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Weakness With A Twist 

Internal Martial Arts, Theatricality, and Daoist Ritual Emptiness


Occam's Katana

this is a KatanaOccam's Katana is not the name of the book I'm working on, although it might make a good chapter title.  Occam, a rather clear thinking guy who lived in the 13th Century, is the name we give to the use of a mental razor blade used for cutting out all the unnecessary theories and mind farts that tend to get stuck to the facts.  It is often stated as, the simplest and most direct explanation is the one most likely to be true.

But of course that is not always true.  For situations where theories (or even ideologies or hysteria) have had a lot of opportunity to co-opt facts or even pound and shape them, a more hefty device might be necessary.  Thus Occam's Katana is the tool you want for these bigger jobs.  

this is reel to reel filmI once dated a French woman whose name was Super Chick.  She had a job, I kid you not, at the Museum of Modern Art as an expert on painting on film.  You know film, the stuff that goes from reel to reel in a movie theater.  Apparently some artists have thought it a good idea to paint with paint on top of pieces of film.  Not as animation mind you, but as very small paintings.  Anyway it's a thing.  With a history and stuff.  

She also had a full collection of Post Modern theory in her apartment.  At that time I had already read the major theorists and such, my father had interviewed a number of them for his radio show Social Thought, and afterward he gave me the books.  I had also read several when I studied with Angela Davis, and it was a big thing in both the anarchist and dance worlds I travelled in.  But Super Chick had more.  And she had read them in both languages.  In fact, she had the extraordinary distinction of having been a personal assistant to both Richard Rorty, the translator of many of the French Post Modern Philosophers, and the film maker John Waters!  You know, the guy you always see in Facebook images saying, "Do not have sex with people unless they have a lot of books!"  

So I borrowed a short stack, thinking I might as well take this opportunity to up my game.  She had meticulously underlined large sections of text in pencil.  The problem was, I couldn't figure out why.  When we talked about it she admitted (perhaps an influence from Richard Rorty) that none of these books actually had any intrinsic value in the realm of ideas, but that they had an aesthetic value.  That's what she was doing with the pencil, marking things that were aesthetically pleasing.  

At that time there were only a small number of Post Colonial Studies Theorists, James Clifford comes to mind, but my take on them is they are a combination of Post Modern Theory and Marxism.  Which is very funny if you think about it.

Anyway all this is to introduce a book I have not read yet, I have only read this review of it by Paul Bowmen, Stateless Subjects: Chinese Martial Arts Literature and Postcolonial History, by Petrus Liu

No doubt, to get through this you will need to sharpen up your Occam's Katana.

Here is what I got out of it.  The idea that martial arts can be learned from a secret manual is an idea associated with a society that privileges the written word.  And a great deal of the martial arts fiction of the last 400 years has had this idea built into it.  Therefore, wait for it..., martial arts fiction was written by the literati-- the elite gentry class.  This might not seem like much of a revelation, like duh right?  Like who else would have written it?  But there is so much ideology piled up around martial arts that it actually took Occam's Razor to cut us back to the obvious truth.  

But the implication of this last paragraph knocked my socks off.  If martial arts manuals were a common element of fiction, they were of course also a common element of theater, opera and popular culture.  We also know that secret manuals that confer immortality and various magical powers or curses are a mainstay of religious literature (also written by the literati).  

The reason this is so important is that it solves a minor problem I've been dueling with.  There are a handful of martial arts manuals produced in China between 1500 and 1900.  Some of them have enlightenment or talismanic content, but they all seem to point to a pure martial arts, a subject fully formed and distinct from theater, opera or religion.  As regular readers know, my working thesis is that martial arts was inseparable from theater and religion historically.  When the history of martial arts is laid out alongside religion and theater, Occam's Razor tells us they were all interrelated and physically integrated.  But how do I deal with this very small number of seemingly pure martial arts manuals?  

The answer is so simple I had been missing it.  These manuals were produced  to feed a kind of playful fantasy that the heroic martial arts of the theater existed in real life.  If the famous General Yue Fei, as portrayed in an opera, learned his martial awesomeness from a secret manual, then wouldn't a literati studying martial arts from a live-in actor (who was also his his lover-servant) want to produce a secret manual too? In fact, wouldn't that be a better way to explain how he learned the martial arts?  A literati probably wouldn't want to admit directly that he studied martial arts with an low caste actor, but if he learned it from a manual, that would be cool.  

In that sense, the very idea of a martial art that can be learned from a manual comes from the theater.  The idea that martial arts could be learned from a book has a post modern ring to it, it is actually a form of the theatre of the absurd.

As an aside, a large number of martial arts styles are said to have been learned via watching an animal, a monkey, a crane a rooster, etc...  Wouldn't that be a great way for a literati to avoid admitting they studied with an Opera trained Animal Role specialist?  

And both explanation fit perfectly with the so called "penny books," which were mini-martial arts books that appeared on commercial presses in the mid-1800's.  If you were an actor who wanted to become a martial arts teacher having a secret manual to share or sell would have been a perfect narrative to explain the origins of your training, or rather, to cover them up.  

This also explains why laymen encyclopedias of the 1500's have references to learning martial arts, the idea of having martial arts skill transmitted through a god, a stranger, or a family member was already well developed in the theater.  If you could watch it on the stage, why couldn't you hire a private tutor?



Five Deadly Venoms

Hey, I'm going to see the Five Deadly Venoms, a great old Shaw Brothers Kungfu Movie today.

New Parkway Theater,


3 PM Saturday March 8th.

Come along, discussion and beer afterwards.



Yes, you read that correctly, I'm going to talk about strength. 

My history with strength is that as a kid I was always winning those presidential physical fitness awards because I was very active.  I could run long distances, I could do lots of pull ups, I was always the first to the top climbing the rope in gym class.  When I tried out for the football team in high school the coaches looked at me, skinny, and probably thought no way, but I out-ran, out push-upped and out sit-upped all the other try-outs so they had to let me on the team. However, I was even more arrogant then than I am now and I figured why be on a team with all these out of shape losers, so I never went to practice.  

I always had the philosophy that building muscle wasn't necessary, just do the thing and the body will give you what you need.  

