The Iaido Journal  July 2008
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Some Thoughts About the Guelph Iaido Seminar

copyright © 2008 Dana Luebke, all rights reserved

When I think about the Guelph Seminar, when I ask myself what did I leave with, what first comes to mind is a bigger picture of the "world of Iai" - more awareness of its structure, its personalities, its particular skills and energies and its depth.

The strongest concept I bring with me from the teaching and the demonstrations of the Sensei is total integration of function and form, and relaxation in execution.

(On a personal note, the day before I left I had selected a new personal goal, "to be joyful and open". The seminar really challenged that goal, which I had consciously forgotten in the experiences of the first day.  My Sensei, Chris Gilham, helped me get back on track.  I had forgotten how often setting a goal 'attracts' challenges to create the chaos needed for real change.)

The seminar also made me think about what is Iai.  Based on my experience in Guelph and without any theoretical knowledge to influence me, I would say it is the art of using a (specific) sword to avoid attack and kill an opponent or opponents.

I hypothesize that the skills are practiced so that they become movement patterns stored in the movement centers in the back of the brain where they would be integrated, "high-gear" responses requiring no conscious "thought"; that these integrated, high-gear patterns (traditionally achieved in Iaido training by extensive repetition of movements which would stimulate myelination of those neural pathways) would enable immediate, relaxed execution.

The development of "no mind" could put the practitioner in a state of active awareness unaffected by thoughts or emotions which could interfere with execution.  This would mean being in a place beyond fear or hostility. One would need to work through any triggers that would throw the practitioner into orientation reflex.  Perhaps this is a technique for putting the nervous system in an alerted state without bringing reflexive mechanisms such as "flight/fight" (I lack knowledge of more accurate terminology) into play. I recall a story told by our Sensei about a fighting cock whose trainer would not let him fight until he was totally calm - as if he were made of wood.

This is what I saw in the relaxed execution of the 7th and 8th Dan Sensei.  One could say profoundly effective, efficient killing machines - or artists - which is perhaps why moral training would be such an important part of Samurai training - to balance or control this deadly, automatic killing skill.  It would appear that the cultivation of such arts as poetry, calligraphy, Noh Theatre and the Tea Ceremony fulfilled a need for balance in the lives of Samurai.  They are all calming and reflective.  (I think of how many US servicemen are having trouble returning to civilian life.)

This poses questions in my mind.To take our "primitive" survival reflexes and harness, alter and develop them to an extremely high degree - to what end?  I am asking now for our present time. 

My knowledge of Buddhism is fairly superficial, and I am attracted to what I perceive as the Dalai Lama's message of compassion towards all living things, the sanctity of all life and the doctrine of not doing harm (can't remember the name of this).  I recently read about Buddhism in Heian Japan where the focus seemed to be on this life as "a shadow, a place of sighs."  Poetic, but not life-affirming.  So I am curious - what is the spirituality fundamental to Iaido?

I attended some Jodo classes and enjoyed that the technique seemed to be more about disarming an opponent and defining boundaries than about trying to kill them. 

The principals that I most noticed in Iai were:
- Clarity in purpose of kata and resulting precision - where is teki, what is he doing, what are you doing.
- Relaxed, natural execution.

These lead me to try viewing Iaido practice as an acting exercise - actors often need to combine visualization with physical skills.  And actors must enter into the characters they play without an attitude about them.  It has been easier for me to approach Iaido practice from the purely movement angle, using my dance skills - dance is my first (artistic) language and allowed me to ignore the 'moral' questions of what I was learning to do.  But the Seminar showed me that an actor's skill and disciplines are necessary as well.

The Seminar also reinforced my belief that clear observation and analysis of the movement and use of modern techniques, like Educational Kinesiology to help with stress reduction and integration of learning, in addition to traditional dojo methods, can produce beneficial results.

I came away with many images from the Seminar.  Yoshimura Sensei's warmth and wonderful clowning at the auction,  Tsubaki Sensei's brilliant (in my mind) teaching.  The reaffirmation that when people really want to communicate, it is possible regardless of language and culture. The beautiful dance of the fellow with one leg and his wife during the Jodo demonstration - her face so focused, his so open, each kata finishing with her Jo pushiing his head back to the very edge of his balance, which never wavered - both of them focused, determined as they challenged and reestablished boundaries. I was very grateful for her kindness and consideration towards me in the Jodo class, and that of a senior Jodo practitioner from Thunder Bay and a young Shodan from Ottawa) 

I wondered if Yoshimura Sensei balances the discipline of Iai and its awe-full seriousness with his clowning and warm interaction, including touch - so absent from the formalized interactions in the "world of Iai" - thereby finding a wholeness.

It was curious to me how much our dojo (myself included) stuck to ourselves.  Being a new experience for me I enjoyed the comfort factor, but I also wonder if there are opportunities lost.  I did enjoy the opportunities for wide ranging discussions with several of our members, something there seems to be little time for at home. 

Although there are times when I wonder why I am doing this, I feel that I want to press on with more training and perhaps grading (something I originally did not want to get involved in) as I would like to learn Koryu.  You may wonder why, given the kind of ambivalence tugging at me.  I think that the artist in me really wants to be able to go beyond technique, and is also is intrigued by traditional forms.  Be assured, I have a great respect for and belief in fundamentals - and I still practice, when I have the chance, very basic dance technique. 

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TIN July 2008