We Need A Name

I would like to draw all of my readers’ attention to Ben Judkins’ blog Kung Fu Tea.  He began posting in August of 2012 and now has a large number of posts on what he calls martial studies.  When I started reading his posts I immediately knew I had found a kindred spirit; a seriously trained martial artist (Wing Chun) who was open to viewing contemporary Chinese martial arts as having emerged from a milieu which embedded them in ritual, theater, music, and other complex social and religious phenomena.  (We need a name for this type of view/study/project.)

I quickly sent Ben an email introducing myself and then I called Daniel Mroz at the University of Ottawa.  Daniel teaches Theater using Choi Lifut and Chen style Taijiquan as the basic training.  Or perhaps, if one accepts the premise of this blog, he teaches Chinese Martial Arts from its theatrical base.  Anyway, I excitedly asked Daniel if he wanted to help me organize an academic conference, and with his help we quickly made out a list of scholars and experts we hoped to invite.  (We need a name for this conference)

That week I had a wonderful talk with Ben on the phone.  His focus is the Southern area around Hong Kong and mine has tended to be the North of China, so he had a number of interesting reading suggestions that I have been plowing my way through.  The conversation also opened me up to thinking more broadly about the spread of martial arts theater (so called opera) outside of China.  Look at this Wiki page on Bruce Lee’s father-- he was in 86 films!


Ben Judkins’ current post is about Bandits, Eunuchs, and the Son of Heaven, Rebellion and the Economy of Violence in Mid-Ming China  by David M. Robinson, (which I reviewed here).  My paper, Theater, Ritual and Exorcism in Chinese Martial Arts (download the pdf), relies heavily on Robinson’s book in places and so I read Judkins’ current post as thoughtful feedback of my own work.  I just want to respond to it here briefly.

Judkins’ draws a distinction between two ways of looking at history, “rational choice” and “thick description.”  It is a wonderful discussion.  He makes a very good case that there is an event (the Opera Rebellion) which was foundational in the creation of the modern martial arts of Wing Chun, Choi Lifut, and possibly a few others.  He posits that people made rational choices which drove that event.  I think he would agree that we still can’t know very much about why the martial arts turned out the way they did without a "thicker" description, perhaps including a discussion of the way rituals are used and physically embodied to remember events inside or outside of normal histories.  

I would invoke Mary Douglas’ How Institutions Think , and say that there is deep continuity within the ritual and theatrical aspects of martial arts training which effect memory, values, and ways of knowing, even across cultures and stretches of time.  So here I suppose I am going further a field then Geertz’s “thick description.”  I am studying  me, and people like me, who have discovered themselves inside a cultural milieu, not just agents of a “thick” description but something with more space, more volume. (We need a name for this)

For instance in teaching Baguazhang’s single palm change I use many different metaphors to embed the movement with meaning.  I can spontaneously come up with a hundred utilitarian technical “applications” of single palm change, but I know that students don’t learn the “real” single palm change that way.  Metaphors transmit complex kinesthetic ideas like being asocial without an agenda.  Yesterday I attempted to communicate this to a student by telling her the story of Musashi and Benkei, in which Benkei in his last breath says, “Thank you” to Musashi for having just broken the rules of the duel and killing him with his short sword.  Then I said, “Offer your arms as if you are the old warrior Benkei thanking Musashi for killing you.” Sometimes I use material from Daoist Ritual, it depends on the student and the situation.  Another student, who is a doctor, came to me one day and said, “I figured out how to practice single palm change.  I imagine I am delivering a premature baby from the mother to the intubation table.  These babies are extremely slippery and small and they haven’t breathed yet so they have to be moved and placed quickly, but with perfect balance and softness.”  

That student’s description of delivering a baby (actually more than a hundred babies) is emotionally intense, physically refined, spatially alive, and socially meaningful.  If bagua is done as ritual emptiness, it both accumulates and resolves kinesthetic memories like this one.  In fact, that is actually what you do when you fight with it.  

Perhaps this is a longer discussion than I set out to have but I wanted to say this:  Rather than framing “the project” as thinking about causes and events in history, or specific milieus which nurtured or influenced the martial arts, I would like to think about the martial arts we know and follow strands of thought and movement and experience and knowledge back through time and space.  I suppose in a way I want to reverse engineer history, ethnology, and religion. (We need a name for this)


Judkins’ previous three posts are about Peter A. Lorge’s book Chinese Marital Arts From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century, published by Cambridge University Press.  I picked this book up about a year ago while on the UC Berkeley campus.  When I got home I sat down with a big expectant grin (Cambridge Yea!) and read the Introduction.  Then I stood up, threw the book in the air and did a spinning double back kick, knocking it across the room where it smashed into the wall.  I then ran to my bed and screamed into my pillow for three hours, at which point I sat up quickly read the rest of the book and then called Daniel Mroz (this is his blog--and this is his book! ) and begged him to convince me to not write a review of it.  Which he did.

