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.

Blending

Through most of my journey in the martial arts, I have been trying to embody a quality of action and being, encapsulated in the term changeability.  In essence, changeability is the capacity and tendency to harmonize yourself with external forces.  This is the essence of Taoist martial arts, such as Tai chi and Bagua.  The theory of this approach is that, by harmonizing with external forces, you can redirect them to your benefit, with the primary goal of maintaining your centeredness (a term referring mainly to your mental and physical balance and integration).

For a long time, I believed that embodying the quality of changeability was accomplished by conditioning yourself to yield to force, rather than resist it.  By yielding, you become like a ghost, untouchable to your opponent’s force.  As he attempts to strike, push, pull or grab you, you seem to disappear and cause him to miss, stumble, and lose balance.  This seemed to be in alignment with the principle of wu wei, a Chinese term which approximately translates to mean “without doing” or “without effort.”  It took me years to realize that this idea of yielding was only half the equation – the yin half.

Taoist martial arts is based upon the recognition that the yin principle (softness, receptivity) must exist in harmonious relationship with the yang principle (hardness, expression).  Blending is the approach to energetic and spacial relationship with another person that balances yin (soft) and yang (hard) elements to accomplish totally harmonious interaction, and from that harmony an experience of freedom, of effortless action – wu wei.  It is the total harmonization of your force and motion with your opponent’s force and motion in such a way that you become the center and the guiding will for both of your bodies.  This allows you to so deftly alter the direction of forces at work through your opponent’s body structure, that he never realizes what’s changed until it’s too late and you’ve taken control of his motion and balance.

Blending is more than just a physical approach to dealing with force, however.  It is the expression of a philosophical understanding of relationships and change.  In order to acquire and apply the skill of blending in a combative situation, we must shift our perceptions of personal combat.

The first step is to realize that fighting is just a descriptive term for the state of a relationship between two or more people.  In essence, the word “fight” implies two wills in opposition to each other, trying to force the other to change according to their aims.  However, a combative relationship need not include an element of fighting.

When the approach of blending is used, there is no fight, because you never oppose the will, motion, or force of your attacker.  If there is no opposition, there’s no opponent – no opponent, no fighting.  This must be understood: there is no “me vs. you.”  If you don’t enter into a contest, you can’t lose.  Instead, we approach combative relationship with an attitude of “me and you” – “us.”  So the question isn’t who wins, it’s who gets to be “us.”

This change in perception alters your focus from overcoming your opponent, to maintaining your center as you enter into a relationship with your attacker – more like a dance than a fight.  You move along with him, making your two motions one, adding your force in the wake of his, and subtly altering the direction of forces at work through his body, so that his own action causes his structure to crumble and lose balance.  So blended are your two motions that the attacker never realizes anything has changed until it’s too late.  The instantaneous, effortless effectiveness of this approach is due to the fact that you didn’t oppose him.  His body feels like it’s moving in the direction it intended to.  It meets no resistance and so has no reason to adjust.  By the time he realizes he’s lost control, he will be under yours.  At the highest level, in the moment of “blending” there is no difference between you and your attacker.  Then, in the next instance, you are free of him.

Zhan Zhuang for Developing Internal Power

Zhan Zhuang, or standing post, is an ancient practice that “internal” martial artists use as a means to achieve a wuji state.  In other words, one can achieve a neutral and centered state in which the yin and yang aspects within ones body and mind become balanced in stillness, and from which one is prepared to move and act according to the taiji principle, that is, to move and act in total harmony with both one’s internal workings and the external forces with which one comes into contact.

The essence of the physical aspect of tai chi practice is fluid energy transference, and the primary energy one must transfer is gravity.  The sensation of gravity is that it presses, or pulls, down on our bodies – a constant pressure which can lead to chronic issues in the joints if not handled properly.  So our first step in dealing with gravity is architectural.  In other words, we set our postures in such a way as to offer the most structural support possible by stacking our bones in alignment with gravity’s vertical pull.  Once we’ve positioned ourselves so, we can begin the next step – a process often referred to by practitioners of internal arts, such as tai chi, as “softening,” or fan song.  This process is attempting not only to have a supportive structure, but to make of one’s body a conduit for gravity, allowing it to pass from head to foot without obstruction or leak.  This is done by a constant process of subtle adjustments in which obstructions created by tension are relaxed away, and leaks created by misalignments are lined up with gravity’s downward flow.

