Last night in class we participated in reaction drills.
The concept is simple enough: You are in the middle of a circle of your fellow students. Everyone draws to chudon. Then, randomly one by one, each student kiais (shouts) and makes an attack. Attacks can be as simple or as complicated as the sensei calls for; in our case it was a single type of cut.
The great difference - and the great problem - of reaction drills is simply that things becme much less of an exercise in the art of iaido and much more of an exercise in simple survival. A constant series of attacks - even slower ones performed by fellow students - too often seems to drive every technique I've learned out of my mind. As they say, we study for the dojo, but we practice for life.
But the one thing that was embedded last night in my mind - let us say re-embedded, as the thoughts were already there - was the art of letting the mind go.
When one faces a series of attacks, one's mind will tend to become rushed and confused. To dwell on the attack that just happened - to try and consider a different way to do things, or reflect on how badly one did - is to invite being struck. The mind cannot dwell on that which just happened; instead it must move on to the next attack that is coming.
Takuan Soho in The Unfettered Mind discusses the same idea. He makes the point that the mind must be free and stop on any one point. If the mind stops at blocking the attack, it will not continue through to complete the cut and certainly not be ready for the next attack. The mind instead must simply move through blocking the attack to responding and then moving to the next attack.
As in all things, of course, iaido mirrors life. Too often we tend to cling to what just happened, the mistakes we just made, rather than simply move through the situation to the next incident. Is this saying that there is no place for meditation and reflection upon our lives and how we act? Not at all. Consideration of and reflection on our actions is an important part of our growth. It is simply a question of choosing when to consider such things.
Ultimately the point of iaido is to have the mind and body flowing as one, to spontaneously move the mind and body in responding to or executing to an attack. I sure did not flow last night (though several of my fellow students did), but I saw the first great mental step: we cannot flow forward in the stream if we cling to the rock that just went under water.