by Heather Kuhn Heather Kuhn has practiced Shintaido for 23 years with the Shintaido North East (SNE) group. Also, she is a somatic psychotherapist who provides individual therapy focused on early life trauma.
As you will read, she is launching a new group Good Enough for Me that integrates Shintaido movements with other expressive arts therapy.
I had been showing up to keiko with increasing fervor for a decade. For ten years, I cultivated the radical resources of pleasure, joy, connection, and yes, a modicum of self esteem. Simultaneously, peeling the many layers of the soma-spiritual defenses I had built up from early life neglect and narcissistic abuse. This required of me leaps of trust, courage, pacing, and apparently, oceans of tears.
The twisted shell I had formed to protect me was challenged, one muddy keiko at a time, until one day I could name what was happening as, gulp, healing. After all, I had come by these unconscious defense strategies all too honestly. They were both the shield I used to avoid grief and the arrows I threw to project my own self loathing.
Through generous gorei, and more than a few sensei willing to hang in there with me, I peeled away these layers, slowly revealing an impossibly soft belly of selfness. I could see with more and more clear how painful it actually was to live that way. I could sense the value of allowing and receiving. I began to plant the seeds of vulnerability as liberation. In a world that trains us to fight each other for scraps and trained me to stay a victim, standing tall while also being soft was nothing short of transformational.
“And the Day Came When the Risk to Remain Tight In a Bud Was More Painful Than the Risk It Took to Blossom.” – Anaïs Nin
As I peered out on the keiko field one Winter morning, I wondered to myself, is movement a recognized avenue for healing from trauma or am I the very first person to discover it? The question that has guided my purpose ever since was born.
And thankfully the simple answer was it absolutely is and no, I am definitively not.
Somatic psychology is a field that studies how our inner galaxies express, reflect, and can be influenced by our embodied awareness, movement, and relationship with our environment, the Earth and universe. It integrates wisdom traditions with grounded research and, more importantly practice to help us understand ourselves, evolve, connect, and heal.
Naturally, I chose to study somatic psychology at Naropa University, where learning is highly experiential, relational, and practice based. Naropa was a collaboration between Chögyam Trungpa and Alan Ginsberg and founded in 1974 on principles combining the wild-creative and Buddhist practice. There are compelling resonances between the Naropa and Shintaido lineages for sure.
While at Naropa, I learned to become what one of my professors calls an attention athlete, as well as how to observe and understand embodied phenomena, facilitate curiosity, and follow the threads of sensation and impulse (among much much more). I saw my studies in Dance/Movement Therapy as an extension of my Shintaido journey and learned to understand what we were up to in our practice, from a psychological perspective, along with strengths, tendencies of bias, and blind spots within it.
I saw myself as an ambassador for our modality, writing several papers integrating Shintaido principles with various therapeutic topics, including attachment theory, catharsis, issues around power and relationship dynamics, and finally in my masters paper about facilitating psychotherapeutic movement in the medium of water.
The program and working with a somatic therapist was what led me the rest of the way to total body connectivity; weaving my inner world with the outer and back again – the building blocks toward the aspiration of self awareness. For four years, I set down my Shintaido practice with an inner commitment to, in part, explore how my psyche was insidiously using my practice to avoid pain. I asked, ‘would I be ok without keiko?’, since I admit that before I began Shintaido, I was not.
I was ok, gratefully, but I discovered Shintaido provided a significant resource for me. Because of my trauma, compensatory practices will likely always be necessary. In other words, the more resilience I can cultivate through practice, the more capacity I will have to fully grieve. The more I can allow grief to move through me willingly, the more access I have to a fulfilling life without the need for defenses.
Fast forward to now. After 23 years of Shintaido, 25 years of meditation practice, 11 years of training in somatic psychology, and 9 years providing individual therapy focused on early life attachment trauma, I am thrilled to announce the launch of a program that integrates Shintaido with the expressive arts therapies to support others on similar paths.
The group is called Good Enough for Me and provides an in-depth process to support adults engaged in healing the lasting effects of childhood emotional neglect, low self-worth, and/or chronic self sabotage. It is a therapy group, complete with an intake process, one-on-one goals honing and check-in sessions, and peer support structures in place. Although there is never-ending depth to explore in Shintaido, the first 10 years of practice provided a universe of curriculum which can be shaped and shared with endless creativity. What might be considered beginning Shintaido is what I am drawing from for this group.
