Ordinary Magic

James Gimian uses the Sun Tzu—The Art of War—to uncover wisdom already inherent within ourselves. He shares a real life application for these found wisdoms.

In the seminars on the Sun Tzu that I conduct with colleagues, we emphasize a contemplative approach to the study of the text. By contemplative, we are referring to the simple human faculty of holding open a space to see things clearly. It is a state of mind that arises naturally in human beings, and with time and attention it can be cultivated.

One might experience a contemplative state of mind through any number of disciplines intensely practiced—sports, the arts, craftsmanship—or even in the midst of a life-threatening experience. In our seminars we offer sitting meditation practice as a gateway. Mindfulness meditation helps break the grip of the internal narrative, the endless process of building our “story” that shields us from seeing what is. The experience of a gap in our story line fosters a direct perception of the world as interconnected, interdependent, and constantly in flux. Thus we connect to the worldview inherent in the Sun Tzu, which is the basis for employing shih.

From this view of the world we begin our study of the Sun Tzu text. In what we call reading practice, one carefully reads and re-reads short sections of the text aloud in a contemplative atmosphere. This differs from what we commonly call study, because it isn’t about acquiring knowledge from outside us, but rather about provoking the wisdom inherent in us. We encourage students to read, contemplate, re-read, and then explore what the section of the text might mean.

Reading the Sun Tzu is challenging, because the text is pithy, at times opaque; it is repetitive, yet inconsistent. It doesn’t surrender its lessons easily. But this is also a key to its power. The text arose in the time before books, from the oral tradition of transmitting the wisdom of a culture from one generation to another. It was composed to be recited aloud and remembered, so it is rich with imagery and poetic language. Its rhythmic cadence helps penetrate beneath superficial discursive thinking.

Through reading practice, the profound strategic practices contained in the text’s lines seep deeply into our system. Then, in situations of conflict and challenge, the text’s pith instructions begin to shape the way we think and act. Rather than applying a “learned” technique, we allow a new way of viewing the world to emerge. Knowing more clearly the elements of our present situation gives rise to the kinds of skillful action that leads to taking whole.

No one can tell you how to employ shih in a particular situation—“victories…cannot be transmitted in advance.” But we are confident that one can learn to employ shih in this way because of the many stories we’ve heard from people in seminars over the past ten years. Arising as they do in response to particular lines in the text, the stories form a kind of commentary. The underlying meaning of the text is unveiled in that process, and the skillful action of the Sun Tzu becomes apparent.

Here is an example that someone shared with us. It’s a simple narrative with only a few variables, which makes it easy to use as an example. Although simple, it may provoke insight into stories from your own life, full of myriad variables known and unknown, all complexly interwoven.

Lines from the chapter on shih:

In sum, when in battle,

Use the orthodox to engage.

Use the extraordinary to attain victory.

(Chapter 5)

The story:

For the past few years I have had a very difficult time with my boss. Every initiative I undertake seems to produce resistance from her. I have been so discouraged. I’m at a loss as to how to change the dynamic. I might have to quit, but I love my work.

Last month, in advance of our annual planning meeting, she started out by telling me in the very nicest way about all the things that made her anxious about me. She summed them up by describing how I always “pushed the boundaries,” and made it clear how difficult that made our relationship for her.

As she spoke, I mentally gathered my various responses. I could feel knots forming in my stomach, the growing need to get my logic across to her. But as she got more and more uncomfortable telling me, I found myself saying, when it was my turn to talk, “What can I do so that we don’t have this problem?” Bracing herself for my impassioned defense, she seemed taken aback, and was so happy and relieved. We proceeded to have a helpful talk about our mutual work and how each of us approached it. This act didn’t change our differing perspectives, but it opened up new ground to move forward.

Later she said, “I don’t know anyone who would have responded that way.” I realized it affected her so because she sensed that I was genuinely willing to shift my perspective. 

Photo © flickr.com/gina pina