The Way of Bladesmithing
Let’s begin with the premise that what we make with our hands is the by product of a process and the process is the path we follow.
By process, I am not only referring to physical act of putting tools to materials, but also the mental and spiritual disciplines that are called upon. The tools work on both ends at the same time. They not only shape and form the materials, but by providing the direct connection for the maker they force the craftsman to learn about himself in the process.
There are various stages that all must go through. The beginning of learning a craft is a frustration of working with many unknown variables. The tools are unfamiliar, the body does not yet know how to hold and manipulate them, the mind does not know what to do with them or their potential. Gradually however, skills are acquired and the tools become a familiar interface with the materials.
When working, the mind must be totally involved in the process. If thoughts are anywhere but on the work, it shows immediately. Most tools are dangerous if you are not focused, they demand attention. Consciousness is forced to remain in the present. Every action requires thoughtful consciousness and every action shows directly in the work.
It is the effort to discipline the mind to attention that is most challenging. Because the work provides such direct feedback, it serves as frozen record of your consciousness. The work is also a receding horizon, the more you learn, the more you realize how much there is to learn. It is an inner journey expressed through the object that is created. While it is the process that involves the craftsman, the object, once complete, begins a journey on its own. We prize objects that reflect inner spirit and energy because of the affect they have upon us. They will move from hand to hand, imparting to each the energy it contains. This too is part of the process.
There are times, though rare, when you can become the tool. The conscious mind is involved with the work to the point where it loses the need for itself. Identity becomes totally involved with the process, there are no thoughts, but a simultaneous expression of work. Often inspiration comes when we have fully let go and we are open to receive.
I had guests the other night and the word discipline came up. We laughed because initially it was misunderstood. Discipline has a negative connotation when it is imposed on you from outside, but inner discipline is strength. Inner discipline provides solid ground on which to build.
Because the work is solitary, there is time for contemplation as well. In my early attempts to gain self discipline, I had to develop an objectivity about my thoughts. I found a vantage point from which I could observe myself and as I watched my thoughts rise up into consciousness, I began to realize that many were silly, inspired by memories or fantasies, but having no relevance to the present moment and the objective I was seeking to accomplish. The mind fires continually, first this direction then that. It can develop whole stories that spin on endlessly, some like nightmares recur and follow a dreary cycle that have an inevitable conclusion of depression, sadness, anger or defeat. To learn discipline, you have to disperse these thoughts, they are dreams and take you from your work. Allow the work to draw you back. Employ the mind or it will employ you.
A useful tool for centering the mind is the breath. I have heard the breath described as a silver thread that links you to the universe. If you purse your lips slightly and draw a slow deep breath, it is not hard to imagine the coolness of space and the silver light of the stars being drawn into your body. When you exhale, you imagine the energy passing through you and discharging into the ground beneath you. It has a calming and centering affect. This is ancient wisdom.
As you begin to control your mind, you realize that it is insatiable. It hungers for stimulation and will quickly divert to anything that distracts it. The modern world is a cacophony of sounds and images. We process so much information in the course of one day, an old timer would be dizzy from the effect of it, but we hunger for even more. The radio plays constantly, the TV is always on, we can not sit without reading, a telephone is glued to our ear, solitude is intolerable. This is a drug and it is used by others to control us. At the very least, it distracts the mind.
Sweeping the shop
The day begins with sweeping the floor. A clean and organized shop promotes clear thinking. I have heard makers defend their cluttered benches by saying that they know right where everything is, but when you watch them work, they spend much of their time hunting for tools. Sweeping the floor is also about getting a fresh start to the day. The problems and difficulties of the previous day are put into perspective when the bench is cleared and the tools are back in place. Use this time to mentally lay out the work ahead. Sweep the mind free of clutter and focus on the day.
Sweeping the shop also covers maintenance of the tools and reorganizing. While this is not a daily routine, I try to set aside a period of time each week when I oil and grease, tighten and replace things that I notice need attention during the week. Wayne Valachovic, a good friend and knifemaker, talked about attuning yourself to the machines. When you are working, you are also listening to the sounds the tool is making. When there is a change or something is different, it is time to stop and uncover what the problem is and fix it. My tools are getting old too and every now and then they have to be rebuilt or repaired. At first, I felt this was a nuisance, but because I took the time to work on them, I understand them better now and have learned how they do their work and in that way, it has helped me do mine better too. A good tool, with care, should last a lifetime. It is also important to observe how different tasks are done, always looking for a more efficient way. Perhaps changing the placement of a tool will save a few steps and therefore time. This shows respect for your time and is an important part of the process.
