Friday, June 13, 2014

Communication and Kendo, Part 2

image copyright Darya Klevetova

In my last post about communication and its relationship to kendo, I talked about one basic point of kendo - it is the art of self-improvement. Today, I want to introduce a second point and how it relates to communication. This is called "Ki-ken-tai-ichi" and means (as close to translation as I can get) bringing together your mind and body through your sword.

Remember when I said that kendo is not all about hitting your opponent, but how you look and sound while you hit? Ki-ken-tai-ichi encompasses that principal. Any untrained person can pick up a shinai (bamboo sword), watch a YouTube video or read a "how-to" book, and copy the moves to make hits. What you can't learn from videos and books is how to focus your inner self into the strike - making the sword an extension of your body. I can whack a target. I can scream my head off as I hit the target. But I do not commit myself to the hit if my entire being is not IN the strike.

Think of it in terms of the sport's original life-and-death beginnings. When two swordsmen squared off, the natural response is a self-preservation one. No one wants to die, but in this moment, one will stand and one will fall. (I am so hearing Optimus Prime right now...Oh, sorry.) The question then is, who will be the one left standing? The answer is the one who committed himself to making his strike be the killing blow. His opponent would then have to do one of two things; block the strike (which, against a well-trained opponent, might be too late) or also commit to a killing strike (again, being a reactionary decision, his chances are slim).
Copyright Michel Gillet Photography
Today, we don't normally go around carrying swords with the intent of striking people down. But in kendo, the sword still holds great importance in a kendoka's* life. In kendo, your opponent isn't a stationary object. It is another person with just as much intent to commit to a strike as you. If your sword has not become a part of your body, you will not hit your target with the "killing blow." You will be slower because the sword is nothing more than added weight in your hands. The strike will not be true because it is not connected to your eyes. Your self-preservation mechanism will kick in because you will doubt your ability to hit the mark, making your feet hesitate and lose rhythm with your hands.

To persevere, your mind and body must be one with the sword.

I sat my son down one evening after a class. He was especially upset because one of his sensei (instructor) kept correcting him on his swing and footwork. The sensei wasn't paying nearly as much attention to the other students (in his mind) and so he concluded that he must be horrible at kendo. To make it worse on him, this wasn't just any sensei. He was THE sensei, head instructor of the dojo.

And I had this particular sensei as well when I first started. So I drew upon my experience to help my son understand what was really going on. If this sensei even bothered to give you his personal attention, then he saw potential - he saw someone worth his time to teach. My son should be proud that this sensei took the time to help him correct his swing or his footwork. It also meant that he should work harder to achieve Ki-ken-tai-ichi. Once he made the sword a part of his body, his swing and footwork would all fall into place because he would become completely aware of his body and his movements. And his sensei would "stop picking on him."

My son's biggest problem at the time was his habit of holding a defensive stance when facing an opponent. And in kendo, defense doesn't get you points. Don't misunderstand, defense is important to strategy when facing an opponent. But my son uses defensive moves so often it becomes predictable. It causes him to focus on what the opponent will do rather than what he can do to the opponent, and so he loses his concentration momentarily when the opponent strikes, creating dissonance between his swing and his footwork. His sensei would stop him during practice and correct him, or provide examples of how he could move better. When his second taikai (tournament) came around, he was almost sure he didn't want to participate again.

My son is not just a defensive kendoka. He is a defensive communicator. He looks for any indication from others that they are about to "strike" him with a harsh criticism, tattle on him, or some provide some other put-down. Granted, his own actions will at times warrant a word from his teacher or an "I feel" message from a classmate. But because of his personality (borderline type A, ugh) and early years of social anxiety, his interactions with most kids and adults tend to be reactionary, he waits for them to make the first move.

Thankfully, my son has mostly outgrown his defensive nature, although it still pops up once in a while.  Back to his second taikai, THE sensei spoke with him after his match and again corrected him on his footwork and to be less hesitant with his strikes. And my son stood there and looked squarely at his sensei, nodded intently, and said he would work harder. His body language showed sincerity, his voice was clear. In that moment, he was in Ki-ken-tai-ichi. He brought together his mind and body through his verbal "sword."

His sword and his communication skills are one and the same. In his defensive posture, his words are hesitant, sometimes mumbled or nonexistent.Once he's gotten over the initial defensive stance, his words are clear and easily understood. He's getting better, though, and soon he will be able to walk up to someone, determine the words he needs to say, and say them with conviction. He will take in other people's words and effortlessly decide how best to respond. And he will be able to let the words flow through him naturally as he and his "opponent" trade words in fun, in anger, in opinion, and in knowledge.

*Kendoka is a person who practices the art of kendo

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