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.


Saving the Wild of the World

March 21, 2009

Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  That quote gets distorted, replacing ‘wildness’ with ‘wilderness’ as in the forests and jungles and deserts of the natural world.  But it has as much to say about our internal landscape:  the ways our untamed self  is capable of creating life and passion and all that sustains the essence of living.

Yet the bulk of too many days and nights is devoted to taming that wildness within – making it acceptable, making it fit, making it play by the rules, making it go away.  This is the destruction of  natural resources that most endangers us, truly threatening our extinction.

The world will not be saved by doing things right.  It can only be preserved through the ways we are fierce and stormy, feral and threatening, undomesticated, uncultivated, rowdy.

Conservation is not accomplished by the act of containment.  Life is viscerally made of change; the act of creation is the only contribution that counts.  And our creative core is exactly where we are undisciplined and unmanageable, not to be controlled.

We will only make it through this day, this recession, this decade, this rolling tide of humanity across time and space when we demand this wildness of ourselves and each other.  And yes, it is dangerous – for all the reasons we can name.  But danger lurks with any choice and becomes the greater threat when we pretend otherwise.

How do you save the wild within you? How do outrageous unruly desires and dreams whisper to you, calling you to be?  How do you honor and encourage the wild nature of those you call into your world?  How?

The Paradox of Perception

January 27, 2009

I’m struck these days by a new understanding of a familiar awareness: perception is everything. I would like to think that, for the most part, I experience the world as it’s really happening – objectively, neutrally. But my experience says that isn’t so. A small example…

When I was younger, just the sight of a police car would trigger an anxiety response in me – shallow breathing, increased blood pressure, tunnel focus on where they were, what they might be thinking about me, what might happen next (i.e., was I in trouble?). And this was not because I was trying to get away with anything – I was far too entrenched in the ‘good girl’ category for that. Indeed, the one time I did have something to hide (details withheld to protect the innocuous), my anxiety response was actually lower. Rather than reacting, I paid attention to what was really going on so that I could deal with whatever evolved.

Then recently I had an experience that turned out to be a kid’s prank but could have been much more serious – and the police response was noticeably absent. Suddenly I realized how much I unconsciously deferred to the police, expecting them always to be the authority and the law, and how little that attitude served me. I magnified the role of the police and ignored the ways I need to be in a collaborative role with law enforcement: being a part of the solution rather than imagining and creating my own problems.

This shifted my perception from the fear-inducing “what if I’m in trouble” approach to a much more useful set of questions: how do I need to protect myself? what is a reasonable expectation for the role of the police? how do I hold myself and law enforcement accountable? In short, a much more reality-focused set of questions: what are we up against, and what can I do about it?

Yesterday I drove past a cop car and didn’t automatically go into my defensive worry and anxiety. Instead, I saw them more as equals, with a sense that we each have our job and that the first relevant question was how well we were each showing up to those responsibilities.

The paradox in this is that my experience of reality now is as fully determined by my perception as it was with the anxiety response – and yet, it’s also true that not all perceptions are equal. Some take us into the moment, while some just take us into la la land.

There was something to learn from my anxiety response – it had its roots in childhood and told me something about what I had learned then. But that story is ultimately boring – I know the ending. Here’s to stalking the perceptions that take us into the now where the moment is unfolding and creation is ours for the making.

The Feel of the Road

January 6, 2009

I read recently that our days of carefree air travel might be coming to a close – prices skyrocketing, flight availability restricted, flying becoming something we do only when really necessary. In my world, this notion could have come as a major shock.

But this morning I arrived home from a 3000 mile road trip – the fourth such trip I’ve taken in a little more than a year. (You can read about this most recent one at  Before that, I’d done things like drive from Michigan to New England to see my parents. But nothing quite like this: getting in the car and driving for days to get from one spot to another.

Driving like this is changing me. My love of this country – of its beauty, its people, its mystery and folly – is on a sharp increase. My sense of potency and accomplishment is off the charts. And, most importantly, my feeling of independence is being nurtured beyond what I’m now realizing was a stunted state of growth.

