Stories of the Dojo - Bill Fry

The following story was sent by my long-time friend and student Bill Fry. Bill-san trained with me in both Kenseido and Kendo while a corporate executive throughout the 1990's. After a 15 year hiatus, he recently returned to the dojo at the age of 74. Bill mentioned he had discovered some notes from our lessons and conversations dating back to those years, and I asked if we could share his thoughts with others. He kindly acquiesced.  - Kendoshi Sensei Winslow Swart

Kenseido Stories - by Bill Fry

Entering a room/filling a room

I worked in a high-performing company in which the pressures were intense and constant. In this environment I was assigned to work for a very forceful boss who was used to getting his way and receiving little pushback. My job at the time was to insure that the company did not do anything that harmed the public’s trust in our products so, from time-to-time I had to deliver a “no” to my boss—a gift he was not used to getting. This was a very stressful and scary thing to do and I was very hesitant because I was afraid of his negative reaction. Because of his position he was used to getting his way and having people defer to him.

Then, while training in the Kenseido style, my sensei advised I work on a couple of concepts that he felt would help. One (I believe) is called kokoro sashi - literally “pointing the spirit”. Sensei advised that when I approached the door to my boss’s office I should project my spirit, my intention, into the room so it proceeded me. This would let my boss know “I am here”—not just physically but my spirit was strong and present.

The first time I tried this I was amazed to see my boss literally flinch as I stepped through his office door. What followed was a great meeting in which we reached agreement on several thorny issues. He did not treat me with deference but was certainly much more respectful. This idea of showing up before you enter is a powerful one and I have since used it many times.

A related idea was applied when I attended meetings. The idea is to fill the room with your spirit instead just occupying your chair and the little piece of table in from of you. Again, the idea is spiritually announcing “I am here”. Believe me, following this practice, you will not be ignored in a meeting! Sensei called this “filling the room”. Both of these techniques require that you develop a strong spirit. This does not happen automatically or just because you wish it. Much training and practice is required to achieve a strong spirit.

Spirit/Presence

A similar concept involves seishin which means presence or being. After training for several years in Kenseido I became aware of a shift in my spirit, my being. I am sure the rigors of training and learning how to defend against attacks had a lot to do with the change.  But the change was more than just having some self-defense techniques available to me. .The change was more profound and happened on a spiritual level. I had been fundamentally changed. Sensei repeatedly told us that “you will be attacked at the moment you least expect it” and that is why strong seishin is important. Having strong seishin means that you are in a state of wakefulness all the time. You move and act with intention, not by habit or automatically. Being fully awake (strong seishin) can be seen by others and, when you have this spirit, predators are much less likely to choose you as their target. 

I recently heard a statistic that pedestrian deaths are up 25% since 2010. Observe how many people are looking at their cell phone or are listening to their favorite music through ear buds. This is not seishin. This is going through life on autopilot while forgetting to think. You are likely to pay consequences if you go through life this way.

Related concepts that have helped me in life are mushin /fudoshin/enzam moku which are explained in Sensei’s book.

The Power of Centering Oneself through Breathing

Before and after each training session at the dojo we sit in seiza (kneeling and sitting on our heels with straight back). We close our eyes and focus on our breath. This practice before the session starts enables us to stop thinking about our lives outside the dojo and to focus on our training. The breathing exercise at the end of the session enables us to integrate what we have learned and to reenter our lives outside the dojo. Sensei calls Mokuso “the chiropractor for your internal condition”. It allows you to totally defocus from life and just be present and in the moment.

Regular meditation outside the dojo was also encouraged. We were taught that performing regular meditation sessions trains our minds to be in the moment and develops our ability to attenuate the “monkey mind” that inhabits most of us—that’s the constant chatter of “gotta do this, gotta do that, what if this happens, what if that? Developing a calm mind (mushin) is essential if one is to be successful in battle. It is one of the arrows in the quiver of the warrior.

