Amidst The Madness: Lessons from The Book of Five Rings

Statue of Miyamoto Musashi outside of the Reigando Cave. Image Source: Japan Visitor, 2021

I started meditating again after a long hiatus. For awhile I convinced myself that I didn’t need it or that it was a waste of time, but in these tumultuous periods there’s great comfort in the calmness and focus before bed. I often meditate to an audiobook of The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi rather than complete silence or music. You might think it counterproductive to listen to someone talking during meditation, but I have found that closing my eyes and focusing on Musashi’s words to be most effective. My partner used to always wonder if I was just some weeaboo because of my enjoyment of The Book of Five Rings. I had to explain that this text has saved my life more than once. During times of great stress, suicidal thoughts and anger, I have considered the wisdom espoused by Musashi and talked myself back from the precipice. I also like to believe that The Book of Five Rings has influenced my passions as well as my dedication to social justice and community service. Its influence on my life is why I am writing today. I wish to share a few quotes that have affected me and place them in a modern context that has so far served me well, kept me humble and fueled my ambitions.

“Generally speaking, the Way of the Warrior is the resolute acceptance of death”

A seemingly morbid start to this piece, but it’s something I repeat to myself daily and I’ll explain why. No one is unafraid of death or of dying. The ones who claim otherwise are lying to save themselves the grim realization of their fragile mortality. I still face suicidal thoughts often and the shit state of our world doesn’t help alleviate them. Despite intrusive thoughts and desperate times, I am still alive and so are you. Should we not accept our short time on this planet and use it wisely? Should we not spend our limited days loving, learning, working, and relaxing in the places we enjoy and with the people/animals we care for? I will not be here forever and I want my soul to depart with the knowledge that it lived a full and honest life. I accept death as an inevitability and try to spend every day as if it were my last. I speak my mind, I say “I love you” and care for my loved ones, I work hard serving others and I give myself time to reflect and relax as I see fit. One day I will be dust, but I am here now and will take advantage of that blessing.

“Fixation is the way to death. Fluidity is the way to life”

My post-traumatic stress has often forced me to fixate on my anger and my grief. The memories of past failures or those who have wronged me (or I have wronged) have led me down desperate paths time and time again. This fixation has stalled me as if a dam blocking a rushing stream and thus prevented me from continuing my life’s journey or even changing course. I am sure that you have faced similar struggles where your mind is fixed on a singular issue and that cause of grief is seemingly immovable. Outside of daily life and contemplation, I have faced this struggle when confronting social justice causes where my mind is so focused on the clear roots of evil that I neglected the people I could be serving in the moment. My lack of fluidity kept me focused on the oppressors instead of the people being bruised and harassed by them. True solidarity requires fluidity in order to navigate our emotions and focus on what’s most needed here and now.

“There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself”

In life, and especially in dog eat dog capitalism, we often seek a quick fix to improve our odds of success. We seek the means to be better than ourselves or others and quickly before our time expires. Your mind dictates what is possible. It always has. There’s no book on tape, Dr. Oz magic pill or Jeff Bezos secret formula (probably made from non-unionized worker tears) to make you better. Granted I do not seek the means to be better than my neighbour be it financially or physically, but rather better than those who hold us all back from liberation via their defense of the status quo or their attacks on social equity. To do this, I remind myself to be mindful, studious and devoted to training every day in order to confront injustice and serve the people. I know that all of my skills and my knowledge are dependent on my willpower and nothing will come along to “hasten the bloom of the flower” as Musashi would say. If I wait for salvation or give into complacency, I am useless to the cause. If I doubt myself due to my supposed inadequacies, I am useless to the cause. The power to change and adapt is within us and it always has been.

