Zanshin in the Beautiful Storm

Aikido is in my body.  Not in quite the same way it is in someone who began training as a child and has risen through the kyu ranks to Shodan, but it’s there.  It’s been quietly settling in for a while now, layering in among the accrued years of habit and memory.  I am an alloy of many things, but introversion, anxiety, and twenty years of fencing make up my core.  These facets of my experience have profoundly influenced my aikido practice, offering challenges to examine and strengths to leverage along the path they create.    

When I was young, my strong tendency to introversion led me to move through the world with my gaze cast downward.  I walked with my head and shoulders slumped forward, endlessly staring at the ground.  When I sat, my center collapsed like a pill bug spiraling into the protection of its armor.  Solid strategies for avoiding eye contact with strangers or dodging conversation at the family dinner table, sure, but these habits play havoc on good posture.  It’s taken me years of mindful practice to make a start at breaking these patterns, to stand up straight and take the world in, and I’ll likely be at it for the rest of my days.

Anxiety has left its mark as well.  I hesitate in the face of expectations.  The more important someone is to me, personally or professionally, the more anxious I am that I might end up disappointing them.  I hesitate because I want to get it right, because I don’t want to fail in the eyes of someone I care about, someone I respect.  Over the course of this little essay, I’ve written several narratives about how this kind of anxiety has impacted my life, but they didn’t really add anything, so I’ve deleted them.  It’s enough to say that this is in my body and always will be.

If the consequences of introversion and anxiety have manifested in me with little or no conscious thought, the impact of fencing on my body has been an act of will.  I started fencing at Humboldt State University in 1981.  I was 19.  I played a little baseball as a kid, swam competitively through most of my teens, and skied pretty much every weekend from the age of five, but I had no previous experience with martial arts.  I grew up watching swashbuckler movies but had never held a sword.  So, when a friend suggested I take a fencing class with him, I leaped into the fray, as they say.

When I finally held a foil in my hand, after three weeks of footwork drills, I felt as if something important had slotted into place.  I felt complete.  And when I fenced my first bout, I admonished myself for having wasted 19 years on other pursuits. 

Fencing became my life.  Over the next year, I took all the fencing classes HSU had to offer, joined the fencing club, and spent as much time in the salle as I could.  In time I was training five hours a day, fencing competitively in local and regional tournaments, and teaching beginning, intermediate, and advanced classes at HSU. 

I specialized in foil, but fenced sabre and epee as well.  I also studied historical forms of the art, including epee and dagger and Florentine (two epees), and often sparred against multiple opponents.  Sometimes, we played at this in the salle, but we often found more interesting places to duel – parks, graveyards, beaches, redwood forests.  I played with stage combat as well and our club regularly performed choreographed/improvised shows before swashbuckler and samurai films at local movie theaters.

I set fencing aside for a short time when I moved to Seattle in 1985.  Graduate school was a heavy lift for a while, but I started fencing regularly again after a couple years and eventually returned to teaching.  I competed in a couple tournaments in the early 1990s, but found I was more interested in studying the art of fencing than I was in formal competition.  I continued to fence regularly at a couple local clubs, mostly Salle Auriol, but by 2004, the competition-focused environment at Auriol and a knee injury forced me into retirement from the sport.

Fencing has had a profound impact on my body.  Traditional fencing is a linear sport.  Play moves quickly up and down a narrow 14-meter piste, so there’s little room for lateral movement.  It’s a physically demanding sport, but it’s also tactically complex.  Most fencers develop a signature style, an alignment of technical strengths and tactical acumen.  My style was largely defensive.  I usually fenced in invitation, which means I deliberately left one or more lines open to attack, and I often played with distance, drawing in closer than was typical.  I wanted my opponent to attack under terms I set, allowing me to rely on speed and blade work to counter the attack, and to be in a good position so I could close quickly to in-fighting distance if need be.

I have carried this defensive mindset and the body memory that emerged in concert with it over many years of training into Two Cranes dojo.

