Becoming Left Handed

I was talking to George Xu the other day and he compared the process of changing from being an external martial artist to being and internal martial artist to the process of changing from being right handed to being left handed.  To accomplish that, you would have give up writing and feeding yourself with your right hand and learn those actions with your left hand.  Simple enough, I suppose, if you're a hermit in the mountains with a years supply of edible mushrooms.

However, if you are going to keep your life going you'd have to accomplish it in steps, gradually going back and forth between left handed and right handed actions.  I imagine it would take a lot of confidence and determination.6a00e55404668688330115724cc09b970b-pi

Of course we aren't trying to change from right to left, we are trying to change from so called "external" to so called "internal."  Add to the problem that there are few people who can model it well, and even fewer that can clearly explain the task-at-hand.

But my point here is that learning internal arts has a real similarity to trying to do stuff with your non-dominant hand.  You have to turn off the well established how to messages, and replace them with clumsy awkward undeveloped ways of moving.  And you have to do this consistently, in an experimental feedback loop, over an extended period of time.

Magic in the Tendons

I came across this article on Frogs which is saying what I've been saying for years about the role of the tendons in power generation.
Though its muscles still have a vital role - after all, a quarter of the frog's entire mass is in its legs just for this purpose - these jumps would be physically impossible without its springy tendons.

As the frog readies itself to leap, its calf muscle shortens. After about 100 milliseconds, the calf muscle stops moving, and the energy has been fully loaded into the stretched tendon. At the moment the frog jumps, the tendon, which wraps around the ankle bone, releases its energy, much like a catapult or archer's bow, causing a very rapid extension of the ankle joint that propels the frog forward. The entire jump — from preparation to leap — lasts about a fifth of a second, the experiments showed. Other frog species jump much faster.


China to build first Tai Chi theme park

China to build first Tai Chi theme park

WUHAN, Nov. 16 (Xinhua) -- China will build a theme park showcasing the traditional martial art of Tai Chi in Wudang Mountains area, legendary home of the marital art and a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned as a center of Taoism.

The administrative office of Wudang Mountains and American company Landmark Entertainment will cooperate to set up the Tai Chi theme park in the central province of Hubei, said an official with the administration on Wednesday.

Folks were fretting about the commercialization of Tai Chi and Wudang Mountain on Facebook and then a cooler head pointed out that this sort of thing can work to filter out the more oafish tourists while creating a source of funds to nourish or protect tradition.  I just got excited about the Tai Chi Pirate Ride!  The Wuwei Bumper Cars that never actually touch!  And the Silk Reeling Roller Coaster is not to be missed!

Maybe they will have people dressed up as the Eight Immortals-- the way Disneyland does Mickey and Goofy.  Now that I think about it, if Landmark Entertainment wants to win hearts and minds they really ought to hire me as a consultant for this.


Mothering and Othering: Making an Immortal Baby

pregnant-happy-womenThe most basic, primal, reduction of the notion of self-defense is the protection of a baby in the womb.  It totally trumps castle law and threats to life and limb.  If a pregnant woman rips out a man’s throat, or shoots or stabs him, all she has to claim is she was protecting her baby.  As long as she can plausibly make that claim, no jury in any civilized country would convict her.  Even a child would at least have to make the case that running away was a bad option, or that lethal force was justified, but a pregnant woman unaided and under attack can get away with almost anything.

Obviously pregnant women do everything possible to avoid having to fight, above and beyond the rest of us, which is probably why their case for justified self-defense seems so strong, so pure.

But that’s an aside, here is the main question.  What is the psyco-physical state a female uses to protect her fetus and, by extension, small children close at hand?  Pregnant women, in my limited experience are often happy and relaxed.  Compared to the average person they have virtually zero abdominal tension.  We understand this viscerally.  If we were carrying a baby inside our body we would be careful in all our movements to not transmit tension to the baby.  The way we walked, moved our arms and turned our head would all keep in mind treating the baby with loving care.  We would avoid shaking or bouncing unless the baby seemed to like that.  And when the baby was sleeping we’d probably be careful to move in a way that wouldn’t wake the baby.

e1alch-sA woman who is pregnant is doing this all the time.  So in the event that she needed to fight, it seems possible that she would maintain this attitude or at least be physically informed by it.  Think for a moment though, how such a fighting style would look.

