One of the most misunderstood issues of martial arts is context. Among martial artists of different styles, you can hear endless arguments about which style is better. Practitioners will argue which knuckles to strike with, the merits of stand-up vs ground fighting skills, and traditional methods of training vs modern ones. What they often fail to look at is context.

As far as the debate over superiority of style, I submit that it is…contextual. Every style, or system, of martial arts emerged as a practical answer to a particular need for particular people, at a particular place and time. For them, the system they developed was appropriate and effective. They were never meant to be set in stone. During the times of the origins of traditional martial arts styles/systems, new ideas were investigated for merit and the systems were edited to incorporate new methods. That is how they became systems in the first place, and continued to evolve over time. Practitioners of “traditional” arts should understand that the art they practice is just that, a tradition, and it’s context of application is historical. That’s not to say that there aren’t many practical lessons to be learned that apply to our modern context, but there is, perhaps…a bit of translation to be done at times.

Wherever you stand on the issue of style, there is a context that I think is far more crucial than that debate – what are you training for? The answer to this question is perhaps the single greatest element in deciding the path you should take in the martial arts. While that answer is infinitely individual in its precise details, there are a few general categories of purpose for which someone may find themselves studying martial arts. Generally speaking, most people are either in martial arts for fitness and wellness, the art, sport, self-protection, or job related skills. Each of these contexts calls for a different approach to training, both in content and method.

Rather than going down the list of contexts and their appropriate training paths, I’m going to focus on one: self-protection. The reason for this focus is that many of us in the martial arts mistake which context we’re training for. Often, martial artists are just that – artists. They love the culture, the philosophy, feeling of practice, and the community of their brothers and sisters in training. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s a wonderful thing and something I thoroughly relate to and enjoy. However, it’s a mistake to equate such training with preparation for self-protection. As lovers of the art we tend to dive deep into the details of the correct way to stand, throw a punch, execute a block, perform a routine, etc. We spend hours practicing techniques on the mat. What we don’t do enough of is practice having an escalated conversation that erupts into a sucker punch-flurry, or being ambushed by a rabid knifer while glancing at our smart-phone. Unless your context is combat sports, military, or police personnel, those are the kind of situations in which you’re going to find yourself called upon to use your training. Unless you’re one of those guys who says, “Alright! You and me outside!” you’re not going to find yourself squaring off with a single opponent. Techniques are important, but recognizing that they are just one small piece of the self-protection puzzle is more important.

What about combat sports? MMA practitioners train hard and constantly prove their skills in the octagon. Most would probably feel they’re prepared to protect themselves. I wonder though, when was the last time they trained on concrete or asphalt, or their opponent pulled out a knife, or they faced multiple opponents? When was the last time they practiced staring down the barrel of a gun? People who want to hurt you don’t announce themselves and they don’t fight fair. That’s what combat sport training prepares you for – a fair fight against a single known opponent at a particular place and time. That’s not to take anything away from sport combatants. They are the absolute best at what they do, and their training is appropriate for that context. However, it’s not preparation for self protection. Neither is military training. Even though they train to deal with all manner of armed attacks (depending highly on what their job is) their context is different. Their job is to go into a combat zone against enemies that are known and armed. They seek out that danger at a time and place, often of their choosing. They engage with the highest possible advantage with the goal of neutralizing the enemy. With this context, their preparation is vastly different from a civilian who may be assaulted by a criminal. Perhaps the nearest to our context is that of police with some very important differences. Police, like the military, move toward danger. It’s in the job description. Unlike the military, they don’t always know when a situation will go from routine to life and death. In that way, their context is similar. However, police are there to arrest criminals. We civilians are not. Perhaps the most innocent, in terms of appropriateness of training to context, are those who engage in the martial arts for personal fitness and wellness. They often have no illusions of combative grandeur. They enjoy the activity as an alternative way to be in shape and de-stress.

The point is that none of these paths are wrong. If your training fits the context of your purpose – great! This is a call to martial artists to check their premises. Look at your training and ask yourself if you’re really preparing for the fight that could be coming your way. Recognize what your training accomplishes and what it doesn’t, and be honest with yourself about what you want from it. Then make adjustments accordingly. Being a traditional martial artist myself, I know that this can mean a hard look in the mirror. I think many of us are drawn to the martial arts out of a fantasy, fed by movies and comic books, that martial arts will provide some kind of super powers with which we can smite evil, and kung fu any mindless thug through a wall with ease. The truth is that training – proper training – gives you a fighting chance where you wouldn’t have had one. Hand to hand skills are an important tool in the self-protection box, but it’s not enough just to own that tool. You have to know what the situations in which you need that tool look and feel like. I encourage you to go on YouTube and look up videos of assaults. Look at the whole situation and analyze what can be done to protect one’s self in such situations. Reverse engineer your training from real-life attacks. Take notice when hand to hand skills would – or did – come into play, what happened before, what happened after and to what degree were hand to hand skills appropriate or necessary. In this way you can begin to create a bridge between your mat skills and preparing to protect yourself.

The relationship between structure and balance

Many people begin Tai Chi training with an interest in improving their balance. Balance, however, can often seem an elusive attribute. I often have students say to me, “I don’t have good balance.” To such students I explain that there’s no need to worry about balance, nor is there such a thing as good balance or bad balance. Balance is the result of aligning your skeletal structure, and “relaxing” down through it. So balance is not something you have or don’t have. Balance is a state you’re in or out of. If you want to improve your balance, correct your structural alignment. It’s all about the relationship between weight and structure. Weight is gravity’s downward pull on the center of your body masses.

