What Merging is, and its combat applications for iai:
Part 1 of this series discussed the unfamiliar practice of imbuing iai with artificial threats (Secrets of Iai (Pt. 1): Imposing Threat)
By contrast this essay deals with a very commonly known concept, however in my opinion this concept merits being labeled as a Secret because of the current lack of understanding of its potential scope and applications…in the words of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:
“you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
So, what is Merging?
Well at least for me, “distinctly weird” is what it initially was.
It is a sensation of feeling totally connected to the environment…although it may be more accurate to say it is like being completely not DIS-connected! And actually, both “connected” and “not DIS-connected” are sort of misleading since they imply a duality, but to experience Merging is to feel a loss of self—not a loss of individuality—as one’s surroundings sort of “become” you.
Yes, I am well aware that that description is offputtingly reminiscent in flavor to Louis in “Interview with the Vampire” describing his “turning”…
“The statue seemed to move but didn’t… The world had changed yet stayed the same.”
And yet, as it happens, in terms of its degree of indescribable oddness, that isn’t too far from what Merging feels like—at least to me.
But fortunately, however unusual or trippy the experience of Merging may be, the experience is overwhelmingly NOT what this essay is about.
Rather, what I want to discuss here is what Merging apparently indicates, and that is something that is both accessible and intrinsically practical whether you are studying iai as a martial art or for self-cultivation.
And so what is it that Merging “apparently indicates”? Environmental Awareness.
A certain variety of Environmental Awareness to be exact, since as I intimated above Environmental Awareness itself is not exactly a secret.
In fact, I suspect you’d be hard-pressed I think to find any school of iai—or even any Japanese martial art—that doesn’t strive to employ zanshin during kata…and isn’t zanshin just the same as environmental awareness? Certainly, while there are variations on how zanshin is defined, they do all seem to include environmental awareness.
But here’s the thing, while everyone who studies a Japanese sword art (or any traditional Japanese martial art) might be familiar with the concept of environmental awareness (as zanshin), it seems very few—very, VERY few—appreciate how far it can be taken during iai practice, and therefore they also don’t know how greatly it can enhance iai.
“how far it can be taken”? What does that mean? Don’t you either have environmental awareness during iai or you don’t? No, it is far, far more complicated than that. There are actually very many levels of environmental awareness, and it is these higher levels that are the Secret to be discussed in this essay.
First, let’s clarify what High-Level Environmental Awareness (EA from hereon in) is in the context of this essay….
High-Level EA is being as close to as aware as is possible of all the elements that make up the physical environment you are in.
I say “as close to as aware as is possible” because not only is it very unlikely that we can ever have 100% EA, but our level of EA generally is almost inevitably going to decrease as an environment becomes more complex, or faster moving and/or less predictable.
This is because our level of EA is of course hugely dependent upon only one of our senses: vision. But given that our eyes are forward facing (the usual predator-mammal set-up) and that they have a fairly narrow field of vision and that we have only the two eyes, there are always going to be “holes” in our EA.
These failings can be somewhat alleviated by constantly moving our eyes, turning our head and changing direction. However, not only is this not a perfect solution but these behaviors are not typically allowed in iai practice—although as with the Imposing Threat skill discussed in Part 1 (Secrets of Iai (Pt. 1): Imposing Threat), High-level EA makes you really want to look around.
It is also extremely important to note that I am using the term Environmental Awareness rather than Situational Awareness. This is because the latter term is typically defined as including some kind of overt, intellectual assessment of the environment in terms of its effects and consequences. Even though Situational Awareness is absolutely critical to any warrior from any era, the type of awareness I am referring to does not attempt to make any conscious judgments or conclusions, decisions or assessments regarding the physical environment.
Why bother trying to achieve high-level EA in iai?
So, we’ve established what high-level EA is in the context of this essay, but why bother trying to manifest it during your iai practice?
