Sound of One Bear Fencing

Zen has nothing on fencing for mind-bending paradoxes. Sometimes I think my coaches are doing it deliberately, but then, I'm really not sure. Maybe that's part of the practice, to present students with apparently irreconcilable nuggets of wisdom, like koans with which the students are expected to struggle until enlightenment dawns. Or maybe they're just trying to drive me crazy.

For example: "You have to want to win" (suggesting that your desire should be unflinching). But, on the other hand: "Don't be afraid to lose" (suggesting that you should not be fixed on winning because that will distract you from the action at hand).

Or: "Set it up" (meaning, entice your opponent into making the action that you want her to so that you can take advantage of her). But, on the other hand: "Don't think so much, just go."

Or: "Patience" (meaning, don't just push; give yourself time to gauge your opponent's actions; wait and watch for the appropriate moment to act). But, on the other hand: "Fight!" (meaning, get in there, be aggressive! In other words, push; force her to react).

Or: "You have to have confidence in your attacks." But, on the other hand: "You can't just rely on making the right action; you have to be willing to go for the touch, however you get it."

Now, as a Christian, you might think that I was, like the White Queen, well-practiced with believing any number of impossible things before breakfast, but as a fencing bear, I must confess myself perplexed. Am I supposed to be thinking or not? Am I supposed to want to win or not? How can I be both patient and aggressive at the same time? Should I care about whether my actions are correct or not?

To be fair, I know that what is at stake here is not absolutes, but balance, but my principal state at the moment is utter confusion. On the one hand, the bouts that I won this past week, I fenced without fear of losing (this was particularly the case in our team bouts, when I was happy for us simply to be getting the touches that we were), patiently, with carefully planned attacks that landed when and where I wanted them to; while those that I lost, I fenced wanting to win, aggressively, without setting things up properly (clearly, because I got hit), trying to fight but succeeding only in being in the right place at the wrong time. Although I have fenced--and won--bouts in the past through sheer desire not to lose, determined at all costs to push my opponent as hard as possible, not always understanding where the actions that I was using were coming from, but getting the touch nevertheless, this strategy did not seem to work this week; quite the reverse. But when I spoke with my coach-friend on Thursday about why I had lost, this--or so it seemed--was the way that he was insisting I needed to fence.

It isn't really that I don't know the answer. I do. At least, I've read about it in lots of books. I have one right here. The titles of the different meditations alone can give you the flavor of its argument: "Try Softer." "Effortless Effort." "Process not Product." "Seize the Moment." "Conquer Haste." In one of the anecdotes Hyams tells (pp. 84-85), Bruce Lee is reading from Takuan Soho's teachings on Zen and swordsmanship: "When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy's sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the unconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the unconscious that strikes." Lee goes on to comment: "If your mind is fixed on victory or defeating your opponent, you will be unable to function automatically. You must allow your mind to float freely. The instant you become conscious of trying for harmony and make an effort to achieve it, that very thought interrupts the flow and the mind blocks.... The worst thing to do is to try to block the blocking. The best thing to do is just accept it when it occurs. You will find it usually dissolves itself."

Ideally, at this point, I would have something to say along the lines of, "And, lo and behold! I tried it, and it worked." But the whole point of such anecdotes is that there is nothing to try. There is only practice that consists in not consciously practicing; trying that consists in letting go. Even as you reach for enlightenment, it eludes you; as soon as you no longer want it, it comes.

I used to have a game that I played with myself, waiting for my Seventeen magazine to arrive.[1] If I thought about it on the day before the mail came, it was a guarantee that that day it would not be there. No matter that the magazine company must have mailed the issues out on the same day every month (at least, I always thought they did), thus rendering the arrival of any given issue somewhat predictable; if even for an instant I thought about the possibility that the magazine might be waiting for me when I got home from school, the mailbox would be empty. As soon as I genuinely forgot to anticipate its arrival, however, there my next issue would be.

Over the years, I have found that this rule applies more or less invariably to anything that I most want: job offers, fellowships, losing weight, winning a fencing bout. If I think, even for an instant, that it is possible for my application or diet or bout plan to succeed, I'm done for. The very hope seems to ensure that I will be disappointed. But as soon as I abandon hope utterly (more often than not to the tune of, "I'm never going to get a job/go on leave/make it out of the pools"), there I am, opening the offer letter from the fellowship foundation or finding my name in the pools results well above the cut.

You might think that my previous successes would give me confidence to think that, for example, I know how to write a successful fellowship application or to fence the next bout, but, koan-like, this simply isn't the case. In the last round of applications I did, the one fellowship I did not get was the one I thought I had a reasonable chance of winning, whereas the ones that I did receive, I was certain, even as I wrote the best applications I could for them, that I would not. Likewise, the more I tell myself as I get on the strip, "I can win this bout," the more certain it is that I am about to lose, whereas, yes, the one time I fenced well enough on the day to earn my D (making top 16 in a Div II NAC), every bout I was convinced that I didn't have a chance.

Apples and oranges, you will say. Once I have submitted an application, I have done everything I can do; my success or failure is wholly in the hands of others (my long-suffering colleagues who have been willing to sit on the fellowship committees). But with a bout, I am there on the strip moment by moment; surely, how I think about what is happening has real effect. And yet, the Rule of Seventeen would still seem to apply: hope is not a virtue, but a catalyst for disaster or, at the very least, dismay, whereas hopelessness would seem to be the door to success.

And, therein, of course, lies the trap: if I abandon hope and thereafter succeed, the next time I am writing an application or stepping up to the strip, I will very likely do so with hope because, after all, contrary to my expectations, I did get that fellowship or win that bout last time. At which point, I will lose, thus confirming my initial conviction that failure was inevitable, so that, the next time after that, I will have no hope--and thus, given the perversity of the universe--succeed.

"Process not Product," Hyams would doubtless say. And I know he is right; it just seems so counterintuitive, not to mention counterscriptural, to give up on hope. Why should simply thinking a thing is possible obviate its realization? And yet, it would seem, this is what I need to do--give up on hope--if I want to have a hope of ever making the top 8. How Zen is that?

[1] This probably explains both my compulsive romanticism and my conviction that for parties, you have to be wearing something that sparkles. Also, my interest in mehndi; yes, there was a fashion feature shot on location on Morocco way back in the 1970s. I even did a sketch of one of the models (Phoebe Cates) wearing big puffy pants and doing a balancing act on a wall (see image).

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