Think about it this way. If you were stacking blocks one on top of the other, they would be in a balanced state if they were stacked with all sides even and flush. Gravity’s pull on the blocks would pass vertically and centrally through their structure providing maximal support. However if you were to slide one block a little to one side, and the one above that as well, you would create an increasingly precarious state until finally the blocks tumbled over. Now imagine strings or cords attached from one block to the next. As the blocks are slid out of alignment the cords take on more stress as they attempt to keep the blocks from falling off of each other. In this analogy, the blocks represent your skeletal structure and the cords represent your muscles. That’s what being out of alignment does to our bodies. It creates a chronic tension in our postural muscles and is also why it feels so difficult to balance. Tai Chi’s answer to balance is aligning skeletal structure so that our weight rests centrally through that structure. Then gravity will pin you to the ground from head to foot.

To find this alignment, start with your feet. The balls and heels of your feet should feel evenly weighted. The center of your weight should feel as though it floats in the center of the arch of your foot just behind the balls of your foot. From there move up through your ankles, knees and hips, seeking a sense of stacking them centrally one above the other. Moving past your hips, point your tailbone toward the ground so that it isn’t shifted forward, backward, or to either side. Then extend this feeling of stacking up your spine to the top of your head. Now your structure is stacked. From there, focus on relaxing as if the stacked feeling overflows through the top of your head and pours down through your shoulders, chest, ribs, abdomen, waist and back. The vertically stacked structure and downward relaxation should feel mutually reinforcing.

When performing stepping movements in Tai Chi, it is important to understand that having balance on one foot means shifting the axial structure of your skeleton (skull to tailbone not including limbs) over the central axis of one leg (center of hip to center of foot). In other words, you are stacking your structure over the supporting foot so the other foot is unburdened by weight and can move freely. Any sense of losing balance comes from losing vertical alignment during the shifting or stepping motions. Essentially, all of Tai Chi could be described as moving while maintaining a vertically aligned structure and relaxed body-state. It’s common to mistake leaning your upper body over one foot for proper shifting. There is a feeling of heaviness in that foot that gives the impression that you’ve shifted your weight over. You have actually, just not all of it. When shifting this way you’ll find that you can’t seem to move the opposite leg without undue muscular effort while struggling to maintain the precarious balance of your less than optimal alignment. Structurally speaking, you’ve split your upper body weight over both legs, with the upper portion (head, shoulders, chest etc.) over one foot and the lower portion (ribs, stomach, pelvis etc.) over the other foot. To achieve the graceful, effortless, and relaxed movement of Tai Chi, you have to stack your entire axial structure over the supporting foot – head to tailbone. Furthermore, the percentage of weight borne on one leg is directly connected to how far your axial structure is over that leg. If your tailbone points down right in the middle between your feet your weight will be evenly distributed. A little to one side and it’s 60%- 40%, more is 70% -30% and so on until your structure and therefore your weight is 100% over one leg. When shifting, think of moving from your tailbone – not your head.

Vertically stacking your structure isn’t just the key to balance, it’s the key to independent movement in two person exercises such as push-hands. As your training partner pushes and pulls on you, your goal is to adjust your position so that you can maintain your vertical posture. If you lean toward your partner he can take advantage of your unbalanced state and pull you off your feet. If you lean away he can similarly take advantage and push you back. There are many variations and subtleties, but the principle remains the same: vertically stacked structure is the first requirement for maintaining independent and balanced action. The next principle is to remain relaxed. By naturally settling your weight down through your structure, you create a state of body that can adjust to forces without losing balance by sinking down your vertical axis and turning around it. If you don’t utilize sinking and turning then your partner’s pushing or pulling force will directly affect the position of your axial structure and force you to move off your feet. If you struggle against your partner’s force to keep your position, you created force that he can use to unbalance you simply by reversing his push to a pull or vise-versa.
This can seem like a simple thing, but good alignment is a subtle thing requiring a lot of attention and patient practice and personal investigation into the relationship between different parts of your body. However, if you take the time to engage in improving your structural alignment, you will be rewarded with balance, grace, ease of movement, and even power.

Process of Learning (Progress)

Most of us begin learning an art form eager to demonstrate its highest levels of skill with ease. When our first attempts don’t manifest a master’s skill, we become discouraged. We begin to think we may not have whatever the mysterious thing is that makes some people good at the art. Unable to realize our desires, we succumb to frustration and waning motivation. This thought that we are missing some essential ingredient for success becomes a self-defeating belief that stops us before we can really get started. At the first sign of imperfect performance we say, “I guess I’m just not good at this.” This all-too-common downward spiral is based on a false perception of the normal process of learning a new skill.

The truth about learning a skill is that it involves far more mistakes and failed attempts than it does successes. What separates a master from a never-was is that the master accepts that mistakes and failures are part of the learning process, and the never-was thinks he should be able to produce masterpieces from day one.

The distance between having a desire to be good at something and the realization of a high level of skill can seem infinite. It’s normal to have a hard time believing any amount of training and practice could ever produce a master’s skill. That’s because we didn’t see the process the master went through to become a master at his craft. We may see a master perform their skill with ease and grace and say to ourselves, “I’ll never be as great as the master.” I call this the problem with greatness. The problem is the idea that greatness is something that a person just has. The truth is that greatness is not a quality a person does or doesn’t have. Greatness is in the perception of the observer. It’s the idea separate from its living, breathing truth. Somebody that we perceive as great may not see themselves as so. They know the process they have gone through and are still going through. They see their mistakes and flaws. The truth is that everyone, as we see them, is the product of a process with many steps, stumbles, and falls that have made them what they are.

Our ideas of things are deceptive. They are based on a glimpse of something or someone at one point along their process, and omit the rest of the process or even the notion that there is a process at all. Not including the role of process in our images of things generates a feeling of being trapped in our current state of being. We feel that we are either able to do something or not. That’s a normal way to feel in the absence of understanding process. Including an understanding of everything as in process, we can see the roads of possibility open before us. All we have to do is invest the time, effort, a bit of determination and a whole lot of patience; accept that we will make many mistakes, have some failures, and turn out some mediocre work as we go along. As we continue to develop ourselves, the time will come when we can recognize we are capable of performing decent skill in our chosen art, and some may call us master.