First of all, it could not rely on structure or rooting because pregnant women tend to have poor structure and balance.  They have a lot of mass to wield, but the movements of the  arms would likely be used clear a large area around the belly while attacking in circles.  The mind, rather than focusing on death points to attack, would be using massive force to throw an attack back.  In other words, a pregnant woman might fight using the tai chi and bagua notion of a giant rolling ball.

The mind of the pregnant women, if she made the actual jump to fighting, would be fierce beyond reckoning.  A parallel with the concept of “xu” we have written about before is pertinent here.  “Xu” literally means fake, but in martial arts it refers to a body which is not giving off self-identity signals, a body which does not respond to pain, a body which has let go of all tension.  The pregnant woman who has made the jump to fighting is fighting for the baby, not herself.  The experience might be de-personalized, the baby has needs, the baby is the future, what happens to the outer body is secondary, the outer body can risk being destroyed as long as the baby is fully and totally protected.

This seems to invoke the image of two bodies, an inner one and and outer one completely differentiated-- a qi (potent energy) body, surrounded by a jing (relaxed mass) body.  To make this match up with the standard internal martial arts lingo is a small leap.  The inner body (the baby) is qi, it is potential energy, pure animation which is round in shape and when awake, can extend several feet beyond the outer flesh body of the ‘mother.’  The qi body (the baby’s needs and perhaps its will) seems to take over the mother;  however, the qi body is blind to what is happening outside, so it must be led by the mind.  The mind of the mother controls the space and defines the environment around herself.  The mind goes first, the dynamic energy of the baby (qi) follows the mind.  The mass of the mother’s body (jing) always puts the baby energy ahead of its own needs.  The shen (spacial mind) leads the qi (energy body) and the qi leads the jing (body mass).

04dThis appears to be a very obvious, though over looked, explanation of why  Daoists have so often used the metaphor of making an immortal baby to describe the internal elixir practices of neidan, and jindan.

Try this practice: Imagine you have a baby in your lower dantian. Try to move without waking up the baby.  Do this over a period of months and gradually increase the range on motion in which you can move without waking up the baby.  Eventually your body mass will become very quiet.  This is called purifying jing.  This is, of course, also a description of doing a tai chi form, or so called ‘pre-heaven’ Baguazhang.

Once the jing is purified and the body is quiet in motion, then you can experiment with waking up the baby.   While the baby is sleeping there will be no power.  After the baby is awake, power will seem to come from emptiness.

All this suggests a composite mind and a composite body.  At the moment we are dealing with massive generalizations and oversimplifications but let me sketch it out quickly.  The composite mind has several models.  One model is the lizard, mammal, frontal cortex (human)--a three part mind where the lizard is powerfully focussed on survival and aliviating pain, the mammal is obsessed with status, pleasure seeking, emotions and group bonding, and the frontal cortex is all about planning, imagining and rational thought.  There are other models too.
Models for the composite body come from evolutionary theory.  Our bones were once an exoskelatin, a shell which got covered in a wormy substance we call muscle.  Each part of our brain comes from a different type of body substance which at some point in our evolution was an independent animal.  We are composite forms which tend to organize all these ‘minds’ and ‘bodies’ in standard ways, however, extreme circumstances or carefully designed practices can alter the organizational order of this conscious/unconscious mass of kinetic life energy.  Just a thought.


It seems to me that in utero, before we get the gender defining hormones, males and females both have a proto-womb.  Perhaps this is even true to some extent for pre-pubescent children.  I would like to propose what must seem obvious to many people, that this proto-womb is what martial arts, theater, meditation and ritual all refer to as the lower dantain.