Certainly, if you are practicing in a group setting, while in a confined space and with sharp swords then it’s an excellent idea to be as aware of the environment as possible—accidents can happen after all.
However, there are a number of other reasons, regardless of whether you are training alone or with others…
As with the Threat Imposing of Part 1, and as well as what will be covered in Part 3, for all the following reasons High-Level EA makes iai endlessly stimulating, exciting, challenging and satisfying—way beyond what is possible with a purely technical/mechanical study. Which is why even today, after 37 years of virtually daily iai practice, I can’t wait to don gi and sword(s).
In short, frankly Merging makes iai practice freakin’ awesome!
Also, as I said in Part 1, each of the Secrets are very much connected and influence—or even in some cases perhaps even depend on—each other. So, if you are able to exhibit high-level EA during your iai, artificially imposing threats will be easier—and make the threats stronger—just as, conversely, the ability to impose threats will assist in developing High-Level EA. (Also, both of these “skills” help with, and are helped by, generating the states-of-mind that are the subject of Part 3 of this series)
But onward to more specific reasons to achieve High-Level EA, starting with those that pertain to iai study when it is geared towards combat training.
Reason 1 for achieving High-Level EA in combat-orientated iai:
High-Level EA teaches you to perform iai techniques in a way that is more practical for combat.
Understanding what this means starts with defining a fundamental difference between iai practice and combat:
Medieval warriors in close-combat would obviously be fixated with the utmost intensity upon anyone trying to kill them or that they were trying to kill—typically one and the same people.
While by contrast when you practice iai the lethality is entirely symbolic (and mostly abstract) and so there is no incentive to generate combat-level focus and even if you could, there would be nothing to apply it to. (Yes, as I explained in Part 1, it is possible to feel threats during iai, but that does not in of itself result in the type of focus being discussed here—hopefully the difference will have become self-explanatory by the end of this essay)
This obvious difference between iai and combat is crucial because it means that during iai we tend to learn to perform techniques in a different way and that way is not very practical for combat training.
To explain this odd statement, it is necessary to think about how any technique in an iai kata is physically achieved when done without the influence of High-Level EA…
The answer is not “muscle memory”—because that isn’t a thing in this sense—but rather it depends on the psycho-neurological profile you have created for that technique.
This profile is what generates the physical movement itself, and whatever else the profile includes it is going to include a collection of at least one type of sensory-based cues—these cues probably having been mostly established when the kata was first learned, and which combine to create what I shall refer to as Sensory Templates.
So, for example, if a kata requires that you turn and step in a certain direction, how do you know that you have turned far enough, or that your feet are in the correct position, or that your weight is distributed in the prescribed way? And if you were also required to move the sword in a certain way: how do you know the edge is at the correct angle or if the blade is pointing where it is supposed to?
If you are visually inclined, most of the above information could be determined by assessing the path of the blade if at any point it enters your field of vision, and similarly seeing and noting the relative positioning of your leading knee and foot might be used to guide your stance—if they are within your field of vision. And if you are in a familiar location—such as a dojo—you may use environmental “landmarks” to help guide you to the right degree of directional turn.
Alternatively, another visual way to reproduce an action in a kata is through visual imagination. This is different to the above in that you initiate and model your movements based on a third-person memory of the action being done rather than just what your eyes see of the movement when you do it. (BTW, I realize that this is technically not “Sensory”, but the effect is the same)
(So while “muscle memory” is currently considered impossible in terms of the reproduction of actions, memory of muscle feelings is valid)
And even those who are profoundly auditory in nature could still reproduce some actions of a typical kata quite accurately using just sound references. Examples which come to mind are the rhythm of breathing and/or kiai, or the “swish” of the blade through the air, or even some kind of internal monologue such as counting.
So, while I suppose it is possible that in very extreme cases an iai student’s Sensory Template might consist of only one type of cue, for everyone else Templates will be composed of a mixture of types of sensory cues that may also interact and rely upon each other through the course of an action.