Good Enough for Me has been a dream in the making for 23 years. I’m incredibly proud of the work I have done to be in a place where I can support this vulnerable population and pass along the generosity I was so blessed to receive in our international Shintaido community.
There are a few call outs I would like to make to people without whom I would not have gotten this far. I will never ever forget the time Gianni said “you can do it!” at my side while I did kai kya kusho across the Shintaido farm dojo. It was the first time in my whole life someone said that to me. Or the time David encouraged me to focus on the trying rather than discerning good enoughness. Or how Joe, bless his spirit, would get tearful when he saw me after too long, letting me know I mattered, I belonged, and my presence was wanted. I could go on…
Which is to say, the movements of Shintaido are important, yes, but the opportunities afforded in the movements to help people heal and grow are the real treasures of Shintaido. I believe with all my heart we have something valuable to offer in this time of acute turmoil, volatility, and systemic narcissism.
I invoke Chapter 1 from Shintaido, The body is a message of the universe:
Shintaido is the light in the shade and the sun in the shadow. People who have been constitutionally weak and depressed from birth can discover extraordinary strength and ability through Shintaido. People who have lacked the will power or determination to express even a tenth of their talent can grow and develop in Shintaido. People who have never been aware of their true value will realize the dignity of being. Those who are too self-conscious by nature to express their ideas will find new confidence and conviction. Those whose spirits are closed and stagnant will be inspired with a new faith and purpose. Those who have become private and isolated will be able to communicate a new joy of life to others. Those who are downtrodden or oppressed will understand that all human beings are equal before God and free to express their being. This is why we call our movement Shintaido or “new body way.”
To read more about Good Enough for Me, follow this link.
Master Minagawa answers to questions prepared by Jean-Louis de Gandt for a conference held during the yearly Kangeiko of Ile-de-France Shintaido at Fort Mahon on January 25, 2020.
Shintaido has many disciplines, Open hand, Bojutsu, Kenjutsu, Karate… What would you say is the specific ‘role’ of Kenjutsu in this overall Shintaido program? What do we learn with this Kenjutsu practice?
Kenjutsu is the most essential practice within Japanese martial arts. We can see the history of Shintaido by following in our ancient masters’ footsteps, wisdom words, etc.
The sword can be used as a tool or compass which can show us how to manage our lives, it can show us which direction to follow.
By studying kenjutsu we can learn how to focus, how to concentrate, how to develop ‘Ki’ energy, and we can learn how to understand ourselves and others.
First, we need to calm ourselves, listen to ourselves, listen to our inner voice, be mindful in the present, take in the surroundings, and also listen to our opponents and nature. Then we can learn how to manage time and space, to unify ourselves with others through kumite. This process can help us to find joy, light and direction in our lives.
If we use a weapon in the wrong way this can lead to conflict and destruction. When using a sword, we have to focus seriously otherwise we might hurt ourselves or other people. We must practice the movements exactly and correctly. That is why we practice Kihon (the basic techniques) repeatedly so many times.
Now, we use a wooden sword but if we were using a real sword, we would have to be extremely careful. Even taking it out and putting it into the scabbard is dangerous, we could easily cut our hands. Even though we are using wooden swords this weekend, our intention must be as if using a real sword.
In Japanese, we have the word “Tan ren” 鍛 錬 which means training. Keiko 稽 古 means practicing. The word “Tan ren” comes from the process of sword making and is used by sword masters. “Tan” means to hit / hammer and fold. “Ren” means to knead, like making bread. This is the process of hitting and folding or kneading the steel to make the sword pure.
The word Keiko literally means looking back – at ancient wisdom – and learning from it.
Before starting the process of making a sword, the swordmasters purify their bodies and minds by going through a ceremony and praying to cleanse their bodies, minds and spirits. The masterpiece they create then becomes a gift from god. In Japan, the sword represents the spirit of god. When people die a sword is placed on top of the body to ward off evil and protect the soul.
