It’s a mystery how some conflicts in the world seem to get resolved without a lot more bloodshed, or at least without a lot more yelling and screaming. The celebratory fall of the Berlin Wall—fabulous! The peaceful transition from an authoritarian apartheid regime to a racially egalitarian democracy in South Africa—amazing! My daughter picking the expensive clothes I bought her off the floor of her room and hanging them up neatly—I never saw that coming. A situation that seems stuck, tense, and impossible one day now seems workable, even creative. How did that happen? It didn’t seem connected to any particular action or effort.
Are these sudden, almost mysterious, shifts in direction brought about by an accident, serendipity, or unseen intervention? No, according to the wisdom text now commonly known as, it’s a kind of ordinary magic, which comes from being connected to and working with reality at a deeper, more intuitive level. Attributed to a Chinese general named Sun Tzu who lived 2,500 years ago, the text tells us that this kind of ordinary magic arises when we respond to conflict in a more profound and subtle manner, resisting heavy-handed attempts to wrestle the world into submission. Beyond being simply a hit-or-miss occurrence, it can be cultivated as a way of being and acting in the world. The text calls it shih (pronounced “shir,” almost with no vowel sound).
In order to understand shih, we must first understand the way the Sun Tzu text views the world, for it is from the depths of the text’s view of the world that this skillful action arises. The Sun Tzu sees the world as a whole—interdependent, interconnected, constantly in flux. The world is less about specific locations and solid things than it is about potentialities, processes, and relationships. There are “things” and causal chains that appear to us as linear, but each is part of a whole system, and each whole system is interrelated and interactive. As the Sun Tzu sees it, we are part of a web of interconnectedness, fluid and rapidly changing. The frame of reference we take for granted today may well evaporate by next week, and one little thing way over there can affect one little thing way over here.
Sound familiar? That’s probably because this view of the world from 500 BCE China is not unlike the view of our world emerging today, whether on the frontiers of theoretical physics or in the way we lead our everyday lives. From Google searches and personal networks to social and economic theories of whole systems to quantum mechanics and chaos theory, viewing the world as an interconnected whole is becoming commonplace. Think synchronicity, the tipping point, and the flat world. Or how cellphone photos of a disaster halfway across the globe quicken our heartbeats as they bring the experience of human suffering to us seconds after it occurs.
In this interconnected and ever-changing world, the challenging experience we call conflict arises as a matter of course. Conflict is not regarded as an aberration that occurs because people have acted badly. It arises as an inevitable outgrowth of the differing conditions, views, and aspirations of people who find themselves nevertheless connected to each other. To the extent that there is any duality whatsoever—and the relative world is nothing but a web of dualities—one thing will rub against another.
Having taken conflict as a naturally occurring feature of life, the text offers a way to work with it directly and skillfully. The Sun Tzu text came into being to address the conflict that generals faced during the Warring States period in China, when they battled to take control of critical territory in order to ward off threats to their state’s existence. While most of us are not vying for control of cities and farms, we may have a keen interest in Sun Tzu’s message because, as “generals” trying to maintain command of our own worlds, we routinely attempt to carry out objectives, from simple inspirations to grand plans. And in so doing, we are met with indifference, resistance, or open hostility. Conflict is a tough part of life, and we long for ways of working with it that are more creative and profound than our habitual extremes of avoidance or aggression.
The Sun Tzu’s view of how to work with conflict conveys its most profound teaching. The core wisdom of the text is that it is possible to accomplish your objective without resorting to aggression, or as the text famously states: “to subdue the other’s military without battle.” The text calls this “taking whole.” Once you see the world as whole, then taking whole becomes the consummate skill in working with the phenomenal world. Taking whole means keeping things intact, as much as possible, rather than destroying them, and it applies to the aspirations of the “enemy” as much as to their physical well-being. Incorporating and including the enemy leaves something to build upon. The Chinese general realized that the farmers who were his enemies today could be producing food for his people tomorrow, and so destroying them in the battle for more territory was only depriving himself of resources for his future, larger kingdom.
But how does the general take whole in the midst of the chaos and confusion of the battlefield? How do we take whole, in the midst of our tough battles at corporate headquarters, in our social action project, or at our children’s school? Here the Sun Tzu is again resoundingly clear: skillful action begins with knowledge. In the battlefield this obviously means knowing all the details that affect critical decisions: the weather, what my soldiers have had to eat, how far enemy troops marched last night. But the text expands from this to a more profound understanding of knowledge:
Know the other and know oneself,
Then victory is not in danger.
