"Sute-mi (n.) 1. Concentration and effort with all one’s might, even at the risk of death. 2. Concentration of all one’s effort into one strike, even at the risk of defeat."
Ok, so risking everything at the risk of defeat or death. But how does that apply to our own training? Fighting to the death is a very foreign concept to many of us, but I believe that we can all understand fighting at the risk of defeat. This is a concept that we've started examining in more detail at our dojo lately, and one that I believe can be learned at any stage of practice that you're at.
To put it simply, Sensei explained that sutemi is putting 100% effort into a strike. Holding nothing back and leaving all cares and worries behind so that you can give all of yourself over to that strike. it sounds like a complicated idea, and it is, but just like all things in kendo I believe that it has many layers. We just need to find the layer that is appropriate for where we're at.
For the beginner, and this is what I worked on (and still work on) is hitting without hesitation. Stepping in, having a good stance and kamae, and then letting loose with everything on that hit. One thing that helps me, and that I've heard before, is to think of each pass as a separate strike. In a men-uchi drill, for example, we do five strikes. But instead of thinking of doing five strikes, I try to think of striking once, five times.
One thing that was brought up today was the idea that the person that is willing to risk it all and lose is the one that will most likely come out as the winner. If you have a mindset of holding back because you don't want to lose, you can never fully commit to a strike. But the person that throws it all away, at the risk of being countered, is the one that is able to fully commit to the strike and can win the point, or the match, or even just win the moment. So along with all of my other focus points, since Sensei brought this up I've been trying to incorporate it into my own training. He said that if we can all put in an effort to really develop this over the next few months that by the end of summer our kendo as whole will be much more developed and solid.
Speaking of myself, I do tend to hold back here and there, and it mostly comes from doubt. Can I really get that strike in on my partner/opponent? What if I get countered? Maybe I should just play it safe. These are all thoughts that cross my mind as I struggle to develop a mind and body that will fully commit to each and every strike that I make.
Sensei also brought up a good point about zanshin. He said that we can't have proper zanshin if we don't have proper commitment to the strike. If we strike with doubt and hesitation, and then see that the strike was good and try to exhibit zanshin, it's too late. He pointed out that sutemi directly relates to good zanshin and follow-through. Another great point, and one that I have experience many times. When I do have those moments of clarity and can throw everything into an attack without a second thought, I always feel that my zanshin afterward is much much better. It seems like a natural progression from seme to sutemi to zanshin (pressure, committed attack, alertness after the attack).
Today I was challenged by this concept, though. We went through many one-point timed matches where the winner would stay and fight again (kachi-nuki sen, as was pointed out to me). At first they were two minute matches, and I was able to settle into my own, familiar pace, but once we switched to one minute matches I really had to change the way I approached the match. Instead of having time to set-up and observe my opponent, I had to go out and throw everything I had in the hopes that I would come out victorious. the first few minute matches I had ended up in a tie, in which both of us exited the court and two new kenshi would step in to fight. But as I got used to it I started really throwing everything I had into the matches, into the strikes. Each one was valuable, as I was only able to get so many in before I would be defeated by either my opponent or the timer. There was definitely a shift in my thinking and mental state by those last few matches, and this was the point of the shorter matches.
Again, sutemi is a varied concept, both simple and complicated depending on our level of understanding and application. I'm excited to have this time to start focusing on it, though, and I hope to be able to start showing improvement in my own kendo through it.