In Japanese mythology, there is a story called “Yamata no Orochi” *, which tells how Japan was created when the god Susanoo No Mikoto came down to earth from heaven. There was a monster called Orochi, who had eight heads and eight tails. The god found an old couple weeping because they were forced to give one of their daughters every year to the monster. The monster had already killed seven of their daughters and now they had to sacrifice their eighth daughter. Susanoo decided to save her. He asked the couple to prepare eight barrels of sake, and make eight gates. He told them to put a barrel in front of each gate. The eight-headed monster came and drank all the sake. It became drunk and Susanoo was able to cut off all the heads. As he cut through the eighth head his sword hit something in the tail. There was a sword inside the monster. It was a very special sword.**
Later this sword was used by Yamato Takeru – a legendary Japanese prince of the Yamato dynasty – to stop a fire burning in the fields by cutting down the grass. Generations later this sword was called Kusanagi no Tsurugi. Kusanagi means to cut grass and Tsurugi means a sword.
The legendary sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, which came from the tail of Yamata no Orochi, along with the Yata no Kagami, a mirror, and Yasakani no Magatama, a curved jewel, became the three sacred Imperial Regalia of Japan.
This year (2019) in Japan a new emperor acceded to the throne, and a new era was started. This era is called Reiwa. During the ceremony the three Imperial Regalia, the sword, the mirror and the curved jewel were handed down to the new emperor. These are the three gifts from God that only the emperor can own.
This myth is very important for Japanese people as it explains the beginning of Japan. The sword is a gift from god so when we use a sword, we always use it with great reverence and respect. We keep it clean and protect it. By practicing with a sword, we try to find the spirit of god. We try to protect ourselves from evil or difficulties and to cut the burning fields to find peace and purification in the world.
When Ito sensei and I were naming the Kenjutsu programme techniques I suggested we give “San-kajo” the name of “kusanagi” because of the image of cutting grass with Kusanage-no-Tsurugi.
Shintaido is a martial art, but also has other dimensions, meditative, spiritual even. It is what makes Shintaido so difficult to describe and explain. How would you describe this mix and interaction between the ‘martial’ and the ‘spiritual’ in Shintaido? Maybe there is no one answer for everyone; then what is it for you?
The purpose of martial arts or the way of the sword is to use a weapon to defeat people, but our way through Shintaido is to study the spiritual way. Martial Arts aims to use weapons to fight. The word Hei Ho 兵法 is used. This means the Strategy of War. If Hei is written differently (using another Chinese character 平) it can also mean Strategy of Peace 平法。
Hei written one way means war, another way means peace. Therefore, there are two ways of studying martial arts, the way of war and the way of peace.
There are two ways to have no enemies. One way is to kill or destroy all your enemies. The other way is to make friends with everyone.
In the sixteenth century, guns were imported into Japan from Portugal. The way of the Samurai was completely changed. All the years they had spent training no longer had any meaning. Anyone, even with little skill could easily use a gun and kill. The Samurai fought in close combat using their swords, face to face with their enemy but when guns were introduced there was no need to be close to the enemy.
So at that time the martial way divided into two different directions: one way was to develop better and better weapons – this direction has led humans to develop nuclear weapons and nuclear war. The other way was more spiritual, how to live, how to die. Meditation or Zazen became an essential practice on this path. The spiritual way of martial arts began to be developed.
Suzuki Daisetsu introduced Japanese culture and philosophy to the West. His book, “Zen Buddhism and its Influence on Japanese Culture” was published in English in 1938. This is a good book to read if you are interested in knowing more about this subject.
Carl Jung said we have to make a kind of spiritual journey. The life of a human being is a spiritual journey or pilgrimage on earth.
In Zen Buddhism, there is a story called “The Ox Herd story”. This story describes the journey to enlightenment. It reminds us that the only place we find the truth is within ourselves. The ox symbolizes the true self.
The outline of the story is
1. Seeking the ox 2. Finding the hoof marks 3. Finding the ox 4. Catching the ox 5. Taming the ox 6. Riding the ox 7. Forgetting the ox, only the man remains 8. Forgetting both ox and man 9. Returning to the beginning and going back to the source 10. Off to town, arms swinging (entering the world)
The Ox-herd story shows enlightenment to be the ordinary self-doing ordinary things in a most extraordinary way. Please find the story yourself and study it. I believe that is Hei-ho 平法.
So Shintaido as a martial art studies the second way, Hei-ho 平法, the spiritual way or ordinary way.
Kumite: When we begin kumite, we first need to release tension and get rid of unnecessary attachments. Then we can feel a new flow of energy beginning and we can start a new movement following the natural flow. Finally, we can unify with our partner and others. Even if we are studying how to cut, we are actually studying how to transform the movement to find harmony.
