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Weakness With A Twist 

Internal Martial Arts, Theatricality, and Daoist Ritual Emptiness

Wednesday
Jan222014

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.  
Monday
Jan202014

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.

Sunday
Jan122014

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).

 

Tuesday
Jan072014

Updates

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.

 

 

Wednesday
Dec042013

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...

since...  

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.

______________

Comments. 

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

Wednesday
Nov202013

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:

http://www.buddhistgeeks.org/audio/Episode266_Mindful_Binge_Drinking_and_Blobology.mp3

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!  

 

 

 

Tuesday
Nov122013

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.

Wednesday
Nov062013

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.  

Tuesday
Oct082013

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

Monday
Sep302013

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.

Friday
Sep272013

Live Blogging 3

Very excited about my new secret weapon.  It is called plunger power.  But of course I can not reveal much more than the name.  It makes you back away while making me more healthy!  

George Xu was talking this morning about this poem (at the bottom)

http://realtaichi.blogspot.co.uk/2007/04/two-heroes-meet.html

And mysteriously yesterday and today they are discussion the same guy Song Shuming on Rum Soaked Fist!

Song, actually claimed that poem and a bunch more that I have yet to find, were written by a famous daoist he was directly descended from, Song Yuanqiao.  But on closer examination this Song Yuanqiao was most likely known because he was in a Wuxia (martial arts) novel!

Fun stuff.  I hope we find the full text. And if anyone knows more about a real historical figure called Song Yuanqian or has read the novel, please help us out in the comments below!  

Also I ordered this book:  

Green Peony and the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts Novel (Suny Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture) 
Wan, Margaret B.; Paperback 

 

Update: Found the novel-- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_The_Heaven_Sword_and_Dragon_Saber_characters

Thursday
Sep262013

Live Blogging 2

This morning George Xu told me about his elementry school class mate who was a professionally trained pick pocket.  This came up because we were discussing the similarities between high levels of martial arts skill, magic tricks, and pick pocketing.

Anyway, there was a pick pocketing guild for crying out loud.  This kid had mastered 8th Dan on Rolling Wheels!  Which is the equivalent of 6th Dan on still ground.  The ranking went all the way up to 10th Dan.  At 8th Dan you had to be able to pick one persons pocket for every stop on the trolley.  

The kid got caught after he picked the cheif of police's pocket, successfully I should add, but the cheif of police was wise to their strategies of escape and realized after the kid asked him a question that this kid was trying to figure out if he should exit right away or wait.  The police ended up killing the kids teacher after they kept the kid in jail for 6 months.  

________________________

Class is going great, but there isn't much to report at the moment.  

Wednesday
Sep252013

Live Blogging

I'm here live blogging at the George Xu workshop in Sonoma, California.  We are at a beautiful Zen Mountain retreat, I'm staying in a yurt.  

Lots of fun people here, an argument about stem cells and qi nearly came to blows.  Very funny, but then everyone laughed it off and went to breakfast.  It is very stimulating already because there is a high level of skill for me to interact with and a high level of intellect too.  

I heard both roosters and coyotes this morning.

George layed out his current iteration of levels, I will briefly state them for the record but I'm not sure if I got it right:

1. loose free and active upper body

1. (alternate) external/physical leads the dantian

2. Dantian leads the body, all types of dantian originating or controlling power

2. (alternate) dantain and body move at the same time

3. feet lead 

3.  (alternate) whole body is a dantian and empty, allowing the feet to lead

4. mind outside the body attacks opponents weak point (lack of awareness error), [this is seeing dependent] qi rising and sinking at the same time, empty and full at the same time.

5. Internal is bigger then external. (can be done with eyes closed)

 

These can be found on George's website described in other ways.  But they have to be felt, that is the only way to learn/unlearn them.  

______________________

Mean while I was thinking about a new way to define internal and external.

External:  Upon seeing or feeling the "perfect model" one tries to copy it by refining what they already know.

Internal:  Upon seeing or feeling the "perfect model" one tries to identify exactly what they are already doing and then just stop doing that thing (discard that power).  

