Swordplay and Stoicism

We’d been on horseback since early morning. The day had started cool and beautiful, not a cloud in the sky. We plodded along next to the fenceline all morning, stopping once in a while for a quick repair. By noon we were on our way down into the valley, and the prairie sun was brutal. Coming out of the pines into the scorched yellow grass was like a slap in the face. It had been miserable hot before, but we’d been mostly sheltered.

The other side of the valley was in shade, and there was a deeper patch of forest there. It took us about an hour in the heat to saunter down the slope and cross the valley floor. We pushed only a little up into the forest, and dismounted. We grabbed our panniers and the big jugs, and headed for the spring.

It was over thirty years ago, and I was just a kid, but I still remember the taste of that water. It was like the essence of all water, a cool purity that just filled me and cleansed me. I’ve never tasted anything like it, ever again. I can hear the water bubbling over the rocks and moss, smell the cool air with just a hint of hot prairie sage breeze lingering. I don’t remember kneeling down, but I remember looking into the water, and it splashing a little on my cheek as I drank right from the spring. To this day, whenever I’m thirsty, some part of me is thirsty for that water.

There are moments in swordplay that stand out like that. In Maple Ridge, many years ago, on a green field next to a french double bell pavilion, with a view of the Fraser river. We played with swords and other fighters came by, and it turned into a little mini tournament just because it felt like the thing to do. The small group of us were all of one mind, and we filled our hearts with swordplay and smiles. I remember looking out, after, over the river. It was a moment when the whole universe felt perfect, everything was just right. I stood there with my sword in my hand, and felt a sweet contentment.

Lots of singular moments in any given life.

But why? What makes those moments? A quote I hear a lot these days is “Perception is Reality.” I laugh when I hear that. Any good martial artists does. You can’t be even a half-assed swordsman without giving the lie to that saying. The things we do with a blade depend on us selling a false reality to our opponents. Our defense relies on us not believing our perceptions, or learning to pierce those perceptions to find the deeper truth.

The truth is we live with a constant false sense of perception. Stoicism and Zen Buddhism teach that most everyone lives in a fantasy world that they make up from moment to moment, and science supports this. Our senses take in a lot of data, and in order to efficiently process this information, our brain buffers it before passing it to our consciousness. The buffer compresses the information, glossing over regular features. We stop noticing the repeating things. We only hear the unusual sounds, we only see what changes. The constant barrage of sensory input is reduced to a trickle. And we often ignore even that trickle.

Worse, we twist it. We begin to actively fantasize about outcomes, results, or hidden reasons for perceiving what we do. That tiny stream of information that reaches our conscious thought is turned and changed to fit an internal narrative, an internal sense of reality. What we think we perceive often doesn’t even exist. We see a world of slights, conspiracies, hatred, loss, pain and unanswered grievances…we see all this but not with our eyes.

I see a man and I think what is his intention, why does he dress the way he does, is he making fun of me, is he laughing at my tie, does he know he’s dressed ten years out of date, is he a spy or an alien, maybe he’s looking for me, maybe…maybe…maybe… I can’t just open my eyes and see him. I have to imagine. That imagination is the basis for my perceptions of reality.

If I post online to a place where no one knows me and say “I have a beard” I will get a flood of responses back calling me a filthy hipster. If I say I’m 43 and overweight, people will call me lazy and unfit and a drain on the system. When I walk down the street big burly muscle men put their arms tightly around their girlfriends and puff their chests out. We create a shallow world for ourselves, and only see a sliver of what life is and can be.

I use my training to practice my perception. What I think I can do, is it what I can do? Slowly balancing on my hands, is my body as aligned as I think it is? Do I have the strength I think I do, the strength I need to extend my leg just that little bit more? Martial arts are a beautiful way to test our perceptions, and nothing is better than swordplay for that.

When I face my friend Chris, I see his foot twist just a little. I think that means he’s going to step forward with his other foot. His wrist is held a certain way, and the tip of his sword is circling. He means to step just outside my guard, and strike me in the temple. Or maybe he wants me to think that, and expects I will counter with an evasion and a cut, in which case what I see is a setup. What he will do is pull his shot short, come around and cut me on the other side.

I will only know the truth of my perception by testing myself. I cannot simply attack…I must set up my attack in such a way that I can determine if I am able to correctly predict what is on his mind. The only way I can know if I’m correct in my sense of reality is to feint into the perceived opening, but pull my own shot to counter his follow-up. If I recover my sword and feel his blade impact on it, then I have succeeded in this small daily practice of perception. If I am struck anywhere else, or strike him and interrupt the flow of things, my practice has failed. It’s my constant way of training my eye, my sense of reality.

There is no end to it. The great joke of Zen is that enlightenment grants you nothing. No magic powers. A surprising lack of being able to fly and breathe fire. That singular stroke of divine lightning is just that…a singular stroke. It illuminates a path, but the plodding is still up to you. Meditation in a monastery is great, but it’s also a retreat, an escape. A way of saying that there is too much in the world for you to process. It’s a way of saying you fear the constant weight of perception will numb you, and put you back into that buffer zone. It’s a good and true fear, but I believe in doing things the hard way.

Those singular moments I mentioned above? Every moment in life is capable of being one of those. For most of us, we can count only a small handful of such occasions in a good life. Why? What makes those moments so profound and moving? Those are the moments when we peer past the buffer just a little, and experience what is around us all the time. It’s a small taste of the renowned Zen experience, and everyone can have it with a little work.

Every day you should challenge what you see. Open your eyes a little more, breathe a little deeper, hear a little more. Feel all the things that touch your skin. Pay attention to all the flavours that exist even in the simplest food. You have to train yourself to live fully, it won’t just happen. The only thing between you and those moments is your lazy brain. Pick up a sword, and head out to an open field to meet a friend. Push each other, train hard, and practice really living.

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