In the martial arts, we spend a lot of time learning how to face and deal with difficult situations, dangerous enemies, and unpredictable challenges. However, the worst, most dangerous enemies we often face are ourselves.
We get in our own way.
We sabotage ourselves.
We make things more difficult than they have to be.
We fail to see the best in ourselves.
How do we protect ourselves from… us? In the martial art I practice, ninjutsu, we have a mental framework we use to describe four classes of responses in the basic self-protection curriculum, based on four archetypes, four primordial elements. There is…
… Earth energy. This is the energy of confidence, standing your ground, neither giving way or seizing gains. You protect as an immoveable barrier to whatever seeks to harm you.
… Water energy. This is the energy of distance and time, the scientist who can coolly and calmly assess a situation, unswayed, and then act accordingly.
… Fire energy. This is the energy of inspiration, creativity, and assertiveness, taking the fight to an attacker before they even get a chance to get going.
… Wind energy. This is the energy of compassion and benevolence, like how you’d handle an aggressively drunk loved one or relative, not harming, but subduing.
Historically, these four qualities have been used in ninjutsu as general maps and guides for effective responses to self protection situations. Sometimes we need to stand our ground, sometimes we need to strategically retreat, sometimes we need to take the fight to the opponent, and sometimes we need to shut things down without doing harm.
These archetypes can be extended to more than just physical confrontation. These methods help us fight our most negative impulses, our most counterproductive habits, our most self-sabotaging efforts. They’re models and frameworks for handling virtually any kind of daily situation in which we need the heroic qualities of confidence, calmness, creativity, or compassion.
Putting the Framework to Use
My teacher’s teacher, Stephen K. Hayes, often speaks on the topics of mantras and motivation. Mantras protect our minds from our lesser selves. Mantras are highly charged, highly powered, highly personal ways to instantly change our frame of mind. They have power in and of themselves; the sounds they make create impact whether or not we believe in them, whether or not we fully understand them. They are harmonic in nature.
What else fits this definition?
Our favorite music.
We each have our favorite music, favorite songs which change our thoughts, our moods, our energy instantly. When the first bars of one of our favorites begin to play, we change in an instant. We all have songs we remember from a particularly stirring victory, from an intimate relationship, from a warm memory growing up. But we often leave this power untapped, relying on coincidence and circumstance to trigger our moods, rather than make conscious choices about what’s playing next.
Start up the music player of your choice, be it old MP3 files on your computer, your Spotify/Pandora playlist manager, your Apple Music/Amazon Music/Google Play subscription, etc. I do recommend, if possible, using some paid music service which permits you unrestricted access to the back catalog so that songs from long ago are just as available as the latest hits.
Set up four playlists. Earth, Water, Fire, Wind. Each playlist will contain its own music. If you prefer a more literal listing, name them Confidence, Calmness, Creativity, and Compassion.
In the Earth playlist, comb through your own experiences, backgrounds, favorites, and preferred tunes from your present and past that emphasize the qualities of unshakeable confidence, mountain-like invincibility, command like a general, and complete lack of worry about whatever opposes you. What songs bring up a feeling of being unstoppable, immoveable, completely confident, of heroic figures like Superman or Wonder Woman that simply cannot be stopped by ordinary means? Add them to this playlist.
In the Water playlist, comb through your own experiences, backgrounds, favorites, and preferred tunes from your present and past that emphasize the qualities of ocean-like calm, late evening coolness, a sense of necessary detachment, emotional reboot, the comfort that comes from superior knowledge and experience. You’re the scientist or veteran who knows all the tricks, who can step away from a heated situation and bring insight. What songs invoke feeling like James Bond or Batgirl? Add them to this playlist.
In the Fire playlist, comb through your own experiences, backgrounds, favorites, and preferred tunes from your present and past that emphasize the qualities of amazing creativity, passionate inspiration, engagement, unstoppable momentum towards your goals, the kind of music that won’t let you sit still, that will kick you in the butt if your momentum flags. What songs invoke feeling like a passionate whirlwind, a creative force, or heroic figures like Bruce Lee or Beyonce? Add them to this playlist.
In the Wind playlist, comb through your own experiences, backgrounds, favorites, and preferred tunes from your present and past that emphasize the qualities of compassion, of an eager willingness to make a difference, to lend a hand, to reach out and touch the hearts and souls of the people you care about, to make the world a better place, qualities of kindness, love, and service. What songs invoke caring love, a desire to make the world a better place, or heroic figures like Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama? Add them to this playlist.
When you’ve assembled your own personal Four Elements playlists, arrange them so they are easily found and frequently seen. Remind yourself of their presence. Maybe add an asterisk or a plus sign before their labels so they’re always at the top of an alphabetical listing on your device.
Always feel free to change or add songs on your Four Elements playlists, as memories stir, as you have more life experiences.
When To Use Your Four Elements Playlists
These playlists are best used when you need to invoke each of the heroic qualities in your life. When do we need confidence? When do we need compassion? They’re especially useful when we lack the feeling we know we need.
Perhaps we’re about to see an old friend and we need to be extra compassionate, but it’s been a tough day at work. Fire up our Wind element compassion playlist and set ourselves to what we know our friend needs.
Perhaps we’re about to walk into a meeting and we feel uncertain about something, we feel unprepared even though we know our stuff. Fire up our Earth element confidence playlist and channel our favorite unstoppable heroes.
Perhaps we’ve just spent an hour on social media reading demoralizing political news and commentary, and we need to inspire ourselves again. Fire up our Fire element creativity playlist and wash away the negative by immersing ourselves in the talent of the artists we love the most.
Over time, we’ll build the habit of invoking the appropriate heroic qualities of confidence, calmness, creativity, and compassion without our devices. Like any skill, we need to start with familiar ground, familiar territory, familiar sounds in order to strengthen our skills. Later on, we’ll be able to simply think of the song, think of our heroic figure, and trigger the same energy and emotion as listening to the playlist.
For now, start with your playlists and use your music to be the best version of yourself you can be.
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Also published on Medium.