The mysterious Yin is always there
Like a Mother it births all things
Though it is nearly always hidden
It is always at hand
In swordsmanship, there are many levels of understanding. The obvious aspects of the art are nearly overwhelming to consider: choreography of forms, flashing blades, dangerous and skilled opponents, etc. Even if we narrow our examination to the moment of conflict between opponents, it is compelling to focus on the swords, their movements, and the strategic positioning of the wielders. But as discussed in Chapter 2, each of these circumstances has both Yin and Yang aspects. If we pay attention only to the obvious aspects, we are missing a lot of what it going on. These Yin (or less obvious) aspects of the sword are every bit as important as the more obvious Yang aspects. They can actually have physical effects that are actually able to be perceived and used by the serious student of the sword. By looking beyond the surface appearances, we gain a deeper understanding of what is going on.
For the sword to move to one place, it necessarily must move away from another. If we could view the blade moving through the air and perceive the changes in air pressure, we would see the air pressure increase in front of the blade, and decrease behind it as it vacates that space. Nature naturally and seamlessly fills a vacuum. Areas of low pressure are filled, while areas of high pressure are dispersed, all without deliberation or hesitation. By appreciating even the very basic nature of the sword moving through air in this fashion, we begin to understand a very basic operation of the universe, and get a very clear demonstration of Yin Yang in dynamic interplay.
The Taoist ideal is one of accord with Nature, so that we do what is natural without struggling and fighting against the world. Like being in a river with a strong current, we can’t change the current or swim against it directly; rather we need to understand how the currents are flowing and work with the current. Nature is what ‘does itself’, is ‘self so’, or ‘self arising’. As serious students of the sword, we also aspire to this conception of what is natural. The highest expression of sword skill is when the techniques seem to ‘do themselves’, or when they ‘just happen’. If we accept this idea, then we begin to try and return our movements with the sword to those that are as Natural as possible. The problem is, of course, how to identify ways to be Natural. After all, if we deliberately make a movement, is it Natural anymore?
Let’s return to the sword moving through the air, and the pressure changes that it creates. If we observe how nature operates under these conditions, we see that it fills the vacated spaces. If we take this example as inspiration and attempt to do the same, to fill the spaces vacated by the opponent’s sword, new realms of potential techniques are instantly available to us.
If we think of flowing into areas that are empty, we are almost physically drawn into those places. In the example of the sword moving through the air, the air that fills the area of low pressure behind the blade as it moves is actually sucked into that spot. By participating in this basic physical phenomenon that is already happening, the opponent’s movements will naturally draw us into the empty spaces, the yin spaces, and put us exactly where they don’t want us to be.
If we think of the act of the opponent cutting at us with a sword, the opponent’s mind is completely occupied by the front edge of the sword. They have no thought or even knowledge of the dynamic relationships forming at the back of their blade. For them, it’s all about the edge, and trying to get it to contact our body. If we ignore this obvious (yang) aspect of their attack, and instead appreciate the equally important ‘hidden’ (yin) aspects of the attack, we begin to be able to work with the opponent in ways that they don’t even know exist, much less can hope to understand in the quick time frame of a sword contest. More importantly, we also begin to appreciate the inseparability of yin and yang. There is no way to move the sword toward something without moving it away from somewhere else. By creating yang, we create yin. If we move to there, we move from here. While this doesn’t necessarily require changing our techniques and forms, it widens our appreciation of how those forms and techniques might actually be working.
- Perform your usual paired drills or forms. After warming up and being comfortable with the choreography, start to work through the same drill or form but try to avoid the opponent’s sword without changing any other aspect of your techniques. Even in the case of strong blocks, examine how they can lead to entering the yin areas left open by the movements of the opponent.
- Imagine the air currents made by every move the opponent makes. Working slowly at first, start to explore how those currents might draw you into the opponent’s openings. Instead of leaping into their openings, calmly ride the current.
- Occasionally, rather than trying to be powerful, fast and skilled, imagine yourself like smoke, which fills all available spaces, needing no power to do so. Observe the results. Light a stick of incense in a still room near a sunny window. Pass your sword through the smoke and observe the relationships that appear..