Perhaps the highest maintenance tool in my shop is my body. It requires good food, regular exercise, and ample rest and will not work properly without it. I have been blessed with a wife who devotes herself as consciously to cooking as I do to bladesmithing. She has nourished me despite myself, put up with my emotional attachments to food and in the end, I have to admit that a good diet has changed me in very positive ways. GIGO, garbage in, garbage out, is the computer expression and it applies to nutrition as well. In the old days, the Japanese smith would purify himself before working on a sword. By eating simply, usually rice and tea, ritual bathing, abstinence and prayer, the smith would prepare himself. This regime gives a certain clarity to the mind and being that is as relevant today as it was seven hundred years ago.
The apprentice in a Japanese sword smithy spends the first year chopping charcoal. This work is basic preparation of materials and I am sure promotes self discipline. There were mornings in New Hampshire when it might have been possible to chop the propane, but what is necessary is to prepare the materials for the day’s work. This will involve lighting the fire, cutting the steel, tacking the billets together and welding on handles. This is grunt work, it must be done and it is valuable time if you use it to train your mind. We have an interesting insight into our mind when we are faced with boring or repetitive work The first voice you hear is your weakest self. If you really want to know what you have to work on in yourself, listen objectively to the internal dialog. “Many experience, and a few know, that things go wrong when one’s self is not disciplined.” Hazrat Inayat Khan
This is probably a good time to tell a story. I have a friend who use to be a luthier. A lute is an early stringed instrument and quite difficult to build. He was a careful craftsman and I use to enjoy visiting his shop. I noticed on one of my visits that he had a contraption screwed to the wall. It was an arm and hand fashioned out of wood with a cord hanging down. When I asked what it was, he demonstrated by walking beneath it and pulling on the cord. The hand came down and gave him a pat on the back. All of the work you do is without benefit if you can’t enjoy the process or take satisfaction from your accomplishments. The clearest guide you can have in life is joy.
Though this process of self discipline we are attempting to gain mastery over ourselves, but the next step is even more difficult. Once we are able to quiet our minds and focus our attention, it is then necessary to let go. While the preparatory steps of self discipline relied on developing will, the will has to be released and like a step into the void, we become empty. By letting go, we now are able to receive. This state is the source of inspiration and through it we are able to attune ourselves to the material and process. I believe this is how the ancient smiths were able to develop such refined work. It is within our reach as well.
“Polish the two fold spirit, heart and mind. sharpen the two fold gaze, perception and sight. When your spirit is not in the least clouded, clouds of bewilderment clear away. There is the true void.” Musashi.
The craft of bladesmithing is non verbal. Working with the materials and the tools, it is quite easy to let go of the verbal dialogue. It is not necessary to translate every action into words or even structured thought. Thinking does not have to be linear. An interesting thing happens when you let go of language, first you are no longer bound by the subject-verb-object relationship. While this is a wonderful and necessary construct if you wish to communicate ideas, it often falls far short of accurately describing experiences that go beyond that relationship. Later you find that while you are working, you are capturing perfectly every moment of your consciousness. The blade is a frozen record of your experience, it needs no explanation because it exists and can speak for itself.
It is said that a man is only as broad as his broadest ideal, only as deep as his deepest ideal, only pure as his purest ideal. While the craft may be the path, the ideals that you hold are the guide. When I first began making knives, my ideal was to produce a sword that unsheathed, its light and brilliance would reveal the truth. Each must choose his own ideal however and once it is defined, it must be cherished and honored.
With each decision that we make, we are constantly reminded of our ideal. Our choice is to move closer to our ideal, we will progress when we do. It is interesting that as we progress, our ideals change as well. It is a receding horizon. What we learn is how to see more clearly, we become more sensitive to the inner journey.
The true ideal however is always hidden behind the man made ideal. “The ideal is a means, but its breaking is the goal.” the Gayan.
