[UPDATE — April 17th 2009: This article and waka poem featured on The Reiki Digest as part of the 2009 Waka Fest celebration.]
For quite some time I've been wanting to more broadly explore the significance of hara, that state that transcends the duality of body and soul, and which is central to Reiki and the mastery of all Japanese arts from Aikido and swordsmanship to calligraphy, flower arranging, archery, and the classic tea ceremony.
More specifically, I wanted to understand how those practicing different Japanese arts perceive and experience hara. How similar (or different) is the role played by hara to a Reiki practitioner when compared to that of someone who practices say calligraphy, kendo, or even sumo?
When I chanced upon Kim Falconer's profile on Twitter the other day, which showed her masterfully wielding a katana (the favoured sword of the Samurai) on a beautiful far–away beach, I immediately felt drawn to begin my broader exploration of hara with a close look at the Japanese martial art of Iaido, or “the way of the peaceful warrior”. For those unfamiliar with Iaido, it is a Japanese art that involves the smooth and controlled movements of drawing the sword from the scabbard, striking or cutting an opponent, removing blood from the blade, and finally replacing the sword in the scabbard. As Kim rapidly pointed out, the term “peaceful” relates to the warrior's state of mind, and not the potential end result.
My interest was piqued even further when I learnt that Kim weaves her five years experience of wielding a Samurai blade and of working with hara (or tanden) into her fantasy fiction writing: “For me the sword work is a moving meditation — the sword, the body, becomes a conduit for energy flow, and the practice of allowing, opening. Awareness. In my novels it becomes a conduit for magic, which is basically the same thing,” Kim would later explain.
For now, I became utterly compelled to ask Kim if she would be willing to share more about her art and the role of hara as she experienced it, and she very kindly agreed to be interviewed. The result, I think, is a truly beautiful exposition of hara within the practice of Iaido, aided in no small way by Kim's natural skill with words.
Inspired by the photograph of Kim that had first impressed me so, I opened the interview with the following question:
Marcus: Let's pretend that we are meeting very early one morning on that beautiful beach. Everything is clear and peaceful. You are getting ready to practice Iaido. Take me through it. Try to make me feel what you feel.
Kim Falconer: Training begins when I wrap my obi (wide cloth belt) around my waist and dress in my hakama. The traditional uniform aligns me with every Samurai master who has ever held a sword. During training, I walk their path. The ritual of dressing, bowing to my sword and carrying it to my place of practice stills my mind and sets the intention — Mushin — to allow for energy flow, pure bliss.
As my visitor, I take you to my favourite training grounds — the sandbar between the Pacific Ocean and Arakwal river mouth. We are surrounded by water, the only humans for miles but the land is full of life — sea eagles, plovers, gulls, Toresian Crows, pods of dolphins beyond the breakers. You are in Seiza (formal sitting) observing in silence. For a moment, I stand in the centre of the sandbar and take it all in, the sea, the river, the gulls, the sun. Then, Shinzen ni rei (I bow to the altar/sun) followed by To–rei (bow to my sword). Then seiza, meditation. Allowing...
At first I feel my toes pressed into the sand, hands resting lightly on my thighs, sunbeams warm my face. Eyes closed. The sound of the sea, the birds, the wind grow louder for a moment and then recede. Stillness. All is quiet. All is well.
I open my eyes — ready to train in the traditional Wazas — the forms choreographed centuries ago by Samurais preparing for battle. They readied for the fight. I ready for peace — the ritual bringing me into alignment with myself. Energy swirls in my hara — Tanden breathing — energy builds. Fire up the spine. I am the sea, the sun, the waves, the warrior. The sand beneath me gives way to the universe.
Three deep breaths. I see my opponent galloping towards me — fully armoured riding a dark warhorse. Just as I am about to be run down, I release the energy. The sing of my blade startles you. Birds take flight.
Nukitsuke — draw and cut. Energy fires from Tanden, up my arm, into the blade. The trajectory is a beam of light, extending beyond the horizon. This moment lasts a second. The second lasts forever.
Chiburi — I flick the blood from my sword.
Noto — The blade returns to the sheath.
Shinken. (real sword)
Mak–ko (front assault)
Uro–Omote (rear and front attack)
Mura–Same (passing rain)
Rui–Sei (falling star)
I perform the ritual wazas, aware of each moment, immersed in the energy that rushes through me.
I turn to you, bow. ‘Do you want to learn?’
With a wooden Bokken — a practice blade — I show you the intricate steps of Shin–ken.
The sun is climbing when we bow to each other, turn and bow to the east, tor rei, bow to our swords. Walking back up the beach, sounds amplify, the world returns. A dozen surfers take off on the same wave. A man walks his dogs. One carries a deflated ball. We carry Mushin.