To my delight Judkins has reviewed the book and found kind and scholarly ways to say most of the things I was going to say through my teeth.  What a great ally!

I realized after thinking about it for a few months that if there had been no Introduction and the book had been titled Key Innovations in the Development of Warfare in North Asia, and he had used the words warfare or combat all the way through the text I would have been delighted to find the handful of golden nuggets in there. But it is not a book about martial arts, the nuggets are there because the subjects have some small overlap.

I also realized, with time, that his introduction very clearly lays out the antithesis of what I think the subject is.  Which is helpful!  Lorge rejects the quest for authenticity in the martial arts and the importance of naming-- two things I believe are indispensable.

I used to teach high school students and I’ve had quite a lot of students who were in street gangs.  These kids had been taught how to fight.  They had done a lot of what I would call adrenalized scenario training.  Most of it on each other, but some of it on people they targeted as victims or rival gangs.  They knew how to spar, some dirty wrestling, how to use elements from the environment to advantage (including weapons) and how to fight effectively as a group.  But they had no martial arts skill.  Period. 

In that same vein Lorge attempts to make a distinction between the aesthetics of violence and all other aesthetic considerations.  While it is true that people will search Youtube to watch gang fights or violent crimes being committed as entertainment, I don’t see how a practitioner of martial arts can confuse that with the performance of martial arts.

Aesthetics, authenticity and naming can be challenging issues to discuss, but they are also essential issues.  


So, in keeping with the title of this post, we need a name for this project.  I don't have it yet, so I'm looking for feedback.  Here are some rough stabs at it:  

Milieu Martial Arts (MMA) ha ha...

Situational Loci of Aesthetical Fighting and Performance Studies

Apophatic Kinesiological Ethnographical Martial Investigations through Time

Ritual Martial Theater Confluence Studies of History and Ethnology

Reverse Engineering Martial Arts and Performance

Normalizing Martial Arts Expertise through the study of Violence, Markets and Theatricality

Martial Arts Ritual Studies

Very Thick Ritual Martial Arts Performance and Historical Re-visioning.  

Embodied Martial Artists Reclaiming Ritual Theater as Historic Memory (EMARRTAHM)



Timing Isn’t Everything

Every martial artist has heard the expression, ‘Timing is everything!’  I’d like to discuss how people come to this conclusion and why it might be an error.

I recently read the book Antifragile by Nassim Taleb , and while I believe he makes the enormous error of deciding what his preferences are in advance and then attempting to use his theory to justify them, the book none-the-less got me to think about a wide range of subjects and for that I am deeply grateful.  

Before we set off on our journey, here is a measurement primer in case you want to check my results.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the importance of speed in martial arts.  If we graph velocity relative to harm on an x/y axis we get an ‘S’ shape.  At the bottom we of the ‘S’ we see almost no harm as velocity increases along the horizontal axis until a critical velocity is reached and then we see harm rising very fast until we get to incapacity and death which causes harm on the vertical axis of the graph to level out rather abruptly.  You can’t be more harmed than dead.  

Harm (vertical axis) as a function of Speed (horizontal axis)The reason for this ‘S’ shape is in the equation for kinetic energy which is: half the mass times velocity squared, (0.5)mv².   Because velocity is squared this formula gives us an upward moving curve of ever increasing steepness.  But the beginning of the curve doesn’t increase very fast at all.  That’s why if you want to make practically any martial arts technique safer you can easily remove most of the kinetic energy simply by slowing it down.  

In fact, this reveals a large vulnerability.  If a given punch has just enough force to do me serious damage, and I can some how slow that punch down just a small amount I may be able to take away most of its kinetic energy, making it impotent.  A small change creating a big effect.

This is why timing is so important; without proper timing kinetic energy disappears.  It is also why techniques which compromise speed are generally inferior.  This leads to some interesting consideration if you practice internal martial arts slowly which we will deal with below, but first let’s look at the other part of the equation: the constant.

