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Why do you do Swordsmanship?

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For many of us, there is no need to even think about why we would train in the Art of Swordsmanship. It is simply an irreducible desire, like the way many people want to have kids. But we all know someone for whom our passion for the sword is inexplicable, just as we all know someone who does not want to be a parent. I thought I would write this rather difficult post so that you know why I have chosen the path of the sword, and if it resonates with you, you can direct the baffled in your life here for enlightenment.

Let us begin with a wide focus: why martial arts at all? Some have practical uses, sure: those living on meaner streets will have use for self-defence skills. But most martial arts, if they convey those skills at all, are very inefficient at it. Some martial arts, or combat sports at least, offer a career path that includes fame and riches. An Olympic gold medal, perhaps. But that is not true of ours.

I train martial arts because they can offer moments of utter transcendence. The ineffable made manifest. This is traditionally described as “beyond words” or “indescribable” but as a martial artist and a writer, that would feel like a cop-out. I will take this feeling and wrestle it down onto the page, or at least give it my best shot:

It is a moment when every atom in your body is exactly where it should be. Every step you have taken on life’s path makes sense, is part of a coherent story. The pain of every mistake is made worthwhile by the lessons they contained. There is a feeling of physical power without limit; strength without stiffness; flow without randomness; precision without pedantry; focus without blinkers; breadth and depth; massive destructive capability but utter gentleness; self-awareness without self-consciousness; force without fury; your body alive as it has never been, all fear and pain burned away in a moment of absolute clarity; certainty without dogma; an overpowering love, even for your enemies, that enables you to destroy them without degrading them. It is, for a religious person, the breath of God within you. For an atheist, a moment of attaining perfection as a human being.

And I can, in theory at least, get that feeling every time I pick up a sword. In practice, I've been there a dozen times. And a lesser version of it, a breath or a hint of it, almost daily.

It is, of course, an illusion. Even in that moment of grace, you are not perfect, or invulnerable. And this is where the discipline of a serious art saves you from the wishy-washy hippy shit of some other “spiritual paths”. It is so easy to slip, to believe your own hype, and simply essential that the moment you do so, reality comes crashing in like a sword to the head. The rigour of a true martial art contains at its heart a continual examining of your skills. This can come in all sorts of forms: I tend to use pressure drills and freeplay, but the critical component is the existence of an objective external test: “Does this work?”,  with a clear yes/no feedback mechanism in place. In many ways, the books from which we draw our art are that mechanism: the benchmark against which you measure the correctness of what you do. This academic aspect is I think unique to historical martial arts, and it requires that we are able to articulate in reasoned argument why we do anything a particular way. This adds a mental dimension, a way of thinking clearly and logically, making arguments supported by evidence, that is the antithesis of the “feel that energy, man” hippy shit I refer to above.

There is also the question of morality. The moral dimension to swordsmanship comes from the lethal nature of the art. It is, originally, for killing people. Some systems emphasise self-defence, but the knightly arts were for professional warriors. You kill people because that’s your job. Much like a modern soldier, who must only distinguish between legal and illegal orders. If the order is legal, and obeying it means killing people, well, that’s what they train for. I’m not suggesting that any part of that is easy, especially distinguishing legal orders from illegal ones, but at base, it is simple. Do, or do not. But for us, training exists in an artificial space that allows us to deeply examine the morality of the martial arts. (I’ve written elsewhere about training as a holo-deck for the philosophy of ethics.)We are training a killing art, so we must ask ourselves this question: in what circumstances, if any, is it acceptable to take life? This is why I have no interest in non-lethal arts. They simply lack this moral aspect. Especially combat sports, where your opponent has chosen to compete with you in a fair fight, and so long as you both follow the rules, there is no question of right or wrong at all.

Bodily health is also an issue. We have no choice but to live in this carcass until it stops working. There is just no way round the fact that you either figure out how yours works, and get the best out of it (it is a stunningly fabulous machine) or you ignore it until it fails.  I don’t train to stay healthy— I stay healthy so I can train. All of my students know that I put maintenance and conditioning at the heart of our training, and I spend about 90% of my own training time, and about 40% of my teaching time, working on mechanics. Most of my students come to me a bit broken in the beginning. Poor posture, bad wrists, a dodgy knee, excessive weight, whatever. We work together to develop good habits, mostly by paying attention to posture, breathing, and joint strength training, and of course, diet. This has a way of both preparing the student for the physical training, and of keeping them grounded when the magic starts to happen. For many students, the sword has hooked them out of physical lassitude and ill-health and into a more active, healthier life. It is certainly part of the core mission of the School. Our the training is healthy— our one golden rule is everyone must finish class healthier than they started it. And because we are interested in process, not outcome, it is literally irrelevant how fit a student is when they start. Only the attitude they bring to training matters.

(And this is another reason why I am not interested in combat sports. They have a pretty high threshold for physical fitness, which means that you have to start quite fit (and young!) if you wish to get really good at them. There is a genetic lottery (every sport has an ideal body type) and luck plays a huge part too. Read Bounce, by Matthew Syed, for more on this. Combat sports also have a very high risk of injury. So the students who need hooking off the couch and into a healthy life are barred from admission. The ones who need it least are the only ones who can have it.)

So why the sword? All of these spiritual, mental, moral and physical benefits can be accomplished with other weapons, or with no weapons at all. There is no good reason, though I could rationalise it at length. We could talk about flow states, ala Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: swordsmanship practice is most certainly a way to bring “order to consciousness” (as opposed to entropic chaos). We could talk about the social aspect, how good it is to find, coming to the salle, that you are not the only sword-obsessed loony out there. But fundamentally, some people are just drawn to the magic of steel. It resonates in them. Many students remember the first time they heard the clash of blade on blade, and how their heart leapt.

I train because I feel it. Oh Lord, I feel it in my very bones. But how I train is utterly rational. Together, the martial and academic truth-testing keep me from flying away with the fairies. The physical training keeps my body strong and agile. The mental training keeps my mind clear and focussed. The moral aspect leads me to consider the meaning and value of every part of my life.

So when someone asks you “Why practice Swordsmanship?”, perhaps the best answer is “how the hell do you manage without it?”

So, that's my reason. What's yours?

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

5 Responses

    1. It is a part of our history. Not a nice part. But part we need to confront and understand.

      For a european to study chinese martial arts is normal, for a maori to study maori martial arts is a special case of normal. But for us to study our own arts seems odd to others.

      But then I find other european new zealanders are part of a homogenised culture, which is dominant in society. So they form few particularly strong views on what their culture is. And so much of our history is bad, so best ignore it.

      I prefer to have pride in my heritage, while acknowledging the bad parts as well. All cultures have the bad parts, we however uniquely seem to have taken on shame for the bad bits, while regarding other cultures as having more culture or value.

      And hence HEMA, and not some modern adaption.

      And of course all the other benefits you mentioned. The above is just

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