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Weakness With A Twist 

A place for qi-jocks & qi-nerds to explore internal martial arts, Daoism, health, performance, shaolin, and inner cultivation.

Sunday
Feb032013

Are Martial Arts Taoist?

One of the reasons I started this blog was to answer the question, how can a martial art be Taoist?  Over the six years I’ve been writing I’ve attempted to answer that question. The question actually comes in many different forms.  For instance: Are some martial arts part of Taoism?  How did martial arts influence Taoism? Is there a reason why a Taoist can not practice martial arts?  Are there specific Taoist practices which are embedded in the martial arts?

In this post I will attempt to offer a grand summary of the issue.

First off, let us look at Daoism* on a 3D grid.  John Lagerwey went to Taiwan in the early 1970’s where he became a Daoist priest and wrote a book called, Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History, in it he describes Daoist Orthodoxy as a continuity of “view” passing back in time for 2000 years and permeating music, movement, mythology, individual conduct, life, death and social institutions.  At the same time, Michael Saso, and Kristofer Schipper  did the same thing.  They each went to different communities in Taiwan and became Daoist priests and they each wrote books making the same point about Orthodoxy and continuity.  Except the content of those books is actually quite different.  The expression of that “view” in each community was profoundly unique.  In one community the main job of Daoist priests is to perform funerals, and in another community Daoist priests performed many different rituals but were forbidden to perform funerals.  Was Orthodoxy an illusion?

John Lagerwey went on to publish in Chinese, a thirty volume encyclopedic record of the incredible variety of Orthodox Daoist traditions concentrated exclusively among the Hakka ethnic group in Northern Taiwan.  In his most recent book in English, China: A Religious State, “Daoism” is conspicuously left out of the title.  That is because it puts Daoism in a historic context where it played many different roles over a long period of time within a much larger culture of state ritual.  And then in the second half of the book he looks at the role of Daoism in local ritual culture as an ethnologist and finds enormous diversity of expression.  This diversity had elements of continuity like the use of talisman or the Daodejing, but single defining signifiers are almost meaningless because talisman and the Daodejing are not exclusive to Daoism.

So that is the first axis of our 3D grid, call it infinite orthodox diversity.  

Many books and articles on Daoism start out by explaining that the English term “Daoism” doesn’t actually exist in Chinese, that there are three or more terms which are conflated:  Daoshi (official of the Dao), Daojiao (religion of the dao), and Daoren (a person of the Dao).  But these terms are themselves quite mushy.  Daoshi most often means “priest” but it can mean “monk” or “hermit” and in some regions it is more likely to be understood as “traveling magician.”  Daojiao, is mainly used to distinguish other religions like Buddhism, state ritual, or Islam--it seems to have developed as a default category rather than a self-identifier.

Daoren has come to mean a person who tries to live a life consistent with the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi, which, because of those book’s centrality in Chinese culture have remained readable and in print for 2300 years.  But Daoren can be used more generally to mean an artist or artisan whose work is modeled on the natural world.  Or even someone who appears to accomplish tasks in an effortless way.  

So that is the next axis of our 3D grid, the infinite influence of the Laozi and Zhuangzi spreading out into every aspect of “normal” peoples lives.  We’ll call it the Daoren axis.

The third axis of our grid is equally difficult to pin down, it concerns the identity of the practitioner.  Because of things like political intrigue and ethnic conflict, at various points in history, people practicing Daoism suddenly decided to start calling what they do Buddhism.  And likewise various sorts of shaman, trance-mediums or Buddhists decided to call themselves Daoists.  

The same goes for magicians, hermits, poets, artists, performers, and urban eccentrics, sometimes they decided to call themselves Daoist when they really weren’t, and other times they decided to hide the fact that they were Daoist by calling themselves something else.  So this category is all the different ways one can be a Daoist, including the better known categories of priests, hermits, and monastics, but also including poets (the most famous poet in Chinese history Li Po, was a Daoist initiate), performers and the super unique like urban-hermit-insect-eating-exorcists.    

As you can see, Daoist 3D space is a little bent.  With one end of the Daoren axis meeting up with the identity of practitioner axis.  And just to show how outside the box one needs to be to even have this discussion, our 3D grid actually has a 4th axis!  A fourth dimension we will call the Methods axis.

At one time I would have simply defined methods as either orthodox or unorthodox, with the orthodox methods being zouwang (sitting and forgetting), jindan (the elixir practice), ritual/liturgy, dream practice, and daoyin (exploring the outer limits of movement and stillness); with the unorthodox encompassing all other methods. But now I’m more likely to avoid the orthodox category and think in terms of the transmission or discovery of daoist “view.”  I want to avoid sounding cryptic so let me offer some examples.  Someone who practices Buddhist meditation can discover the kinesthetic experience of stillness being infinitely and constantly available everywhere.  A person practicing the zouwang method of sitting could just as likely not have that experience.  The transmission of the experience from teacher to student also does not guarantee that the student has the experience.  Even the experience itself does not guarantee that it will be valued or cultivated in different contexts.  

So this 4th axis is made up of any method which attempts to transmit or accidentally transmits daoist “view.”  This axis is also infinite and simply bends down as the ‘view’ within the method becomes more defuse.  Take for example this website explaining daoist talisman.  Go ahead and read about the talisman which attracts beautiful women to you.  It transmits Daoist “view” in a sneaky way.  While most young men want to have the power to attract women to them, this talisman works in the opposite way, it gives the power to the women to see you as attractive.  All you have to do is wear the talisman and wait.  It doesn’t require any male assertive action.  You don’t even have to believe in it!  If you see a beautiful woman you can just stop and see if it works.  No crude one liners, no posturing, you don’t need to offer to buy her a drink, nothing.  Just wait and see what happens!  This talisman tricks guys into not doing!  Also known as wuwei or non-aggression, the most central of all daoist precepts.  

