Searu. Clarity.

I came upon this footnote yesterday, about the Japanese word “saeru”:

“*note: saeru is clarity, and Harry Watson notes that the word has strong poetic force, and says the best way to think of it is in relation to the clarity of the moon on a cold autumn night.”

The specificity of meaning really struck me. What a beautiful image. “Clarity” alone is OK, but each of us might make up in our mind’s eye something different that it means for us. I might envision a turquoise beach in a cove, where I can see all the way down to the white sand beneath the lapping waves. You might see a perfect crystal bowl, with sparkling facets splitting the sunlight into rainbows on the dining room walls.

Saeru: The clarity of the moon on a cold autumn night.

It’s easy to picture the outlines of trees against the sky, and sharp shadows on the colorless ground. We can feel the chill in the still air, which smells vaguely of damp earth. Searu. Clarity.

In class we are sometimes given an element to explore. Sensei will call out a word: Earth, fire, water, wind, smoke, life, steam… We try to manifest the feeling of the word in our Aikido. It helps us access new energies within ourselves that we may not have realized we possessed, or maybe have been afraid to show. A heavy, deliberate person might find a new lightness through being smoke for a few minutes. One who is quick and forceful might discover that they can flow and relax when embodying the character of water.

The meaning of each word is intentionally left open to interpretation. Water can smash to splinters boats left resting at their docks, tumble cheerfully with a invigorating whoosh over rocks in a riverbed, or trickle gently into a pool in a desert canyon, and it can change from one moment to the next. It’s left to each of us to discover water for ourselves.

Other times, we choose our own qualities to work on: Grounded, direct, decisive, compassionate, loving, fluid, patient, passionate, honest, whole, committed, light, joyful, playful, solid, free…

For me, it helps to have a specific, vivid image in mind. When I first started training I really had trouble being compassionate in the way Sensei referred to as “ruthless compassion.” I was unfamiliar and uncomfortable being powerful, clear, and direct. It felt mean-spirited and intrusive. Not nice. Brutal. Rude. It was difficult for me to access ruthless compassion. But then I found an image that really worked for me: A veterinary assistant. Picture a caring, kind, decent person safely but decisively restraining an animal that needs help. Not mean or brutal at all, but clear and direct. Loving, even. And the animal usually feels safer and calmer when handled that way. With that image I was finally able to start exploring the idea of “You, on the ground now, and stay there,” without feeling like a jerk about it.

That’s why I love that definition of “saeru”. It conveys enough information that I can see and feel it. When I’ve worked with qualities in my Aikido practice I’ve usually had some vague image in mind, but the words alone elicit nothing in particular. I haven’t been really conscious of the importance of getting a specific picture, but I think it would be helpful for me to do that.

I’ll play with this idea more as I train. Not just “fluid”, but fluid like smoke dancing upward from from a stick of incense in still air. Joyful as a Golden Retriever racing after her tennis ball again and again. Grounded like an ancient Oak tree rooted between huge granite boulders. Vivid, specific, and clear.


The quote at the beginning of the post was from a website shared on Facebook by Keith Larman, a professional sword polisher:

Keith commented, when I mentioned liking the quote (which was only tangentially related to what Keith had been sharing about in the first place), “Yeah, Harry has it right on this one. Saeru carries some powerful meaning in this context. And Harry “Afu” Watson is the guy who translated a massive set of works on antique swords (the Nihonto Koza) years ago. A wonderful old Marine who has made life so much easier for those of us whose Japanese ain’t that great… :)”

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