(Incidentally, a reliance upon Sensory Templates is one reason why a student may find himself unable to pick-up a kata if it is paused for whatever reason, or if it is done at a very different speed to usual: the connective cues between actions have been disrupted and so the student is left adrift. This is far more likely to happen during partner kata, but it is definitely a phenomenon in iai also, especially with longer kata)
OK, what is it about Sensory Templates as a way to generate actions that makes them impractical in combat?
It is because, as mentioned earlier, such are the existential threats inherent in melee combat that a warrior will be fixated upon the incoming sensory and intellectual data related to his immediate opponents (and possibly other environmental factors/elements in close proximity). Consequently, as a result of these pressing distractions some percentage (if not all) of any given Sensory Template will be unavailable–either because the warrior’s mind is too distracted by the combat or because the required cues have been at least partly obscured.
So, for instance, if during iai you rely to some degree on your direct or peripheral vision to determine the position/angle of your sword blade during certain cuts, during a combat you might not be able to track the weapon because of the vision restrictions the helmet creates or perhaps because during the cut your attention is drawn away by something your opponent is doing and your sword falls out of range of your field of vision.
Or perhaps you have a chronic injury in your shoulder that has been around long enough that the mild discomfort it brings during certain movements during iai practice has become part of the associated Sensory Templates. During a combat adrenaline might make you unaware of your shoulder pain, or the pain might get overridden by some other combat-related kinesthetic sensation in another part of your body—could be an impact from either an opponent’s weapon, or from a collision with something in the environment.
And what would be the side-effect of any Sensory Template disruptions in a combat?
Basically, the warrior would experience a reduction in one or more of the following athletic attributes: coordination, dexterity, speed, judgement of distance, agility, timing.
It is important to note that reductions in athleticism would not be limited to just when the warrior was trying to perform actions specifically learned during iai kata. If iai has formed enough of the basis of your technical skill, any ad hoc actions attempted during a combat will still be attempting to utilize elements of the same Sensory Template.
The level of reduction in any aspect of the warrior’s athleticism might be very minor or it might be huge, depending on the individual and the demands of the moment.
For me, if I had been in a medieval-like combat any time in about my first 20 years of iai training most likely I would have seen a massive reduction in my physical skill simply because throughout any action I was simply mimicking a very vivid, visual memory of that action—very good tool for remembering kata, very bad tool to use during combat. Consequently, when faced with an opponent(s) I could have either ignored him/them and performed actions that had little bearing on what that opponent(s) was doing and so would’ve died in short order, OR I could have focused on the opponent, ignored the film playing in my head, screwed-up whatever action I attempted because my Template couldn’t be used and died in short order.
These reductions in athleticism could alter a warrior’s actions in a combat in any number of ways:
A sword blade might strike its target with the edge out of alignment or the warrior might lose some of their cutting power and/or accuracy or experience a reduction in balance. Or they might lose some muscle control and end up moving too fast or too slow for the context of the attempted action.
More extreme examples could easily include doing something like tripping over their feet during an action, and on the rare occasion they needed to draw their sword when the combat was in progress they could find it to be much more difficult to achieve—despite doing it thousands of times in iai practice.
So, the question is, how does High-Level Environmental Awareness during iai prevent these Template Disruptions?
Because it makes us learn how to perform techniques differently: in a way that is more reproducible/applicable to combat.
I wish I knew for sure! Well, I only sort of wish I did since I suspect knowing would inhibit the process.
That said, If I had to make a somewhat educated guess I would say that the High-level EA starves the brain of the input it needs to utilize its Sensory Templates—as though you were in a combat—and thereby encourages the subconscious to learn how to perform actions with whatever sensory data is available each time the action is required—creating off-the-cuff Templates, as it were.
