The All-Important Place of Calm

Young Kendoka in mokuso, via Pinterest

Having received some upsetting news and struggling with the mix of disappointment and rage that ensued, I got to thinking about the place of calm, not only in our lives, but also within the Art. We fight best when we are unemotional, calm, and receptive. Emotion clouds judgment. That is a lesson, a karmic burden, that I keep bumping into again and again, and in too many areas. Clearly, I have a long way to go. The question with regard to the Art is how do we cultivate that calm? Moreover, how do we teach it?

The Sword and the Mind

The heading is a nod to an excellent book, The Sword and the Mind, a collection of works on swordsmanship translated by Hiroaki Sato. In one section, Setsunintō (volume two in the book), the author wrote

listening to the sound of the wind and water means maintaining a calm surface and a fighting spirit within…just as a waterfowl afloat on the water maintains an outward calm while using its webbed feet busily below, so must the mind inside be kept on guard. And if you continue your training in this fashion, the mind inside and outside will melt into one, and the distinction between the two will disappear. To attain this state is the ultimate of the ultimate. [1]

This idea is something rarely if ever expressed in western European sources, least I’ve not encountered it in anything I remember reading. The attention to our state of mind, however, shows up a lot in East Asian works on the martial arts. In particular, the impact of Chan/Zen Buddhism on the fighting disciplines was profound. My early training was in East Asian martial arts and as I’ve remarked before my years studying those systems have influenced my approach to fencing. I see the Art not only as the pursuit of self-defense and combat skills, but more importantly as a means by which to grow, improve, and odd as it may sound, cultivate empathy and compassion. More so than any other portion of life, work, school, etc., it’s the Art that has given me the most. Thus, in my own training I’ve worked hard on the mental aspect. I’ve also tried to help my students toward this same quiet-mind.

In the west, the term we most often use for this state today is “flow,” a very modern concept in terminology and one perhaps popularized most by the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and Jeanne Nakamura. The idea of “flow” has since been popularized in Csíkszentmihályi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and in his TED talk, among many other, similar titles by other writers. [2] The basic premise is that in flow

Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous. [3]

This state is possible to reach via many methods, but for me I have encountered this state most often when fighting, and, typically when fighting a particularly skilled opponent. The thing is that entering a state of flow, and thus of calm in a sense, doesn’t happen automatically or without some degree of training, least in terms of the fighting arts. I fought empty-hand and with weapons for a long time before ever entering flow.

What I’ve come to realize, however, is that even if we aren’t in a state of flow, we can still cultivate the calm typically required for it to appear.

Cultivating Calm: Body and Mind

We tend to be more relaxed when we are confident. Some assurance that we know what we’re doing, that we can react appropriately, tends to make it easier to perform. For fencing, a key part of acquiring that confidence derives from the often monotonous practice of drill. There is no royal road to skill—one must put in the time. One of the things I advise in teaching students how to drill, especially on their own, is to remove the emotion they may have about it. I do the same thing with my own children when it comes to chores, homework, or anything unpleasant.

How? Well, we feel what we feel, right or wrong, appropriate or no, but how we feel doesn’t have to guide action. So, when a student says “Ugh, I hate drills… they’re so boring,” I reply “I know, but they’re important—take a minute and feel as strongly and passionately as you wish. When you feel ready, take those feeling and set them aside.” The analogy I give them is washing dishes—I work from home and do a lot of the housework. I don’t “like” housework. It’s not fun. So what? It must be done irrespective of how I feel, so, I simply apply no emotion to it. It just… is. This approach not only makes the task less unpleasant, but also makes it faster and less disruptive, particularly if I have other, more important or pleasant goals to meet during the day.

It takes practice to remove emotion. A LOT of practice. As a caveat, this does not mean one doesn’t feel things or that one shouldn’t; that is unhealthy. Feel. You’re human and feeling is part of our lot. The trick is to feel the emotion, whatever it is, acknowledge its legitimacy, and then consciously decide not to allow that feeling to drive thought or action.

