The Zen of Straight Shaving

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Zen is a word with many interpretations. Its utterance almost immediately brings images of monks with their shaved heads in their saffron-colored robes sitting and chanting. Zen is quite difficult to explain, as its nature is almost oxymoronic. I will not attempt to explain Zen, but will explain one of its key concepts and how it relates to shaving, and in a bigger sense life.

Both parts of this article were originally posted by Sensei Kyle

The Basic Concept[edit | edit source]

A key concept in Zen is mushin, or no mind. The idea is when the mind is not focused upon any one thing it is able to freely perceive everything. We try to expand this idea through our entire body with total awareness and focus on everything, which we can only achieve by focusing on nothing. Remember how I said oxymorons? This statement seems to practically be in direct conflict with itself. Let's tie this to some real world stuff.

First, if you focus your vision on an object, really focus on it to discern every detail, you will find that your peripheral vision goes to practically nothing. However, if you allow yourself to look at the item with an open gaze, you can see the item and everything surrounding it. Think about how you look at mountains, the ocean, or anything scenic landscape.

Second, examine a scene from the movie The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise. Cruise's character, Captain Nathan Algren, is training to use the katana (samurai sword). During his one-on-one practice against a more skilled opponent, Algren is repeatedly beaten. His counterpart explains, "Mind sword. Mind face. Mind people watch. Too many mind. No mind." When Algren empties his mind is able to more clearly see his opponent's action and enjoys success.

Third, examine a scene with Chevy Chase from the move Caddyshack. "There is a force that makes things happen... and all you have to do is get in touch with it. Stop thinking... let things happen... and be the ball."

There is an old Zen story where a monk goes to a monastery to train with the master. Upon arrival, the master asks if the student has had breakfast. The student replies in the affirmative, to which the master responds, "Then wash your bowls." The master is not being gruff, but does demonstrate the odd and sometimes cryptic nature of Zen. The master is is telling the student to pay attention to the immediate present of his training.

What does this have to do with straight razor shaving? Everything and nothing ;)

When you make lather, just make lather. We aren't doing anything special. It's just rubbing a wet brush in some soap or cream to create nice, smelly bubbles.

When you strop, just strop. Feel and listen to what the razor is telling you. The suction on the strop as you draw the razor, the way the sound of the action changes, the way you can feel the edge improve.

When you shave, just shave. Did I say don't pay attention with all this empty-minded mumbo jumbo? No! The exact opposite. You pay strict attention, otherwise you get scars and laughs from spouses, friends and co-workers. We all know the importance of stretching the skin, maintaining razor angle, and all the other mechanics of shaving. Get past the mechanics, don't think -- just do. Be the shave!

The object is to so deeply submerse yourself in your actions that you become the action itself. Immerse yourself in the action, and not the mechanics of the action.

Basic Concept, Expanded[edit | edit source]

We begin the education process with an initial learning phase. We are learning about how things work. This is the initial part of the learning curve.

  • In school, we all learned how to multiply. It's nothing more than addition, but initially there was a huge learning curve to overcome.
  • In martial arts we learn basic body positioning and fundamentals of execution.
  • In straight razor shaving, we learn how to strop, hold the razor, prep the beard. Think about how much we all read when we first started.
  • I read the manual and try to understand how a new piece of telephone test gear works, what it does, etc.

Once we overcome the initial hurdle, we move on to a doing phase. We're doing the actual thing we learned at this point, although probably not very well initially. We've got the basics, but we don't actually own the skill yet. We spend a long time here, polishing the skill and becoming better.

  • In school we do all the homework that kept us from playtime as a child doing multiplication tables.
  • In martial arts, we spend months (if not years) repeating basic concepts, doing the same old drills.
  • In straight razor shaving, we're putting the steel to our throats and actually shaving at this point. We're making pink soap less and less frequently at this point.
  • I'm using my test gear to troubleshoot phone service. I understand most of what I'm looking at, but sometimes ask one of the other guys what the test results mean.

After a long time in this phase, we have polished our skills to perfection. Only now can we perform at this Zen level.

  • What's two times two? You don't think about it in your head or write it on paper. Your brain screams "Four!" in a split second.
  • After many, many years at the dojo throwing skills and paradigms change. It's no longer this technique or that technique... there is no technique -- it's all the same. Often when engaged in high speed play, the brain decides what throw to perform in a split-second. Your training partner is flying through the air and your conscious mind is just now catching up to that fact. The throw came from out of nowhere, with no planning, no conscious engagement.
  • In straight razor shaving, we can strop without thinking about how to turn the razor, or not push too hard. Heck, we can think about other stuff like what shaving cream we will use today. The action is burned into our subconscious.
  • That cool tool... I don't even think about how to use it anymore. I turn the knobs and push the buttons and automatically interpret the results without thinking at all.

