The Artist as Warrior

“The tramp of warriors sounded like a thousand convulsions of the earth. The shouts of warriors, the whistling of arrows, the thunder of the feet of foot soldiers and the hooves of chargers did not cease.”

“Fear is the true enemy, the only enemy.”

“When all psychological blocks are removed the swordsman will move without conscious effort.”

“The meaning of all things is within, in your mind, not something that exists ‘out there.’”
(From the Samurai Way)

martial-arts-291051_640Each time I visited a successful painter friend of mine I saw the same unfinished painting on the easel. Nothing about it changed month after month. Not a single new brush stroke touched the canvas. Then she moved away and I didn’t see her for a number of years. When we got together again I asked, “Whatever happened to that green pastel that was on your easel so long?”

She said, “I never finished it.”

I said, “You were afraid.”

She said, “I was terrified of it.”

I know a talented young writer who contacted 100 agents in hopes of getting his first book published. He had worked extremely hard on the book and it was very good. He thought of making it a trilogy, and had mapped out the next five years of writing. One agent showed interest and the writer was hopeful, but then the agent lost interest. Discouraged, doubting himself, having lost confidence, not wishing to be so disappointed again the writer stopped writing creatively and devoted himself to his teaching career.

I know an opera singer who has had a successful career, but suddenly and inexplicably after five years developed a fear of performing and for two years retired from the stage. She’s performing again but doesn’t know if that debilitating fear will ever return.

Each early morning I go into my work room upstairs and settle down to write. Now I’m in my element–confident, contented, primed and ready to work. I’ve been writing so long and have produced so many words. Generating text is second nature to me—easy, effortless, without strain. Yet, there is another emotion that is there with me some days. I pause, fold my hands in my lap, and ask myself, “What are you feeling now? Why are you hesitating?” And I answer, “I am feeling fear.”

paintings-316440_640“What are you afraid of?”

“I don’t know. Possibly that I won’t have my skills today; that I won’t be successful; that I’ll let myself down. I really don’t know.”

“Is that so important? Writing is such a small part of life.”

“Right now it is the most important thing possible.”

Bear in mind that I’ve had success writing. Also, I am no coward. I rescued a woman from a would-be rapist–chased him, caught him, fought with him, wrestled him to the ground, and held him till the police came. Yet when I sit at the computer to do the thing I do better than anything else sometimes I’m scared.

We speak of writer’s block, but that’s too narrow. There are sculptors’ blocks and actors’ blocks and ballet dancers’ blocks—the drawing back (intimidated, helpless) from the art we love and have performed many times before–being stopped by some powerful obstacle or set of obstacles that are not out there in the world, not visible to the eye, but are inside us.

The Samurai

The samurai–the finest warriors ever to walk this earth– were ordinary men and women who were trained to perform extraordinary feats of courage. Just as writers, artists, dancers, or actors face internal obstacles that interfere with their work, so did the samurai. The bulk of his or her training (there were women samurai) was devoted to overcoming those inner obstacles that are no different than the obstacles artists of all descriptions face—anxiety, procrastination, self-doubt, hesitation, fear of taking risks, discouragement, over-analysis, depression, apprehension, impatience, and more.

target-211225_640The release of the arrow is the most difficult problem archers face; they think too much, as often do artists, explaining the sudden loss of spontaneity, the sudden loss of skill. Fear is a dragon that often keeps us from success. The samurai was taught: “Strike through the dragon’s mask.”

The samurai’s mind was trained to be fudoshin—to be “immovable,” to never budge from the main goal (for the artist, to get the work done.) They were taught that when your thoughts get “caught” (toroware), or “stopped” (tomaru) on internal obstacles, you will have trouble executing any action—when your mind gets “hooked” or “snagged,” the way the opera singer’s mind was snagged for two years. Better to acquire tomaranu kokoro, “a mind that knows no stopping,” that flows smoothly from idea to idea without being stopped.

What I did in my book Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life was to pluck the wisdom of the samurai off the battlefield and apply it to everyday modern life producing a book of musha-shugyo, “training in warriorship” so that people might overcome the internal obstacles that are troubling them.

Zen and the Samurai

The warrior class was the first segment of Japanese society to embrace Zen. From the twelfth-century on Zen became known as the religion of the samurai. What explains the fit between these two apparently different approaches to life?

