What we can learn about gratitude from the martial art of kendo?


Before they start their practice or competition, those who are training in the martial art of kendo bow to the room to thank it for allowing them to train, they bow to thank their sensei, their teacher. They also bow to thank their competitors or fellow practitioners. They go through the same process at the end of the competition.

I believe we can bring many of the same principles into our practice of deep gratitude. I have developed a theory called “A State of Preparedness” – explained in detail in my TEDx Talk: How thanking awakens our thinking. I argue that if we prepare our inner attitude of gratitude before we embark on any task and orientate this towards gratitude, we are able to bring more grace, connectedness, engagement and cognitive awareness to the task itself.

I therefore recommend that teachers prepare their inner attitude on their way to work or before they enter the school in order to impart this attitude to their students. Similarly, I recommend that students prepare their inner attitude and contemplate on all of the people who have given them the opportunity to learn at this moment – their parents, teachers, fellow students, others in the education community, the authors who wrote the books from which they are about to learn. If we deeply reflect on everything that has gone into giving us the opportunity to teach or to learn, there is such a long list of those to whom our thanks can be given. By doing our best and using each moment meaningfully we are repaying for the gifts received.

Theorist Boleyn-Fitzgerald (1998) argues that we need to offer gratitude towards those who have elicited our gratitude. For me, one of the most powerful aspects of the art of kendo is that the practitioner bows to their competitors. They acknowledge that because of them they are allowed to train and compete. In fact, kendo committees will not allow it to be part of the Olympics because they abide by the principle that one should never celebrate the loss sustained by the competitor.

This raises the important question of how we can approach our competitor in the spirit of gratitude while also wanting to gain the power to beat them. It may be counter-intuitive to think this way, but gratitude gives us the competitive edge. A kendo practitioner I met recently said that she was able to realise how much gratitude she was needing to express to her opponent in allowing her to compete and train. This enabled her to feel a greater connection with what is really going on with this other person as she was more in tune with them and therefore able to compete more effectively.

It also helped her be more willing to help others train in kendo who are far less able than herself. So rather than being bored or seeing this as a waste of time, she was able to value the contribution of others more fully and therefore more willingly and genuinely gave of her time.

When we are grateful we are brought into more awareness of our interconnectedness with others around us and are more naturally motivated to give back for what we have received.



Boleyn-Fitzgerald, P. (1998). Gratitude and justice. Ethics, 109 (1), 119-153.




Dr Kerry Howells is an author, award-winning educator and experienced researcher.

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