Get a Samurai Mindset: Unshakable and Invincible
I'll never forget a story a friend told me back in college, when we were taking Judo classes together. It may have been apocrypha, or made up on the spot, or even from a movie I never saw—this friend was known for spinning some yarns—but I don’t care. I like it just the way he told it.
Back in feudal Japan, when Samurai roamed the countryside, a couple master swordsmen found themselves squaring off to fight. These guys were both masters, and the fact that they were both still alive attested to that. For them, a fight meant a fight to the death, and that death could happen in a single stroke. Given the stakes, they each knew they couldn’t just rely on their own strengths. They had to rely on the other's weaknesses.
So they took their positions, each one eyeing down the other, waiting for an opening; watching for the slightest distraction, the smallest hint of weakness that would invite an attack. But it never happened. They stood there, swords drawn, and kept standing there, until finally the sun went down. Neither of them ever gave an opening. So they both just went home. No one won. No one lost. The fight never happened.
I'm not sure what went on after that. Maybe they settled their dispute over checkers later, or just became pals. The point is, they didn’t even need to compete to find out the other couldn't be beat. The whole battle took place before it started.
It reminds me of a saying from the great (and historically real) Samurai swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi: "If you can make your opponent flinch, you've already won." Neither of the two Samurai ever flinched; they both had unshakable, invincible mindsets. But that's the rare exception. Most of the time, someone does flinch, and when they lose, we say they died by the other's sword.
But what that story teaches is the invisible reality underneath appearances: the loser died by his own mind.
The Battle Is Everywhere
This sort of battle for mental dominance happens all the time, on all different scales, in everyone's lives, not just these possibly fictional Samurai. It happens at work, in traffic, in athletic competition, in negotiating your kids' bedtime. It happens between a public speaker and his audience, a performer and his crowd, on dates, and in job interviews. It even happens during solo workouts, when two voices in your head square off, one saying you can't do it, and the other saying you can. However subtle it may be, and however much we may prefer to ignore it, it's there. Wherever two or more gather, a primal battle for dominance is with them.
And if the Samurai story sounds sort of strange, it's because of how rare a stalemate like that is. Usually, the winner and loser—the dominant mind and the submissive mind—are decided in a split second's time. And once the roles are cast, it's extraordinarily difficult to change the script. Alpha and Beta positions are set, and the rest of the interaction is framed and determined by that power differential.
So how do we win that mental game? How do we show up so that we've already won, and not get caught off guard, flinch, and feel that blade, metaphoric or otherwise, sink into out flesh? In my experience, it comes down to a combination of what I'll call preparation, intent, and letting go.
Winner and loser are often decided in a split second. How do you arrive at that second better prepared than your opponent?
Own Your Preparation
This one probably seems obvious, and in a way it is. You have to be prepared, well-trained, and well rehearsed. I suppose it's possible one of those Samurais could have beat the other, even if he was less prepared. A better-trained competitor can drop the ball on the mental side and get beat. But it's not the kind of thing you want to bank on. So job one is to thoroughly prepare.
Lots of people attribute their wins to proper preparation. But countless people who've failed thought they were prepared, too, and probably were, in one sense. It's entirely possible—and probably not uncommon—to be disciplined and diligent in getting ready, but never let yourself trust that you are ready. No matter how much preparation you do, you can keep spinning out in your mind about all the things that could happen, frantically trying to put out imaginary fires in your head all the way up to, and even during performance.
That's the difference between preparing and actually being prepared. Being prepared means getting to the point where you can forget about all the preparation you've done, because you trust that it's done. You can do all the training in the world, but if it doesn’t translate into trust and confidence in yourself, you're never going to be able to relax. If you can’t relax, you can’t improvise, or respond intelligently to the actual situation as it unfolds in real time. You're opening yourself up to huge vulnerabilities, either from the outside, or from your own internal psych-outs. You're going to freeze up, and you're going to flinch.
It's necessary to be prepared, but it's not sufficient. You can be a world-class expert in whatever it is you do, and still fail to take the dominant position. There are many talented, capable people out there who never made anything happen because they couldn’t translate their preparation into a win. And that brings us to the next ingredient: intent.
The Intent to Win
Few people play to win. Most play not to lose. And if you start out like that, you're placing yourself in the inferior position from the get go. You're on your heels, and it's up to luck or the mercy of those around you not to steamroll right over you. If you don't set a solid intent to dominate and win, you might as well bow, bend your head to the blade, and beg the other guy to get it over with fast.