I never thought of myself as a perfectionist because nothing I ever made was perfect. I realize now that it is in the striving for perfection that the journey lies. Each object you make can teach you something new. In it’s materialization, you are bringing your ideal to fruition, but it is also in that interface between the spiritual reality and the material that the discovery lies. It is a journey, so if you take the next step you will progress. It is helpful to study your work and look for ways that you can improve. Take modest steps, refine what presents itself. Take satisfaction in your accomplishments, but accept with humility what you do not yet understand.
The Creative Process
The creative process is the mysterious aspect of the craft. Elusive if pursued as an object, creativity accepted as a process, it is the natural state of being open and receptive. It is the face of consciousness.
There is a natural cycle that holds for the creative process. First there is a period of receptivity, an open acceptance of change and wonder. If we do not block receptivity with rigid concepts or self limiting negativity, the well is bottomless. Then there is a period of transmutation where creative impulse is blended with experience and ideas begin to form. The creative act is the manifestation of the process, but it is not the culmination, that comes in the quiet after completion. When the vessel is empty, then it can be refilled.
Everyone has times during the day when they are more productive, think more clearly, and are receptive to new ideas. If you are a careful and objective observer of the self, these natural rhythms can be recognized and utilized. We have been conditioned to work by the clock because this was assumed to be the most productive method of extracting labor, but this may not be the most efficient for the individual. The craftsman who works for himself is able to establish his own hours and find his own most productive cycles. The caveat is that one must also be the boss and the bottom line is productivity.
The tendency for some is to work all the time and unless you take time off you don’t get any. Time off is essential, not only to rest the body, but also to renew the mind and spirit. Time is needed to recharge and stimulate. The well worn path from house to shop can be a comfortable routine and one gets lost or bored when it is broken, but it can also become a stagnant environment.
There is also a period of downtime after completing a really complex or creative piece. I use to try to fight through this period, but now have come to accept that I have been drained and any attempts will forestall the recovery time. I use this time to putter and tidy. Those projects that you have put off and been meaning to get to, now come in handy. Slowly things will start coming back into focus and before you realize it another piece is started. The struggle for the artist is to keep the bills paid while you are recharging. The only way I know to do this is to have several income streams. Developing a less complicated product or service can generate enough capital to fund the more creative efforts, but they have a way of growing out of control and taking over your time. Striking the balance is the lesson.
The creative process is the expression of your experience. If you are not taking the time to reflect on your life or make it stimulating, you will quickly stagnate. You are expressing growth, but to grow it is vital to feed your spirit. My first blacksmithing mentor, Peter Happny, plans an annual vacation adventure. He will save the time and money to visit the shops of Europe, explore the islands, even drive around the country and visit with other smiths. It is a good way to recharge, learn and experience new ideas, and is vital to personal growth.
My approach is more sedentary, I love books. When I read my books, I am absorbing images, line and design. The problems presented by the materials are universal and the solutions are wonderfully creative from culture to culture. The advantage of being born in the US is that we are not bound by tradition and can freely borrow ideas from all other cultures. The trick is to absorb what rings true and honest, learn from it and then let it come back with the same honesty.
A simple walk when done with a clear and open spirit will often recharge and revitalize. There are number of books out there describing right and left brain function. Activity that uses both sides of the body, like walking, helps to balance the mind. Deep breathing has a balancing effect as well.
It is difficult to quiet the mind sometimes. We block receptivity by holding onto negative thoughts and instead of growing, we chose to limit ourselves by allowing these thoughts to dominate. One way to break through the cycle of negative and limiting thinking is to remind ourselves of our ideal.
Most creative thoughts and experiences come more though the environment in which we surround ourselves rather than from some epiphany. Since we are seeking to find expression through difficult materials, often beauty and discovery are revealed as we observe the work. We learn to use our tools and discover new uses by allowing ourselves the freedom to play. By observing our interactions with our world and reflecting on them, we will be drawn to discovery. It will fill us up.
