Bite Me vs. Don't Bite Me

076c8_the-game-rapper-hiphoppow Bite Me!

This is a simple post.  I just want to say that fighting is an animal thing.  At times it is a form of base communication.  The line between fighting and communicating is unconscious and blurry.  Most of the violence people in the modern world have experience with is fighting 'as communication.'  Think: bar fights, domestic violence, siblings, gang wars, arguments gone bad, police submission holds, and ring fighting.

When someone you don't know creeps up behind you and hits you with a big club it could be communication.  Often times it isn't, but if one tribe is trying to communicate to  another tribe that you have crossed into their territory, then it was indeed an attempt at communication--it's just that they don't care if you personally understand, since you have a high probability of dying.

Likewise if you see the knife before they stick it in, there is a good chance that some form of communication is intended.  If you don't see it, it may simply be a killing for pleasure, or survival, or to rob you. But it could also be that your death is meant to send a message to you boss.

Don't Bite Me! Don't Bite Me!

My question is, can you tell by the person's posture if they are trying to communicate?  Rory Miller pointed out that there are certain types of predators who want you to believe they are communicating because it keeps you in your social mind.  At least some of these predators are able to fake the physicality of communication.  Their goal is to get you in a very vulnerable position.

But that leads to another question, can we train to recognize when we are personally taking on the physicality of communicating?  To me this is a way of defining a "go" button.  A "go" button is a line of behavior or circumstance that you have pre-thought out in your mind so that when you see it, you go straight to fighting mode.

Bite Me! Bite Me!

If you start fighting while you are still communicating, you are probably stopping yourself from using full power.

The two base communication poses in fighting are "bite me" and "don't bite me," they are ancestral dominance and submission gestures. The "don't bite me" pose is actually a good flinch response if you are being pounced on by an animal with a big mouth trying to bite your neck.

The twist in the neck or torso of the "bite me" pose is supposed to vulnerable.  That's the point of it, but it is unconscious, so if you think you are dominating in a fight you're probably doing the "bite me" pose-- and it's de-powering you.

Even training a form all by yourself, the "bite me" and "don't bite me" communication poses are likely to creep into your movement all the time.  That's the simple reason so many martial arts schools are constantly repeating the need to sink your shoulders.  They are saying in effect "Drop the 'don't bite me' message because it is reducing your power."

I might even go a little further.  The physicality of Wuwei communicates nothing.

Waiting to Exhale, Not!

Here is a post on a Psychology Today blog by Alan Fogel, and a comment by Loretta Graziano Breuning.   Alan correctly notes that it is unlikely that any type of breathing method would directly help with shallow or constricted breathing.

Seems like this is a type of freeze, as in fight, flight, or freeze.  Rory Miller says that when a violent event happens the first thing to do is break the freeze that normally consumes us.  That is done by taking two actions, preferably actions with movement you can see.  Shouting is good too.  When people freeze, sometimes they imagine themselves acting instead of actually acting which just continues the freeze.  One action isn't enough because one could just refreeze, which might happen anyway which would mean it's time for another two actions.

Richard Mansfield (1857-1907) Portrait sitting in chair smoking cigar-Photo-B&W-ResizedAlan suggests that an increase in "Body Sense" will improve breathing.  This is partly a vocabulary problem but he is also partly wrong.  What causes a freeze, or shallow breathing, or constricted breathing is  the retreat of a persons spacial mind to their own body.  In normal social interactions the spacial mind is a bubble around the body.  The bubble is always changing, sometimes it is big, imagine a couple of cowboys smoking rollies on the front porch; and sometimes it is small, imagine polite people on a crowded subway.  Stand on a stage confidently and joyously singing the national anthem and the spacial body will get big.  On the other hand, with stage fright the bubble becomes like plastic wrap on the body.  In a challenge confrontation between two males of the same tribe, these spacial body bubbles stay close to the body in order to de-power the confrontation--because the goal is for one guy to submit to the others dominance, not to do life threatening damage.

Allow me to go a little deeper.  There are two bodies.  An inner body which is primitive, clumsy, very powerful, without memory, it has simple desires and doesn't carry around preferences.  Then there is an outer body, this is the body with muscles, and shapes and pain that most people think of and feel as a body.  When the mind sets these two bodies against each other we get all the things that only people can do, like playing baseball and writing letters.  There are tons of variations in how these two bodies can mix, but they all include some sort of retreat of the spacial mind into the physical mass of the bodies.  The mind is amazing, it can be active both inside and outside the bodies.

