The Three Stages of Kendo Development
Stage one - climbing the first fence
This is from beginner to about 4th kyu, but it can last longer. You can hear noise and people having fun on the other side of a high fence. You've been inspired to try Kendo and you think it's for you but now it seems to be brutally difficult. Whether it's the basics of footwork or getting the shinai to 'stick' on the target, there's something that remains out of reach. And never mind the big one - achieving a genuine scoring cut (yuko datotsu) on another person when they're actually trying! That just seems too far away. How do the sensei and sempai make it look so easy? I can't imagine ever doing what they can do...
But after a while things slowly fall in to place. How? You just keep going to training. You don't try to work it out in your head you just trust your teacher and the fact that probably everyone else went through this frustration as well. Part of you knows that this is how it has always been with Kendo. This is what makes it a particularly Japanese cultural pursuit.
Then one day you finally get your first 'ippon' in jigeiko with someone whose Kendo you respect and who you're pretty sure wasn't giving you the opening... and it feels GREAT! You've hauled yourself up and over the first fence and you're finally where all the fun is.
Stage two - defeating all comers
This is where you pile skill upon skill. You have your bad days but overall you are making good progress. And the fact that you can perceive that you're making progress helps create a positive feedback loop that helps you through the difficult times.
Your life circumstances allow you to get to training almost as often as you like and this helps even further. You experience grading success, passing them all on your first attempt. Seminars are a wonderland of new insights. You join your state squad and this lifts you even further. You subscribe to a bajillion Youtube and Instagram Kendo accounts. Competitions are hard but you relish the challenge and they too, add to your skill. Your first trip to Japan is an eye-opener. In spite of being a tiny fish the locals see that you're genuine and this encourages you even further.
You're a sempai now, progressing in the dan grades. Your next big goal is national squad membership or a national title. Soon you'll be heading towards sensei level. You finally own a great set of bogu and several sets of dogi for different weather conditions.
But then, after many years, something disturbing happens. Either a major injury hits and sidelines you, or a new job or child limits your training. At the same time you realise you're not the youngest, gung-ho-est, hungriest kenshi in the room any more. There are others and they are better than you ever remember being. People who aren't even dan grades start to take points off you in jigeiko. Your progress grinds to a halt. You become jealous of everyone else's Kendo. You compare yourself unfavourably to everyone. Each point someone scores on you destroys your confidence. It becomes hard to go to training. When you win it's expected, when you lose it's humiliating. Training is a chore. Your old waza don't seem to work any more. You listen to your sensei but they seem to just say the same thing year after year and it doesn't help.
It's about now that you start to fail gradings, over and over. If you weren't so embedded you would walk away. This is when you have to transition to...
Stage three - 道 means 'a road'
You're tired of comparing yourself to everyone and always coming up lacking, so one day you stop trying to beat everyone else and you try just turning up.
At about the same time the thought occurs to you (or did someone say it?) that Kendo is a road. A journey. Whose journey? Mine. And yours. Each and everyone, on their own journey along the same road. That means that you can stop comparing your progress to the progress of others. Your progress is up to you, not in the hands of the shinpan or the grading panel or your opponent. There were always people ahead of you on the road and there will always be people behind you. There's no 'catching up'; that makes no sense. Kendo's importance never lay in helping you be the best, but in helping you be your best.
More and more you re-read and re-hear things you've know for years. "If your opponent wants to attack, let them". "Kendo is the path of self-development." "Strive to defeat the person you were yesterday." "Beginner's mind." "Kendo begins and ends with courtesy."
You finally relax. You become more humble. You keep your cool more. When someone scores on you, you are genuinely happy for them, and grateful. You realise it doesn't mean you can't also score back. More and more people want to train with you because they sense this reciprocal benefit. If you can acknowledge your failures and persevere with a smile then they can too. There is a lightness to training with you.
A psychological weight is lifted, which leads to physical improvements in the quality of your Kendo. You are faster and have more energy. You move more efficiently and so you heal from your injuries. You're in the right place. Your Kendo is no longer getting better, it's getting deeper.
We don't all follow this exact same path. But these stages are broadly consistent amongst all kenshi: we struggle to develop skills; we use our skills to try and master others which leads to a dead end; we let go of mastery and focus on our own journey. These stages describe our whole Kendo lives. They can also describe a single Kendo training!
These stages are known as shu-ha-ri (守破離).
Image: screenshot of Funatsu sensei from https://youtu.be/4s0Al1t9pOI