In the equation mv² the m for mass is generally assumed to be a constant.  We can see this in the equation for momentum which is: mass times velocity, mv.  If we graph mv on an x/y axis we get a straight diagonal line, not a curve.  Momentum is always measured as a vector force, meaning it has a direction.  Kinetic energy is measured in joules and refers to the energy released on contact, it is not a directional reference.  In the equation for momentum, if I increase the mass a small amount for any given velocity, the result is simply a small increase in momentum.  This is called a direct ratio.  

The (obvious?) implication of this is that the person with larger mass usually wins!  Big guys hit that critical steep part of the harm curve at slower velocities.  They also have more potential energy from the combination of weight and gravity just waiting to drop on you at any moment.  

There are important exceptions like blades and vulnerable areas.  It doesn’t take very much kinetic energy to poke out an eye, so as long as the finger gets to the eye (position) it can do damage.  Very sharp blades act on tiny surface areas allowing very small amounts of velocity to do catastrophic amounts of damage.  Likewise the fast speeds attainable by the business end of a club can easily trump larger mass.

Slow martial arts practice is usually very safe.  But this doesn’t mean that the mind should become sedate.  When we practice Taijiquan or other slow forms practices we must not give up our ability to move at maximum speed.  This means that no matter how quiet your body gets in motion, your mind must be totally spatially active.  During Tai Chi practice you must be able to jump away instantly in any direction as if your clothes were on fire!  It is the same thing with push hands, just because you can move slowly doesn’t mean you have given up the option to move at lightning speed.  In fact, to compromise your ability to move fast is a fatal error (it is described in the Tai Chi Classics as a form of “stagnation” which results from directing the qi to lead the body).

So perhaps readers are thinking, bummer, I thought martial arts would give me some advantage over people bigger than me.  Don’t despair.  Large is of course relative but most large people have less incentive to improve their structure or their ability to attack with whole body liquid mass.  Why?  Because they can usually win with lousy technique.  For this reason being large can be a vulnerability. If you have a mechanism for increasing your smaller mass or decreasing your opponent’s larger mass, you have a way to gain advantage.   

No, I don’t mean eating more fatty foods.  The way to increase mass is to practice using your entire mass in all your movements.  The way all internal martial arts are designed to do.  This is a very “anti-fragile” way to practice because if you are good at keeping all of your mass functioning as a liquid unit you have dramatically reduced your vulnerability to changes in timing!

And as everyone already knows, when fighting a dragon, cut off their tail first, then a wing, then go for a leg...or in martial arts terms use your whole body mass to attack their disconnected (lack of whole body liquid mass) arm, leg, or head.  Even a 400 pound man does not have an arm as thick as my torso.  

So, in conclusion, reliance on timing creates a vulnerability.  Methods which give up speed usually sacrifice kinetic energy too.  Internal martial arts train the body to be totally quiet and the mind totally active so that maximum speed is available at all times.  One of the primary reasons for training slowly is to practice mobilizing whole body liquid mass effectively bring much larger amounts of mass to the fight then is normally possible, thus creating the opportunity to defeat larger opponents.  

Down Time

Just got a lot of down time in the mountains by a river, outside of internet and cell phone range.  Walked in the snow under the Giant Sequoia and a bunch of other great spots.  Stared at the fire.  Pulled a lot of books off of an ancient book shelf, lots stuff from over 100 years ago.  Ended up reading Congo kitabu.  Really interesting stuff written by an old school braggart Jean-Pierre Hallet.  Blew off his hand saving thousands from starvation while swimming away from crocodiles and then had to drive 250 miles through the mountains at night with the bloody stump, and then trained a lion to do tricks but had to let him go when... you get the idea.  But there was lots of interesting stuff about the colonial projects and the languages and cultures.  

Came back to a pile of books and I'm enjoying this one: The Boxers, China, and the World

Also I got a kick out of this article about pick pocketing:  A Pickpocket's Tale, The spectacular thefts of Appolo Robbins. Martial arts and pick pocketing have more in common than I realized.  Seems like he'd be an interesting guy to meet.  All martial arts have an element of trickery and that is part of what makes them fun.  

Don't forget to sign up for my workshop next Sunday at Soja, Rooting and Uprooting!


The Clumsy Cowboy

When I was a little kid I had a little book called The Clumsy Cowboy that I treasured.  It was about a cowboy who couldn’t stay on his horse.  After going through some trials and tribulations he eventually solves the problem by attaching himself to the saddle with a bucket of glue.  No doubt, before the invention of stir-ups in the 3rd century a lot of cowboys had this problem.  But even after that one can imagine that wielding a weapon from horseback ran the risk that when the weapon came into contact with a fearsome warrior the sudden shock would transfer to the rider causing him to either drop the weapon or fall off his horse.  

