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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.

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.  

Monday
Aug262013

The Binary Mind

I've been meaning to write about a short list of people.  And I have a list of blog ideas to follow up on.  But this morning I'm thinking about something else that is holding me back.

Johnstone's discussion of status in the last post can be seen from a different angle.  I seem to have developed the ability to decide whether to have a positive or a negative outlook.  I can choose whether to frame the world by its positives or by its negatives.  I'm not sure if the split in my mind is becoming stronger or if I'm just becoming more aware of it.  

This applies to people too.  I can choose whether to view someone with respect or contempt.  If I view everyone with respect I become a happy, low status, bumbling idiot.  If I view everyone with contempt I become a dower fashion model.

This applies to objects in the world and events too.  I can treat the chair I'm sitting on with contempt or respect.  It changes the way I sit, and feel.  I can treat everything in your house with contempt, or everything in San Francisco with contempt.  Or, I can treat everything on a mountain path with respect or everything on someone elses blog with respect.  

The norm however is to mix and match, to respect the weather and have contempt for a particular person.  Or even to have contempt for a person's clothing choices but respect for their opinions on food.  

I can respect how cool a chair looks but have contempt for the lack of thought that went into making it comfortable to sit in.  

I would posit that this (0,1) or (+,–) is fundament to thinking.  An idea or a complex opinion is really a long chain of pluses and minuses or perhaps a series of ( 0 )boxes inside of ( 1 )boxes, inside of (0) boxes (n+1, n+2...)(n–1, n–2...).  

Perhaps, to my readers, this seems too robotic, or too enlightened, or too obvious.  If this is the case then you have either consciously or unconsciously put this post in the negative box.  On the other hand if you are feeling that this post could very well improve your driving skills (do you treat stop signs with contempt?), or get you a promotion at work, or make you a better meditator, or mediator, then you have consciously or unconsciously put this post in a positive box.  

Someone might like me because I'm a jerk. Or think I'm a jerk, but love my ideas. But still, I'm not seeing any nuance in the world, only layers of pluses and minuses, respect and contempt, pity and purchase.  

The decision, up or down, is, I think, faster than the conscious mind.  The conscious mind is always playing catch-up.  In other words, our mind chooses to prefer certain musical notes, in certain combinations, to other tones, and only after the decision has been made can we explain it to ourselves.  If we don't explain it to ourselves, it remains unconscious, but it is still happening all the time.  These preferences are imprinting on us all day long, and at night during our dreams.  

So how is it possible that I am claiming to be able to choose?  I suspect that, for instance, I look at a baby and I think that is a baby, it is a beautiful unique human life, I must respect it, and it has such cute eyes, but it has a pretty ugly face, and that scream is really annoying!  Well, I think it is possible to just look at the baby and erase all of those pluses and minuses.  After a moment or two of looking at this baby as a zero, no doubt another preference will come up.  But I can just erase that preference too.  At that point I have a choice.  I can choose respect or contempt.  Once I've chosen contempt (for instance), the justifications and explanations just flow out like hot water from the Old Faithful geyser at Yellow Springs National Park.  One of the more boring and predictable geysers at Yellow Stone.

 

Friday
Aug232013

Failing at the Beginning and the End

International living treasure, Keith Johnstone.  

If you haven't read his book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre  ...well, you're missing out on one of the best books ever written.  But then maybe I'm biased.  I'm not a freaking robot, automaton, empty shirt!  Then again, how would I know if I was one?  

When I finally got Sgt. Rory Miller to read Johnstone, he wrote back to me, "Martial arts are to fighting as acting is to improvisation."

There is a little bit of new material in these videos, stuff that isn't in Impro.  I only know that because I've read the book countless times.  One thing that is new, is that he defines trance simply as the absence of a little voice in the back of our heads analyzing, strategizing, calculating and attempting to steer our actions.  

