Strengthness with a Twist: A blog about internal martial arts, theatricality and Daoist ritual emptiness
Brand New Book: TAI CHI, BAGUAZHANG AND THE GOLDEN ELIXIR, Internal Martial Arts Before the Boxer Uprising. By Scott Park Phillips. Paper ($30.00), Digital ($9.99)
Also buy: Possible Origins, A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theater and Religion, (2016) By Scott Park Phillips. Paper ($18.95), Digital ($9.99)
People ask me, "Scott, why do you hate power so much?"
I don't actually hate power, but every type of power obscures access to other types of power. Readers may respond that certain types of power can be added together to create composite powers, so it isn't necessarily true that one type of power obscures access to another. But even with composite powers, it is smart to separate them into distinct forces, so they can be perfected individually.
The primary method of Daoist martial arts is to reduce power, or to discard as many types of power as possible. What is left when power is discarded? Mass, structure, perception, awareness, balance, the capacity to change, density, fluidity, mobility, pliancy, and expression.
Daoist martial-theater uses expression to imitate the appearance of power, both as patterns of movement, and as techniques for moving other people's bodies. But power is not necessary, the techniques and appearances are all illusions of the theater. I may look tough but I'm actually empty. My toughness is fake. I my look wimpy, but my wimpiness is an illusion, I'm actually tough. (Fake things can still have real world effects.)
A pattern of toughness which is held as stored power, even if it is just a mental strategy, will limit the range of one's expression. The key is to stop carrying around strategies for domination. The simple effort of carrying around ideas about power, obscures access to the purest, most innate forms of power.
Thus, the daily project of Daoist martial-theater becomes the practice of cleaning or clearing out power from the body. To do this one must fully comprehend each type of power. At first this seems like a paradox, because one will not be able to fully comprehend any type of power unless he or she practices using it. In the Taijiquan Classics, this practice is actually called dongjin, literally: comprehending power.
The implication is that once power is fully comprehended it is no longer needed. This needs further explanation.
There are countless types of power used in Chinese martial arts, some of them obvious, some hidden. Generally the term jin is used to denote all these types of power, while the term jing is used to denote just the physical body without intent. So jin are all the ways intent is used to move jing.
Daoism's golden elixir practice (called jindan) has been a constant of Chinese culture for a couple thousand years. It uses the idea of qi as the intermediary between shen (the spatial mind) and jing (the physical body). Shen moves jing, but only in directly, qi is like a buffer which is released from jing whenever intent in the body is reduced.
For example, if I slap a student in the face, qi will float off of the student's face. Whether he or she associates the slap with love, or hate, or a comedy routine, is a process of the imagination, we call that shen. Theatrical content is created by simultaneously linking the experience of the qi (we call it heat or "a stinging sensation") to the location of the slap and the imagination. Qi is the intermediary between jing and shen (the "sting" is the intermediary between the physical body and the imagination).
That is what we call in Daoism jindan, the golden elixir of immortality.
To develop this, one has to re-learn how to move. Although cosmo-physiologically speaking, this is our original state, our self-empowered predator state (before we became appendages of our tools).
The process is different for everyone because we each come to the practice with different types of developed power.
Each type of jin (by definition: using intent within the body) will make the body more dense in some way or other-- if it is practiced as power. But if a type of jin is simply practiced as a pattern of movement expression, without attempting to accumulate power, it has a cleansing or purifying effect.
So one could say that every type of imaginable power fixes or cleans the physical body in some way, as long as it isn't used as power.
The cleaner the body (jing) becomes, the more readily qi is available as an intermediary. And thus, the more readily, and expressively, the imagination can move the body. (Rory Miller's crowd is now calling this effect "plastic mind.")
All those types of power become underlying integrity. This is most obvious with structure training, but is true for all type of power. This is very simple to explain in the case of "good" structure. Once it is established it simply supports other movement, it does not need to be used in any direct way.
This is why, for instance, I teach the four basic taijiquan powers (peng, ji, lu and an) until students can move with them in a continuous flow; and then I have students drop them. They represent interior structure and efficiency. What I don't do is encourage students to perfect these powers as techniques past the point of being able to simply do them and identify them in themselves and others.
Once a type of power is established it can be used to clean the jing, to purify one's form. This is done by practicing power as movement patterns using only the spatial mind, with no intent in the body.