There is a simple difference between a male asserting a dominance challenge and a woman experiencing constricted breathing while listening to idiots rant.  They both have a shrunken spacial mind with an outer body that is constricting their movements.  In the case of the male asserting dominance the spacial mind will suddenly grow then suddenly shrink in a tit for tat dance with the other male.  His inner body will be very active, the slang for it is "chomping at the bit,"  the more he "cuts loose" the more his outer body lets the inner body act--'though he will still be self restricting.  The woman with constricted breathing is trying to force the inner body to stay still by constricting it with the outer body.  The inner body wants to go bananas but this is socially unacceptable so the mind uses the outer body to contain it by shrinking the spacial mind tight to the surface of the body.  It can be quite painful, especially in the abdominal region and around the neck and shoulders.

So to answer Loretta's question, basically you want something that will literally lift your spirits--making your spacial body big.  An action that will get your spacial mind outside your body.  A big loud socially rude sign could work.  Aaaaggghhh!  Bleachhhhh!  Going to a window sticking your head out and shouting something silly at the birds.  Running for the door?  Basically action trumps inaction.  Throw your arms to the sky and say in your deepest rumbling atheist voice, "Oh God Almighty!"  Whatever it is you do, it has to be inappropriate.  It has to be rude.  Maybe get right in between the ranters, grab them around the waist or the shoulders and say in the most May West voice you can muster, "Heeeeyah, can we talk about SEX NOW?"


Entertainment Therapy

Could it really be this simple?  25 Million Type 2 Diabetes Cases Cured.  The drive to eat and store food we inherited from our ancestors is having trouble adapting to our perfect world, a world where commerce has given us unlimited food, as entertainment-therapy.

The way modernity has come to define exercise is largely based on eating.  A routine which stimulates appetite to grow muscle mass would have been immoral for most people for most of history--because it would have meant that the people around you wouldn't have had enough food.  'Over eating' as a form of 'fitness' would have been incomprehensible.

The traditional popular movement arts, the village arts, may be a mixed bag.  After all, if you only do a certain dance for one week out of the year, and that week just happens to come with a major feast, then perhaps its purpose was to stimulate appetite, and help resolve the constipation a sudden increase in food intake would likely create.  On the other hand, if the art was practiced year round it would in all likelihood have to be based on training efficient movement, not strength; training endurance, not surge.  Of course, wrestlers sponsored with copious amount of food by a king trained for surge, not endurance. But heck, it's all speculation.  Eating, dancing, fighting, the reasons are beyond reason.

In all humbleness, it seems that in this era most of us are looking for an ethic of conscious eating.  It's hap hazard out there.  Opinions abound.  Strategies multiply.  Knowledge mixes with whim and whimsy.  The simple answers get wind behind them and sally forth, for a while.  We seem intrinsically to know that the answers must be simple, but what seemed to work for a while now degenerates into folly, cant, or personal preference.

Taxis, hair cuts, moving furniture and hot food.  The four things we tip for.  (I tried to tip the new accounts guy at the Bank of America the other day, it didn't go over that well.)  There must be something about food, something so deeply irrational about how we view it, that we are all blind.  Like insects that keep flying into clear glass windows.


In the interest of full disclosure, here is what I ate yesterday:

4 Barrel Coffee, Yogurt, Nuts, Banana.

Salad with both pickled and raw cabbage, pickled bamboo shoots, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, hard boiled egg, raw carrot, raw daikon (shredded), and left-over slow cooked soy sauce pork shoulder.  Miso, lemon, sesame oil dressing.

Lamb stock with slow simmered shiitake mushrooms (dried), celery, carrot, leek, shredded cabbage, parmesan cheese.

Tunnel Vision and the Perception of Density

pole-dancing-empowerment-embodiment-samantha-holland-hardcover-cover-artUnderstanding the nature of perception is profoundly important for the study of any movement art.  The martial arts have been particularly vulnerable to the modern dictum that, "what you see is what you get."  But perception just ain't that simple.

Kinesiologists and their fellow travelers have uncovered a plethora of experimental evidence that motor development, perception, and imagination, are all intertwined and interdependent.  For instance check out this upcoming workshop blurb from Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen:
The senses are our organs of receiving information from ourselves and from the outer world.
Perception is the psycho-physical process of interpreting sensory information. This process begins as potential and develops in response to experience. The dynamics of perception explores how we filter, modify, distort, accept, reject, and use sensory information to bond, defend and learn.

In order to perceive clearly, our attention, concentration, motivation or desire must actively focus us on what it is we are to perceive. This aspect of perceiving, pre-sensory motor focusing, patterns our interpretation of sensory information.  Without this active focusing our perception remains poorly organized.

Sensory information comes to us through multiple channels.  Touch and movement are the first of the senses to develop. They are registered throughout the whole body and establish the baseline for future perception through the sensory structures of the head: mouth, nose, ears and eyes.  Sensory information from these structures is transmitted via the nervous system through cranial and spinal nerves...

[This workshop will explore:]

  • The perceptual-response cycle.