Having had a bit of time on my trip to read some Buddhist texts with my wife, I realized that I reached enlightenment. My wife says that regardless of this achievement, I'm still responsible for washing the dishes. Unfortunately, being an unlicensed immortal, there has been no one around to give me a certificate of completion.  Buddhists and Daoists alike, use various description to describe the same experience.  One calls it a view, another calls it a base, and another calls it a pervasive awareness, complete emptiness, a limitless release of the spatial mind.  The Zen tradition, Dzogchen (Tibetan Buddhism), Zuowang (Daoism), all refer to transcending duality via a non-conceptual method.  

I hear it reported that some people have trouble getting non-conceptual methods to work, so they try other stuff.  It is really out of all this other stuff that someone came up with the term 'enlightened,' because if you just do the non-conceptual thing, well...it doesn't lead to that kind of naming.

If I were to get up on a stage and start explicitly teaching non-conceptuality, I would use the stage itself as my metaphor.  The experience is like an empty stage.  You can put anything on it.  It doesn't change the stage or make it go away.  You can easily be so involved in what is on the stage that you forget there is a stage there.

So I would hazard that everything on the stage is a sort of trance.  I haven't squared this with Keith Johnstone's explanation.  But I'm working on it.

Something he says in the 6th video in this series is that movement experts as they age can get really grumpy and crotchety in general and tend to have a hard time improvising.  This is because their bodies know what to do.  That's a bit close to home.

I mean, I'm tapped into the flow and all, but the process of teaching what is right, what is correct movement-wise, is a double edged spear.  It is imperative for us as teachers that we let go of knowing.  It is imperative that we keep returning to 'beginner's body;' to uncoordinated, clumsy, wild and empty.

As a student, I have mostly held improvisation as the fruition of practice.  I studied with Johnstone when I was 15 and the damage was permanent.  

It is dreadfully important for teachers to create situations where they themselves fail. Otherwise we condition ourselves to believe we are correct.  If we are conditioned to a belief, we will be insulated from reality.  We have to keep creating new tests.  And if we want to condition our students to be free fighters, then they also need to experience us, their teachers, failing miserably.  Did you know that if coffee makes you sleepy, it is diagnostic for ADHD?

Probably not great business advice huh?  Still, I'm going to get yinyang t-shirts printed that say 'Sometimes I'm a Loser,' and make a go of it.  I heard that the Italians named weak coffee Americano, because they wanted to make fun of us weak Americans.  Like taking on the insult Yankee, which meant one who masturbates a lot, I think we as teachers can try to find some actual humility.  Like the stage, it's always there, it's always available...

There is an imperative for us to figure out how to put improvisation at the very beginning and keep it at the center of martial arts training at every level.  

_________________

Johnstone says we are a culture that fears trance.  Perhaps we could say, wherever modernity arises trance goes into hiding.  When we talk about the art of improvisational movement we are talking about going into different types of trance.  There are many, many way to do this, setting a rhythm, catching a feeling, imagining a scene.  

Isn't it interesting that there is a parallel between Johnstone talking about the central challenge of knowing what the person we are on stage with wants, and the Taijiquan classics (Sunzi too) talking about knowing your adversary better than she knows herself?  

Martial Arts forms and stances are really like scripts that we extemporize off of, we use them to spin off into chaos and then we fight our way back to them.   In a pure improvisation we wouldn't know them, we might not even remember them.  

This body forgetting is a great challenge.  Are tension and remembering one and the same?

 

Wednesday
Aug072013

Wondering Where the Wealth is Coming From?

My wife and I are coming to the end of a three month road trip.  The future still looks uncertain, as I suspected it would.

I'm in Bend at the moment.  There is more ballet here than martial arts.  I don't know how to interpret that information.  

