Life is what you make of it. The way we perceive and react to the material reality around us shapes the future of the material reality. Neitzche calls this the will to power. The way I think of this is akin to Plato’s world of ideals. A mental image of a square will be more true as a four sided object with sides of equivalent length and perfect ninety degree angles at each corner which has no depth as a second dimensional object than any square created from material in our existence.
At the same time, a stab wound will bleed regardless, and a broken leg would pierce through my flesh if I tried to walk on it. The material cannot be fully willed away, but we can will our way to action or convince others to act with us to affect the material world. When I shattered my leg as a child, I had to wear a cast for months. I still used my other leg which allowed me to become more ambidextrous with my feet. This was useful for both soccer and martial arts.
I believe it is best to approach the world with optimism and lovingkindness. I find that the majority of the people who are engaged in that manner reciprocate. This is why I emphasize peaceful means of addressing conflict first, and prepare guided meditations to help in that manner as well. Even so, there are people in the world who look for an opportunity to improve their individual state at the expense of others. This has always been the case, long before Machiavelli or Sun Tzu.
When I was in college, I had some nights that were more eventful than others. Once, when I was returning from rehearsal, I was met by a person on the street who talked to me and told me a sob story and a said how it helped him become more charitable. He said he wanted to help me. He led me off the beaten path, where two other people came up to us when we were near an ATM. He was trying to convince me to access it, and succeeded. While the others distracted me, the first person relieved me of a couple hundred dollars. Because of the way I reacted to the surprise of two new young men aggressively approaching, I am grateful for the fact no one was armed.
“When the window was dirty, the man couldn’t see through it; when the window was clean, he couldn’t see the window. The beauty of the window was that he couldn’t see it.” - Zen phrase
There are various ways to prepare oneself for potential conflict. The first step is awareness. One can view this as a quadrant where you are either aware or unaware of the assailant, and the assailant is either aware or unaware of you (and your awareness). The US Marine Corps uses a color code system to break this down as well - white (oblivious), yellow (aware), orange (alert), red (concerned), and black (under attack). This allows you to place yourself in a state where the signals can be respected as the signs for danger that they can be.
Prior to a date with a new and mysterious individual, checking in with a loved one and giving a time that they should call you to make sure your plans are going properly can get a third party involved (law enforcement if necessary) and potentially an excuse to leave your current location. Carrying some kind of self defense tool, whether pepper spray, a kubaton, baton, or some other tool. I tend to think that a gun or a knife should only be carried or used if one has practiced long hours and is willing to take a life and face time in prison. However, they can be used to get a less armed and less desperate aggressor to reconsider, if one were accosted by either the date or someone else on the way home.
In the moments prior to conflict, the first priority would be to find escape routes, ideally to well lit areas with other people. Using debris or objects to blind and provide an obstacle can give you time to escape. Your words can be a valuable tool as well, perhaps to talk out of the physical confrontation, but even if de-escalation is not possible one can attempt to distract or trick the opponent to look away. Even something not even tangentially connected can split the attention long enough to have an advantage (asking about some pop culture icon or a a math equation). Since many conflicts are about pride and face, avoiding insulting the assailant is best practice, and if a simple apology can get one out of a fight, it’s best to save the bruises.
There are principles to determine whether physical violence is the proper choice for self defense. There are four criteria to be met. The opponent needs to have the ability to cause damage. I should not use full strength on my four year old nephew at any time. The opponent needs to have the opportunity. Just because a big bruiser is walking down the same street as me does not necessarily mean he is a threat. Some people say ones life must be in imminent jeopardy, wherein I am actively being attacked. Some also say that I must have no other less dangerous means of defending myself.
“Trust God, but tie your camel.” - Eastern phrase
That has never been the behavior of a state military. Throughout history rulers have used citizens to achieve the goal of the ruler. Sometimes this is increased land or resources for the country, sometimes it is some abstract concept such as saving face or retaliating for an insult, and sometimes the argument is a preemptive strike for a perceived threat.
The consistent engagement of military powers in foreign encounters like Afghanistan, Ukraine, or Vietnam leads me to consider the use of individuals in self-defense. As the hearts and minds of the public are the most important part of the battle, most military do not believe that rampant use of aircraft or explosives are best. This is because of the mixture of civilian and guerrilla combatant in the population.
Back in Japan, when Nobunaga attacks the Iga and Koga, the civilians rose up to fight back against his rejection of protocol in warfare with traps, sneak attacks, and fire. This reinforced the legend of the ninja, which persisted as spies and assassins were used during this Sengoku period. From the more aggressive attacks on the citizenry in the area, the shinobi gained support and were better able to fight back against the superior forced of Nobunaga, although they were not successful in the long run against that brutal force.