In the Sea Scouts I learned a different lesson from solo rowing with an over loaded boat in strong winds and choppy waters.  Strength didn't work.  What did work was perfectly smooth technique.  I trained my rowing crew of 4, one small woman, one very small man, and another man, not so small but smaller than me.  We raced heavy wooden whale boats against teams of 6 guys all bigger than me with big muscles and we won.  They were just bending oars and messing each other up.  We were smooth and steady.  

In my 20's I was an animal.  Dance, martial arts, bicycle riding 8 hours a day.  I never tried to build muscle, I just did the thing.  And I had the energy for it.  Yes, after very intense work outs my body would hurt, but it always hurt so good!

In the realm of martial arts I did get muscles for a few years, but as I got more efficient the muscles got leaner and smoother.  Standing practice, for an hour a day, also healed my injuries.  

As the years went by my power got better, there are many ways of generating large amounts of power that do not require much muscle.  And usually people with big muscles are at a sensitivity disadvantage, they don't feel the changes until it is too late. 

But as I age the injuries keep piling up.  In June I was backpacking with my wife and she was struggling a bit so I was taking more and more of the gear.  Then we got on a route where there wasn't going to be water for two days, so I took enough water for both of us, 2 gallons.  The day was very windy and I took a bad step injuring my knee.  We had planned a lot more backpacking but my knee wasn't up to it.  And then we did a huge amount of driving and I injured my lower back.  Yikes.

Then a month went by, more driving, and nothing was healing.  So I started getting bodywork and talking to my expert friends and finally things started healing.  Then in September I was in a push hands game with someone who really did not want to lose.  After I up rooted him, I put him back on his feet and he kicked me in the knee.  Ow.  I thought: I'm so dumb.  Why did I agree to do this?  Will I ever learn?

After that I was up at this Buddhist Center in Northern California working on my book, and clearing brush.  It was often ice cold in the morning for my workouts and I ended up injuring my other knee too, which made my back hurt again.  That was the first time in my life I had both knees injured at the same time.

None of this actually stopped me from working or moving, it wasn't that bad.  But the healing was really slow.  

All of this got me to reflect on all the crazy stuff I've done.  Pushing my body into crazy pretzels.  All of my dance teachers were adamant that we should never dance on concrete, that it would kill our knees.  But I was doing martial arts outside on concrete everyday.  I learned to land softly.  I figured it was fine.  I also did Kathak, North Indian Classical Dance, which was an exception to the rule about dancing on concrete.  Kathak is done with five pounds of bells on each ankle and barefoot.  Hard smooth surfaces like polished concrete or marble simply make the best sounds.  And like clapping with your hands, you can make loud crisp sounds with your feet without hurting your them.  But sometimes, I got carried away and brused the bones of my feet.  

Anyway I did that fight group in Seattle over Thanksgiving.  I was playing a version of mercy with a guy much bigger than me.  It is a technical trick, it doesn't require strength.  But I realized the guy's hands were so strong that even if he couldn't submit me, he might break the bones in my hand.  Yikes.  And afterwards I really felt that having big relaxed muscles in a well trained body is not the same as just having big muscles.  

So I am here in the Southern Sierra of California in a cabin, still working on my book.  It occurred to me that the injuries I got caused me to significantly limit my movement, and I probably lost a lot of strength.  Strength I never thought about training because I always just had it.

So I've been doing this experiment with strength, it has pretty much healed my injuries in two weeks.  Wow.  

Here is what I did.  Normal martial arts workouts but with the intention of building muscle.  In other words, inefficient movement.  I decided to build up my thighs for instance, engaging the muscles which normally would make the stances harder to do and reduce my range of motion.  But a funny thing happened.  The muscles just got big and then got out of the way.  I realized that with big thigh muscles things like bridges and backbends are easier.  So I started building up my biceps and triceps and doing pull ups and handstand push ups and stuff like that too.  

The thing is I really know how to completely relax, so even with bigger muscles they aren't getting in the way, they are just adding protection.  In a sense I'm not using them, they are just hanging on as support.  

And here is the kicker.  All that qigong and daoyin stuff hadn't been doing much for me for quite awhile.  I long ago fully integrated it into everything I do so it was redundant.  But qigong works wonders on muscle.  I've been pulling out all my old "healing" tricks.

The assumption that tendons and ligaments can do most of the job of muscles was correct, and the efficiency and whole body connection and increased range of motion that comes with that approach are all real, and worth doing.  And there are a lot of cool tricks to be learned from using tendons and ligaments instead of muscle.  But the combination of many years of practice and age takes a toll on those soft tissues.  (I think there are significant hormone shifts that effect changes in soft tissue too, also part of aging.)

I lost my jump!  And I was a jumper, I used to do long strings of split leaps and straddle jumps in rhythm across the dance floor hitting the top of my jumps on the beat. Where did my jump go?

So we will see if I can get that back.  Live and learn.  

Feel free to offer thoughts or advice.  I think I'm a beginner again.  

Straddle Jump!


Some Thoughts for the Wood Horse Year 2014

For the wood horse year I'm planning something really big, but I'm about to go into solo retreat for a month in the Sierra Nevada first.

The workshop last weekend went really well, basically my theory is that what I've been doing with kids will work even better with adults.  Conditioning not learning.

I have a bunch of links I wanted to share, so here they are.  

The first one is kind of whatever, but I learned that the classic Bruce Lee movie Fists of Fury (remade by Jet Lee), is called Jingwu in Chinese.  Jingwu means Pure Martial, it was the name of the political martial arts movement that was essentially an exorcism of all the yin stuff in martial arts like ground fighting and magic.  

Dog style is one of the surviviors of that purge.  Check it out.  Dogs and pigs were the very lowest status animals, so it is hard to imagine someone wanting to do such a style unless it was a joke, or they themselves were super low status in the society and they were claiming a kind of reverse awesomeness.

This was how some of it came back in a flood in the 1980's, great pictures of Qigong Fever.

This is an awesome return of the pre-20th Century martial arts narrative culture, unfortunately it got removed, a commenter says that seen from the other side there is a beaver visible.  

This is a fun idea for martial artists, con-men and actors alike.

If you are signed up with you can get a copy of D.S. Farrer's $200 book Shadows of the Profit: Sufi Mysticism and the Martial Arts, for free as download.  It is about Silat, and looks very interesting.  So does the 45 minute video that goes with it!

And this is just a freaky image of the future for no particular reason.

Enjoy the ride!



