“The greatest danger occurs at the moment of victory.”
One of the critical lessons that history can teach us is that we are often at our most vulnerable in times of success. Because when we feel that we have achieved what we have sought for, pride tends to seep in. We might grow complacent. Or greedy. We might overindulge in material pleasures. Or we might feel entitled to do or have anything we want.
This was the case in the Battle of Uhud, which is widely regarded as the darkest chapter in Islamic history.
It was during this time that many of the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) companions fell. The Prophet himself was nearly killed, as he wounded his face and broke one of his front teeth, after being struck by rocks and arrows.
The battle seemed like a daunting feat right from the get-go. The Prophet and his men (about 700 of them), were up against around 3,000 soldiers from the Quraysh tribe.
Despite being grossly outnumbered, the Muslims still had the edge under the Prophet’s leadership. Their strength was largely due to their taking advantage of the slope of Mount Uhud, where the Prophet had strategically placed his archers to protect the army’s rear.
The Prophet made it clear to the archers that no one was to leave their posts, no matter what happened.
The odds seemed to only be in the Muslims’ favor. The Quraysh tribe was quickly beaten, and they left behind their spoils as they retreated.
Out of the 50 archers who were stationed at the mountain, fewer than 10 remained. In their excitement, the rest of the archers left their posts to grab the spoils left by their enemies.
Seeing that the mountain was left inadequately defended, the cavalrymen of the Quraysh led by Khalid al-Waled launched a surprise attack on the Muslims, while many of them were busy collecting spoils.
The Muslims were thrown into panic and confusion. In utter disarray, some of them even killed each other, as they couldn’t tell who was fighting who. Those that didn’t die in battle, retreated, running far away without looking behind at the carnage, despite hearing the Prophet’s voice urging them to come back and fight.
Knowing the dangers of keeping our ego unchecked during times of success, how exactly then, can we temper ourselves?
Having recently completed my read of the entire 13 volumes of The Sandman comics, I was touched by how in the story, the character Dream created his helm as a reminder of defeat, that he is not as invincible as he might be tempted to believe.
For me, I personally keep my kendo shinai (wooden sword) near my bookshelves, where I could see it all the time. The shinai, which still has my dried blood on its handle, is a humble reminder for me to have zanshin (relaxed alertness) in whatever I do, to not let my impulses get the better of me.
I was fortunate to spend the first half of this year studying kendo, until I decided that it was too demanding for my fitness level.
Nevertheless, I could never forget the lessons I learned during those grueling months. One of the most important concepts in kendo that have since remained etched in me is something called zanshin.
To help you understand this concept better, it’s worth noting that kendo is full of rituals. From how you iron your kendo clothes (making sure you have all the pleats nicely visible) and how you wear them and how you fold and unfold them, to how you stand in position, to how you hold your shinai (sword) and where to aim it, to what you must yell out when you make your strikes, to starting and ending classes with bowing to your sensei (teacher) and meditating together — there are many practices in kendo that you must respectfully adhere to.
Once you start to internalize all these little practices, you would hopefully start to realize that these practices are instilling zanshin in you.
Zanshin is a relaxed state of mind in which you are only focused at the task at hand, and on taking one step at a time. In this relaxed state, you are emptying your mind from just about everything else, especially from strong emotions, such as feeling anxious, or even normally positive ones such as excitement. At the same time, you are aware of everything that’s going on in your mind, your body, and your environment, without having to be enmeshed in them.
Especially in high-pressure situations, zanshin helps you calmly and objectively stay the course, as well as deal with any unpredictable challenges that may come your way.
From what my sensei taught me, it was considered dangerously arrogant to flout the practices we learned, especially when it comes to dueling. Because it only takes a tiny moment of letting your guard down for your opponent to take advantage of you — and of course, in a real-life duel, you’d just get killed. So, you must stay alert until you’re absolutely sure that you are in the safe zone.
After striking, for example, it is a huge no for you to lower your shinai and relax your arms. Instead, you must remain in your stance and keep your shinai aimed correctly at your opponent until you’re absolutely sure that you’ve won the fight.
This was a mistake I made too often. There were too many times when my sensei yelled out “zanshin!” whenever I broke out of my stance, and lectured me afterwards about the importance of following the concept.
You probably don’t need to have experience in kendo for you to practice zanshin.
If zanshin could be boiled down into a more universal sense, it essentially involves keeping your focus on the little aspects of your work — attending to them as thoroughly and as honorably as you can — regardless of how you feel, regardless of the various temptations that may come with your work.
After having some experience in writing, for example, you might be tempted to believe that it has only gotten easier. You might feel that you don’t need to scrutinize your work as much as you used to. You might look at a draft and feel like there are no errors, and that it doesn’t need any more improvements (in reality it always does).
Practicing zanshin, this could mean going through your usual rounds of reading and editing your work while you still have the opportunity, all the while remembering that having improved as a writer doesn’t exempt you from bad writing.
When it comes to your relationships with other people, you might be so used to having them in your life, that you are tempted to take them for granted, to assume that they are just going to be there forever.
In line with zanshin, you could keep nurturing your relationships by attending to the little things well — communicating your needs, taking responsibility for your mistakes like an adult, saying your “I love you’s”, giving thoughtful gifts, being present in the time you spend together, and having fun.
All of us are constantly at war, with our own impulses, and our ego — not unlike what the playwright Henrik Ibsen remarked, that “to live is to war with trolls in heart and soul.” It’s a tough war, no doubt about it.
And we may lose some battles, even many of them. But the important thing is that we keep fighting the war, to the best of our abilities. Because there’s a lot of worth even in trying, and I really do believe that.