Forging the Samurai Sword – of Self

July 10, 2009
Tough into hard - how the Samurai sword blends the best of both.

Tough into hard - how the Samurai sword blends the best of both.

A few nights ago, a friend inveigled me into watching a Nova episode called The Secrets of the Samurai Sword.  I had intended to do other things – some leftover work from the day (or week, or month…) was weighing on me a bit.  But it was irresistibly fascinating.

The first thing that caught me is one of my common questions: how did they ever figure that out?  Who, and how?  How did people come to know that cooking iron-bearing river sand in an incredibly hot oven (up to 2500 F) with charcoal for 3 days would produce the types of steel they needed for this?  How did they figure out that one type broke easily but held a very sharp edge, while another type was much more flexible but didn’t sharpen well, and so putting the flexible into the sharpen-able would produce a resilient and still deadly sword?  How?

The next thing that caught me was the degree of discipline, expertise and patience that goes into each step of the sword-making.  There are 3 segments to the making of a superior sword: the creation of the proper steel, the forging of the steel into a sword, and the finishing (polishing and honing).  Each is its own specialty.  Each demands consistent attention to the process over a significant period of time.  There is no shortcut to the production of a quality Samurai sword.  Men (and yes, they do seem all to be men) train and develop these skills over a lifetime.  It is their livelihood, their pride, their legacy, and part of their spirituality.

And then, still wandering about impressed as all get-out with those things, I began to think about character refinement and how like the creation of a Samurai sword it is.

Stage 1: The oven.  There are things we have to learn, things that must become a part of us.  We’re not going anywhere until we learn those lessons, or perhaps skills.  If you’ve ever been caught in a cycle of bad relationships, bad jobs, bad habits (including all addictions), or unproductive ways of thinking about things (the world, other people, yourself,…) that kept you stuck, you know the oven.  Once you hit that place of never going back to your old form, you’re done with it.

Stage 2a: Removing the slag.  In this stage, the steel is heated and pounded, folded, heated and pounded more.  The pounding actually squeezes impurities out of the steel, leaving (remarkably!) only iron and carbon.  This process is very much like what we do once we are on a self-growth path.  We know we want to change, and we do what we know how to do to remove the “impurities” – that is, those things that no longer work for us, that impede us from doing what we deeply desire to do.  I’ve also heard this called “peeling the layers of the onion.”  The repeated heating, pounding and folding serves exactly the same purpose: we test ourselves, challenge ourselves, observe what’s there and refine it, look at it differently, and begin again.

Stage 2b: Forging the sword.  This critical phase of the process is one I had not thought explicitly about before, but it hits home for me.  See what you think.  By now we know ourselves pretty well.  We know which parts of us are or can be sharp but fragile, and which parts are perhaps blunt but quite resilient.  From the sword forging process, it is clear that both parts are necessary.  With only the sharp but fragile parts, we will shatter under pressure; but with only the blunt, resilient parts, we will never cut through to the truth.  And so we must find a way to blend the two, to make use of the best qualities of both.  In the sword, the tough (more flexible) steel goes on the inside, and that makes sense for us as well.  Our internal resilience, our ability to bend and not break, comes from the inside and strengthens the outside.  Our sharp edge, our ability to see clearly and accurately and cut through pretense (our own or others’), we direct at least partly externally. 

Stage 3: Honing and polishing.  The polishing and honing of the sword of our self, the quest to fulfill to promise of our uniqueness, our own individual beauty.

A couple of years ago, I had a dream in which one of my teachers said to me, “I am constantly sharpening my sword.”  That has taken on new, more profound meaning now.


Doing Things the Wrong Way

January 12, 2009

We were worked on falls and rolls during martial arts class today. There came a point where I decided to watch instead of roll because of current stiffness and inflammation in my neck and back.

After class, when the floor was open and there were no external distractions, I slowly felt my way into the rolling. Placing my feet and knees, arms and shoulders, chin and eyes in the ways we’d been instructed, I started playing with the technique to understand how it applied to my body at this point in time.

Turns out, I could do it pretty easily rolling over my left shoulder. But when I tried rolling to the right – the direction where I’ve been having some considerable challenges lately – it was a very different experience. The physics were different, the balance point was different – it didn’t work to do it the right way. So, I did it the wrong way.

That’s when my sensei descended upon me.

My sensei is an accomplished martial artist who has the capacity to be both a demanding and a gentle teacher. He is very committed to the students in our dojo. And he is committed to us getting things right. He quickly and accurately diagnosed what I was doing wrong and proceeded to demonstrate and instruct me in what I should do.

Because our dojo has a policy of speaking directly and honestly, and because it was after class and just the two of us, I did my best to explain that he wasn’t helping me – not that I did it gracefully, mind you, but it was the best I had at the time. And he got the point, and gave me some space – essentially, giving me space to do it my way: do it wrong.

This is a tricky thing, this right/wrong balance. The right way is there because it will most likely achieve the exact result I was looking for: not injuring myself. But that’s the thing with probabilities – a high probability describes most realities, not all of them.

So, what do you do if you’re in one of the realities where the rules are different? Or what if you’re not even sure whether the rules apply exactly that way to you and you need to test them out a little? There’s nothing else to it but to do things wrong – feel them out, learn from them.

Here’s where trust comes in – trusting that there is a place within the essence of my experience that there is no right and wrong. There is just experience, and the ability to pay attention to it and learn from it. And it’s my commitment to that – to creating the experiences I most need and desire to have, showing up to them 100%, and taking full responsibility for them – that has meaning and substance in my life.

Doing it right, doing it wrong – those are just reference points. I’m the one who’s got to find my way.

Karate and Karma

January 2, 2009

In the dictionary at my desk, the entry for karate is immediately followed by the entry for karma. Coincidence? Profoundly unlikely! Just look at the two definitions:

  • karate – an Oriental method of hand-to-hand combat utilizing a variety of sudden, forceful blows.
  • karma – 1. Hinduism and Buddhism. The spiritual force generated by one’s actions, which determines one’s reincarnated situation. 2. Loosely, fate.

In both cases, there is a central theme of force, generated by one’s actions and affecting one’s situation. In both cases, the generation of the force is in one’s own control. The force I generate in my blows affects the outcome of the self-defense effort – perhaps my life; the spiritual force from my chosen actions determines my next lifetime. The force generated, and the direction it takes, depend entirely on the person generating the force, on his or her determination, skill and discipline.

Karate is usually understood to apply to the more immediate, day-to-day situation, and karma to the trajectory of lifetimes. But what creates that larger spiritual force which carries us into our next lifetime, and next, and next? How does a gal – or guy – begin to affect that trajectory? With the hand-to-hand, everyday generation of force – in short, karate.

Therefore, I am forced – not just because I study karate, but as a sensible person tuned into the message of the dictionary – to conclude that all enlightened masters studied karate.

Agree? Disagree? Study martial arts? Believe in reincarnation? Let us know!