Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Music as preparation

This year's Rio Olympics showed many athletes wearing headphones.

I'm not normally a fan of the pre-race/bout/match headphone wearing brigade. The best rationale I have heard is that wearing headphones is a way to get people not to bug you with chit-chat. You don't necessarily have any music playing, but the headphones buy you a quiet space. This I can understand. On the other hand, the athlete who needs to listen to death-metal or 2Pac in order to get into the 'zone' is not someone I admire.

Heijoshin is a concept in Japanese culture that says your performance frame of mind should be your ordinary frame of mind. It comes largely from the Zen idea that enlightenment is not a state that is separate from ordinary life, nor is it 'special' or on a higher plane.

The implication of this is that one shouldn't try to 'escape' from the present moment in order to best manage or understand it, one should penetrate deeply into the nature of its very 'ordinariness' (or its 'stress', 'fear', etc). I personally believe this is a very, very profound truth, one that requires ongoing study.

So on my path to 6th dan I knew I wasn't going to have a special playlist for the morning of my grading, or a playlist for suburi, or for the hours of cross-training on the bike. I believe this attenuates the experience of the journey towards the goal. Those bike rides I went on to build lower-body strength and the intervals I pedalled to improve my cardiovascular fitness were experiences of their own, as well as being experiences with a purpose. Those experiences I wanted to live fully, not have them take on the samey flavour of one of my dull playlists.

So when I found myself wanting to listen to something special the night before my grading I was in a bit of conflict. Was I submitting to the cultural norms of the day by having to 'soundtrack' my life? And yet I love movie soundtracks and how they can reveal an extra dimension to a particular moment.

So I chose a track which I have listened to in the past for relaxation. It wasn't a favourite. It was something that always just came on first when I chose my favourite album of this particular band. I chose it as an anchor, a summation, to try and wrap up and say good-bye to the years of preparation.

For this purpose, I found music, and this music in particular, was a perfect catalyst for this last stage of preparation.

As I listened to it I became able to let go of all the 'to do lists' of the last seven years. It helped me shed the weight of preparation and just 'be' in the state of readiness that I was in at that time. That state was far from perfect: damaged voice, sore Achilles, intermittent flu symptoms, lack of certainty about my new kamae. But it helped me to accept what was at that moment.

In looking for a video of this track to post, I realised I didn't want the official music video playing while people listened to it because that would cloud the meaning of the music. So I quickly pieced together a video using the small amount of footage I had from my trip; images that I hope will trigger a similar feeling in the viewer to the one I had in my hotel room in Tokyo where I finally understood what it means to "effortlessly release what we have learnt in training."

The title refers to Bishamon, the Buddhist deity and sometimes patron of warriors, and a small shrine dedicated to him outside the city of Kagoshima. It was the second time I had been taken there, and the promise by my friends to pray there for my success on the morning of my grading was very moving. Hence the video is dedicated to that experience.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Basic cutting action

Recently I have noticed a lot of people with incorrect cutting action. Not just at Nanseikan but other clubs too. These people are all in their first few years of Kendo so it is understandable. But without extra effort and guidance, this incorrect technique could become a bad habit that is hard to break.

Broadly speaking there are two basic aspects that I'm referring to:

The action of the arms.

The action of the hands.


At the uppermost backswing, your elbows should be equally bent, the same as in jodan no kamae. Your arms should make the number "8" in Japanese, i.e. 八 with your fists at the apex. As you bring the sword down to the target, you bring your elbows together by rolling in your wrists, squeezing them together the same way we wring out the 'zokin' which we use to clean the floor before training. Rolling your wrists inwards allows you to straighten your arms as much as possible. This allows you to gain the maximum possible reach for your build.

It is crucial to make sure both arms are equally straight at the end of the cut. Most often, beginners have their left elbow bent at the moment of cutting because they are using predominantly their right arm to power the cut. If anything the left arm should provide more of the power.

