In my teen years I was involved in the martial arts. I studied in a very traditional Okinawan Goju-ryu school in New Jersey. It was glorious. I loved the discipline and the ceremony of it all. My teacher tolerated no backtalk, complaining, or hazing. A wrinkled gi was not tolerated. You were expected to wash and press your uniform prior to each class. Silence, bowing, and kneeling were mandatory. Tardiness was the ultimate display of rudeness and was strictly forbidden.
He was very strict. And if you didn’t like it, you were welcome to go elsewhere. He had no shortage of students. Something about the call to excellence drew eager pupils to the door.
That school was worlds apart from so many of the contemporary karate schools that dot the land and bookend mini-malls today. Institutions that tolerate sloppiness, where you address your instructor as “Steve.”
But that is a discussion for another time.
At the end of every class, my teacher—as he was like to do—would slowly pace up and down the neat rows of students as we knelt in complete silence. Before dismissing us, he would pose a question and then open up the class for discussion. His questions were always poignant, but one in particular has stayed with me all these years.
He asked, “What is the worst kind of opponent to face?”
We raised our hands—as shouting out was not allowed and always met with reproof—eager to please and impress our beloved sensei. He listened patiently as we rattled off our answers which included things like, “someone with a gun” or “a crazy dude on drugs.”
He nodded approvingly, as if taking our responses into consideration, then replied, “No, the worst opponent is someone who has nothing to lose.”
When a person has nothing to lose, they are free to gain everything. No course of action is absurd or ridiculous. Every avenue is a viable option. One is so naked they become bullet-proof. In a fight, this level of mental freedom can be very powerful.
This is why the samurai would practice “dying” before going into combat. Die in your mind ahead of time, then you won’t have that worry hanging over you on the battlefield.
We have many sacred cows in our lives. Things which, like the irresponsible banking institutions of Wall Street, we deem too big to fail. Our homes and possessions, our income and careers. For others it is their spouse or their relationships—even the dysfunctional ones.
We become so terrified of losing what we have, that we tighten our grip on our personal worlds, closing off the ability to receive something new or even better.
To be clear, I am not saying you need to quit your job or leave your family or sell off your possessions in order to pursue your dreams. Then again, you might.
What I am asking is how would your world change if you truly had nothing to lose?