Some Thoughts on Sword Training

Eight_Immortals_Crossing_the_Sea_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_15250A strange and beautiful image arises as I sit in meditation.
I see a shining steel blade glistening in the sun, beads of water dancing along its edge. The steel becomes a blade of grass, then a bamboo leaf. The drops of water still shine like crystals in the sun.

I am about to go teach a beginning sword class to my acupuncture students at the local college of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It took a while, and some persistence, to get this class into a curriculum already dense with required courses. The question often arises why a class in “Tai Chi Sword” would be relevant. The obvious answer is that working with a long straight metal blade is pretty good training for an acupuncturist who must develop skill at smoothly and painlessly inserting long thin metal needles into flesh. You need a sure hand and clear intention.

I’ve heard the saying, but can’t trace the source, that you should never trust an acupuncturist who doesn’t have a sword on their wall. I take this to mean that the acupuncturist’s art, just like the art of the straight sword, takes years of diligent practice before mastery can even be considered possible. Neither skill is merely technical; each requires a concurrent cultivation of wisdom and heart. In other words, they both require a dedication to Kung Fu.

The Chinese medical classics say that “Every needling must be rooted in the Spirit.” We can memorize points and their functions, practice our needle technique endlessly, and pass our exams with flying colors. But how, exactly, do we “root every needling in the Spirit?” How can we train for that? I may be wrong, but my guess is that to most students this is a quaint but abstract concept. Some sort of ancient Chinese mystical thinking.

But I think this “rooting in the Spirit” can be trained, and that the straight sword is the ideal method. Working with the straight sword trains your spirit (mind) to unite with your actions. The tip of the sword should express your heart’s intention. This skill begins, not with visualizing it like Luke Skywalker, but with training your body to be a well coordinated container for the expression of intent. This physical aspect of the training is too often missing, unfortunately, in other energetic work like qigong, which sometimes emphasizes (erroneously in my opinion,) visualization over physical structure. But with a straight sword, you just can’t get away with skipping this essential part of the work. If you don’t get your body properly set up to work with the sword, it will reveal your failings pretty dramatically. It is only after sufficient postural and movement training that your sword can begin to line up with your mind and intentions, taking on that lightness, ease, and fluidity that so epitomizes this weapon. It can take years.

So we practice. Like a musician playing scales, the martial artist drills basics and the doctor reviews points, herbs, and needle technique—always and forever. This is the Kung Fu of medicine, a call to practice for life. It begins here in the training hall, and there is no better martial arts weapon for an acupuncturist than the straight sword.

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