The womb seems to have some independent connection to mind, as if it was an earlier life form in our evolution, which can re-assert itself when other aspects of our composite body-mind are quiet.


When a mother fights, the ground belongs to her baby.  Dantian, literally means cinnabar field, red ground.  Everything which enters that field belongs to the baby.  Even the mother’s own body belongs to the baby.  The fighting mind of a pregnant woman has a very unique way of owning space, a unique way of possessing.

Contrast this with the social form of fighting that men do.  One man pees on a tree to mark his territory with his testicular scent.  Another man then does the same thing and they fight over ownership.  The peeing doesn’t actually have to take place, it can just be assumed.  This testicular marking style of fighting involves a sense of ownership too, but it is less absolute.  Subordinate yourself to the dominant male and the fight is off.  Fights for status are rarely lethal and are usually resolved with simple posturing.

The testicular scent fight is a battle of and for identity, “My body owns this! and belongs here! doing this!”  The womb fight is asocial, “Don’t even think about hurting this baby or you will die (after you’re dead I’ll make a decision about whether or not you are good food for my baby).”
When two men fight over testicular scent, they each extend their minds right up to, but not through, their social challenger.  Two testicular scenters engaged in hand to hand combat are usually very close together, but their minds do not extend much beyond their own bodies and thus the jing (body mass) and the (potential energy) remain mostly mixed up within the body.   Because the qijing and qi do not differentiate the power is very limited.

goddess-kali-idolWhich brings us to othering.  Othering is the psyco-physical process of dehumanizing an individual or a group of people so that you can kill them without feeling social restraint or remorse.  Othering is shorthand for:  “Seeing someone as belonging to another species.”  Butchering animals may be totally natural on a farm, or while hunting, or it may need some training.  Certainly us urban people need to get past our squeamishness in order to butcher an animal.  After I caught, gilled, cleaned and iced 128 King Salmon in one day in Alaska I was haunted by fish eyes whenever I looked closely at anything shiny.  But other than that, I had successfully othered them.

If a person is raised to believe that another ethnic group or tribe is inferior, the process of othering is probably already complete.  When a criminal plans an assault, most likely he or she has already gone through a process of othering.  It is important to think about because in some cases you may be able to avert an assault by somehow getting the assailant to see you as a member of his tribe.  Othering is a justification process.

What does the psyco-physical experience of othering do to the mind and body?  To successfully other, is to shut off, like flipping a switch, all immediate social impulses.  So while it may be possible for a human predator to get close to someone by imitating social behavior, the behavior is not tied to a script, so when the range is right the knife simply goes in.  It is nearly always a surprise to the person being othered.  It’s also very quick and uses overwhelmingly superior force.  Although if simply threatening force is likely to allow the predator to achieve his or her goals then there may not be an actual assault.  It seems like the mind in these cases sees a victim as kinetic energy to be controlled or extinguished.  It’s not a contest for ownership, total ownership of the space is established before the assault.

Othering doesn’t require much physical training or energy work or relaxation techniques.   It only requires that the mind sees the immediate environment as inside its control.  In George Xu’s words, “The wolf thinks: ‘This territory is my refrigerator.’”  So in this case, the mind definitely leads the body mass (jing) but it doesn’t matter whether the jing and qi are mixed as long as the predator has enough skill to sneak up on the prey.  (In other words, predators in nature often need extraordinary skill to hunt, and thus they have perfect differentiation of jing and qi, but human predators can use weapons, so they don’t.)


Mothering is the source of all compassion. Mothering is the psyco-physical process of extending ones mind to include someone or something within ones field of protection.  To mother is to project the sense of “my baby” out into space.  It is a very potent place to fight from.
Othering is nearly the direct opposite of mothering.  It is a process of extending ones mind to surround but totally exclude someone or something from the protection one affords himself.
And Testicular Scenting is just a cute term for "the monkey dance."

