Mastering the Art of Self-Control
by Donavon L Riley

In the numerous tomes available to us today, which detail individual leaders’ strategic prowess, Miyamoto Musashi’s “Book of Five Rings” stands as a unique example of martial wisdom. He did not learn from professors in a classroom, then apply their techniques on the battlefield. His wisdom was hard-earned in the school of experience where success meant he lived to fight another day, and failure meant death. So the core of his teachings does not begin with theories about combat, and not with what others have taught or done in this regard, but with himself. As he says: “If you wish to control others, you must first control yourself.” 

The Power of Inner Dominion

Within the tenets of Musashi’s philosophy lies the imperative connection between self-mastery and the ability to exert influence upon others. This foundational principle asserts that authentic control over external circumstances emanates from a profound understanding and command over one’s own inner domain. 

The warrior, by skillfully navigating the tumultuous waters of the heart and soothing the turbulence within the soul, transforms into an unstoppable force. But, this metamorphosis is not merely an exercise in restraint, it is a potent alchemical process, transmuting inner discord into an unassailable wellspring of strength. As we conquer the internal chaos within, a quiet yet commanding power emerges from us, captivating those in the vicinity. It is in the poised stillness of self-control that the seeds of genuine influence are sown, for only one who has mastered navigating the currents of their own thoughts and emotions can navigate the external world with unwavering purpose and profound impact.

Embracing the Inner Battlefield

Achieving self-control, according to Musashi, demands an unwavering engagement with the internal battlefield, a relentless assault that requires unyielding resolve. So this is not a passive undertaking but an active and courageous plunge into the depths of one’s own psyche. Musashi teaches that we must therefore engage in rigorous introspection, an exploration that demands the acknowledgment and confrontation of personal weaknesses. 

In the exercise of self-reflection, these perceived weaknesses are then seen, not as shortcomings or liabilities, but raw materials waiting to be converted into strengths. Likewise, the process is arduous and demands resilience, as we mold vulnerabilities into assets, transforming internal struggles into sources of indomitable power. It is on this battleground, where the clash between self-doubt and determination reverberates, that the seeds of true leadership find fertile ground. 

Musashi’s philosophy challenges us not to shy away from our internal conflicts, but to face them head-on, understanding that self-confrontation is where the essence of leadership begins to take root.

The Discipline of Mind and Body

To that point, Musashi’s teachings advocate for the meticulous honing of both mind and body to achieve a state of perfection. His approach to martial mastery is a testament to the unyielding necessity of rigorous training – an ongoing and relentless pursuit that produces not only a skilled warrior but a character of formidable strength. This discipline is a refining fire, shaping the individual through the repeated hammer blows of training, instilling not only physical prowess but mental fortitude that shields us against the adversities of life.

Musashi’s martial discipline also extends beyond the physical realm, focusing equally as much on the soul of the practitioner. In this way, the disciplined individual emanates an intangible yet palpable strength that captivates those in their presence. It is an aura of quiet confidence, that often speaks louder than any words can, earned through countless hours of practice and refinement. This commanding presence, born of disciplined training, goes beyond mere physical prowess; it commands respect and admiration for the person whose strength of character seems to leave an indelible mark wherever they go and with whomever they engage. 

Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

It also cannot be stressed enough in our current cultural context, that integral to the development of true self-control is the mastery over one’s emotional responses—an aspect Musashi deems paramount in the conversion from servile obedience to the whims of one’s heart to leadership excellence. 

Emphasizing the transformative potential of emotional energies, Musashi’s teachings compel us to transcend mere emotional restraint. Instead, he advocates for the deliberate harnessing of these potent forces, channeling them into tools for strategic influence. Disciplined emotion, in the hands of a true warrior, enhances rather than hinders their effectiveness.

The adept leader, therefore, is attuned to their emotional intelligence, and wields it as a potent force that transcends the mere issuance of orders. It becomes a subtle but formidable guide, navigating the intricate dynamics of human interaction, which then serves not only to command respect but to inspire genuine loyalty.

In this nuanced approach, emotional intelligence is not a weakness to be suppressed, but a strength to be cultivated. The leader who understands the ebb and flow of emotions, both within themselves and others, holds the key to fostering an environment where individuals are not just followers but willingly devoted allies. 

Musashi’s teachings encourage us to delve deep into the complexities of our emotional reactions to circumstances, transforming them into tools that elevate our leadership to a level of strategic influence that transcends the conventional boundaries of command.

Inspiring Loyalty Through Example

The culmination of the art of self-control lies in the ability to evoke unwavering loyalty, a pinnacle that Musashi’s teachings assert as integral to true leadership. Beyond the personal mastery of the warrior, Musashi advocates for a leadership style characterized by leading through example—a profound testament to the potency of actions over words. In this paradigm, a leader’s authenticity becomes a magnetic force, drawing others into their orbit through the sheer resonance of their deeds

And so, having mastered the intricacies of self-control, we emerge as an authentic embodiment of our principles. It is not a theatrical display but a genuine reflection of disciplined character that captures the hearts and minds of followers. Musashi’s teaching underscores that actions, etched with authenticity, possess a compelling force that transcends verbal commands. The leader who walks the path they advocate, demonstrating unwavering commitment to their values, and forges a powerful connection with those under their guidance.

This authenticity acts as a binding agent, cementing an unbreakable bond between leader and follower. One that goes beyond the transactional dynamics of authority, tapping into a deeper, more enduring connection rooted in shared principles and mutual respect. When we as leaders embody the essence of this kind of self-control that Musashi is advocating for we becomes a lodestar, guiding others not through coercion but through the magnetic allure of our consistent, principled action. 

Musashi’s teachings summon us to recognize that the ultimate impact is not in what we say but in the authenticity that reverberates through our every action.

By Donovan Riley

Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, and contributing writer for 1517. He is also a co-host of Banned Books and Warrior Priest podcasts. He is the author of the book, "Crucifying Religion” and “The Withertongue Emails.” He is also a contributing author to "The Sinner/Saint Devotional: 60 Days in the Psalms" and "Theology of the Cross".

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