Non-duality and Non-choosing: flowing with the Tao

The source of all our strife is the perception of duality. At its root, it is the mental act of separating ourselves from everything else. When we perceive ourselves as separate from others, those others get split into two distinct possibilities: good or bad. Once we see things as either good or bad, we are thrust into a state of categorizing and calculating, as we try to avoid the bad things and ensure the good things. We seek to control events and we become quite stressed when things don’t go our way. We seek a state in which we can experience constant winning without the possibility of losing. This is ultimately frustrating and hopeless. The Taoist solution to this is somewhat unique. They offer a path of non-choosing.

Non-choosing isn’t quite the same as saying not choosing. It isn’t an indifference to events or simple passivity. In part, it is an acceptance of the fact that there is no winning without losing, no light without dark, no yang without yin. It is also an understanding that what things seem to be at one moment may not be the way they turn out, and that there is ultimately no need to worry. In essence, non-choosing is the recognition that everything is connected and in process, and the renunciation of such distinctions as good and bad.

There is an old Chinese folk tale that illustrates the approach of Non-choosing:

One day, an old farmer’s only horse ran away. Now he must plow the fields by hand.
All the villagers say to him, “What bad luck!”
The farmer replies, “Maybe.”
The next day the horse returns with seven wild horses in tow.
All the villagers say to him, “What good luck!”
The farmer replies, “Maybe.”
Later, the farmer’s son, while trying to train one of the wild horses, is thrown and breaks his leg.
All the villagers say to the farmer, “What bad luck!”
The farmer replies, “Maybe.”
Some weeks pass, and the military comes to the village, conscripting the young men to fight. They pass over the farmer’s son because he is lame.
All the villagers say to the farmer, “What good luck!”
The farmer replies, “Maybe.”

The farmer in this story seems to be the victim of constant ups and downs. Yet, he remains calm and continues his work. At first glance, he seems indifferent to the events directing his life, but a closer examination reveals a uniquely Taoist perspective. It may be no accident that the protagonist of this story is a farmer – someone whose life is lived by the cycles of the seasons, who knows that both light and dark, rain and shine are necessary conditions for crops to grow and animals to thrive. The farmer also knows that everything is connected: the wind, the soil, the plants, insects, and animals, and he too, all have their place in a harmonious system of interrelationships. This perspective grants the farmer a seemingly peculiar attitude toward life’s events. To him, rain isn’t good or bad, rain is just rain, and luck isn’t a factor in his thinking. Things are what they are. By not choosing between possibilities, he is able to take things as they come and do only what he must do, simply and wholly.

Another lesson from this story is presentness. The farmer doesn’t seem too concerned with what has happened or what’s coming next. This is interesting since farmers must plan ahead to plant crops before certain turns in weather and seasonal changes and that sort of thing. However, in the story, the farmer doesn’t dwell on his lost horse, or wonder about the possibility of his son being called off to war. He remains present, and allows circumstances to reveal themselves before concerning himself with them. He doesn’t worry. Worry is a product of looking ahead and behind, always concerned with avoiding the bad and obtaining the good. It’s a product of dualistic perception.

The Tao Te Ching, the classic of the Way and Virtue, is full of verses expounding on this point of non-dualistic perception and non-choosing.

“The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.”
– Chapter 1, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

In this first chapter of the Tao Te Ching the true nature of reality is revealed, as well as what causes us to miss it. This poem shows that no idea, no image, no name can describe the true nature of anything. The true nature of a thing can only be grasped through direct perception of it. A thing is what it’s doing. We do not live in a frozen world. All things are part of a constant Now, forever unfolding and revealing its nature in a shifting matrix of interrelationships.

Somehow, we forget to be present; maybe we forget how. We feel the need to name things, to categorize them, to see one thing as separate from another; ultimately, to see all things as separate from ourselves. We do this so that we can make calculations. We feel the need to calculate because once things have names and definitions, they become either good or bad – threat or benefit. This is the core of our dualistic perception. When things are seen as good or bad, we begin to fear the bad and desire the good. Then we must calculate, make plans and strategies – trying to ensure the good and avoid the bad. This is the birth of anxiety, stress, anger, jealousy, cruelty, ambition, and every self-damning act such emotions inspire.

When you understand that names are illusions, ideas that we create and impose on reality, then you can let go of names and allow all particular things to melt and blend into oneness. This oneness is the same as saying Now, the present, the universe, reality. You will also know yourself as part of the oneness; you will sense its motion and your part in it. Then you will not be concerned with what may happen, because you know – through direct perception – what is happening. You will be free of good and bad and the fear and desire they create.

Of course, names exist and are useful. The Tao Te Ching addresses this in the next verse of the same poem:

“Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source.”
– Chapter 1, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

This next line reveals an important point that is difficult to grasp in the beginning. Yes, all things are one. Yes, names cannot express true nature; but, all things are also “particular things” – parts of the whole – and names do exist and describe them. Think of different languages. What English speakers call “water,” Spanish speakers call “agua.” Yet no name, no description, no matter how detailed, can quench your thirst. None of them are the real thing. They are sounds when spoken, symbols when written, images when imagined. They are not reality. Yet they do describe something real. Because there can be any symbol or sound to describe a thing (such as water), and those sounds and symbols can change, they are not the true names. No name is the true name. Water is … ”gulp gulp gulp – Ahhh!”

What we must do to realize the Tao is to reconcile what we perceive as being dual into non-dual. This is the lesson of yin and yang.