Structure Vs. Momentum

Two posts back I was discussing the perfect curriculum.  Part of that discussion, which got a lot of comments on Facebook (can we fix the code so they show up here too?), is about the pros and cons of breaking an enormous corpus of ever receding revelations into bite sized ideas.  While the pros and cons are still being weighed, I have a little something to say about Structure vs. Momentum.

Structure training has many facets and side trajectories.  The most significant in no particular order are, center-line awareness and control, power investigation and development, and  creating potent default stances you can fight your way to when you are loosing in a self-defense situation.

But all that aside, the main purpose of structure training is to learn how to give up control of a fight in exchange for taking a dominant position. This is more or less what I was getting at when I named this blog "weakness with a twist." If you can reposition yourself with a structural advantage, having control over the fight isn't that important.  You can effectively let your opponent buck and roll while you tap them on the shoulder from behind.  It isn't usually that easy to pull off, but it is that simple.

Structure training isn't the whole fight by a long shot, but it is a very important piece.

Electric Volcano Electric Volcano

Contrast this with momentum training.  Learning good structure usually involves a substantial loss of power do to the loss of natural momentum.  For instance untrained people often throw their shoulder and head into a punch because they intuitively know that it will increase the momentum of their strike.  We martial artists often un-teach this inclination right at the beginning because throwing your shoulder and head into a strike will likely land you in a worse position, especially if the punch misses it's target.

Again, the order in which this unwieldy mass of teachings are learned is up in the air, but there is some logic to teaching Momentum after Structure is established.

If structure training is about giving up control to gain position, then momentum training is about giving up both control and position in exchange for adding chaos.  The more mass there is barreling through space along spiral trajectories, the more inherent danger.  The less momentum there is in a fight the safer it is.  If the person you are fighting is focused on defense, he is less focused on hurting you.  If your opponent is trying to control or dominate you, adding momentum will likely shift him into a defensive mode.  The more defensive he is, the more rigid and predictable he will become.  The more experienced you are with the chaos of added momentum, the more likely you are to prevail.

Momentum training increases the power of strikes dramatically, but that's a side benefit.  The main purpose of momentum training is to get you to drop the wasted effort of trying to dominate and control.   Tigers fighting other animals don't waste effort trying to dominate and control.  Those are social concerns.  Drop them and you will experience greater freedom of action.

The will to dominate and control arises from the fear of chaos (huntun).  That doesn't necessarily make it good or bad, it just limits our ability to see things as they actually are.

The Perfect Martial Arts Curriculum

Recently, several of my students have been giving me a hard time.  They say I'm under playing the importance of structure training.  Perhaps they are right.

In the traditions of India, Japan and China, it is common to teach using an ideal model.  Copy the model and practice like crazy and eventually you will understand how the model was created, both what makes it tick and what raw materials went into it.  "Reverse engineering" is the name techies give for this type of teaching.  It works well in flexible one-on-one learning situations where, if for some reason, a particular model isn't coming together, the master teacher can just change to a different model.

This way of transmitting cultural knowledge tends to be quite effective at creating continuity.  It's weakness lays in it's tendency to "worshiping" the model itself.  If the teacher believes a particular model is so great it should never be changed he will tend to blame the student (or the society as a whole) for artistic decline.  It's also possible that the teacher got an imperfect transmission of the model and ends up transmitting superficial knowledge.

Western Civilization gives priority in learning to cognitive understanding, not models.  Even when faced with an art which is visceral and corporeal, the tendency is to teach with a curriculum utilizing progressive stages of conceptualization.

This type of teaching tends to make efficient use of time and facilitates group learning.  It's very adaptable.  If the students aren't getting it, the teacher will try to develop a new lesson based on the notion that all knowledge is built on previous knowledge.  By working with the pieces, eventually the whole picture will come into view.