Actually, the body can be cleaned by simpler movements, like shrinking and expanding. The golden elixir of immortality (jindan) practice does not consider martial power development essential. However, students of martial arts who fail to develop power(s) will likely lack the ability to apply advanced spatial mind connections to fighting games or against tricky opponents.
So go ahead and develop power, just practice not using it.
For reference, see the Daodejing, chapter 28, The Uncarved Block.
One of the highlights of the Cardiff Martial Arts Studies Conference was the idea that martial arts are being used for identity transformation. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this notion is being pioneered by women and is very exciting. Since the early 20th Century people have been trying to change their identities. The Boy Scouts come to mind, as do the less rigid journey-into-the-wilderness Outward Bound programs, created as New Age coming of age rituals. Psychotherapy, and psychology in general, have dabbled in this notion with limited success. Psychedelic drugs are defended on this basis in some circles. But the notion that there are specific tools of culture conceived specifically for the purpose of transforming identity may be a new idea.
Xilam is a new Mexican martial art created by Marisela Ugalde. I learned about it in a video presentation by George Jennings (adademia.edu). The name Xilam means removing the skin!
This art obviously draws on Asian martial arts, but it has been reconceived. Watch this video on Vimeo.
Or this slightly longer one on Youtube:
Here is their website. http://www.xilam.org/
A week ago I arrived in Cardiff, Wales, UK, for the first Martial Arts Studies Conference. I went straight from there to teaching a two day workshop in Amsterdam with Alex Boyd. Over the next week I hope to have some time for reflection. Until then, here are some undigested bits of excitement.
Paul Bowman deserves enormous credit for organizing the conference, and doing a wonderful job of it. I admit, I worried beforehand that we might have disagreements, but Paul gets my highest praise: He is the kind of guy one can disagree with and feel the bonds of sworn-brotherhood grow deeper. His character, thus set the tone for the entire conference. This is the first academic conference I have attended where everyone present had the ability to kick me in the head.
This is a dream network.
I taught in Amsterdam at a converted shipyard with a vegetarian restaurant and artist studios, will post a video. The students taking the workshop practice Lishi, a Chinese Daoist collection of martial movement and ideas--I'll post more on it later. It is very worth researching. It is connected to Daoist thunder rituals and was brought to the UK in the 1920's, so it is a window into the past as well. Some excellent training, and orthodox Daoyin. They were very open to what I have to share, it is a good fit. (And Alex Boyd is a great teacher.)
Martial Arts Studies--will it become a discipline or not, how about an "indiscipline?" I think the point here is that martial arts stretches the boundaries of many categories, and at the moment is in need of some working definitions.
Considerations of authenticity must be included in the definition of martial arts.
There is much support for the notion that dance and acting were closely related to western martial traditions. Dueling was expected to up hold standards of beauty.
Do we need a theory of history? How do we know what questions to investigate? Is it enough to follow what is intreging? Probably not, we need to consider metaphors, and make lists of differing views, perspectives and conditions. Yes, theory is dangerous, it can obscure or become an obsession. Theory is powerful, we need to be able to put it down, it should not become part of our arm. Sometimes great questions seem to come from nowhere.
There are Japanese Kata, that tell stories. I didn't know that before, a new subject to investigate.
We need more people from the "outer edge," (that's the sharpest bit of the sword). So much of the work on Martial Arts Studies up until now has been outside of academia, those people need to be included and rewarded. I suspect this field is going to explode now because there are people out there who have been sitting on research for more than 30 years. Up until now, it has been career suicide for academics to seriously take up the study of Martial Arts. The commercial world in film, religion, and sports is a huge potential source of funding and interest.
Open minded enthusiasts can accomplish a lot.
Project: Understanding what sovereignty is by looking at differences in notions of individual self-defense.
Shiva, lord of the dance, is the destroyer of illusion. In the South Asian world view, dance is closely related to destructive power (perhaps).
"One should avoid making sweeping generalization."--a view held by people who don't seem to notice that they are in the habit of making sweeping generalizations. Better, in my view, to do it, and know you are doing it. It makes it easier to take it back later.
Bruce Lee was defiantly killed by talismanic magic.