Yin and yang represent the opposite aspects of the whole. By being aspects of the whole they are not true opposites. In truth, opposites, as such, only exist in our minds. They are actually complementary pairs. More than complementary, they require each other. They give rise to each other. They are part of each other. Think of a coin. Try to imagine a one sided coin. You can’t do it. No matter whether they’re stamped with different impressions, or one or both sides are blank; even if you cut it in half you can’t get rid of a side. It is the very fact that it has two sides that makes it a coin. The two sides don’t oppose each other, they create each other. Also, it is interesting that we feel compelled to flip the coin, and watch the two sides blur into one. We miss the point and lose the Tao when we cease seeing the coin and begin focusing on the sides.

“The Tao does not take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil.”
– Chapter 5, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

The point of this passage is not that the Tao is indifferent, nor that we should be. The point is that the Tao doesn’t put things in terms of good and evil – it only sees action and events, simply what is. It does not make such distinctions. The distinctions of good and evil are created by people, they are names, they are the result of perceiving duality; but the truth of reality is non-dual.

So, the quote above is a bit of a riddle. It shows you the way of the Tao by showing that the Tao simultaneously is not good or evil (does not take sides) and is both good and evil (gives birth to both). The Tao is what simply is, before we impose our distinctions. Distinction gives birth to good and evil. Good and evil give birth to fear and desire. Fear and desire give birth codes of right and wrong, the mother of all the oppositions of mankind – all the conflict.

“When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.”
– Chapter 38, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

The above passage shows that we need not concern ourselves with contrived codes of morality. If we are present, mindful, and sincere we will be in step with the Tao, and right and wrong melt away in the light of clear perception. You see what must be done and you do it, just like the farmer.

Let go of impressions, both those you hold on to and those you project. Be unconcerned with how things seem to be. Only concern yourself with their substance. To know their substance, simply look, listen, feel, without bias or preconception. Do not want anything particular, do not reject anything offered. Accept what is and trust your heart – your deepest sense.

“Therefore the Master concerns himself with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality, and lets all illusions go.”
– Chapter 38, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

So how does one dwell in reality and let all illusions go? Anything you try to do will be insufficient, because you try to do something particular – of course this is not the Way. That is based in your dualistic illusions and calculated using them. Of course, you can’t do absolutely nothing at all either. If you did, nothing would happen. Your avoidance of particular things is itself something particular. Be still. Look, listen, feel, smell, taste. Let names come to mind, but do not cling to them. Let your mind flow on in no particular way, and for no particular purpose. Accept all that you perceive. Don’t seek. Don’t deny. Be empty and let your self be filled. By doing nothing in particular and letting things go their way, you will be in accord with everything, and everything will do what it must, according to its true nature without contrivance (including yourself). There will be no fear and no desire, only certainty. Then you can move, and act, and think, and do – and there will be no conflict, only harmony – because you do not interfere, or impose.

Applying this non-dualistic thinking to your Tai Chi practice, you may be able to see that stillness and motion are one. In stillness, find perfect balance. Perfect balance is oneness. Wuji. In motion, maintain total harmony between complementary pairs. Taiji. Harmony is balance in motion. When your motion is such that perfect balance is maintained, your inner state is the same in motion as it is in stillness. Then it may not be clear whether you are moving through the world, or whether the world is moving around you.

The Tao, the ‘Force,’ and Martial Arts

There are ultimately just two styles of martial arts (and perhaps just two approaches to living): those that flow with the force, and those that try to force their will.

Most martial arts methods focus on overpowering or outmaneuvering their opponent. They consider what the opponent may do and what they must do to counter it. They consider what they want to do to their opponent and how to achieve that goal. They unknowingly impose their fears and desires on reality. They seek to control events, and try to devise better strategies to ensure victory. In short, they fall prey to the “Dark Side of the Force.”

While this way is quicker and easier, it is also deceptive. It feeds your ego and encourages your baser emotions such as fear, desire, anger, arrogance, and attachment to results. It leads down a path in which your prize is the ability to hurt others, as punishment for daring to oppose your will. It builds in you a chronic underlying fear that someone out there may be able to threaten your sense of dominance, resulting in a thirst for more power that can never be quenched. Your self-worth becomes tied to your sense of power over others, and so you feed it by bullying others to show your strength. At its extreme, this is the inner state of dictators and warlords, whose only salve for their chronic anxiety is to make others suffer. Imagine Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, leading the Empire’s vast destructive power to submit the galaxy, all the while chanting, “If you only knew the power of the Dark side of the Force.” Power is seductive. It seduces us into believing that we can control events and achieve a state in which things always go our way – into believing we can always be up, never down.

The Taoist approach is quite different. Like the Jedi, a Taoist sees all things as part of a greater Force that “penetrates and binds us” and moves us all along in its flow. They call it the Tao. To this way of thinking, attempting to force your will and control events is akin to splashing around in a river; all that effort may make some waves, but it will not change the flow of the river nor the direction of all things moving in it. By accepting that he is in the river and of it, and by being sensitive to its flow and going along with it, the Taoist’s strength – like the Jedi’s – “flows from the Force.” By going with the natural flow of events, the Taoist meets no resistance, and so his actions seem effortless. This way of acting without effort is called wuwei – literally, “without trying.” As Yoda instructs “Do or do not. There is no try.” This is not an admonishment to get it right the first time, it’s a description of the way one acts when in alignment with the Force. One could just as easily say “in alignment with the Tao.”

If you’re trying, you’re trying too hard. “Trust your feelings. Use the Force.” In martial arts and in life, this way of being leads to a very different approach to dealing with challenges. Rather than seeing them as attacks or obstacles to achieving a desired result, a Taoist sees all events as simply what’s happening, without judging them as either threat or benefit. He knows each bend in the river reveals new possibilities and surprising outcomes, and he has faith in the flow of Tao. So he simply flows along with the forces at work around him and focuses on maintaining his own balance, whether that force is the force of a physical attack or a challenging set of circumstances in his life. By letting go of expectations he clears his mind of fears and desires and lives in the present moment. He responds to events with ease and clarity, and exists in a state of simple contentment.

