In my martial art (and in at least one other I know, so maybe it extends to all martial arts) each kata (or technique) has three parts:
1) Kihon - This is the approved form of the kata in question, the one that is to be taught and learned, the one that may have been handed down for hundreds of years. This is the one done when a demonstration (embu) is being performed. There are ideally no differences between eras or practitioners when doing this: this is one way the kata is to be done, the essence and purity of the form itself.
2) Henka - These are variations of the kata in question, slightly different techniques: a different step, a different cut, perhaps even the defender winning (instead of losing). There can be multiple different variations but all trace themselves back to the original kata.
3) Bunkai - This is combative application, the kata put into the context of an actual attack and defense. It may include variations and the purity may be largely forgotten (speaking from experience, when defending from an actual attack your blocks become less high and your cutting angle is far less precise). The point is to apply the kata in simulated attack; in other words, to successfully win by killing or defending (and then killing).
For the most part we practice kihon - both the essence of the art as well as the most difficult to master (there are always small things that can be made better; any martial art is truly a lifetime project). We occasionally practice henka, not so much to learn them as to train ourselves to think in terms of fluidity and adaptation - ultimately to win or excel in bunkai.
It occurred to me that just as in iai, I can get my focus in the wrong area.
Too often in my own life I attempt to practice things the way they should be practiced - perhaps even the way others have told me to do them. I work, and then perfect, and then work some more. Sometimes I get so excited I get off into variations or even into practical applications - and it is in all of this that I lose the ultimate purpose I should be aiming for.
All of these are not ends to themselves; rather, the purpose of them is to teach me to think - yes, about the correct way to do things and adapting to variations in how to do things and even in practically doing things but even more so, about being able to take all of the inputs of my life and expertise and practice I have been performing and use it in my life in a way that is fluid and strategic and adaptive and flexible. I forget the ultimate aim, perfecting one's self, in the overload of doing things for a particular end.
Without practicing each kind, I will never become skilled - yet by not incorporating all into the larger whole of my life, they remain merely techniques to be practiced rather than skills to be used. It is a balance - but much like a sword, there are two sides of it.
Focusing on one side does not make the other disappear.