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Alright, now that we have a 3D grid for Daoism, let's make a grid for martial arts. On the first axis we have all the possible reasons and ways someone might optimize training the skill of fighting.  This axis includes dueling, banditry, militia, assistants of the courts (police, bailiff, guard etc..), body guard, crop guarding, home defense, child self-defense, rebellion, military weapons, drilling with gong and drum, competitions, merchant escort services, etc... 

The second axis of the martial arts grid is all the ways we can optimize training for performance, display and ritual.  Think everything from staged fights, to martial opera, to exorcism, to games, to militia displays, to self-mortification performances, to shows put on for the gods, to trance possession by fighting gods.

The third axis of the martial arts grid is self-cultivation.  This includes all types of personal ritual, the most common being health, fitness and prowess.  But it also includes practices for the purpose of instilling virtue, naturalness, kindness, or any of the darker types of attributes like cruelty, invincibility, or to see the future.  This particular axis can easily be applied directly to daoism because it can incorporate daoists methods or daoist precepts.  For example here are the Xiang’er Daoist precepts from the 200 CE:

Lack falseness or pretense (be honest)

Cultivate weakness and flexibility

Practice being like the feminine

Do not seek fame

Participate in meritorious actions

Cultivate clarity and stillness

Cultivate emptiness and desirelessness

Practice stopping when a thing is complete

Discover wuwei, yield to others

Any activity, including martial arts, can be practiced to express or nurture one or all of these precepts.  Would that make a martial art daoist?  Hold on, you don’t need to answer that question, we’ll get to it in a minute.  But consider here that if following these precepts were the only measure of whether or not a martial artist is Daoist, then not many martial artist would fit the bill.  

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So now we have a 4 dimensional grid encompassing Daoism, and a 3 dimensional grid encompassing martial arts.  All we have to do is put them together and see what lights up!  Wherever there is an overlap we have a magical confluence of Daoism and Martial Arts!  

We can also look at the spots that don’t light up, like Daoist priests that have specifically taken a precept to never practice martial arts.  Or women who read the Daodejing and like to knit.  Or hermits who never leave their cave. Oh, but we have a problem there.  See there are hermit practices of internal ritual alchemy that involve kinesthetically visualizing demon troops doing battle, or martial deities dancing with a sword.  

See the academic question we posed, “Is a given martial art Daoist?” is tied up in answering questions of authenticity and authority.  So take note if you are academically inclined, I have just answered all the questions about authenticity and authority for the general case of the question.  It is one gigantic infinite multi-dimensional light show.  Now the question remains, how do we deal with authenticity and authority in any individual or particular case?

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My own experience is that the apophatic kinesthetic revelations of practicing daoyin are totally integrated into my martial arts practice, both internal (Tai Chi, xinyi, bagua) and external (Northern Shaolin, Lanshou).  Then again, integration is the name of the game.  Jindan, the differentiation of jing, qi and shen in stillness is practiced inside of zouwang, sitting and forgetting, and daoyin.  The words of the Daodejing are the source of Daoist precepts, years of chanting them has embedded them in my movement and my dreams.  It is as if the sacred texts of Daoism are written on my bones.  

The ritual practice of visualizing a deity and his attributes before me, and then floating him up and around and then inside of me, and then moving him to a specific location in my body and then inviting him into action while leaving emptiness behind--this practice is to me the same as practicing taijiquan or baguazhang or xinyiquan.  The visualization part of the method itself is not essential, but the changes in perception are how the internal martial arts function.  There is an order of action.  A procession of jing, qi and shen.  

Even the external arts, when practiced as empty forms, are identical to the effortless intrinsic tonifying structural flow of daoyin.

This is true whether the art is "identified" as a Muslim art, like Liuhe Xinyiquan, or a Buddhist art, like Shaolin Quan

Another way one could ask the question is, can martial arts have daoist fruition?  Does practice result in spontaneity (ziran)? effortlessness? healing? a return to baby-like simplicity? potency? awareness? 

Lastly, as a teacher looking at what I teach, if I am encouraging students to hold a specific type of intent or intention then I am teaching trance, not wuwei.  Likewise, if I am teaching students to assert themselves or improve themselves, then I am teaching pretense; not things as they actually are, not the discovery of constant virtue (daode). 

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*Note: I inelegantly use Taoism in the title and in the first paragraph to be searchable on Google and then I use Daoism in the rest of the article to be consistent with contemporary scholarly standards.  

Thursday
Jan172013

Timing Isn’t Everything

Every martial artist has heard the expression, ‘Timing is everything!’  I’d like to discuss how people come to this conclusion and why it might be an error.

I recently read the book Antifragile by Nassim Taleb , and while I believe he makes the enormous error of deciding what his preferences are in advance and then attempting to use his theory to justify them, the book none-the-less got me to think about a wide range of subjects and for that I am deeply grateful.  

Before we set off on our journey, here is a measurement primer in case you want to check my results.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the importance of speed in martial arts.  If we graph velocity relative to harm on an x/y axis we get an ‘S’ shape.  At the bottom we of the ‘S’ we see almost no harm as velocity increases along the horizontal axis until a critical velocity is reached and then we see harm rising very fast until we get to incapacity and death which causes harm on the vertical axis of the graph to level out rather abruptly.  You can’t be more harmed than dead.  

Harm (vertical axis) as a function of Speed (horizontal axis)The reason for this ‘S’ shape is in the equation for kinetic energy which is: half the mass times velocity squared, (0.5)mv².   Because velocity is squared this formula gives us an upward moving curve of ever increasing steepness.  But the beginning of the curve doesn’t increase very fast at all.  That’s why if you want to make practically any martial arts technique safer you can easily remove most of the kinetic energy simply by slowing it down.  

In fact, this reveals a large vulnerability.  If a given punch has just enough force to do me serious damage, and I can some how slow that punch down just a small amount I may be able to take away most of its kinetic energy, making it impotent.  A small change creating a big effect.

This is why timing is so important; without proper timing kinetic energy disappears.  It is also why techniques which compromise speed are generally inferior.  This leads to some interesting consideration if you practice internal martial arts slowly which we will deal with below, but first let’s look at the other part of the equation: the constant.

