Sword and Foot

“Sword and foot!” is one of those phrases I associate with my time at Sugino Dojo; I can clearly recall Sugino Sensei roaring that at me again and again: “Sword and foot! Sword and foot!”

He was reminding me of a basic tenet of Katori Shinto Ryu: that the sword must act in concert with the body. When the sword starts moving, the foot starts moving. When the sword stops, the foot stops. Sword and foot.

This principle is evident in the most basic fundamental of Katori Shinto Ryu, the straight head cut called maku-uchi men. As the sword rises up, the front foot draws back until, when the sword reaches it apex over our heads, the front foot reaches the rear foot and we are standing with our feet together. And so as the strike comes down; the sword begins its descent and the front foot slides forward, so that at the moment the sword completes its movement, the foot has returned to its original spot and we are once again standing at the ready.

It sometimes seems like an impossibly difficult thing to manage, to cause an external object to move in perfect timing with our own body. I joke that I have never performed maku-uchi correctly, but it’s not exactly a joke. Getting the sword and the foot to move in perfect synchronization challenges my awareness and my coordination.

Hence Sensei’s constant admonishment: “Sword and foot!”

But learning to work in concert with the world around me has been a fundamental lesson, and it seems that the better I get at making that sword move in time with myself, the better I get and doing the same with other, more abstract features of the world.

It’s not just a case of imposing my will on the world around me. That can get me to MOVE the sword, but in order to operate synchronously with it, I need to move myself in accordance with the laws of physics that govern the movement of a piece of steel. I need to enter into a more complex relationship with the sword, one that accepts and embraces its needs as well as my own.

I find the lesson over and over again in my life. Repeatedly I learn to forgo simply directing, or commanding, and to embrace connecting and joining.

Interdependence, not independence.

Especially when dealing with things considerably more complex and unpredictable than swords. Like, say, software developers. I find it very difficult to get software developers to do exactly what I want them to do. Which is probably a good thing, since I’m particularly ill-suited to telling them what to do, not really being much of a software developer myself. Doing my job properly (and by the way, I have a new job; more later) involves very little directing and a great deal of harmonizing. Connecting.

It’s kind of hard to describe. Sort of like maku-uchi. I can show you how it’s done (sort of), and I practice it a lot, but descriptions never really manage to get the idea across. Likewise managing teams. It’s all sort of mysterious and beyond the ability of rationality to encompass. These are things that cannot (and perhaps should not) be put into words, but that can only be embodied in practice.

“Tao” character from Zen Sekai

I Wish I Was In Sherbrooke Now…

“Corey, no, no, no! No, no, Corey!”

The familiar ring of Sensei’s voice carries all across the gymnasium and I know I’m doing something wrong.

I don’t know what, so I just stop where I am in the sequence of moves forming the first of the omote tachi kata and wait for Sensei to explain what it is I’m screwing up. There never seems to be a shortage of mistakes and misapprehensions on my part, that’s for sure.

But one thing I learned studying martial arts — or at least studying with teachers like Sugino Sensei in Japan (and now Sherbrooke) and Skoyles Sensei in Calgary — is that correction is a gift, a gift that must be treasured and embraced and deeply considered. When Sugino Sensei comes running over and grabs my arm to pull it into the correct posture (usually laughing at my awkwardness as he does so), he is gifting me with his attention. And the attention and consideration of a man like Sensei is nothing to be treated casually. He has spent decades learning this craft, learning from his father and the piled-up ages of experience within him, which now reside in the son. It is a rare and precious thing to be granted even a small portion of that experience.

Not only does Sensei know swordfighting (at least the form swordfighting takes within the Katori Shinto Ryu curricullum) inside-out, he also a gifted instructor, who knows just what change to make to a student’s stance so that they will understand a particular move better. With one adjustment of my right wrist Sensei completely changed my understanding of maku-uchi men, the basic overhead cut of Katori — the very first thing I ever learned at his dojo fourteen years ago.

Watching Sensei at the class at Sherbrooke was wonderful. He would wander between the rows of practicing students, seemingly aimlessly, and then something would catch his eye and his whole body would electrify, and he would rush over to one pair or another, stop their activity and offer correction and guidance. Usually he would laugh his good-humoured booming laugh and then be on his way again, wandering without apparent direction until something else caught his eye. If I’m paying attention, I can learn nearly as much watching him correct others as I can having him correct me.

The parallels with writing are, perhaps instructive — as much for the similarities as the differences.

When someone reads my work and offers comments, I find that if I can treat their comments as a gift, and accept them humbly and with gratitude, they are far more valuable to me than if I get defensive — thereby denying the validity of my reader’s feelings. I have learned to avoid trying to explain myself, even when it seems that someone has misunderstood my intent. I might ask a question to establish that the reader did in fact read the words that I wrote, but I try never to challenge my reader’s impressions.

I try. I’m not actually very good at behaving this way — the urge to explain and to try and demonstrate my own cleverness is strong and I often give in to it, but I recognize that this is empty, pride-fueled behaviour.

You can’t reason with Sensei. Asking questions serves little purpose when receiving correction — typically when I do ask questions I’m simply trying to make Sensei realise that I REALLY DO UNDERSTAND. That I’m wise and clever and skilled. It’s the same in writing.

The only required response to ANY feedback is “Thank you.” Whenever someone takes the time to consider what I’m doing and offer their input, I am required to thank them for their efforts. I don’t have to say anything else. I don’t have to agree with them or demonstrate my acceptance of their correction, but I do have to thank them for the effort.

“Arigato, sensei.”

But in writing it’s rare to have access to a Sensei. Writing stories doesn’t have the kind of rigid standards that Katori Shinto Ryu has. In Katori, if my foot isn’t turned out, that’s just wrong. It isn’t “my style” or an interesting challenge to overcome; it’s wrong. Turn the foot out. In writing stories, ANYTHING can work okay if I can make it work okay. Experience is valuable, to be sure, but anyone’s point of view has something to offer me as a writer.

Erin mentioned the notion of “Beginner’s Mind” at dinner the other night — the idea that if you can approach your life from the point of view of a beginner, and lose your attachment to your own self-image as an expert, you learn more and are happier thereby. This idea is coming up a lot in The Fifth Discipline — that living with humility and a willingness to learn from others provides a life of richness and constant learning.

In life, even more than in writing, a Sensei never really shows up. Nobody can show me how to live my life — because nobody else is living MY life. Who then can I learn from? Well, from everybody. If I’m willing to accept correction and feedback as the precious gift it is, and if I can remember not to react defensively or pridefully when people offer me the benefit and aid of their experience, everyone can be a Sensei to me. I’m certainly not qualified to be an expert on any subject whatsoever, so it ought to be easy enough for me to find teachers wherever I go.

Which does seem to be the case. Certainly everyone I met in Sherbrooke had much to offer lonely little Anglophone me. Folks were tremendously hospitable and welcoming — Patrick who took me to lunch, Michel who graciously lent me one of his hand-made bokken, Izad (I’m almost certainly spelling that wrong) who helped me with re-learning yoko-men, and of course Martin Sensei and Tong Sensei who were responsible for my being there in the first place. I learned an immense amount.

Now (and this is just as true in writing as in swordsmanship) the challenge is for me to take all the feedback and correction I’ve received and try to turn it into action. It’s one thing to hear and accept that information — it’s quite another to use it to transform myself.

Ah, well, that’s what makes it fun, I guess.