When I met Zod for the first time, it was to teach a sparring workshop for the first time any of us had sparred with swords (at least in a HEMA fashion). One of the things he told us was that it was the responsibility of those of us who had a killer instinct already to help the others cultivate it. "You have it," he said, pointing to one of us. "You do, and so do you," he said, pointing to two others. And then he looked at me. He hesitated for a moment. "You sort of have it," he said.
At the time, I was pretty okay with that. Half a killer instinct? Not bad for someone just starting out. But in the months since, others found theirs while I did not.
This bothers me. I want to acquire access to that part of myself that Zod termed the "killer instinct." I want to be able to turn it off and on at will, to find that part of myself and bring it within the ambit of my will. I want it even more (if only by a little) than acquiring actual skill with a sword. More than any other factor, this is the reason I started doing HEMA. When I talk about the connection between force and morality, or force and good character, this is the very essence of what I mean.
Aside from its moral implications, there are obvious competitive advantages to having one's killer instinct firmly in one's tool kit as well. Most of the best fencers, if not all, can switch from their normal selves to somebody else when they step into the ring, or before the cutting stand. That somebody else is a significant part of why they win.
It was also a significant part of why I lost this weekend at Longpoint. I cut significantly worse than I know I can do, because I let myself approach the mat with less than single-minded intensity. I fought well enough in my longsword pool, but I didn't push, didn't take, as well as I know I can. Part of that is rust from not having sparring partners who are as good or better than me. But a significant part of it is also that I went into my pool in the same headspace I would occupy in any friendly (or even coaching) sparring match.
I think I figured it out about halfway through the event, coaching first Ailouros and then Kebbura in the women's longsword pools. I said something to Kebbura when she was facing Panthera and holding back (as usual) that stuck in my mind. I pointed across the ring at her and said, "That is not your friend right now. I want you to get in there and hit her."
I coached Ailouros through her pool in the women's longsword and into the elimination brackets. I felt like we developed a good rapport, and I enjoyed analyzing the weaknesses of her opponents and helping her to exploit them (and more, perhaps, on the coaching side of things later). But I also just tried to get her amped up for the fight, because most of the women she faced had significant exploitable weaknesses and I just knew she could take advantage of them - if she went in with the right attitude.
The night that she got into the elimination brackets - the night after she beat the woman who would eventually take fourth place - she posted something to Facebook that really rattled me. "I found my inner bitch today," she said. "And not just the one I fight health insurance companies with. The one I fight with."
Both of these ladies started training a few "generations" of students after I did (which is a matter of months, mind you; we acquired generations pretty quickly in Manhattan). Because I like teaching and I wanted the school to succeed, I made an effort to mentor them, and I feel a certain amount of investment in their success as their senpai. I was, of course, very proud of Ailouros' fighting and I could see, even in the pools, when she made the jump from fencer to fighting bitch. But I was also kind of shaken.
Son of a bitch, I thought. My kohai has found her killer instinct before me.
This was the moment that I realized I had been fighting without it all this time. But it was also the moment that I realized I didn't know what it was, and that bothered me a lot more. What is my inner bitch? I wondered. What does she look like?
I tried to think back to the times I had felt my killer instinct in a fight, even if briefly and non-deliberately. The best I could think of was the dagger competition at IGX (my best competitive showing to date, perhaps not coincidentally). It felt ... almost cold, to be honest. Certain. And focused, ever so focused, on the defeat of the person in front of me.
If I ever kill someone, that is how I want it to be. Cold. Emotionless. Certain. Implacable. That is how death should be dealt out, so far as I understand the morality of killing. It's the kind of swordsman I want to be.
Maybe these thoughts are naive. Almost certainly they are in at least some respect. But it was something to start from.
So I meditated on that through the night. I meditated on it all through Ailouros' fights in the brackets. I tried to keep her in that state as well. I meditated on it in several otherwise friendly sparring matches I had. And I meditated on it during today's cutting class, during which I hoped to be able to show, before my friend and teacher and a bunch of people who knew that I was the student of one of the best longsword cutters in the world, that I really can cut. As I did so, I felt that calm, cold, unfeeling certainty return. I was interrupted by people saying good bye, and I was able to return to that state. And when it was finally my turn to cut, I stared down the mat and cut the way I should have cut during the qualifiers, and afterwards people who had felt pretty good about their improvement during the class asked me how I made it look so lazy.
Of course, a good headspace for cutting is not necessarily the same as a good headspace for fighting. But we shall see. We shall see.