The Scarcity of Real Combative Training: Miyamoto Musashi and Misty the Cat
Steven J. Pearlman, Ph.D.
“To cut and to slash are two different things. Cutting, whatever form of cutting it is, is decisive, with a resolute spirit. Slashing is nothing more than touching the enemy. Even if you slash strongly, and even if the enemy dies instantly, it is slashing. When you cut, your spirit is resolved.”
― Miyamoto Musashi, Book of Five Rings
If there’s a hole in many modern martial arts’ approach to combative realism, and I assert there is one, it might take the form of Musashi’s point above. Musashi, in his enduring wisdom, illuminates what we could identify as the crux of combative training, and that crux does not necessarily hold any relationship to fighting full contact, training for the “street,” or training in modern vs. traditional ways.
If you want to understand Musashi’s point here, it might help to first hear this story of Misty the Cat vs. Julie, my sister-in-law. Misty could be friendly enough at times but really just wanted to be left alone to lie in the sun, which was something my visiting sister-in-law, Julie, didn’t know. Though I do not know exactly what Julie did to set Misty off, which probably was something akin to just trying to pet Misty, what I do know is that Misty turned into a arched-back, hissing fur ball that eventually drove Julie to lock herself in a bathroom.
To review: A nine-pound cat capable of doing no more damage to Julie than a skin-deep scratch nevertheless caused a full-grown woman to seek by locking herself in a bathroom.
Musashi would be proud … of Misty.
What Julie intuitively understood about Misty was that Misty was out to “cut” with “resolute spirit.” Whatever Misty was going to do to Julie, she was going to do it. And Julie, lacking any desire to hurt Misty, certainly wasn’t going to “cut” back. And this demonstrates the power and the critical importance of cutting—of executing techniques with full “resolute spirit.”
Given my point about cutting above, it follows that my overall point here is that contemporary martial culture trains far too much for slashing. Collectively speaking, we need to train to cut. And to Musashi’s point again, slashing holds absolutely no relationship to how much effort or strength or “power” is exercised because “even if you slash strongly, and even if the enemy dies instantly, it is slashing.” Thus, many martial artists confuse hard technique, full-contact technique, and “effective” technique with cutting. But cutting, in Musashi’s sense, is something else. (And if my stance here seems to imply that I always cut rather than slash, let me correct that notion right away: I am definitely not exempt from this critique. In fact, it arises as much from self-reflection as from observation.)
Sometimes, slashing is easy to spot: We easily spot slashing when we see students practice with hesitation, with tentativeness, with reservation. But slashing becomes more difficult to spot when hidden amidst loud kiais and a lot of exertion. Cutting, you see, and as Musashi so aptly put it, comes not as a matter of effort, per se, but as a matter of “resolute spirit.” And, though it wouldn’t be advised in combat, one can exercise resolute spirit without speed or power. One can exercise resolute spirit at golf, flower arranging, popcorn cooking, etc.
Though challenging to put into words, resolute spirit, as I see it, comes when the whole self/psyche acts without reservation, or even without self-awareness. And it is not all too difficultly achieved in the right context.
For example, though I was hardly one of its pioneers, I was one of the earlier adopters of adrenaline stress response training, especially for women’s self-defense classes. In a matter of hours, armed with little more than elbow and knee techniques, women can learn to hold their ground against an attacker. I don’t assert by any stretch of the imagination that they become fully proficient fighters, but they can accomplish quite a lot with relatively little.
In fostering their abilities, certain elements need to align (and I’m not saying anything other people haven’t already said): They need access to few gross motor techniques into which they can input their full selves, and they need to feel threatened just enough to cause an adrenaline drop. In feeling real danger, they see no way out but rely on the tools they were given, and to through full commitment by their bodies and psyches.
They do so with resolute spirit.
What they do in that context amounts to something different than what we too often see, which is technique done thoughtfully or measuredly, or worse, half-heartedly. What they do is not the same as just an expenditure of great effort, which, again, is just slashing.
The reason we don’t see cutting as often as we might hope results from many different factors. One, for example, is a failure to position oneself well enough to commit to a technique while secure in the notion that one is (momentarily) safe to do so.
More generally, slashing comes down to a lack of resolute confidence in the technique, which can itself emerge from a lack of proper practice. “Resolute spirit” emerges, at least in part, from repeated action in the context of question. In this case, martial arts technique must occur within realistic circumstance, or at least what we can closely approximate to realism when bearing safety in mind.
Those who do not know what it is to employ a technique realistically will rightfully waiver in the execution of that technique when confronted with reality.
For now, however, let me return to the point at hand, which affirms the power and importance of “resolute spirit.” One technique done with resolute spirit is worth a thousand done without. This we must never take lightly. The ability to commit oneself to a course of action does not come easily, but without it, we’ll only slash our way through our lives. With it, we gain great power, for if a nine-pound cat can chase a grown woman into a bathroom, imagine what a fully grown martial artist could accomplish. And if you cannot imagine it well enough on your own, just read up on the author of the original quotation; if anyone has ever earned the credibility to speak with authority on cutting, he’s probably the one.