Martial Games

I'm Teaching a workshop this Sunday at Soja Marital Arts in Oakland at 12 Noon

It's called Martial Games, come on down!

I'm still technically on a writing retreat but I dream about teaching and I have lots of new ideas to try out.  I have a developed a game for transforming jing into qi.


Conditioning vs. Learning

I picked up a few different types of outlining software/apps and I'm wondering if it is a good way to produce blog posts.  The theory being that many people actually want to read an idea in outline form, so they can skip to the parts of a text that most interest them.  I think some of my best blog posts have been outlines or frameworks for thinking about larger issues.

  • people get older
    • I'm 46.  There are so many old injuries.  So many ways I've changed my training and movement over the centuries to accommodate damage, love lost, birth defects, growth defects, public face-plants, and failed experiments.  Annoyingly, there are a number of movement experts I've heard lately who when asked about aging answer: "don't get old."  I think that is a lame answer.  Fun people have more rough spots than they can count.  
  • we are broken,
    • I'm a bit broken, this is the first time I've ever injured both knees at the same time. And I injured my lower back too. The healing process has been hap-hazard. I've made progress numerous times only to relapse or create a new problem. I'm an optimist, so if anytime over the last 7 months you asked me, I'd be like, "Hey, I'm healing up pretty well."  Optimism is what people turn to when reality gets in their way.  I'm conditioned to say it, and think it. Intellectually I know it is a bit flawed. But I am also quite optimistic that my current trajectory is really great. That may be part of my self-conditioning to be a teacher. You can't go out and teach today if you think it is going to make you less able to teach next week.
    • But I'm really not kidding, I am totally optimistic about the training I'm doing now. And the embarrassing part of it is that I'm doing some strength training.
    • I think I understand what muscles are supposed to do better than I ever did before. And it is making me a lot more conservative. Not in the, "limit your range" sense, but in the "what shapes should my body be able to attain" sense. Also I'm giving less value to relaxation. Here is why:
    • I think that for any type of conditioning there is a hormone cocktail that is ideal. In other words, if I can trigger the correct hormone cocktail in my body, it will condition itself. Train itself. My body knows what to do. It knows what feedback to seek, it knows what will work. Relaxation as a hormone response is superior to the other types.  That is why I'm going back to the training I had in my early 20's, because I was so unconscious of what I was doing it had to be 90% conditioning anyway.
  • we are often limited by age 7
    • I've spent a lot of time teaching more than a 1000 kids.  Some kids at age 7 (I was one of them) are not able to walk into class and do a full bottom-on-ankles squat.  Most are able to do it as easily as smoking a cigarette or talking on a cell phone.  Some can do a full monkey squat which involves partially dislocating their hip sockets in a squat so that their bottom repositions between their ankles on the floor.  Actually I could make long lists of all the cool stuff outlier 7 year olds can do.  And, I believe that if you give me 7 year olds with very little natural ability, I can still get them doing amazing things.  
  • we can overcome many limits
    • When I started dancing I had no natural flexibility or rhythm, I could however, jump high and I did have superior energy and endurance.  I learned to do the splits, on the floor, in the air, upside down, and sideways.  I also learned one handed handstands, bridges, back walkovers, and handsprings.  And with all that I still couldn't get into a full squat long enough to smoke a cigarette or make a phone call.  We are not all the same.  Because I thought doing pistols and squats were important I pushed myself to figure it out, and eventually, after years of trying, I developed the ability to do a full squat.  But honestly it never became easy.  A lot of the handbalancing stuff was really difficult for me too because I have very little flexion in my wrists.  No exercise I have ever found improved my wrist range.  It still sucks just as much as the day I started.  
  • even if we can overcome major limits, there will be a price to pay
    • I used to say the definition of qigong is whatever you do such that your work/play doesn't leave a mark on your body.  Everywhere I pushed my body to go beyond what it naturally wanted to do, there is a mark.  That's okay, we can push our bodies to do amazing and insanely fun stuff, but there is price.  
  • any solution is temporal
    • All the magical body training I have done has an expiration date on it.  If it improves something, if it fixes something, if it makes something right; it will eventually become the wrong thing to do.  
  • my knowledge, incredible as it is, is contingent on the unknowable
    • I'm speaking here about my ability to train other people.  The more I know, the more I know about what I don't know.  I have always been honest with students about the limits of my knowledge, but experience keeps showing me that the bigger subject is always going to be what I don't know.  As a teacher I want to burn all the "how to" books! 
  • Learning is over rated. 
    •  Why? Because it is conditioning that sets up what we can learn. If you are not conditioned to be curious, you must rely on love and fear to motivate learning. There is a chapter of the Daodejing that explains this.  (The best kind of teacher is like a shadowy presence....the next best uses love, then fear, and finally she just hacks at you!) For some reason unknown to me, most people stop being able to learn in adulthood. This accounts for why people try to hold on to jobs and status and other failed ideas.  It explains why the catch word of my generation is sustainability. So goes the fashion, I go the other way.
  • I'm conditioned to delight in the chaos of not-knowing.
    • I have no way on my own of knowing if my training is a good long term strategy for a given success. The beauty of learning a classical art, from an older person, who learned it from an older person, is the hope that the flawed training strategies would have been throw out at some time over the generations. But it should also be obvious that in an open society there ought to be better ways to come by "better ways to train."
  • All of this has led me to looping. 
    • I'm experimenting with the training I got as a dancer in my early 20's. It is informed, oh boy, oh boy, is it informed by the years, but it is also the same old stuff my body got good at first. There is some trust there I guess.  Or maybe I'm going backwards in hope of getting back to the very beginning before I ever started learning.  
  • In my optimism I see this new way, this spontaneous way.  I see a way to use pure inspiration.  A pathless path.  

Kathak on Afro-Pop World Wide PBS

One of my mentor teachers, Chitresh Das, is the subject of a documentry about improvisation and a collaboration with an award winning tapdancer.  

The title Upaj, means a musical expression that arises spontaneously and instantaineously from the heart.  

It is showing on PBS today, tomorrow and next monday.  PBS is a government station so it is anyone's guess when it is actually showing.  This page is supposed to tell you.

Commentary to follow when I actually watch it.  But it will be amazing I'm sure.


Martial Arts of the Mind

Martial arts as a route to enlightenment is a subject I have written about some in the past, and I'm working a bunch of new material into my book.  But this is a pretty great summary of some of the issues, awesome really, Ling Gesar.  The links are easy to follow from there too.

