Cutting a man down

Miyamoto Musashi was more than a swordsman; he was a conscious warrior. He thought deeply about how he fought and why. In Five Rings, his book on a warrior’s philosophy, he describes a concept called “Stance-No-Stance”:

“According to the moment, if you want to lower your sword a little from the Upper Stance, it will become a Middle Stance; if, according to the situation, you raise your sword a bit from the Middle Stance, it will become the Upper Stance. Likewise, the Lower Stance may be raised a little to become the Middle Stance. This means that the two Side Stances, depending on their position, may be moved a little to the centre to become either the Middle or Lower Stance.
This is the principle in which there is, and there is not, a stance. At its heart, this is first taking up the sword and then cutting down your opponent, no matter what is done or how it happens. Whether you parry, slap, strike, hold back, or touch your opponent’s cutting sword, you must understand that all of these are opportunities to cut him down. To think, “I’ll parry” or “I’ll slap” or “I’ll hit, hold, or touch” will be insufficient for cutting him down. It is essential to think that anything at all is an opportunity to cut him down.”

​Talk of cutting a man down seems strange in an age where physical confrontation is a rarity, where we fight with sharp words and subtle deeds, instead of muscle and merciless metal. But ideas like stance-no-stance—and others adopted from ancient warriors and the study of military strategy—can be adapted to help us become better thinkers and better humans. 

For example, consider what happens when we transform stance-no-stance into an intellectual concept. If beliefs and models become stances, then they become positions to be assumed and abandoned, to be played with and explored. They become tools with which we experiment in order to find an angle and expose flaws and vulnerabilities. Such deliberate manipulation of what we think enables us to ask questions: What would I do if I believed the opposite? How would the field of play change if we all thought X? What would I see if I believed in Y instead of Z?

This is the power of stance-no-stance. This is the power of other age-old, forgotten concepts like concentration and dispersion of force, formations of armies, espionage and deception. They help us to see the obscure and reveal what would have remained buried had we clung to our familiar, favoured positions.