Friday, September 26, 2008

On becoming the sword

When I first started out, I thought that the goal was to reach a point where the sword becomes an extension of my body. Something I had control over, somewhat like a part of my arm.

Then I thought no, I needed to become an extension of the sword. To take on the characteristics of the sword myself, becoming part of it, rather than it becoming part of me. I thought this revelation was quite clever, at the time.

The truth is not really either of those, and not a combination of the two, but something else entirely. A connection that cannot be fathomed before getting there.

The "getting there" part is infinitely fascinating.

I was pondering this while observing the classes today.

There is a process that is observable and predictable. People don't go through all the parts of it at the same pace, or in the same order, but they do have to go through them all. No shortcuts.

First off, it is very clear that when students start to work with a sword, it is a VERY separate thing from themselves. It is an inanimate object that they hold in their hand (or hands).

For some people, adding a sword to their learning experience makes them focus entirely on the sword, the weapon in their hands. These people hold on with a death grip. They tense every muscle, and pour huge amounts of energy and effort into wielding this strange new thing. In so doing, they lose all awareness of the movement of their bodies, and throw themselves off balance with nearly every movement. It is as if the sword moves of its own accord, and they struggle to hang on and keep up. With every movement, the tension increases, and every error of line is magnified. They come up on their toes, like a ballerina, and assume postures never before imagined, without realizing until afterwards where they are, and not knowing exactly how they even got there.

For others, adding the sword doesn't really change the struggle they are going through to control their bodies. They hardly hold onto it- and sometimes drop it. They look all around the room, trying to figure out their place in it, or simply not paying much attention to what they are looking at, with all their energy and effort going inwards, to try to keep from tripping over themselves. Some are relatively successful with the not falling over part, and others are not. Either way, the sword flails about fairly wildly, all over the place as they move about. They are not able to control the point of the weapon at all, and often are not even aware that they are not doing so. They appear to be unaware that they are pointing their swords in vastly different directions than anyone else, because they are not able to pay attention to that many things at once. They are not stupid- they are preoccupied.

These are fairly extreme descriptions of the beginnings of developing sentiment du fer. Each student will vary in which of these they are experiencing, and to what degree, at any given time, but they will all do both of these at some point, sometimes alternating between the two during the same class.

Part of what I find fascinating is how easy it is to observe a group and see where they are on this continuum. It is very easy to see from the outside what it is not easy to control from the inside.

When teaching, being aware of which of these situations a particular student is experiencing helps tremendously in knowing what they need to work on next, and why. The goal- or A goal- is to assist the student in incorporating the sword, in being able to shift focus at will and by necessity, rather than becoming "trapped" by an inability to control where they need to focus. Sometimes, I must control their focus for them, until they are able to do so. Other times, I provide a nudge, a suggestion, a direction, and they are able to follow.

When someone is trying to communicate in a language other than their native tongue, it is often possible to deduce what language they translate FROM by the types of errors they make. Likewise with the sword. Certain errors, or patterns of errors, are characteristic of certain people, and of certain difficulties they have in other aspects of their lives.

How do they deal with tension?
How do they approach new or unfamiliar situations?
What do they do when something unexpected happens, when things don't go as planned?
How well do they filter out distractions?
How aware are they of their space? Their body?

All of these will be reflected in how they handle a sword. Unerringly. This is why the study of the sword will teach you an enormous amount about your true self, if you are able to really look, and not give in to the temptation to avoid looking, or to make excuses, because it is often uncomfortable.

Fencing is about balance. About control. All of the exercises we do are to train the body- and the mind- to do exactly what is intended, in a coordinated and precise way.

In order to do this, every exercise must be done with care, with focus, with intent.
As the master says, practice slowly to learn quickly.

Make each movement as if it is the only one.
Do not anticipate the next movement. (This is very, very challenging, since anticipation, in some circumstances, is a survival skill.)
When it is necessary to move your body, focus on your body.
When it is necessary to move the sword, focus on the sword.
Yes, this means that if both must move at the same time, you MUST focus on BOTH.
In order to do this, you must be able to filter out everything that is unimportant and unnecessary.
And in order to do that, you must first learn how to TELL what is and is not important or necessary!

This takes some time.

The most common error, by FAR, of new students, and even of experienced students, is to go too fast.
To start combining things, taking shortcuts. To prioritize ease, and comfort, rather than precision.

Slow down. (Hmmm... where have I heard this before?)

Think of it this way:
Rarely is it necessary to be able to do anything with the level of precision required to be able to control yourself, your sword, and your opponent.
Even a brain surgeon only has to control two of the three. They control the "opponent" by rendering them unconscious. Chemical control. Plus, their "opponent" isn't trying to kill them at the same time.

You don't get to do that.
You have a live, conscious, dangerous, armed person to deal with.

Anything you can control, you MUST control.

Otherwise, you don't stand a chance.

Slow down.
Let the sword teach you.

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