Matters of Life and Death:
Essays in Budo


Being Ready

My Instructor stood me in front of the class.

"Assume a high block stance. Do not let me hit you."

"Os!!" I shouted in assent, and assumed a strong stance, my arm and fist raised to protect my head.

WHACK! He slapped the top of my head.
"Block! Protect your head!"




With his hand only inches from my defending arm, he continued  slapping my head with complete impunity. It was not very painful, but  even though I knew it was coming, and was already blocking the strike, nothing I could do was quick enough to deflect his hand.

"Alright. Relax. Forget about defending yourself. Gaze into the distance. Think of nothing in particular. If anything happens, just imagine your arm floating up" - he moved my arm to suit the words - "and just be still."

He began as before, slapping at my head from about a foot away. Suddenly I was very difficult to hit. Although I was standing normally,  arms at my sides, pretty much ignoring him, my arm blocked every attack. I could not follow it, I did not will it to do this. My arm moved  effortlessly, with speed and accuracy I did not know I had.

In that moment I did not learn how to do anything. On the contrary.

My idea of ”ready” was, well, an idea. Trying to do what I imagined was required rendered me completely helpless. Trying to do it better only made things worse. My body was tense as I tried to locate a threat and counter it in time. With all that going on, even knowing what was about to happen, it was too fast for me.

The brain is exquisitely developed for anticipating problems. It does this by recording whatever happens when we survive some situation.  From these memories it constructs likely future events. It seems to have been sufficiently effective for survival of the species, so far. But the process can also perpetuate the very problems it attempts to solve.

When I stopped doing all those things associated in my mind with  being on guard, and let go of the whole idea of defense, the attack seemed to come in slow motion, and my response was as unpredictable to me as to the attacker. But also, it was effective.

To pose the usual question, how does all this apply on the street? Think about airport security. Like my posture of ”on guard” in the exercise, it provides neither a deterrent nor an adequate counter to any serious attack. The response does not  address the actual problem. Instead it deals with a hypothetical problem we anticipate, an imaginary future constructed in the mind from memories of past events. I remember the impact of Sensei's hand on my  head and I want to prevent that from happening again, but my only option is to do what I did last time, only "better."

Whether on an individual or national scale, such an  approach only limits our possible responses. Ultimately there is no such thing as security. It is entirely conceptual. It is a word for an idea about a fantasy.

If training in Budo is not about being safer, what, then, is the point?

It is to be engaged and aware, living in the most intimate and immediate way. The ancient swordsmen called this "Happobiraki," to be "open on eight sides." Another  word for that is "vulnerable." Open to unconstrained, direct experience. We could say that ultimate readiness is identical to ultimate  vulnerability.

"For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror..."

 - Rainer Maria Rilke


© Peter Barus, 2009

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