Know earth and know heaven,
Then victory can be complete. (Chapter 10)
While knowledge includes the accumulation of information, it goes beyond that and becomes a more active openness, a knowing, an unbiased perception of all the elements of a situation and the patterns they form. When the general acts with a fixed view, every bit of new information is interpreted in relation to that view, and emerging possibilities are missed. But “knowing” in the Sun Tzu is relating directly to the way things are—connecting to the interrelated, changing world rather than clinging to one’s smaller, fixed view. It lays the ground for taking whole and makes it possible to attain a larger-scale victory, one that goes beyond applying old solutions to new, emerging circumstances. Thus the text tells us: “Victory can be known; it cannot be made.”
Whatever view he may have held about his world, the sage commander of the Warring States period in China still needed to take action, and therefore, he faced the same challenge we do today: how do we successfully work with the chaos and conflict that arises as we seek to attain our objective, to bring about victory in our particular battleground? One can do so, the Sun Tzu tells us, through skillful mastery of shih, the primary way of working with the phenomenal world.
In general, shih refers to action that rearranges the environment to our advantage, but in a different way than we’re used to. Though the world is a whole system, it is possible to carve off discrete areas and take action. Within the constant change, there are tendencies, norms that the text calls tao. These can be simple things, such as the fact that water seeks the low ground, soldiers get tired at the end of the day, and round rocks roll downhill. These conditions combine to make up clusters of events, patterns that we can recognize and work with. In the interconnected web, the convergence of small movements changes the relationships between all the elements. Imagine the crossing wave patterns made by two motorboats on a small mountain lake, and the ripple effect of bobbing boats and docks around the lake’s perimeter. Smaller movements can come about either naturally or from alterations we make in the details of the situation. Using shih is working directly with the world on this level.
Specifically, the text tells us that shih is about power and strategic advantage joined with the critical moment of application, or release—called the “node.” (Node refers to the very small connection that separates segments of bamboo, essentially a moment of transition from one phase to the next.) Chapter five of the Sun Tzu introduces us to shih in three ways: first as power-in-motion, where water, otherwise soft and harmless, can be amassed into a rushing force capable of tossing huge rocks about; next as shape, where shih is described as steep, evoking the power of troops taking the higher ground in a mountain ravine; and finally as accumulation, like the drawing back of a crossbow and the power released at the pulling of the trigger (the node).
The text summarizes all these three in the last lines of the chapter:
One who uses shih sets people to battle as if rolling trees and rocks.
As for the nature of trees and rocks—
When still, they are at rest.
When agitated, they move.
When square, they stop.
When round, they go.
Thus the shih of one skilled at setting people to battle is like rolling
round rocks from a mountain one thousand jen high.
It is important to note here that shih does not rely on changing the nature of things in the world, but on knowing how things are and how they work together, and on the right timing. For example, one habitual response to interpersonal conflict is to demand that the other party change their behavior in order to resolve the situation in our favor. By contrast, relying on shih involves awaiting the right moment to act, then nudging a “round rock” to trigger a pattern of action that leads to resolution. It’s like eating a piece of fruit when it’s ripe, not when you’re hungry, in order to enjoy the greatest nourishment and fulfillment.
According to the Sun Tzu, appreciating the nature of shih and employing it well is what will help us most when we are faced with the need to apply force to move forward and when we want to attain our goal without engaging in a costly battle. Force is a natural human gesture. It is the power that moves things; breathing out is an example of its simplest form. But force becomes a problem when it is mixed with aggression and becomes the power to impose oneself upon others. At that point, it becomes an expression of frustration with our failure to attain our objective by other means, and it only engenders further conflict. When we align ourselves with the power of shih, things often seem to happen on their own, without a discernible actor applying causal force.
The ability to use shih begins with the simple act of enlarging one’s perspective, taking a bigger view of the situation in either time or space. There are many common occurrences in our life where a bigger view explains something that, from a smaller reference point, seems like magic. Water comes out of a tap, a hulk of steel flies through the air, the words I type on a keyboard in my office are instantly communicated around the world—all these are commonplace to us but would be utterly magical to those from a time in the past. Now, for us, the series of events preceding water coming out of the tap in our kitchen are known and obvious, and so it seems ordinary. And many things we cannot understand now will be easily explained in the future as our collective view continues to get bigger. Even now, string theory, currently at the forefront of modern physics, is postulating the existence of unseen worlds to explain phenomena we now don’t understand.
This points to a way of understanding shih as a kind of ordinary magic. Using shih arises from knowing the norms and patterns of things in a deeper way and being connected to the interdependent, changing world. This results in skillful action in the world that might be completely mysterious to those around us who aren’t seeing those norms and patterns. Knowing how to fly an airplane is possible because we are in touch with how the world works in a deeper way than those from a previous time or those who have a smaller view of the world, and that makes the act seem like magic.