And the Placebo effect is always on my radar.  This is a link to a study by the star of placebo research most people know as the author ofThe Web That Has No Weaver , Ted Kaptchuk.

Basically the new spin on placebo is that it works, so we should use it.  The why and how it works is, at this point, still only explainable via religion (A former stepfather of allopathic medicine I suppose). This is true of the mind in general.  The arrogance of science, or scientism if you prefer, or rational modernity, whatever, simply does not have a metaphor that adequately explains either the mind or consciousness.   We are not really robots or computers or computer-like monkeys. We are what we are, or, as Popeye was fond of quoting Torah:  I yam what I yam.  

I also heard a metaphor people might like to consider.  You know how we talk about twenty year olds who can call in 3 laser guided smart bombs in like 10 minutes in Afghanistan at like a million dollars a pop?  Well that's what it is like for Doctors in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).  They are calling in smart bomb medicine every time they push a button, like a million dollars a pop.  If you've been to the ICU, whether you are a pauper or a prince, you are now probably worth more than the Six Million Dollar Man!  And all the savings we can pile up in every other type of medicine will be used up in two days in the ICU. And it is getting more expensive everyday because they are inventing new machines all the time.  And yes, most of that money gets spent on people at the very end of their lives.  I don't know, it seems like this ought to lead to some moral discussion here.  Like perhaps we could pay people to wear Do not resuscitate wrist bands?  Or at least give them a tax break?

I've been working through some vocabulary problems, "popular" religion vs. "village" religion, verses the clerical lineages, verses text based traditions, verses movement based traditions...anyway, I like the term "temple religion" and when I Googled it I got "temple culture" and a video from my friend Fabian who does wonderful work:

My father recently linked to this article about Aging Baby Boomers in the Housing Market.  Over the next 3-5 years we are going through a massive inversion!  Retired people will suddenly out-number working people by a large ratio.  The ratio just started flipping out!  Consensus housing, consensus religion, consensus rock, consensus exercise, consensus marriage, education, medicine, crime, and consensus marital arts--it's all flipping out!  It's going to change big and change fast.  What do you think? 

United States birth rate (births per 1000 population).[3] The United States Census Bureau defines the demographic birth boom as between 1946 and 1964[4] (red).




Yikes, I haven't posted a blog in over a month.  I'm still working on a book.  For January I'm house sitting South of San Francisco.  I'm trying to write all day, everyday.  In February I'm going to stay in a home in the Southern Sierra Nevada and after that I'm not sure.  It depends on whether my book is finished.

I am teaching a half day workshop.  I get so much pleasure out of teaching, I really miss it:

 Jan. 26th, 2014  12-3PM  $35  at Soja in Oakland, CA  (click on Adult Workshops and scroll down)
The purpose of playing games is to have as much fun as possible and to unleash spontaneity which is the only proof we have that we are not robots.  When we get rid of fear and replace it with exhilaration, competitiveness melts away, leaving behind a joyful cooperative buzz that lasts for days. The martial arts skills we condition and test in games are the skills we trust the most.
Traditionally folks retreated to the quiet mountains to meditate and find equanimity, but martial artists were rebel tricksters who instead invented games that are sneaky down and dirty short-cuts to enlightenment. They are the quick and easy route to joyful comfort in our bodies, discarding limitation, and entering the Void via a secret door.

We will particularly work with creating positive stimulation via soft hand slapping, unbalancing, and games that condition speed with relaxation and increase spatial awareness. Come ready to play, invent and develop ways to improve martial arts games. Bring your own funny bone, you may have the opportunity to hit someone with it.


Also, a giant in the world of martial arts passed away this morning.  A true hero in the worlds of kungfu, commerce and entertainment.

Run Run Shaw 1907-2014


I want to give a plug to Rafe Kelley and his Good Men Project,  he also has a business called Evolve Move Play.  His latest blog post is right on!  I nearly got ejected from a Christmas Dinner for saying the same thing, albeit in more provocative terms.  Well, and also I did punch someone as a way of answering the question: "Why is fighting essential for emotional and intellectual development?"  Hey, a single punch is worth a thousand words, right?  Why We Need a Little Roughhousing!


I'm presenting a paper on the Theatrical and Religious origins of Taijiquan and doing a workshop in Boston at the:

Tradition and Transition 9th International Conference on Daoist Studies Boston University, May 29-June 1, 2014 

These conferences are a lot of fun, I hope to meet some of my East Coast friends and readers while I'm there!


I would have more to say, but... my Apple Stickies program crashed with about 7 half-finished blog posts, sooooo 2003. amirite?

Don't worry, I have numerous blog posts still spinning in my head and I'll have them up soon.




Silence in Golden, Duct Tape is Silver

This post is entirely free of romanticism.  It points to a new super charged modernity of pure martial arts.  

Three days have passed...


I recently got to visit a secret society of violence experimentation.  I'm 5'11'' and 160lbs.  The guys I was playing with have a ton of experience with actual violence and averaged 6'3'' and 230lbs.  Each was different and has a unique story but the results on my end were:  6 choke outs.  20 throat pokes.  Head butt to the nose and the eye socket.  Nose and jaw rubbed into the ground.  A knee bouncing up and down on my solar plexus.  Random pain compliance.  Balls kneed and squeezed.  Floor impact.  Chest compressed to the point of no inhale do to excessive weight.  A mildly dislocated shoulder.  And 3 accidental chiropractic adjustments.  

I mention all this because none of it is actual damage, but my mind read it as damage at the time.  Well, I had a bit of vertigo this morning and my nose has some free floating bits of cartilage, and maybe my shoulder isn't quite where it should be, but over all I feel great.

Several of the most experienced guys I was playing with claimed they had no hormonal response.  They say fighting with another person is like fighting with a teddy bear, they don't see another person there so they are not triggered emotionally or socially.  That's pretty amazing.  They, in some sense, are able to shed their identity so that fighting is just what normal feels like.

Over all the feed back I got was very positive.  My skills and training are great.  The problem is that when I'm taking what I perceive to be damage I become more of a monkey, that is, I start reacting instead of fighting the way I'm trained to do.  Getting poked in the throat in this case was not doing real damage but it freaked me out.  Taking five or six body shots in a row, in this case, wasn't damage but believing it was made me fight poorly.  

