People come to the dojo for a variety of reasons. Probably everyone has a story that is as unique as that person’s life, yet, we all find ourselves in the dojo on the mat, together. Iaido is a mostly individual practice. Visualization of an opponent is essential, and there are times where we use each other to understand spacing and timing, but most of one’s time is spent training in what child psychologists and early-childhood educators call “parallel play.” It is not training that engages with another person. This makes Iaido training a lot safer. Instead of connecting with another person and feeling how that person’s body moves, we connect with a sword and try to discover how it wants to move.
A sword does not say, “Ouch” or tap when a person moves it incorrectly, and due to the shape and design of the Japanese sword, there is a correct way for the sword to move. A lot of people think they can move the sword any ole way they want to. They think that as long as they can hit something with the sword that it will cut, or cleave through a target like it was butter, but in reality, a sword only cuts one way. A sword wants to slice along its arc, or it wants to stab along that same arc. Regardless, due to its shape, the Japanese sword wants to move on an arc. As a student of Iaido, we must learn to connect with that arc and help the sword move the way it wants to move.
Years ago, there was a salesman who was selling swords on TV. (In a few years, this post won’t make much sense. People will ask, “What is QVC?”) As part of the program, the salesman was going to show how strong and sharp the swords were and he began banging a sword on a hard surface when, suddenly, the sword broke, recoiled and stabbed him. “The sword gods were smiling.” He survived, but he was hurt pretty badly. Like watching someone slip and fall on the ice, it became a “blooper” that people would watch for a chuckle. It was not that salesman’s finest moment, and is really quite scary. If something is misused, someone could get hurt. That’s why it is very important to learn how to connect with the sword and learn how to feel it’s movement. If a person can connect with a sword, then that person can connect with other aspects of life encountered off the mats of the dojo, and Iaijutsu becomes Iaido.
Winter is here. Snow covers the ground and the warm-up to daily highs in the 30s makes going outside a desire instead of a chore, but inside is warm, quiet, and reflective. It’s easy to settle into a comfortable position and stay in the hibernation mentality accompanying Winter.
The best and most difficult way to accomplish something is to just start, find the movement and help it continue. In Iaido the sword is at rest until it gets the impulse to move, and then it wants to move until it comes to rest. This is simple to understand, but at times difficult in practice. Many pauses and stops in the movement occur when the sword should keep moving. It is common for a beginner to stop and admire the cut, or allow his mind to drift to something clamoring for his attention. Furuya Sensei said that Iaido’s movement within a technique was like a drop of water on an inclined plane. The droplet rolls down the slope never stopping. As we progress, there are places within the technique where the slope becomes steeper and the flow faster, then the slope becomes more shallow and the movement slows. This looks like a stop or pause because the eye has been following the faster movement and perceives the slowdown as a stop, but really the movement continues.
A beginner learns the technique in pieces typically. First, eyes and hands, then raise to the knees and up on toes, blade halfway out, then step forward and complete nukitsuke…and this is the way a beginner thinks as opposed to doing Shohatto.
This is no different from our lives. There are no stops or pauses in training in the way. It continues with or without us. We must learn to join the movement and flow instead of succumbing to the freeze of Winter. O’negai shimasu.
There are many lessons for us in every moment of our lives. We often neglect the importance of these moments because they seem so ordinary. For some reason we need our lives to hang in the balance in order to reflect deeply enough. This is probably the reason Zen Buddhism became so popular in the samurai class, and why the cherry blossom was such a powerful symbol as well. Many samurai fell in the fields of battle while still in the spring of their lives, and the process to be at peace with that sacrifice at a moment’s notice required a great deal of reflection.
This year I had the opportunity to accompany my daughter on a journey to Kalamazoo, Michigan. She had a synchronized ice skating competition in late January. When the location and timing was announced, I reacted with, “Why would they schedule the competition in Kalamazoo in January? The weather is not ideal.” My wife laughed and acknowledged my logic, but it wasn’t given much seriousness until the week before the competition when a once-in-a-generation Polar Vortex was predicted to descend on the entire area. My wife began to express concern and her anxiety for our trip and safety began to increase. Winter Storm Jayden was its name, and on Monday our flight was cancelled. We rebooked, and on Tuesday that flight was cancelled; we rebooked, and on Wednesday that flight was cancelled. The competition was on Friday, and we were supposed to be in Kalamazoo Wednesday night. We were running out of options. We did, finally, get on a flight that arrived Thursday and we were able to make the competition, as was everyone from my daughter’s team. The driving was treacherous. We witnessed the aftermath of many cars losing control, and observed a red mid-size SUV thread the needle between two other cars on its way into the piled snow along the road’s edge, a soft landing for a frightening event that became a reminder for me to drive slowly and carefully.
At many points in the process, I considered cancelling the trip. My wife declared that she was, “Calling it.” The trip and the competition was not worth our lives. What is worth our lives? We are here for only an instant compared to the span of time that is the universe. What is worth our lives? The question repeated itself at every weather report, flight cancellation, and mile driven along the treacherous roads. What is worth our lives?
Living is the simple answer. Living is worth our lives. I hope to see you on the mats, soon.