Friday, March 4, 2016


by Phillip Starr
    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…" 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 iaido 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 British speak English and believe me, it’s a bit different than the American version) 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 qi (“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 Xingyiquan 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…