Meditation: Through meditation we pursue emptiness. We need emptiness in our bodies and minds in order for new things to come in. If we are full of attachments, we can’t receive new information. Meditation is very important when studying how to transform ourselves and accept energy from others.
Shintaido is a different type of Martial Art. It was established with a new concept including 3 fundamental forms: Eiko “hymn of life”, Tenshingoso “cycle of life” and Meiso Kumite (Wakame) “flow of nature, following sources of energy”.
We study how to use these three basic movements for exploring the wisdom of the great ancient masters.
Kata: Studying Kata is another important practice. Kata is the essence of the master’s wisdom which shows us a world of Shin 真 (Truth), Zen 善 (goodness), and Bi 美 ( beauty).
Through practicing Kihon, Kumite and Kata we can receive these Masters’ messages.
Shintaido has a ‘special relationship’ with nature. Could you comment on that? Is it something to do with Japanese culture? Where does it come from? We are here spending time on a beach in the middle of the winter. Why do we do that?
Practically speaking, Shintaido is a dynamic movement and needs lots of space. We also use voice and make a lot of noise. Japan is very crowded so in order not to disturb people, a beach is a good place to practice. Also, there are many places to stay near the beach so it’s easy to organise an event.
Kangeiko means cold Keiko. The reason we practice at a cold time is that when we face great nature, we realise how powerless and small we are. We try to find nature within ourselves. Through this, we can try to awaken our sleeping potential self. It is a challenge to try to get rid of our old self and find a new beginning.
Cold is fearful. We need encouragement and determination to withstand the cold. We face ourselves and our own fears. We challenge ourselves and encourage a determination to help us through difficulties. We get away from the noise and distractions of daily city life, so we can concentrate. For this reason, we like to go into deep mountains or wide beaches and unify ourselves with nature.
Mountain monks belonging to mystical Buddhism started the practice of ‘Taki Gyo’ or waterfall training over a thousand years ago. They made themselves face the fear of nature by cleansing themselves, living through an experience bringing them close to death. From this, people following martial arts have continued to challenge themselves in cold conditions.
There are two different ways of reading the word 自然 “nature” in Japanese. One is read “Shizen” and one is read “Jinen”. Shizen means nature. Jinen means existence or stillness. At kangeiko especially, we try to find the real existence, our own nature inside ourselves
I think there is also a connection with nature through Shintoism.
In Shintoism, everything in nature is a god, for example, mountains, trees, and rivers are all gods. These gods give us blessings in the form of food and happiness but they also bring disasters and crises. People fear the gods so they give offerings. They offer food from the harvests and thank the gods for protection. There are many ceremonies through the stages of life, to thank the gods for protection. There are many customs in daily life. Most houses have a shinto altar called ‘Kamidana’ where the gods who protect the house live. The first food of the day is offered to these gods. Farmers and fishermen have special ceremonies which they attend before setting out, to ask the gods for protection and abundant harvests or catches.
Shintaido is a martial art that actually helps us to relate better to others: How would you say this happens? What is it in our practice that facilitates and improves our connection and interaction with others?
Through attacking and defending techniques in kumite we can build up real communication with others. Shintaido is not a sport. It is not competitive. As there is no winner or loser, we can continue doing kumite endlessly.
In kumite, first, we have to feel the partner’s “ki” energy. We have to study how to manage time and space by reading the timing. The purpose is not fighting but understanding each other, which means unifying with others.
We need to be as pure as possible, so we need to empty ourselves. Then it is easy to give and receive freely. Through this process, we can understand each other deeply. We can find the joy of life instead of conflict. To be cut is important, this means to have your own ego cut.
There are 5 levels in the spiritual growth of martial artists: Shuchu (concentration) – Toitsu (unification) – Shinten (progression) – Seiketsu (holiness) – Rakuten (perfect liberty).
At a conference where I met the Dalai Lama, one of the head priests who was an organiser asked the Dalai Lama how to create peace in the midst of conflict.
Dalai Lama replied, “In Buddhism first we have to discard everything inside ourselves and then what is left is joy and light.” He said we should make the light shine within ourselves, then gradually spread the light to those around us, then spread the light further into society.
