I passed my nidan (2nd-dan) exam in kendo on March 2nd. I’d been training for this since August and I went in with a feeling of comfortable accomplishment. Whether or I would pass or not, my sense was that I was in a comfortable nexus point, between wanting to pass and also seeing this as a single way-point on a longer journey.
My preparation for the exam was a return to the basics of kendo. An emphasis on posture, introspection, and commitment to every strike (well, mostly…that last point is a work in progress but I feel that I am adequate to my level for now). I also did gym training to support my kendo efforts.
Things that I did well at my exam:
1. Strong kiai
2. Good breath control
3. Basic, strong strikes, pushing from my hips
4. Not backing away from my opponents
5. Strong and comfortable sonkyo.
There is a lot more that I need to work on but, at this way-point, I will not rest on my laurels as I know that the next two years before I test again must be filled with even harder work.
Until recently I found the end-of-class ritual in kendo of lining up in seiza and bowing to the sensei(s) to be a polite formality. When we bow (head down to just above hands placed palm-down on the floor) we all say, “Thank you very much” (どうもありがとうございました).
Now when I do this, I feel a sense of true gratitude and it has been making me look forward to practice because I know that I will end with a sense of accomplishment.
This change happened because of my focus on executing good techniques as an end to themselves instead of just as a tactic to strike someone. As a result, I feel more free and relaxed and I feel too that I am just starting to improve on a basic level as well.
This reminds me that a dojo, no matter where or what the physical location actually is (in our case, it’s a basketball court at a community center) transforms into a place and time where like-minded people come together to learn from each other, testing their limits and improving themselves. I polish my soul and I feel grateful to my teachers and fellow students.
On Sunday I had a less-than-steller practice. It was a series of small things that add up to fundamentally failing. It was a carry-over from Friday where I had a similar experience.
Kendo is so much more than hitting. It is the before and after of a strike, including the presence one gives off to others when one walks into the dojo. It is not having equipment failures (zekken askew, men himo fitted correctly, hakama the right length, shinai in good condition, etc.), it is meditating fully before class, and committing fully to everything once practice begins.
After my practice on Sunday I spoke with a fellow practitioner who also trains there but is from my club. We talked about practice and our challenges, including some personal things that I will not share here. It was a liberating conversation, so unexpected and yet so needed.
I walked away realizing that fully committing to practice is to fully commit to kendo as an entire concept. It is only by doing so that one can be able to deliver a strong kiai, a beautiful swing, and zanshin.
The strike begins before the strike. It is only with complete commitment long before one enters the dojo. Only then is one able to successfully commit 100% to kendo, or anything they do.