There will be times when we hit the doldrums. There is no wind in the sails, no direction to our efforts. These can be frustrating and potentially destructive times especially if we are burdened with overhead. There is a difficult balance between going to the shop and having fun and the driving need to make a living. These two forces should not be in conflict, but without a balance they often seem like opposites. There is only one answer to times like these and that is to start moving again. Begin the next order or next project, begin and work patiently. Soon inertia will begin to loose it’s hold and you will regain momentum.
We all go through these periods, it is a normal cycle and part of the recovery. It is the balance to the creative burst that will inevitably come at the other end. The difficult part is to remember that we are in a cycle of balance and to have faith.
Too often the artist/craftsman is working from his intellect. Intellectual work is immediately dated or so subjective that it requires verbiage to sustain it and it is rarely satisfying. Creativity is an inside out activity. You can not get there by consciously imposing yourself on the material, but rather you have to find yourself through the material. You have to let go.
“Of the four elements, the gods left the secrets of only one in the realm of man. And with it, he forged his will upon the world”
I once met a famous sheik, leader of the Helvetti dervishes in Istanbul. It was said that he could see a man’s destiny and so in conversation with him one evening, I asked if he could see my destiny. “You will be drawn to the flame and consumed,” he said. At the time, I wasn’t sure that this was a good thing, but he assured me that it was wonderful. I didn’t realize how literal his vision would be until I found myself staring into a white hot welding fire twenty years later and made the connection.
The craftsman has an affinity for his materials and for the processes. Working with fire has been one of the attractions of forging. Fire is a powerful and dangerous ally, it accounts for the alchemy of the craft. If I am away from the fire for too long, my direction falters and when I fire up, I am revitalized. Fire skills are the first to leave for me also. If I am struggling, it often starts with the fire. I will rebuild or redesign my forge routinely as I gain more understanding or to reacquaint myself with the flame. A right fire is wonderful to work with and can unlock matter making it responsive and expressive. It is too easy to forget the tools or become complacent with them, but fire demands attention. I have moved toward technology to control my fires, but quickly was forced to accept that even though I can add controls and aids, the real work is in the attunement to the fire and that can never be replaced by a probe or controller.
Fire serves also as a symbol of the energy of the path. It transmutes material and purifies. In the incandescent white heat of a welding fire, I am reminded of purity. It is the key that unlocks the physical world and reveals the structure within the chaos.
The work of the craftsman is directly related to his understanding of the materials and processes. As a craftsman matures, his relationship to his media changes in very subtle ways. For the bladesmith, the central material is steel and the primary tool is fire. Because the steel is so responsive to the fire, even minor changes can have a profound affect on the finished piece. I believe this is true with all things. It is in our attunement that the nature of things is revealed. My education has been much like a jigsaw puzzle, pieces of information linking together with experience to reveal a pattern. It is a process of conflating these random bits into a tangible base of understanding and that is ultimately expressed through the creation of work. Understandably my view is personal and unique, but when I look at the world, it has given me a place to stand.
All that is, moves. This movement can be described as vibration. What we glean from our lives is related to our ability to perceive those vibrations. Call it a song. Just as the strings on a fiddle will begin to move in harmonious response to music being played, we respond to the vibrations that surround us. It is a subtle effect and in the discordant blare of modern life, it is often hard to discover, but it is there if we can only listen.
It is hard to control all the variables that interact with us in the course of our work, but in the shop we can be aware of those that we do allow to enter. I use to work with the radio or tape playing constantly, blaring is a better word for it. I would crank up the volume to over ride the noise of the machines. A friend was visiting with me one day and he commented on it. “Doesn’t that bother you, playing all the time?” I had never thought about it, but after he left, I made a point not to turn the sound on automatically. I noticed immediately that the shop was more peaceful and that I was able to focus. Soon I began to like the sound of the hand tools on the material. I still listen to taped music, but I use it now consciously and am more thoughtful about what I listen to.
It is not just sound vibration that affect us. If you accept this process as a way of changing and refining yourself then you will inevitably be lead to search out those things that block you. For me perhaps the greatest single element affecting my life has been the quality of the foods that I eat. Each food too has a vibration. Foods that are balanced and centering would be whole grains, beans and vegetables. Extremes would be animal products, sugar, and refined food. You can change your way of life simply by changing what you eat.