For those following our trip spatially, after leaving Hamilton Montana we travelled up to Glacier National Park, which is very cool.  We could have spent a month there I think, perhaps on a future trip.  On the way out we visited the Miracle of America Museum on my sister's recommendation (she is a museum-ologist).  It is an amazingly weird place, there is a whole room dedicated to old chain saws, there are old fighter jets and missile carriers and farm equipment.  There is a fantastic history of the snow mobile.  Lot's of stuff on war.  Old toys.  Part junk yard, part tribute to white supremacy, part 'wow, that's some cool old sh-t' and part 'I've always wanted to see one of those up close and swing it around my head' kind of a place.  

We spent a night on the ...... river in Idaho and landed at my sister's place in Seattle the next day.  I've always liked Seattle, I spent a lot of time there with my grandmother as a kid.  Strangely, they have a dog poo problem like San Francisco had in the '70's before personal responsibility became a 'thing.'  Seattle seems to be a little more beer oriented than San Francisco but compared to Boulder, Bozeman, or Missoula, it is more on the wine side of the fence.  It is also a lot bigger.  I had great meetings with martial artists and my friend Josh Leeger. 

We then went down to Portland and spent a wonderful night with Rory Miller and his wife Kami.  Then ate and drank our way through Portland with my wife Sarah's brother who is a chef.  Portland has changed a lot since I was there last.  It has a huge food, coffee, bicycles and beer scene.  

As a general rule in America, there is more Homeless Pride the closer one comes to the coast.

Here is the list of insanely energetic Martial Arts folk I've met with a few quick comments:

Susan Mathews (Durango: Great use of centerline and wide qi base, fun and insightful about working with parkinsons)

Mike Sigman (Durango:  Strong opinion about what the beginning instructions and method need to be in any internal martial arts training.  Basically, the body is a spiderman suit (a fine web-like net) controlled by the dantain.  Excellent discussion and rough play, people should be lining up to test their theories with him!)

Ken Cohen (Boulder:  Fantastic discussion, very supportive and insightful.  He way exceeded my expectation in terms of knowledge and experience and openness!)

Steven Smith (Missoula:  Great time playing by the rivers, insightful about the importance of putting improvisation at the front end of martial arts training.)

Chris from the old blog Martial Development (Seattle: runs a wonderful push hands group!  Great night of play with him and also Steve, as former student of New York's "The Black Taoist.")

Josh Leeger (Seattle:  As usually, had no trouble keeping my interest over 4.5 hours of rapid fire ideas exchange.)

Xie Bingcan (Seattle:  Could not feel any physcial action at all in his arms or shoulders while he tossed students around.)

Rory Miller (Portland:  He openned his safe for me.  Great insights about culture flowing at a mile a minute while fighting in the kitchen, whiskey, nagila, and swords.)

More to come.

 _____

By the way, I know that all wealth comes from creativity (unless you happen to trip on a giant gold nugget).  I'm seeing a lot of wealth in places that are not obviously producing it, playgrounds for early retirement I think.  I would like to see a map of every credit card purchase over the last ten years in the US.  There are more ballet studios in Bend than martial arts studios.  We toured the breweries last night and felt under dressed.

 

Friday
Jul262013

Quick Update

(I wrote this two weeks ago but it didn't post because my internet connection got cut off.)

 Went to the Bozeman farmers market just after writing the last post.  There were about 8 farmers and 100 small business stalls.  It was really a networking spot that happens twice a week this time of year.  We had some pulled pork and some brisket with southern berry spices, some aspin-wood fired pizza, lemon-ginger-mint iced tea, bought cibata and salad greens for the road.  There were about 30 picnic tables and we just sat there and talked to people about place and lifestyle and business.  

We met some Christians with an adventure mission; you know God meets rock-climbing, mountain biking and kayaking.  Fun.  And an older couple who were born in Bozeman, very warm but a bit like deer in the headlights...the town used to stop at 7th street and all we had to eat in the winter was elk and deer.  We heard that 40% of folks here don't work, because they don't need too.  A great number of homes are second homes.  I have not yet met anyone with a job-job.  It's self-employment or odd jobs, or part time service.  

The place we camped was so beautiful we had to spend an extra day just sitting there staring.  

