When learning the art of the sword, we are often told that we should wield it as an extension of our own body. The sword’s edge and tip should exhibit all the speed, power and grace of the hand that holds it, for instance. That is a fine objective—but what if the hand has no speed, power or grace to start with?
According to one classical perspective, no student should be given sword instruction until they have first qualified themselves to learn, by demonstrating mastery of barehanded technique. In some styles of martial arts, this might require thousands of hours of study.
Narrowing the focus during these initial months, or years of training might seem to benefit everyone involved. It can, and frequently it does. However, in some cases, it will actually hinder the student’s overall progress. The sword itself is an excellent instructor, to those who will heed its lessons.
What is Biofeedback?
Biofeedback is a method of expanding conscious awareness into realms that are typically governed by the unconscious mind. The subject of biofeedback training is instrumented with equipment that amplifies, records and displays biometric data, such as body temperature, heart rate, and skin conductivity. Experiments have shown that, if a subject is made aware of small fluctuations in these ostensibly involuntary processes (i.e. with the help of biofeedback equipment), that subject can more easily bring these processes under their conscious control.
Biofeedback machines, such as an electroencephalograph (EEG) or digital thermometer, can be expensive and complex. They can also be simple and cheap. Bicycle training wheels, which allow a rider to tip over slightly without immediately falling down, provide a useful form of biometric feedback. In fact, an intelligent person can press nearly any tool into service as a biofeedback device—including their sword.
The Sword as Biofeedback Device
A sword is a natural amplifier, which consistently and impartially reflects the mistakes of its user. If the swordsman’s grip and cut are incorrect, his sword may wobble, or even ring. When the position of his wrist is wrong by one inch, the tip of the blade may be wrong by one foot. If his body movement is slightly convoluted or imprecise, a good sword helps to make that obvious; with a tassel, even more so.
According to an old Chinese proverb, “A one-inch error at the start becomes a thousand-mile error by the end.” A sword can help prevent small errors from escaping its user’s attention, and thereby train the hand that holds it, and the mind which directs it.