Working against this approach is the problem that acquired knowledge based on conceptual notions or utilitarian routines can sometimes inhibit artistic realms of awareness. (That's what the film the Black Swan is about, by the way.)   Artistic skills and ability are not always based on previous knowledge.  Realms of awareness which open up possibilities of spontaneous action can not really be taught, they must be discovered.  In fact, one type of knowledge can inhibit learning in another realm, like hitting the brake and the gas at the same time.

Too often the role of teacher as facilitator is undervalued and the role of teacher as "spoon feeder" is idealized.  My own learning experience in the martial arts benefited enormously from the "just copy this ideal model" and practice like crazy way of doing things.  Getting autonomous students to willingly submit to that form of learning usually requires a huge head fake.  A sort of matador's cape that I've never been particularly good at wielding.  Meanwhile our society exerts an enormous amount of pressure on teachers to create a progressive curriculum.


All of that was just a conceptual prelude to me presenting the problem in the following practical terms.

If you want to understand the value of strength, do some really hard physical labor for an extended period of time.  Try working 20 hour days commercial fishing in Alaska, carrying around 80 pounds of gear all day above 10,000 feet, or tossing bales of hay in Iowa.  (Perhaps people can mimic some of these effects in the gym, but I'm skeptical.)  Once you have this kind of strength you will appreciate flexibility as a total revelation.  Without first developing this kind of strength, flexibility just seems like a convenience.  But build up some serious strength and flexibility will seem like a treasure.

Once you have strength and flexibility, structure is a revelation.  Good or correct structure will allow you to transfer force through your bones, dramatically reducing the need for muscular strength, allowing you to conserve enormous amounts of energy.

Once you have structure you can develop it so that any movement at any angle or curve has integrity.  And then looseness will be revelation.  With looseness you will have the ability to have structure only when you want it.  You can disappear and re-appear at will.

Once you have looseness, momentum is a revelation.  Looseness will give you the speed and adaptability to take advantage of both your own and an opponent's momentum.   It's a whole different way of fighting. (Yes, I'm talking about fighting again, but it's only a frame for the larger philosophical discovery.)

Once you understand momentum, you will feel the value of increasing the unified integrity of your entire liquid mass as a revelation.  Unity comes about through reducing all effort.  Eventually you will experience turning off all specific muscular control as a revelation.

Once you have discarded effort, emptiness becomes a revelation.  Emptiness connects the effortless body to spacial awareness.

No doubt there are revelations to come.

Laozi says that the more focused, differentiated, specific and clear an idea becomes, the more likely it is to begin to stagnate and decay or harden and break.  Shouldn't this be the first lesson?

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.

Tim Cartmell

Back in June of this year while I was attending the Daoism Today conference in Los Angles I had the opportunity to visit and take a Sun style baguazhang lesson from Tim Cartmell.  Tim is one of the most well known teachers in the American internal martial arts world.  His book Effortless Combat Throws is widely acclaimed.  His more recent book The Method of Chinese Wrestling, which is a translation of Tong Zhongyi's book first published in 1935, is one of the most beautiful books on the market.

I made my way down to Tim's studio in Huntington Beach around noon.  His studio is all mats with big windows and great lighting.  It turns out that he currently only teaches the Chinese Internal Arts (Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua) in private lessons and workshops.  The classes held in his studio are all Jiujitsu Mixed Martial Arts oriented stuff.  There were a few guys in their twenties hanging around and a few showed up around the time I did.  Tim told them they could practice their grappling over on the side while we used the center of the space for my lesson.

My sense is that Tim has created a sold institution.  His studio is a place where mostly guys in their twenties can come and let loose.  A place where it is safe to learn ethics and explore natural aggression.  This kind of milieu is an enormous gift to any community and I was both impressed and inspired by it.  If students are interested, the internal arts are their for them too, but they are not the main product he is selling.  I like that, it takes the economic pressure off of a tradition which really requires adoption levels of intimacy to learn.