The eventual result is a state of body in which we have a completely supportive structure that allows gravity to transfer from head to foot without the slightest sensation of pressure in the body and which then bounces off the ground and right back up through the soles of the feet and out the tips of the fingers.  This is the essence of internal power, or jin.

In taijiquan, one of the three primary internal martial arts of China, there are four main methods of directing internal power, Peng, An, Liu, and Ji.

Peng jin is the energy that results from being a perfect conduit for gravity, allowing it to pass down from head to foot and back up again.  That “back up again” is peng, used to “uproot” one’s opponent.  An jin, can be described as the initial “sinking” from head to foot, simply directed through a contact point with one’s opponent and into a structurally weak place in his body.  Liu jin, a pulling energy, then is also the “sink,” simply directed backward from a contact point with an opponent toward your center and down.  Ji jin, a pushing energy, is the same as peng, just directed outward.  So there are really only two forces, which makes perfect sense, since the entirety of Taoist martial arts is based upon the concept that all things are manifestations of yin and yang.  A better way to put it may be to say that there are two ways of generating internal force/power: the sinking from head to foot, and the springing upward energy that moves from foot to hands.  With the addition of cansujin (silk-reeling power) – the circling and spiraling of those energies through the body – the basic down/in of gravity and up/out of gravity’s rebound can be directed to nearly infinite variations.

A good analogy for the way in which zhan zhuang practice supports the development of internal power would be to compare it to blood vessels.  Blood vessels are more than passive tubes through which blood transfers; they have muscle walls that help guide the blood along.  In much the same way, zhan zhuang practice makes us a conduit through which gravity transfers, up and down via the architecture of our bones and joints, and our muscles – guided by our intent – gently help this force along and redirect it in all manner of directions, just like the muscles in our blood vessels help carry blood throughout the body.

The Significance of Circles

When observing Taoist martial arts, one may notice a single repeated shape: the circle. Contrary to how it may seem, this is not merely to give movements grace or beauty. The shape is employed for utilitarian purposes; the beauty perceived by an observer of the movements arises from the harmony they attain through expressing natural laws.

One aspect of the significance of circles is that circles have no stops and no starts, and are equal on all sides. A circle is constantly, gradually changing direction. This constant change of direction means that the Taoist martial artist never encounters opposing force head-on. It also makes any force he applies to his opponent very difficult to resist because the moment the opponent resists in one direction, his force is moving in another. To accomplish this, the circle must begin in our intention and awareness. No straight lines in our minds or movements, and no corners. Over becomes down – which becomes under – which becomes up – and so on.

If one part of the circle moves, the entire circle is set in motion. There is no segmentation or disconnection in a circle. When one side moves down, the other moves up. When one side moves forward, the other moves back, etc. In this way, circular motion connects and employs our whole body in every movement. When looking at the reciprocal relationship of two sides of a circle, one can clearly see the yin-yang relationship inherent in circular movements. It also makes circles the most energy efficient shape. Energy applied to a circle can be returned without friction, and therefore, without loss. More over, that energy can be increased by accelerating the rotation of the circle.

When practicing your movements, be sensitive. Feel how a circular movement on one side of your body creates the opposite direction in the other side. Follow the circle in your mind, feel it stir the energy in your body, and allow your body to express the circle in your movements.

Yoga for Everyone?

Yoga has become one of the most popular forms of exercise in recent decades.  Despite this popularity, there are still many misconceptions about this excellent method for whole-body fitness.