This view of shih implies an entirely different way of working with the world to accomplish a goal. Within the worldview of solid entities, fixed goals, and strategic plans, the leader regards the intelligence in any system—whether the system is a person, organization, or society—as centralized in the “I” or headquarters. Things are run from the corner office. Achieving one’s goal is best accomplished through command and control, which necessarily results in a series of cascading effects, all directed by the central intelligence. But from the view of the Sun Tzu, the leader sees that intelligence is distributed throughout the system, and achieving one’s goal comes about by disturbing rather than directing that system. Disturbing relies on the norms and patterns, and calls the intelligence of the system into action. This results in changing the ground to enable an unseen victory to be “known.”
Working with the world in this way gives rise to a new, more demanding way of being. When employing shih to accomplish an objective, one is required to loosen one’s grip on smaller objectives while at the same time opening up to a bigger view, which includes allowing even one’s most cherished and hard-won views to be open to change and disintegration. It is not as simple as abandoning the former in favor of the latter. Both must be held in mind, firmly yet loosely, like a baby’s grip on your finger, the model for how to properly hold a golf club or samurai sword. This allows a creative tension, holding open the space between one’s vision and the reality of a situation until a resolution arises from the ever-shifting ground. Curiously, this is strikingly similar to how quantum mechanics describes working with reality: shih is about plucking victories out of the realm of possible results in much the same way that quantum physics describes a scientist pulling particular results out of the matrix of possible outcomes.
Working successfully in the world as the Sun Tzu text sees it, where interrelated parts interact in ever-shifting ways, relies upon knowing the world directly, being connected, and moving with the emerging shapes and conformations. Each piece affects all the others, and our awareness expands to see how altering a single piece moves the whole. We get a glimpse that acting in isolation is no longer an option. We have the spontaneous experiences of the complete victories that come from taking whole, mixed with frustration and defeat. Yet, such complete and satisfying victories seem comparatively rare. What makes it so difficult to work with the world in this way?
The main obstacle to using shih is the fragmented view of the world that arises when we solidify and cling tenaciously to our separateness. This limits us to a partial view, habitually holding tight to smaller-minded agendas in a sea of change. The realization that the world is whole and interrelated only goes so far if one still clings to the view that this interconnected world still revolves around “me.”
Many people are attracted to the Sun Tzu by its profound view, only to then turn around and use its lessons to impose their smaller agendas onto the world more successfully. Using shih for this purpose can lead to success in the conventional sense if one is skillful. However, this approach reinforces and strengthens the sense of separateness, and while it indeed produces a “more successful” self, this inevitably leads to needless conflict that engenders battles that lead to more needless conflict. Using shih, or any skill, in order to sustain a sense of oneself as separate from the world only perpetuates the duality that is the root of conflict to begin with.
What safeguards, if any, does the Sun Tzu offer as protection against the use of its wisdom to attain smaller-minded victories? Ultimately the safeguard arises from the profundity of the worldview that pervades the text. Applying shih in discrete, focused settings is a powerful way of working with the world, but whatever we do always takes place within the larger framework of the interconnected world. And for all that the skillful use of shih can do to bring about favorable circumstances, that bigger, interconnected world is not ultimately subject to our control. Victory cannot be made.
The overwhelming power of the larger world is frequently demonstrated when humans try to rearrange the environment to our advantage. To take an example from the current debate on globalization: Stimulating economic development in order to address political or social problems can yield definite, measurable successes. But it may also give rise to potentially greater threats to social and political stability from the accelerated environmental degradation that accompanies development. The response of the greater whole—in this case the resulting environmental damage threatening continued human life on the planet—is an expression of its intelligence. The system as a whole is making the clear statement that smaller-minded solutions are not complete victories, and that conflict will not subside unless and until there is an approach based on taking whole.
The frustration that arises from applying smaller-minded solutions propels us to seek more profound ways of working with conflict. The wisdom of a deeper way of knowing and working with the world, such as the Sun Tzu presents, becomes more compelling. When knowing becomes an openness to how things fundamentally are in the world, we begin to suspend the habitual projections we impose upon the world. The grip of separateness is loosened and smaller agendas naturally give way to a bigger view.
Using shih to work with the phenomenal world arises from being woven into the interdependent and ever-changing whole, and going with it rather than controlling it from the outside. “Power over” becomes “tuned into.” Skillful action comes from knowing, seeing, and catching the moment rather than from practiced routines, or “take-aways” gathered from corporate seminars or meditation weekends. Whether in our offices or at home, in a foreign war or neighborhood skirmish, the opportunity to work with the phenomenal world at a deeper level is always present. Using shih can be the gateway to ordinary magic in our lives.