This then suggests that original nature, or predator mind, or true nature...whatever we want to call it, is available and discoverable only when we drop our aggression, only when we drop our identity, only when we discard all effort, only when we discard all intention, or focus...etc, etc....

Saturday
Sep072013

Speed

I learned to skateboard on steep hills in San Francisco.  They are steep enough that one hardly ever needs to push off with the foot, it’s just jump on and go.  Skateboards do not have speed controls.  No accelerator, no brakes.  How fast you are going is determined entirely by the steepness of the hill and how often one turns or slides.  Of course, this being the Era of The Wimp, now’a’days some skateboards have itty-bitty wheels that keep them moving at snail like speeds.  But in my day 35 miles an hour was about what one would expect to achieve if you went straight down the hill.  If you were going too fast to make a turn, you just died.  

That seems like a pretty good introduction to a mostly unrelated subject I want to talk about.  There is a common and legitimate compliant about people who practice push-hands as training for fighting.  The complaint is that some techniques only seem to work when they are done slowly.  Or stated another way, push-hands techniques tend to fail at higher speeds.  

There is a way to inoculate oneself against this problem.  It is quite simple and easy to  condition.  Of course it has to be conditioned to function at high speeds.  Normal learning and practicing won’t work unless they are put inside of a spontaneity inducing game.

Here are the instructions.  Begin touching forearms.  Stick to your partner.  If you become unstuck, just start over.  Use the entire surface of your arms, you can use other body parts too as long as you stick.  There are three levels of sticking and they must be practiced distinctly and exclusively.  The order in which you condition them does not matter.  1) Bone- structure against structure, if you lose contact with your partner’s entire structure, even for a split second, you are not doing it.  2) Skin- the contact must become so light that it is continuously sliding, skin passing by skin.  If you roll along the surface or press into the muscle or bone, or lose contact, you are not doing it.  3) Muscle- flesh touching flesh continuous rolling, no sliding what-so-ever, no pressing structure against structure, no bone contact, no losing contact.  (note: 1 and 2 are the extremes, 3 is in the middle)

The three levels must be distinct because they become guides for spontaneous action.  This is really part of the soft-hand (roushou) game more than it is part of push-hands.  To practice this you must develop a level of emotional safety with your partner that allows you to slap each other anywhere.  You should at least be at the level of comfort in which slapping and being slapped makes you happy.  (Generally speaking, if you and your partner are comfortable doing this while crying, you have reached an even higher level of trust.)

I’m not particularly confident that this type of kinesthetic knowledge can be communicated through a paragraph of writing, but if you already have an serious push-hands, roushou or sticky-hands practice, hopefully you can figure it out.  Keep in mind this key idea:  You are developing a game that conditions spontaneity such that the need to control speed is no longer a consideration.  Like skateboarding, there is no accelerator and there are no brakes.  Speed is determined by the depth of contact. 

Saturday
Sep072013

Gomde

After being on the road for three months and returning to San Francisco for just over a week, I headed up to Leggett California to join my wife Sarah at a Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Center called Rangjung Yeshe Gomde, or just Gomde for short.

Since I’ve gotten here I’ve had some time to work on my book everyday.  The retreats here taper off with the end of the September and we are staying around to help run the place for the next three months.  Hopefully this will give me a lot of time to write.  Lots of people have asked me what I’m writing about so I’ve conjured a proto-title: Obscuring the Martial Arts; how and why the arts have been cut off from their roots and what finding those roots reveals about contemporary practice.  It’s a start.

Anyway, Gomde is on the Eel River which is great for swimming this time of year and we have a canoe to paddle about in too.  We are sleeping outside in a big tent until things quiet down for the fall.  Hopefully by the time the rains start some private indoor space will open up.

 In this part of the country you have to really look where you are walking because you might step on a hippy, there are a lot of them up here.  I have deep respect for those highly evolved individuals who have developed the ability to manage incompetent people.  Blessings.

Besides my usual gongfu practice, writing and helping with whatever needs to get done around here, I’ve been playing my tabla drum and chatting with the Tibetan language experts and various Doctoral candidates in Buddhist studies.  Gomde is at the center of a project which is working on translating 84,000 Buddhist texts.  

I do plan to write about Tibetan Buddhism a bit.  I’m working up to it.  

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