It is helpful to unplug on a regular basis. Go off by yourself, away from any modern distraction and just experience the natural world. So much of our lives are caught up in human energies that it may feel disconcerting and uncomfortable at first, but it will calm the spirit.
When we are working, the entire focus is on the work being done. The personal thoughts that do arise are an intrusion and over time we learn to set them aside or they will interfere or ruin the work. This is not to say we are not thinking or that we are not conscious, it is just that we are not “self centered” and in this state of mind is peace and relaxation. We are in the moment, adjusting to the process, making thousands of actions and reactions as the work progresses. We are in the act of creation and as I have said, the tool works on both ends. The real product that we are making is the creation of our self.
We have come to identify ourselves with our ego, I am who I am. If we accept this egocentric point of view as consciousness then we have a problem. The body receives billions of bits of information every second, but our consciousness is only capable of processing 40 or 50 bits. Not only that, we can not do it in real time, there is a lag of up to half a second between stimulus and response.
Looked at in another way, what you assume is you, is really just a distilled reconstruction of your experiences created in the past tense. Since we are constantly in the process of creating ourselves, then it is just as easy to work towards creating our ideal self. We can do this through our work. When I work, the mind is racing around initially. It is the mind’s job to connect the pieces of your experience into a coherent pattern, but this is background processing and does not need your attention. What does need your attention is right at hand and that is the work before you.
If you have ever tried to shoot a basketball or hit a golf ball, you know that it is nearly impossible to do with any success if you think about it. In fact, one of the most appealing parts about playing sports, is that you can get in a state of consciousness that is alert and in the present moment, without being in your conscious self. When you are working in an unselfconscious manner, you will become aware of the distractions that are not obvious from any other perspective. Some of these distractions are not important and can be suppressed by discipline, others arise like an alarm and need to be addressed.
Each and every morning when you open the shop and go to work, you have to begin all over again. The pieces do not make themselves. Even practiced skills need the full focus of your conscious mind. I found myself forging a blade last week when I had other things on my mind. Before I realized it I had beat up the steel. It was distorted and abused beyond recognition. It made me laugh that I could have been so inept and I realized that despite a lifetime of making blades, the one that was before me was the one that mattered. It demanded that same attention as my first blade and it brought me back into focus.
We live in a time that insulates us from responsibility. We insure our homes against loss, we insure our health, our car, our jobs through tenure if we are able. We accept canned music, TV, microwave popcorn, and theme parks. Every aspect of our lives is packaged, franchised and “safe”, but there is a terrible price to pay for safety. We have abdicated responsibility for our own lives. No one is responsible or accountable for their actions anymore. If we are not responsible for what we do, then we can not truly know who we are or who we are capable of becoming.
I have a friend who use to sheep hunt alone in the interior of Alaska. He went nearly every year, not so much for the hunting, but for the feeling of being responsible for himself. Out on the mountain, far from any other human, he was forced to watch every step. A moments inattention would have cost him his life, yet instead of fear, he felt exhilaration. He felt alive. His senses were alert and he was open to experience the wonder and awe in the beauty that surrounded him. We do not need to go to Alaska to get that same sense of exhilaration, working mindfully in the shop and accepting responsibility for the work of our hands teaches the same lesson. We are ultimately responsible for our lives. In every step and action we take, we are creating our lives, it is what we do with our time. If we choose to do it mindfully we will continue to grow.
It reminds me of a waterfall, this experience of life. Water pours off the precipice and in its free fall to the bottom, individual drops form. They are distinct from the main flow and unique for the brief tenure of their flight. From this perspective, each drop becomes an entity in and of itself. It experiences the forces acting upon it. It conforms and yet maintains its integrity until the brief course is over and it once again is shattered and reformed into the river below.
We struggle to maintain this precious vantage, to learn, to see with new perspective, but in the end we are reabsorbed and reformed. Our time is brief. If seen in a galactic reference, it is immeasurably brief, yet we know innately how precious it is. It is through consciousness that we are able to slow down the moment and succor the experience. How sweet are those moments that linger, they are the pearls we string on the necklace of our lives.
We are balanced on the edge when we create, it is an act of faith, of surrender. We are open to the beauty that is unfolding before us, but simultaneously there is the jinn of the ego darting in and out. Sometimes it stabs us with doubt and a palpable rush of fear sweeps through us. Only when we have faith in the process and let go will the work begin to flow again. Seeing the beauty that surrounds us, not in the flawless execution of an idea, but in the discovery of the true nature of things.