Of course, whether or not one falls off their horse also depend on what sort of weapon they are using and how they are using it.  But any force transferring into the rider’s body is going to either hurt or knock him off the horse.  If the force transfers to the rider’s wrists he will probably drop the weapon.  The goal in such collisions of force is for the rider to transfer all the shock directly to the horse.  The horse can handle it.

This is clearly one of the origins of horse stance.  Shaolin and Tai Chi are almost identical in the way they use horse stance.  When we punch from horse stance it is essential that whatever resistance we meet is transfered to the imaginary horse-- the imaginary horse between our legs that is.  Really this imaginary horse is the lower part of the dantian and at the physical level requires that we relax and expand our base, especially the underside of the thighs, to redistribute all incoming force.  This can only be learned by having a teacher who understands how it works resist your punches while giving direct feedback about the quality of the punch.  Although the mechanism should be the same in Shaolin and Tai Chi, meaning it could be classified as either internal or external depending I guess on how well one does it, most people who learn to punch from horse stance only learn to generate power.  

Horse stance is not a particularly good stance for punching, in fact, it is a bit ridiculous.  To get power from a horse stance most people lean and push through their feet, which is of course wrong.  The whole reason for using horse stance to train punches is so that the student can learn to hit while staying perfectly upright and simultaneously transfer all the incoming force to the horse.  It’s a difficult stance, if the student can accomplish this task in horse stance then that skill will transfer easily to any other stance.  

Invest in Loss

I've written about this topic before, Not Your Grandmother’s Tai Chi and here too.  And I recommend you go over to the Yang Family Tai Chi forum and read what the expert translators say "Invest in Loss" means.

Here is the question:  

I am told of a quote from Cheng Man-ching, "Moreover, a beginner cannot possibly avoid losing and defeat, so if you fear defeat you may as well not even begin. If you want to study, begin by investing in loss. An investment in loss eliminates any greed for superficial advantages... Concentrating your ch'i to become soft is the only proper method to invest in loss." translation by Mark Hennessy.

"Invest in loss" is an expression which has become very widespread as a part of any English language explanation of tai chi push-hands.  As Louis Swaim explains in the link above, it is actually two characters, eat and loss (chi kui).  And that any fluent Chinese speaker would hear it as closely related to the ubiquitous phrase, eat bitter (chi ku).  

The problem is to make it apply to tai chi practice.  As I said in my first link above, I believe the phrase implies willingly losing as a method of learning better ways of moving and fighting.

For example, take a better position by moving your foot, without letting your opponent know that is what you are doing.  Use your mind in tricky ways.  Plan, not to win but to cheat.  

I also like thinking that Cheng Man-Ching knew he was in New York City and knew what a bear market strategy was.  He was aware that he was talking to Americans and liked a translation that had the term 'invest' in it.  Invest in loss sounds like a short sale on the stock options market.  Why not make money while you're losing?  Americans will understand that.

But I also had the great fortune to read Paul A. Cohen's book Speaking to History: The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China , which explains the origin of "eat bitter."  The premise of the book is that the Goujian story is as well known to all Chinese as Cinderella is to Americans.  And yet, most foreigners who become fluent in Chinese never have an opportunity to learn the story or to contemplate it's meaning.  The expression "eat bitter" is often explained as a rough equivalent of "pay your dues," or Muhammad Ali's "Don't quit, suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion" or "misery has its merits."  Except that it is often explained that Chinese people kind of expect to suffer and don't necessarily expect a reward later on, although they may hope for one.  I have often heard that in the context of learning, "eating bitter" is a byproduct of dedication and subordination to a worthy teacher.  

But Paul Cohen turns all that on its head because the story of Goujian is very straight forward.  He was conquered and he totally accepted the most humiliating subordination for years before getting his kingdom back by trickery.  Then he secretly plotted a strategy of total revenge over 20 years.  The way he kept himself focussed on the task of revenge was by wearing furs in summer and going bare chested in winter, and by hanging an extremely bitter gallbladder from his doorway which he would lick every time he walked under it.  So eating bitter, or eating loss, means to accept defeat publicly while secretly planning totally revenge.  

That fits very nicely with my understanding of "invest in loss."  Let your opponent think he won, but position yourself to break his legs.  


