Don’t try! The paradoxical approach of Tai Chi Chuan, Charles Bukowski and Yoda.

Is there a secret to Tai Chi? To martial arts? To life? If there is I think it might be encapsulated in the two words, “Don’t try”.

Famously offensive American poet and author Charles Bukowski had “Don’t try” written on his gravestone:

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It makes you wonder what he meant. Did he mean just give up? I don’t think so. Underneath “don’t try” is a picture of a boxer, indicating a struggle.

Mike Watt in the San Pedro zine The Rise and the Fall of the Harbor Area interviewed his wife Linda about, “Don’t try”:

Watt: What’s the story: “Don’t Try”? Is it from that piece he wrote?

Linda: See those big volumes of books? [Points to bookshelf] They’re called Who’s Who In America. It’s everybody, artists, scientists, whatever. So he was in there and they asked him to do a little thing about the books he’s written and duh, duh, duh. At the very end they say, ‘Is there anything you want to say?’, you know, ‘What is your philosophy of life?’, and some people would write a huge long thing. A dissertation, and some people would just go on and on. And Hank just put, “Don’t Try.”

As for what it means, it’s probably best to let Bukowski tell us:

“Somebody asked me: “What do you do? How do you write, create?” You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it.”
– Charles Bukowski

Now that’s starting to sound like Tai Chi to me…

I was working on an application of diagonal flying yesterday. The one where you get underneath their shoulder, arm across their body and lift them up and away. There’s a sweet spot as your shoulder goes under their armpit where you have leverage. Where they move easily. You go an inch or so in the wrong direction and you lose it. The technique doesn’t work.

Compared to wrestling and judo I think there are different factors to consider in making a Tai Chi throw work.

You have to think more about your posture. Say, your chest position (is it sheltered? Are the shoulders rounded?) and if you are sunk and in contact with the ground correctly. Is your butt sticking out? Are your legs bent enough?

All these factors matter more in Tai Chi than in Judo and wrestling because Tai Chi is a less physical art. (Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing is debatable, but it either way, it just is.)

With a less-physical art it’s much easier to notice when you’re having to “try” more to make a throw work. Having to “try” too much is a sign you’re muscling it, not letting posture, correct position, leverage and Jin (power from the ground) do the work. Judo and wrestling incorporate these elements too, but Tai Chi relies on them. And without them it just falls apart.

In BJJ I also really like the philosophy of “don’t try”.

For example, if I’ve got the knee on belly position on my opponent I love to go for the baseball bat choke:

The problem is that once you set your grips up on the classic baseball bat your opponent doesn’t just lie there – he defends. He grabs your arms, shifts his hips and generally does everything he can to prevent you from getting the finish.

Now the video shows you three ways to do this – they’re clever little counters to his counters. (I really like the last one actually – I’m going to try that).

But I tend to prefer a slightly different approach. Rather than think of each technique in isolation I like to think of them as being paired. Quite often when I go for a baseball bat choke I set up my grips and immediately my partner has cast iron grips on both my hands. Now sure, I could fight through this – ie. “try” to make the choke work – or I could just go, “you know what? The way he’s defending this means he’s lifting his far elbow – I’ll use that instead”. I give up the baseball choke entirely, but before you know it I’ve spun around and I’ve got a successful kimura grip. He defends the kimura and guess what? It leaves his neck open, and I go back to the baseball choke, so on.

I’m not trying to make anything work, I’m just going with what he gives me. And eventually all the pieces fit together like a jigsaw and it’s done.

I don’t always get it right. More often than not I get it wrong, but that’s what I’m aiming for. If you’re going to adopt this attitude you have to have a really flexible mind. You can’t get fixated on one thing. In fact, you can’t think too much. Just go with what you feel is available.

What I’m talking about is getting off the baseline and onto the middle and top lines. For a full explanation of what this means you’d need to listen to the Woven Energy podcast, but in a nutshell, it means you stop using the thinking, rational part of your brain and just use direct feedback from nature (your partner in this case, who is as much a part of nature as you are) and that gives you access to the midline (body) and topline (spirit).

