Budo/Martial Arts

Meeting Fear on a Winter’s Morn: The first practice of the New Year

(Why can’t I post any friggen pictures?!)

It’s been a long three and a half week hiatus from kyudo, and I really didn’t want to go this morning when I heard the alarm. However, every day that struggle grows larger, and the fear monger inside scratches deeper on the inside of my skin. Sitting up in my futon, I made the courageous decision to confront all, and put my feet beneath me, gripping a slight pain in the ribs from my two week old run in with the tree on my snowboard. But after I’m up I’m all good. Today is the day. I can sleep when I’m dead; or just take a nap when I get home before work.

It was an uneasy morning. The excitement of returning seemed overwhelmed by an unexplainable anxiety. I didn’t know how my ribs would hold up to the bow. I knew I owed money to the dojo. I spent the dark hours of early morning anticipating the alarm. I have extra preparations to make for work this week. I had slight feelings of a stuffed nose which usually come before a cold. And most of all … my last practice in kyudo was full of getting slapped in the face by the string. In my time away from a real bow and arrow, I’ve been practicing a bit every few days on a small rubber apparatus meant to replicate the feel of the bow (hey, now), trying to get over the fear of the impending slap, but it doesn’t directly help; at least it didn’t feel like it this morning.

I was a small brown leaf of holes floating down the river today. Absolutley powerless to the current, I felt like I was just drifting weakly towards the dojo. The only difference between me and the leaf is that I knew there was a waterfall at the end. How it would treat the little leaf left me less than relaxed. All I could do was go through the motions and hope for the best.

While walking through the park towards the dojo I noticed a goofy looking old man crusing on his granny-bike from the opposite direction; certainly not an unusual sight in a Japanese park early in the morning. But after he passed I realized he was one of the usual early-morning kyudo guys. Did he not notice me? I got to the dojo, took a deep breath, and reached to pull the sliding door back … to no avail. It was dark and locked. Did he ignore me? Avoiding the hassle of explaining to me nobody was there or something else? Probably not.

So I sat and read. This was pleasant. For the first time in a long while I actually have a book that’s hard to put down. Not five minutes later I saw Sensei coming in the distance and pretended not to notice, reading to the end of the page. I looked up and we met each other with big uninihibited smiles. Now thinking about it, I’m reminded of this same experience when going back to aikido after a long break. Budo buddies are not just normal friends, they’re partners bonded together by very physical and emotional experiences. I say less but feel more with them. I like that.

Anyway, to get on with it so this post doesn’t stretch on for another week, my first few pulls at the makiwara (practice hay-barrel you shoot at before the real target) went well. I was anxious about the string, but went forward with a relaxed courage and kept the string farther from my face just in case it did slip out. I was doing it more than one should, but until I get used to shooting without the fear, I’ll make that small compromise. Doing that allowed me to pull back almost to my full potential, and Sensei gave me looks and words of approval.

WOW! I don’t have to get slapped in the face to do what I love! The string pre-released only once today, but given my expectations, that was happily accepted. I calmly took a break, iced my ear, retrieved my arrows, and started again. In fact, today I hit the target maybe 35% to 40% of the time, which is excellent for me, especially considering the three weeks of no practice.

I left practice with a big smile on my face, and look forward to going again tomorrow morning.

Let’s sum up with some bullet points:

Dealing with a hiatus from your practice:

-Just get back to it when you feel like it! I could’ve gone yesterday, but did have some things to take care of and decided to tend to them and worry about kyudo until the next day. It’s just one day. No big deal. If you got stuff to do, you got stuff to do. Budo is supposed to help my life, not replace it … or something like that.

-Just get back to it! The last point doesn’t condone needless avoidance, which will actually enlarge any fears or worries about a return. Who cares about little details that find your mind in the morning just before you leave? Just go. Budo depends a lot upon discipline; this is one of those times you put it to use. Just get to practice.

-You and your training partners/teachers should be happy when you see each other. I’d say returning to a good budo practice should require that big smile you can’t hold back when you see each other. I respect my teachers, and trust we are working on true technique. We are all there together to practice this very serious and important skill, and often do so with the strength of our will through great adversity. However, “fun” is the perhaps the single most important factor, I choose to be there, and genuine feelings of happiness underlie it all. Perhaps it’s different with others. But I would be dead worried if I walked into the dojo to scowl at those around, and face a disapproving grin from Sensei.

Dealing with a pre-slipping string:

-Practice with the rubber on your own safely in small bits to build confidence. Do so knowing you will not get hit in the face. Breath deeply, relax, and visualize yourself completing the release of the arrow just as you planned, not getting hit in the face.

-Don’t compromise the pull of your draw. It will put strange pressure on your hand which will make the string come out early more so than anything else. One must pull with the elbow, and must do so as large as possible. If you don’t, your shot will be weak and inaccurate.

-Instead, you can try keeping the string from your face a little more than usual when you initially pull back. After you have pulled back as far as you can, then touch the string to your cheek before you release. Aim. Then release. The movements are supposed to go in that order anyway. During that time, don’t blindly forget the possiblity of the string pre-releasing; be ready at any moment to release in case it happens. One shouldn’t be afraid, but aware and prepared. (However this is just my opinion and experience now. This is how I am dealing with the issue. Sensei didn’t teach me this, and it may be compromising the technique more than I notice. If I find further problems with it I’ll post it. Don’t take my words here as Truth.)

-The problem is in your hand, specifically, in not keeping the top of your hand flat with the sky and instead letting it turn away from your face allowing the string to slip out. If you keep your hand straight as it should, the string won’t slip. I suppose it could be do to other strange things you’re doing with your hand inside the kake (glove), like inserting uneccessary muscle tension, but essentially the string slips out because your hand rotates. If you recognize it is this very simple physical act, and not because you suck at everything or are doomed at kyudo forever, or some other imaginary unexplainable phenomenon, things are much more simple. Just take a breath, and practice keeping your hand straight.

When you’re standing in front of the target at full draw, the cold winter and lack of coffee you had in the morning don’t exist.

Kami bless all of you budoka out there on your quests in the new year!

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