Let's recap:

  • How many weeks did you work on multiplication tables? I know that in 3rd grade, it seemed like forever even though it was only several weeks.
  • At our dojo we tell Judo students it takes 10,000 repetitions to know a throw, and 100,000 to own the throw. Sound far fetched? Unfortunately it isn't.
  • The straight razor... I can't speak to how long this takes. I've only been doing it for a year now :)
  • It took me about a year and a half to be extremely proficient in using that cool telephone testing tool, and now I can't even think about doing my job without it.

There's an old martial arts saying, "There are no short cuts because there is no end." It's about repetition. Plain and simple. There are no short cuts. Period. We have to develop the motor skills and coordination, and repetition is how it's done.

Think back to when you first learned to drive a car. It demanded your full attention. Now, it's a subconscious act. If you think I'm bluffing, how many red lights did you stop at on your way home, or how many lane changes did you make? You can't tell me, because your conscious mind is minimally involved. You probably travel the same route from home to work & back, to the store, etc. Once your subconscious knows the routes, it only needs minimal conscious involvement.

I have Judo throws that under normal practice circumstances feel very clunky, despite almost 13 years of practice. However, if my subconscious chooses to execute that same throw under dynamic conditions it feels like absolutely nothing, which is what all throwing in the martial arts should feel like. Again, only when my conscious mind is turned off, my subconscious can drive and make the right decisions.

The true spirit of this Zen shaving concept is the same. Let the subconscious do, let the conscious mind go.

With the spirit of Zen we attempt to achieve the same thing: perfection without conscious involvement.

Mindfulness[edit | edit source]

Recently, our dojo had an all night training session. This is the first one we've done in the 14 years I've been a student there. It is called kangeiko (pronounced con-gay-koh or con-duy-koh), meaning winter training. Some facilities, such as the Kodokan Judo Center in Tokyo, simply expand their normal schedule. Some schools have a weekend retreat with a normal schedule. Some schools open all the doors and windows and turn off the heat, meaning you have to work hard to stay warm. We didn't go quite that crazy, but all night was pretty crazy. There's another one called shugeiko (pronounced shoe-gay-koh or shoe-guy-ko) for summer training.

We have our main training floor where all the martial arts take place. We also have a back room area where we have a small zendo -- a Zen dojo. We currently have three different schools meeting there, offering a taste of Tibetan, Vietnamese and Japanese meditation. Both spaces have their own energy, and they are pretty different. So, aside from the joys of training from 6pm to 7:30am pretty much non-stop, we also tried to incorporate concepts from Zen and meditation to our schedule. We practiced Aikido, Judo, Jyodo (Japanese Short Staff), Chi Gung (Chinese energy exercises), as well as sampling the different meditation groups. Each training session was 45 minutes, followed by a 15 minute break to grab water, tea, coffee, restroom, etc.

The main issue we tried to incorporate was mindfulness -- really paying attention to what we were doing on an elevated level. We didn't do a lot of teaching, nor much talking. Instead, we tried to work in as much silence as possible, while practicing at a very slow pace. The slowness of movement really amplifies the feelings of off-balance, tension, strength and many other things. With the objective of practice to be mindful, many of us came to new understandings of key concepts.

Now, what does being a martial arts junkie lunatic who trained all night have to do with shaving? Observe grasshopper.

Take each aspect of your shave, and really pay super-mega-close attention to every minute, tiny detail.

As you strop, pay attention to the feel of the draw. How much pressure are you using? Could you use less? Should you use more? Listen to the sound of the blade as it moves across the leather. How does it sound? Is it smooth with a pleasant noise? Does it make a smooth sound or a scratchy sound?
Beard Prep 
Lather up like normal. Now, did you use circles or strokes like a paintbrush? How much pressure did you use as you applied the soap or cream? How warm is the shaving soap/cream today? How watery or stiff is it? Close your eyes, inhale deeply and slowly, noting the very light scent.
Perform your shave as normal, just pay close attention to every detail. How does your skin feel as you stretch it? How much tension are you using to stretch it? Could you use more? Could you get away with less? How does the razor feel as it moves across your face? How easily are those whiskers being cut? What sounds are being made by the razor as it does it work? Pay close attention to your grip, and how tight or loose it is. Feel the balance of the razor. How does it change if you open the handle more, or close it some? How is its balance affected by the tension in your grip. It's a precision instrument we're using, not some garden implement.
As you rinse your razor under the hot water, can you feel the temperature change of the steel? As you dry the razor, notice how the only resistance you feel as you draw the razor through the towel is caused by how hard you pinch the blade between the towel. Carefully examine your razor, the blade, the scales, the pivot pin. It's a real work of beauty, isn't it.

Do everything you normally do, but be mindful of each and every aspect of the entire process. The feel, the sound, the pressure or its absence, the smells... each of these things take on new life, add new depth to our shave. They have always been here talking to us... we just need to listen.

References[edit | edit source]