The Mind is Upright

The late Yamaguchi Katsuo Sensei, Iaido Meijin 10th Dan, wrote a forward to my first book The Art of Japanese Swordsmanship. He wrote, in part, this:

The secret to iaido is a calm spirit. With a tranquil heart you put your hand on the hilt of your sword - in a split second your hand moves to cut down the opponent and resheath the sword - then return to your composed mind. A serene spirit must be cultivated at all times. It is said that the sword is like the mind, and if the sword is upright, the mind is upright. But if the mind is not upright, the sword can never be wielded properly.

It Only Sounds Simple

I've been teaching iaido since the fall of 1992 - that's 25 years if I'm counting correctly - and among the few things that I am absolutely sure of, this is one: keeping a composed mind during iaido practice (or the practice of any other martial art) is incredibly difficult. How do I know? Well, besides struggling with it myself for all these years, every martial artist who comes through our doors struggles with it.

Men typically fall into the trap of believing they need more strength. That tends to make them seek out weight lifting or other activities that don't improve their core skills much (and may actually get in the way), and it also tends to make them excessively focused on trying to "win" when their time would be better spend trying to learn.

There are exceptions, but women typically fall into the trap of self-doubt. They are less likely to move forward independently. Some personal exploration is necessary to become very, very good at a martial art , even if it means a little time apparently wasted. With more deep independence would come more spontaneous growth. Also, some women seem reluctant to demonstrate physical strength, though I am happy to say this trend is diminishing recently.

More self assurance for the typical woman, less muscle headedness from the typical man - each would go a long way to help.

But besides the generalizations, there are all sorts of mental traps that prevent us from being as good as we can possibly be. Being too thoughtful, comparing ourselves to others, a low self-opinion, unrealistic dreams of becoming a Samurai, believing that getting high is a good substitute for clear-headed practice, focusing on combat effectiveness during times when the point of the training is to learn new skillsets ... the list goes on and on.

The analysis instead should always be: how do I do the basics very, very well, with no excessive muscle tension, with full presence in the moment, and without assigning a tactical value until my understanding of the exercise (kata, ippon kumite, nage waza, etc.) is very deep?


So How DO You Do That?

Start here:

Learn to breathe properly. Focus on maintaining your breathing according to the dictates of your art.

Learn to relax. Focus on staying as relaxed as possible, using just enough muscular effort to accomplish the moves.

Learn to perceive. Focus on knowing what your body and mind are really doing rather than accepting what your senses tell you. This is a lot harder than you might think.

Learn to meditate. It will help you breathe properly and it will help you learn to relax, but there's a more important reason. Becoming adept at meditation will help you separate yourself from the nonsense that your mind constantly spews at you. You'll be less inclined to accept your own bullshit, and less inclined to become dependent on the bullshit of others. You'll learn what it feels like to have a composed mind, so you know what to look for in the midst of martial arts training.

If I Could Share One Thing...

If I could share just one thing with you today, it would be this: find some way to stop.

Stop trying so hard to beat others in randori. Stop trying to be the fastest. Stop trying to know it all about your martial art. Stop thinking you need to get a new kata or a new rank. Stop letting your smaller self rule you and get quiet enough to hear your higher self. That voice is very quiet, so you will have to listen carefully.

One other good way to quiet yourself is to immerse yourself in martial arts practice with no expectations. Move smoothly. Keep your eyes open. Don't strive. Let the joy of the techniques sink into your heart. Smile.  

I have faith in you and will continue to have faith in you until you have faith in yourself.

Yamaguchi Katsuo Sensei, Iaido Meijin 10th Dan