  • The developmental sequence of the senses and perception.

  • The mouth as the first extremity to grasp, release, measure, reach, and withdraw.  It sets the foundation for the movement of the extremities (head, tail, hands and feet).
    The mouth and nose as the first initiators of movement of the head and spine.
    The inner ear as it registers vibration, movement, auditory tone and body postural tone.

  • The eyes as they are dependent upon all the previous senses and, the role of the eyes in helping to integrate the other senses into more complex patterns.
    Cranial and spinal nerves from a cellular and nervous system perspective.

The perception of space outside our bodies is thus built on a foundation of both movement and feeling.  So for instance if I look at a tree, or just for fun, a guy named Hulk, I'm going to be using my eyes to determine his size, shape, motion, and density.  90% of that is not what I actually see, it is happening in my imagination.  My imagination happens to be very accurate for this task.  Even though Hulk's back is not visible to me, I've incorporated it into my visual comprehension.  If one of Hulk's legs was obscured by a trash can my mind would still imagine the leg and would be quite surprised if suddenly the trash can was gone and there was no leg there.  A very large part of this imaginative process develops through touch.  Hulk's density is frankly not visible at all, our perception of density is built on our experience of touching, squeezing, biting, lifting, pushing, bouncing and poking similar objects.

Embodiment is the new catch word being used to sell everything.  The packaging on my toothpaste tells me that it will leave me feeling more embodied, so does the flier for 25 Hour Fitness, and the meditation class down the street.  All of this embodiment hoopla is just the perception of density from the surface of the skin inward. The opposite of "Embodiment" then is disassociation.  I don't really know what disassociation is, but I'm guessing it is a failure of imagination.  Many drugs, especially the illegal ones, cause some kind of dissociation which probably temporarily damages the basic functioning of the imagination.

In Chinese internal martial arts, Tai Chi, Xinyi, Bagua, we take a different route.  I suppose we could say, "We do Embodiment inside out!"  The higher levels of practice are all about the cultivation of emptiness which is the feeling of zero density from the skin inwards.

As we discussed above, density is perceived through various forms of touch.  Every inch of the body is capable of perceiving density.  The feeling of cultivating Qi is hard to pin down but at least part of what we call "feeling qi" is the perception of density from the surface of our bodies outward.

If you just do a quick glace around the room, you probably aren't thinking much about density.  But now find an object like a vase or a can of deodorant, ask yourself, "Can I feel the density of that object by just looking at it?  Can I feel its density from a distance with my belly?  How about with my elbows?"  Most peoples imagination can do this quite easily.  When a cat is stalking its prey in a forest, it keeps its eyes on the prey but it is testing the ground for density with each step.  If you walk into a darkened room your perception of density suddenly goes on high alert so that you won't ding your shin or otherwise smack into something solid and unexpected.  That perception seems to reach out into space.  This is what we are doing when we practice internal martial arts.

If you hit someone, basically you are trying to make them feel more embodied.  The more they feel the pain inside their body, the more effective your strike was.  The more their perceptive faculties are focused inwards, the less they have available to find a way to hit you back.  So the opposite is also true, the more my faculties are focused outwards, the better my opportunity to fight.  This is true for the entire surface of my body and also for my ability to imagine out into space.

Along the same line of thinking, stare into the center of this image.  After a while the lines on the edges will start to straighten out.grid-optical-illusion

This happens because we basically have tunnel vision all the time, it just seems like the whole world is in focus because our imagination makes it so.  But if you are in a fight for your life with an adrenaline surge, part of your imagination shuts down and you get tunnel vision.  This Wikipedia article suggests that there are pharmacological reasons for this, in other words they don't call it a loss of imagination.  But in fact it is both.

cb2e25378ca3545bc8ca7ef82365f1fcTheater ritual and martial arts are closely intertwined.  Masks have been used since ancient times to create altered states of consciousness.  If you want to know what it is like to experience the tunnel vision associated with being attacked, just put on a mask with narrow eye slits.  Mask work done with tradition and sensitivity has the ability to profoundly change the way we move and see.  It can change the way we feel and perceive both space and time.  Most traditional Chinese martial theater and ritual was done with elaborate spacial perception altering costumes and either heavy mask like make-up or actual masks.

Sucker Punch, A film about self-defense

I am a collector of arguments. I would much rather hear a finely crafted argument than sip a glass of fine wine. A year or so ago I got myself in an argument about whether Chinese culture had the notion of self-defense 500 years ago. My contention is that self-defense is a new idea that has been developing very slowly since the American revolution (and other "Enlightenment" events) proposed that social order could be rooted in individual freedom. (I tentatively conceded the argument after my primary contender presented a translation of a 16th Century Chinese Encyclopedia which I'll include at the end of this post.)

