Sword and Foot

“Sword and foot!” is one of those phrases I associate with my time at Sugino Dojo; I can clearly recall Sugino Sensei roaring that at me again and again: “Sword and foot! Sword and foot!”

He was reminding me of a basic tenet of Katori Shinto Ryu: that the sword must act in concert with the body. When the sword starts moving, the foot starts moving. When the sword stops, the foot stops. Sword and foot.

This principle is evident in the most basic fundamental of Katori Shinto Ryu, the straight head cut called maku-uchi men. As the sword rises up, the front foot draws back until, when the sword reaches it apex over our heads, the front foot reaches the rear foot and we are standing with our feet together. And so as the strike comes down; the sword begins its descent and the front foot slides forward, so that at the moment the sword completes its movement, the foot has returned to its original spot and we are once again standing at the ready.

It sometimes seems like an impossibly difficult thing to manage, to cause an external object to move in perfect timing with our own body. I joke that I have never performed maku-uchi correctly, but it’s not exactly a joke. Getting the sword and the foot to move in perfect synchronization challenges my awareness and my coordination.

Hence Sensei’s constant admonishment: “Sword and foot!”

But learning to work in concert with the world around me has been a fundamental lesson, and it seems that the better I get at making that sword move in time with myself, the better I get and doing the same with other, more abstract features of the world.

It’s not just a case of imposing my will on the world around me. That can get me to MOVE the sword, but in order to operate synchronously with it, I need to move myself in accordance with the laws of physics that govern the movement of a piece of steel. I need to enter into a more complex relationship with the sword, one that accepts and embraces its needs as well as my own.

I find the lesson over and over again in my life. Repeatedly I learn to forgo simply directing, or commanding, and to embrace connecting and joining.

Interdependence, not independence.

Especially when dealing with things considerably more complex and unpredictable than swords. Like, say, software developers. I find it very difficult to get software developers to do exactly what I want them to do. Which is probably a good thing, since I’m particularly ill-suited to telling them what to do, not really being much of a software developer myself. Doing my job properly (and by the way, I have a new job; more later) involves very little directing and a great deal of harmonizing. Connecting.

It’s kind of hard to describe. Sort of like maku-uchi. I can show you how it’s done (sort of), and I practice it a lot, but descriptions never really manage to get the idea across. Likewise managing teams. It’s all sort of mysterious and beyond the ability of rationality to encompass. These are things that cannot (and perhaps should not) be put into words, but that can only be embodied in practice.

“Tao” character from Zen Sekai