“Though you give up your life, do not give up your honour”

Sometimes I consider what life would be like if I gave up my ideals and went after a high-paying career in business or technology or property investment or whatever the boom is. I could be like my friends and seek the big house, the green and freshly mowed lawn, the private schools for our kids and the six to seven figure salary. What would it be like if I accepted the world for what it is? What if I gave in and said billionaires earned their money, protestors were troublemakers, systemic racism isn’t real and massive debt is normal for us but bad for big business? I could very well be successful financially and have myself a simple life, right? The fact that I choose to ignore the impulse to give in shows my honour and dedication to all of you and to myself. It would be easier to just accept the dismal state of the world and live comfortably in my ignorance/denial, but to do so would be a disservice to everyone else who’s suffering. Honour, to me, is my ability to say NO when offered a life of submission. I’m also mindful that I have the privilege to say no which is not the case for many under the boots of State and capital. That unfortunate fact means I (and every other accomplice privileged enough) have to fight harder for those whose choice is removed.

“It may seem difficult at first, but everything is difficult at first”

This may seem simple to understand, but it’s honestly the hardest for me to internalize. I spent (and still spend) a great deal of time lost in self-loathing for what I perceive as a lack of success. Being a perfectionist doesn’t exactly lessen those feelings. It still takes me time to admit that I WILL NOT get everything right the first time nor am I expected to. I have struggled to remind myself that the people who have criticized or rushed me before have no power over my progress now. The same applies to you. We are tempered by trial and error. Your unwillingness to give up despite difficulty is a testament to your strength and not a sign of weakness.

“Do not regret what you have done”

One of my first exposures to The Book of Five Rings and the teachings of Miyamoto Musashi came from this quote. I stumbled upon it during a traumatic episode and it’s been with me ever since. It’s normal and understandable to wish the unfortunate things in your life had never happened or decisions should have been different. “I should have never gone to that place” “I should have never dated him or dated her” “Why did I say such and such in that moment?” and on and on we lament our past. I’m trying to view my past as a series of lessons which I can build upon now and impart to the next generation. This isn’t to say that we should simply accept every piece of trauma or horrendous event/decision that has occurred, but instead that we should acknowledge our past deeds and grow more powerful in spite of them. We can’t go back in time. We can only learn and rise from the ashes.

“Get beyond love and grief, exist for the good of man”

I want to end with this one. Musashi isn’t trying to say that we shouldn’t love or grieve. Expressing our pain and adoration are essential facets of being human and repression isn’t productive. Both love and grief can tie us down however and keep us focused inward when we could be using our emotions and care to benefit our neighbours. I’ve always viewed this quote as Musashi arguing for us to live an unselfish and caring life in service to others. He’s not asking you to give up your emotions, but rather he’s saying we mustn’t fixate on them when we could be using our time to help humanity. Grief and love are powerful and can benefit the struggle for social equity when implemented correctly. I am a deeply emotional person and I use my rage, sadness, fear and compassion to keep myself motivated instead of simply focusing on what I need.

Statue of the famous duel between Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro (The Demon of the Western Provinces) on Ganryu island. Image Source: Japan Me, 2021.

I could have written a novel on here with all of the quotes from The Book of Five Rings that have influenced me, but I don’t want to keep you all day. I hope something here has made you think differently or otherwise struck you in some way. I try to keep these words in the back of mind regardless of my activity or attitude so that they may (often subtlety) influence my actions and reactions in daily life. I know this isn’t one of my usual posts. I have been in a very contemplative mood as of late so I thought it might be helpful to share some words that keep me balanced in these unsteady times. Please take care of yourself, serve others, live an unselfish and passionate life and always strive for a more equitable world. Thanks for reading and I hope to see you again. Solidarity, my friends.


4 thoughts on “Meditating Amidst The Madness: Lessons from The Book of Five Rings

      1. I read it when I was young, ten or eleven. What amazed was his use of metaphor. I don’t think I had been taught what metaphor was until high school, but symbolism has always appealed to me, innately. And I understood that his philosophy could apply to any wall of life, with enough focus and discipline. It was a seminal work in my development.
        Also, the book I read had a biography of Miyamoto Musashi, which really sparked my imagination—an invincible Japanese swordsman. This four decades ago, and it appeals to me as much more as ever.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I have a similar copy with a biography. I also have two graphic novels based on Musashi (one for The Book of Five Rings and one for his life). I completely agree that the philosophy espoused by Musashi can be applied to almost all aspects of life. It’s one of my most recommended texts for a reason.

        Liked by 1 person

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