Something interesting happened to me the other day. During Kenjutsu training, we have a formal Rei (respect) ceremony before starting and ending class. The basic steps involve:

Chakuza – kneeling down into seiza

Placing the sword in front

Two bows, one to the sword and one to the shinza

Two claps (to awaken the kami to our training)

a final bow.

Normally I’m pretty mechanical throughout the process, trying to keep body and mind in sync.  The minutaie of bowing and paying proper respect in a classical martial art is as intricate and detailed as anything I’ve ever discovered, so attempting to do things the “right” way is a full time gig.

During a recent class though things went differently. We were training in iai, which tends to be more mentally strenuous than physical. At the end, we all lined up as usual and went through the bowing process.

My mind was tired from the focused training we had done, so instead of the intricate self assessment I usually go through during Rei, I simply allowed my body to do what it wanted. I went on auto pilot, assuming that I had done the routine enough not to screw it up or stand out in a bad way.

Much to my surprise, my body took over and my mind retreated into what I would call emptiness. By emptiness I don’t mean a lack of attention or caring, but more of a quiet, uninterrupted allowance of events to unfold.

My bows clicked into what felt like perfect position and only the muscles I needed were being used – everything else was relaxed. Afterward I got up and thought to myself “hey that felt pretty good!” (and just like that, emptiness was gone).

Nike Was Right – Just Do It….after a lot of practice

The Rei experience was great, but also fleeting. These little moments of success are what drive us forward as artists and keep us hooked on an otherwise demanding lifestyle. What I did right during the Rei ceremony, purely by accident, was letting go of my efforts to do something perfect.

When actively TRYING to accomplish something, our brain works in overdrive. We are computing angles, thoughts, concerns, feelings, and a whole lot more. This mental traffic inevitably causes jams and hesitations. If we can turn off all the unnecessary lanes of thought, the only thing left is a clear, smooth path to effectiveness.

The problem is this – if all it took to be a martial arts “master” was not trying, we’d all be as good as Bruce Lee. Unfortunately, we are not. A person has to burn a particular skill or technique into both their psyche and muscle memory before it can be relied upon by itself.

During my bowing, when I allowed my body to do something it had been trained to do over time, the muscle memory and instinct of the act kicked in and performed just as it should. But without years of fretting and concerning over the exact angles and methods of bowing, that info would never have found a permanent place in my mind and body.

Technique, Kata, and Breaking Out

In order to learn and program ourselves with effective techniques, we have to utilize a few reliable methods of training. First, when learning self defense or any other kind of attack/defense, it’s good to use step-wise “events”. By that I mean, two partners line up and one attacks the other. The defending person tries his technique on the preset attack. This can be done slowly at first and quickly as both partners gain experience.

The other useful method of training is kata. Kata is a limitless tool that allows you to train wherever, whenever, and still work to properly program technique. Although you don’t always have live opponents during kata, the mental and physical growth that comes with forms training is priceless.

Finally, you have to give yourself a chance to break out of the preprogramming and allow your body to function reflexively. Many people consider sparring the only potential method for doing this but it is not. For martial artists who have learned control there are a plethora of drills where the free exchange of techniques can be allowed.

Personally, I like drills that don’t involve excessive padding and promote a feeling of normalcy in the practitioner. By recreating as close to street environments as possible, we can better prepare ourselves for the reality of combat in today’s world.

Through extensive drilling and opportunities to express ourselves naturally, we greatly increase the odds of experiencing those moments of intuitive competence.