Your elbows remain totally straight only momentarily. As important as it is to straighten them, it is equally important to relax as soon as the cut has been made. Your arms should retain the finishing position of the cut but without tension.


The action of the hands and wrists is even more important and subtle than the action of the arms. This doesn't mean you shouldn't work on understanding it at the beginner level. It just means that you will continue to understand new aspects of how to use your hands in Kendo for many years to come.

Basically your hands and wrists have to reach to the maximum extent. There is a moment of overextension at the point of impact, but, as with the elbows, this exertion only lasts for the moment of the cut, before the kensen rebounds off the target. The difference between the angle of the shinai at the moment of cutting and the moment of rebound is fairly well illustrated by the double-image of the shinai in the photo at top.

The shinai should never be extended at the exact same angle as the arms. Even at full extension, there should be a 5 to 10 degree difference between the arms and the shinai.


A good measure for both these aspects above is that the knuckle of the left thumb should briefly touch the muscle of the bottom of the right forearm (flexor carpi ulnaris) at the moment of cutting. This brief contact indicates not only that the angle of the sword is correct, but that the arms are working in unison.

Hashimoto Keiichi sensei demonstrates correct finishing position for men uchi.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Whether crucible or anvil, gradings transform

When I wanted to describe the testing aspect of Kendo grading, the part that makes it difficult, I naturally thought of the term "crucible". A crucible is a special container designed to be heated to extreme temperatures. In English usage it is also used to describe a test or trial of extreme difficulty where the final result is something new. In the crucible, metals are melted together to form an alloy. The metals are transformed by melding together and the final result is something stronger than the original.

But what would the Japanese or Kendo metaphor be? Because of its connection to the process of making swords, in Kendo the metaphor used is forging, tanren 鍛錬. Metal is forged when it is beaten repeatedly with a hammer. The beating slowly changes the structure of the metal, strengthens it and forces out impurities in the form of sparks.


As a metaphor it has the same intention as the term crucible. Both are used to describe why it is important to push through situations that are difficult.


We don't understand when we are in the middle of it, but the important fact is that when the process is over we will be transformed. We will be an alloy that is stronger than the original metal. We will be shaped and strengthened with the 'impurities' forced out.

The process has a purpose. It will come to an end and it will be worth it.

It also points out to us that this is something that doesn't happen by itself. Iron ore in the ground doesn't transform itself into steel. It just stays lying in the ground. Some coal turns into diamond, but only when, by some geological fluke, it happens to come under extreme pressure. Most coal just stays there, being coal.

Unlike coal, people can choose to transform themselves by subjecting themselves to intense pressure. This is important. Because when you find yourself in the crucible, when you are the piece of metal being smashed between the hammer and the anvil, you can remember that you were the person that put yourself there.

What difference does this make? It makes all the difference! Being beaten up when it's not your choice is, by definition, punishment. Punishment is designed to weaken, not strengthen. So it has the exact opposite effect. By remembering that this process is something you chose for yourself puts you back in the driver's seat. Everything that then happens is part of a strengthening, learning, purifying process.

One of my favourite Zen priests, Shunryu Suzuki said, "Hell is not punishment. Hell is training." He was taking this idea even further. He meant that even things that many people think of as punishment, things we didn't consciously choose to happen to us we can transform into things that are part of our 'training' if we have the right mindset.

So the small process of a Kendo grading can have enormous implications for the rest of our lives if we choose to see it that way.

I have done many Kendo gradings and I came late to the crucible. My first grading I double-graded to 4th kyu. Thereafter I passed every grade on the first attempt. Sixth dan has been my first taste of this painful forging process. I have had to remind myself time and again that the process is worth it, that it will come to an end, that I chose this for myself and indeed that I am very lucky to be able to be a part of it. I have learnt that in failure there is a lot to be gained. Each time I've been able to discard bad habits and attain new skills. I have been strengthened and my Kendo (slightly) purified. Even after failing three times, I know I have learned more and improved more than had I just turned up to training with no purpose. That would have been the way to remain as just a piece of coal lying in the ground.