This is one of those slightly lengthy posts, so grab some tea and make yourself comfortable.
Have you ever come across the a story regarding the Samurai and the Cat? How did it even come about?
The story, "Neko no Myojutsu" (translated- the mystic art of the cat), was written by Issai Chozanshi (Niwa Jurozaemon Tadaaki, an 18th-century swordsman and intellectual).
It is regarding a Samurai, having been thwarted by a rat in catching it, decided to call upon the aid of a master cat to do so. As expected, the master cat caught the wily rat. Thereafter, there was a meeting among the cats (call it a rat-catching conference if you will), where the junior cats seek out the wisdom of the master cat in catching rats. Done in a Q & A fashion, the narrative between the master cat and other cats aims to illustrate some of the enduring points in Budo. One should be able to find the narrative of the fable on the net, but today's post tries to summarize and examine some of these points covered.
Mastery of technique. The blind mastery of technique in a waza is not enough. Sure, for beginners the drilling of fundamentals is important, but eventually, one needs to think about the intent or "bunkai" of the wazas. Achieving such understanding and incorporating them into wazas further develops one's proficiency in iai. The other side of the coin is true as well; neglecting techniques and substituting your own risks the deviation of fundamental principles taught by Senseis or development of undesirable habits (which hampers iai execution or may lead to injury overtime). There are surely reasons why particular techniques are done in such ways - uncover them through practice and confirm them with seniors and Senseis.
Cultivation of fighting spirit. In the development of fighting spirit (or any other endeavour and applications), there is always room for improvement. Don't be blinded by one's hubris or strength. For example, being overly forceful in doing iai wazas - it might be a good exercise for testing physical and mental limits, but over-doing it plainly gives your intent away to the would-be opponent. It also increases the chance of bad posture and injury risks. On a subtler level, this can also be interpreted as being confident in one's own abilities but not overtly flashy or showing off.
Cultivating the state of mind. The point that the story attempts to convey is regarding Mushin - a state of mindlessness. Firstly, Zanshin, a state of awareness of one's surroundings. Next, Heijoshin, a state of calmness; not being perturbed by one's situations. Lastly, Mushin, a state of awareness, but not being distracted by stray thoughts. And because one is not distracted by stray thoughts, consequently, one's actions is thus rendered unfathomable (no openings/ weaknesses to be exploited by) for the opponent.
These concepts are aptly practiced in Budo. While it may seem lofty a goal to attain perfection in these areas, nevertheless, they are guiding principles in development of one's self on the path of Budo, if one so choose to study them diligently.
This brings us to another topic that is invariably linked; the intent or heart (Kokoro). In the context of Iaido, what does one learn iaido for? Is it in sincere pursuit of knowledge, for self-development, a hobby to unwind? Or is it for showing off, or some other undesirable pursuits such as a violent means to an end? The answer is quite clear. And indeed, principles from ages of old have always cautioned against this:
"Weapons are instruments of misfortune That are used by the unevolved. When their use is unavoidable, The superior act with calm restraint.
Even when victorious, let there be no joy, For such joy leads to contentment with slaughter. Those who are content with slaughter Cannot find fulfillment in the world." - Source: Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
Iaido provides a means of technical, mental (and even moral) training and development. However, it is a tool, and how it is to be used is entirely up to oneself. Similar to other forms of Budo, learning Iaido doesn't automatically make one a better person, only if one chose to make it so and continually make the effort to do so.
Disclaimer: The summary points from "Neko no Myojutsu" is based upon the Author's interpretation of the story. Readers are encouraged to read the complete story for better understanding.