Enlighten Up

Let's face it. The reason that I've been having so much trouble getting myself back to work on my book is that I'm terrified at the thought of the tournament to come. Just writing that last sentence has made my heart start to race and my stomach turn. It's going to be awful, I just know it. You remember last year, right? Well, based on my experience this winter against more or less the same group of fencers, I have very little hope that things are going to be any different this time round. A whole 'nother year's practice and most likely I'm going to end up exactly where I did this time last year: at the bottom.

So what? So f**king what? It's not like anything other than my ego is hanging on the outcome. Not my job, not my academic reputation, not the love of my husband and son, not my life. It's just a stupid sport, after all. A fantasy world within a fantasy world of winning and losing great contests of cunning and skill, nothing real at all. And yet, when I lose, as I almost certainly will--everybody does except the one who takes first--it will hurt and I will cry and I will feel like I'm feeling right now simply at the thought of the frustration to come: enraged, impotent, ridiculous, wanting to throw something across the room just to feel it break. I'm not ready for this meaningless psychological pain--again. I'm not ready to have my self image shredded and all my fantasies of being a great swordswoman shattered--again.

Wiser fencers than I would say that it shouldn't really matter what the outcome is--not, at least, in terms of where I place. I should concentrate rather on fencing my best, learning something from each bout, using the competition to improve my game. But that's hogwash. As if they (my wise friends) don't hate losing just as much as I do. If they didn't, they wouldn't be up there, too, trying to win. But of course they're right. The point is not winning; the point is the practice and winning is simply a by-product of the practice. I know this is true because I heard it just last week when I was listening to James Kinney's The Enlightened Fencer. At least, I think he said something like that and I really wanted to believe him. So when is it going to work, eh?

It sounds great, doesn't it? Practice with full attention, solely for the sake of the practice, and the results will take care of themselves. It's what the yogis say, after all. Being focused on the outcome only poisons the practice, and the practice is all, in the end, that there actually is. And what do you get after a lifetime of practice? A lifetime of practice. Woohoo! I'm really not trying to be as sarcastic as this sounds, but it's hard not to be. I do know the yogis are right. There is no point whatsoever in worrying about whether I am able to do a full twist with bind or touch my feet to my head in Pigeon. The point is simply to practice on my edge and if that means doing nothing more than bending my back leg a bit so as to feel the stretch in my hip, that's fine. I'm getting just as full a practice as those who are able to catch their foot with both hands and come into the full pose.*

Except that even yoga is supposed to have a point other than practice. I know, I know; it's doubtful that you'll ever hear about it from any reputable yoga teacher, nor do most yogis, much as they would like to be able to touch their feet to their head in Pigeon, really want to end up like the Ross Sisters. Or maybe they do. But it's unlikely that they will. And yet, even if they could, they would still insist that the point is not to be able to bend in this way, despite the fact that that's what they've spent their life practicing to be able to do. So what is the point? Here are some of the things that Patanjali says one will be able to do if one practices yoga enough: know the past and the future, make oneself invisible and inaudible, understand the language of all creatures, enter the body of another, levitate, walk on water, radiate light, travel at the speed of thought, know and do everything. Oh, really? Sign me up!

Except, of course, such superpowers are themselves temptations, obstacles to be overcome on one's way to enlightenment, but wouldn't they be handy to have along the way? I can just see myself now, controlling my opponent's every action with the power of my concentration, knowing what she is going to do before even she knows she has formed the intention to do it, my blade always where hers isn't, ready to finish my attack. "These are not the droids you're looking for." Winning? Piece of cake! It's just a by-product of the practice. Ha. It's as likely that I'm ever going to be able to touch my feet to my head.

So what is the point? Enlightenment. The experience of God. Union. What have you. Which, as everyone knows, you don't actually have to practice to attain. You can, of course, practice, but the practice itself won't necessarily do you any good; it's rather just a way of distracting your mind with an apparent purpose long enough for your mind to let go of purpose and so attain realization of one's true nature and, thereby, absolute freedom. Practice as you will, enlightenment will come--or not--when it does and there's nothing you can do about it. It is, after all, you (that is, your ego) who is getting in the way of your own enlightenment, wanting it so much. It is only when you let go of desire that all your desires will come true.

Pardon me, but "snort!" Sure, I can do that: keep my expectations low so that anything that happens is better than I had expected. Except I can't. I want the superpowers. I want to be able to make my attack land when and where I plan. I want to be able to outwit my opponent so that she thinks I'm going to do one thing while I catch her by doing another. I want to step on the strip with the confidence that I can, if I fence well, beat my opponent by controlling the tempo and distance. I want the knowledge--and, yes, the power--that the fencers who have beaten me year after year clearly have. That's what all of the practice is about: knowing what to do when. And I still don't. And so I'm scared.

I hate this sport so much.

*As, by the by, I used to be able to do, back in the day when I had just started practicing yoga seriously, i.e. by going to class, not just from a book. Go figure.


  1. Oh, gosh. Don't hate the sport! Er, well I know that's pretty easy to say, but I know you're the same person who wrote eager posts about the joy of going to battle on the strip, and of how the opponent is also the partner and friend. We fence because we love to fence, we love the struggle. If it were easy, it would just be boring! And remember you're feeling challenged by your opponents because you're good enough to have qualified to go to Summer Nats, too.

    Personally, I find that my Summer Nationals experiences have not only been good competetive opportunities (at which I tend to suck, but that's ok) but also very important learning experiences and wakeup calls that result in often major changes in my game and my training patterns. So regardless of how you place (which hopefully will be high!) I'm sure that Nationals can also have a lot to offer with regard to optimizing your continued training path, too.

    In closing, as a fencer I really identify with some of the middle lines of Chesterton's somewhat brutal "The Last Hero", and though I'm sure you're already familiar, I'd like to share them:

    They ride and race with fifty spears to break and bar my way
    I shall not die alone, alone, but kin to all the powers
    As merry as the ancient sun, and fighting like the flowers!
    How white their steel! How bright their eyes! I love each laughing knave
    Cry high and bid him welcome to the banquet of the brave
    Yea, I will bless them as they bend, and love them where they lie
    When upon their skulls the sword I swing falls shattering from the sky
    That hour when death is like a light, and blood is as a rose -
    You never loved your friends, my friends, as I will love my foes!

  2. Good poem! I like Chesterton a lot, but I don't know his poetry very well. Maybe I should read some Father Brown this evening.

    And you are totally right about our enjoying the struggle. No, I don't want it to be easy--it's satisfying, but not terribly much fun beating fencers whom one recognizes as much less experienced than oneself. The frustration I'm feeling is at being able to see so clearly what I want to be able to do now and not being able to do it. That's something of what I was trying to express--or, rather, show myself--in "Learning Curve": how far I've actually come already, even if there are still Alps upon Alps to scale. I am also frustrated because I've never had that sense of a breakthrough that I've heard so many fencers describe. Every so often I realize I've learned how to do something that had been impossible for me before (again, what I was trying to describe in "Learning Curve"), but never have I had the feeling of my whole game suddenly change. My clubmates keep telling me stories of how one day things changed in this way for them, but all I've ever experienced are incremental changes noticeable only in retrospect, if at all.


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