The way is peaceful.
Awareness energy bliss.
Mushin walks with us.
M: We've touched on the energetic state of being you attain during your practice, talking about it variously as hara, tanden, energy flow, bliss, etc. I'd like to explore this further. Doubtless you have mastered (or become proficient) at many of the techniques in Iaido, but the outward form — what a casual viewer might observe — is really just the tip of the iceberg. As an art form that you obviously love, what does the practice of Iaido put into you, both taken as a whole, and with regard to hara/tanden?
KF: When I train in the dojo, we all meet at the local café after class and share the midday meal. Most of the talk is on the day's achievements, our techniques, new students, spiritual beliefs, and also the little things — like pets and kids and where to buy blueberries for $3.99. I've formed close friendships around that table and as a writer, it's a gift — novelists spend a great deal of time alone.
Practicing Iaido gives me more than exercise and camaraderie though. It puts me in touch with my core values. Whenever we do something that aligns with one of our core values, we experience an infinite flow of energy. It feels like peace, abundance, joy. It's what Joseph Campbell meant when he said, ‘Follow your bliss and doors will open where once there were only walls.’ That bliss he was talking about is the experience of our core values being honored.
In that sense, practicing Iaido opens doors.
I can tell by your face this needs further explanation.:) Let me give you an example.
One of my core values is imagination. Training is fertile ground for this experience through ‘visualizing my opponent’ and also because I use Iaido to choreograph the sword scenes in my novels. Iaido has become my way to create a ‘clearing in the woods’ for my muse to dance. I get some of my best ideas while training, or on the way home after.
Another of my core values is perception and Iaido, because it brings the mind, body and spirit into accord, heightens awareness. The peace and energy flow I experience doing the Wazas and Tanden breathing brings everything into greater brilliance. The water sparkles, the wind sings. Colors are deeper, richer with more shades and hues. I'm certain I see a broader spectrum of light! The birds fly closer. Touch, sensuality — are all enhanced. It's a wonderful feeling.
Accomplishment is my core value also and Iaido, over time, has given me a strong sense of it. But my initial months and even the first year of training made me wonder if it would ever be so. Teenagers in these parts use the word ‘unka’ which roughly translates as complete lack of finesse, coordination or visible aptitude. That would be me, when I began. I kept at it though, which makes the sense of accomplishment all the richer. And the beauty of Iaido is there's always another level, another challenge, another move to master — a higher level of Mushin. You never get it done.
The enrichment from Iaido that probably surprised me the most is the sense of empowerment. I wasn't expecting such a high state of it. As a woman, learning to wield a sword is almost an act of redemption. I don't know how else to describe it. I feel I have reclaimed something ancient. Something lost. There are no gender biases in this art — men and women train together with mutual respect for themselves and each other. No competition. No power over. This is a beautiful thing that spills out into everyday life.
Iaido awakens ‘my bliss’. Energy flows and my creative well fills to the brim. For any artist, there is no greater gift.
M: With traditional Japanese Reiki, there are a lot of techniques that focus on working with and developing hara (sometimes talked about as The Three Diamonds, or lower, middle, and upper hara, or working with earth, heart, and heaven Ki.) I know that Reiki people everywhere will be curious to know what kinds of techniques are practiced in Iaido to develop hara. Can you describe some of those techniques?
KF: In Iaido, hara is developed by directly focusing on it through the breath. What we put our attention on amplifies and this universal law is an ally when it comes to flowing energy deliberately. I also learned this technique in Qi Gong. It will be familiar to you I am certain.
As part of the warm–up, we do Tanden breathing. There are many variations but essentially breath and focus bring awareness to hara. It's like lighting a fire. A big one. It can be cold out, frosty and in a matter of minutes, through breathing alone, you're in a sauna!
The technique is simple. We go into ‘horse riding stance’ — which is just like it sounds. You're on a horse but the horse is not there. In that pose, hara is activated by engaging the core muscles in the abdomen. You keep it that way for the whole exercise. The arms are spread wide, like holding a giant beach ball. Breath is drawn deep into hara as the hands slowly come together. The breath is held. The breath is released as the hands push slowly away from the body.
At any point, Sensei may stand opposite and strike the lower abdomen. It tests the power and strength of your hara and the energy you are flowing. It's amazing what kind of blow you can take in that state and not be pushed back or knocked off your feet. It's not painful or disruptive, if hara is activated.
Done before training, Tanden breathing awakens hara for the rest of sword practice. It's an energy you keep with you throughout the day.
