The art of Iaido is very difficult and requires the correct mental attitude in order to grasp it and this attitude is consistently emphasized throughout the student’s training. The student with the right attitude will display an honest, open and willingness to learn — without these three-character traits, it will be very difficult to truly master Iaido.
The correct mental attitude is imperative in learning Iaido because Iaido is taught in an old traditional manner called mi-narai or “to observe and imitate.” Furuya Sensei used to often say, “Watch, imitate, remember” when talking about learning Iaido. In Iaido practice, the student should not try to analyze or interpret the instruction — the best way is just try to follow and observe carefully without any kind of internal comment or analysis - most of Iaido is learned by observation and copying a good model of the technique. It seems like a simplistic formula to just “watch, imitate, and remember” and learning this way will be difficult if the student does not have the right attitude to begin with.
Imitation is the first skill to catch in learning Iaido — it is the essential method of practice in traditional swordsmanship. As the student repeats the same exercise over and over, they will also develop a stronger sense of focus and concentration which is essential to the mastery of Iaido. Being able to focus and concentrate is necessary so that the Iaido practitioner can focus on “absorbing everything” and “not missing even the tiniest detail” so that they can master the art of swordsmanship. The details of the movements of Iaido are like a sword. We can easily see the curvature, the length, the width, the temper-line, its style and on and on but we cannot see the sharp edge. It is too fine. Yet, the part that we cannot see easily is the most important heart of the sword. In Iaido, in the same manner, it is usually the part we cannot see which is most important. Actually, we can see it, we just have to be alert and aware and constantly looking for it.
With focus and concentration comes awareness, being in the moment, ready to move at any moment, knowing everything around us, and being centered or becoming perfectly clear — this is swordsmanship. Even when one is not moving they should be able to sense the sharp edge of the sword. This sharpness is not only the “awareness” and “alertness” in our training, but it is also an important matter of safety. In traditional Japanese martial arts, there is a concept called yurumi which means “slack.” If the mind is too tight — thinking of defense all of the time then the mind will crash. At the same time, if the mind is too lax, one can get caught in a moment of unawareness and be cut down. In swordsmanship, the mind must reach a state where it has a “natural tenseness” meaning awake and aware, but, at the same time, relaxed and loose.
In every moment, the mind of a Iaido practitioner is supposed to remain flexible and pliant like the branch of a willow, but it must also be like a thick iron bar, which will never bend to outside pressures or influences. It seems like almost a paradox to be flexible yet firm but this ideal state of mind can be found in many other martial arts and sports. The sword itself can also be a metaphor for the Iaido practitioner’s mind. The Japanese sword is perfectly straight but at the same time its shape is perfectly curved — this is why it cuts so well.
When we have the right attitude, learn correctly, have focus and concentration and have developed a “naturally tense” mind then we can reach a state called hishiryo or “thinking without thinking.” The Iaido practitioner trains to get to this mental state where they move without conscious thought — this is hishiryo. It is a mental state which is “beyond death” but it is more than just total fearlessness of a “no opponent, no enemy” mindset. Furuya Sensei used to say, “Lose everything! Let everything drop away, even your own mind and body.” When we can “let go,” we, at that moment, gain everything. It is our primal state of mind of pure thought and awareness without all of the baggage, mental obstacles, distortions, illusions and prejudices. Thinking without thinking — we experience this all of the time when we become absorbed in something we are doing and, at other times, when we are totally relaxed and doing something but not really thinking of anything. Of course, this is a difficult mental condition to perfect — it only comes with lots of practice. We call this state of natural tension to think without thinking — the ideal state of a swordsmen’s mind.
When we perfect our bodies and cultivate our minds then we can to put our spirit into every aspect of each technique which is the basis for all spiritual training.