“Although we may be satisfied with our lives both financially and materially, seeking only after material satisfaction could take away our very reason for existing. The voice forced this question.” Shiho Kanzaki The question is this: self-affirmation or self-denial (“Do I stay true to myself or not?”)?
I think about what I do and why I do it. The little motivations that make me choose one path over another other are rarely as spontaneous as they appear, nor are they as calculated as I deserve credit or blame for. On the whole, I try to think about my actions and reactions in hopes that I may anticipate the opportunity to live consciously.
One conscious decision that I make every morning is to go to work. What I have chosen for work does not come with a guide book. The day is filled with moments that challenge me and tempt me away, but on the whole, I look forward to opening the doors and setting the day in motion.
The challenge that we face every day is to make the most of it. This is not easy to measure because it can not be calculated simply in terms of work accomplished or money earned. The days that I remember have more to do with being awake than any constructed purpose. For instance, one hot summer day, I was deeply involved in the work, but I had reached a point where I needed a break. Coming back from the house, I walked by the swing seat under the trees and it looked attractive to me. I stopped, went back to it and sat down. My mind was roiling with thoughts, but sitting there in the shade it began to calm down. My backyard has a high canopy of leaves formed by the tall hardwoods. I can walk from the house to the shop without ever getting direct sunlight. The ground is covered with moss and it is one of my favorite spots in the summer because it is always cooler under the trees. My thoughts finally settled and I became aware of an ever so gentle breeze on my cheek. It felt really soft and cool, almost like a kiss. What it was, I realized, was the natural convection of air, flushed with fresh oxygen from the trees. It slid over my skin like a blessing. I don’t remember what I was working on that day, but I will forever remember that kiss. It reminds me to be quiet.
Sometimes it is very hard to make things. It isn’t that we don’t work, but the times when we struggle most are when we work without purpose. What the craftsman has after his work is done is the way the work has changed him. The work is sold and goes away, the money is spent and so nothing is left of any real value except what we have gleaned from the experience. When I surrender that through unconscious activity, then there is no purpose and I am empty.
The contrast is the time that has been spend unraveling the cocoon of consciousness. All those thoughts that fill our mind and occupy our precious time so far away from our hands, must be noticed and then swept away. With that simple duty, we can begin to make use of our time. We begin to interact.
I speak of consciousness in loose and often contradictory ways, because in fact consciousness defies description. We move through it like levels of light. Like light, what we are able to perceive depends on the clarity, brilliance and color of our consciousness.
The voice forced this question.” Shiho Kanzaki
When you declare that you intend to pursue truth in your life then all that is obviously false about yourself becomes painfully apparent. These are the things you need to work on. The little self will object, deny, and resist any change, but overcoming the little self is the goal and objections only serve as clues to what needs to be confronted.
It is curious that we would do anything that is not in our self interest, but because we identify with our little self, our self interests are almost always self destructive and weak. Life is hard enough without weakening ourselves yet we are all doing it. It has bothered me because I confront myself with this dialog every day, every minute of every day sometimes.
The work is to reach beyond ourselves, to let go of what is safe and stretch. The more we conquer our little self, the stronger and clearer we become. For me, making things with my hands has provided a way to see the process. It is a joy to translate time into objects because the object becomes an event in my life. It captures every nuance of my struggle and reflects it back to me so that I can learn and grow.
There are pitfalls to this approach though and the most obvious is that we identify ourselves with our work, failing to remember that the real work is within. Others have a tendency to identify you with the work that you do as well. The way that others respond to you can have a huge effect on how you perceive yourself, it is another form of feedback and is very powerful. Knowing yourself is the best shield against the assaults of the world.
When I speak about knowing yourself, I do not mean yourself the individual, but rather the universal self. It is that knowledge that comes from truth. The individual self, the organism, is always on the verge of being crushed by the universe. Let go of that perspective and one is not crushed, but transformed. The universe, or multiverse as current thinking is conjuring, depends upon the observer. It is an active creation and the mystery of it unfolds before us as we seek it out.