Certainly there have always been people who found ways to practice fighting and reasons for claiming their actions were righteous. But that is not the same as claiming self-defense. For instance, in China it was common to claim that one had to fight to protect ones honor or property. But what if you had no property or no honor? Theater professionals were the lowest social caste, below even thieves, clearly they had no honor to defend. Similarly Biblical justice, an eye for an eye, is framed as the settling of a score, it is not an argument for self-defense.

This is why I was so taken by Sgt. Rory Miller's arguments in Meditations on Violence. He explained that very few forms of social violence justify an act of self-defense. With a few exceptions social violence is avoidable and deterrable. Social violence is the form of violence that most people have experience with, consequently they tend to confuse it with asocial violence which is a much rarer form of violence. Asocial violence almost always requires an act of self-defense. For instance, in the international arena we hear the absurd and incomprehensible argument that Israel responds to attacks against it's civilian population with disproportionate force. This type of argument only makes sense if you believe this is a social conflict. In an asocial conflict one is expected to use the minimum amount of force necessary to neutralize the threat. In the case of Israel, it has yet to neutralize the threat, up until the threat is neutralized any level of violence is justified.  Likewise in a social conflict, if we can easily retreat we are expected to do so. But you don't retreat once someone has broken into your house. Retreating from asocial violence tends to leave a trail of blood. The 1948 declaration of Jewish autonomy will continue to be an offense to all those who consider Jews less than fully human.

Bernard Lewis recently explained that there is no word for 'Freedom' in Arabic, the closest term is something a kin to 'justice.'  In the recent demonstrations in Egypt people were chanting "Freedom" in English.  As hopeless as it may sounds to say it, autonomy and self-defense are concepts which require novel and complex arguments to comprehend.

The arguments explaining when and how self-defense is justified are actually new. The argument for women's self-defense may have gotten some inspiration from great figures of the past like Harriet Tubman, but the moral arguments which justify it are still being articulated. The same is true for children's self-defense; witness the national "bullying" debate, and the ever growing number of films and TV shows about girls who fight back.

Self-defense is in the air.

The new film Sucker Punch, by the same guy who made 300, is about justifiable self-defense. Freedom, all freedom, is predicated on our notions of self-defense. Most people reviewing this movie don't seem to understand that. For instance I've read about 30 reviews criticizing the shortness of the plot--not incoherence mind you--shortness. As if the length of the plot matters. The film explores the relationship between the power of dance and the power of the mind to fight for freedom and autonomy.  It's a sublimely beautiful film.  Check it out.

If you want see the Ming Dynasty Encyclopedia entry about martial arts, make the jump below!

The following is a quote from Josh, a scholar of Buddhist studies who was posting on Rum Soaked Fist last year.  Later in the argument he acknowledged that for the most part these texts don't explain why people are practicing martial arts.  The arguments below fall under defense of property and defense of honor which are weak arguments for self-defense unless you are in Texas.  Being a master of ones body does imply some notion of autonomy in the same way a dance style like Flamenco does.  The 'self-protection' quoted below does imply self-defense, however in my recent readings of Historical Chinese plays about the justice system the actors are surprisingly inarticulate about why they were justified in fighting.  Also note the theatrical nature of some of the pictures and challenge match nature of others:
"In the Ming and Qing periods, it became popular to print large encyclopedic collections of commonplace knowledge, which are generally known as riyong leishu "encyclopedias for daily use." Endymion Wilkinson says of these that "These riyong leishu "encyclopedias for daily use" form an important source on popular religion and everyday attitudes, social practices, law, and the economy not found in other extant sources." (Chinese History: A Manual, p. 608). In other words, these writings were intended for a broad (but literate) audience. Among the variety of topics they present, several of these collections include chapters that briefly cover martial arts. I'll provide a few examples. The first of these collections, Wanbao quanshu, is generally considered to be a 16th century compilation. In fascicle 19, there is the chapter called "Wubei men" ("Skills of Martial Readiness") which offers a number of excerpts on martial arts practice. The chapter begins with a short verse extolling the virtues of practicing boxing. One of the lines states that after learning boxing, "During the daytime you will not have to worry about people coming to borrow from you, and at nighttime you will have no fear of thieves coming to steal from you."
In another collection from roughly the same time period, the Wanyong zhengzong, the introduction states that the one who studies boxing "will master his body, and will not be bullied by villains... [boxing] is the basis for self-protection.... The gentleman who does not practice this art will be bullied, cursed, have his possessions seized, and will unknowingly be subjected to worry and harm."
I think that these quotes and their presence in works intended for a general audience speak for themselves, and very much contradict the statements that you have made above regarding the perceived function of CMA in pre-modern Chinese society, at least at this particular time."