In the equation mv² the m for mass is generally assumed to be a constant.  We can see this in the equation for momentum which is: mass times velocity, mv.  If we graph mv on an x/y axis we get a straight diagonal line, not a curve.  Momentum is always measured as a vector force, meaning it has a direction.  Kinetic energy is measured in joules and refers to the energy released on contact, it is not a directional reference.  In the equation for momentum, if I increase the mass a small amount for any given velocity, the result is simply a small increase in momentum.  This is called a direct ratio.  

The (obvious?) implication of this is that the person with larger mass usually wins!  Big guys hit that critical steep part of the harm curve at slower velocities.  They also have more potential energy from the combination of weight and gravity just waiting to drop on you at any moment.  

There are important exceptions like blades and vulnerable areas.  It doesn’t take very much kinetic energy to poke out an eye, so as long as the finger gets to the eye (position) it can do damage.  Very sharp blades act on tiny surface areas allowing very small amounts of velocity to do catastrophic amounts of damage.  Likewise the fast speeds attainable by the business end of a club can easily trump larger mass.

Slow martial arts practice is usually very safe.  But this doesn’t mean that the mind should become sedate.  When we practice Taijiquan or other slow forms practices we must not give up our ability to move at maximum speed.  This means that no matter how quiet your body gets in motion, your mind must be totally spatially active.  During Tai Chi practice you must be able to jump away instantly in any direction as if your clothes were on fire!  It is the same thing with push hands, just because you can move slowly doesn’t mean you have given up the option to move at lightning speed.  In fact, to compromise your ability to move fast is a fatal error (it is described in the Tai Chi Classics as a form of “stagnation” which results from directing the qi to lead the body).

So perhaps readers are thinking, bummer, I thought martial arts would give me some advantage over people bigger than me.  Don’t despair.  Large is of course relative but most large people have less incentive to improve their structure or their ability to attack with whole body liquid mass.  Why?  Because they can usually win with lousy technique.  For this reason being large can be a vulnerability. If you have a mechanism for increasing your smaller mass or decreasing your opponent’s larger mass, you have a way to gain advantage.   

No, I don’t mean eating more fatty foods.  The way to increase mass is to practice using your entire mass in all your movements.  The way all internal martial arts are designed to do.  This is a very “anti-fragile” way to practice because if you are good at keeping all of your mass functioning as a liquid unit you have dramatically reduced your vulnerability to changes in timing!

And as everyone already knows, when fighting a dragon, cut off their tail first, then a wing, then go for a leg...or in martial arts terms use your whole body mass to attack their disconnected (lack of whole body liquid mass) arm, leg, or head.  Even a 400 pound man does not have an arm as thick as my torso.  

So, in conclusion, reliance on timing creates a vulnerability.  Methods which give up speed usually sacrifice kinetic energy too.  Internal martial arts train the body to be totally quiet and the mind totally active so that maximum speed is available at all times.  One of the primary reasons for training slowly is to practice mobilizing whole body liquid mass effectively bring much larger amounts of mass to the fight then is normally possible, thus creating the opportunity to defeat larger opponents.  

Sunday
Jan062013

Down Time

Just got a lot of down time in the mountains by a river, outside of internet and cell phone range.  Walked in the snow under the Giant Sequoia and a bunch of other great spots.  Stared at the fire.  Pulled a lot of books off of an ancient book shelf, lots stuff from over 100 years ago.  Ended up reading Congo kitabu.  Really interesting stuff written by an old school braggart Jean-Pierre Hallet.  Blew off his hand saving thousands from starvation while swimming away from crocodiles and then had to drive 250 miles through the mountains at night with the bloody stump, and then trained a lion to do tricks but had to let him go when... you get the idea.  But there was lots of interesting stuff about the colonial projects and the languages and cultures.  

Came back to a pile of books and I'm enjoying this one: The Boxers, China, and the World

Also I got a kick out of this article about pick pocketing:  A Pickpocket's Tale, The spectacular thefts of Appolo Robbins. Martial arts and pick pocketing have more in common than I realized.  Seems like he'd be an interesting guy to meet.  All martial arts have an element of trickery and that is part of what makes them fun.  

Don't forget to sign up for my workshop next Sunday at Soja, Rooting and Uprooting!

 

Thursday
Dec272012

The Clumsy Cowboy

When I was a little kid I had a little book called The Clumsy Cowboy that I treasured.  It was about a cowboy who couldn’t stay on his horse.  After going through some trials and tribulations he eventually solves the problem by attaching himself to the saddle with a bucket of glue.  No doubt, before the invention of stir-ups in the 3rd century a lot of cowboys had this problem.  But even after that one can imagine that wielding a weapon from horseback ran the risk that when the weapon came into contact with a fearsome warrior the sudden shock would transfer to the rider causing him to either drop the weapon or fall off his horse.  

Of course, whether or not one falls off their horse also depend on what sort of weapon they are using and how they are using it.  But any force transferring into the rider’s body is going to either hurt or knock him off the horse.  If the force transfers to the rider’s wrists he will probably drop the weapon.  The goal in such collisions of force is for the rider to transfer all the shock directly to the horse.  The horse can handle it.

This is clearly one of the origins of horse stance.  Shaolin and Tai Chi are almost identical in the way they use horse stance.  When we punch from horse stance it is essential that whatever resistance we meet is transfered to the imaginary horse-- the imaginary horse between our legs that is.  Really this imaginary horse is the lower part of the dantian and at the physical level requires that we relax and expand our base, especially the underside of the thighs, to redistribute all incoming force.  This can only be learned by having a teacher who understands how it works resist your punches while giving direct feedback about the quality of the punch.  Although the mechanism should be the same in Shaolin and Tai Chi, meaning it could be classified as either internal or external depending I guess on how well one does it, most people who learn to punch from horse stance only learn to generate power.  