But what is most interesting to me is tracking how I feel.

First off there was the enjoyment of my failures and feelings of appreciation for the folks helping me with that.  The first session went until 2 AM so there was some exhilaration, and a kind of body looseness that happens when I'm passed tired.  That seems like 3 or 4 hormone combinations right there.  But I'm pretty sure that my social challenge autopilot-- I need to be tougher than you-- hormones didn't flood my system.  That's a very important detail.

From 8 in the morning we went until about 1 pm.  Some nausea, lots of need to drink fluids.  Perhaps that had something to do with the whiskey the night before.  More simple feelings of fun and enjoyment.  Then that evening I was just feeling elated.  Tired but extra friendly.  I was in pain  all over, one arm was barely functional and my face felt bruised, but the pain was mixed with some hormone that made me feel really good.  Perhaps I felt socially bigger then normal, unflappable.

All the next day I was happy about being in pain.  Every time I felt pain, it was accompanied by joy.  And then I had a new effect.  My body wanted resistance.  Not push ups or squeezing or jumping around, or powering through.  My body wanted dynamic resistance all over.  It was perhaps like being a kid and wanting to be tickled, very dynamic and unpredictable.  And a bit like wanting to wrestle, but different from wanting to physically dominate.  This deep physical desire was my body wanting to relax against dynamic and chaotic oppositional forces.  

That last one was a very cool feeling.  Unfortunately I only had my wife around to play with, but she indulged me for a few minutes and that made me very happy.  I believe that whatever that hormone combination was, it is probably key to the highest levels of martial arts training.  It's as if once I got there my body already knew how to make up games that would condition me for optimum battle skills.  I should add here that this hormone inspired feeling is related to what I have elsewhere described as a separation of the inner and outer body, distilling jing and qi in motion.  The version I practice without the hormone inspiration feels like the mass of muscle and bone is a dull container driven by an inner body that can not be easily caught because it is moving around inside, like a separate body.

The next day (two days after) I had mostly come down from the high but I felt heroic and larger than normal.  My body had mostly healed but the pain I still had bothered me more, it had migrated.  My limbs and my face felt better but my chest felt stiff and compressed.  Not a big deal from a healing point of view because bruises on the torso get great blood circulation.  I did a lot of chest loosening exercises and felt fine.  But later in the day I had a very strong sensation around my chest and heart.  A new hormone.  I felt hollow.  Longing.  Like I'd been emotionally crushed, but just as a sensation.  I wanted to be held and gently caressed, it felt childish.  Vulnerable.  Like I wanted to be inside and then inside again.  

Three days later all the effects are gone.



Many if not all of these hormones have been isolated and probably can be injected into the blood.  I think taking hormones could be a really smart way to train but just look at how many changes I went through, it would require very complex monitoring.  

Understanding how to trigger (or not trigger) the hormones and then not over doing it is probably a better route.  We should consider monitoring these hormones in students too.  Right now there is potentially inexpensive technology that can tell you all the hormone concentrations in your blood in about an hour.  We just have to create the market for it.  

There are so many implications for education and learning in general here.  Imagine a school where subjects are taught only when the student's hormone profile is at its optimum for that subject?  If, for instance, your hormones are primed for mathematical thinking, you would likely invent the games that would teach you everything you need to know as long as you had the inputs/problems/proofs/tools available.  Imagine a speed reading class that focussed on getting you to the right hormone balance before trying to teach you anything.  My guess is the very best teachers all do this intuitively already.

The opposite, having exactly the wrong hormone profile for a particular type of learning would be a pure disaster.

Nothing here is new.  All the feelings I've described are part of NORMAL.  But conscious discussions of how to optimize these feelings for specific results needs a lot more attention and naming.

I suspect that traditional ritual behavior and ritual design is deeply tied up with conditioning people via hormone responses.  Some rituals require a big crowd because that triggers certain hormones.  A wedding for instance, is meant to permanently seal a social bond in the mind of everyone present.  An execution follows a similar logic.  There are countless other examples.  Secrets and secret rituals must be a different combination of hormones.  I don't want to simplify this to the point of triviality, but enlightenment may just be a relationship to hormones.  That doesn't mean we all have access to it or even care to.  This is just a line of thinking.  

Again, this is nothing new, A Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange were built around this theme.  Two early scifi's that crossed the blood-brain barrier into literature, from low brow to high brow. Which brings us to the title of this post.

Silence is golden,

Duct tape is silver

     (an original poem) by Sgt. Rory Miller


How I became Enlightened

So if you have some time for entertainment watch the video of this 11 year old kid's TED talk.  His story is here! and worth a quick read too.  He is not actually a kid, he is an emanation of the Dao!  The take away from his talk is very simple, STOP LEARNING!


Of course the obvious corollary to this kid's video is: stop teaching.

The common response to someone who says, I'm not interested in learning, is, you're so arrogant everyone can benefit from learning.  Not true.  In learning, as in fighting, time is damage.

Particularly when it comes to meeting new experts or masters, everyone will tell you to show up with an empty cup. How can you learn if your cup is already full? they say.  The propagators of upright conduct will tell you that if you show up with an agenda it will obscure your ability to see what is there.

But I say nay! show up with a full cup and if you are lucky it will get spilled! The purpose of a class is to compare what is in your cup to what is in the cups of other people in the class, including the teacher.  It is a place to compare notes, to test your experiences against the experiences of others.  Who wants to teach people with empty cups?  That's boring.

I've spent the last three months working on a book while staying and clearing brush at a Buddhist Retreat Center.  There is a substantial library here and I've had a chance to interact with lots of people on the subject of enlightenment.  But actually I already had incredible resources among my friends and family.  

One of the many arguments spinning around is whether one needs to be subordinate to a teacher in order to pick up enlightenment skills.  The best argument is that the default relationship in our society is equality and friendship.  But to become enlightened your teacher may need to tell you that you are an idiot, a blind fool and a moral disgrace, for example.  In our cultural milieu of equality as a default, those kinds of words would end the relationship, so you need to be subordinate to the teacher.  Interestingly however, all of these enlightenment traditions come from Asia where hierarchy is the default relationship.  This creates all kinds of confusion.  They obviously have to overcome the hierarchy thing to become enlightened.  So my conclusion is that whatever ones default relationship to a teacher or a teaching is, has to be overcome.  It has to be overcome because it is an illusion and illusions take an enormous amount of effort to maintain.  However, if it is a default illusion, one everyone else in your culture shares, than that effort is a BLIND SPOT, and you won't even know you are exerting that effort!