It has to do with the freedom of car travel – the ability to turn right or left, to pick a route, change it, or just stop driving for awhile, all in response to the feeling of the moment. And it has to do with not being where anyone would necessarily be looking for me. In this world where we are videotaped, monitored, and tracked in so many ways, it’s a powerful thing to be just where you are, with no one particularly looking on.

So, I do send a prayer for the airlines industry – air travel has its place. And fuel prices do get the attention of any traveler. But right along side it I send a prayer of gratitude for the open road. May it always be there, and may we always be smart enough to answer its alluring call.

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!

Taking In Beauty (or not)

December 15, 2008

geological-loop“You’ll tell me if you have the urge to stop someplace, right?  I can count on that?”  Karen’s question came as we passed yet another gorgeous scenic overlook.  

“Yeah, sure.”  I replied.  And I meant it – she surely didn’t have to second guess me, complicating her own decisions about when to grab the moment by trying to figure out my timing and preferences. 

But it’s a tricky thing, this decision about when to take the scenic tour.  When is it enough to just soak it all up as you drive on by?  When is that a folly of its own making, a wasted moment? When is stopping a good decision and when is it a mis-step, time that would have been better spent elsewhere?

The truth is, you just can’t know in advance.  That is one of the beauties of travel.  You can look at a map, plan your route.  But there are so many factors that can come to play – weather, construction, mechanical needs, new inspirations.  Truly, once the wheels begin to spin, it’s all an adventure from there. 

“A geological loop.  Shall we take it?”  This time it was me driving, my turn to second guess.  Surprised by her agreement, I almost missed the turn but recovered at the last minute, careening around the corner.  The views were immediately rewarding. (Except, who really knew – maybe the views were just as good on the main road?  The second guessing is endless!) 

But then came the tension.  It said it was a loop, but even after a few miles we definitely weren’t heading in the direction that would take us back to the main route.  Do we keep driving?  Karen expresses some trepidation, but it’s me behind the wheel, me that’s got to make the final timing decision.  Except, note here, I’m already forgetting:  the rules are she can say “turn around” at any time – it’s really not all resting on me.  But that’s sure the way it feels.

I start driving faster, and getting distracted from the scenery itself wondering if the road will turn, and how long until its over – missing all the beauty that’s right there in front of me.  Silly silly silly.

Luckily for me, two things intervened:  first, the scenery got more and more majestic, so I just HAD to notice it.  And second, we hit a point where the road was closed:  the decision was made. 

I drove out of there too fast – acting like I’d done something wrong going so far in, and trying to make up for it on the way out.  Human beings, we are such a ridiculous race sometimes.  So afraid of making mistakes, we create them out of the very stuff of our successes. 

But that’s where writing comes in, weaving success out of the fibers of our folly.

Embracing the Impossible

November 22, 2008

I’ve been noticing lately how many things I don’t do because I’ve never done them before, or never actually seen them done, and thus can’t quite imagine them.  It’s as if the limits of my current experience are somehow a good reason to circumscribe my potential experience – which really makes no sense at all.

Sometimes this is just a simple rejection of an idea:  I won’t think of going to restaurants downtown because I’ve never been to a restaurant downtown before.  I won’t take a new route home because it’s unfamiliar – and who knows what might happen!  Yesterday a friend asked if I would help transport some 12 foot trees across town with my pick-up.  “Yikes,” I thought.  “I’m not sure…never done that before…”

As if that’s not silly enough, there are the ways rejection gets laced with judgment:  not only do I not go to restaurants downtown, the people that do are really just wasting gas driving down there; people who drive around with trees hanging out of the backs of trucks are really unsafe.  It’s scary how quickly the judgments creep in!

And then there’s pity – pity and it’s mighty band of suffering, blame, and despair.  Pity kicks in when I can’t imagine myself doing something, but also can’t deny that I’d really LIKE to be doing that thing.  Poor me, I don’t know how!  Woe is me, I’ll never be able to learn or get it right!  Somebody help me, I’m simply overcome!  Once pity is engaged, it kicks up the drama, distracting me from the more productive steps I could easily be taking to gain the skills, confidence, and knowledge I might need to go into a new arena.

So, this post is written as a tribute to changing all this:  to embracing the impossible, finding out what it is, learning how to make it my own.  The experiences I’ve had are already notches on my belt.  Bring on the more!