The Social Muscles

I've been workshopping the idea of Social Muscles for a few months.  Even after years of blogging I still meet people who are baffled by the idea of cultivating weakness, so I'm trying to find vocabulary that makes this traditional group of ideas more "accessible."

251px-Elwood-just-got-a-bathEveryone is familiar with the idea of social stress.  Social stress happens whenever there is any challenge to a person's preferred status.  There have been a lot of rat studies about social stress (their hair tends to fall out).  There have also been a few studies of British civil servants (their hair falls out too).  Generally the lower you are in the social hierarchy the more stress.  That's probably because the lower you go in a hierarchy, the more people their are competing.  Positions at the top of social hierarchies are generally less stressful, but that depends on how real the challenges are and how often they are coming--the opposite could be true.

I used the word real in the last sentence, but social status is actually mostly about illusory things like who has the most friends or the biggest house, or even more illusory things like, 'do you believe in _____' (insert any group defining marker like: god, unions, aliens, PCB's, barefoot running...)  It's nearly impossible to have a conversation without experiencing some social stress.

chillinOur experience of social dynamics is largely unconscious.  Experiences with improvisational theater, intense conflict, or other dramatic breaks from normal behavior can lift the veil off of social dynamics.  Suddenly you just 'wake up' and notice that every word, glance, sound, or movement is changing peoples status before your eyes.  Most people are status specialists, one person fights to be dominant, another looks around for a strong person to be number two to, others show their top row of teeth and nod "yes" a lot-- they are happy subordinates.  There are infinite degrees of social status and it can change in the blink of an eye, or rather, it always changes in the blink of an eye.  Most people have a preferred status but status is constantly in flux, changes happen in quantum leaps.  Good teachers are masters of changing from low to high status in a flash, one moment the students find themselves cheerfully interacting with each other, helpful, and cooperative, the next moment they are frozen listening to the teacher's instructions with bated breath.

All of these status expressions are physical.  They come from deep inside the body and they are effected by our perception of personal and architectural space and ownership.  (See my blog post on Body Mapping.)    These largely unconscious movements and expressions arise from torso movement in and around the organs.  You can consciously activate them, but once they are active they are hard to control.  You can decide to get angry, but then deciding to calm yourself back down ain't that easy.  It's a lot of work to fake being happy--try doing it for an extended period of time and the stress will become debilitating.

Social Muscles are all the muscles of the torso that create, control, assert, and manage social status.  When we practice internal martial arts we want to let-go (tou kai = dissolve outward) all our social muscles.  We want to discard the impulse to control our status with physical expressions of dominance and submission.  If this sounds easy, perhaps I'm not being clear.  If you are home by yourself reading a book, or watching Chopped on the Food Network, you are reacting to stress cues of dominance and submission.  Any time you think, "I liiiiiike," or "Sexy-time," or "Really?" you are activating your Social Muscles.  Some experiences are obviously more stressful than others (I find watching Chopped really stressful).

Readers may be thinking, "But dude, it's relaxing talking with friends or curling up on the couch with the latest Bed Bath & Beyond catalog!"  It doesn't matter.  One part of your experience is relaxing, and probably being stimulated by happy chemicals too, another part is actively, unconsciously, reacting to social stress.  Facing my own demons, my happy chemicals are clearly triggered when I get in an argument, I love it, and perhaps it is less stressful for me than for other people, but it's still stressful, my Social Muscles are still working overtime!

What often passes for "relaxing" is actually just people hanging out in their preferred status.  I love soaking in hot water and breathing fresh air.  Visiting a spa can certainly be a real break from social stress, but sometimes the people at spas are down right freaky.  When hanging out at a spa becomes your preferred status, you have entered a weird zone.

My guess is that beginning as infants we spontaneously make faces and change body shapes.  Our internal organs just move around and do random stuff in response to stimulation.  But our parents give us consistent feedback for specific expressions, gestures, sounds, and whole body movements.  Through this consistent feedback we learn to interact socially.  In the beginning I doubt it is stressful, a baby can cry loudly for 4 hours straight.  What makes it stressful is the attempt to constrain impulses.  If you just get angry, it's not stressful.  But hardly anyone does that.  We start to get angry and then we check ourselves, or wonder why, or attempt to assert dominance and fail, or restrain ourselves, distract ourselves, simmer, or just "walk away."  That stuff is all really stressful.  Social Muscles work to contain spontaneous reactions. ¹

It seems to me that most "displays" of emotion are attempts to change our social status.  I remember being in India in a post office.  After the 4th hour of waiting in lines to mail some books back home, and getting turned away from a counter for about the sixth time, because I hadn't wrapped the books properly, I just started crying.  I willed it.  In America I would have done something differently, something more on "script," but in India my dominance/submission messages weren't working anyway so I chose to throw all caution to the wind.  The tears were a satisfying release for me, but the people around me started looking enormously upset.  Suddenly everyone was helping me.  There were a lot of young people sending letters to Harvard and MIT, and they all stopped to help me.  About 20 of them pulled me outside and listened to my problem and then they started helping me solve it, they found me a guy who sews up books (really, in plastic and canvas) and another person who writes out addresses and sews on labels and one who affixes wax seals.  It was weird.  Anyway my point is that because I was in another culture and had been pushed to the brink, I was able to discarded who I am.  I could have a pure, baby like, expression of emotion, a non-stressful expression of emotion, and just watch the reactions. That never happens at home, I know my place, we all know our place and we work hard to keep it.