And then we found a great coffee shop, the floor was made out of 8x10 railroad ties, hightech, clean, elegant.

We drove to Missoula, and stopped at the Lewis and Clark Caverns on the way...spectacular!

Missoula passed the food test too, okay, pizza and beer, but really good pizza and beer and another martial artist meeting (I've still got to report on all the people I've met!).

I'm in Hamilton Montana at the moment.  Wow.  So beautiful.  The street is closed off and someone set up a skateboard ramp which kids are riding right now.... Is Montana a giant playground where nobody works?  I spent 15 minutes talking to a nine year old who makes and was selling his own knives, well he helps his father make them, they were very cool knives and I don't say that lightly.  After feeling how perfectly balanced they were I asked him about throwing knives.  Yeah, he makes them but they always go quickly...sold out.

Rent is so cheap out here 

 

Tuesday
Jul232013

It's Tuesday, What Religion Are You? 

Travel Update: I’m in a cafe in Bozeman Montana.  There are more older people here than I expected, having been told in Boulder that Boulder, Bozeman and Bend are the three towns in America with good food and lots of very physically active people in their twenties.  After a few beers at a bar called Bacchus, I learned that the older people leave as soon as the summer is over.  Rents here are very cheap, so it is full of young people who went to college in order to get into debt.  The slacker ethic is strong, in the sense that all the people I have met work odd jobs with low pay so they have tons of time to ski, climb, mountain bike, sit in hot springs and party.  I think some guys we crossed after leaving the bar last night were trying to see if I would fight them, “Hey, look at his Captain America t-shirt, is he going to kick all of our asses?”  Sarah wisely retorted, “Only if you want him too.”  But that was the end of it.  Martial arts classes here are dirt cheap, $7 for a drop in, $40 for a month.  It is a beautiful town, the houses all have new paint jobs and maintained gardens.  Lot’s of dogs, good food, whiskey and wilderness.  I want to find people who have the time to dedicate to learning martial arts for hours everyday.  This might be the place.  But I also want some intellectual stimulation and a jumping off place for a Daoist inspired milieu to arise.  It would be nice to see a few people with thick glasses carrying around doorstop sized books.  Ah, what I would sacrifice for a land full of 20 year old librarians with an insatiable appetite for dancing and fighting.  

_____________

In the historic Chinese past, the question “what religion are you?” was not a question about ones beliefs.  It was likely to be phrased more like this, “to whom do you make sacrifice?”  Or, “what rituals are you committed to performing?”

Statements about origins of Martial Arts should perhaps begin the question, “why don’t we know the exact origins of Chinese martial arts?”  “What forces in society have made the past difficult to see? especially in a culture like China has recorded so much about the past and has so many rituals designed to create common dreams and common memories?”

It seems that historically there were many systems of Martial Arts named after people.  To the extent that these people or historic figures are too distantly in the past to have direct lineages or historic connections to present day arts, I think it is safe to posit that they were characters of the theater.  After all, that was how the vast majority  of people learned about history.  They learned it from watching history plays, usually called wu (martial) plays.

Let me pose it another way.  From what source could a man in 17th Century China have gotten an inkling about how a man from the 15th Century moved, other than through watching him in a historical performance or ritual?

The actors would have made sacrifice to specific deities like this one described by Daoist priest Jave Wu (hat tip to Julianne Zhou).  This is an example of the integration of theater and Daoism in the Hokkien speaking Southern parts of China, but also remember that the most prominent deity that actors made sacrifice to was one of the Eight Immortals, the theatrical mythic founders of Quan Zhen (Complete Reality) Daoism! Actors were obligated to sacrifice to Immortal Cao Guojiu

In the previous post I discussed martial arts as a social institutions for the transmission of values.  In the case of ritual "Chinese Opera" theater, we have values being transmitted through both fictional storytelling and the teaching of history on the stage, as well as the direct representation of gods, and ancestors.  In some contexts the actual gods and ancestors were channelled directly onto the stage through the actors as empty vessels.