In the same way that many people still believe that tai chi is “just for old people,” many think yoga is “just for girls.”  This probably comes from the misconception that women are more flexible than men – not true!  This idea has been perpetuated by culture and has nothing to do with physiology.  For that matter, it’s worth dispelling the myth that yoga is about stretching – again, not true!  Yes, there is a component of yoga that stretches your muscles and soft tissues, but that is just one piece of the puzzle.  Practicing yoga will help you improve your flexibility and maintain a high level of mobility, but it’s the misunderstanding that yoga is about flexibility that keeps many prospective enthusiasts away.

The truth is, yoga is as much about strength, endurance, balance, respiration, and body awareness as it is about flexibility.  One of the unique things about yoga is that it merges these components in a very balanced way, restoring your body to its natural ease of mobility. Actually, many people over-emphasize their stretch and hurt themselves or stunt their progress.  It’s not the pose – it’s the action.

This leads me to seeing yoga as a conditioning program.  As far as conditioning goes, yoga is one of the absolute best all-around body workouts.  Its versatility allows you to adjust a session to focus on strength, balance, flexibility, or endurance.  Even if yoga isn’t the cornerstone of your workout program, you should definitely consider it as an invaluable addition.

Another major misconception is thinking that you’re not “in shape” enough to do yoga.  Yoga is adjustable to nearly all walks of life.  Regardless of age, sex, build, weight, or current fitness level, you can do yoga.  Most of the time, this is an issue of embarrassment.  No one wants to be the “worst person” in a class, or look “stupid” trying to do something, falling or “messing up.”  This fear is crippling if you let it be.  Don’t!  Yoga is about you.  It’s not about the ex-gymnast next to you.  There is no level you’re supposed to have already achieved.  There’s just where you are, and where you want to be.  The road to get there is: show up, try hard.  Compare yourself tomorrow to the you of yesterday, and no one else.

There are a lot of different methods and philosophies on yoga out there.  This variety is wonderful, but it can cause some confusion.  While most yoga methods use the same postures (asanas), they can vary widely in approach.  Some yoga methods choose less demanding postures and hold them for extended periods of time (like Yin), while others are dynamic and demanding (like Ashtanga).  Some focus on fluid transitions, others on alignment, and still others focus on the breath work and meditative aspects.  It’s worth it to do a little research and see what method fits your goals and personality.

As a martial artist, I’ve benefited from yoga tremendously.  I was lucky enough to train in a school where yoga was part of our program, and I’ve carried this into my own teaching.  The flexibility, balance, and strength gained in yoga are of obvious benefit to a martial artist, but it’s the body awareness and alignment that has continued to pay dividends in my martial arts.  The internal martial arts that I practice relies heavily on the body’s ability to transfer force from and to the ground.  My yoga practice has given me more aligned and “open” joints, making my body a clear and strong conduit for energy.  The balance of strength and mobility I’ve gained has helped make my movements smooth and powerful.  All in all, I wouldn’t be the martial artist I am without my yoga practice.

The particular style of yoga we teach at Darsana Martial Arts is based upon the Anusara method, which employs five Universal Principles of Alignment (UPAs) to enhance and refine each pose.  I love this system because it applies the same truths of body and mind to each pose, allowing you to “unlock” difficult poses and surpass your limits.  I’ve experienced this transformative power and seen it take people past boundaries they thought impossible to overcome.

If you’ve never tried yoga and you’ve been thinking about it – go for it!  If you’ve done yoga before and have been meaning to return – start now!  If you’re a practitioner of another discipline – yoga can enhance your performance and give you grace and ease in your movements.

Offensive Focus with Defensive Considerations

When students come to me to learn martial arts, they usually have one prime goal: they want to learn how to defend themselves.  They’re concerned with what the other guy is trying to do to them and how they can stop that.  Unfortunately, this thought pattern actually puts them at a disadvantage when trying to use “defensive” techniques.  By focusing on stopping their opponent’s actions, they allow him to set the pace and choose timing that’s comfortable for him.