The other interesting argument spinning around is about how you might know if someone is enlightened.

Here is a talk by the Buddhist Geek Society about the science of enlightenment:

What a mess!  What a mess!  Here is my take.  The only test we have for enlightenment that has any meaning has to do with how a person handles change.  Particularly changes to ones identity.  So to test for enlightenment we have to confront a person with a direct challenge to their world view.  We push them past their limits and see how they adapt.  Facing death head on would be good but perhaps impractical.  We could perhaps have them talk to a rapist who not only loves raping but thinks it is the funniest thing he has ever done or will ever do in his life.  It kind of depends on the person, I can think of a lot of things that would shock other people into an identity coma, but it's much harder to think of such a thing for myself.  Anyway, once we solve the sampling problem (from the mp3 talk) and the control problem (also from the mp3) then we can come up with a list of things likely to knock someone's identity into next Thursday and see if they react differently then people who have not had 5+ years of enlightenment hazing.

That's all folks!  





What is Internal?

What is the definition of internal in the expression internal martial arts?

A long time student who is also a scientific researcher asked me to answer this question  in a way that would put it to rest.  Great challenge.

First off, I do not think that because we can do empirical tests, because we understand them and use them to understand the world, that we can jump from that to saying our experience of the world is rational.  It is not.  Most of what we experience is an illusion.  Our human equipment is constantly sorting and focusing and limiting and interpreting our world through our unconscious biases.  

So I’m not altogether sure that we can parse this subject enough to give an empirical answer.  In other words, what internal means in this context may occupy the space in between empirically testable experiments and the world as we experience it.

So here is my answer.

External means visible, can be copied, explicit, and shown.  

Internal means invisible, impossible to copy, counterintuitive, and hidden.

The difference between Internal and Secret is quite simple.  Internal is secret until someone tries to reveal it.  If they fail, it remains secret, if they succeed, it becomes internal.

What this means for contemporary martial arts is that there is a continuum of what constitutes all three categories.  External that is too fast to see is internal until we see it in a slow motion video, or until a particularly talented student figures it out.  In that sense there is in general an external way to teach, which is copy the form or copy the application and then spar or grapple.  

Because what for one person might be an obvious instruction, to another might be counter intuitive, there is a continuum between what is external and what is Internal.  It depends on the student’s perceptions and the teachers intentions.

Also a student who only learns externally but plays a lot of games is going to discover a lot of stuff that is counterintuitive.  That’s because games are a strange case of empirical testing.  

Internal martial arts didn’t come from nowhere. They came from experiments and games and puzzling things out.  They came from examining experiences which did not fit well with conventional explanations.  They came from finding or discovering blind spots and then exploring them systematically.

When we think about internal as “technique” it means, the stuff you know or are working on that is not visible.  We sometimes call this a trick, and I think that is often the correct word for it.  Tricks can kill people, it’s not meant as a diminutive.  

The reason internal as technique has been so hard to define is that each teacher has their own ways of doing for instance a tai chi technique like pengjin (ward-off).  I’ve probably felt 40 minor variations of pengjin and 5 major variations.  They all work more or less.  They all have an unseen or counterintuitive martially applicable effect. 

There is a multiplying effect of a hidden technique that is really difficult to learn and either looks really amazing or is super martially effective; these we tend to call top secret, or high level internal.

George Xu has been changing the definitions of terms he uses to teach a lot over the years.  One of the distinctions he used to make was between Martial Workers, and Martial Artists.  That was fun because of the political implications but also because it implied that some people really enjoy what they are doing and some don’t.  

Lately he made a distinction between a Martial Practitioner and a Martial Artist.  Basically it was a high bar that no one could clear.  He has also drawn the same line and called one side Dirty Martial Arts and the other side Pure Internal Martial Arts.

I suppose if we are drawing lines we might consider a line between skill and artistry? or perhaps craft and art?

George Xu’s current definition of Pure Internal means that the physical body’s only purpose is to transfer the opponent’s force completely to the ground.  While simultaneously attacking indirectly only with the spatial mind.  After that it’s simple physics, mv2 Mass times velocity squared, external inside of internal.  

Note, internal does not mean a specific technique and it is not limited to meaning inside the body.


What is the Game?

When a teacher points out that something specific is wrong, say, your kua (hip socket region) isn't open, three things become immediately imperative.  What is the test? What is the measure?  and What is the game?

Unfortunately the more common follow up is, just do this movement 10,000 times and you'll understand how it fits with everything else.  That is a hook with no bait in my book.  Every student knows on the first day of class that there is a danger of conditioning the wrong thing.

 A test is often a result that can be felt or seen on oneself or on another person.  Often times you can easily be trained to say Yes that's it, or No that's wrong, long before you can pass the test yourself.  For a teacher to say you are doing something wrong, they themselves must be performing some kind of test.  If you don't have access to this test you are training in the dark, metaphorically speaking.  There are certainly valid arguments for training a student in the dark, but they are rare. (see below)

Just how open does your kua need to be?  A measure is a way of deducing the degree to which one has some particular attribute, either how much or how little, under increasing amounts of pressure/movement, or time/speed. A simple example would be, do you have the structural integration for a head attack.  The test is very simple, can you move someone with your head.  The measure would involve adding pressure and force gradually such that you have no feeling of pain or compression in your neck, spine or other joints. At the point when you have compression or pain you are out of your range.  We can be taught to see this in others too.  A measure is a little different from a test.  If a test is qualitative, a measure is quantitative. 

Thirdly, and most important is a game.  Without a game conditioning is slow and of questionable value.  A game automatically enters the part of your brain that makes learning fun, and drills it deep into the place where you can access it instantly and automatically.  

The more complex or difficult the attribute is, the more important it is to use a game to condition it.  Otherwise you are just conditioning frustration!  And it's great to play the game before the test or the measure, if you can.  In that sense it is fine to have students learning in the (metaphoric) darkness as long as they understand the test and the measure eventually.  But just giving a correction is, like I said, a hook with out a worm.

Even with a simple form correction, the measure can be as simple as, it looks like this, not like that.  The test answers the question why it's an important attribute and/or shows some sort of structural function.  It becomes a game when is happens with music, timing, rhythm and variations of style.  It can also be conditioned in a two person form or a limited push hands exchange, or a resistance drill that just works that position as a game.  

