Wednesday, June 23, 2010

As A Man Thinketh...

    As we enjoy our practice of our chosen martial disciplines we tend to get caught up in what I call the "punch-kick" mentality. That is, we’re looking at the outside of what we do and not thinking much about anything else. It’s kind of like driving your car and being overly-concerned with how it looks as opposed to what’s going on inside; how it should work compared to how it’s working at the present time (that’s usually too scary to contemplate), and what makes it work in the first place – or even what can be done to make it work better.

     The Buddha once said, "As a man thinketh, so he is…" Women, too. Truer words were never spoken although most of us, after hearing these words, simply acknowledge their profundity and then go on with our lives and training as usual.

     Some time ago a former student of mine who has taken up iaido and kendo said she happened to open up a book written by Mr. Dave Lowry entitled, "Autumn Lightning." She looked at the page before her and read about how Mr. Lowry’s iaido teacher (a Japanese gentleman who was teaching at a nearby university) insisted that his pupil learn to speak Japanese.

     This, he said, was essential if one was to understand the true spirit of the art. And – he was right.

     You see, we’re brought up to speak American (we don’t speak English; the Brits speak English and believe me, it’s a lot different than what we speak) and the result is that we unconsciously learn to think in American. This can be a real problem when we’re presented with (foreign) concepts for which our language has no word or phrase. Not only is it difficult for us to find an appropriate American word or phrase to match to the foreign tongue, it’s often impossible to IMAGINE the concept in the first place because it doesn’t fit into our language/thought processes!

     The most ready example is the word chi (qi in pinyin and ki in Japanese). There simply is no American/English equivalent for this concept and the end result is that many of us completely misunderstand the whole idea! And we get charlatans trying to prove that they can knock people over without touching them and generally playing "Star Trek" with their bare hands…

     Or shen (shin in Japanese), which we roughly translate as "spirit" but that’s not quite right. And yi, which is often translated as "intention" or "mind" but the real meaning goes much deeper than that…
I believe that language impacts the way in which we think (and subsequently act). It can also limit the way in which we (are able to) think…and this can lead to misunderstandings about the arts that we practice; how they should be practiced and what makes them tick.

     Let’s take the word "yi." It is written with two radicals, one above the other. One radical means "sound" and the other means "heart." In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that the heart houses the emotions and what we call "mind" (not the brain). So if you take a little time to consider what this means, it can change the way you feel about the word "yi." Those of you who practice a martial art such as Xingyi may acquire a finer understanding of what the name implies.

     Xingyi is usually translated as "Form/Shape of the Mind" but once you understand the FEELING behind the word for mind (yi), it can change your understanding of the name of the art and how it’s intended to be practiced.

     The word Xing is usually translated as "form, shape, pattern." It can also mean "image." That has a slightly different implication than "form." Moreover, the Japanese/Okinawan pronunciation for (the character) Xing is…KATA (for you taekwondo stylists, it is "Hyung")!

     So it really helps if you learn, at least to some degree, how to speak the language of the culture in which your particular art was developed, and to read some of it as well. Most westerners are loathe to do this and consider it too much of a bother. But the fact is, if you truly want to understand your art more fully, you need to spend some time immersing yourself in its culture – and that includes language.

     But there’s more.

     Consider mathematics. I always hated math. But my teacher, Master W.C. Chen, once told me that the reason mathematics is so heavily emphasized in school has little to do with whether or not we’ll ever use algebraic equations as we go through life…it’s because mathematics is a language! And just as the languages we learn to speak impact the way we think, mathematics teaches us new and different ways of analyzing and thinking.

     Many years later my own father would echo these same words. "Math teaches you to think in a certain way," he said. It would be some years before I fully understood what he meant.

     If we learn only one "language", as it were, our "way" of thinking is very limited. By learning more languages, we develop our mental faculties more fully.

      My teacher, Master W. C. Chen told me that individual techniques are like words. Combinations of techniques are like sentences and paragraphs. A bad combination – one in which the techniques do not flow smoothly – is like a badly written sentence. Good combinations are like fine poetry and our forms are books, being comprised of many sentences and paragraphs.

      Moreover, each form teaches us to think in a certain way! Each one is different; it has its own sentences and spirit (like a "style" of writing, no?). Your forms may use many of the same words but the sentences and the style of writing are very different. A comma here, and semi-colon there, parentheses over here (and what’s inside those parentheses?), indentations for paragraphs, and so on.

