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

Balance is Key

If someone gives me a surprise shove I will likely do a quick jump or stumble and quickly recover my balance on two feet.  The same is true for most people, it’s not a special skill.  No other animal can stand on two feet and take a shove with out falling down, even bears have a high falling down rate.  When we learn to walk as toddlers we naturally train our dantian’s to do this complex job.  The recovery of balance is lightning fast.  If I contemplate the physics of it, there must be an internal counterbalance functioning unconsciously.  Somehow my mass absorbs all the momentum of the push and moves my center of mass very quickly back and forth, up and down and left and right until it is directly above my feet again.  Again, it is too fast to perceive.  What I am aware of is the space around me, perhaps sharp objects, the surface of the ground, a wall or a tree.  My guess is that if I misperceived a slanted wall as vertical, or a sloping ground as level, I might actually fall down or stumble for a bit longer.  But a functioning spatial mind can make corrections very quickly.  In fact, it might actually function better at high speeds.  How else could we explain the ability to run through a forest down a steep hill.  The spatial mind controls the dantian, as a counterweight, unconsciously and instantaneously, bringing us back to balance.  

This basic function of the dantian can be transferred to higher order skills like skiing, carrying a long ladder through an obstacle course, rock climbing or gymnastics.  Of course, all animals have a similar skill which they use on four feet or in the air if they are birds.  

Normal humans however, only use the dantian for this one type of task.  When we throw a ball, or pick up a pen to write our name, we are using our brains in a very different way.  Or, like when we are rock climbing, we use the same set of balance and vertical orientation skills simply applied in a different context.  

Pure Internal Martial Arts are unique because they use the dantian to respond to forces other than gravity.  To paraphrase George Xu, “When you touch any part of my body, you are touching the dantian.”  The best video demonstration of this I know of is this one by Ma Yue Liang:


Not everyone can learn internal martial arts (that would be communism), but proof that nearly everyone has a functioning dantian is apparent in our natural ability to recover our balance.  


Animal Flavor

Back when I was in my early twenties and training all the time with George Xu he would go on theme jags for months at a time. At one point, everything we did had to have "Animal Flavor."

I know what you're thinking, and yes, this is when I decided that I was going to give up being a vegetarian. If all my movement had to have animal flavor, than so did my diet.  But I had three rationales, the first two were nutritional; 1) My joints were too flimsy for the type of training I was doing, George told me that something about eating meat thickens the joints, 2) I was prone to sinus infections, 3) I decided that the arguments for no meat were mostly local, and that most people in the world wanted more meat, not less--I wasn't going to convince very many people to join me--since meat tastes so good.

But when George used the expression Animal Flavor he wasn't talking about eating. He was talking about dynamic twisting and wrapping usually to one side or the other. During this period everything we did was twisted up to one side, ready to pounce, strike, or evade. We also watched videos of wild animals and of various martial arts masters to analyze their movements for Animal Flavor. Usually animal flavor was off center with one eye a little more open then the other.

Animal flavor is a great example of an aspect of martial arts which is equally useful for performance and fighting. Animal flavor makes movement much more interesting to watch, it's bold, disheveled, and tonic! For fighting, Animal flavor brings out a kind of 'do what needs to be done' mentality, it makes you appear more dangerous, and more serious. From a power point of view, it allows you to pull your 'bow' back a little further.

Here are some videos of Liuhe Xinyi (the style I do), performed at a high level with animal flavor:

The Ball

George Xu used a surprisingly counter intuitive definition of a ball the other day.

The term "ball" gets used in martial arts and qigong all the time.  Of course there's "ball up you firsts," but there are lots of other uses.  The term ball is used as a metaphor, a verb, and as a spacial description.  George Xu was using it to mean something else entirely.

Here are the most common uses of "ball'

  • Imagine you are sitting on a large ball

  • Imagine you are holding a ball in your palm

  • Imagine you are holding a ball using your arms and torso

  • Imagine you are inside of a ball

  • Imagine a ball next to you or behind you

  • Turn, roll, bounce, shake, spin or compress and expand one of the above balls you have imagined (but actually do the movement

  • Align your body and limbs in arcs, which are part of imagined balls, now move the balls

  • Have your arms connect to each other through your opponent (this one is actually a ring)

  • Connect your arms to each other or a leg or both legs, or through space using an imagined ball

I could probably keep going.  Am I missing anything big?  Any other uses of the term ball in martial arts?

The definition George Xu gave me was in someways more concrete.  He said a ball, like a basketball for instance, has a skin, a surface thickness.  As a ball inflates, deflates, rolls or bounces, the dynamic pressure on the surface of the ball must change.  The surface of our physical body is like the thick skin of a basket ball.  It is capable of changing in tone, or being stretched around a curved surface.  Use the surface of your body like a ball.

When you practice gongfu, you must always "have a ball."


4 stages of Qi

George Xu has simplified his explanation of the basic process of making martial arts internal.

First there is External-Internal, which means that the jing and qi are mixed.  Most martial arts use this method to great effectiveness.  It is high quality external martial arts-- muscles, bones and tendons become thick like chocolate.

Second is Internal-External, most advanced taijiquan, xingyiquan, and baguazhang practitioners get stuck here.  It means that the body is completely soft and sensitive.   While power is constantly available, the yi (mind/intent) is trained to never go against the opponent's force, so that when this kind of practitioner issues power it is in the opponent's most vulnerable place (in friendly practice it is often used to throw the opponent to the ground).  Unfortunately, if the opponent gives no opening there is no way to attack.  Also, at the moment of attack all jin, no matter how sneaky or subtle, becomes vulnerable to a counter attack.

The third is Pure-Internal, this is very rare.  All power is left in a potential state.  Because there is no jin, one is not vulnerable to counter attack. To reveal this aspect of a practitioner's true nature requires completely relaxing the physical body so that jing and qi distill from one another.  The body becomes like a heavy mass, like a bag of rice, Daoists call it the flesh bag.  Then one must go through the four stages of qi:

  1. Qi must go through the gates.  The most common obstacle to this is strength, either physical, psychological, or based in a world-view.  After discarding strength the shoulders must be drawn inward until they unify with the dantian.  The same is true for the legs; however, the most common obstacle to qi passing freely through the hip gates is too much qi stored in the dantian.  Qi must be distributed upwards and released in order for it to descend.

  2. Qi must conform to the rules of Yin-Yang.  As much qi as goes into the limbs must simultaneously go back into the torso.

  3. The qi must become lively, shrinking expanding and spiraling.  (This is what I'm working on.)

  4. This one in Chinese is Hua--to transform, like ice changing into water and then steam.  But George Xu prefers to translate in as melt the qi.


Personal Update:  I'm going on a classical music only fast.

Sandwich vs. Sausage

In stillness jing and qi differentiate. Jing, in this case, is a feeling of underlying structure particularly as it relates to the limbs when they are relaxed--but also a feeling of continuous unified connection of the four limbs through the torso (via the four gates at the hips and shoulders).
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