Of course, it is likely that the brain always innovates somewhat every time a Sensory Template is being employed. However the “sense” I have had when doing iai all this time is that with enough practice the brain can increase the size of the innovation to the point that actions are initiated and performed as though from no sensory pre-conceptions—which is to say, with no Template to speak of.
But is High-Level EA necessary to provoke this change in how actions are performed if the student/warrior also engages in partner training, whether that partner training is in the form of kata and/or free-play?
Surely such activities would have had the same effect as using High-Level EA so far as reducing the use of Sensory Templates? Maybe. That depends on how dangerous (real or perceived) and/or athletically demanding the partner stuff is—which is to say, whether or not it provoked that “utmost intensity” that I said earlier was the crucial difference between how actions were performed in iai versus combat.
I suspect that in Japan’s past (especially before ~1650) partner kata training and/or free-play would have been sufficiently stressful/demanding. Not only because this would have appealed to the samurai’s warrior mentality (for further explanation see m book Flawless Deception (https://www.amazon.com/Flawless-Deception-behind-samurai-schools-ebook/dp/B014OMZ0EA) but because as I explain later in this essay, it is necessary to utilize a crucial reason for adopting High-Level EA during iai.
However, today that is quite understandably not the case for all but a tiny fraction of schools—such as Karato Ryu (The elephant in the room… , https://www.facebook.com/genuinesamuraimartialarts/)—so for modern iai students, High-Level EA may be the only way to reduce their reliance upon Sensory Templates.
Reason 2 for achieving High-Level EA in combat-orientated iai:
The less-Template-dependent method that High-Level EA promotes reduces your level of athleticism during iai and thereby creates a profound understanding of the reduction in athleticism that combat will bring.
Yep, that’s right: High-Level EA will reduce the technical quality of how you perform iai—and also make kata feel harder to perform.
The draws especially will be affected in terms of their speed and smoothness, as may cuts. In general there will likely be a feeling of not having quite the same level of precise physical control as previously.
(You are not likely to win any iai competitions if you are using High-Level EA during your demonstration!)
But wait a minute, wasn’t Reason 1 for applying High-level EA that it “teaches you to perform iai techniques in a way that is more practical for combat”? How is the less-Template-dependent method more practical if it still results in a reduction in athletic performance—and therefore combat prowess?
First, while both methods of performing actions result in a reduction in athletic performance during combat, the degree of that reduction is very likely going to be much less with the less-Template-dependent method.
Second, because if your partner-training has not been sufficiently combat-like and therefore Sensory Templates play a significant role in how you perform actions, when you enter a combat you will not be ready for the reduction in athleticism—which could at best be very disorientating, but could also very likely prove to be fatal. However, conversely, the less Template-dependent method ensures that the reduction will be quite familiar and so the reduction will be far less surprising and detrimental to your prowess since you are more aware of what your athletic capabilities are realistically going to be.
Third, because the more reliant upon Sensory Templates a warrior in combat was the lower their level of Environmental Awareness would’ve been…
Reason 3 for achieving High-Level EA in combat-orientated iai:
Practicing iai with High-Level EA teaches the ability to apply High-Level EA during combat.
Did a medieval warrior in combat seriously need to be taught how to apply High-Level EA? As mentioned earlier, the inherently life-or-death aspect of combat results in focus of “the utmost intensity”, and it is the absence of this during iai that I claimed as a fundamental difference between it and combat.
If anything you would imagine that it would be the other way around: that applying High-level EA to iai practice would require combat experience!
The answer to the “riddle” is that in close-combat although focus on immediate opponents will be immense, that focus will be mostly (and quite understandably) ONLY on opponents—rather than your environment as a whole. Consequently, a warrior’s level of Environmental Awareness would typically have actually been very low. This is not conjecture, just a result of our natural tendency to intellectually narrow our attention towards lethal threats—and also physiologically when adrenaline is present.
In many ways this is a very practical response since from an evolutionary perspective the physically closest threats did merit the most resources.
