Discovering Zanshin

Zanshin – described to me by my sweet husband Abel as a state of calm awareness. When I first saw him demonstrate and describe zanshin, we had taken one of our first bokken walks in Mine’s Falls Park in Nashua, NH. Now, to set the stage, here we are – newly dating, taking a spring walk through the woods. With our wooden swords. We meander a while until we reach somewhat of a clearing. Abel takes out his bokken and swings it a few times; I assumed he was checking for branches. He then scans the ground and picks up a few twigs, brushing the forest floor covering of browned pine needles aside. “This is the spot.”

We began our walk with the Ipponme Kendo Kata. Ipponme means “number one” or “first” in Japanese, and as Julie Andrews put it, starting at the beginning is a very good place to start. In this scenario, you are resting when you see your opponent step forward and move to attack by raising his sword above his head and slightly to the left into hidari-jodan no kamae. You respond to his threat by raising your sword above your head into migi-jodan no kamae. Your opponent starts stepping to close the distance between you, so you meet him three large steps in. Your opponent steps forward and executes a men strike to the head, but misses because at the very last moment, you take a step backward, raising your sword and returning with a men strike stopping just above the crown of his head. His gaze meets yours, he attempts to take a little step back, and you lower your sword tip between his eyes. He attempts to make another small step back to escape, but this time, pushing your sword towards his eyes as he retreats, you take a large step towards him, closing the distance and raising your sword into hidari-jodan no kamae, all the while pressing forward.

This is when zanshin is displayed – calm, aware, ready, listening for other threats, watching for movement that may indicate another attack. What I perceived was a large 6’3” imposing figure with his hands raised above his head holding a deadly weapon, who was ready to strike at anything. Now my sweet Abel has never threatened or hurt me in any way, shape or form, but feeling this warrior’s stance had me frozen, frightened, and willing to submit. His eyes were watching me intently. I felt I could not even swallow without him being aware of it. He asked if I understood, and I squeaked my best “I think so” through my tightened throat.  As we continued to practice various kata, he stopped each time we came to zanshin, and without fail each time I experienced the same result.

Fear. Tight throat. I’m screwed.

We then switched roles, Abel taking on that of uchidachi, (teacher) and I assumed shidachi, student. In each kata I was supposed to be the winner. We followed through each of the exercises, leading up to where zanshin would be displayed. I followed the body movements I had observed him demonstrate, but inside: Fear. Tight throat. I’m screwed. How could I possibly defeat this skilled enormous man? It felt like a joke. Any minute he might raise up and overtake me! What was my reaction? I cried. Fuck.

As embarrassed as I was, I welcomed the arms that had put down the sword and wrapped around my shoulders. As I lay my head on Abel’s shoulder, he explained that he was only trying to show me these things so that we both could be better together, and I nodded and wiped my wet face on his shirt.

It took many months for me not to experience the crying, choking chill while I was practicing with Abel, but I still felt that I did not fully grasp this concept of zanshin..mostly because Abel keeps telling me that he needs to find another way to explain it, which in my mind is a gracious and loving way of communicating that I do not have it yet. Then, one day, the feeling came on to me stronger than I can ever remember. I went to the theater downtown to meet with the conductor and principle  second violinist of the Salina Symphony Orchestra. Just the day before I had emailed him asking for information on auditioning, and he responded asking me to meet him the next afternoon. No mention of audition, or piece to ready, just to show up. We walked up to the second floor of this depression-era theater, and there awaited my opponent, though I did not know it at the time. We chatted for a moment, and he then asked me to play something for him. My mind racing, I could not think of even one piece. Not even the minuette that I had practiced and played many times. Handing me some sheet music, he asked me to sight read. Now, it was hot outside on this midsummer Kansas afternoon, but it was certainly not hot enough to melt the notes off the staff, but there they dripped and slid off the page in all of their inky glory.

Fear. Tight throat. I’m screwed. Cue the tears.

My anxiety having gotten the better of me, I negotiated for a better time to come back and audition. As the season practices were starting the following Monday, my audition would have to be Saturday. Two days. I spent the remainder of that night and the entirety of the next day practicing in a frenzy. If you have never witnessed Cheryl in a frenzy, ask either one of my children what I am like when I am trying to get something accomplished. They will probably tell you that it is better to watch from a safe distance. I worked all morning on the part of the piece he had pointed to, and was invited to that 2nd violinist’s home to have some fun and play some duets during the afternoon. My body was buzzing, tight and hyper from the activity. As we played we also talked, and what I gathered from her were some very valuable observations. One, I was rusty, but still very good. Two, I could absolutely make it into the symphony. And three, I didn’t have nearly enough time to get beyond the rustiness to make it into the symphony at that time. I would need to prepare a piece that really showcased my vibrato and ability to play in upper octaves. After one more evening of practicing, I cancelled my audition. The violinist responded with loving words, and the conductor responded with an invitation to come back in January for the second half of the season.

So, what does this have to do with zanshin? My experience with zanshin is truly very limited. I was taught at a very early age that if I was afraid, that I should run away whenever someone challenged me. I was never taught to be ready to respond. I was not allowed to ever even hit back – there would have been many serious consequences from my mother had I done so. This is why little Leigh Rivers got the best of me on the first grade playground and this is why I crumpled at my audition a few weeks ago. It is not about not having the chops. It is about being ready to do whatever is necessary to respond correctly. Abel was not trying to teach me to feel fear, throat tightening and pants wetting (thanks a lot, Leigh). He was trying to show me the opposite. Calm awareness. Relaxed but still fully engaged. This would have let the music that I play so easily at home flow from my bow and strings. This would have saved another embarrassing trip to the principal’s office waiting for my mother to bring a change of clothes (again). And this is where I need to be when I have shown my opponent I not only could cut them if I wanted to, but that I had already won and did not need to cut to win.

Calm. Aware. Relaxed. Engaged.

Cheryl. Ann. Reynolds. Erives.


I can remember that.



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