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How to get it right first time: practising for state of mind

We had an interesting time in the “intermediates” class this week. (Those scare quotes are to point out that after all these years, we should probably be calling it the Advanced class. So I will.) We began by establishing the goal of the class: to address the problem of freeplay devolving into tippy-tappy shit. You probably know this kind of thing: right leg leading, no passing at all, sniping out with snappy little cuts from a middle guard position. The sort of sport-fency speedy stuff that has nothing to do with the Art as Fiore represented it in his book. But here’s the thing; when fencing for points, it is far and away the best approach, which is why sport fencers do it. And in any kind of competitive fencing environment, that is what fencers will tend to do, because it works. But we are not creating sport fencers here, we are training martial artists in a specific historical system, so we had to come up with a way to make our free-fencing practice more faithful to the source.

Rather than dive right into freeplay, we only tried to create first drill, with a designated attacker and defender, in the usual set-up (one person taking on each member of the class in turn) and when a blow was landed, at whichever step of the drill, the combatants had to maintain awareness of each other, and retreat out of measure without dropping their guard.

  • In round one, the defender had to stand their ground, and the attacker had to approach from out of measure and attack with a committed mandritto fendente.
  • In round two, the defender could work from any guard.
  • In round three, the attacker could attack with any blow.

Needless to say, we almost never saw first drill in its basic form. All sorts of things went “wrong”, and most of the fighting that ensued was done in the proper measure, with proper commitment. The idea of the set drill was enough to shoe-horn the students into a better approach. There was no tippy-tappy shit at all. Maintaining focus after a blow was struck and you were safely out of measure was perhaps the hardest thing for most, so we worked on that. (I made reference to the way koryu students do their drills: bow out of measure, enter into measure, do the drill, retreat with total focus, bow again. We need more of that in class, I think. I last saw it done in Spain on my trip last year, by Marcos Sala Ivars demonstrating with the naginata.)

The drill was for both students to approach into measure simultaneously, with an agreed attacker and defender roles, do first drill without pause, and passing each other, retreat under cover until out of measure again. Change roles and repeat.

It was not good, the first few rounds. So we had a discussion on mindset, and suddenly it got a lot better.

This is a common problem in just about every advanced class I teach. The first round of anything is crap, so we have a short chat, and then it gets much much better right away. This means that students are entering the class in the wrong mind-set. Obviously, in any martial art, you only get the first opportunity to win. Because if you lose once you die. There are no practise runs, no rehearsals. State of mind is everything. Improvement should be gradual: if it leaps ahead after telling the class something they already know, then the problem is in their state of mind, not their knowledge or skill level.

If a whole class is doing something badly, it can only be my fault. I must not have trained them in the necessary skill. So we had a look at the key techniques for establishing a desired state of mind: visualisation and focus.

We started with visualisation, choosing images that generate a specific state. First injustice, to generate anger. Think of any injustice, and the state of rage begins to build. Then a rose, which calmed them down. Then the person(s) you love most in the world. Three different states of mind in as many minutes. So then, how to focus. For this we used the “awareness of breathing” meditation. Breathing is usually so boring that normally you don’t think of it at all. Requiring yourself to simply notice every breath is really hard: the mind naturally wanders. So the practise is to gently return your attention to the intended object. This works best if it is not inherently interesting, as there is more likelihood of being swiftly distracted.

We then chose images that represent the desired physical attributes of a swordsman. The class chose grounding, agility, relaxation and balance. Each student chose something that symbolised these things to them, and practised keeping that image clearly in their mind’s eye.

Then the mental attributes: the class chose calmness and relaxed focussed attention. Each student chose something that represented the desired state to them, and practised keeping that image clearly in their mind’s eye.

Then they combined these images, if applicable (there were some pretty funny mashups). The idea is to create a personal symbol that represents the ideal physical and mental virtues of the perfect swordsman, and be able to meditate upon it for a few minutes, to establish the optimum state of mind for training.

We then got up and did the same drill as before. And it went much better, of course.

To finish up, I asked them to think about this practise, and develop their own image to meditate upon, to generate the correct state of mind before class. Every class. Let’s see how things go next week!

This kind of performance-related meditation has been absolutely critical to my own development, and we really should do more of it in regular class. If you’d like to find out for yourself how it is done, I am teaching a full day seminar on it here in Helsinki on September 8th. More details here.

Every activity has its optimum state of mind. Knowing what it is, is one thing. Establishing it in yourself before the activity begins, is another. It isn't easy, but it is simple. Hold your attention on the right image for long enough that the state of mind develops. This is a skill like any other, and gets better with focussed practice.


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