Plate steal armor was easy to move in, do flips and rolls, hop fences, climb, swing, and wrestle in. It just requires wearing it a lot--some wise men tested this out. I hope this means that we stop seeing people move like stiff robots when they wear armor in the movies. And I hope we see more people wearing plate steal armor to the movies, driving google-cars and drinking coffee at Starbucks.
Zhang Sanfeng texted me several times during the conference to clarify his positions.
Anthropology has changed from representing (peoples, events, milieus) to making. This was obvious when I was in college, and partially accounts for me dropping out.
Martial arts is a very potent tool for identity transformation. This position was promoted particularly by women at the conference, but I think there is a consensus
The desexualization of confined spaces.
One can not teach self-defense/counter-assault scenarios without acting, and the better the acting is--the better the training will be.
This is a training tip. The problem with a lot of the posts like this one is that it came out of a private lesson where I spent half an hour demonstrating and trying to explain a movement concept. Are my dear readers going to understand what I'm saying from simply reading? I don't know. But the process does help me clarify the issues and it might at least inspire readers to try some new experiments.
There is a massive misconception, especial in the internal martial arts, that yielding is a good idea. It isn't. This misconception is a huge part of bad push-hands, and bad Aikido; yielding appears to work because of cooperative patterns and the assumed constraints of a particular exercise or game. I shouldn't pick on push-hands or Aikido because I've seen the problem in nearly every type of art to some extent. However I am picking on push-hands and Aikido because what I am about to say should really be one of the first lessons in those arts. But allow me first to clarify what is Not Yielding.
Sticking or adhering or attaching oneself to an opponent or practice partner is not yielding. It is a necessary skill for, among other things, improving ones position and for infighting.
Getting out of the way is also not yielding. If an opponent is charging you or falling on you, it is usually better to get out of the the way or let them fall, rather than trying to holding them up.
There is also a special skill called a sacrifice throw. Sacrifice throws manipulate or take control of the opponent's center of mass, they do not involve yielding. Ronda Rousey is a master of these, check it out:
So what is this yielding thing we are not supposed to do? Yielding is when we feel an opponent's force and we go against it with any amount of force which fails to over power it. Yielding is meeting force with less force.
In the martial arts world a common effective strategy is to meet an opponent's force at a superior angle, that is, an agle that diminishes the opponents effective force while increasing the opponent's effort. That is certainly not yielding because the technique effectively overpowers the opponent.
More skilled practitioners may be able to create the illusion of going directly against an opponent's force, effectively leading them into a trap. But that is an illusion. It is not force against force.
So another way of saying this is, if I yield, I yield 100%, never 99%. But from my own perspective I prefer to think of it as not allowing or giving up even one ounce of force, or even one millimeter of space.
Martial arts is the study of chaos, sometimes what I don't want to happen just happens! If I happen to end up in a force against force situation, I want to win it! By hook or by crook.
Historically, in English speaking countries anyway, there has been a gradual covering over of the idea that sex is dangerous. Thus, most readers are probably unaware that 8 out of 10 mating dances also happen to be martial arts. Nearly all mating dances were developed by people who had to deal with levels of violence that are frankly unimaginable for most people today.
I first heard the idea that sex is dangerous expressed in an essay by Pat Califia* in about 1992. The essay was in the form of a photocopy that a friend handed to me, this was one of the ways people used to spread ideas before the internet. In the essay Pat Califia methodically went over all the ways sex has been dangerous from STD's to Romeo and Juliet.
Historically sex has been dangerous in nearly every culture, but that hasn’t stopped most people from trying it, and at times (to understate the case) enjoying it. (Since I am a contrarian, even to myself, readers may find this essay interesting as a counter point, “It’s Only a Penis.”)
One of the most brilliant and culturally transcendent ideas invented to make sex a little safer is the mating dance. Saying that mating dances are an idea is somewhat problematic in that a great many animals do them too, peacocks come quickly to mind. But humans have certainly attached all manner of rituals, protocols, visions, designs and ancillary purposes to the “idea” of learning and performing mating dances.
People are often reluctant to communicate verbally about their sexual needs. Speaking broadly across cultural realms, the range of what is considered sexual communication is mind bogglingly diverse. What is thought of as sacred and what is taboo, what is ideal, and what is frightening, are literally all over the map.