Meditative Awareness in Taoist Martial Arts

The importance of meditative awareness to the Taoist martial artist cannot be overstated. The entire Taoist approach to martial arts rests upon it as its foundation. Most of the time, we operate on a binary mode of perception, fueled by our survival instincts. This leads to a view of reality split into good and bad, past and present, self and other, and so on. This perception leads to hope and fear. We hope to achieve what we perceive as the good. We fear that we will not be able to prevent what we perceive as the bad. It is this binary perception that gives birth to fighting arts – strategies to achieve our hopes and prevent our fears, and to win rather than lose (another product of binary perception).

Meditative awareness removes the filter of our mental contrivance and leads to the direct perception of reality as it is. This direct perception leads to grasping reality not as differentiated entities playing against each other, but as a single indivisible whole in which exists every one of us. Everything is part of it – each a drop of water in a vast ocean.

An understanding like this leads to a different attitude and a different way of receiving and responding to events and relationships. Instead of having a constant sense of fear and a sense of yourself vs the world (the various obstacles and individuals who may try to stop you or take things away from you), you exist with a sense of wholeness, of completeness, a sense that everything is OK. A sense that everything is just as it must be, as it should be – perfect – and that it’s unnecessary to change things or to fight or resist. This sense also comes with sensitivity to the way things are in the moment. In other words, it’s a sensitivity to the processes of change and transformation, of individual things and their relationships to each other. You don’t see things as being separate, but connected, and so you feel the way your actions ripple out into others and your environment, and the way those others and your environment ripple into you. You see things as a matrix of interrelating factors creating change, and you begin to swim in it, feeling it. You can go along with it and act in such a way that you affect changes in events. It’s all simply about maintaining your center – not maintaining it against other things that are trying to take it – but yourself as the center of existence. It’s not egocentricity, but simply put, you are everything and your sense of being everything is centered in the single point that is you.

In martial arts, this creates a very different way of relating with an attacker or opponent, because you don’t fight. You don’t see yourself as something separate from this person. Therefore, their movements are your movements, their intentions are your intentions, so you couldn’t even really say from this point of view that they’re attacking or that you’re trying to defend yourself. There is a relationship, physical contact, and movement, but there is no particular intent or plan. What ends up happening is that you blend with the other person, that the two of you become one for an instant, while you maintain your center, your wholeness. In other words, you remain complete in yourself and unaffected. This is not an attempt at self-defense. This is simply the way in which one is in relation to another when flowing along with what is happening, without any resistance whatsoever.

On the other hand, when you are existing and working in a mode of consciousness based on images created by your binary sense of existence, when you see yourself as a distinct entity as apart from other entities, when you move through the world with concerns about the past and future, with concerns about what is being done and what you have to do and the way in which things can either be obstacles hurting you or blessings helping you, all of this leads to a sense of needing to do something. It leads to a sense of you vs the other, a sense of what the other will try to do and what you must do in order to protect yourself. It leads to a sense of winning or losing. In other words it leads to a sense of dichotomy, differentiation, separation – and when things are separate they can be against each other. This is the birth of all external martial arts, the desire to strike, the desire to block, the desire to move to avoid, to be faster, stronger, and tougher. It all comes from this. That is not our way. What I am endeavoring to illustrate here in words is that the martial arts that I practice and teach is not one of strategies, tactics, and techniques. It has nothing to do with offenses and defenses. It has nothing to do with winning and losing. The martial art that I teach arises naturally from the perception that is gained through meditative awareness, the perception that all is one, and then your way of interacting martially with another person is merely an organic expression of that awareness – your own sense of wholeness, centeredness, completeness. You move in such a way because that is the way that you must move to continue to be you such as you are, and that is all.

Taoist Movement

The way we move shapes the way we interact with and ultimately experience our physical being and environment. For most of us, this process happens under the radar of our consciousness. We generally accept that there are things we can do well, and other things we do poorly, and that’s just the way we are. While it is true that genetics plays a powerful role in what our ultimate potentials may be, we are incredibly adaptable beings, with equally impressive powers for self-transformation.

Transforming the way you move begins with an investment in changing the way you think, feel, and experience movement. Each of us has developed a complex set of neurological codes (called engrams) that define physical action in our nervous system. When we want to sit, our nervous system enacts a code that sets off a chain of muscular contractions that result in a sitting motion. When we want to stand, walk, reach, or manipulate an object, a similar process occurs. These codes are paired with a lifetime of experience: physical feedback telling us what sitting, standing, walking, and all other actions are supposed to feel like. The combination of these codes and experiences form both our way of moving and our ideas about movement – like a program, which is just as much an expression of our personality as it is a factor in its formation. The problem is, many of these codes are formed by default, a mixture of genetic tendencies toward suboptimal movement patterns and environmental influences, such as compensations for major and minor injuries.

Taoist martial arts and mind-body developmental disciplines are processes of redefining your entire system of movement and physical interaction. Ultimately, practicing them will lead to a transformation that will change your experience of physical being into one of effortless action/interaction. A transformation of this kind isn’t easy though. It is somewhat like how you may imagine changing a tire on a moving car (that you were driving) might be like. It’s not impossible – you just have to slow down…a lot.

Moving slowly is important. The faster you go at anything, the harder it is to pay attention to the details and the more likely you are to rely on old habits. Slowing down gives you the chance to actually feel what you’re doing. If you’re trying to change on such a fundamental level as rewriting your way of moving, you must turn your awareness inward and go deep into observation and evaluation of your body/motion. In essence, you’re meditating on your movement. To do that, just begin by standing still for a moment. Concentrate on your breath, and feeling your whole body all at once. Then begin to move. Feel all the parts of your body as they relate to each other in motion. Relax, move slowly, and explore every movement as though it was the first time you’ve ever moved. Beyond this initial step of internal attention, transforming the way you think/feel/do movements requires a set of guiding principles, some standard by which you can evaluate the quality of your movement (in both thought and action).

