If the general cannot overcome his anger and has his army swarm over the citadel, killing a third of his soldiers, and yet the citadel is not taken, this is a disastrous attack.
Therefore, one who is good at martial arts overcomes others’ forces without battle, conquers others’ cities without siege, destroys others’ nations without taking a long time.
It is imperative to contest all factions for complete victory, so the army is not garrisoned and the profit can be total. This is the law of strategic siege.
Sun Tzu, Art of War, Chapter III (Thomas Cleary translation).
Conflict is an inevitable factor of the human condition. We did not evolve out of the primordial ooze without facing a bit of conflict of the way, and our current social and political order is the result of key conflicts that have shaped global history. It is naive to imagine a world without conflict, for it has been essential to our evolution and survival as a species.
The evolution of the higher person comes not from the rejection of conflict but the refinement of it.
We must be cunning in our strategy if we wish to survive the merciless quest to higher spiritual ground. Whether it is a struggle faced on the path of self-overcoming or a political conflict, our battles must be carefully planned and meticulously executed. If we lead by emotion, we risk disaster; if we lead by desire, we risk ruin. Emotion and desire must not lead but follow with patience and discipline leading the ranks. With patience and discipline, we can overcome without direct combat through evasive maneuvers and cunning strategy.
Ho Yanxi wrote the following commentary on the above passage during the Sung dynasty era:
This means attacking at the planning and attacking alliances, so as not to come to the point of actually doing battle. This is why classical martial arts say that the best of strategists does not fight. One who is good at laying siege does not lay siege with an army, but uses strategy to thwart the opponents, causing them to overcome themselves and destroy themselves, rather than taking them by a long and troublesome campaign.
It is inevitable that we will face personal obstacles and difficult people on the path toward higher spirituality. Development comes not from learning to hit back harder, but to evade without effort. Through meditation and training we gain the skill necessary to defend against conflict without laying siege. We can endure any personal crisis without succumbing to a psychotic break, and we keep a cool head while the ill tempers of unworthy opponents ruin their reputation and destroy their alliances.
The principles of Tai Chi combat can be applied here. In Tai Chi, a martial artist attains to the power of following, sticking and attaching. Through mindful attention of your attacker, you gain the ability to alter your stance and yield to their attack; the sensitivity gained through following allows you to then stick to your opponent by seemingly magnetic force. Through yielding, mastery is gained of the ability to control the attacker and match them through harmony. As Master Wong Chung-yua wrote, “Regardless of your opponent’s actions, the principle of your response remains the same. Once this type of movement has become your own, you will understand internal power.”
Whether the opponent is personal crisis or professional conflict, the ability to yield and follow attack rather than charge head on is the way of higher spirituality. An individual will only face more conflict the more they develop themselves spiritually. Neuroses will fight to defend their territory, and weaker people will object to the higher person’s development. We have gained a certain mastery of their self when conflict is resolved by yielding to an opponent and leading them to their own ruin.