On Momentum, Reflections from Hatsu Keiko 2015

Oct 01, 2015

I’m not a football fan, but my oldest son is. For that reason, I’ll sit with him and endure what I find to be a quite over-rated sport. Last February, I took the night to sit with Adam and watch the Super Bowl XLVIII when the Denver Broncos faced off against the Seattle Seahawks. My kid was pumped, as this was a game he’d been waiting for and to sit with his Dad, who otherwise disregards the sport, was a real treat for him. The experience paid off well.

Denver received the opening kickoff, then on the very first play of the game, Peyton Manning misses the snap from center Manny Ramirez.

‘These are two of the top athletes in the world’ I immediately thought. One mistake is excusable, but the snap was not timed with the formation and Manning moved in early. Then, to make conditions worse, the Seahawks scored a safety from the missed snap tumbling into the end-zone as a Bronco running back scrambled to recover the ball was tackled. First play, Seahawks score, two players err.

As a martial artist, I understand the principle of compounding momentum. I looked at my son and asked if we could change the channel now, that the game was over. He laughed and said, “No way! It just started.”

An hour and a half later he then asked, “How did you know?”

While getting off to a bad start does certainly not lead to failure with every task, when there are multiples of variables at play under high stress conditions, then point-to-point attention must be in place for a desired outcome, combined with crystal clear intention and commanding control of one physiology must be firing at all levels. This topic can’t really be summarized in a simple blog post, but I would like to show you the association between this principle and the first training of the New Year at our Dojo, Hatsu Keiko.

On New Year’s morning, at 5:30 a.m., students arrive at our Dojo to train for two hours in the frigid cold of the outdoors. No, there is no heat and usually the training is outdoors providing the weather is suitable for the safe use of edged weaponry. The topics are centered around what will be trained in the coming year.

This year would be different. I arrived at the Dojo at 1:30 am to meditate and spend time alone in my space until students began arriving, reflecting on the year behind and positioning my conscious mind for what was to come. There was a lot to think about.

2014 was a tough year for me, one that lacked internal clarity, provided loss in my life and weakened otherwise rock-solid personal relationships. I had building to do and I knew it. I needed momentum that could only be fueled by a powerful start.

For me, Hatsu Keiko is that first play of the Super Bowl. It’s what sets my pace for the next hour, the following days and the months to come. In 15 years of hosting this training, the results have never been out of step with the patterns in my life for the remaining 365 days. So how do I measure this?

Well, the final half-hour of training we begin to cut tatami with live swords. It’s a practice that is rather important in our martial art as it not only helps you refine your technique through practice, but also shows you quite clearly where the tension or relaxation resides in your body, your ability to control the line or follow a path of least resistance. When you finish the cut, you know what is happening internally – ignoring this part of keiko is missing the reason for training. This is my starting point.

The first cut is the most critical and has always been done by myself. Unsui Sensei explained to a class once that hitou giri, an initial cut meant to kill a man, was the most critical cut of all. It is the initial cut that sets the pace of the fight, that determines the victory so long as it is followed by unyielding momentum. Some years I have done well, other years I’ve failed horribly. As I said, this year would be different and so I chose to offer the first cut to my student, colleague and friend, Brian Vaughan.

Seven weeks prior to Hatsu Keiko, Brian had endured a major lung cancer operation and was now in recovery. Prior to his surgery though, he told me to expect him at the first training of the New Year – I wasn’t so sure about that. Discovering earlier that year that he had cancer was difficult for us at the Dojo, (I can’t imagine how he felt inside) so I certainly didn’t want him to feel obligated. But knowing Brian and what he has endured throughout his life, there was no question this would be a little more than a scratch on his knee. I hoped.

At around 5:20, he pulled up to the Dojo and came in to get in uniform. During training, it was hard for him to breath. He told me a week or so prior, that the space where lung had been removed was extremely painful as nerve endings were ‘dangling’ where there once was lung. Breathing in the 38F air made each breath a struggle. He bowed in with us, lined up and began training right up to the final half hour when we begin our cutting.

When I asked Brian to take the honor of the first cut I meant it with complete sincerity. His journey is unlike anything I’ve yet to face and having him lead the path into the New Year was something I needed, someone who was climbing a mountain higher than I to take the lead. When I asked him, he quickly responded that he couldn’t cut, he was going to sit out for the rest of class – he couldn’t lift his left arm over his shoulder and therefore could not hold a sword. He was also having real difficulty breathing and the cold air outside would make it virtually impossible. To me, that wasn’t acceptable. Maybe for someone else, not for him.

“How is your right arm Brian?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders and said it was fine.

“OK, we’ll set the mat stands up inside the Dojo so you can breath. Brian you’ll cut with a short sword using your right hand.” After all he went through, ‘Not possible’ was something I couldn’t accept. Unsure, he accepted.

While many styles cut with popular beach-mat goza, which is like cutting through wet bread, we use omote-tatmi – tightly woven bamboo mats that are used for tatami flooring. Soaked in water for two days prior, this material is unforgiving and when your cut and commitment isn’t aligned, your blade will just stick to the wet bamboo log half way through. You won’t hear the clean hiss of the cut, rather you’ll be heckled by the condescending smack of a half ass chop.

As I expected, Brian didn’t settle himself into a study of the target, waiting, taking several slow cuts to determine the path he’d take. Instead, once the room was ready to witness the first cut of 2015, Brian lifted the shoto over his head and advanced on the target without any thought or hesitation. Broken, cold and in extreme pain – but demonstrating absolute control of his intent and time – Brian made a near perfect 45 degree angle cut. Words can’t explain the mixed feeling of honor, humility and joy we shared in the Dojo.

Then it was my turn. Double wrapped, omote-tatami, with an 1 1/4 inch think green bamboo core in the center. The year before was less than half the width and the bamboo core was 1/4 of an inch. In my eyes, this cut was nearly impossible… any other time. Brian’s ‘snap’ was perfect, so my ‘pass’ would be too, there was no question. Following my student’s momentum, I took the sword from the saya, made one slow breath and without hesitation cut …


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