By intent, I don’t just mean a verbal affirmation or a visualization. Those can help to anchor intent, but if they're not impregnated by a raw, emotional force, they become empty rituals at best, and self-indulgent fantasies at worst. Real intent is a feeling. More than that, it's a feeling of certainty. It's not, "I hope this will happen," or "I want this to happen," though desire is an important ingredient. It's a deep, unshakable certainty that this will happen.
For one thing, that puts your victory firmly in the realm of possibility. After all, if you don't really believe something's possible, how are you going to make it happen? If you find yourself having a hard time setting a strong intent, that's a valuable opportunity to inquire into whatever is blocking you. It's critical to root those blocks out, or at least become aware of them. Your intent will have a hard time taking root if the soil is already overgrown with fears, doubts, and apprehensions.
When you truly succeed in setting your intent, there's an unmistakable "click" that happens. There's no longer a question in your mind; the matter is settled. It should feel like going out and actually doing what you've intended is just a formality.
When intent is properly set, seemingly miraculous things can occur. Your mind can find ways to succeed that it wouldn’t if it were even the slightest bit unsure of itself. And like preparation, intent has to be so total that once you've set it, you can forget about it, trusting it to do its job. Because the final and possibly most important ingredient here is the ability to clear your mind of contents and let go into an inspired performance.
There is no time in a fight to worry about all the possibilities.
The Hardest Step: Letting Go
Once you've done everything you can on the level of preparation and intent, it's time to get out of the way and let them do their work for you. Because although you're prepared and certain of your win, you don’t know exactly how that win is going to come about. You need to be mentally open, aware, and totally responsive to what's going on in front of you. You need to be in the moment.
If you've prepared properly, you don’t need to be thinking about your performance; if you've set your intent, you don’t need to worry about willing your victory. You’ve done everything you can on those two fronts, to the point where you can trust yourself, and now you can forget about both. Those Samurai were both able to not die that day because their minds were empty. They were both completely tuned in to what was actually going on in front of their faces, not lost in ideas or anticipations about what might happen in the next second.
This kind of letting go is a radical inner maneuver, and it can be the most challenging and counterintuitive part of the formula. It means letting go even of your attachment to winning. After all, that attachment doesn’t actually help anything. All it does is breed anxiety and a fear of losing. No matter how much you want the win, there has to be some part of you that is placid and indifferent, watching the whole thing as though from a distance.
When it's time to perform, desiring a win or fearing a loss can only take up mental space and pull you out of the moment.
Most of us have probably chanced our way into this state of letting go at some point. When we do, we call it being in the zone, or the flow. Things just seem to happen effortlessly, your body moves itself, and your performance exceeds what you thought you were capable of. While it can sometimes seem like an almost mystical state, as though some foreign power has momentarily blessed you with its presence, it's really just what happens when you get out of your own way. It's not weird that it happens; it's weird that it doesn’t happen more often.
Once you've prepared properly, set an unshakable intent, and then let go of all attachments and preconceptions, you've arrived at an invincible mindset. Like the Samurai, you may not beat the other guy, but he's definitely not going to beat you. Worst case scenario, you both go home when the sun goes down and practice calligraphy, or whatever Samurai do in their spare time.
How to Get There From Here
As I mentioned, these battles for mental dominance take place all the time, all around you. They can be playful, or they can be deadly serious, but they're always happening, and they're certainly happening when anything important is on the line. There's not space here to give all the countless examples from even a single, ordinary day, but I'm sure you can reflect and see how the principles I've outlined above apply to countless situations, big and small. Start looking for them, and you'll start seeing even more.
In a way, each of these three elements can be seen as offshoots of one thing: mental toughness, a quality which I define very simply as high dominance and low stress. When you've got mental toughness dialed in, then it's easy to win the game before it starts. Unfortunately, too few people take the time to train their minds in a serious way.
There may be a few ways to train mental toughness, but the surefire bullet for me and my clients over the years has been Neuromuscular Release Work (NRW). Since the main obstacle to setting an invincible mindset is basic fear, tension and anxiety, NRW attacks those inner opponents where they live: the brain and the body. Once you win that inner battle with your own primal self, the rest comes easy.
Mental toughness lies at the root of every game we play and every battle we fight, inner and outer. It's why those Samurai lived to fight another day. And though it may not win you every single battle out there in the world, it'll win you a lot, and most importantly, it'll make certain you never beat yourself before you start.
Preparation doesn't just happen in the gym: