I can remember very clearly having an enormous revelation while practicing at Sugino Dojo in Kawasaki, doing yoko-men strikes in time with a partner. It was a long time ago, but the realization remains burned into my memory. I realised that I was trying too hard.
Because what I remember is realizing that every time my sword came down, my partner’s would already be in position. I was coming in second every time.
Clearly I was starting too late, not paying attention or something. I told myself I had to start sooner, get a jump on them, so I could catch up. I had to try harder. More energy! More!
At which point I noticed that my sword was rising up first. I was starting well before them, and yet I was finishing after. How was this possible? I vowed to catch up.
Faster! Faster! Obviously I was going much too slowly, so I poured on all the energy I had. I’m sure I was panting and heaving away as I worked as hard as I could, flinging my sword around with all the speed and energy I could muster. Trying so very very hard.
At some point I sort of gave up and just tried to watch and see how they were doing this. And all I could deduce, in my breathless exhaustion, was that three things were undeniably true:
- Their sword began moving well after mine did.
- They moved much more slowly than I did throughout.
- Their sword finished well BEFORE mine.
I never really understood what was happening. It seemed impossible. But I can see it now happening to the new students at our dojo. When we practice our cuts, I can see that I start after them, I go slower, and I get to the finish before them. All I can tell them is that they’re trying too hard. Doing too much.
I think that so much of my learning in Katori has been about learning to do LESS. Less movement, less speed, less effort. When Sensei tells me to turn my hand, he doesn’t mean, “AND turn your elbow, and lift your shoulder, and twist your hips, and take a deep breath, and maybe jump half-way across the room.” He just means, “Turn your hand.” If I could just do the one thing he wants me to do, and not all that other stuff my body and my brain insist has to go along with it, I’d be much further along.
Learning to just do one thing at a time seems far more difficult to me than learning any particular technique.
But then I’m probably trying too hard.
Photo from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Obviously.