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Invisibility literally means to be unseen, unnoticed. In modern times invisibility is associated with fictional stories involving magic cloaks or scientific devices.
In the martial arts it is about stealth and secrecy.
Modern culture encourages the individual to parade themselves publicly, to broadcast their fighting skills and draw attention.
This is not what The Art of War and The 36 Strategies recommend. It is not good to be noticed.
Anonymity is a common Taoist theme. By remaining humble and quiet, unremarkable and unnoticed, a person can proceed through life freely.
Drawing attention is perceived as being unwise because you cannot determine whether the attention is good or bad.
The Art of War
When Sun Tzu speaks of invisibility, he is speaking about moving without attracting the attention of your opponent:
Sun Tzu wrote a whole section
From a combat perspective this is very useful.
You do not need to become a spy, but you can learn how to avoid being
A martial artist gains significant strategic advantage by remaining invisible. When assailants do not know that you possess combat skills, they are not concerned by you.
They are apt to be over-confident. Traditionally, the martial artist was trained to be modest and bland.
How to cultivate invisibility
Remember that your aim is not to make an impression. You can accomplish this by looking at various ways to lessen your presence:
Keep to yourself
Dress in bland, dull colours and outfits that do not draw any form of attention. Avoid anything that catches the eye or makes you stand out.
Your aim is to be background, not foreground. Wear loose, comfortable clothing that enables freedom of movement, and footwear that allows for rapid, nimble footwork.
Deception is a major theme in The Art of War. It encourages the martial artist to avoid being showy and obvious in all facets of life.
If strong, appear weak. If capable, appear inept. Encourage over-confidence and provoke carelessness.
Keep to yourself
Instead of seeking attention, consider how to accomplish the opposite. Be understated and subtle, outwardly boring and unremarkable.
Do not invite interest. If you are dull, then nobody will notice you or care.
Driving a fancy/expensive car or making your house the envy of the neighbourhood is not stealthy at all.
Parading electronic devices in public is not the Way. Think instead of becoming mysterious.
Drive a boring, banal car. Do not carry anything openly that looks expensive or eye-catching.
Let you house be entirely anonymous; your garden is not filled with 'the works' and there is no sign of evident wealth.
Moving slowly does not alert the nervous system. The mind ignores slowness. It is not seen as being a threat.
Watch how a cat moves. It is silent and stealthy, cautious and vigilant. It takes a lot more effort to move slowly. It taxes the muscles and enhances the nervous system.
You need to be in the immediate moment; aware of what is happening right now, of what you are doing right now.
Sensitivity is a real challenge. Become attuned to your sensory realm: see, hear, smell and feel. Quieten your mind through meditation exercises and be here, right now.
Make everything you do soft. Your presence, your interactions with people, your physical manipulation of everyday objects, your voice, your manner.
Softness is not weak or ineffectual. It is subtle and elegant, graceful and powerful. In combat training, softness offers faster response times and less overt actions.
Can you move without making footfalls? Without rustling your clothing? Without the content of your pockets jangling? Can you avoid pushing the air in front if you?
Even if your footsteps are quiet, the vibration from your step can carry through the floor. Be mindful of this.
Use every opportunity to practice being quiet. Listen to your breathing and your movements, to your everyday habits. Do you clatter and bang, or are you silent?
Use external sounds to mask your own movements. Practice constantly.
Try walking on different terrain. See how different types of footwear serve to mask or advertise your presence. Go to quiet places whilst the world is asleep and learn the meaning of quietude.
Instead of using conversation as a means of self-promotion, try listening and observing. Watch your own tendencies carefully.
Why are you speaking? What prompts the need? Are you talking for the sake of it? Do you have anything to say?
Are you softly spoken and polite, or are you loud and attention-seeking?
Taoism embraces all sides of our character; recognising that people are both good/bad, strong/weak and so on.
We cannot be one without the other. The key is to find balance. A harmony of apparent opposites.
The main two methods of invisibility in combat work are:
Being unseen by the opponent
Cold jing is the act of
striking without any discernable build-up. It must be a spontaneous,
There are many ways to remain unseen. By evading the line of force - without blocking - you gain an interval of time in which to act.
Concealment, misdirection, feinting and luring can be used to keep the attacker doubtful and hesitant.
If you only employ 4 ounces of pressure at all times, then the attacker cannot feel your actions in advance.
Stepping, evasion, listening and sensitivity all provide opportunities to disguise your direction and intentions.
Unorthodoxy, unpredictability, improvisation, adaptation and change make your actions difficult to anticipate and respond to.
The need to broadcast stems from insecurity. By marketing your lifestyle and accomplishments you are seeking approval and envy.
If you seek attention, you will find it. But attention-seeking is less about courage than insecurity.
A person who dresses or acts to court attention is not bold; they are lonely. They want to be noticed. Their performance is intended to seduce you into adopting the role of audience.
Resist the urge to parade your accomplishments. Showing-off only attracts unwanted attention in the form of jealousy and resentment.
Chuang Tzu argues that it is foolish to advertise your wealth or your fighting skills.
Selling yourself cheap
Telling people about yourself or revealing information without prudence can lead people to undervalue your worth.
When you share things without caution, others will take you for granted. Be aloof. Only reveal what you want to reveal to those you want to share it with. Do not be an exhibitionist.
Taoism encourages the adept to withdraw into the shadows and remain anonymous.
Yin/yang shows us that every action is both good and bad e.g. success and popularity also bring resentment and hostility.
It is necessary to be indirect, unpredictable and vague. Let the attention of others slide off you entirely. Remain beneath interest.
If a beast big enough to swallow a wagon
Should leave its mountain forest,
It will not escape the hunter's trap.
If a fish big enough to swallow a boat
Lets itself get stranded by the outgoing tide,
Then even ants will destroy it.
So birds fly high, beasts remain
In trackless solitudes,
Keep out of sight; and fishes
Or turtles go deep down,
Down to the very bottom.
The man who has some respect for his person
Keeps his carcass out of sight,
Hides himself as perfectly as he can.
18 April 1995
Last updated 10 April 2019