Personally Tim was warm and welcoming.  His teaching was very clear and it matched his theory.  He showed me the first two palm changes of the Sun style of Baguazhang and tested my structure through out the movements.  He showed a couple of applications which involved close contact throws.  Over the years I've learned many versions of the single and double palm change but each time I learn a new one it is like opening a different window into the original physicality of this arts distant past.

At one point in the second palm change there is a heel spin with both feet turned out.  A bit like Indian Classical Dance but since we were working on a mat I was having trouble with the spin.  So Tim showed me a straight line practice in which turning in (kou) and turning out (bai) alternate with a spin.  I immediately recognized the stepping pattern from a diagram for walking an Yijing (I-Ching) hexagram found in Jo Riley's book Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance.  We had a short discussion about it and he seemed genuinely interested but obviously it was a much longer conversation for another time.  (I don't have Riley's book handy but if anyone does and wants to scan that page for me I'll post it in an update.)

I only had one lesson with Tim so it is quite likely that I misunderstood something or only saw a small part of what he does.  But this is what I got.  Tim's idea is to use a very soft-light touch with precise footwork to attain a strategically superior position.  From there he uses superior structure to close in, at which point an effortless throw happens.  During the throw I noticed him melting his structure some what, becoming heavier like water.  So he appears to have three modes: soft-light touch, structure, and water.

I think this is an excellent method and I highly recommend Tim as a teacher for anyone living near Huntington Beach.  The method is very close to the one I practiced for may years but I've since changed my theory.  However, I still believe that what Tim is teaching is necessary to learn, it is probably more exact to say that that I think of it as a developmental stage in a larger theory.

I've explained my theory countless times but it comes out a little different each time, so once more with gusto.

Structure training is necessary because everyone is already using structure even without any training.  Structure training teaches you exactly what the best possible structure is so that 1) you can break someone else's structure when you encounter it and 2) so that you are familiar enough with the feeling of structure in your own body that at a more advance level you can totally discard it as a strategy for yourself.

Water training is a necessary stage leading to total emptiness.  Water is not very effective for fighting on its own, but it is a superb aid to fighting in close contact --throw or be thrown-- situations because it allows you to add weight anywhere at will.  Water is also useful for avoiding strikes and for rolling on the ground.

The importance of learning to achieve a spatially and structurally advantageous position should not be underestimated.  The best way to learn this is to practice with a very light sensitive touch, weakened, so as not to rely on strength.  In this weakened state you will lose unless you truly have the best position, the position of dominance.  With practice you will slowly get better at finding that position.  Once you are good at this, you will always know if you have a great position or a terrible one.  The next step is to always practice from a terrible position, that way no matter what position you get into you can still fight.

In order to fight well from a terrible position you need to transform from water to steam and from steam to emptiness.  Steam will give you the superior power but it is slow.  Emptiness will make you fast again and make it impossible for your opponents to feel your intent until it is too late.

Most of my current theory developed from recent encounters with George Xu, and since he is constantly changing his theories I suspect my theories will keep changing too.

Tim has tons of videos and discussions available on the web...Check it out.  Tim was very cool about setting up lessons, so if you are near Los Angles drop him a line.

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.

Unconscious Power

I have been quite reluctant until now to use the term unconscious.  Expressions like "the thousand yard stare,"  "trance-possession," or "a completely melted body" have been less jarring to my ears.  When trying to translate the esoteric meaning of a Chinese phrase like 'the jingshen moves the body,' expressions like, "over-come by a presence outside of the body" --such as fear, or love at first sight-- have seemed less confusing than the term unconscious.

But martial arts expert George Xu has been throwing around the terms unconscious and subconscious for a couple of years.  I've tried to dissuade him from using them because they have so much psychological baggage.  The average person is going to have to drop his or her preconceptions about what unconscious and subconscious mean anyway, why not start with a word they don't know?

George asked me: "When you are watching a great movie and you forget your own body--is that unconscious or subconscious?"