Zen is many things—a religion, a philosophy, a life-style. It is also a psychology, a psychology of action, grounded on decisiveness, spontaneity, strength of will, adaptability, courage, and bravery. It was this psychological aspect of Zen which appealed most to the samurai, for to rush forward to face the enemy even if only death awaited him, he needed what Zen taught—to act without hanging back, without reservations, and with total commitment.

Warrior Artists

samurai-67662_640The elite samurai were members of the cultured, aristocratic upper classes—the daimyos, the lords. Bunbu ryodo “The united Ways of the pen and the sword” refers to the tradition of the warrior artist, master swordsmen who were also poets, calligraphers, and painters. The famed Miyamoto Musashi is considered the greatest samurai swordsman who ever lived. He was also one of Japan’s foremost artists whose work today has a place in Japan’s national art museum.

Samurai Maxims

“A warrior must only take care that his spirit is never broken.”

“Success will always come if your heart is without disturbance.”

“Let your mind be free to function according to its own nature.”

“Stick to the larger view of things. If your vision is narrow your spirit will be narrow.”

“Adversity in life is essential to training.”

“The end of our Way of the sword is to be fearless when confronting our inner enemies and our outer enemies.”

“If you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit. But whatever you do, don’t wobble.”

You needn’t look too far or too hard to see that these maxims and the inner training of the samurai Way apply to the artist’s life. Like the warrior, if the artist is to grow, it will be from within. The artist’s work, like a warrior releasing an arrow, should be like a drop of dew falling from a leaf or a fruit falling when it’s ripe.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click on the following link:

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Filed under Artists, Becoming an Artist, Blocks to Action, Creativity Self-Improvement, Eastern Philosophy, Samurai Techniques, Writers

17 responses to “The Artist as Warrior

  1. Hullo David, lovely post as usual 😊. As usual, your words get me thinking : of an article i read about Henry Rousseau who kept painting, even though for many years nobody recognised his talent, and indeed critics repeatedly attacked him and his art. He kept painting, although he must have been afraid and discouraged, and still kept exhibiting his work every year. I guess because he couldn’t help but paint.
    And Musashi! That is my partner’s favourite book (i have also read it and enjoyed the story very much). I had it rebound for him in leather some years ago. I love how you have used the wisdom and the strength of the Samurai and applied it to creativity.


    • davidjrogersftw

      Thanks, Sara. I’m always so happy to receive your comments and realize how I’ve come to think of you as a friend. I’ve always liked Rousseau. I am intrigued by artists who begin their careers at a relatively advanced age and are self-taught and original. How surprised I am to learn that you are familiar with Musashi and with the samurai Way. In my book Fighting to Win, I mention a number of other samurai texts that your partner might be interested in.

      By the way, I want to mention to you that another reader of this blog referred to a comment you made and directed her thoughts toward you. She is a French painter named Urwana DeBouclans. Take a look at her comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I feel the same way about you David, and thank you.
        I haven’t met anybody else who has read Musashi apart from us – I guess it’s an obscure story in the west! My partner has always loved Japanese culture, so that’s how he came across this book, amongst others.
        Thank you for showing me Urwana’s comment – it expands and reflects my thoughts exactly – I love how she said that the scarcity of time in a woman’s life makes it more precious and focused when we do get it. Yes 🙂


        • davidjrogersftw

          I’m proud to say that my book helped make Musashi and the samurai Way popular in the United States. Compliment of compliments, my book was a bestseller in Japan. Take a look at it (and your partner too) and let me know what you think. It’s available as an eBook, so not expensive. By the way, I knew you would relate to that particular passage from Urwana’s comment. The perspective of women artists–and there are so many of them–is enlightening to me.

          Liked by 1 person

        • I will take a look at it, David – and what a compliment indeed!

          Liked by 1 person

        • davidjrogersftw

          Thanks, Roslyn. You’re a loyal reader.


  2. A perfect post to start off the New Year and get us back into the studio as quickly as the arrow flies and with a laser-like focus – love it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • davidjrogersftw

      Thank you, Michelle and Happy New Year to you. I liked your photograph “What does an artist do on holidays?” And I realize I too work on holidays and would have it no other way. “As quickly as the arrow flies.” What a wonderful image.


