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the start of my journey with the Samurai Game

My main blog pages are about sharing the connections I see as I wonder through life. I wrote a long piece a while back to try to convey my own experience of the Samurai Game and why it was that I decided to become authorised to facilitate it myself. My experiences as a facilitator observing others take part in the workshop have been just as moving and profound but that is a story for another day. For now, here is my attempt at communicating the complex experience that is “The Samurai Game”

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“You know what to do!” – Reflections on the Samurai Game

Sunlight on the ground
Scent of snow, pine, music floats
Embrace the unknown!

OK. So as Haiku go is not quite up there with Basho but hey, it is my first and given I had flown from Brisbane to Grass Valley in California just for the weekend I think it is pretty good. I was there to experience the Samurai Game and writing a haiku was only one of a list of things we had to do over lunch to prepare for battle that afternoon.

Serendipity

A chance complaint about the high cost of training these days had led me to the website for the Samurai Game. Developed in 1977 by George Leonard, it seemed to be a perfect match for many of the things that I had recently listed as aspects that I wanted to blend into my life and my career.

A prolific author of magazine articles and books (including The Silent Pulse and Mastery) George Leonard is probably better known for his work in Integral Transformative Practice and the development of Leonard energy Training (LET). He was a veteran of multiple theatres of war and was a 5th dan black belt in the Japanese martial art of Aikido – a practice he began at the age of 46.

It was a combination of these two influences in his life that came together within Leonard to yield the Samurai Game.  He was reflecting on discussions with fellow veterans who observed that the experience of war brought a certain intensity and beauty to life that is difficult to encounter elsewhere.

The result is an experience whose design is elegant in its simplicity while retaining a complex capacity for subtle and profound reflection.

Every game has rules…

Lance Giroux, the facilitator leading the workshop I had travelled half way around the world to attend, has been serving the Leonard Trust and delivering the Samurai Game since 1990.  Earlier in the day Lance had introduced me and the 21 other participants to the history of the Samurai and their code of Bushido which valued honour and integrity above all else.  The Samurai often also had a finely tuned sense of the aesthetic. Many stories are told of a Samurai, struck by the beauty of a single moment, who stopped on the way to a battle to attempt to capture it in a haiku. Like the real Samurai we kept our haiku with us during the battles that were to follow.

After setting some ground rules for the game and introducing us to some of the forms of battle we would be engaged in later in the day we were divided into two armies. My team, known as The Army of the South, had selected a young woman by the name of Matilda to be our ‘Daimyo’ (a Japanese title that translates literally as big name) and lead us into battle. The Australian connection was comforting until I recalled the fate of the swagman who waltzed Matilda the first time around!

It didn’t help that while we were struggling through our list of lunchtime tasks our opposition seemed to be organised, practiced and disciplined! Sure we were getting along and there was even a touch of bravado in our banter but returning from the break to begin the battles proper I admit I was feeling less than optimistic.

The scent of snow…

It is hard to put into words exactly what followed. It is much like trying to describe the smell of snow to someone who has never even seen it. What started as just a game soon became an experience that focussed the mind on the details of the here and now, on the present, like nothing I have ever experienced.

When the first Samurai were called to the field the time we had been given to practice for the battles that were to follow and formulate a strategy seemed at once completely inadequate and an opportunity entirely wasted by our team.

Fate is arbitrary, capricious and unfair

Once the battles began, our facilitator took on the role of the Fate of War. His brief is to mirror fate by being arbitrary, unfair and capricious. While the Fate of War would often call the Samurai in to battle he stayed true his brief – always being arbitrary but never being an arbiter. It was always left to the two Samurai involved in a battle to determine who emerged victorious and who accepted the consequences of defeat. Fate does not decide but simply intones “You know what to do!”

While there is no significant physical contact during the one-on-one battles, they generate an intensity of focus and a level of commitment from the two Samurai that often surprises and often challenges the preconceptions and prejudices of entire armies!

Opportunities to reflect on defeat are made available to almost all participants, as ultimately one army will defeat the last of their opponents. Sometimes it was not always clear if the Samurai who prevailed was victorious nor exactly who would be visited by the consequences.

For me, it was the defeats that provided the greatest opportunity for reflection and insight. How did I come to be defeated? Was it because I was not able to fully commit myself to the battle or was I simply beaten by a better Samurai? Did I really give everything I had? If it wasn’t ‘just a game’ but a real battle could I have given more?

At one point I was defeated because I had failed to grasp an opportunity that was presented to me … or was it because I simply wasn’t paying attention? The parallels to my habitual patterns of behaviour were suddenly all to clear to me.

The challenges of honesty and integrity

Then there are the moments when things are just not fair! Your opponent refuses to recognise you as the victor; you see your opposing army breaking the rules but no consequences follow; the Fate of War seems to set you up and you suffer what seems to be an unfair defeat at their hand.

Even more challenging are the events that force you to examine the honesty and integrity of those who are sharing the experience with you. When the Fate of War intones “you know what to do” it is all too easy to form a clear view on what action the defeated Samurai from the opposing army must take.

Early on in the battles a similar certainty comforts you when you observe members of the opposing army breaking the rules. Your indignation, while not exactly righteous, does rise when someone who broke the rules and clearly chose to ignore the honourable course of action defeats one of your own army.

The comfort of that certainty soon abandons you when, as the size of your army dwindles, you see one of your own break the same rule and go on to win a key battle – most likely one that your army would have lost if it wasn’t for the particular skills they brought.

Harder still perhaps is to have ‘infringed’ one of the ‘less important’ rules yourself and to stand victorious and bear witness to the look of disappointment on the face of your opponent, who though defeated, fought with commitment, honour and integrity.

What you receive depends on what you bring

Or maybe it wasn’t that hard for some who played with me that day. It was clear that one or two couldn’t engage fully in the experience and take the game and its rules seriously. At the end of the day it is just a game – a construct that provides opportunities to learn, to ponder.

Maybe we play in the same way we approach life?

The opportunities are presented to everyone who takes part in the battles – and also to those who do not. You are never forced to take any action. At any point you can choose not to take part– in itself an opportunity to pack away until at some point in the future it itches you enough to reflect on the choices you make in life and why you always seem to be on the sidelines.  To me that is testament to the subtlety and power of the Samurai Game.

Looking back…

As I write these words it is some weeks later and I am at 34,000 ft on my way home after a week away serving one of my clients. Not a day has passed that I have not reflected on some aspect of our experience of the Samurai Game so I suppose at least in that respect it has changed my life.

The question that now comes to mind most often is if I was to suffer a defeat today how would I feel about my behaviour? Could I look back and say that I acted with honesty and integrity in every interaction? What did I make of the opportunities life presented to me? Did I commit my entire self to each of the relationships that make up my life? Did I truly serve those I have chosen to lead me?

If there is ever doubt the voice of the Fate of War still rings in my ears: “You know what to do!”

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I hope that in some small way these thoughts may serve you in your journey.

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