When one is trying to defend one’s family and home, one is more likely to engage in more intense and dedicated measures than in the case for an invading force, which may feel less motivation to crush the opponent while so far from home. A leader of the offensive force needs to convince those who follow to willingly choose to accept their own potential death in the pursuit of the objectives in a foreign field. This is done by dehumanizing the opponent, or at least glorifying the end goal for the invading group.
When fighting a superior force, it is never an intelligent plan to meet it head on. Force with force will result in conflict, injury, and risk. Instead it is best to attack a more vulnerable area, or to use the opponents force against them. This usually goes into retreating as they attack, or circling around as they advance. It’s the same in hand to hand combat. It is by harmonizing with the opponent that we can have victory. This has been described by Mao as to retreat when attacked, harass when they halt, attack when they tire, and pursue as they retreat.
“Once Motsugai was visiting the lord of the Mihara domain, and he was shown a painting of a solitary goose done by an artist in the lord’s employ. ‘Geese always fly in flocks,’ the displeased lord said to Motsugai, ‘and I feel that this goose is ignoring his fellow birds.’ Upon hearing that, Motsugai took out his brush and wrote this inscription on the painting: ‘This is the head of the flock, more will follow, more will follow.’ The lord was much happier with the painting.” - Budo Secrets, John Stevens
No matter what, if one does not have the people of the community behind you, you will not be successful. Machines (or techniques) don’t win wars, people do. If one were fighting another, and everyone around was on the side of the person you were fighting, then even if you win they may attack you to back the other person up. However, if one stays within the crowd and conforms inspite of the material world not matching with the Platonic Ideal we have for it, change will never occur. To this end, the first fight is to win the hearts and minds of those around, often with propaganda or sabotage. In a more self-defense perspective, one can consider this as ensuring that those around you know that you are the one being attacked. One can do this with phrases like, “He’s got a knife,” “Help,” “Back off,” or something of that variety.
Sun Tzu says, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” If one has this knowledge, then one can properly determine both the proper time to strike, and the right type of defensive position, whether it is firm, elastic, or diversionary. One can think of these as solid blocks, redirections or parries, or a feint. If one does not have that knowledge, one will find oneself open to retaliation.
If one recognizes the value of different beliefs and goals of life, then it is easier to have compassion for different lifestyles. We are not all focused on equality, nor sanctity. For some loyalty is a more important value than freedom. Jonathan Haidt wrote very effectively about this in the Righteous Mind. Yet everyone is trying to make their world and lives a little bit better. Perhaps they don’t even know of some of the benefits of a slightly changed culture. Perhaps you don’t know of some of the losses.
“Eternity was manifested in the light of day, and something infinite behind everything appeared.” Thomas Traherne
Through that compassion for different perspectives, peace can be maintained in a heterogenous global society. Without that, the violence of sectarianism and ultra-nationalism is difficult to halt due to the tribal nature of existence. Everyone desires to be both an individual recognized for one’s unique existence, and yet part of a group distinct and supportive.
All too often someone can surround oneself with voices that seem comforting and smart because they confirm beliefs. I believe this can be even more alluring if they echo personal opinions held that run counter to other opinions in one’s community. Often situations are more complex than anybody’s individual experience. Having empathy for these experiences leads to a more diverse understanding of the world.
Why is a diverse understanding of the world important? I would offer that no single person can experience enough of the world to know the broad long term impact of everything from a smile or gift to a rape or murder. Events don’t stop their impact with the victim. The victim seeks comfort in family and friends, and may gain PTSD or have other reasons to release the emotional weight from the incident upon others. If it was an act of charity, perhaps they pay it forward in some manner or share a better mood with those around for the rest of the day.
Even on a more limited scale, one event can be seen so radically differently as that of a police officer enforcing societal rules and order and an expression of grief at the perceived persecution at a member of the community. Typically, the truth is somewhere in between. Occasionally, one side has all the facts to back up their opinion. Even then, the different values between the two could still allow for radically different interpretations.
“Honor all that is, and respect others’ beliefs. In this way, you’ll bring an end to suffering.” - Zen phrase
Within any society there has to be agreed upon rules for engaging, and a path to a harmonious existence. Confucius talks about how we all must engage in our roles in society to the best of our ability. This can lead to an understanding and reinforcement of a caste system. Even if there is room for class change in a harmonious society (albeit one that changes rapidly with the cultural changes and diverse ruling class), then behavior among individuals is shaped with words like please or thank you, sir and ma’am. These rules need to be taught and encouraged by the nurturing of the village it takes to raise a child.