In Chinese culture the topline, midline and baseline form a trigram, which can have broken or unbroken lines, as so:

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And since we’ve returned to China we should note that the Taoists were all about this “Don’t try” philosophy. They called it Wu Wei – to do by not doing.

From the Tao Te Ching chapter 2:

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

 

Or as Yoda put it, “Do or do not, there is no try”.

 

And to return to the topic of Tai Chi, it is also exemplified in the short but concise classic on push hands:

Song of Push Hands (by unknown)

Be conscientious in PengLuChi, and An.

Upper and lower coordinate,
and the opponent finds it difficult to penetrate.

Let the opponent attack with great force;
use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds.

Attract to emptiness and discharge;
Zhan, Lian, Nian, Sui,
no resisting no letting go.

And to finally return to Bukowski, he might be a strange role model, but I kind of like the old guy. His poems aren’t beautiful, but at least they are honest. He was always, exactly himself. He didn’t need to try.

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Red Pine on Cold Mountain, a Bill Porter interview

 

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Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

I really enjoyed listening to this podcast interview with Bill Porter, who goes under the author name of Red Pine. (There’s a transcription as well so you can read it too).

Bill has had an interesting life, as you’ll discover from the podcast, most notably going to China to interview hermits living in near isolation on mountains in search of The Way. His most famous book is about this: Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits.

I particularly enjoyed his description of translation work as being like trying to dance with a skilled dancer when you can’t hear the music.

In his translation work he’s perhaps most famous for his work translating the Buddhist poet Cold Mountain.

I found a collection of Cold Mountain translations here. They’re not by Bill, but by A. S. Kline. I like them all the same:

 

Where’s the trail to Cold Mountain?

Cold Mountain? There’s no clear way.

Ice, in summer, is still frozen.

Bright sun shines through thick fog.

You won’t get there following me.

Your heart and mine are not the same.

If your heart was like mine,

You’d have made it, and be there!

 

 

 

Japanese martial arts: from the battlefield to MMA

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I’ve written a guest blog post about my Heretics podcast and our history of Japanese martial arts series for Holistic Budo, a blog run by my friend Robert Van Valkenburgh.

Here’s a quote:

After the Tokugawa-era ended with the bloody Boshin war followed by the Meiji Restoration (1868), Japan slowly opened up to the outside world. In fact, it was forced open by the British and Americans using violent gunboat diplomacy, but eventually the new era was embraced by the new rulers and also reflected in a new spirit of openness within the martial arts. Aliveness was back in fashion and innovators like Jigoro Kano breathed new life into the martial arts they inherited using the practice of randori (free sparring). His approach was so effective that Kano went from never having trained martial arts at all, to founding his own style in less than 6 years. Ultimately Kano’s Judo would outshine all the other styles of Jiujitsu and change the course of martial arts in Japan entirely, not to mention the rest of the world.

Check out the whole post here.

Buddhism vs Shamanism, in China.

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My friend Damon is back with another Woven Energy podcast after a long break.

Listen to “Episode 28 – Buddhism vs. Shamanism: Similarities, Differences and what we can learn” on Spreaker.

This time he tackles an interesting subject – Buddhism. I imagine this will upset a lot of Buddhists (if that’s possible!) because he classifies Buddhism as an exoteric religion, basically designed to help control the populace under the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD). In fact, to get them to self-regulate. You can agree with this view, or not, but there are some interesting facts in here about the rise of Buddhism in China that I didn’t know.

For instance, China used to be the main country for Buddhism during the Han Dynasty – it is where it got its foothold, and in fact, was the main reason for the expansion of the Chinese empire (as they sought out Buddhist teachers, inadvertently creating the Silk Route and facilitating trade). This was particularly unusual since China has traditionally been a very inward-looking country. That a foreign religion could become so widespread is really worth noting and looking into.

It’s hard to believe that now, since people associate Buddhism more with Japan or Tibet, but it makes sense – the ‘old masters’ quoted in Japanese Buddhist writing, like the Blue Cliff Record, were often Chinese.

There’s also a lot of stuff about Chinese history, and the Warring States period in the podcast. Fascinating stuff.