     It’s a book! At first you learn to read it like you did when you first learned to read. For me, back in the days of covered wagons, we used the old "Dick and Jane" readers; incredibly boring and stupid stories which everyone read aloud in a REALLY boring monotone with no emphasis on any particular words or phrases… Then as you become more literate and you can read with greater skill, your form (your recitation of the book) takes on more meaning and life! And as you continue to practice it, that form will teach you to think in a certain way!

     This is very important. Very. Important. Go back and re-read that last paragraph.

    It’s the same thing when you first learn to play a musical instrument. You can’t possibly start off with the classical, complex, highbrow stuff. On a piano, you have to learn the keyboard and start with really simple, boring stuff…but there’s more to it than just memorizing keys and melodies. You’re learning to think in a new way! And when you learn to play a particular piece of music you learn another way of thinking and hearing and tasting and experiencing and BEING the music.

    Then you move on to another piece to expand your understanding and learn to think in yet another way. Music is, after all, a LANGUAGE! Like math. They’re much the same thing.
And as you learn more "languages", you are better able to express yourself and you are better able to understand others!

     Remember, as you think…

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Breaking Techniques

I think it was in 1962 that I witnessed my first board-breaking demonstration. I watched in awe as the black belt instructor cut through three one-inch boards with his knife-hand. That was really incredible! In a single blow he split those boards as easily as if they were papier-mache. Such demonstrations were typical of most karate exhibitions at that time and they remained so until fairly recently. It would seem that many contemporary martial arts practitioners feel that such displays of strength are beneath them.
The Japanese word for this art is tameshiwari, which refers to testing one’s strength and technique by attempting to break various things like boards, bricks, and even stones. Masutatsu Oyama, founder of the legendary Kyokushin style of Japanese karate, once remarked that karate without the breaking techniques is like a nut with no meat…and to some degree, I’m inclined to agree with him. There’s more to tameshiwari than meets the eye -more than most people suspect.
Many karate, taekwondo, and kung-fu novices begin practicing tameshiwari by testing their techniques against wooden boards. I still remember breaking my first inch-thick board. I thought I was Superman! I quickly fell in love with the breaking techniques and I’ve practiced them regularly throughout my martial arts career. At first it was all just a huge adrenaline rush…but as I got older and more experienced – and being the philosophical sort that I am – I started to really think about tameshiwari and what it meant.
The mechanical aspects can be daunting. For instance, wood doesn’t really “break.” It tears. Bricks, concrete slabs, and stones break. This can be an important piece of information for those who are seriously interested in mastering the breaking techniques. The intended target must be struck in the center and the distancing must be exactly right. Otherwise, you’ll just end up “pushing” against your target instead of delivering a sharp blow.
The standard board should be about an inch thick and measure 12”x12”. This used to be the standard size for board breaking. The idea was that if you could cut an inch-thick board, you could just as easily break a human clavicle (which requires about 16 lbs. of pressure to fracture). If you could split two inch-thick boards, you could shatter a human arm or rib. And if you could break three inch-thick boards, you could kill a man in a single blow. At least that’s what the Kyokushin school taught back in the day. Mind you, these boards were placed flat atop each other – spacers were never used and if anyone had attempted to use them I’m sure he would have been laughed out of the building. Spacers allows you to break a single board several times…you see, if one board has the resistance of 1X, then two boards (placed flatly together) are 2X, three boards are 3X and so on. However, if the boards are separated, they all retain their single 1X resistance…so you are breaking a 1X, then another 1X, and another 1X…which is not at all difficult to do. The same is true for any other material (brick or concrete).
Additionally, some people have been known to bake their boards, bricks, or concrete, making them extremely brittle and easy to break. I once saw a so-called “master” drop a couple of boards prior to a demonstration and they shattered!!!
In time, I moved to breaking inch-thick bricks and then to full-sized red bricks. I would split them with my knife-hand or with a punch. This is no mean feat and requires a great deal of practice. Eventually, I was able to cut a paver brick (about 1 ½” thick, these are used to pave patios and the like) with my spear-hand. Moving through these stages of breaking boosted my confidence considerably and I began to realize that there was more to me than I had ever considered.