The overarching principle that guides the Taoist approach to action (physical or otherwise) is harmony. This harmony is achieved by following the natural way of things. That is to say, the way in which things behave and interact without us interfering by imposing our ideas of the way we think things “should” be (or move). To follow the natural way of things you must be in tune with the natural way of things, hence our first step of turning our attention inward. In terms of transforming our way of moving, we must “listen” closely to our bodies, and become acquainted with the way the various parts of ourselves interrelate. Once we have a good sense of the present state of our physicality, we can begin to generate motion through our body-structures that harmonizes with the way our bodies “want” to move and interact with our environment.

Advancing in Taoist movement disciplines builds upon this foundation of heightened inner awareness and a constant quest for harmony in motion. Understanding that you cannot achieve true transformation without first being willing to redefine the way you think about and perceive motion is a huge first step along that road.


The Spectrum of Changeability

The highest level of “blending” is to be internally changeable (small, subtle movements that evade an attacker’s force and extend your own into his emptiness.) When mastered, your actions will be so deft that your results will seem like magic. To the extent which you are limited in your ability to change internally, you will need to move more grossly, making larger, more obvious motions through space. In other words, you will have to change externally. This will cause you to waste energy, take longer to complete actions, and require you to be more dynamic. As your skill increases, your changes will occur more within the space you currently occupy and require less displacement of your posture and position, making you more efficient and effective. I call this the spectrum of changeability.

It’s common when first learning to use a blending strategy, to focus on evading an attacker’s motion and yielding to his force. While this is an essential aspect of blending, it is not enough to execute the strategy effectively. Essentially, you’re just running away. To “blend” properly you must partially displace yourself from the path of your attacker’s motion and force, and partially displace the attack itself (or the attacker.) In other words, you’re not only changing yourself, your changing the whole event of convergence.

This would be like playing a chess game and getting to move your opponent’s pieces so that your own could take position uncontested. This is how your responses will begin to move closer to the internal end of the spectrum of changeability. The more immediate and intense your affect on your attacker, the less motion required to evade and yield to his motion and force, because you will have taken over his movement and robbed him of his power. That’s how those little old Chinese guys toss around younger, stronger men with hardly any movement or effort.

In pursuit of this skill, it’s important to understand that there are no specific techniques involved in a blending approach to combat. The entire concept of changeability is opposed to having a plan. This strategy, and the achievement of its highest level, requires a cultivated sensitivity and attentiveness so that you can become aware of your attacker’s intentions and begin to respond appropriately before his motion has developed into a full-fledged attack. You must also remain mentally flexible so that you can instantaneously respond to changes. If you have a technique, or set of techniques in mind to execute, it’s like trying to find the right hole to fit your round peg into. The problem is that there are nearly an infinite number of holes and many of the shapes look almost round, but aren’t quite. You can either wait for the right hole to come along, or try to force your round peg into a less than round hole (an approach that requires excessive force and energy.) A blending strategy, on the other hand, employs sensitivity and a set of guiding principles to create on-the-spot responses to any attack. It would be like having a peg that assumed whatever shape was necessary.

Perhaps the most important aspect to consider in the spectrum of changeability is the concept of the substantial and the insubstantial. This has to do with what you feel when you are in contact with an attacker or training partner, and what they feel from you. Substantial means that when you press, you feel strength resisting you. This strength may come from the other person using force to push back, or it may come from their structure being in good alignment to transfer your force to the ground. In either case, that is not where you want to concentrate your force. According to yin-yang theory, if your attacker or training partner is substantial in one area of his body, he must be insubstantial in another area, often on the opposite side. Insubstantial means that when you press into your partner, you feel little or no resistance and can move him easily. This weakness, or emptiness, may be due to the fact that he is moving, or concentrating his force in a direction that moves away from the area of his body you’re pressing into. It may also be that his posture is structurally weak in connection to that area. In either case, that is where you want to concentrate your force.

While we look for negative substantiality and insubstantiality in our attacker in the forms of excessive force and structural weakness respectively, we look for positive substantiality and insubstantiality in ourselves. This means that when our attacker or training partner applies force to us we yield to it,creating an insubstantial surface – or emptiness – for his force to fall into. When we apply our own force we seek to connect the entire kinetic chain of our bodies from our contact point with the other person, to our contact point with the ground, without any loss of power due to blockage or leak in our alignment. This makes us as substantial as the solid ground beneath us, and allows us transfer all of our force into the other person’s weakest point.

Our ability to accurately sense the substantial and insubstantial in another person is the deciding factor in our ability to blend with his motion and force. This may be more relevant when in contact with an attacker or training partner, but the same principles are applicable to spacial relationship in the form of positive and negative space. Anyone who’s taken a drawing class will be familiar with this concept. Positive space is the space that your attacker’s body occupies. Negative space is the empty space surrounding his body that defines its shape in your visual field. By moving into an attacker’s negative space, you avoid his attacking motion, and with a little skill, move into an advantageous position. With training, you will be able to read your attacker’s intentions before his attack develops, and begin to move where his negative space will be upon completing his attack. This will allow you to invade his space in a way that does not collide with his force, but adds your force to his and puts you in the driver’s seat. Then you can send him flying, crashing to the ground, or tie him into a pretzel (or whatever seems most appropriate.)

The spectrum of changeability provides a way for you to measure your level of skill at blending. It also provides a goal to your training. Evaluate yourself based upon your internal development (structure, softness, coordination, and mind-intent) and your level of sensitivity and responsiveness. Constantly seek to blend seamlessly with subtler movements and less effort. Keep the spectrum in mind as you train and continue to strive for the highest level. It may seem like a horizon forever beyond your reach, but what else is so worth reaching for?