Between the two, physical training with its repetition, correction, and perfecting, and, the mental aspect of setting aside emotion, we can more effectively reach a place of calm. When we work a this, and I do mean work at it, we find that one of the places where we are actually the most quiet, the most calm, is en garde. The conscious efforts we make toward that calm reap unconscious rewards. I’m not usually aware that I’m calm. It’s usually in retrospect or if I am actively thinking about my mental state when fencing.

Proof is in the Bouting

As a proof for the vital place of calm, if my own testimony is unconvincing, I offer the example of my friends at Winged Sabre Historical Fencing. One of my favorite fencers is Russ Mitchell—he’s a formidable and gracious opponent, and, one hell of a teacher. Rarely have I faced another school’s students and faced what I did in Texas a few weeks ago. From his senior student, Kat, to some of his newer students, what impressed me most was their calm, the lack of frenetic energy and motion that often accompanies not only new fencers, but some of the most seasoned (not all who bounce in modern epee do so tactically…).

One of the fencers I had the pleasure to fight was Kevin. He’s a bit older than me, and has only been at this for a few years, but I will be the first to tell you that between his being unflappable and the terrifying effectiveness of the Hussar system Russ teaches, I had my work cut out for me. To his credit, Kevin asked me after the bout what he did wrong so that he could work on things. I wasn’t sure how my answer would go over, but I led off with “well, let me tell you what you did right—everything.” He dominated that bout. I might have hit him once, but I know and am honest enough to admit he controlled the action and stymied my every attempt to get past that blasted middle-guard lol

Some of the Attendees late Saturday, 22 April 2023 (photo by Annamarie Kovacs); Kevin is, I believe, in the mask on the left

I mentioned that his calm, something I noticed in all of Russ’ students, was the key. It allowed them the space and level-headedness to use what they had learned. I was–and remain–extremely impressed with what I saw from Russ’ fencers at the St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms. This speaks to a master’s command of material and pedagogy, and while Russ may not have the sheepskin with maestro written upon it, he is one of the few people I consider a master in historical fencing. I have yet to pick his brain for how he approaches the cultivation of calm, but it’s on my list of things to ask wiser heads than mine.

Drill and Presence

For those interested in this, reading Csikszentmihályi’s book might help, but so too will practicing both purposeful shelving of emotion and drill. In class, in the lesson, or on one’s own, getting out of our own way is the key to progress. Much as one can, acknowledge the emotion that arises, then set it aside and actively focus on the task. In time, with practice, this process becomes more and more automatic. If it helps, read up on both western ideas of “flow” and the more philosophical works on fencing—use what applies, leave the rest. [4] It is worth the effort and time to cultivate calm—it will not only help one improve, but also make fencing a lot more fun and rewarding.


[1] The Sword and the Mind, translated by Hiroaki Sato, Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1986, p. 71.

[2] See especially Nakamura J, Csikszentmihályi M, “Flow Theory and Research,” in Handbook of Positive Psychology, Snyder CR, Lopez SJ (eds.), Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 195–206. See also Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2008. For the TED Talk, cf.

[3] Csíkszentmihályi, Flow, 71.

[4] For a few places to start, consider Taisen Deshimaru, The Zen Way to the Martial Arts, New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1991; Joe Hyams, Zen in the Martial Arts, New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, 1979; Michael Maliszewski, Spiritual Dimensions of the Martial Arts, Tokyo, JP: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1996; also worth a read Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1997. I suggest the following with caution as it’s very much a product of its environment, 18th century Samurai culture, and should be approached with an awareness that Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo reflects not only a disappointed warrior’s views of a changing world, but these ideas as recorded by another samurai, Tashiro Tsuramoto. The edition I have is Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, translated by William Scott Wilson, New York, NY: Kodansha International, 1983.