The practice of internal martial arts is about completely letting go of the social USE of the muscles. This is especially true of the abdominal muscles and the ways these muscles connect to the face, hands and feet.  The Social Muscles are extraordinarily powerful, when we drop all social constraints we can become angelic, monstrous, predator-like, or to use traditional Daoist terminology-- immortal.²


¹I use the word spontaneous here with some trepidation because, I think, the impulse to contain or control social situations seems spontaneous to the extent that it is unconscious.   Perhaps primal urge would be a better choice of words, or maybe something Chinese like yuande, original nature.

²The Chinese character for immortal, xian, is made up of a mountain and a person.  So as a literal image it means: mountain man.  AKA, big foot, sasquatch, & yeti.

Xian = Immortal = mountain+person Xian = Immortal = mountain+person

Xu - Fake - False

The term xu is a key concept which ties together daoyin, the ritual body, trance, and all types of martial arts.  The first definition my dictionary gives of xu is “empty” or “hollow” but this is misleading as the term kong is generally used to describe emptiness in martial arts, meditation or ritual.

The second definition in my dictionary is more helpful, “fake;” interestingly, the fourth definition is “virtual.”

The radical for the character xu, is hu (tiger).  When a tiger stalks, he forgets his body, he thinks only of the prey.  Xu is the character used by Chinese Medicine in the expression shenxu (kidney depletion). When we go without food or sleep our bodies often become deficient and depleted, we lose fine motor control, the ability to focus, and concern for the flesh.

In the context of internal martial arts, xu is the fruition of the whole body moving as a single liquid unit.  Xu is a description of the physicality of an “I can sense what you are doing, you can not sense what I am doing” situation.  A body which is xu is unstoppable because it doesn’t apparently respond to resistance.

I know what you are thinking, zombies are xu. That’s right, if zombies could talk they would be like, “Yo, I don’t care if you chop off my arm, I’ll still eat you.  Shoot off my leg, no problem, I’m still coming...” I hesitate to say that xu is a form of disassociation because it is not necessarily a psychological problem.  However, the first time I bang my body or my leg against the ground teaching daoyin, people wince.  They think, “Are you crazy?”

Xu is external martial conditioning.  Xu is the result of pounding and slapping the outside of ones body as a way to be comfortable with heavy contact.

It is also what allows self-mortifiers to pierce and pummel themselves.  There is a long history in China of using a ritual trance initiation to induce xu.  Often it involves a ritual emptying, as in nuo theatrical exorcism where the hun and spirits are removed from the performer’s body and placed in jars using talisman and mantras.  But it is also a quick way of training troops.  During the Boxer Rebellion (1900) each boxer went through an initiation process which made him immune to pain and of course (he believed) bullets.

In trance the mind is totally preoccupied.  The boxers would invoke their personal deity and they would become, for instance, the Monkey King.  By preoccupying the mind with all the attributes of the Monkey King the individual boxer must have been able to disassociate from any injury to his own body.  He may also have been hungry and been entranced by the idea that he was purifying the country of evil Christians.

Other examples of training troops quickly involve group chanting.  Qawwali music from Pakistan, for instance, is all about invoking love.  It is the idea that while you are butchering your enemy you feel intense love for them, as you send them to god, you also make them one with god.  Because you are so focused on love, you disassociate from your own body.  Intense anger, revenge, and envy work too.  As Laozi says, “When we are possessed by desire, we experience only the yearned for manifest.”

Many spiritual traditions think of xu as a form of transcendence.  Putting on my rational 20th Century hat, I’d say that xu is the result of two forces; hormones (probably adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin, epinephrine) and mental focus.

(While mentally focusing on an idea, a goal, or an object outside the body can create an experience of xu, "focus" is a really bad word choice because the more spatially expansive (capacious) ones awareness is, the more xu the body can become.)

For those who practice internal martial arts xu comes about simply through relaxation.  In fact I would tentatively say xu is relaxation. When every sand sized particle that makes up your entire body is relaxed it is xu(Xu is used in the Chinese character for atom.) A body which is xu does not intentionally respond to resistance.  It is heavy, liquid and unified.  Actually it does respond to resistance, but it does so in an unconditioned, unconscious, uncontrolled automatic way.

