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.