In my own corner of the room I knelt on the floor, and adjusted my sword. I looked to some distant horizon, despite the walls. I sought to breathe long and even, despite my exertions. From a place of quiet and calm, a swordsman builds great intention. He pursues the total potential of small, coordinated acts.
I practised nukitsuke. It’s a fundamental technique of Iaido, one of Japanese sword arts. One rises from a kneeling position, and grips the weapon. There’s a lunge, the draw, and a simultaneous cut. Formal standards are very strict.
Hanitijo Sensei shook his head. He teased me that I was big and strong; the ladies would like it anyway. But, bad to use my muscles to cut. And I found this an odd thing to say; it was, after all, my arm holding the sword.
How then should I cut?
“You should cut with your mind.” And he walked away.
I would eventually come to understand that bit of nonsense, stated so matter-of-factly. It was worth a couple years’ rumination — but it paid off, and I’m grateful.
People imagine swordplay as a great exchange of blows, but Iaido is concerned strictly with the drawing of it, the cutting with it, and the sheathing of it. Sloppy technique can mean losing a hand or breaking your weapon. There are no petty details about three-foot surgical knives.
But despite its frightening size, duels were mostly won with the sword’s last few inches. It was a question of timing, targeting and reach.
In the West, we equate muscle with speed and power. It seems unintuitive to slow down and relax for a fight. The truth is, tight muscles respond poorly, move slowly, and confine the limbs. The joints must loosen, and extend. The cutting edge must find the furthest possible arc, to catch the retreating wrist or neck. Every small aspect of the swing, feet to hips to shoulders, must work in service of those last three inches. Eventually, that’s where the swordsman’s focus grows.
The sword does not obey brawn; it follows the mind.
Sensei's advice has had a more profound meaning, over time. For years, I have observed people working very hard to feel busy, rather than accomplish much. If we’d relax, reach out, embrace the fullness of the act, we’d have more time for the joys of life — a great victory.