There is a famous saying by Saicho, a monk of the Tendai Buddhism who lived in the eighth century. He said, “Those who can shine light onto themselves and into a dark corner are a national treasure.” The Dalai Lama said the important thing is non-violence. Then I realised this is Hei Ho 平法 – the strategy of peace. I realised Shintaido is the way of peace. I think the purpose of kumite is to take yourself to zero and with a partner spread joy and happiness. Then there is a connection with Hikari to tawamureru. This is the Keiko I would like to do with everyone.
You mentioned earlier that Kangeiko is also the opportunity to clean up the past and to be open to new things in the new year. Could you say a little more on that, on where this coming from, on the mindset of going from one year to the other in the Japanese culture maybe?
Shinto incorporates purification rituals called “Oharai” and Shintaido draws from many of these cutting movements. Oharai is a movement performed by Shinto priests when they want to clean the space, call the spirits and calm them. It is also used to show gratitude to ancestors or spirits. It is like the Shintaido movement Kiri harai.
Before New Year everybody cleans up their lives. This means paying off all debts and returning borrowed money, it means doing a big clean in the house so there is no dirt or dust anywhere. People cook lots of special food to offer to the gods, and also so they can rest and enjoy the first few days of the New Year without cooking. Many guests come to visit and special food is offered.
At New Year we refresh our old selves and go back to the original beginner’s mind. Then we celebrate the coming year and ask for health and happiness.
In Japan, at about 11.45 pm people gather at local temples and join in striking the temple bell 108 times. This represents humans’ 108 sins. So, by striking the bell we ask to be cleansed. Then we gather at a wide place and wait for the rising sun to appear on the horizon. This is why beaches and mountains are good places to gather.
Kangeiko is the traditional ceremony of the Keiko world held at the beginning of the year.
And to conclude, maybe you could tell us your own definition of Daiwa (if you have not yet done this before the interview), what does it mean to you, today, now, halfway through this Kangeiko?
My own definition of Daiwa is expressed in the diamond eight cut which crystallises my 50 years of practicing Shintaido.
First, I wondered how I could explain or introduce the meaning of cutting with a sword to westerners. I wanted to explain it was not about hurting or killing people. I struggled for a long time.
In Kenjutsu there is an expression “Satsu Jin Ken” which means killing sword. There is also an expression “Katsu Jin Ken” which means liberating sword. If you don’t cut seriously with the feeling of Satsu Jin Ken then you can’t get to the liberating cut of Katsu Jin Ken.
The final expression is “Ka-Satzu Jizai”
Jizai means self-being or freedom. This means Satsu and Katsu cutting are both the same, there is no duality between them. If there is no duality between the Katsu and Satsu cuts then you have achieved the freedom of Ka Satsu Jizai. This is the goal of Kenjutsu.
I think that Tenshinken sets a goal for Shintaido Kenjutsu.
It is very hard to teach how to cut and also how to be cut with “Tenshinken” feeling (Ichi ka jo or Kirioroshi no kumite). It is a liberating cut that I have experienced from my master, and I have been thinking about how to transmit this feeling for a very very long time. Tenshinken means universal truth or heavenly truth.
While I was researching Tenshingoso Arrangements I visualised the 5 elements which are air, fire, water, wind, and earth. I could embody four elements but I couldn’t embody the fifth element ‘fire’. It was very difficult. During meditation in “Kon go I” mudra suddenly I understood how to show fire.
This was the meeting of Tenso and Shoko, like striking flints to make fire. The direction of ki energy in Tenso is rising, and the direction of ki energy of Shoko is coming down and forward, so together the movements are like striking flints together. While doing the tenso movement I experienced the feeling of receiving grace from heaven and that light penetrated me. It met the light inside me and made a spark. That position is Shoko or “Kon Go I” (the diamond mudra). Suddenly Tenshingoso, Eiko, and Wakame were all crystallised into the kata of Diamond Eight.
Fire can burn up everything to create diamonds or crystal so cutting using that sword means burning out all unnecessary things to make ourselves like shining crystal. This is why I called the movement Diamond.
There are eight cuts but also eight means infinity. The more cuts, the more a diamond will shine. If we continue doing many cuts, we will be led to Hikari to tawamureru.
All my martial techniques and all spiritual experiences and learning are unified in this movement. I understood that even people who cannot move well can do this by inner movement or image work.
* Master Minagawa is giving here a simplified version of the myth for the purpose of his conférence. For a more detailed presentation, you may usefully refer to the Yamata no Orochi Wikipedia page.