Teasing, jostling, tricking, improvising, dancing, funky-grooviness--these are some of the most important ways of learning, and all fall under the games category.  Think: Games, the sky is the limit. A good teacher alternates between too serious and too much fun. (In my humble, yet irreverent, opinion.)  

The test, the measure and the game are important for the student to know for almost any correction or principle.  This is what we should expect from a good teacher, and a good teacher will expect us to ask for it too.  

Traditionally, getting a beating at the moment of transmission may have had a powerful conditioning effect. Few people want that experience these days, so we need games.  


I feel strongly about everything I just said above, I don't mean to diminish it, but there is another case to consider.  A teacher may present a puzzle for the student to solve.  Like, Okay, now figure out how I just did that.  But puzzles in martial arts classes sometimes last decades.  That seems wrong to me.  Puzzles are great, but if the students aren't solving it, it's time for a new puzzle or a different game.  

Why do puzzles sometimes last so long?  In Asia, it is often considered an attack on the status of the teacher to ask a question.  It is a sad self-defeating custom.  Also sometimes students want to stay in awe, because they get a kind of devotional high from it.  That's not very productive, even if it does pay the bills.  Puzzles cross over into the realm of secrets (and magic).

Kids learn at about age four that if you want to be more interesting, you need to get good at keeping secrets.  Even just looking like you are hiding a secret can magnetize people to you.  But oh heavens, trading secrets is even more funner than fun.  


Misdirection and Sleight of Hand

I’ve been having an awful lot of fun.  I’m in the coastal mountains of Northern California clearing brush in the afternoon and using the mornings for my practice and writing.  I just got an amazon shipment of books, which I will probably review.  One of the books I got was more for entertainment but it is turning out to be thought provoking.  It is about magic. (see bottom of the post)

There is a quote in there that goes something like, a magician should be so good at misdirection that he doesn’t need sleight of hand, and he should be so good at sleight of hand that he doesn’t need misdirection.  

In the modern era, there are two basic types of magician.  The ones who tell you there is a supernatural force at work.  And the ones who tell you it is a trick.  

Within the worldview of modernity, supernatural forces do not exist, so a person claiming them is just seen as a joker.  However, most people have a hint of superstition in their worldview and many people have a large heap of it.  Others have a romantic desire to believe in the supernatural and so oscillate between world views as a harmless diversion.  

Even those who know it is a trick, enjoy being fooled.  And that is why the other type of magician has become so popular.  If I tell you I’m going to show you a trick and I even tell you how it is done, and yet, you still can’t either see it, or comprehend it, you are left with a feeling of awe.  

Daoism both as internal and external alchemy and as ritual has long been associated with magic.  Within a worldview where supernatural forces are real, misdirection and sleight of hand often play a role in social harmony.  This brings to mind a talisman I read about for attracting women.  The Daoist gave the young man a secret talisman to put inside his clothes and explained that the power of the talisman would be activated by the young man’s own emptiness (xu) and non-action (wuwei).  The reality is that most young men find it difficult to attract young women for two simple reasons; firstly, they actually are attracting young woman but they don’t notice because they are too excited, and secondly, because they are too aggressive and scare young women away.  Thus, the Daoist uses sleight of hand in his explanation, and misdirection in the form of the talisman.  All’s well that ends well.

A great ritualist can do this for a whole family after a tragic death, or for a whole community, or even a nation.  I’m not trying to say that all religion is misdirection and sleight of hand, I’m just saying that we can use this lens to examine a wide range of human culture.  

Of course misdirection and sleight of hand are the tools of pickpockets and politicians too.

I do not gamble at all.  The reason is simple.  Guilt.  When I was about 13 me and a friend set up mirrors around a room each covered with a picture or a calendar with a piece of fishing line attached for the purpose of moving the picture aside leading to a central control on the wall and reachable from under the table.  We then invited my friends older bother and his brother’s friends to play poker with us.  It was such a stupid trick and it worked so well.  We hog whipped them.  We cleaned them out.  And we didn’t get caught. They were rednecks, so had they caught us, they would surely have beaten us up and taken our money.  I don’t gamble because I know how easy it is to cheat, I still feel guilty about how easy it is to cheat.

And that friend actually died in a fist fight.

The magic in Daoism and medicine is mostly used to create tangible benefits for the person seeking help.  When someone is cured of a chronic illness by being tricked into changing their diet and lifestyle, the results are still tangible!  They are still good.  Okay, we of the Modern world view would prefer that the Daoist or Doctor explain why we need to change our diet and lifestyle in bio-medical terms, we want them to level with us, but the simple reality is some of us only change our behavior when we are tricked into it.  Others can only see the reality after they have been tricked, and still others, actually prefer being tricked!  Sometimes doctors even trick themselves!

Still, Modernity stigmatizes magical claims of supernatural powers as immoral to the degree that people believe in them.  I can claim magical powers all day but it isn’t until someone believes me that I have crossed that line leading into the evils of the o’cult. 

Theater is all illusion.  A person on stage is pretending to be someone they are not.  Sleight of hand and misdirection are the tools of the actor too.  What if the audience believes?  What if, as seems to be true with really good horror, people can’t seem to stop themselves from believing.  I hear famous actors are often shocked by how average people think they know them because they’ve watched them play a character on stage.  People very easily confuse certain aspects of acting and theater with reality.  

When someone uses the tools of acting outside the liminal space known as the theater, we often call that fraud.  There are other words for it, impersonation, misrepresentation, identity theft, a con artist.  

Martial arts as stage combat is best when the fighting looks so real we believe it.  When the pain and the momentum are visceral.  That happens when the sleight of hand is so good you don’t need the misdirection, and when the misdirection is so good you don’t need the sleight of hand.

This brings us to a discussing we had at George Xu’s Summer Camp.  There is a woman on Youtube who can throw off attackers without even touching them.  This is called kongjin or empty force and we have talked about it before on this blog and no doubt most readers have seen these videos on Youtube already (I would link to one but I don’t have a great internet connection so just search those terms and you will see a bunch of it.)  This particular woman was the source of outrage both at camp and in the community of martial artists in Beijing who had expelled her from the national Tai Chi association.  She was getting some grief from the government too.  Now this woman was in her 60’s and she could actually fight, but no one was suggesting she needed to prove herself by entering a Mixed Martial Arts competition.  They were just mad because she was saying that it was her supernatural qi powers which were responsible for her martial prowess.  Yet, she was actually fooling people.  Mainly students and audience members, but if someone got too close she would actually hit them too.  The thing is, students want this power, they are studying with her hoping to figure it out.  And they believe they are being thrown by her incredible qi.