Horse stance is not a particularly good stance for punching, in fact, it is a bit ridiculous.  To get power from a horse stance most people lean and push through their feet, which is of course wrong.  The whole reason for using horse stance to train punches is so that the student can learn to hit while staying perfectly upright and simultaneously transfer all the incoming force to the horse.  It’s a difficult stance, if the student can accomplish this task in horse stance then that skill will transfer easily to any other stance.  

Tuesday
Dec252012

Compression

I often hear martial artists talk about compression as one of the ways of gathering power, particularly in the joints.  The idea is that one can compress energy and then release it against an opponent.  This technique works.  But it has some big flaws that can be exploited, it is fragile.  When an opponent compresses themselves they create a moment of rigidity.  Whenever an opponent is rigid they are vulnerable to either being broken by a big mass crashing into them, or having their connection to the ground broken by a tiny bit of upward movement.  Even more embarrassing, if I can add some weight to an opponent’s self-compression they may tiddlywink themselves backwards or simply collapse.  

So one of the reasons all internal marital artists practice shrinking and expanding is to ensure that we can shrink without the slightest bit of compression.  This by itself has intrinsic healing ability.

In my experience, compression is painful if practiced a lot, and tends to wear out the joints.  It is probably harmful to the internal organs and I suspect it creates a lot of negative emotion.  

Yes, compression can be used for generating power but its downside is nearly unlimited while its upside is small and over rated.  (Kind of like fruit cake:)

Wednesday
Dec192012

Invest in Loss

I've written about this topic before, Not Your Grandmother’s Tai Chi and here too.  And I recommend you go over to the Yang Family Tai Chi forum and read what the expert translators say "Invest in Loss" means.

Here is the question:  

I am told of a quote from Cheng Man-ching, "Moreover, a beginner cannot possibly avoid losing and defeat, so if you fear defeat you may as well not even begin. If you want to study, begin by investing in loss. An investment in loss eliminates any greed for superficial advantages... Concentrating your ch'i to become soft is the only proper method to invest in loss." translation by Mark Hennessy.

"Invest in loss" is an expression which has become very widespread as a part of any English language explanation of tai chi push-hands.  As Louis Swaim explains in the link above, it is actually two characters, eat and loss (chi kui).  And that any fluent Chinese speaker would hear it as closely related to the ubiquitous phrase, eat bitter (chi ku).  

The problem is to make it apply to tai chi practice.  As I said in my first link above, I believe the phrase implies willingly losing as a method of learning better ways of moving and fighting.

For example, take a better position by moving your foot, without letting your opponent know that is what you are doing.  Use your mind in tricky ways.  Plan, not to win but to cheat.  

I also like thinking that Cheng Man-Ching knew he was in New York City and knew what a bear market strategy was.  He was aware that he was talking to Americans and liked a translation that had the term 'invest' in it.  Invest in loss sounds like a short sale on the stock options market.  Why not make money while you're losing?  Americans will understand that.

But I also had the great fortune to read Paul A. Cohen's book Speaking to History: The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China , which explains the origin of "eat bitter."  The premise of the book is that the Goujian story is as well known to all Chinese as Cinderella is to Americans.  And yet, most foreigners who become fluent in Chinese never have an opportunity to learn the story or to contemplate it's meaning.  The expression "eat bitter" is often explained as a rough equivalent of "pay your dues," or Muhammad Ali's "Don't quit, suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion" or "misery has its merits."  Except that it is often explained that Chinese people kind of expect to suffer and don't necessarily expect a reward later on, although they may hope for one.  I have often heard that in the context of learning, "eating bitter" is a byproduct of dedication and subordination to a worthy teacher.  

But Paul Cohen turns all that on its head because the story of Goujian is very straight forward.  He was conquered and he totally accepted the most humiliating subordination for years before getting his kingdom back by trickery.  Then he secretly plotted a strategy of total revenge over 20 years.  The way he kept himself focussed on the task of revenge was by wearing furs in summer and going bare chested in winter, and by hanging an extremely bitter gallbladder from his doorway which he would lick every time he walked under it.  So eating bitter, or eating loss, means to accept defeat publicly while secretly planning totally revenge.  

That fits very nicely with my understanding of "invest in loss."  Let your opponent think he won, but position yourself to break his legs.  

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As an aside, I am very sympathetic to those who wish to see push-hands as a way to transmit non-aggression or even non-intention, giving up control and letting go of self-assertion.  But I think the "game of push-hands" is at best a tool, if people are using it to improve skill or attain attributes they are likely to charge right past such open ended forms of daoist fruition.  The dao of wuwei has no method, no requirements and no form.

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Irony Alert!  After having written the above text, I spent about two hours editing it and added another section.  The stuff I said was totally awesome, like the best writing I’ve ever done, and it was full of secrets too.  And then I hit the cancel button by mistake...I guess that’s what happens when you title a post “invest in loss.”  

I’ll just tag a few more lines on here but I just don’t have the time to re-do it.

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As another aside, (and I've written about this a bit in the first link up top)  Dominance is in our genetic code.  A two week old goat has good rooting and uprooting skills because they use those skills to establish social dominance.  We are the same except we also establish dominance verbally, spatially, with money, with knowledge, with mates, etc....  So when people set out to learn martial arts they naturally frame it as a dominance exercise.  Complicating things, self-defense is not about dominance, but violence professionals like prison guards, bouncers, and police are often required by their job to assert dominance so a lot of dominance training gets totally mixed up with the larger subject of martial arts.  

Push hands can be a fun dominance and submission game.  I concede that.  It is dominance by either superior skill, sensitivity or mysterious qi cultivation. The Cheng Man-Ching school, the school most responsible for popularizing the expression "Invest in Loss," tends to teach push hands as a dominance game.  They are often so hell bent on not losing that they collapse their chests in a desperate effort to evade.  This is a tragedy because with the loss of upright posture there is a profound loss of fruition.  

When people practice push hands with perfect upright they completely discard pushing!  From there effortlessness and stillness are revealed.  Non-aggression, wuwei, our true nature (de), all manifest spontaneously. 