As an aside, I am very sympathetic to those who wish to see push-hands as a way to transmit non-aggression or even non-intention, giving up control and letting go of self-assertion.  But I think the "game of push-hands" is at best a tool, if people are using it to improve skill or attain attributes they are likely to charge right past such open ended forms of daoist fruition.  The dao of wuwei has no method, no requirements and no form.


Irony Alert!  After having written the above text, I spent about two hours editing it and added another section.  The stuff I said was totally awesome, like the best writing I’ve ever done, and it was full of secrets too.  And then I hit the cancel button by mistake...I guess that’s what happens when you title a post “invest in loss.”  

I’ll just tag a few more lines on here but I just don’t have the time to re-do it.


As another aside, (and I've written about this a bit in the first link up top)  Dominance is in our genetic code.  A two week old goat has good rooting and uprooting skills because they use those skills to establish social dominance.  We are the same except we also establish dominance verbally, spatially, with money, with knowledge, with mates, etc....  So when people set out to learn martial arts they naturally frame it as a dominance exercise.  Complicating things, self-defense is not about dominance, but violence professionals like prison guards, bouncers, and police are often required by their job to assert dominance so a lot of dominance training gets totally mixed up with the larger subject of martial arts.  

Push hands can be a fun dominance and submission game.  I concede that.  It is dominance by either superior skill, sensitivity or mysterious qi cultivation. The Cheng Man-Ching school, the school most responsible for popularizing the expression "Invest in Loss," tends to teach push hands as a dominance game.  They are often so hell bent on not losing that they collapse their chests in a desperate effort to evade.  This is a tragedy because with the loss of upright posture there is a profound loss of fruition.  

When people practice push hands with perfect upright they completely discard pushing!  From there effortlessness and stillness are revealed.  Non-aggression, wuwei, our true nature (de), all manifest spontaneously. 

Throw Away Comments

I recently read The Yoga of the Yogi: The Legacy of T. Krishnamacharya, by Kausthub Kesikachar.  It's not my intention to review it here, I'm not qualified to comment on his organization of Yogic theory and philosophy.  I picked it up to learn more about the founder of modern yoga, who he was, his education, and his training.  It does cover that material in a terse way, but as an American reader of history, I would have benefited from a lot more inclusion of historical context and clues about how his relationships to specific people influenced his decisions to pursue knowledge.  Anyway please don't take my opinion as a review of the book.

The one thing that really caught my attention was that the author maintains a ritual practice of putting his guru's sandals on his head.  He also tells us that the tradition dates all the way back to the time of the Ramayana.  He frames this ritual practice around faith and devotion, but he also says that everything can be transmitted this way--meaning that because the practice is pure revelation, it transcends method.

What's that?  I can learn Yoga from putting sandals on my head?  But who even thinks about questions like this? They just throw these comments away.  Even people who do the sandal practice just talk about faith and devotion.  Only someone of the highest level would even think of suggesting such a practice.  

It just occurred to me that if my students were to put my old shoes on their heads they might learn a lot faster.  I have new found respect for Yoga.  After 30 years of martial arts practice I understand why and how this works, however; 1) none of my students would do it, 2) if I explained it, none of them would understand it, 3) if by chance they did understand it, I would have to kill them.

Which brings me to another book which I am also not going to review:  When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art, by Phillip B. Zarrilli.  I believe I wrote a review of this book some time ago and decided not to publish it.  The two things that interested me about Zarrilli's work, the theater connection and the China connection, don't get worked out in this text.  Too bad.  One thing I loved about the book was that he put everything he had to say about "Paradigms and Discourses" in the first chapter and outright tells the readers to skip that chapter unless they are a disembodied head stuck inside an academic box! Yes.

 On page 45; "[In] playwright Bhasa's version of Karna's story, Karnabhara, which illustrates the divine gift of power (sakti) which requires no attainment from the practitioner.  When a messenger gives Karna Indra's gift of an 'unfailing weapon whose sakti is named Vimala to slay one among the Pandavas', he asks, 'when shall I gain its power (sakti)?'  The messenger responds, 'when you take it in [your] mind, you will [immediately] gain its power.'"

What? No hard work? No training? This is correct, this is the highest level.  Do you really know what it means to put sandals on your head?  Do you really know what it means to put a sword inside your mind?  

How Cheap is Life?