Now I’m a Modern man.  I don’t believe in supernatural powers.  So I look at this empty force woman and I think, where is the misdirection happening and what is the sleight of hand doing?  I’m not bothered by this kind of thing at all.  The antidote is Modernity, not freaking out, not ridicule.  What are all these people afraid of?

Oh. I think I know.

There really isn’t that much difference between magicians who claim supernatural powers and the ones who say, “It’s a trick!”  

And what of the martial artists who say, “it’s real in every way.”  Are we supposed to ignore their misdirections and sleights of hand?  

Is there really all that much difference between a martial artist who claims she is doing real martial arts but is in fact using a trick, and a martial artist who admits to using a trick and yet claims his martial arts are real?

Well, yes, there is a difference actually.  One is in effect demonstrating that her misdirection is so good she doesn’t need sleight of hand, and the other is demonstrating that his sleight of hand is so good he doesn’t need misdirection.

What I’m about to describe didn’t actually happen in the language I’m describing it.  The following few paragraphs is me putting George Xu’s lessons through the filter of misdirection and sleight of hand.  It is an illusion.

George Xu is one of those magicians who will show you exactly what he is doing. He shows just the misdirection and gets you to work on just that, explaining that if the misdirection part of your trick is really good you barely need the other part.  We call this part emptying. If you touch me, you should not be able to sense any intent.  Your sense of touch should go right thru to the ground without gathering any information.  He’ll spend hours trying to explain how it works, testing you, letting you test him.  Still, misdirection at this level is extraordinary mastery.

And George will show you the sleight of hand too.  As fast, and with as much force as you want.  And then as slowly and as obviously as you want, as many times as you want to see it or feel it.  He puts it right in your face.  In your hands.  Then he explains that what we call internal is actually a misdirection, that the real effect is happening outside the body.  At least it feels that way.  

And yet, test him, test yourself, over and over, it still doesn’t work for you.  It’s a trick and nobody is getting it.

He says if we get it he will be very happy, but he will have moved on to a more difficult trick by then.

I had two break throughs at the Camp.  

One was when I asked him if he could do the trick with his eyes closed.  No, he said, with my eyes closed I have to rely entirely on sleight of hand.  My sleight of hand has to be perfect, like this feel (ow, that hurt!), the trick will look and feel differently when it is pure sleight of hand.  


This form of analysis is very useful for martial arts in general.  Forms are misdirection.  Power and usage are sleight of hand.  Apparent effort is misdirection, position is sleight of hand.  Social skills, awareness of human nature, and how to use one’s environment are all misdirection; power, targeting, structure, and techniques are all sleight of hand.  Which leads to this fun little maxim: You should be so good at misdirection that you never need to be in a fight; and you should be so good at sleight of hand that you never need to avoid one.  

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions


Dantian Disease

One of the most interesting discussions from Internal Martial Arts Summer Camp was about Dantian* Disease.  Now, at first blush one is likely to surmise this is a euphemism for being fat.  But actually it was about the specific types of work related injuries internal martial artists get.  

Some weird image from the internet demonstrating a bulging dantianFirst we need to put aside the over eating issue.  Any athlete who trains very hard when they are young is going to consume large amounts of food.  Most athletes who fail to improve the efficiency of their movement before age 30, get too injured to continue.  An athlete who succeeds at improving the efficiency of his movement, must significantly reduce the amount of food he eats by the age of 35 or he will begin gaining a lot of weight.  While reducing food intake is certainly an act of will, it does not require an act of will power.  As movement becomes more efficient, appetite naturally diminishes.  It is quite simply the result of paying attention.

We are also not discussing body type here.  All the various body types have intrinsic beauty.

As a person develops internal power (neijin), several changes take place in the body.  First of all, the legs do more of the work and the arms do less.  Secondly the muscles that run up and down the back closest to the spine become stronger.  These muscles are balanced by the iliopsoas muscles which travel in front of the pelvis from the mid- and lower back to the insides of the legs. The softer, and more relaxed one is in the upper body the more efficiently, and effectively internal power is expressed through these muscles and other adjacent muscles as well.  

The problem arises because the particular quality of muscle that develops is very dense, it becomes progressively more tendon like.  The thicker and denser a tendon is, the more elastic power it stores.  Like a strong bow that is very difficult to draw, once it is fully drawn it has immense shooting power.  His type of muscle must be lengthened everyday otherwise it will put pressure on the lower back.

Of course the lower back can actually handle an enormous amount of pressure.  But over long periods of time, or after some minor injury temporarily makes whole body lengthening difficult, the spinal discs can become compressed.  This compression causes the belly, casually referred to as “the lower dantian,” to stick out!

Compression almost always produces some pain, but we have wildly different sensitivities to pain, as well as mechanisms for coping with it.  Most people can ignore minor pain for years on end with out any trouble at all.  Especially in a case like this where there can be substantial benefits in the way of power.

So, how does one fix this problem? this internal occupational hazard? How does one reduce a bulging dantian?  By simply and completely conforming to Daoist precepts; cultivate weakness and emptiness

*Note: The term dantian, is literally cinnabar field.  It refers simultaneously to a long list of concepts.  In external alchemy (early chemistry), the composite substance cinnabar was supposed to be refined into mercury and then into gold and other rare elements.  In internal alchemy, mixed qi and jing are distilled and then refined into shen (spirit?) which is then refined into xu (emptiness).  The term could metaphorically refer simply to a place where change takes place.  Tian by itself simply means a field, but the pairing of cinnabar with a field implies a large outdoor space where ritual transformation or rectification takes place.  In martial arts the dantian most often refers to the lower third of the torso simultaneously as a location and a function of centralized organization or coordination for the storing and releasing of force.  There are other areas occasionally referred to as dantians, for instance the head is sometimes called the upper dantian in reference to its role in inner alchemy.  Three dantians an upper lower and middle is also conventional, and some would even venture that the whole body is a dantian.

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