A good example of this problem can be seen in the chi sau (sticky hands) drills of Wing Chun.  Wing Chun is known for fast, efficient hand techniques that use the elbow, forearm, and hand as a sort of fencing tool to deflect the opponent’s arms off target and open up lines down which to strike.  When practicing chi sau, partners will cross hands (much like crossing swords).  The position of both partner’s hands is mutually neutral at the start.  Then each partner tries to hit the other without being hit themselves.  There are two primary modes of practice: single hand and two hands.

Let’s look at the problem of defensive focus in the context of single sticky-hand practice.  Partners face squarely, right vs. left.  The right-hander is in the inside/bottom position, and the left-hander is in the outside/top position (wrist to wrist).  Both partners are equally extending their arms, elbows bent and pointing toward the floor to form a wide V-angle with their arms.

Even though their positions are neutral, their focus is opposite.  Our right-hander is primarily concerned with stopping the left-hander from hitting him.  His hand has a nervous, ready-to-go type of energy.  He sits, waiting to see what the left-hander will try to do.  The left-hander has a different focus.  His primary thought is finding a gap in his partner’s defense so he can strike.  He is also conscious of the need to protect himself.  He knows that if he disconnects from his partner and tries for a strike, he leaves himself vulnerable.  So he applies a very gentle pressure, feeling for weaknesses in his partner’s arm.

Here’s how it plays out.  When our right-hander feels the left-hander slipping in, he quickly adjusts to block the line of attack, but the left-hander has already changed his approach.  The right-hander moves to cut off that line, but he’s later this time.  The left-hander has changed again, and this time the right-hander can’t catch up.  The left-hander lands a blow.

Both partners had neutral positions at the start, with equal opportunity for attack and defense.  They both had equal knowledge of the various techniques for attacking and defending.  So what was the difference?  With all his focus on stopping attacks, why couldn’t the right-hander shut his partner down?

The answer can be illuminated by something called the OODA Loop.  OODA stands for “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.”  Before you can defend an attack, you have to see it coming (observe), or in this case, feel it.  Then you have to figure out exactly what is coming (orient).  Then you have to decide what to do about it (decide).  Finally, your mind sets your body to motion (act).

In the above case, both partners had the knowledge to decipher what was coming in (orient), and both had pre-trained responses for what to do to defend against the various attacks (decide).  The difference was that the left-hander had already decided and was in the “act” phase of the Loop, while the right-hander was constantly set back to “observe” and “orient.”  By focusing on attacking (act), the left-hander kept his partner reacting, one step behind.  He didn’t simply attack with reckless abandon, however.  He attacked while maintaining protective postures and covering his partner’s best angles of attack.

While I used a Wing Chun drill to make my point here, you could apply this principle to any method of fighting.  A boxer will use evasive movement and cover his chin and ribs as he throws punches.  He’s focused primarily on landing blows, but he is aware of his opponent’s ability to attack at all times.  A grappler is focused on taking his opponent down and securing a submission hold, but he’s constantly adjusting to his opponent’s postural changes, disrupting his motion and balance, and “checking” his opponent’s torso and limbs to diminish his attacking ability.

Having offensive focus that is tempered with defensive considerations will allow you to stay calm and in control, and give you the ability to see and take advantages when they present themselves.  This is an important lesson for the budding martial artist in training.  It can make the difference between your techniques working for you, or feeling overwhelmed and ineffectual.

This is what is meant by the saying “you’re always attacking.”  That doesn’t mean you’re visibly attacking; it means you’re always seeking an opportunity to attack while remaining well-defended.

Awareness, Intention, Intelligence: the role of the Mind in Taoist martial arts

In the past, I’ve talked about four phases of internal development: structure, relaxation/softness, coordination, and intention. While there is a sequential aspect to developing each of these skills, they are more like threads in a cord, each one woven in with the others, strengthening each other, and developing along side each other. While the more physical skills of structure, softness, and coordination are essential, one aspect is more crucial (you could call it the key ingredient): the role of the Mind.