Monday
Dec172012

Rooting and Uprooting

I'm teaching a workshop called Rooting and Uprooting
At Soja Martial Arts
Sunday 1/13/2013 
 From: 11:00 am - 2:00 pm
Soja is located at:  2406 Webster, Oakland, CA, 94612 between 24th & 25th Streets.

Rooting is the skill of being unmovable and it is also a way of generating power.

This class will lay out a progression of exercises for developing perfect rooting skills. The better one's understanding of rooting is, the easier it is to defeat those skills in others. Thus, the internal martial arts are infused with the saying “Know your enemy better than he knows himself!"  Most of class will be lively two person partner work, beginners with some athletic experience are welcome.

For Acupuncturists and Bodyworkers we will also cover the exact method for correctly differentiating the movement of the yin and yang meridians so that qi will spontaneously rise up from the bubbling-well.

Workshop cost: $25 early bird, $30 day for Soja current Adult martial arts members; and Early bird / day of $35 / $40 for non Soja Members. Soja offers partial scholarships for those in financial need.

Sign up by calling: Peter at 510.832.7652    or Emailing:  info@sojamartialarts.com

or got to SojaMartialArts.com and click through to Schedule/Adult Workshops.

Friday
Dec142012

Perfect Upright

One of the most important basics that most martial artists teach is having an upright posture.  This is often the very first lesson.  Cat stance and horse stance are usually the first two stances taught in Northern Shaolin and both require an upright posture, and the same is true for the vast majority of martial arts.  A good martial arts teacher will correct a student's uprightness incessantly.

The Chinese word for upright is zheng 正 and it carries a lot of different meanings.  Like our English term, it invokes the notion of an "upright character" but is perhaps even stronger in that it implies good posture comes from being a virtuous person and visa versa.  It also implies a correct way of being, and by inference good citizenship, and is even used to mean "government approved."  

The ritual culture of China is ancient and until the 20th Century was a defining characteristic of both national and local governance.  So rituals were refered to as upright or not upright, meaning they were conducted in a way and for a purpose which was either orthodox or heterodox* depending, I suppose, on whether it served the interests of a given authority.   

The Daoist influence on ritual frames this uprightness as a form of naturalness, available to everyone.  Having upright qi is the basis of the ritual master's prowess.  Upright qi is also the result or the fruition of ritual, much like the result of meditation is stillness.  For that reason, upright also means to rectify, that is, to heal through returning to simplicity.  

Theater (which is traditionally understood as ritual exorcism) makes the notion of upright and upright character vivid by contrasting the upright glowing qi radiance of one character with the rumpled hunched character of another.

So given all the cultural significance of uprightness, even if it had no martial function it might still be a key part of Chinese martial arts; however, uprightness is also an essential part of martial arts skills and self healing.

In a surprise attack, the simple act of fighting to recover an upright posture can be decisive.  For children and smaller adults a head attack or a punch straight upwards is the quickest route to unstoppable force. Having an upright centerline is a necessary step to many other skills including evading with small movements and turning around ones central axis to attain a superior position or execute throws, to name a few of the more important ones.  

But this post is titled "Perfect Upright."  Knowing "upright" is pretty easy, it's the sky, it's always there.  It's also the spontaneous ability of all the liquid aspects of ones body to go immediately to level, like water in a glass or the mast of a sailboat pointing at the sky.  Even better, every cell in the body has fluid in it, it is as if we are made of sand and every grain of sand knows where up is.  Perfect uprightness is effortless.  Anything less than perfect uprightness requires effort.

Why is this a problem?  If perfect uprightness is effortless, why would it need to be taught at all?

The first reasons is that humans are really good at carrying things.  When as toddlers we learn to carry things, we find it very amusing because anytime we pick something up or drop it, we have to completely re-balance every cell in our bodies.  By the time we can speak we are already perfect masters of this skill and it has become unconscious, so we don't even notice we are doing it.  In addition, we master more complex skills, like carrying a glass of water without spilling it.  That requires loads of unconscious tension because half the cells in our body are doing twice the re-balancing work to compensate for the part of our bodies which remains still.  Normal face to face communication, like conventionally holding our head in one position to show we are listening also requires loads of unconscious tension.  

Bao Zheng, The Upright Judge, A Deity & Theatrical FigureThe second reason is that humans are really good at pushing.  I recently spent a lot of time with a few two week old baby goats.  They are already masters of pushing because they use it socially to establish dominance and submission.  They love pushing on a persons hand.  If there is no break in the person's structure they will change position and try again, if there is a break in structure, they will plow right through.  They do this with a lot of sensitivity. Humans are the same, and it is an unconscious process.  Ask a few eight year old boys to stand on roughly the same spot and they will start pushing each other, usually on the shoulder, each trying to control the spot--back and forth, stumbling then recovering--they love doing it and it's totally automatic.  When people learn martial arts they often get social dominance behavior mixed up with good fighting skills.  Pushing is not a martial skill, it is purely for social dominance purposes. If the person you are pushing is stable you will push yourself backwards. 

Upright power is among the most basic and most advanced skills.  Perfect upright power is one of the most exciting things a martial artist can experience!

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*Orthoprax/heteroprax are better terms for ritual because it is something one does not a specific way of thinking.

Sunday
Dec092012

Antifragile

Hat tip to Rick Matz over at Cook Ding's Kitchen:

I recommend this article in the Wall Street Journal by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  What Taleb says has interesting implications for martial arts training.  I'd love to hear what my readers think of this.  Here is his book, which I'm planning to read over the holidays. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

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Also, this article may be useful for getting us to think about how we condition ourselves.  What is the right metaphor here?  Is this a tough nut to crack or have we just discovered a few pieces of the puzzle?

Sunday
Dec092012

The Super Hero Complex

Many people take an interest in martial arts because they treasure the image of a righteous and powerful do-gooder, also known as ‘the super hero complex.’  My goal is to inspire or re-inspire the superhero in you!  Yes, there is irony here, but there is and has always been irony in martial arts.  