Finding Harmony in Combative Relationship

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve described the particular way that I use some key terms. Violence is sudden change. Combat is a violent relationship (an interaction that involves a series of sudden changes). Combative skill is the ability to adapt to a series of sudden changes while maintaining inner harmony (remaining mentally and physically balanced and whole). In short, our aim is to be changeable.

 Although combative relationship is only one aspect of human interaction, it provides a setting for some of the most dynamic changes in relating to others there can be, and therefore, can illuminate many other aspects of human interaction in its lessons. In such a way, the study of this martial art can lead to insights into all of our relationships: those we share with others and our environment, and our internal relationship to ourselves. Also, though our focus is combative, in our case, this does not mean “fighting.” We do not oppose our attacker. Rather, we seek harmony amidst the violent changes of combat. Our attitude and approach therefore, is to blend ourselves with spacial and energetic changes, to cultivate the forces of influence in our relation to others, and effortlessly diffuse aggressive energy into emptiness.

To begin to understand a method to do this, we must examine the two main aspects of combative relationship: spacial relationship and energetic relationship. Our goal is to find harmony within these relationships.

Spacial harmony with an attacker, or multiple attackers, requires an element of evasiveness. An attacker seeks to hit or grab YOU. His aggressive intent is focused on YOU. Therefore, your evasive skill must be good to make him miss. This requires a developed sense of distance, an understanding of lines and angles, mobility, and above all, timing.

While total avoidance of a combat situation is the first and best course to take, the study of martial arts presupposes a failure to avoid such a situation and a subsequent need to deal with one or more attackers. Along the same lines, merely evading attacks is not enough, because your attacker remains unaffected and able to continue his assault. Over a long enough period of time the law of averages says he will eventually succeed. Therefore, while to achieve spacial harmony we must evade, we cannot simply increase the stance. We must get close enough to subdue our attacker and neutralize his capacity to continue attacking us.

I call this the evasive-invasive strategy. We avoid our assailant’s attacking motion and move into his empty space. For example: say an attacker is throwing a strong, straight punch with his rear hand toward your face. You could take a slight step forward and to the outside of his punching arm, while at the same time ducking your head down and to the same side as you stepped. Not only does this avoid the punch, but it also affords you an opportunity to affect him. You’ve evaded his attack, and invaded his space.

Once you’ve moved into an attacker’s space, spacial harmony gives way to energetic harmony.

The essence of energetic harmony is blending your force and motion with your attacker’s force and motion. This means not confronting his force and not contradicting his motion. To do this, you must have a developed sensitivity to the direction and intensity of your attacker’s motion, the level of integrity in his body structure, the state of his balance, and the ability to instantly adjust to changes in those things. In turn, it requires that you yourself have balance, structural integrity, and control over the direction and intensity of your motion. In a word, you must be centered.

When centered, and in spacial harmony with your attacker, upon contact you will begin to move into the emptiness left in the wake of his motion. You add your force to his and steer it all into the structurally weak places in his body. This will crumble his structure, uncenter his balance, and in that moment, put you in control of his motion. Then, depending on the particular nature of his attack and your relative positions upon contact, you will either drive him to the ground, send him flying off, or possibly break his joints.

An important thing to realize here is that none of those effects are planned in their specific details. We do not aim to do any of those things to a person as our goal. They are results of harmonious interaction with an attacker. Interaction with someone of less aggressive intent will not lead to such violent ends. It is their own aggression turned back on them that leads to injury.

Understanding what has been discussed above, you may begin to realize that there is no need for specific techniques. There are no pre-planned responses. There is only a method of interaction based upon your internal harmony and your harmonious relationship with your attacker.

Of course, one must train diligently to accomplish this state of harmonious relationships and the resulting experience of effortless interaction (wu wei). Our training includes two mutually traveled paths that must merge together as the student develops: internal, or personal harmony development, and external, or relational harmony development. Internal harmony is developed and refined through practices including zhan zhuang (standing post), cansigong (silk-reeling work), yoga, and meditation. External harmony is developed and refined through mook jong practice, skill drills, and tui shou (pushing hands).

Zhan Zhuang is a practice that involves holding a neutral standing posture and using breath, relaxation and internally focused attention to seal the structural leaks in your alignment and remove blockages in your energy pathways (fascia-muscular-skeletal). In addition you learn to infuse your body with intent, a mental-physical energy potential for motion in any direction. It is also a form of meditation focused on letting go of mental tension, accepting your present reality, and centering body and mind. This state is often referred to as wuji, meaning “no extremes,” or “non-polar.”

Cansigong (pronounced chan shu gung) means “silk-reeling work,” and it refers to the coordinated motion of the whole body, guided by the mind’s intent. The idea of silk-reeling refers to the perfect balance one must have between strength and gentleness to thread silk without damaging it. This is the quality we want when transferring energy through the body – like threading silk through the bones and joints. The overall feeling in the body should be a sense of evenness in motion and equality of involvement of every single part of the body to generate that motion. Silk-reeling is typified by spiraling motions of the limbs and torso.

Yoga, or yoga-like disciplines, will stretch and strengthen the body to eliminate chronic imbalances and restore balanced function to the muscles and joints. Without such a practice, imbalances in the body may lead to a limited ability to perform skills (such as cansijin – silk-reeling power) and hamper progress toward internal harmony.

Meditation equips one with the state of mind necessary to respond to changes with the instant, spontaneous, correct actions needed for harmonious interaction. Being still, relaxed, and spending time observing oneself think, feel, and be, quiets the mind, clears away mental clutter, and prepares one’s consciousness for direct and total perception of the unfolding present.

Mook jong means “wooden dummy,” but can be an appropriate apparatus of any material. The purpose of a mook jong is to simulate an attack, or attacker, and provide an object to interact with in the absence of a live training partner. Such tools are invaluable for practicing foundational aspects of spacial harmony, body-mechanics, and power generation (fajin).

