Back when I played bass guitar, I had a problem. Every time the band I was in would play a gig, I ended up standing next to the drummer. This normally wouldn’t be a bad thing–communication between the bassist and the drummer can be essential during a show. This is especially true when your guitarist had a tendency to launch into 15-minute solos every third song or so.
The problem stemmed from the snare drum. Every time the drummer hit that thing, I’d wince–I was so close that it sound like a rifle shot every couple of beats. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t overcome this initial reaction. In the end, I finally gave up–I figured it was a physical reaction and, rather than try to eliminate it, I would just try to reduce its impact as much as possible.
My involuntary reaction to the snare drum also manifested when someone gave a solid "kiai!" at the dojo. No matter what I tried to do, I could not overcome that initial wince when someone started screaming in my general direction. Again, I finally realized there might be anything I could do about it except try to reduce my reaction as much as possible. I even asked my instructor at the time for advice. His response: "Kiai back!" (This worked, actually.) I started to assume that reacting to a kiai was normal, and there was little anyone could do to prevent themselves from reacting to it.
That all changed one day at a seminar I attended a few years ago. The seminar was taught by an aikido instructor who was also an avid fan of swordsmanship. As it happened, there was another student who had a strong background in swordsmanship. These two individuals could not have been more different. The instructor was tall, strong, imposing. The student was slim, quiet, unassuming. On a whim, between classes, the two of them decided to have a sparring match with a couple of shinai.
If these two people looked physically different, their stances magnified such differences a hundredfold. The instructor stood, his pose mountain-like, the shinai pointed at the chest of the student. And that student? He stood, almost casually, with his arm extended out to his side, holding the shinai single-handedly. If it weren’t for the fact that the end of his shinai was pointed directly at the chest of the instructor, you wouldn’t have thought he was sparring at all.
The sparring began quietly. After a moment’s pause, the instructor exploded into motion, and he tagged the student before there was time for anyone to react. A short time later, the student’s shinai snuck past the instructor’s, returning the strike. It became clear to those of us on the sidelines that we were watching two people who were very good at their respective styles.
Another pause in the match came, in which both instructor and student watched each other for openings. Time slowed to a crawl. It seemed as if the match had come to an impasse. Then, suddenly, the instructor gave the loudest kiai I had ever heard. It was loud enough that it reverberated off the concrete walls. It was loud enough the windows shook. It was loud enough that everyone in the audience took a half step backward. "This is it," I thought to myself. "The student’s done." As the shout died down, the instructor stared at the student, fully convinced that he had shaken him to the point that he could strike at will.
But to everyone’s surprise, the student still stood. Calmly, relaxed. His facial expression had not changed. It was as if nothing had happened at all. Instead, he said, very quietly: "That? That does not work on me." And TAG! He struck again, bypassing the instructor’s guard completely.
After that, it no longer mattered to me who won or lost the rest of the match. I had seen perhaps the most amazing display of calmness that I had ever seen. A new goal had been set for myself–to achieve that level of calmness for myself. The experience was similar to the first time someone really threw me in aikido; it made me realize that the power of calmness is really a game-changer, and cannot be underestimated.