Not too surprisingly, many people have tried to find an antidote to this irony by carrying a gun or pepper spray, or some other magic bullet.  And there are a whole slew of “reality based” martial arts, which (of course) are not.  Martial arts irony is robust.

click on the image to purchase it from the artistPlanning for a possible sudden attack at sometime in the future requires fantasy--lots of fantasy.  And fantasy requires an enormous amount of energy to maintain.  The best answers in self-defense are based on asking, what kind of person am I? and what kinds of violence are statistically most likely to happen to me.  But identity isn’t set in stone, it requires a lot of fantasy and effort to maintain, and if you use violence statistics to minimize risk, your risk starts getting very small. So the Daoist answer to the problem of persistent irony in the practice of martial arts is to invest in the power of emptiness.  

And then to pile irony on top of irony, in discovering this natural emptiness we also discover our inner super hero powers.  Wow.  

Why are there so many naysayers?  What is wrong with knowingly entertaining ourselves?  What is so contemptible about delighting in self-discovery?  In exploring the possibilities of human nature?  

No doubt, some will poo-poo this idea by saying that what is learnable always falls within a clearly discernible and measured curriculum.  But I say to them: what is most exciting to learn happens in the face of dark chaos.  And I venture that where there are many short-cuts, there are as many blind alleys.  

Would you stake your identity on being an effortless emptiness super hero?

Tuesday
Dec042012

Theory

Experience and theory talk to each other.  New experience (hopefully) causes theory to be either re-worked or thrown out and replaced by new theory, which prompts experiments which in turn lead to new experiences.  

However, language is not very good at communicating experience.  There are may places where language can fail us.  I have the sense that my body-mind-experience has real limits, but where they are is often unknown. Those limits are sometimes presumed based on what I can remember, or think I can remember, of my own experience, they may even be based on what I've heard about my potential.  So I have limits but I don't know what they are.

Language can be burdensome.  

So there is experience (mixed with uncertainty), and there is a portion of that experience which can be felt as a kind of knowing.  And that knowing can be translated into language as some sort of metaphor, often metaphors on top of metaphors.  Some of those metaphors are unconscious.  Some are just useful because they point to some pivotal aspect of experience, but may otherwise be misleading. And these metaphors are put together into theories we then use to formulate experiments to test and replicate our experiences, and to share with others.  

If we could simply and effectively demonstrate and describe the experiments for replicating an experience we could, theoretically, by pass the need for theory.  But experience is uncertain, metaphors are imperfect, and experiments have artificial boundaries, so nature has stuck us with a never ending conversation between theory and practice.

So always approach theory with doubt.  There probably is another way to solve the problem, whatever it happens to be, no matter how insistant your teacher is about a particular method or your lineage is about a particular way of stating things.

Which seems like a good enough intro to this video which attempts to answer the question, why do we have a brain?  There is a funny joke about 2 minutes in.   

Tuesday
Nov272012

Lost Knowledge

I love this video because when you see it done right you instantly realize that everyone else is doing it wrong.  
How did this type of knowledge get lost?  Did a generation of archers go to their graves bemoaning the advent of the gun?  Or did pieces of knowledge get peeled off bit by bit over time?  It is also amazing that this knowledge can suddenly go viral on Facebook and everyone interested in the subject gets to see it right away.  The inventor guy doesn't even have to get famous.
 
backwards complexityI went to the Natural History Museum in Salt Lake City last week.  The sandals and shoes of native Americans caught my eye because there was an exhibit of backwards complexity, the oldest shoes 1500 BP (Before Present) were the most intricate and developed while the 500 BP ones were kind of shabby.  There were also some 1600 BP boots that had been re-produced to look like a sweet pair of waterproof Uggs.
 
I hear my musician friends complain that, yes digital is great, it has so much potential, but people mostly listen to small files that filter out all the complexity and detail in the sound.  
I'm not romantic about this.  I don't think we all need to live in houses with hand made nails!  Then again, hand made nails are pretty cool. The "global market" seems to be providing us with a lot of choices lately.
Lifestyle, diet, health, birthing and dying; what did our ancestors have that we have lost? what are we losing right now that we take for granted? what are we discovering or re-discovering right now?  what will the future bring?
Again, the video is shocking because it is so obvious, now.  But there must have been a generation for whom it was not obvious.
 
I feel like I've made a lot of progress with this blog.  When I started out, there was a lot of resistance to the idea that martial arts and theater are siblings of the same family.  That the skills of fighting and the skills of acting and dancing and improvising and playing music and performing exorcism and mediation and trance all fit together.  Now-a-days, some people I meet look at me like I'm crazy when I explain what my blog is about--like duhhh, everybody already knows that.  
But of course it's not that simple, most people can say it without being able to see it.  
But I'm excited, I think internal martial arts are going to make a big new splash soon.  Call it the fourth wave.  The first wave was hippy inspired, "go with the flow."  The second was exercise is too painful but I'm a yuppie so I do "qigong for health and fitness."  The third arose from the ashes of the historical post Boxer "New Life" and "Pure Martial" nationalist movements having seduced a generation of utilitarian "Westerners" into believing that martial artists of the past were all professional fighter dudes, we'll call it the "I wish I could kick your ass with qi" movement.  The fourth wave is going to be totally different.  People will step into training environments, total body mind awareness lifestyles.  Like sacred cities or holy mountains, but with free wifi and capracocoa.* It will be called the "Oh, That's how it works!!!" movement.  
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If you are in or near the San Francisco Bay Area, please come to my workshop this Sunday at Soja.  See for yourself what fourth wave internal martial arts are all about!
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*(hot chocolate made with fresh goat's milk--do try it)
Wednesday
Nov212012

OODA Loop

Quoting from Wikipedia:

The OODA loop has become an important concept in both business and military strategy. According to Boyd, decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. An entity (whether an individual or an organization) that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can thereby "get inside" the opponent's decision cycle and gain the advantage.

 

There isn’t all that much to say.  Training can shorten your loops, allowing you to get inside a less trained person’s loop.  Fast loops are good, slow loops are bad. Being unpredictable even to the point of chaos is generally an advantage if it keeps forcing the opponent to re-loop without being able to execute an effective action.