Alexander Hamilton came from a place where life was cheap.  In the West Indies of his time the majority of people were enslaved, didn't wear clothes and had an average working life expectancy of four years.  He didn't know his father and his mother died when he was ten.  Death was all around him, yet somehow he learned accounting and how to read and write in English, French, and Hebrew.  At the age of 15 a devastating hurricane destroyed much of his surroundings and he wrote a vivid description of it which was published in newspapers all along the East Coast of the future US.  Someone in New York was so impressed by his writing that they took up a collection to send him to Princeton!  When he got there, talk of revolution was in the air and he convinced his dorm mates to practice marching drills with him from a book.  When war came he marched his friends down to the armory and because he had already taken command they made him an officer on the spot.  Shortly after the first battle he met George Washington who recognized his merits and made him Aide-de camp, responsible for all correspondence of the general.  

And the rest is history.  As far as supplying ideas and doing the intellectual leg work he is the single most important American founding Father.  When a person's life has been that cheap-- and he gets through it-- he must see challenges differently than the rest of us.  Not just challenges, but risks and ideas too.

Clarence Thomas has a lot of critics, enemies really.  He was born in a Gullah community.  The name Gullah is probably a distortion of Angola.  The Gullah were isolated to some degree in language and culture because they used African fighting traditions to free bonded people and make war.  After the American Civil War, a group of Gullah that were fighting on the Mexican Border were invited to join the US Calvary; later made famous by Bob Marley's song "The Buffalo Soldiers."

Clarence Thomas grew up in extreme poverty and hardship, abandoned by both parents he delivered coal as child, probably the dirtiest work there is.  Yet he managed to attend school, always graduating at the top of his class and receiving one scholarship after another.  To this day he is subjected to constant racist attacks that he is stupid and unworthy, that he only ever got anywhere in life because of other peoples pity, guilt and charity.  Yet he knows how cheap life can be.  His eloquent and unfettered opinion on the right to keep and bear arms is a necessary addition to our understanding of the history of the United States.  Like Hamilton, Thomas knows that the pen is mightier than the sword.  People who know how cheap life can be, fear the pen more than the sword, or in this case, the gun.

I've been watching a lot of Italian knife fighting lately.  Its spontaneity and musicality are informing my jian (double edged sword) work.  This art clearly comes from a place and time when life was cheap.

The Chinese arts I study are at least 500 years old, that's a lot of time to keep a tradition going.  That means the arts survived many eras when life was cheap as well as eras when life was not so cheap.  Classical artists try to consolidate and pass on as much of the essence of their art as they can.  Yet, we often fail to understand the lessons of the previous generations.   Without the actual experiences, accumulated knowledge is often just a shadow; shadows on top of shadows.  I'm very lucky to have studied so much with George Xu because he lived through a time when life was very cheap.  He has been able to bring many of those shadows to life!  Perhaps it has been harder to learn from him those parts of the arts that flurished when times were not so cheap, thank goodness for my other teachers, but the beauty of these arts is that these shadows on top shadows take tangible forms if you nurture them.  And George Xu certainly has taught me a kind of openness which can only come from choosing life!

There are several chapters of the Daodejing which are about living through times when life is cheap.  I leave you with this one: 

Exiting at birth, entering at death,

3 in 10 choose life,

3 in 10 choose death,

3 in 10, 'though they choose life, make decisions that bring about premature death.

Why? because they regard life as precious.

And then there are those who are good at nourishing life!

When entering a wilderness, they don't avoid tigers or rhinos,

When entering a battle, they don't put on armor or take up weapons.

The rhino finds no place to jab his horn,

The tiger finds no place to dig its claws,

The weapon finds nothing to catch its blade,

 Why? because there is no death point on them.

--Daodejing, Chapter 50


Jewish Strong Man

This is an entertaining pod cast about a Joseph Greenstein, "The Might Atom."  

Here is some more about him.  He studied Jujitsu back in the day.  He also believed that most people stop themselves from being naturally powerful.  Here are some more stories.  There is a book too but it's $70 on Amazon so I'm going to wait until Hannukkah.  

Health and Fate

Some big news is about to break and if I tell you what it is now, you will think I'm crazy, but if I talk about it after it breaks everyone will be like: dude, of course, that's old news.  Being a Cassandra is a lose/lose situation.  But perhaps some historian a hundred years hence will notice this blog post and make it all worth while.

The news is that exercise isn't good for your health.  

I always feared this would happen.  Talk to anyone with a degree in marketing and they will tell you ad nauseam, "Emphasize the benefits!" They are like, "Don't talk about what you do, avoid telling us what it is like, and never explain the process...tell them exactly what they are going to get--in glorious abstract platitudes!"  