We learned a method called “Kokyu” or one breath meditation. Before entering a meeting or even answering the telephone I would breathe in through my nose and feel the cooling air circulate around my brain and clear it. A long exhale of that breath washed away concerns and prepared me for whatever was to happen. Maybe it was a Pavlovian conditioning but it worked.

We trained hard in the dojo and felt prepared to do battle if needed. But, I remember one evening when Sensei told us “whatever your skill level is right now, it will degrade by 30 to 50% if you are called on to use it in a real situation, so you must train harder!” Very humbling! He also said that in a conflict, the person who remains the calmest will probably win. Another good reason to practice regular meditation.

These concepts of calm mind (mushin) and steady spirit (fudoshin) were extremely useful in the everyday life of business.

Victim vs Warrior (adopting bushido as a life standard)

Sensei and I had many talks about the distinction between living life as a victim and living it as a warrior. When I first joined the Kenseido dojo I was living life heavily sedated. I was on antidepressants and regular (as in daily) portions of Scotch. After a few months Sensei sat down to talk with me about that behavior. One of the points he made was this difference between one who exists as a victim and one who lives life as a warrior. I wish I would have recorded that conversation because it fundamentally changed my life. I saw that using alcohol and Rx meds to cope with the challenges I was facing was destructive. It was not a solution. It was hiding from my problems. Soon thereafter I met with my psychiatrist and asked to be taken off the antidepressants. I still enjoyed an occasional drink but not for purposes of hiding from my problems. This is an example a shift from being a victim to becoming a warrior. A victim is someone who blames, complains, whines, justifies, etc. Life happens to them and they feel helpless. A warrior takes life as it comes and thinks “how can I achieve what I want to achieve even though there are barriers?”

As I progressed in my training I learned more about the Japanese code of the samurai —bushido. Bushido is a set of principles including courage, benevolence, politeness, truthfulness, loyalty and several others that define the behavior of samurai. I was a small child when WWII was being fought and could not understand what motivated the kamikaze pilots to intentionally dive their airplanes into American warships. “Don’t they want to live?”, I thought. As I learned the code of the samurai I realized that yes, they probably did want to live. But their commitment to honor, loyalty, courage and service to the Emperor was much stronger than their fear of death. This is a difficult concept for the Western mind to grasp but the power of the Samurai code (bushido) was evident when the Japanese fought us in WW2 and in their swift and incredible recovery from total devastation after the war ended.

Living life by this code is not easy but yields a rewarding life.

Kokoro is sometimes called “soul” but it is far more. It is your essence. Living life according to the principles of bushido develops a strong kokoro and that strength enables you to live as a warrior, not a victim.

Throwing away your scabbard.

In ancient Japan, the samurai gave great respect to their swords. They treated them with great care because they were the tools that made the difference between life and death. Part of the care involved always returning the sword to its scabbard to keep it from being damaged and to signal that the threat level was lower. So, when a samurai was going into a battle in which the outcome was doubtful, they would throw away their scabbard, a signal that they accepted their death and would therefore have no limits to their actions in battle.

The point sensei was making when he told us this story is that you must go into battle (real or just corporate conflict) with an attitude of giving everything you have right now. You must abandon thoughts of the future and put everything into winning without fear of the cost. This total commitment to the battle greatly increases your chance for victory.

Looking vs Seeing

I play doubles tennis a couple of times a week and was struggling with my game. So, I asked Sensei where I should be putting my focus to be victorious. He said not to look anywhere but to see everything. “Looking is weak, seeing is strong”. This is the concept of En Zam Moku. There is a difference between looking and seeing. Looking involves one sense; sight vision. I can look where I’m going so I don’t run into anything. Seeing includes looking but also engages many more of our senses and our mind. The saying “the hairs on the back of my neck stood up” is an example of seeing. We evolved to perceive danger long before we could see the source of that danger. Our ancestors who did not have this ability were unlikely to survive. To be aware ofboth near and distant and to perceive subtle skin pressure, subliminal noises, partly perceptible tastes and smells and to compare all of that with that data base in our brains thathas recorded what’s normal and what’s not—that is seeing. It’s much more than looking. Being always awake and aware is a requirement for seeing.