When I described the four phases, I talked about “intention,” but that’s only half of the story. All things in Taoist martial arts follow the Taiji principle: harmonization of opposites. Structure harmonizes with softness; coordination is the harmonizing of opposing forces and vectors of motion, and the role of the mind is the harmonization of intention and awareness. Put simply, if intention is the mind’s output, then awareness is its input. The two work in a constant cycle with each other. Through internal sensitivity, the mind gathers an enormous amount of data about your body-state, assessing your energetic pathways and your ability to transfer energy through them. This constant influx of information guides your intention as it leads your internal energy through your body to manifest as fluid, whole-body movement, or cansijin (silk-reeling power).

There is a saying in the Tai Chi Classics (a collection of writing from ancient Taoist martial arts masters). The saying goes: The yi (intention) moves the qi (energy) and the qi moves the body. While it does take some time to reach the point at which your body is completely relaxed and you feel that your mind moves your body rather than your muscles, this is not something you need to wait to magically appear after decades of practice: you can start working on this skill from day one. It begins with awareness. Most people spend most of their lives focusing their awareness externally. They focus on their careers, their homes, and their image; and spend very little time looking inward. They drive their bodies around like used cars with very little concern for the wear and tear they put on themselves. The result is a gap in the connection between their minds and their bodies, and the accumulation of repeated stress injuries attributed to “getting older.” By taking a few minutes each day to stand quietly and focus your attention inward, you can begin to deepen your sensitivity in your body. With patience and guidance, this increase in sensitivity will lead to improvements in alignment and a softer, more relaxed body-state. In short, you let go of tension and replace it with awareness and your body starts to fix itself.

As you become more sensitive, your Attention, becomes Intention, and you’ll begin to feel your internal energy. Though you may still be working on getting rid of some areas of weak alignment and habitual tension, if you are focused on moving your body with your mind and not your muscles from the beginning, the transformation from external movement to internal movement will be well underway. What’s more, you can begin to feel this in your first class. When taking this approach, the other aspects of development: structure, softness, and coordination, will develop almost automatically. When practicing taijiquan (or any other internal martial art) with as much Mind as possible, in each and every moment, the result is the development of body-intelligence. Intelligence is the manifestation of highly developed awareness and intention, and a body that is structured and soft enough to carry out the mind’s intent. When awareness and intention work together in tight enough cycles that you no longer can identify them as separate, and harmonious actions and responses manifest from you spontaneously in accordance with the circumstances of the moment, that is intelligence – the role of the Mind in Taoist martial arts.

Spirals as a means to generate force and adjust to change

One of the key features of Taoist martial arts is chan si jin: a method of coordinating legs, torso, and arms using spiraling movements.  Through the use of spirals, the Taoist martial artist can simultaneously deflect blows, generate power for striking and joint-locking, or throw his opponent to the ground.  What’s even more impressive is that spirals allow one to do all these things with a minimum of muscular effort.

Spirals play another key role in Taoist martial arts.  They allow the practitioner to adjust to forces used against him while maintaining his centeredness: a quality I call “changeability.”  Maintaining centeredness, a state of total mental and physical harmonious integration, can be said to be a Taoist’s primary goal.  Sophisticated spiral movement allows the Taoist martial artist to do this by simultaneously projecting (yang) and absorbing (yin) force around the “central-lines” of the body.  “Central-lines” is a term for the imaginary central-axis of the torso and limbs.  By rotating the mass of his torso and limbs while simultaneously drawing in and down or extending up and out, the Taoist martial artist creates spiraling force through his entire body.  While spiraling like this, incoming force – say from a push or grab – will be deflected off or pulled down and around the practitioner’s center.  By remaining sensitive and responsive to the slightest changes in direction of his opponent’s force, the Taoist will twist and spiral, remaining unaffected, and turning his opponent’s force against him.

Even though he generates great power and moves dynamically to adjust to external forces, his center remains calm, like the eye of a tornado.

As one last image for the effectiveness of spirals, imagine a drill.  A drill consists of two spirals: the blade (yang) and the groove (yin).  As the blade pushes its way into the intended material, dust moves its way back up the groove.  This illustrates how spirals can move opposing forces simultaneously along the same central-line without crashing the forces together.