Forced against my better judgement to conform to this convention I end up with things like: Practice Internal Martial Arts and:

  • You'll be more honest with yourself about how weak, clumsy, and stressed out you are.
  • When you look at random other people you'll think, "Wow, I bet that hurts!" 
  • You'll be able to cut off a person's head, effortlessly.
  • You won't like the elastic in bras and underwear anymore.
  • You'll discover the unlimited freedom of matching your appetites to your fate.
  • You'll be more mature and responsible...or is it.... spontaneous and childlike.
  • You'll become unconditioned, like an uncarved block of wood.
  • Empty, like a carton of Ice cream that we just bought yesterday (can you believe it's all gone?).
  • Like water, always seeking the lowly and the dark.


Obviously you can all see where I'm going here.  When my Mom wants to sound authoritative she tells me, "It's true!  I read it on the Mayo Clinic website!"  Heaven forbid she discovers the CDC website...also known as "Side-effects-R-Us"  Never mind.  Okay, mind.  But what is this obsession with benefits?

Here are the reasons the Mayo Clinc gives for Exercising


  1. Exercise controls weight
  2. Exercise combats health conditions and diseases
  3. Exercise improves mood
  4. Exercise boosts energy
  5. Exercise promotes better sleep
  6. Exercise puts a spark back in your sex life
  7. Exercise can be fun


Now before you fall out of your chairs, remember this is supposed to be the premier center of the world for medical expertise totally fact checked and backed up by the latest science!

So I told my advanced Tai Chi class the other day that I don't believe in exercise anymore and one of my students just about lost it, "Have you even seen the people walking around out side today! The obesity! The lethargy! The video game addictions!"  We have a lot of fun in my classes, I showed him pictures of baby goats to calm him down.

Let's debunk the 7 Reasons For Exercising.

#1. It controls weight.  Nope, it doesn't. A clearly false statement.  Here is the counter argument to the counter argument: Yes, It Does. That argument is so pathetically weak it relies on a study that showed after 30 weeks of continuous aerobic exercise "over-weight" men lost 3 kilos.  3 kilos is 6.6 pounds.  I gain and loose 3 pounds everyday, 6 pounds is nothing.  30 weeks is 8 months! Case closed.

#2.  It combats health conditions and diseases.  This statement is so general it doesn't even deserve a response, what conditions? what diseases? what type of exercise? for whom does the exercise bell toll?  Oh, if you read the explanation they are talking about heart disease.  Fail again, the heart association changed it's definition of good cholesterol 6 times this year alone! Coffee good, coffee bad...ignore, information does not compute.  Exercise is good for arthritis.  Eyes pop out.  Moving on.

#3.  It improves mood.  And doing the dishes is likely to send me into a spiral of darkness?  My guess is they wanted to say exercise helps you poo more regularly but worried about upsetting the delicate balance of authoritative elan.

#4.  It boosts energy.  Bored now.  I thought sciency people didn't talk about "energy."  Anyway, I think it does give people a "boost" if they haven't been exercising regularly.  But this is circular logic. Doing exercise is itself a boost of energy.  And if you do it regularly then you don't get a boost any more.  Poor us.

#5.  It promotes better sleep.  Okay, I'll stop joking for a minute.  Yes, that is a real possibility. But it can also make it worse.  And for many people it simply doesn't help at all.  The truth is, sleep is a huge mystery.  I highly recommend the book Insomniac.

#6.  It puts a spark back in your sex life.  Folks, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but that entirely depends on why you're not "sparking." As John, Paul, George, and Ringo put it:  "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't gonna make it with anyone any how."  Take it away boys...

#7.  And last but not least:  Exercise can be fun!  So can farting.  I rest my case.


Don't click here unless you want to feel pitty for me.


 Here is a quick rant on the health subject which I scribbled in my notebook the last time I was stuck on public transportation.  Wait, before my quick rant, I have another quick rant.  The arguments for public transportation are well known and very convincing--it is efficient, cheap, and saves time.  Spock would love public transportation.  In the USA, however, in practice it has completely and consistently failed to live up to its claims.  Can we just stop doing it now?  We should just focus on improving individual transportation systems.  It's like we keep smaking into the same glass door because it's so clean we think it isn't there.  Ouch.

