Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Practice. This is the single most important attribute for becoming good at budo. It doesn’t matter how talented you are. It doesn’t matter how nature gifted you with strength and speed. Without regular, ongoing practice, you won’t be good. Period.

This means getting out and practicing regularly, whether you have a partner or not. It means studying your art. Martial arts are learned through the conscious repetition of fundamentals. It takes a lot of dedication to repeat fundamental drills over and over again, but that’s where progress is made. Deep in the fundamentals.

There is a basic technique in Shinto Muso Ryu called Hikiotoshi Uchi. I may be a slow learner, but I keep learning new things about the technique. I also unlearn things about it very fast. I keep practicing it and discovering new things about the technique, but if I go for a while without practicing for some reason (most likely work), then my technique gets weak and sloppy. Without regular practice, I’m no good. No one is.

This should be obvious, but it doesn’t seem to be. A lot of people have a vision of being a great martial artist. The truth is, being a martial artist is mostly the potentially boring repetition of basic exercises on a regular schedule. I say “potentially boring” because one of the keys to maintaining that regular schedule is to always be looking deeper into your technique to see what needs to be improved. This involves doing a lot of repetitions of basic techniques, which can get boring fast if you only think about it as repeating the basic techniques.

If you are really learning and improving, you should never repeat the same technique. On the theory that no one is ever perfect, each repetition has to be an attempt at perfect technique, and hopefully, every repetition is better than the previous one in some way. I wish mine were like this. Instead the quality of techniques goes up and down on a day to day basis, so I have to aim for general improvement over time, so that what was good last week will qualify as poor next year. Thankfully, there is always room for improvement. Even my teachers keep practicing, although they are so much further up them mountain than I am that I can’t see what they are working on.

This is why bujutsu practice is budo. We are always working on polishing our techniques, and in the process, we should be polishing ourselves as well. We keep practicing, and we keep aiming at perfection, even if we know we’ll never hit it. Hopefully, with a little practice, tomorrow I’ll be a little closer to the target than I was today.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Mindful practice

Kata practice in koryu is tough. Even knowing exactly what your partner will do doesn’t make it easy. Unfortunately, you don’t know precisely when or how fast or how hard or how committed your partner will be when they do the next technique in the kata. Working with a good partner who controls and varies their speed, timing strength and commitment are what bring the two-man kata of koryu bugei alive. A great deal is said about mushin, or “no-mind” as a goal in the martial arts. In order to bring kata alive as above, I think mindful training is critical.

Mushin has been described well by better martial artists and writers then I. It’s a mental state that is a goal of training. What I don’t think I’ve seen enough of is a discussion of the mental state during training. It’s good to know that the goal of training is to achieve the lofty state of mushin, but with what sort of mental state, with what mind-set should we approach training? Most of us, myself included, need more mind in our training, not less.

We need more mindfulness in our training. By this I don’t mean we need to be thinking about all the nuances and possibilities of what we are doing while we are doing it. That’s what the beer session after keiko is for. What I’m talking about is more like the zanshin that one is supposed to show at the end of kata, after the action is concluded but before the kata is officially over. In iaido, we’re always watching to make sure students don’t drop their focus after the last cut, and just saunter through the chiburi, noto, and return to the starting point. This remaining focused on the situation at hand, without letting outside thoughts or distractions move your focus is the mindfulness I’m looking for throughout practice.

It’s a lot easier to grab a students attention in jodo practice and keep them mindful through a whole kata than it is in iaido. All you have to do is change up the timing a little bit when their attention wanders and nearly hit them. Some students, like me, are stubborn about being stupid, and we actually get hit. That surprise when the senior partner comes through your defenses because you were giving him less than 100% of your attention is usually enough to keep you focused until the end of practice. The trick is to have this focus from the start of practice and to not lose it.

When I think of mindfulness, it’s not that one is full of their own mind, but rather one’s mind is full of one thing. That one thing is whatever you’re doing. In koryu bugei training, that one thing is almost always a kata. Focusing on a kata, filling your mind only with the immediate action of the kata is a lot tougher than you would think. Especially considering that the sadistic old men I train with seem to like nothing better than whacking you if your attention wanders and leaves an opening for them. With that kind of motivation, it should be easy to practice mindfully. For some reason, even with the threat of yet another whacking, it’s still difficult to stay focused on just the immediate instant.

One of the dangers of kata practice is that it can become rote. After all, everybody involved knows what’s going to happen next, and after that, and after that until the end of the kata. How much attention does it require to dance through the steps of the kata when everyone knows what those steps are? It doesn’t take much attention at all to dance through the steps of a kata. It can be done while planning dinner and a corporate takeover. To do it right though requires nothing less than your whole mind.

If your partner is good, you can’t have even one corner of your mind off thinking about dinner plans. There is a reason that in koryu bugei the senior partner is always on the losing side. That’s the teaching side. The senior’s job is to control the speed, timing, intensity and other variables of the kata so junior can learn as much as possible and stretch themselves to new levels. When the senior is good, they don’t leave any room for the junior to be anything but mindful.

Mindfulness is another one of those things in any way that can be carried out of practice and into life. The tea ceremony folks are probably the best at bringing mindfulness to ordinary life, because their training is focused on an ordinary activity. They have to learn mindfulness without the threat of getting hit with a big wooden stick. In budo practice, if we are lucky, we have the advantage and disadvantage of training with someone who will hit us if we aren’t mindful. This is useful because it can teach good focus very quickly. I’ve noticed though, that this focus can be very particular, showing up only when someone is liable to be hit, and absent the rest of the time.

Mindfulness shouldn’t require the threat of getting hit to achieve. One of the goals of training is to be able to discipline the mind to mindfulness at any time, regardless of the activity, the location, or the presence of a partner with a big stick. Watch any good budoka, and they show mindfulness from the moment they start in the dojo, not from the moment kata starts. Being mindful throughout practice at the dojo should be practice for being mindful all the time. Great budoka exude this focus all the time, inside and outside the dojo.

Mindfulness is not something that is just for the dojo. It is a skill, a way of approaching things and focusing on one activity that should extend from the dojo into everything we do. Mindfulness is one of the practices, one of the benefits of any way that should permeate our lives. My cooking is better when I’m mindful of what I’m doing in the kitchen. And I know it’s useful in the dojo when that little, old man with the stick tries to whack me.

Mushin, well, that’s a goal I’m still aiming at. Mindfulness is something I can work on right now.