Sen No Sen

During the last month or so,  I’ve been going to practice without my contact lenses for two reasons.  First, my eyes were starting to get bothered by them and second, I ran out of fresh ones.  When I made the decision to stop wearing them for a while, I remembered something my sensei said during one of our practices some time ago.  When he was younger and competing in college with the kendo club, he didn’t have the option of contact lenses or glasses inside his men so he practiced much harder to compensate for his lack of sight.  He found he was able to not rely on visual cues from his aite but more from the feeling he got instead.  I believe this falls into the realm of 先, 先の先, and 先々の先 (sen, sen no sen, sen zen no sen), anticipation, knowing what your opponent will do an act first, and sensing what your opponent will do.

I started to think about this and tried to figure out which of the three terms my sensei’s case would fall under.  Since was not able to see his opponents, then it must be 先々の先 since he was able to react purely on something he felt from his opponent.  The more I thought about it however, the more I started to think that it might be closer to 先の先 because that would have been too early in his kendo career and he would still have been able to see the general shape of his opponent and general body movements.  This becomes all to clear whenever I have keiko with him as he is able to just pick up on every single little movement I make and strike me down every single time.  With this in mind, I decided to try to push myself (at the expense of my vision health probably), to try to better develop my 先の先.

The first night I went without my contacts was an odd feeling.  I had always thought that sweat in the eyes was no big deal but that was because my contacts had always protected my eyes.  Stinging eyes, check.  Lining up for uchikomi geiko was interesting because my astigmatism made it harder to approximate the exact location of my partner from across the floor.  Blurry blue blobs, check.  The rest of practice went without incident but then sensei decided it was time for us to have some kakarigeiko.  Incidentally this was also when his wife was at the dojo armed with a video camera.  Long story short, I was surprised I didn’t miss more often and that my only major screw up was a botched final strike due to exhaustion and crappy fumikomi.  If you’re interested in seeing the results of this, send me an email and I’ll provide a link.

As the weeks went by I got more and more used to not being able to see as clearly and it has made me realize a few things.  First, I don’t need to see my aite clearly in order to read their body language and anticipate what they are going to do.  I had become so fixated on trying to maintain proper enzan no metsuke that I had not been paying nearly as much attention to my aite’s body language. Second, I can land a strike with yukodatotsu from father away than I thought I could.  Third, my eyes wander far too much and it’s no wonder that in every single taikai I’ve been to I’ve been knocked out in either the first or second round.  Despite my efforts to focus on my aite’s eyes, I still fall into that old beginners habit of looking everywhere else. Was I able to improve in terms of 先の先?  Maybe but it’s hard to say for sure since I’ve only been able to see the results with my dojo-mates, I haven’t had the chance to test these results on someone new from a different dojo, and I haven’t been able to have jigeiko with a few of my sempai in recent weeks.

Up till now I haven’t really given this concept much thought even though I was practicing it ever since I earned shodan.  I get the feeling I’m just on the tip of the iceberg and that if I want to be ready to attempt sandan next year I need to get cracking.  There’s still so much I have yet to even realize about this and I’m certain that I’ll be working on this for as long as I practice kendo.

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8 Responses to Sen No Sen

  1. shugyosha2 says:

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this experience.
    In order to better value the lack of vision, would you please indicate what is your level of diopter (eyes measure unit).

    Thank you – Shugyosha2 – Paris (France)

    • shinkenshi says:

      I don’t remember exactly right off the top of my head but I think my myopia correction is -3.5 and my astigmatism is -1.75 in both eyes.

  2. shugyosha2 says:

    Thanks. My myopia is -6.5, reason why I was asking 🙂 But could be fun to try…

  3. Cesare Kim says:

    Hi,
    As a side note, I started wearing glasses while doing kendo about 5 years ago. Prior to that, I couldn’t fit my frames into the men. I’m missing about 6,5 in the left eye and 7,8 in the right eye on a 10 scale.

    My point is that I had a great experience once I could actually see something more than the contour of the kote and men. As David said, not being able to see individual details forces one to be more proactive during keiko. OTOH, it’s a lot easier to pick up tells if you can see beyond the men game. Two things which immediately come to mind that you can use are when your aite blinks and when he/she starts to breathe in. They’re both great moments to take the attack.

    YMMV

    cesare kim – Italy

  4. a e o n says:

    don’t forget 「後の先」。That’s another important timing.

    • shinkenshi says:

      This is what I get for not checking my blog in months, a missed comment! I’ve actually never heard that term before. Any chance you could explain it a little?

  5. jeroen says:

    I train iaido, but we do kumitachi with men and softswords. one is uke and one is tori. uke starts from unsheated position and tori tries to strike. We often have jiyu kumitachi which means we are allowed to move and attack freely within the concept of iai. (we try to avoid blocks of any kind and try to cut the opponent without getting hit. So interesting your story. please send me the video. I train for few times now without my contactlenses and notice some very interesting things.

    • shinkenshi says:

      I’m curious, what ryuha do you practice? I’ve not heard of any iaido schools that practice in this way. With regards to the video, my overall form in kendo and my opinion on this subject has changed so much since writing the original post that I no longer feel comfortable directing people do that particular video. In summary, I was still able to make yuko-datotsu and my accuracy in that session is more than likely due to muscle memory rather than having anything to do with my sight, save for the final strike which was off.

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