That said, the ability to apply High-Level EA during close-combat would of course been extremely advantageous to the medieval warrior, and increasingly so the more complex the combat environment was.
In terms of the disorder of a melee, High-Level EA would make it far more likely to be able to spot new incoming threats as you were fighting—it might also prevent you becoming isolated when battle-lines abruptly changed. And whether in a melee or a duel, the ability to steer an opponent towards a pothole or to notice when your weapon (or his) was going to strike a nearby obstacle (whether another warrior, or a horse, or a tree, etc.) could make the difference between victory and defeat.
Of course, taking too much attention away from whoever you are trying to kill and/or avoid being killed by would be extremely foolhardy—there is little sense in noticing that you are about to be attacked on your flank if it results in you getting stabbed in the throat by your current adversary.
What I am describing is a type of Environmental Awareness that essentially creates a balanced awareness of one’s opponent(s) and the environment; being neither psychologically fixated upon the former, but not so busy “looking at Mount Fuji” that you can’t effectively fight—essentially allowing the warrior to “have their cake and eat it”…a Holy Grail of environmental awarenesses, if you will!
How then does practicing iai (while employing High-Level EA) achieve this remarkable feat? How does it teach a warrior to override the extreme, but restricted focus that the stress of medieval-like close-combat brings?
Once again, I cannot say for sure, I can only go on the following “insights” based on my related experiences.
The first step is to gather enough experience of High-Level EA.
Incidentally, this experience does not necessarily have to be through iai, or even through martial arts at all. However, for reasons to be discussed later in this series, solo kata practice—and especially with a long-sword—is ideally suited to developing High-Level EA compared to other activities that on the surface might appear more effective in this regard.
Step two in using iai to be able to apply High-Level EA in combat is to use the psychological environment the High-Level EA requires in order to start re-writing/adapting the brain’s reactions to the combat scenarios the iai kata reflect. As a result, the training acquires a new depth of combat-ambience way beyond what is possible from just studying the physical techniques.
(The other Secrets of Iai are key to this re-writing/adapting and therefore also to the subsequent increased combat ambience. High-Level EA on its own will not suffice)
This new combat ambience is essential because the re-written reactions amount (in metaphorical terms) to a basic Formula in sort-of the same way as described in Part 1: Imposing Threat. The difference being that here the Formula is not for psychologically preparing for threats, but for maintaining High-Level EA during those threats.
How does this become so ingrained that during combat, the “default”, deeper responses do not rise to re-assert themselves?
Although not the whole answer, kata partner training is nonetheless essential.
The reason for the importance of partner training is that it provides the opportunity—like with Imposing Threats—to apply the Formula during a more intellectually and sensorily complex activity than iai. And as the partner training gets more demanding, so the student’s brain becomes adept at integrating/adapting the Formula for maintaining the High-Level EA into situations that are closer and closer to combat in terms of stress and athletic demand.—this is the reason I alluded to earlier for why combat-like partner training would have been used in the past.
(However, this does not mean that iai can be eschewed in favor of partner training: like with Imposing Threats, for the vast, vast majority of students the relative simplicity of iai is required for the “basic” Formula” to take root—in this context, partner training is running before you can barely stand, let alone walk!)
But, how do I know that the brain can make the sizable leap from training to combat, in terms of its ability to evolve the Formula?
As I said in Part 1, Karato Ryu training ( https://www.facebook.com/genuinesamuraimartialarts/) does eventually get extremely dangerous and during these times I have found that maintaining High-Level EA is not just achievable but virtually involuntarily, but I would not be so foolish as to say that was proof.
Therefore, my answer is that I have experienced nothing to suggest that the above Formula method for maintaining High-Level EA would collapse during combat, and in deed my reaction to spontaneous, threatening events outside of the dojo gives me confidence that it would endure, however I cannot say for sure.
Coming up in Part 2b: Merging and Self-Cultivation…