And let me tell you, if you really want to feel like a superhero – take up breaking stones! There’s nothing like it! It’s a super confidence-booster but you absolutely must learn how to do from a qualified instructor. My best break was a large stone that weighed nearly 25 lbs. My right hand shook uncontrollably for three days afterwards…and that worried me (I never tried such a stunt again) but it did wonders for my confidence and spirit.
I reasoned that if martial arts masters of old could do it, I could also do it – which is a pretty dangerous assumption, but God was with me – and I’d try almost anything. I think my favorite was the arrow-catch, which involves having an (highly skilled) archer fire an arrow from a 45-60 lb. bow at your chest from a distance of about 60 paces... and as you turn out of the line of fire, you catch the arrow in mid-flight. This isn’t something that I recommend you try and it’s a technique for which you must train regularly for a considerable time…but I was finally able to do it and used to demonstrate it at special exhibitions. I mention it only because it is actually considered a form of tameshiwari (even though it doesn’t involve breaking anything).
My point is this- training in tameshiwari will build spirit and an inner strength that simply cannot be developed through any other means.

• All martial arts practitioners want to test their techniques and themselves. They want to know if their techniques will really work but they also know that it is unethical and immoral to go out looking for a fight. Tameshiwari gives us the opportunity to test ourselves without having to resort to physical violence; they act as a sort of barometer by which the power of our blows may be measured.
Having said that, I must say that some of the most effective self-defense techniques are not suited for tameshiwari.

• From the outset, the student learns that in order for the break to be successful, he or she must aim at a point past the surface of the target. This is often a student’s first exposure to the principle we call “extend”; where the yi (intention) goes, the chi/jin (power) follows.
Unfortunately, most of them never realize the implications of this seemingly basic principle. WHERE YOUR MIND/INTENTION GOES, SO ALSO GOES YOUR STRENGTH! Or…”As a man thinketh, so he is.” Think about it.
If you want to succeed at anything, you must first have the intention and commitment to do it. Your mind must DO IT first. Your body will follow along naturally. Thus, the mind “does the thing” in the unseen world…and that brings it into the physical world. From unreality to reality (as we perceive it)…

• Here is an addendum to the aforementioned principle…if you really want to be sure of your success in a given break, you must first actually see yourself doing it successfully! Then strike without delay. You’ll succeed. If you want to fail, see yourself failing or just worry that you won’t succeed. Your failure will be pretty much guaranteed. This applies not only to breaking bricks and boards, but to life as well…and that’s the lesson that must be learned! You’ll see (and acquire firsthand experience) of how this principle works for tameshiwari – and it’s easy to take it to the next level and apply it to life. What you see, what you visualize, is exactly what will happen!
Because it’s already taken place!
The old adage, “You can do anything if you just set your mind to it…” is very true but lacks instruction. Just how do you set your mind to do whatever it is that you want to do? Tameshiwari teaches you the “how.”

• When you determine that the time is right, you must strike without the slightest hesitation. If your spirit is in disorder, your strength will be scattered. Focus your mind and fully gather your spirit, then COMMIT yourself 100% to the task at hand, giving no thought to anything else. There is no possibility of failure!!!

• Then realize that in many cases, the break you performed is not physically possible. A brick is much harder than a human hand, which is made mostly of water. How could you possibly shatter this object with your bare hand? You could not do it - not just with your hand alone. There is more to you than you can see. What does this mean? Consider it.

• Through continued practice you develop a strong spirit, an indomitable will, and a courageous heart. The weak-willed, those whose resolve is flagging, and those who are timid or withdrawn, are doomed to failure. They can become stronger but only if they determine that they will put forth the required effort.

• Through extended practice you will overcome a fundamental human fear; that of getting hit or of hitting something forcefully (they’re basically the same thing). Whereas breakfalls help you overcome a different basic fear (the fear of falling down and hurting yourself), tameshiwari helps you overcome the fear of striking something with your full strength. Many modern martial arts practitioners disdain the breaking techniques, saying that they’re not really martial arts or that they have little to do with real technique but I think you can see how very wrong they are!
They’re fine, so long as they punch and kick the air or maybe a cushy heavy bag…but place a couple of boards or a brick in front of them and they freeze up. They experience FEAR and they hate to admit that they fear anything. Sometimes the truth hurts. Literally.
Martial arts should help us SEE our fears (and other weaknesses), ADMIT them to ourselves (and sometimes, others), and then OVERCOME them. If we fail to do this – and many martial arts practitioners fail because they’re afraid to face or admit their own fears - we’re just “playing” at martial arts like young children “play” at being soldiers. It isn’t real.

So next time you set up a single board and chamber your fist, remember that this is where it starts. You’re not training your fist. You’re training your mind and spirit.