Amateur martial theater arts embodying both theatrical and real fighting skills, and combining emotional, intellectual, historical and physical elements, may be the most comprehensive institution created for the transmission of cultural values anywhere.  I haven’t compiled a list, but the other top contenders have their origins in Africa and Polynesia.  In Europe the closest thing I can come up with is Italian Folk dance used as training for knife fighting.  

To properly follow this line of reasoning we should ask the question, what constituted an amateur martial artist?  Simply, anyone who wasn’t born into or adopted into an actor family.  I suspect that many people who performed forms (taolu) at public markets as a way to sell medicines would be considered amateur, as would anyone in the military who practiced forms, and anyone considered a local or family expert.  Professional ritual theater was the model for a vast array of martial arts training as a method for transmitting values within families, villages, regions, and language groups.

Significant parts of the Chinese theater tradition were improvisational, but since the 20th Century trend has been away from this sort of freedom of expression, and because actor training was a form of ritual transmission without any written manuals, the extent of improvisation is hard to prove.  But I will hazard that-- where there is improvisation, there is a rebellious spirit.  (see Improvisation in A Ritual Context : The Music of Cantonese Opera, By Shouren Chen)

What were the values being transmitted to a kid learning Monkey Kungfu?  Or other comic roles?  There are so many martial heros and anti-heros in the theater traditions!  The walls of temples in Taiwan are covered in them literally floor to ceiling!  It is as if value systems were modular!  Pick a role, learn that body art (shenfa), and then be it, model it, profess it.  

Avrom Boretz deserves credit for much of this idea.  He explores the transmission of prowess and other martial values through martial rituals in his book Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society .

 Again, if you follow this logic, we have to explain what happened to the martial arts in the early part of the 20th Century that obscured these origins even while they were being preserved in a new form in Hong Kong action film.

Andrew Morris, in Marrow of the Nation explains how martial arts were used to promote nationalism (it used to be called fascism) and to some extent how the arts were changed by that process.   Karate in Japan and Taekwondo in Korea also need to be understood in this context.

If we think about martial arts not just as the transmission of values and character and skills, but as the transmission of specific character types we get some shocking results.  The character types promoted by the Chinese Nationalists are mostly angry generals and cruel judges, along with some self-sacrificing young passionate heros.  That's it.  The survival of the mystical Tai Chi Daoist character role, the world transcending Buddhist monk character role, and Sun Wukong the Monkey King role, are testaments to the strength and pervasiveness of these roles as institutions for the transmission of cultural values!  They survived dispite the movement to suppress them.  (Note: more serious work needs to be done on female and gender bender roles in the history of martial arts! I still have too many unanswered questions to discuss them here.)

Since the revolution the Chinese government has been promoting “Wushu,” a from of competitive martial dance largely devoid of martial skill or character training.  Serious martial artists have been laughing at Wushu for 60 years and yet the Communist Party is still trying to get it into the Olympics.  If seen as a character type Wushu is like a lingering ghost possessed by conflicting emotions, too weak to resolve itself through a complete death!

Karate in Imperialist Nationalist Fascist Japan took on a single character type, that of a disciplined angry kamikaze!   Okay, maybe that is too harsh.  But clearly it is a character type of limited theatrical depth.  It has some of the rigid qualities of a death mask. Nationalist Korea developed Taekwondo mostly from karate and kept the same character type.  I suspect there was a reformation process after the war which changed elements of Karate.  Certainly the spread of Karate in countries all over the world has had profound effects on the values being transmitted through this particular body art.  The Karate character has proven very dynamic.  But I think that if an understanding of its origins were more widespread we would see an explosion of new styles, and cooperation between styles.  We would see an opening to character types outside the box!  Comic, crazy, loving, tricky, motherly, vixen, Mormon, etc, etc... Stoner Karate anyone?

One of the reasons I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that I think Buffy was the spontaneous arising of a new American martial arts character role.  Did you know that I teach Buffy Style Kungfu?

 

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