Me:  "I don't know.  These two terms refer to aspects of the mind which cause us to either act in a way we didn't intend to; or to act in a way we did intend to but didn't know it--and still might not know it even after the act."

The Chinese term jingshen is most often used in the negative.  For example, when a student is spacing out in class the teacher will scold, "You've lost your jingshen!"  So in a sense jingshen means presence in, or awareness of, ones environment.

busstopCan we move our body unconsciously?  If I am not conscious of a movement, how can I be its cause?  On the other hand, how do we know that so called conscious movement is really conscious?  Maybe conscious movement is actually unconscious movement observed and then a split second later justified?  Maybe conscious movement is actually unconscious movement which we just happen to have planned in advance?  Or put another way, maybe all movement is unconscious, but some movement has a kind of mental tension surrounding it, attempting to guide it and control it.

Is it possible then, that we could drop this mental tension we normally call "conscious," and replace it with a kind of active spacial awareness?  And there by gain some control over unconscious movement?  Can we move our bodies using only awareness of our environment?  Can actively changing only ones feeling of "presence" actually move the body?

Jo Riley, writing about Chinese Theater, has chosen to translate "qi" in English as "presence."  Turning for a moment to  the theater realm, all of this talk of unconscious seems more reasonable.  Some styles of acting for instance instruct the actor to find a single gesture or movement-idea which represents the character he or she is trying to portray or embody.  That gesture is then injected into all the actors stage actions, and from this the actor will unconsciously begin inventing a whole way of moving which looks authentic.

So after a long hard struggle, I might have to admit that the term unconscious is as good as it gets.

An infant baby moves unconsciously.  Right?  How about a tiger stalking its prey?  That one is a little more difficult to pin down.  What about a baby tiger?  Just kidding.

What about a mother protecting her young?  We've all heard the stories of mothers lifting up burning cars to save their children.  Is that unconscious power?

Is it possible that we have access to this unconscious power all the time?

(Sometimes I think the pharmaceutical industry would like us to believe that everything from love, to super human strength, to good acting, is just a chemical discovery away.  Hormone theory is very enticing, but until I can see in front of me something as complete as the Periodic Table for the whole endocrine system, I'm going to reason that there are other mechanisms involved.)

little-strong-baby-lifting-carThis is where I start getting excited.  I've begun seeing unconscious power in other people.  I can see it in people waiting for the bus.  This natural power is in my opinion available all the time when people are relaxed.  I see the unconscious power but I also see two forces inhibiting it.

The first inhibitor is conscious intentional movement.  It is as if people are trying to drive a car with the emergency brake on and the power steering shut off.  Their maneuverability is restricted and they appear to be, in George Xu's words, carrying their own weight.

The second inhibitor is segmentation.  This is when we cause individual parts of the body to work independently.  For instance, when we sit down to write we turn off most of the balancing movement functions in our body and activate only the fine motor hand and eye coordination.  The result of this process is stiffness, which tends to occur at the location of segmentation--in the case of writing, at the shoulders, upper back, neck and for some people the forearms and the backs of the eyes.  Any segmentation whatsoever, inhibits power.

babypowerJust as a side note here, my ability to see this unconscious power has developed in conjunction with my own ability to express unconscious power.  But I also believe that my own mental training was for a long time inhibiting my ability to see unconscious power in others.  The type of analytic anatomic physiological thinking which allows us to see individual body structures like muscles, may be replacing what is actually happening with a mental proxy.  And thus, by eventually dropping those complex ideas about what we are, suddenly something that was always there appears.


How did we get here?  Are humans victims of our own success?

Unconscious power is unconscious for a reason.  Human society requires us to plan out our intentions so that we can build things large and small, manifest visions, and carry out tasks.  It also allows us to be delicate and careful so that we don't break the things we create.

Unconscious power is familiar to everyone.  I guess it is how we felt as small children.  To a normal adult, unconscious power feels disorienting, vulnerable, weak and clumsy.