The problem with martial arts games of all types (wrestling, boxing, MMA, push-hands) from a fighting point of view is that they limit you.  When you have a lot of training and you are suddenly confronted with a new set of rules which deny you those training options or action, you will likely get stuck.  Why?  Because you train for speed, and when you train for speed certain conditions will trigger a certain kind of action.  If you train to pull off particular types of set-ups, or throws or strikes, your body will just start doing them when the opening appears.  If the rule set doesn’t allow it, you will have to spend a second stopping your body from making the move.  Your mind can get stuck making sure that you really aren't allowed to do what your body has trained to do.  Your body won’t believe that it isn't allowed to do that thing which has worked so well in the past until it has had time to adjust to the new set of rules.

If you are training self-defense, you are training people to break the rules, to do the unexpected, to temporarily abandon social constraints.  

This is related to the observation that oftentimes martial artists aren’t able to use their training in a surprise attack. The conditions just don’t seem right, you’d have to keep telling yourself, yes, go, do it now.  The second time you get attacked it probably has a better chance of working, but who gets surprise attacked twice now-a-days?  

The OODA loop is also important for training to win games in which both people are trained with the same set of rules.  It is still possible to be faster and more difficult to predict.  There are also things you can do to disorient or shock your opponent.  A great deal of tai chi is focuses on the disorientation aspect of the OODA loop.  

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One of the interesting training questions that comes up in partner work is the distance vs. action ratio.  Acting first usually trumps waiting because it forces the opponent to re-loop, dealing with an attack rather than attacking.  But if you are ready for an attack there is a certain distance where any action is a mistake because it will reveal your intent too soon, giving the opponent time and options for a powerful response.  This is why in Greco-roman wrestling, for instance, there are these long stand-offs where both wrestlers are waiting for the other person to make a mistake.   Swords and knives have this quality too, as long as both parties want to avoid getting cut any thrust of the knife makes the hand vulnerable to attack.  Tai Chi is famous for playing in this close quarters realm where whoever acts first loses.  But of course a player of great skill will disorient their opponent on contact.

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OK I've said enough about that.  It came up a while back with Tabby Cat, who has a new video.

The problem is obvious if you watch it.  The guy Tabby is pushing with looks like a loaded gun forced to keep the "safety" on.  He sees ways to act, but then remembers he isn't allowed to do that: OODA loop shut down.  It's very different then two people who train with the same set of rules.  There is something else important and valuable to see here, namely that Tabby is easily uprooting his opponent by using his opponent's tension.  It is a very difficult skill to learn because you have to comprehend what is happening and melt all the tension in your body.  But what I always look for in a Tai Chi guy is, can they do it in the form?  Can they do it in a big range of motion?  Can they do it to the side?  Up, down, left, right, front, back, circle? From behind?  On the ground? or over their head?  (While sipping tea is my goal.) Notice he only has the skill upward from a low position close to the body.  That would be the easiest position.  Sort of like treading water in the deep end of the pool.  Swimming in the arctic it ain't.  

Anyway that is my conceited opinion and that is what I was thinking when I got to the later part of the video where he wraps the red pregnancy cloth around his arms.  OK perhaps it is because I've been doing too much relaxation of deep unconscious tension lately, but when I saw that, I just about busted a gut!  Now that we know you can tread water in the deep end, why not try it in the kiddie pool!

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Well, if you've read this far I have a little treat for you which is mostly unrelated.  I have been thinking about advice to give beginners who what to go far in internal martial arts.  Here is my advice.  Don't try to make any technique work.  It is quite counter intuitive, but the problem is, if you try to make a technique work you will be conditioning yourself to feel either 1) a type of active resistance, or 2) success.  The problem with the feeling of active resistance is that when you actually have the internal gongfu you won't feel any resistance.  The problem with the success feeling is that when your technique fails in a violent confrontation you are likely to freeze.  Now I don't know from experience that the feeling of success in a flaw, but my gut tells me it is.  Anyway, to win by force is a mistake.  What we want is that you just practice the techniques, if there is resistance change, if not keep going.  In the beginning it is the outer forms that really matter.  Know the technique, don't try to make it work.  A subtle difference perhaps, but I'm finding it is a powerful teaching key.

Thursday
Nov152012

Identity and Cosmology

From about the age of two, we start carrying things around.  These are our things.  These things are somewhat like the 150 or so people we recognize as our group, and the much smaller bunch of people we call family and friends.  Belonging is not the same thing as owning, but it takes up space in our body memory in a similar way.  We carry these identity objects around with us.  I know what books I have on my shelf even when I’m a thousand miles away.  When I go backpacking I know that I’m carrying 42 things and I know exactly where each of them is.  

This stuff we carry around is the stuff of our identity.  Likewise we learn ways of walking that match up with the groups we belong to.  We learn ways of holding our head that communicate who we are and our status within these groups.  Identity changes when it is confronted by reality.  Sometimes it changes fluidly, sometimes it is very resistant to change.

Our place in a family seems stable, and may in fact be stable for a very long time, but it is what it is because we agree that it is.  It can be disturbed.  Certainly the things we own can come and go, some things much more easily than others.

Identity floats on the edge of the unconscious.

Cosmology is similar to identity.  In its simplest form it is just the world around us.  In reality we only see a very small field of our vision in focus, we only feel contact on our skin, but our mind imagines a much bigger field in focus and sensory awareness all of the time.  The feeling of the world around us is a very strong feeling.  

I’m sitting in a cafe right now looking out the window, but I have a strong feeling sense of where the espresso machine is behind me, also where the bathroom door is and how many tables are in the corner.  Now it is entirely possible that someone just moved the tables (I’m wearing ear plugs) or stole the espresso machine, and if I were to turn around right now and see those things gone it would be a shock (Don’t worry, I just checked and they are all still there.)  This kind of cosmological presence is entirely in my mind, yet it is somehow stored in my body.  I can very clearly imagine the feeling in my body of walking up the carpeted stairs in the three story house I grew up in, I can even remember the feeling of wrestling on and rolling down those stairs.  If I were to go visit that house and find that it had been torn down I would still have these feelings.  