  3. Roslyn Kushner

    Once again you “hit the nail on the head!”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “…a fruit falling when it’s ripe.” That ‘s so true…
    this fear during or before creation act is so terrible…for my part, i feel it more and more when i approach of the end of the painting, or each time I start again a new stage in the making of the work.
    Because you’re afraid to go too far, and exceed the limit where you lose the freshness of a coloured field or the subtlety of a line…
    Hours of work and you destroy the essential in one second, by excess of “gluttony”. Sometimes we want too much “perfection”.
    Many thanks David for your words, your work, and thanks to Sara for her comment, read you with pleasure, you speak about things really interesting. I invite french friends to go to read your pages.

    Liked by 1 person

    • davidjrogersftw

      Thank you so much, Urwana. You express so accurately and beautifully those fears connected with the creative act. I’m currently working on a book predominantly for creative writers, and I want to know if I can–citing you, or course–use some of your words. Although it’s a different medium that fear that you and I talk about, pertains, I think, to all the arts, but I think, as you say, it pertains most of all to painters and other fine artists, as well as to actors and other live performers when a mistake can ruin an entire performance. Concert pianists often talk about the fear of making that one mistake. Thank you very much too, for recommending my writing to your friends in France.


  5. Thanks for taking the time to reply David, you make some valid points. I think though the problem is with me, rather than the writing per se. I’m a perfectionist by nature, and therefore have a tendency to push myself too hard. In hindsight, I can see I’ve been putting too much pressure on myself this last year, and spending too much time comparing myself to my online peers. To be perfectly honest, I’ve found social media to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a great resource for information and making new connections with likeminded people such as yourself, but on the other, it can sometimes lead to feeling of inadequacy and self doubt.

    And you’re right when you said I’m too anxious about finishing the book. That’s because I made the fundamental mistake of publishing the first book in my trilogy too soon. It was only after writing the second that I realised I needed to go back to rework the first to give the world and the characters I’d created greater depth. This has ended up taking much longer than I had anticipated as I decided to rewrite it from scratch rather than just revise it. And because of the genre I write (epic fantasy) this obviously takes considerable time & research, especially if you’re a slow writer, like myself. As a result, I’ve felt under a lot of pressure to finish and release this ‘new edition’, which is stupid because I don’t have a readership as yet. I’m pretty sure the creative part of my brain isn’t firing as it should because I’m feeling worn out and scraped thin. Maybe it’s time I gave myself a mental health break.


    • davidjrogersftw

      Wendy, I think taking a break might be a good idea. Are you thinking about taking a complete break from writing or just writing something else? For what it’s worth, I’m a perfectionist too and push myself constantly, always aware of the clock and what needs to be done. My breaks from a project are not long-lasting. But when I do hit an impasse, the way you seem to be doing, I ask myself, “What’s the problem?” You seem to know what the problems are.

      Unless you’re writing for a living or there is some other reason why you have to finish the work as soon as you can, you have a great deal of freedom about finishing a work. You just need to realize that you’re totally free, and you’re bringing the pressure on yourself.

      Writer envy is very prevalent, so I recommend a post I wrote that you might find helpful:
      Non-Attachment: The Solution to an Artist’s or Writer’s Problem. Here is the link

      There have been several times when I have scrapped a big project and started all over again. Writers do that all the time. Listen to this one: A publisher wanted to publish my book as it was. They were all set to go, but I wasn’t satisfied with the book and started from scratch and in the course of a year, wrote a completely new book from the same material. I was much happier with the second version. The second one wouldn’t have been as good if I hadn’t written the first version.

      Fundamentally, what I think you need–and I could use some of this too–is patience.

      Best of luck to you. I hope you keep me posted on what you’re doing.


  6. David, I’m too heavily invested in the story and the world I’ve created to walk away from it after all this time. The very thought brings me out in a cold sweat. I’m just taking a short break in the real world, so that when I do return to the story I’ll be in better shape to trek on to the summit. 70,000 words in – only another 40K to go! Many thanks for your kind words of advice, you’ve given me a lot to think about.

    On a final note, I just want to say how much I enjoy reading the articles on your blog, which I’ve now joined 🙂

    Hope we can keep in touch.


    • davidjrogersftw

      i hope you don’t think I was suggesting you quit writing. I certainly would never say that to anyone. But I think your taking a short break to reflect on the project calmly and free of pressure is probably a good idea. I’m sure it will help to get you back into a productive mode.


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