Dances have historically and evolutionarily played an important role in courting. Dances were used to help teach adolescents how to behave around the opposite sex and how to communicate. Men have a tendency to fight over women, and women often pick their mates base on the outcomes of these violent performances. Women also compete over men, although they come to blows less often.
There is also a historic developmental link between mating dances and competitive dances that display martial prowess in front of a king. This happened because part of the purpose of these dances was to honor the king and so when communities wanted to honor a woman coming of age they would do similar dances for them.
We could go deeper into the many cultural purposes of mating dances, there is an enormous literature in socio-cultural anthropology to that effect. But our subject is martial arts.
Mating dances usually teach elements of competitive social violence and asocial violence. Even rather stately mating dances like the Waltz teach one a lot about taking control of centrical momentum, which is one of the master keys for reversing the odds in a surprise attack. Today when most people think of the waltz they are imagining staged prudery and pomp, that is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the Waltz as a folk art. I’m talking about spinning around and around for hours on end by the light of the moon on ever increasing amounts of alcohol, and then stumbling home in the dark.
Italian country dance is a great example of a martial art hidden inside of a social dance. A great many of the Italian country dances are knife fighting games. We can find similar examples in countless other cultures.
Many mating dances have extraordinary footwork which is directly transferable to weapons fighting, as well as drop steps for power generation. Many mating dances have well developed elbow strikes, or hands raised to keep the spray of blood out of ones eyes.
Nearly all mating dances were developed by people who had to deal with levels of violence that are frankly unimaginable for most people today. These dances teach people to fight in the thrall of the heart fluttering hormones of sexual passion, fear, and other mind altering conditions. As practical martial arts they are far more realistic than most “traditional” or “pure” martial arts when it comes to understanding how social violence happens and how asocial predators attack.
Samba is a mating dance from Brazil that has it all. It has superb defenses for attacks from behind, awesome footwork, fantastic body slam combinations, elbow strikes in all directions, vital target evasion, tripping, head attacks, and brilliant escapes.
Watch this whole video but especially check out the guy in blue pants at the 4:03 minute mark. Now imagine having someone attack you from behind and responding with that movement.
The inspiration for this post came from the fact that I was roped into teaching a dance class based on the song ‘What Does the Fox Say?’ After watching the videos and listing to the music for a few minutes I realized it was a Samba, so I went in and taught Samba to the kids. I had extraordinarily good training in Samba from an important dance teacher of mine named Alicia Pierce. Teaching the class to kids got me exploring Samba as a martial art and I was blown away by how effective it is.
No dance is usable as a martial art unless one conditions responses in a martial way. That takes some time, but not more than about 40 hours. The dance itself takes a lot longer to learn. Samba is a highly functional and practical self-defense system, but it has to be re-focused to that purpose.
A key concept in self-defense is the idea that when we encounter asocial violence it is usually a surprise and a new experience which causes us to freeze. So one of the most important skills to develop is breaking the freeze. The current convention is to teach students to do a single action like shouting or moving, or a single structurally solid martial technique like the S.P.E.A.R. or Dracula’s Cape. And because under extreme stress we might freeze again or deceive ourselves by imaging we just moved when in fact we were still frozen, we want to condition ourselves to do the same action twice, or to do two structurally related actions one after the other.
But I’ve been doing some experiments and I’m nearly convinced that busting out a sudden dance pattern is a better way to break the freeze than the standard counter assault stances. If you have mastered a fast dance pattern which was designed to deal with an attack from behind, I suspect that is a superior way to break the freeze and neutralize the threat.
The term for the basic dance step in Samba is called ginga, which is the same name for the basic stepping pattern used in Capoeira, even thought these are technically different steps. The term probably referred to the action of a sweep-oar moving back and forth propelling a boat forward from the stern of a river boat, but in practice ginga means something much more profound. It means to have mojo, to have cashé, to have hidden power. It means to have a twisted-up disambiguated poly-rythmic body. It means being in more than one place at the same time. It is a feeling. It is a performance of other worldly access.
A friend of mine ran a theater program in a Brazillian barrio. One of his comments has stuck with me. He said Brazilian kids don't wear clothes like other kids, they move their bodies around inside of them.