Skill drills are partner exercises designed to develop the proper mechanics and timing to deal with an attacker. They may range from simple repetitive drills such as slipping a straight punch, to more complex drills involving multiple attackers who attack at random.

Tuishou means “pushing hands.” This is a duel within which two partners attempt to take control of the each other’s motion and balance. This can be played in a light manner in which the first person to take a step loses, or it can be played more openly, in which steps are allowed and one partner must subdue the other. At this level, it is like sparring, only starting from a neutral point of contact (usually crossed wrists). In either case the focus is on developing sensitivity and the skill of blending.

In all of the above training methods, harmonious interaction is the focus.

Meditation and the Image

In Taoist practices, philosophy and physicality are viewed as two sides of the same yin-yang coin. In fact, Tai Chi is often called philosophy in motion, and rightly so. It is through that particular method of movement that we come to a deeper understanding of Taoist philosophy. Likewise, it is from an understanding of Taoist philosophy, that we derive that particular method of movement.

Unlike many other philosophies, Taoism cannot be deeply understood from reading books or listening to lectures (there are good books and lectures on the subject, but they serve more as springboards than tools for greater understanding). Rather, Taoism is grasped through a deepening of one’s perception – a direct interface of one’s awareness with the present happening of reality, and simultaneously, seeing the nature of that happening process. Throughout the centuries, Taoists and other like-minded seekers have done this through the practice of meditation.

Meditation is a widely used and often misunderstood term by prospective seekers. One of the most common misunderstandings is that meditation requires you to empty your mind. This idea has the budding meditator trying very hard to stop his mind from thinking, feeling, and other mental activity – a frustrating process which inevitably leads him to believe that he can’t meditate. For those operating under this idea – relax. Your mind is going to think, feel and continue to operate no matter what. And that’s the point. You don’t need to micro-manage your mind, emptying or otherwise. Another misconception is that meditation is about escaping reality and going to a peaceful place where all the stuff of life can’t get you. Under this premise, a meditator may feel he’s failed if he finds his mind suddenly recalling matters of the ordinary every day. Once again, this is simply not the case. To quote D.T Suzuki, the experience of perception through a mind awakened by meditation “is just like ordinary everyday life, except two inches off the ground.” It’s not an escape from the ordinary; it’s finding the extraordinary within the (supposed) ordinary.

Meditation is the full engagement of your mind in the present. It is the act of mentally stepping back and observing – observing yourself, your thoughts, your feelings, your motions and actions – and letting go of the idea that you need to be in control; otherwise your mental activity can pull you out of the present. This requires a bit of time, patience, and practice. You can’t try to relax; you have to allow yourself to relax. After you do that for a while, you’ll eventually see that there is a natural current to all things and the way they relate to each other, including how you relate yourself to yourself. Not only will you become aware of this current, you’ll feel it, and yourself as a part of it. Then your thoughts, feelings, motions and actions will begin to be in accord with that current, or way of things. That’s what the “Tao” in Taoism means: it means Way. Specifically, the Way reality functions, or happens.

Following this understanding of meditation as direct perceptual engagement with reality – as it’s happening – rather than escaping it, It makes sense that the Taoists often practiced various forms of moving  meditation such as Tai Chi. There is a subtle genius to this, seeing as we experience our reality through our physical being. By focusing our awareness on the act of moving in accordance with the natural design of our bodies and their relationship to our external environment and external forces, we are directly and completely engaging our minds with the universal principle of the Tao. In short, we are mentally and physically having a direct experience of the Way as expressed through our being. In addition to being such a wonderful vehicle for the exploration of universal truth, this concentration on motion makes it almost impossible to get caught up by specific thoughts or feelings that pull you out of the present.

There is a trap in our minds that can block us from a direct perception of the Tao. I call this trap, the Image. Most of us operate on a set of symbols: ideas that represent entities in reality, but are not those entities in actuality. In other words – concepts. Forming concepts is part of the way the human mind works, and an essential part at that. It’s how we think. It is not however, the function of meditation to remove these concepts from our minds (emptying the mind), nor can we escape the formation of concepts as part of our mental processes. They do, however, pose a problem to a seeker of enlightenment.

We too often come to rely upon these concepts to form our understanding of reality. The problem with this is that it freezes our perception and crystallizes our understanding. This is the equivalent of taking a picture of the view outside your window, and forevermore, looking at the picture as opposed to looking out the window. In other words, you’ve formed an Image, and replaced reality with it. A saying goes: “It is like a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you’ll miss all that heavenly glory.”

Even more dangerous, we can become sort of sentimental about our Images. If someone were to challenge one of them, we may get defensive and angry. We may even become frightened. Somewhere deep within we know we’re relying on Images, but they’ve become the foundation for the belief systems that run our lives. Even though they cause us to live in a state of chronic tension – trying to defend these images from the possibility of being false – the alternative of a total reboot can be overwhelming. When this point is reached we become the jailors of our own spirits. So what to do? How can we prevent Images from blocking us from the liberation of direct perception if we can’t function without them?

The answer is to let go of your images the moment you form them and return to direct perception. This must be a continuing process. Reality is not static, it is a dynamic happening. However, our minds must form concepts of that which we perceive in order to grasp the interrelationship of everything to everything else. In order to keep up with reality, we must constantly be in a process of redefining our concepts – allowing the boundaries of definitions to become flexible, even blurred. Going back to the analogy of your window view, it would be like saying, “since you can’t stop taking pictures, but you can’t rely on those pictures for more than one instant, you’ll have to let one go and take another, and another and another, etc.” In that way, you may be able to keep up with reality as it happens. In other words, meditate.

By engaging in a daily practice of meditation, you are conditioning your mind for direct perception. It’s like a mental workout, making your perceptual muscles stronger and more flexible. The more you do it, the more direct perception will become your natural way of being. Eventually, ordinary everyday life will become a meditative experience – not much different – just about two inches off the ground.