On the aikido mat, my fencing experience manifests in interesting ways.  My defensive mindset makes me deeply aware of the importance of distance, but I’m still very much wired to be in close.  My response to attacks from yokomenuchi, for example, tends to be to step a bit forward while moving to the side, to stay on the line rather than get off it.  My body wants to in-fight.  As I work toward Shodan, I am mindful of finding my back body and expanding my energy outward in all directions.  I am mindful of getting off the line, even as my body memory compels me to do otherwise.

My defensive mindset is expressed in other interesting ways on the mat.  The fencing memory in my body is accustomed to drawing attacks and reacting to them, but the work I’ve done in advance to draw the attack gives me an advantage.  In aikido terms, I am already in, already there.  It’s already over.  This is the essence of zanshin.  On the piste, zanshin was a critical element of my defensive style, but on the mat, I am only just beginning to understand how to bring it into my body.  This understanding is core to my Shodan journey and will sit at the center of my aikido practice as I move forward.

On a side note, interestingly, when I haven’t established zanshin, when I’m late, my anxiety is triggered.  It just feels wrong and people I respect have noticed and damn, I’m not ready for this, I’m not ready for Shodan and the entire dojo knows it…  Yeah, you get the idea.  My anxiety is lying to me, and I tell myself that as I drive home, as I meditate, as I fall asleep.  But there it is – in my body and ready to assert itself.

But enough of that.

On the piste, I was very fast, moving quickly in and out of range.  My blade work was efficient and precise.  I loved the exhilaration of extended, high-energy phrases, long exchanges of back-and-forth action.  But my love of speed has been a challenge on the mat.  Aikido can be very fast, but there are immense benefits to working more slowly, particularly in the middle of techniques.  No one has instilled this in me more than Scott Blaufeux.  With his help over the last few years, I’ve come to recognize that speed erodes my posture and tends to move me back into a linear mindset.  I fall into old patterns – my back-body collapses, my shoulders tighten, and I’m instantly forward, my center utterly lost.

Throughout my preparation for Shodan, I’ve emphasized slow movement over speed, particularly when I’m studying something closely.  And, once I’m comfortable, I pick up the pace, mindful of the integrity of the technique.  This is also something I intend to carry forward. 

There are countless other things fencing has wrought in my body.  Asymmetry, for example.  I’m right-handed, so the right side of my body had a lot to do.  My right arm held the weapon and my lead leg landed and recovered from countless lunges.  As a result, my right side is stronger than my left, and while my muscle mass has somewhat balanced out over the ensuing years, my muscle memory has not.  It has also sustained more damage – meniscus tears and chondromalacia in my knee, supraspinatus tears in my shoulder.  Despite the injuries, I simply favor my right side.  So much so that on the mat, it only took me a couple weeks to execute a right-side forward roll from standing, but nearly four years to do the same from my left. 

I set fencing aside when I was 42 and started aikido at 49.  In a couple years, I’ll be 60.  Good god, where did the time go?  I will remain a devoted student of this beautiful art for as long as I can move, and probably beyond that.  It’s in me every day, on and off the mat. 

When I bow in Saturday afternoon, I will be present and fully integrated, at least for a while.  I will carry zanshin in my center.  This is what I ask of myself.  I don’t know if you’ll see Jasper’s speed or Christine’s grace or Alex’s contemplation in my practice.  I hope you do, here and there.  What I do know is that if you are watching closely, you’ll see the introversion in my practice, my anxiety.  And you will see my sword. 

It just won’t always be a bokken.


Scott began his Aikido journey in 2011 at the age of 49.  His practice centers him on and off the mat, every day.  Scott is energized by quiet pursuits like writing and shared moments of deep connection with friends and family, but much of his life plays out in the chaos of business and leadership.  He has worked in technology for 25 years, the last nine as leader at Starbucks focused on digital workplace, experiential retail, and store operations platforms.  Prior to joining the Two Cranes community, Scott studied fencing for more than 20 years.

 

Scott King