Holding down the pillow is the teaching of perceiving the signs of your opponent’s intention to strike and thereby suppressing the head of the strike, that is to say before the movement begins, with a free bearing of the void and reducing it to nothing. You should suppress the head with your spirit, with your body and with your sword.
When you perceive the signs, it is opportune to strike the opponent, to invade the opponent’s distance, to intercept the opponent’s attack and to seize the initiative. This teaching applies to all fighting situations.
You should practice this thoroughly.
To hold down the pillow is to suppress, to smother, to prevent the opponent from making a move by holding his head down on his pillow (or as we’d say and do today) smothering him with a pillow just as he tries to raise his head up. If you prevent the head from moving, the rest of the body cannot move.
Suppress the start of his movement, the head of his movement and you will suppress the entire movement. Does our movement come, in fact, from our head? Try this experiment. Stand up and rest in a balanced way with your feet shoulder width apart and your arms by your side. Now step to front or back or either side. Pay particular attention to which part of your body moves first, no matter how slightly.
Did you find that the most natural movement happened when your head moved a fraction of a second earlier than the rest of your body? Try again and make sure your head does not move first. Did you struggle to move? Have a partner gently hold your head from behind without trying to stop you moving, just to provide some feedback. Now move and see what happens.
These are experiments showing that our heads are involved in movement. One could stop the movement by stopping the head, but Musashi intended a more metaphorical “head of the strike”. Before moving there I would like to examine an iaido movement once more. When we do the first kata of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu or the Zen Ken Ren iai, or indeed the ZNIR Toho, we open with a horizontal cut, then follow by reversing that horizontal movement back and then upward into a vertical downward cut. The finish of that horizontal cut is just beyond the target, where the reversal of motion is done.
Those who wish to improve our iaido often suggest we should not stop here but continue the movement around to the right and then the rear so that both cuts are done in a single movement. Others suggest that the stop should be for as short a time as possible and that we should then get the sword overhead quickly.
I invite you to think what happens if your opponent avoids your first horizontal cut and responds with a cut of his own. If you have continued the cut around to the right, or have snapped it as quickly as possible back around to the left, what has happened. Have you created a hole? An opening through which your opponent can attack?
Now consider cutting just past the target (through it) and stopping so that you can now suppress the movement of your opponent, should you have missed, by tightening your wrist and moving the tip of your sword into your opponent’s face. In this way you suppress his head, you hold it down on the pillow and his counterattack stalls.
As was said, Musashi doesn’t mean the literal head, at least not in all cases. He said ” the head of the strike”, and that could be the hands, or the hips, or the shoulder. If we watch the opponent, and as he begins to move, place the tip of our sword into the position where his first movement is going to occur we will hold down the head of the strike. If this sounds like holding down the invisible shadow, it is similar. In that case we look at where the opponent is paying attention and we occupy the place where he is not. In this case we occupy the place of his attention a moment before he does. We are physically preventing him from striking, whereas in holding down the invisible shadow we are disrupting his spirit and thus disrupting his strike.
In either case, we have created a gap by forcing the opponent to switch attacks, to think again, and we can attack into that gap.