Everywhere I look these days people are abusing the poor word “embodied.” Everything needs to be “embodied” these days, if you want to sell it--it better be embodied with some awesomeness.  Exercise, politics, education, shampoo, coffee, even the truth is supposed to be embodied.  But I’m telling you people, if you take this ride to the top of the hill, it ends with a totally disembodied experience.  But words are misleading, truly internal martial xu should be both embodied and disembodied at the same time.  When all the controlling, micro-structural, 'I own this body,' 'this is me,' 'this is me-ness,' voices get turned off what is left is xu.  Xu and emptiness (kong), of course.

I’m not exactly describing an ego-free experience here.  The ego just becomes bigger, it lifts off of the body and becomes spacial.  One experiences a lively, dynamic form of perceptual-motor spacial awareness.

Everyone is at least a little bit xu all the time.  And everyone is capable of getting really xu in short order.  Most of the drugs you can name off of the top of your head increase ones experience of xu.

What inhibits the experience of xu? Only one thing: Feeling in possession of your own body--believing that what defines you is limited to this empty bag of flesh.

Winter's Web

Winter is closing in and I'm headed out of town, to a place without zeros and ones.

I have so many blog posts I'd love to share, but you know what they say, "If you want to get something done, give it to someone who is already busy."  I guess I wasn't busy enough!  It will all have to wait for the new year.

In the meantime, I read The Body Has a Mind of It's Own, by Sandra Blakeslee.  This is a marvelous book.  It has no footnotes, which is a big drawback, but it summarizes the scientific literature on body mapping.  This is not Body-Mapping the "therapy" I posted about a week or so ago, it is body mapping the theory that there are about 15 different three dimensional maps of space, motion, sensation, and awareness in our brain.  Basically we know about the 15 different maps because researchers have been studying the weird stuff that happens to people when they get brain injuries.  Years ago Oliver Sachs wrote the book The Man Who Mistook Her Wife for a Hat, and described the process, but a lot has happened since then.

If you want to explain Qi in scientific terms this is the way to go.  Body maps, as metaphors, are a bit confining.  I don't really think all 15 or so mechanisms should be called maps, and maybe none of them should, but the mechanisms by which Qi, Jing, and Shen can operate in a "quiet body" "active mind" situation have all been roughly sketched out in this book.

So I've started on a new project to become conversant in Kinesiology.  I'm reading papers and books, and I'm even working on a paper with Josh Leeger whose blog covers the really interesting edge of new "fitness" experiments.

Speaking of which, the paper I wrote for the conference on Daoism Today about Martial Arts, Theater and Ritual has gotten enough positive feedback from the few readers I gave it to, that I'm going to put some real effort into publishing it.  When I get back.

Also, I'm really hoping I can pull together a self-produced class for kids (ages 7-13) after school in the space I'm renting on Geary Street.  Tentative start date in February.

Speaking of the space (5841 Geary St.), My Tai Chi and Qigong class there has been going great, feel free to drop in on us when we start up again Jan. 5th 2011.

I'm going to be taking over the renting and scheduling of the space, so if you want to rent it for classes or rehearsals of any kind, drop me a line, it's bright with mirrors, wood floor, and low cost.

And my morning Bagua Class will be open for new students beginning Jan 4th. 2011 so come on down and check out the funnest exercise in the world!


Since people look to me for expertise in the realm of horror films, here is my quick review of Black Swan:

(I'm probably the only one who is going to tell you what this film is about so be sure to hit the "Donate" button in the side bar if you are digging this blog.)  Black Swan is about the conflict between technique and expression.  A theme martial artists will totally dig.  There isn't really any fighting in this film which is crazy, how can they make a film without fighting?  Anyway, the film does a great job diving into the nightmare of having awesome skills that everyone recognizes and yet still not being able to dance (martial artists can replace the word fight with the word "dance" in that sentence if they want to).  I loved it, anyone who has ever been consumed by "a practice" will relate.  (Full disclosure: I closed my eyes whenever the nail clippers came out!  Some things are even too much for me.)


If you missed the Kung Fu For Philosophers article in the New York Times, check it out.  My first thought, "hey, dude, I could teach that class."  In my class each week I would send half the class home with a different philosopher to study and digest.  The next week when they returned we would pick two students to get on stage and fight.  Richard Rorty verses Charles Taylor one week, Zhuangzi verses Spinoza the next.  The students would have to fight and argue at the same time!  If a student got tongue tied or beaten down, we'd put in a fresh one to keep the action rolling.  (In the article the writer gets Zhuangzi wrong.  Zhuangzi says uncertainty is real.  The experience of uncertainty is real too.  The "transformation of things" is not something to "go along with," it simply is.  We are imaginational beings-- as much butterfly as man from one dream to the next.)  If you would like me to teach this class post a comment!

