The hardest person to fool

A forced smile can alter a mood; a placebo can cure an illness—the link between mind and body is unassailable. It is with this thought that I began to question the importance of the origins of a nutritional fast. I began to think that a fast undertaken at home by choice has a different effect, psychologically and physiologically, than a fast compelled by uncontrollable external circumstances. This musing reminded me of another strategy and the complications associated with it: death ground.

“Death ground”, as far as I’m aware, was a concept explicitly coined by Sun Tzu over two thousand years ago in The Art of War. In the chapter called “Nine Grounds” Master Sun elaborates on the nine types of the ground and what action to take upon them:

– “Ground of dissolution” is where local interests fight amongst themselves.
– “Light ground” is what’s found upon a shallow incursion into another’s territory.
– “Ground of contention” is terrain which it would be advantageous for both you and your opponent to hold.
– “Trafficked ground” is ground where you and others come and go.
– “Intersecting ground” is a gateway, a position that, if held, gives access to a greater land.
– “Heavy ground” is what you occupy when you are deep behind enemy lines.
– “Bad ground” is any route that is difficult to move across—swamps, forests, mountains etc..
– “Surrounded ground” is a bottleneck, where a small force can easily overwhelm a larger one.
– “Dying ground” is that which requires a rapid victory in order to avoid a rapid defeat.

Master Sun advises the following on each of the “nine grounds”:

“So let there be no battle on a ground of dissolution, let there be no stopping on light ground, let there be no attack on a ground of contention, let there be no cutting off of trafficked ground. On intersecting ground form communications, on heavy ground plunder, on bad ground keep going, on surrounded ground make plans, on dying ground fight.”

He elaborates further on the effect dying ground has on an army.

“Put them in a spot where they have no place to go, and they will die before fleeing. If they are to die there, what can they not do? Warriors exert their full strength. When warriors are in great danger, then they have no fear. When there is nowhere to go they are firm, when they are deeply involved they stick to it. If they have no choice, they will fight.”

Fast forward two thousand years and this strategy is common knowledge. See Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War:

“You are your own worst enemy. You waste precious time dreaming of the future instead of engaging in the present. Since nothing seems urgent to you, you are only half involved in what you do. The only way to change is through action and outside pressure. Put yourself in situations where you have too much at stake to waste time or resources–if you cannot afford to lose, you won’t. Cut your ties to the past; enter unknown territory where you must depend on your wits and energy to see you through. Place yourself on “death ground,” where your back is against the wall and you have to fight like hell to get out alive.”

The central idea is that necessity can inspire action that will alone cannot. This strategy manifested? This blog is an example. I said I’m going to publish daily, so I do. If an artist announces a deadline to the world, he has to keep to it to preserve his reputation (providing he values it). Someone putting down a large amount of money on a learning experience is incentivised to take as much as he can from the experience—if he doesn’t, he’s wasted his resources. Taking on a project that is well beyond the current scope of your skill leaves you with two options: fail, or become good enough to do it.

So. First, the link between the mind and the body. Second, death ground (or, the power of necessity). A third piece? The famous Richard Feynman quote: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

See, what I’ve found is that, sometimes, you are the hardest person to fool. Especially when it comes to the imposition of necessity. Succinctly put, you can’t fake death ground. I know because I’ve tried. I’ve given myself deadlines, tried to manufacture urgency, and if there’s even a hint that the stakes aren’t as high as I tell myself, I take my foot off the gas. Which is why, when it comes to fasts, I don’t think it’s enough to do them willingly in a comfortable environment. If recapturing the essence of wildness is the aim, then a fast must be brought about by nothing less than necessity. The non-normalness of such a strategy must be matched with the non-normalness of the environment or situation it is undertaken in.

The human being, as a collective, is remarkably intelligent. It knows more than the fact it is being denied nutrition—it knows why. For maximum effect, for realistic effect, we have to go a step down the evolutionary chain—a reincorporation not just of fasts, but of the conditions that compelled them in the first place.