Note to self: Fake it till you make it.
When I was starting out training in Chado (The Way of Tea), I felt all thumbs and two left feet. I couldn't figure out which foot I should step in with first when entering and exiting the tea room. Do I clean the tea whisk or the tea scoop first? Which bow—casual, semi formal or formal—do I use and when?
At the beginning, my teacher said, there's no way to learn the way we do Chado at Chozen-ji—the Rinzai Zen temple where I live—except to throw yourself into it fully, ready to make mistakes. As is often heard here, Kiai first! Then, ma-ai. In other words, the form comes later. For now, just go for it.
This is also a surefire way to feel like a brute. Did I seriously just grab the tea container so forcefully that I messed up the perfect mound of tea my teacher had created? The physical adjustments—having my posture straightened, my arm moved to the right place—were endless.
Then, it was time to watch my teacher serve tea. Each movement was efficient, graceful and perfect—adhering to form while completely sensitive to the surroundings and able to adjust to any circumstance.
I was leaning forward, straining to see every action and making mental notes of what the proper way to do things was. A senior student noticed this and told me to stop looking with just my eyes. I needed to watch with my whole awareness. See her move in the same way I see the room when I'm sitting in Zazen, my vision and all other senses wide open. Absorb not just the form but the feeling of how tea should be served.
My teacher's interpretation of this was, "watch what I do like you're stealing it."
Whether it's training in a fine art, martial art or Chado (which is kind of halfway between the two), there is almost always a sword-at-your-throat kind of feeling about it here at Chozen-ji. The only way to get through this is to take on a samurai feeling—totally ready to go for it, but equally ready to recognize a mistake. This doesn't imply being remorseful for said mistake, btw. Just let that all go.
So how do you cultivate a samurai feeling? To start, you act like a samurai. Step into it like an actor steps into a role. But it's not a character written on paper—it's you. Be you, just bigger and more fearless.
This also means that when you make a mistake in the form, log it and keep going. Don't let there be any openings (in the sense of an opening that invites attack in martial arts). Whether it's in Kendo or Chado, keep going and let your kiai direct people's attention. The form is only one part of it, something to refine endlessly, of course. But as we say, kiai first.