A moment of clarity  

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

I am presently going through one of those revelatory periods in my iaido practice where some small insight into the deeper significance of the art has become clear to me. This has come at the end of a reasonably despondent period of training where I don’t seem to have made any progress at all. After all the disappointment of failing 3rd Dan, I really felt down about the whole thing.

The reason I felt I didn’t do well was related to a lack of practice – of course – but also to a sense that my ki (spirit) just wasn’t strong enough. In the dojo, it’s easy to kid yourself you are better than you really are; it’s not until you are in front of the unwavering scrutiny of a panel of 8th Dan masters that you really find out how good your techniques are. It is very stressful, and that stress manifests itself as tension, which in turn robs you of speed, power and fluidity. In a weird way, it’s like the ki is being sucked out of you leaving your cuts weak and your movements slow and clumsy. And it’s the same in competitions as well. This is what I have felt has let me down many times in the past – not the knowledge of the technique but the strength of spirit to be able to carry it though under stressful conditions. This is the very essence of any martial art – without the will to carry through your attack, all technical proficiency is pointless.

It was this weakness of spirit that denied me 3rd Dan, and rightly so. The question was, what to do about it. I considered that perhaps what I needed was a period of more physical training involving actual combat. A return to this kind of environment, I reasoned, would help to rediscover a more aggressive fighting spirit. However my plans to start kendo were comprehensively poo-pooed by my teacher, who suggested that if I have time to study kendo, I’d be better-off training for my 3rd Dan re-test. She had a point.

But suddenly, just last week, I suddenly had a eureka moment. I can’t describe in words what I mean, other than to say that it suddenly became clear that I had been concentrating on the wrong thing. Rather than obsessive focus on perfecting technique, the mind should be almost entirely on the act of engagement with your enemy. This had been described to me before by a 5th Dan colleague in the dojo, and I thought I understood at the time, but now I can see I didn’t really get it. Furthermore, this mind has to be carried with you at all times, and in all things. If you can maintain this mind, then suddenly everything drops into place. At last week’s practice, I decided that I would practice with this in mind. The results were spectacular – smooth, co-ordinated strikes with dramatically improved power.

I have since re-read a translation of a book written in about 1630 by a famous samurai Lord called Yagya Tajimanokami Munenori, called the Heiho Kadensho. In it, is the following passage that describes in amazing accuracy what I have just come to realise.

The books of Confucius are thought of as a gate to those who devote their mind to learning. What is a gate? A gate is the entrance to a house. Only by going through the gate can one meet the master of the house. Learning, for example, is the gate to truth. Only by going through the gate can you obtain truth. Opening the gate should not be mistaken for having entered the house, for the house lies beyond the gate. (my italics)


The gate in question is my iaido technique. I can see now that learning the technique is merely a means to an end. Seems obvious now. But I feel that with that knowledge I can perhaps start to make progress on the path towards what is waiting in the house for me.

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