The sun and the moon both move “across” the sky.  Our feeling of the sky is the beginnings of cosmological awareness.  The word “across” is in fact a pretty vague concept, but we all know what it means.  That’s cosmology.  At some point we learn or we envision that the sun and the moon go around the earth.  And then we learn that the earth is actually spinning and that while it is spinning around itself it is also spinning around the sun, and that the sun is spinning around the universe and that the universe is expanding.  

Cosmology also floats on the edge of the unconscious.

Identity and cosmology often overlap.  For instance, part of what we think we know about muscles is cosmology, part of it is identity.  Part of the concept “muscles” is found in how our body feels, part of it is the way we feel emotionally about our bodies, and part of it is how we understand muscles to function in relationship to movement.  Each of these experiences has a kind of built on top of, interwoven layered quality.  It is part identity, and part cosmology.  We pick up part of this “muscles” concept and carry it around as an aspect of identity, it has changed a few times since we first picked it up at around age four.  Our cosmological notion of muscle functionality has also been changing with the accumulation of knowledge and experience.  

Identity and cosmology are both vulnerable to reality.  They can be altered, torn down, shocked, disturbed, wrangled, bolstered, tested, and abandoned.  

I bring all this to my reader’s attention because I want to say something about the roles of teacher and student.  

In the professional dance world, a complement teachers would bandy about fairly regularly was, “I like the way you take correction.”  This complement signified that the dance student was receptive to changes.  Perhaps it also signified a degree of fluidity in identity and cosmology.

My job as a martial arts teacher is to identify the student’s problem, and then to state, demonstrate, or show him or her what is right and what is wrong.  9 times out of 10 this will challenge the identity of the student to some degree.

The student’s job in this identity challenging situation is to understand why a particular attribute or action is correct and why another is incorrect.  It is not usually the student’s responsibility to fix the problem on the spot, but rather to recognize the quality or attribute in question.  

Another part of my job as a teacher is to keep changing metaphors, descriptions and activities until the student sees or feels something new.  9 times out of 10 this is a challenge to cosmology.

The student’s job is to appropriate this new cosmological “idea” or “experience” into his or her daily practice.  That generally involves some kind of perceptual shift, which, with practice, becomes a new way of being.

Change can be fun and/or scary or subtle and/or unconscious.  I suppose that sometimes identity and cosmology shift in gradual ways and other times they make quantum leaps.  I suspect that it is a teacher’s sensitivity to the process of these changes that makes him or her a good teacher.  As Keith Johnstone  put it:  Teaching is not a substance, of which a little bit is good and a lot is better--bad teaching is deeply harmful!

Identity and cosmology (this is from Daoism now) are illusions maintained by effort.  That effort requires energy from food and the (original qi) stuff we have stored deep in our kidneys.  When we weaken ourselves carefully, we automatically put less effort into identity and cosmology making them slightly more vulnerable to softening and flexibility.  But of course becoming too weak too suddenly can cause a sudden collapse of identity or cosmology leading to a kind of snap back, effectively strengthening our perceptions of self and world.   We evolved this way because it was good for survival.  For instance, when we have a close shave with death, the moment we are safe our bodies release hormones in our blood which cause us to feel strong family-like bonds with whoever we happens to be with, changing our identity to improve our survival.   

In case you are wondering, there is a short cut to all of this.  It is to become completely empty in totally undifferentiated chaos.  That, by the way, is what the name Tai Chi actually means.

Monday
Nov122012

Internal Power 101

Hey Everybody!  I'm teaching a workshop called Internal Power 101
At Soja Martial Arts
Sunday 12/2/2012 
 From: 11:00 am - 5:00 pm
Soja is located at:  2406 Webster, Oakland, CA, 94612 between 24th & 25th Streets.

The workshop will be an overview of the power generation methods used in all traditional Chinese martial arts: Tai Chi, Xingyi, and Bagua Zhang. 

Workshop cost: $90 for non Soja Members, 10% off for Soja current Adult members.
Here is the skinny:

What is perfect structure and what are its limits? Laozi said, “Knowing when to stop is wisdom.” How do we know when we’ve had enough of a particular type of training? How is it possible to have a calm body and a wild mind at the same time? How can we prepare emotionally and physically for the hardships which happen after a violent encounter? Is it possible to attack in such a way that the opponent can not figure out how to resist? How can a martial art be consistent with the Daoist cultivation of emptiness (xu-kong), non-aggression (wuwei), and natural spontaneity (ziran)? 

Because comprehending a kinesthetic idea requires actually being able to do it, the answers to these questions became a list of solo and partnered experiments that fall into three general categories:

Jing 精- Discovering the underlying structure expressed in traditional Chinese concepts of anatomy and physiology through the exploration and testing of daoyin and shaolin movements and postures.

Qi 氣- Dissolving conscious and unconscious tension in the body in order to reveal the unconditioned freedom of our water-baby-like original nature.

Shen 神- The development of an active spatial awareness which is unconstrained by the trances of everyday living.

11 am - 5:30 pm  6 hours with an hour lunch break (12:30-1:30) $80 (early registration) or $90 after.
 
Please note:  Soja does not offer refunds for this workshop for any reason, but in case your schedule changes at the last minute in most cases we will apply your funds toward future workshops or regularly scheduled classes.

Scott P. Phillips taught the Tai Chi and Qigong programs at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, before that he spent ten years studying Daoism with Liu Ming the founder of Five Branches University, and he has practiced martial arts all of his life. He is a senior student of renowned masters George Xu and Bing Gong. He has an extensive background in ethnic dance and improvisational theater, and also teaches Baguazhang, Luihe Xinyi, Yiquan standing meditation, Northern Shaolin as a performing art, and Daoyin.

 

Sign up by calling: Peter at 510.832.7652    

or Emailing:  info@sojamartialarts.com

or got to SojaMartialArts.com and click through to Schedule/Adult Workshops.

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