I was recently watching a bunch of Lindy-Hop dancers, and they all had great technical skill, some of it quite impressive to watch. But it just looked wrong to me, they didn’t have swing. Swing is a word like ginga that refers to the African traditions of tricknology. Lindy-hop was one of the first cross-over dances, one of the first African-American dances that White people started doing. But despite being ‘good’ dancers, more often than not, they didn’t get it. That is the origin of the jazz standard, ‘It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!”
Take it away Ella:
Here is a link to the Lindy-Hop, it is a 15 minutes video and there are some great moves by many of the performing couples, but only the first couple has some swing. Can you see it?
So back to martial arts. Awesome mating dances have that swing feeling, or ginga or whatever they call it locally. It is the juice a person needs to make their dance into a martial art. It isn’t a rhythmic pattern or a dance combination, it is a feeling of otherworldly connection, a type of access, an ability to come un-hinged.
It is also one of the sexiest things in the world.
I'm headed out to teach in Chicago and then Traverse City for 10 days, if anyone wants to try and meet me, send an email.
This post is just a quick follow up on the previous post: Performative.
There has long been an injunction against studying more than one martial arts style at a time. The common explanation is that styles will conflict and the student will end up with a mixed style that doesn't represent either style well. Let me put aside the problem that the student might be just a dabbler, of course if you want to learn real gongfu (kungfu) you have to dedicated hours everyday. This discussion is for and about serious students of the arts.
In the dance world, students dedicate every day to dance. But in the dance world the problem is exactly the opposite of the martial arts world. People who learn many dance styles are versatile and adaptive. The people who have exclusively studied one style tend to find it harder to dance in other styles. The most notorious example is classically trained ballet dancers who find it hard to do african dance, they end up looking stiff. And on the other end there are dancers who do everything with too much flow. I'm not a fan of the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance," by the way, because they make this claim that the dancers are doing a wide variety of dances, but in reality I see ballet and some "poppie" hip-hop moves in almost every dance. It should be called, "So You Think You Know What Dance is Because You Watch It On TV?"
Anyway back to martial arts. The reason some serious students end up blending their arts together is because they think of the different arts in terms of how each art generates power. So in practice they end up using one style's ideas about how to generate power in the techniques of another style.
This problem does not come up if the teacher uses the concept of Performative Arts that I outlined in the previous post. A given art is performed a specific way. The same way a dance has a specific quality and character. Each martial art has a performance standard, that is what you are learning. Using martial arts to learn power generation is a mistake. That should be an after thought.
Rory Miller claims to be able to improve most people's power generation in a two day workshop whether they have ten years of experience or ten days. It simply isn't very difficult to develop power.
I would also argue that the unique types of power any particular style has are entirely accessible through the performative aspects of the art.
In the end what have you got? Gravity, structure, unity of mass, and momentum. No matter how tricky you get, it is always going to come back to these four.
Let's talk about the power of words. Words can become stand-ins for whole ideas, even whole histories, which makes certain words really powerful. But strangely these power-words have a half-life, a point at which they lose any actual meaning. At that point they become simply markers of identity or tribe, if they maintain power it is the power to exclude or ridicule.
Here are some easy examples: sustainable, capitalism, embodiment, spiritual, relax. Feel free to add your own examples in the comments and to devise poems out of them.
After a word has journeyed to meaninglessness it can sometimes be reclaimed. 'Elightenment' is a good example of this. The word got so over used that it hit the point of self-parody. But I discovered that if I started using it to mean something real, immediate, present and available, people had to stop and try to figure out what I was talking about. Suddenly the word had power again, not the same power it once had but at least the power to trigger a deeper conversation.
The paper I wrote last spring which is hopefully going to be published next year is called: "Cracking the Code, Taijiquan as Enlightenment Theater." At the same time as I came up with that title I realized the power of another word: Performative.
The word 'performative' has been framing my teachings and arguments for about six months, it is a powerful word. Of course I know it is going to become meaningless eventually, but while it still has power I'm trying to get as much use out of it as I can.
The word highjacked my vocabulary because the most common (and effective) argument against the notion that martial arts, theater and religion are a single subject is that performance is differnt from real fighting.
There are many versions of this argument, for example, "The way people fight on stage is different than the way they fight in real life, therefore performing artists need to train differently than martial artists do."