I'll be back January 1st, 2011.


Women's Self-Defense

In the 680 or so posts on this blog I have not had all that much to say about self-defense in general.  (It's not even on my "Category" list in the side bar.) Of all the things which interest me about martial arts, self-defense has rarely risen to the top.  But lately I have found myself thinking, reading, and teaching about it more and more.  Most people think of martial arts and self-defense as synonyms.  That leads to a lot of confusion.

Devi Protective Offense is a site dedicated to clearing up the confusions.  It is specifically designed by women, for women.  Teja is selling a product and a service which looks great.

You can watch a few of her videos for free, and she has this overview (click to enlarge).

She isn't dealing with historical development however, which in my opinion means she is too quick to discard traditional methods and forms.   In the video below she says that men have created unrealistic strategies for self-defense because they have trouble comprehending what it is like to be small and weak.  She is correct, but to me that is an argument for preserving traditional arts not discarding them.  Women were involved in the creation of many traditional martial arts particularly those related to performance and hospitality.  But even more importantly, I was a kid once.  I know exactly what it is like to fight someone three times my size.  Northern Shaolin was designed specifically for kids and it is extraordinarily well designed for kid's self-defense.  The internal arts take a long time to learn and require adoption levels of intimacy, but all the techniques I teach do assume that you are fighting a much stronger opponent (weakness with a twist is my motto).  Everything else she says is spot on. (hat tip: Chiron)

What the Heck Does Relax Mean?

looney_tunes_wile_e_coyoteOne of the things I love about teaching beginners is that they ask the most basic and obvious questions, and I get stumped.

What does relaxation mean? It's being touted from here to Peoria as the end all and be all-- the key to awesomeness in every endeavor under the sun or moon.  But does anyone know what it means?  My sister, who teaches maximum high speed swimming says, "The more relaxed, the better."  I talked to an Olympic weightlifter who says that when he lifts he imagines that there is a video camera framing only his face and neck.  As he is lifting an enormous weight he tries not to show any evidence of it on the video.

This raises another question, "How do we test for relaxation?"  By the way, if I was to teach Olympic weightlifting I would have people lift weights while standing up in a small boat on the ocean--any moment of stiffness and over you go...

So, to be an internal martial artist you have to test, a lot.  I suppose progress in martial arts could be measured by the types of testing one does.  First structure tests, then liveliness tests, then emptiness tests.  Is your structure good in every direction and in every posture?  Okay, then is your intention correct in every movement?  Okay then, have you completely discarded all evidence of structure and made all intent outside the body?

Yeah, I know I lost a few of you there but you'll get this next part.  If I were forced to define relaxation I would say it is an order of phenomena:  Body mass completely quiet, mind wild and aware-- no second thoughts, no contradictions, no social inhibitions, no identity to cling too, only clouds, rocks and water!The-Road-Runner-Wile-E-Coyote

Lately my ideas about internal martial arts have become so simple.  I shrink, I expand, I turn off all my impulses, and glory in my original nature.  I am clumsy, vulnerable, weak, and fat.  The layers and lumps of tension float off of me and on to the ocean waves where they join the dolphins and seals in their savage hunt.

Perhaps I only write this blog for myself, like an insurance policy so I won't forget, so I won't endlessly loop.  What I am about to say is so obvious you probably shouldn't read it.

Relaxation is easy to define, it is the absence of stress or tension.   Probably the greatest source of tension, day to day, minute to minute, is social.  I just think about being in a meeting at my old job, or what the school board thinks about martial arts, and zap, the tension bites me.  It grabs, it pulls, it twists, it concentrates, numbs, grinds, and it tries to find a home under my skin! Walk into a room with people in it and zap, the tension is there, instantly.

During every injury I've ever had, my mind was stuck on some social drama.

Coyote_full_body_photoAnd thus I have a theory.

Inside each of us there is an animal, I suppose Freud would have called it the Id.  It always moves from the center.  It is un-self-conscious, spontaneous, and asocial.  It is older than old, and younger than young, an ancient seed.  It has no regard for itself, no self-image.  It feels but it doesn't possess.  It knows but it doesn't hold on.

When this ancient seed (Laozi = old seed) finds itself in a social situation it wants to act, it wants to shrink and pounce, to bite, and wiggle, but our social mind overpowers it.  We smile and nod, we speak and gesture, and yet we are hiding what is happening on the inside.  The animal is pushing and pulling.  Because we won't let it out, it bites us from the inside and we call that tension.  We call that stress.

Tension happens when our spontaneous animal mind is out of harmony with our social human mind.  We become the battle ground.  I don't mean to imply that animals don't have social stress, but come on, when the coyote finally catches roadrunner and then starts his own blog we can have that discussion.