IMG_8089Enhanced by Zemanta

Attaining Center in Martial Arts and Life

You begin practice by setting your feet apart, directly under your shoulders, and parallel.  You take a deep but gentle breath in, setting your posture as straight as you can from the top of your head to the center of your feet.  Then you exhale and settle in, relaxing your arms by your sides.  Now the internal work begins.

You start by focusing your attention on your breath – seeing that your inhale and exhale are even and smooth.  You let go of any external concerns and allow yourself to be fully present, consuming your awareness in the task of feeling the subtle sensations of your inner body.  Then you begin to breathe with your lower torso, relaxing your low abdomen, waist, and lower back, and allow the whole area to gently expand on your inhale and relax on your exhale.

Then you mentally extend an energetic thread from the center of your pelvic floor and straight up through the core of your torso, neck, head, and a few feet beyond, anchoring it into space above you.  Now your entire body can begin to relax, remaining upright while suspended by this thread.

You begin by relaxing down through your scalp, and on through your neck and shoulders.  This feeling of letting go is like warm water washing over and through your skin, muscles, and bones.  You continue on, feeling the weight of your arms sink through your elbows, wrists, and fingertips.  You soften your chest and upper back and all down through your ribs and spine, as the warm water of relaxation seeps into your inner torso, washing down and through, all the way to your hips and pelvis.

As you relax below your ribs, you softly bend your hips and knees to accommodate the lengthening of your torso.  You guide your sinking energy down through the core of your legs, straight through the center of your hips, knees, and ankle joints.  Finally, you sink down through the centers of your feet, directly midway between your heels and the balls of your feet.

As you feel your energy emptying into the earth, carrying all tension down with it, you turn your attention to the support of the floor beneath your feet, pressing upward.  You allow this force to rise up through the centers of your feet and the core of your legs.  You bring it to culminate at the center of your pelvis and extend up the central thread of your torso, all the way to the top of your head.  You pause a moment, basking in the sensation of neutral, effortless balance in your body, as you hang supported from below, your energy simultaneously sinks and rises internally.

The entire process may have taken you two to three minutes – you plan to stand for thirty.  As the minutes pass, you continue to bring relaxation and awareness to any points in your body that block the downward flow or supportive rise of your energy.  Layer by layer you let go more and more, feeling simultaneously more grounded and increasingly weightless.  Though you are outwardly still, your body is filled with a growing readiness for any and all possibilities.

You are centered.

The standing, meditative practice described above is Zhan Zhuang (translated as “standing post”), an important part of Taoist internal martial arts, but to someone just learning about this practice, it can seem strange and impractical.  On the one hand, you may ask: how can standing in place for long periods of time help someone become better at fighting?  On the other hand, one might ask: how can you meditate standing up?  These are both very reasonable questions, and they lead to answers that strike at the heart of the Taoist philosophy and its applications to martial arts and life.

Taoist philosophy follows the Taiji principle: harmonization of opposites in order to maintain balance.  Martially, this means that a Taoist does not try to oppose his opponent’s strength with his own.  Rather, a Taoist focuses on maintaining his own center, and adjusts to his opponent’s force accordingly.  For example, if my opponent pulls me by my wrist, I won’t pull back in the opposite direction, but instead I will follow the direction of his pull while maintaining my balance and then change the direction of his force to my advantage.  In this way, I add his strength to mine and apply my strength where he is weak.  If he pushes against my chest, I don’t push back; instead I turn, and allow his force to fall past me.  As he loses balance, I touch him on the back and send him tumbling away.  Neither of these responses would be possible if I was not centered.  By remaining at the most neutral point of balance in my body, and being willing to yield to force and staying unbiased in my actions, I am able to adjust to the changes my opponent tries to impose upon me.  By changing with him while staying centered, I cause him to unbalance himself.  Then victory is easy to achieve.  If I do not stand post, how will I know my center?  If I do not know my center, how can I adjust to change?

Enhanced by Zemanta