Okay rant time:   I freaking give up.  Is sleep good for health?  Does sleep cure cancer?  Tai Chi properly understood is like sleep.  It is a flexible routine part of life that nourishes and balances essential primary human appetites.  There is a word for nourishing and balancing in Chinese: Zheng 正 (often translated correct, upright or rectification).  So don't ask, "Is it good for this? is it good for that? The answer is YES!  And if it isn't, well, then YOU are practicing wrong, or your teacher is TEACHING you wrong.  And for those of you who find this to be a circular argument and unverifiable; I have this to say:  YES, it is a circular argument! It circles down to the same issue every time:  You are responsible for managing your own appetites.  "Oh, really?"  You say, "But we can test sleeping, and we can see health deteriorate daily when people go without sleep.  Most people don't do any tai chi and some of them even have good health."  Well if you say that, you obviously don't have any experience with circular argument!  If they are healthy, then they are practicing tai chi already!  They just don't know it.  Even a man sitting on a sagging couch watching TV may be effortlessly and unconsciously using tai chi skills to place popcorn in his mouth.  


Now back to the original point, exercise isn't good for your health.  I'm not sure we will ever get to the bottom of it.  I look around at what people are calling exercise and I see a lot of pain and injuries.  I also see people having a lot of fun and feeling good.  I don't know, I guess it just bothers me when I hear people talk about exercising because they have too.  Please don't misunderstand me.  I'm happy to work with people who are motivated to improve their health, however they define it.  I just don't see a link between exercise and health.  I do see a link between health and hanging out with friends, belonging to supportive, inspiring, or stimulating groups, playing around, improvising, visiting parks and wild spaces, milking goats, chasing chickens, driving a $100,000 car, having sex with movie stars, wiggling your toes in the sand, grass, snow, mud, grapes, peanut butter, fairy dust, and swimming away from sharks.  Unfortunately all these things don't help me because I'm left handed and we are fated to die ten years earlier than everyone else.  



Philosophy Is Often Too Weak

I picked up this book at the library last year and forgot to review it.  Such a great title: Martial Arts and Philosophy Beating and Nothingness, Edited by Graham Priest and Damon Young,  Vol. 53 in the Popular Culture and Philosophy® series.  

The sad truth is, I rarely find philosophy compelling.  I very much like live discussions where (my) ideas become the center of attention, so when philosophy is a voice in the mix it's fun. Nothing in this book struck me as novel or stimulating until yesterday when a student of mine graciously sent me a link to an article from the book.  In the context of a student taking an interest in the specific arguments of Gillian Russell I suddenly had a reason to reflect more deeply on them.

Here is the article.

And here is my response:  

If a person doesn't know the historical and religious origins of martial arts it is pretty easy to make unending categorical errors about the purpose of training, and to completely miss the fruition of practice.  If Gillian Russell were to come to class I think her mind would be blown.  If a person is completely unaware of what the fruition of weakness might be, how can he or she be expected to recognize that fruition when it appears?  If her methods require strength, then she is in a self-referential loop.  Are there really no down sides to strength in her experience? or is she simply ashamed of her own natural strength limitations?  
When we truly accept who and what we are, and appreciate our true nature the way it is--the result is freedom.  Why would we want to cover that up with strength unless we feared it?  (Or even weakness for that matter, as she laments a fellow student --and wannabe qi jock-- did.) 
Because we, as human beings, have yet to find the limits of what are, every method we teach is wrong.  Or rather, a method is only right in a particular context at a particular time to the degree which it serves to reveal something true.  Methods always have some fruition, the two are inseparably linked, but the fruition is not always what we expect.  We can never truly know the fruition of someone else's practice or what views they hold about themselves and the world.  We can only know what they communicate to us. 


As a footnote I would like to add that I often encounter martial artists that believe what they have been taught was the method itself; that a given method is the correct way to stand or move or execute a technique.  There are only three methods I'm aware of in which the method is the same as the fruition.  They are wildness, stillness, and emptiness.  Everything else is preliminary or apophatic.  Everything else is wrong.


Also as a footnote, because I mentioned philosophy, I have to say how disgusted I am by a show on NPR called "Philosophy Talk."  Their bad tasting tag line is, "We question everything except your intelligence."  Really?  Well it doesn't pan out because the hosts are so narrow minded and limited in their experience of both the real world and ideas that even when there is an interesting guest or topic they seem to squash it with their own pontificating.  Yesterday they were talking about the recent Citizen's United Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States.  They were completely oblivious to the pro-commerce arguments which obviously informed the majority of the court.  


OK, since I seem to be in a confrontational mood, perhaps bought on by the large amount of time I've been spending around baby goats these last few weeks, please send me any and all links to books or articles about philosophy which you think might stimulate my horns to grow.  Thanks for listening.