My response is, no, that is a misconception, a blind spot. In fact that mistaken view creates training artifacts which prioritize the illusion of utility. If we start from the correct historically accurate assumption that martial arts are performative, then we won't create false answers to the "why" questions that constantly come from students who don't have experience with lethal violence. (Another way for teachers to avoid this problem is simply to admit they don't know. Hey, a guy can hope can't he?)
There is a lot packed into that last paragraph, let me try to unpack it a little. What is the basic structure of martial arts, be they from Chinese theater or (to take an outlier example), Japanese operant conditioning for living in a castle where assassination is a regular threat? The basic structure of martial arts is that we train the body to be able to perform certain operations which can be executed under extreme stress (be it the immediacy of a threat or the rigors of physically staying in-character for six hours at a time). A prince living in a castle has to learn highly specific ritual responses with his body, when to bow, how to bow, what to do with his eyes, what to do with his sleeves, how to walk into a room. In Japan, operant conditioning was simply integrated into these exacting protocols. If someone draws a sword from the left while you are sitting, you do this. If you both draw at the same time you do this. If the attack is at this distance you do this, if it starts closer in, do this instead. It is performative. It is exacting. It is all in response to specific "what if's." But it is also part of a much larger performance. It is the basic training for performing a prince.
My favorite "why-question" training artifact to make fun of is "the chambered fist!" This is the idea that the reason people pull their fist back to their hip is so that it will be cocked and loaded, ready to fire! The real purpose of that whole body posture with the fist at the hip is performative. As operative conditioning it is a position one fights to, not a position one fights from. As theatrical training it is the base for performing a character. The core skill one needs to be able to physically stay in character is the ability to keep returning to the same exact body shapes but with specific communicative variations, like context specific walks, mimed actions, or altered facial expressions.
Enlightenment is perfromative too. One of the big misconceptions about enlightenment is that it is some sort of process, some type of reactive or responsive way of seeing the world and then acting in it. I would even argue that the most important element of enlightenment is its performative nature. Enlightenment is immediate, that is, it is completely un-mediated by any process, it is instantaneous.
The same is true for gender. Gender is completely performative. I can perforom as a woman or a man if I practice those gender norms. Performing like a woman won't actually change my sex or my biology but it can be liberating to question what is performance and what is biology.
Identity isn't real; performance is. "Reality-Based" martial arts aren't real; performance is. Earthly hierarchies of superiority aren't real; performance is.
Now for fun try replacing various subject words from the classic "mystical" chapter 6 of the Daodejing with variations of the word "performance":
The Valley Spirit is Deathless,
It is called the Dark Mare,
The door of the Dark Mare is the root of heaven and earth,
Lingering, it only seems to exist,
Yet in use, it is inexhaustible.
--Laozi, Chapter 6
Translation by Ellen M. Chen, In Praise of Nothing; 2011: p. 93.
I bought an iPad Mini with a case that has handles, a tripod attachment, two lenses, and a directional microphone. I took these four videos and then I took it back to the store so I could get more Gigabits. The new one is on order and I should get it in a couple of days. It is pretty fun. Getting good video is likely to be key to running a martial arts business, so I'm upping my game. Let me know if you want me to video anything specific, you know me fighting a bunch of ninjas with nunchucks or whatever.
If you add comments at the bottom that is great, it is also great if you put comments on the Youtube channel because that seems to spread the videos faster. You can also subscribe to my Youtube channel, I'm trying to bust 500 subscriptions and I'm at around 450. And of course if you share one on Tumblr or Facebook, or Google Plus or your own blog, that is probably even better. More to come.
Check out the latest article by Ben Judkins about a Junk that was sailed to New York and then London in 1851.
The most exciting thing about it is that a group of 20 Southern Chinese sailors, hired to sail the boat, just happened to have enough martial arts and opera training to put on shows in New York and then in London for 2 years. That is strong evidence for two things:
One, that martial arts and opera training were wide spread at least among sailors. Actually opera might not be the right word here but they had some kind of theatrical performance training, most likely amateur.
Two, they conceptualized martial arts as a performing art that could easily be incorporated into a larger performance.
There is a lot of other fascinating stuff in there too, a ground breaking law suit, a visit by Charles Dickens, and Westerners playing Chinese opera instruments. There is also some suggestion that the religious rituals they performed for themselves were accessible as performance. Now I want to know more.