The eagle has landed.

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After finally making some headway in my friend’s Woven Energy podcast on Shamanism, I find this episode of Tribes, Predators & Me fascinating. Firstly, you get to see a lot of what is being talked about in terms of Mongolian culture and animism. Secondly, there’s the timing of the release of the bird. If you’ve been following some of the exercises for Amsgar in the podcast then this element will be familiar to you, even if it’s not been picked up on by the programme producers, or the guy in it 🙂

Even if you’ve got no interest in Shamanism, it’s a great episode to watch – utterly fascinating.  You can watch it on the BBC iPlayer.

 

 

 

Practical Shamanism

My old XingYi teacher’s Shamanism podcast is producing more material than I can actually keep up with, however a recent email pointed to three episodes that contain practical exercises that I though I’d share:

So…

Ep 16 lays down the foundation for what stage 2 is. The Amsgar, which literally means The breath. This is a deep look at the biology and science behind what it is we are doing here.

This is not to be missed. Its a fascinating foundation for whats about to come up.

Grab ep 16 right here – https://wovenenergy.com/beginning-stage-2-of-learning-shamanism/

Episode 17 introduces… wait for it… the Shamans Drum. Now this is like nothing you will have heard before. Its not about banging it and entering a so called trance. There is so much more to it.

Does the drum need to have a smell?

Listen to the episode to find out all about authentic and traditional shaman drums as well as a step by step look at this practical exercise called Boekhgeen Khengreg.

Grab ep 17 right here – https://wovenenergy.com/episode-17-first-amsgar-technique-boekhgeen-khengreg/

Ep 18 takes a closer look (again) at the importance of Chalicity and goes deep into our second practical exercise called Delgekh.

We also take a look at the difference between a technique and an exercise and how important it is not to confuse the two.

Grab ep 18 right here – https://wovenenergy.com/episode-18-second-amsgar-technique-delgekh/

Your entry point to practical Shamanism

My old XingYi teacher has finally made a podcast, and it’s all about Shamanism. 

My old XingYi teacher, Damon Smith, is notoriously reclusive, doesn’t use the public parts of the Internet much and seems to live in hiding, in fact, I still feel weird seeing his name written down on a web page, knowing how much he’d hate it! I’m also pretty sure there was a time when mentioning his name online booked you in for a swift Beng Chuan to the guts in the next class! But it looks like somebody has done the impossible and dragged him out of his cave to talk about his favourite subject – Shamanism.

Back when I was training with him on a weekly basis we used to get into these sorts of discussions all the time, and he used Shamanism constantly in his teaching in reference to XingYi. In fact, I don’t think the two could be separated in the way he taught it.

There was much about it that I could understand and find immediately useful, but much that I couldn’t and seemed beyond my ken. Well, it looks like I may get a second chance thanks to  another of his students, Josef Sykora, who has somehow cajoled Damon into spilling the beans on a new Podcast series called Woven Energy.

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Joe describes Damon and his teaching as follows:

So who is Damon? Well, he has studied shamanism academically as well as practicing it for over 30 years.

He has an extremely pragmatic view of shamanism and animism so if you’re looking for your normal “simply bang a drum… dance around a bit… have a chat with an animal… imagine going down a hole and now i’m happy” kind of stuff that means nothing, then turn around now… this podcast ain’t for you.

If you accept shamanism as a discipline. A lifelong journey full of ups and downs and a tremendous amount of confusion and hard work, then great… because once pandora’s box is opened, there is no shutting it. You are now at the mercy of the divine.

You can find out a lot more about Damon by simply listening to the podcast. He has some fantastic stories and knowledge to share.

Here’s a few things you can look forward to in future episodes

A deep and thorough look at Shamanism from the inside out
A clear starting point for beginning Shamanic technique
The tools, mindset and knowledge you need to apply Shamanism to all areas of your life

To get episode 1 you need to jump through a couple of sign-up hoops (well, nobody ever said Shamanism was easy, did they), but after providing your email address you will be given access to episode 1 here.

Now it’s time to see how deep the rabbit hole goes…

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