Another way to activate hara that I do often is through visualization. There is this wonderful experiment that demonstrates the power of this technique. Two groups were involved and one was asked to do bicep curls every day for so many minutes. Their biceps were measured weekly and progress recorded. The other group was asked to imagine their biceps larger — toned — for a few minutes a day. Their progress was recorded too. The result? The group that only imagined bigger biceps not only had the best results, the level of fitness lasted months longer than the other group! The basic premise is, ‘if you can imagine it, you can have it.’ [Reference: Imagery in Sport by Tony Morris, Michael Spittle, and Anthony P. Watt]
With this in mind, visualizing hara activated — seeing the fiery energy building — develops hara. That energy is in all of us. We just need to think about it, connect with it. There are many ways to do this. Whatever ritual feels good to you will have the best results.
M: I am itching to talk about your new book, The Spell of Rosette. I understand HarperCollins has published it in Australia, but it has yet to reach these shores. For those of us not fortunate enough to live Down Under, could you tell us a little about it?
KF: The Quantum Enchantment Series juxtaposes different realities — shifting world views that contrast each other. Gaela is an agrarian–based, magical hegemony where witches are like sword wielding shamans — leaders in the community, respected, for the most part, and admired. The future Earth is dark, Orwellian, a dystopia — a technological hegemony where the Hammer of Witches has been reinstated. In these different worlds, I explore Arthur C. Clarke's notion: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ My novels explore oppressive governments, gender biases, occult knowledge, non–human sentience, relationships, speciesism, the numinous and the environment — Mother Earth. These are all contemporary topics but when woven into a ‘Fantasy/SF’ we see them ‘at a distance’. We listen better because it's non–threatening. It's only a story. (She winks...)
Book one, The Spell of Rosette, begins when a young girl comes home to find her family murdered. It's a fast paced fantasy adventure on one hand and a gritty speclative fiction narrative on the other. Between the lines I play with the ‘hard’ questions of science: Is quantum theory relevant in the ‘real world’ or is it, as some say, only applicable to the world of the very small, or to mathematical equations? In the Spell of Rosette we find out what happens when it does apply to our everyday lives. We discover what it would be like if we could see ‘symmetrical time’, or if quantum computers got out of their baths (their controlled environments) and had lives of their own. I also play with the notions of relationship, meaning and truth. Through Rosette and her feline familiar Drayco, I tell a story about life and magic. Underneath it all, I wove a little spell of my own — a gift for each reader. You'll see...
M: I was fascinated when you mentioned how the whole energetic system of hara/tanden translates to “magic” in your writing, and how the practice of Iaido has helped you with this as well as with your sword fighting scenes. Can you elaborate on both of these aspects more?
KF: The development of hara is woven into my novels — it is the source of magical power after all. Because some of the main characters wield Samurai swords, you'll see them channeling their energy from hara, using the sword as a conduit and then, well, depending on whether it's training or a real confrontation, heads may roll!
And, it was my writing that led me to Iaido in the first place! Five years ago, when The Spell of Rosette was a rough draft, I showed some chapters to an author friend — author and sensei I might add. She read them and came back with a single comment. ‘Brilliant story Kim but you don't know ***** about the sword.’
She invited me to train with her and I had the privilege of learning this remarkable and deadly art form — which means my characters learned it, particularly Rosette. It not only makes the fight scenes authentic, it also allows me to write ‘healings’ in ways I hadn't understood before. I don't call it Reiki in the novels, but you'll know it when you see it.
In a way, the act of writing is a flow of energy from hara. Once you become aware of this power centre, it becomes part of every aspect of your life. There's no separation.
M: I think it would be nice to round off our chat with something a little different. Mikao Usui (the founder of the system of Reiki) used gyosei, a form of waka poetry written by the Meiji Emperor, as a means to engender contemplation and mind expansion in his Reiki students. Indeed, it was a requirement that all students recite these poems at their gatherings. Would you honour us by writing a tanka poem, and when complete, perhaps summarise your inspiration behind it? [tanka (“short poem”) is a form of waka poetry consisting of 5–7–5–7–7 syllables, and is a much older form than haiku.]
[Kim came back to me after a few days with the following beautiful poem and kind words.]
In the dark it sleeps
a fire, bright as the sun,
settled down, like snow
or a Mountain Cat's paw prints.
It is the fire of my heart.
The inspiration behind my poem? That would be you :) ... and all your insightful questions. Thank you for encouraging me to explore new terrain.
About Kim Falconer
Kim Falconer lives in Byron Bay, Australia. She is author of The Spell of Rosette and is currently writing the next instalments in the Quantum Enchantment series. She has trained in Hokushin Shinoh Ryu Iaido for 5 years with Ly de Angeles (2nd Dan), and with Master Goho Wonho Chong (8th Dan).