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:

don't try

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:

trigram_for_thunder

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!

 

 

 

Wu Wei – the art of doing without doing

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The connections between Tai Chi and Taoism are at once obvious (the Tai Chi symbol is used extensively in Taoism) and also sketchy at best (there is no historical lineage connection).

You see a lot of Taoist priests (or at least Chinese people wearing Taoist priest robes) on Wudang mountain, which has traditionally been associated with Taoism, teaching people Tai Chi, Xing Yi and Bagua (the internal arts) in the lineage of Chang San Feng, the mythical Taoist who is traditionally associated with the origins of Tai Chi Chuan, but whose historical existence seems difficult to prove.

However, how long these modern days Taoists have been there teaching people martial arts I’m not sure. The fact that their ‘ancient’ martial arts look remarkably similar to the modern “wu shu” versions created in Beijing makes them seem highly suspect to me…

But while a direct connection between Taoism and Tai Chi may be difficult to prove, they clearly employ the similar ideas. Take for instance the idea of Wu Wei – the ever elusive “doing without doing” of Taoism.

If you take a look at the Tai Chi Classics you see that while they don’t mention the phrase “Wu Wei” itself the strategy of the art described fits it like a glove. Take the following quotes from the Treatise on Tai Chi Chuan:

It is not excessive or deficient;
it follows a bending, adheres to an extension.

When the opponent is hard and I am soft,
it is called tsou [yielding].

When I follow the opponent and he becomes backed up,
it is called nian [sticking].

If the opponent’s movement is quick,
then quickly respond;
if his movement is slow,
then follow slowly.

It seems Taoism is having something of a resurgence, as this article reveals, as a philosophy for dealing with the anxiety-inducing modern world. Even the rock star intellectual de jour, Jordan Peterson, is getting in on the act.

 

From Alan Watts back in the ’60s to Jordan Peterson in the modern age, the Western intellectual has had a recurring fascination with Taoist thought. Particularly with the concepts of Wu Wei and the Tao Te Ching. In fact, the book that first got me interested in Tai Chi years ago was The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff.

I think all this interest in Taoism again is generally a good thing. Let’s see where it leads.

 

Hagakure – wisdom of the Samurai

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“Hagakure is the essential book of the Samurai. Written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, who was a Samurai in the early 1700s, it is a book that combines the teachings of both Zen and Confucianism. These philosophies are centered on loyalty, devotion, purity and selflessness, and Yamamoto places a strong emphasis on the notion of living in the present moment with a strong and clear mind.”

Not being too familiar with Japanese writings I hadn’t come across this book before, but it was brought to my attention by a quote I stumbled across that I really liked:

“There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.” 

The book seems to be full of pithy, simple, wisdom like that.

I’m not familiar with which translation is the best – probably one you can buy on Amazon since that’s usually the way things work –  but there’s certainly a free version of the book you can read here.

 

How to use Taijiquan to heal anxiety

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Writing for Jetli.com is taking up more of my free time, so I haven’t posted too much original content here, but I guess I’m waiting for the muse to find me before I do.

In the meantime, here’s my latest article for Jetli.com

How Wushu and TaiJi Serve As a Path to Mindfulness to Heal Anxiety and Stress

There are so many technical aspects to Taijiquan, that it’s easy to forget to simply breathe and enjoy the practice, keeping that awareness of the breath as you go.

“If you are depressed you are living in the past.

If you are anxious you are living in the future.

And if you are at peace you are living in the present.”

– Lao Tzu.

 

Oh, Joko!


I’ll admit to being a big fan of Charlotte Joko Beck’s 1993 book Nothing Special. Her first book is good too, but the second really hits the spot for me. It’s about Zen living, but is very light on the ‘Zen’ and very heavy on the ‘living’. What I like is her approach to practice, because I think it relates to Tai Chi practice.

There are so many similarities between the two. Aside from the fact that they’re both meditative in nature, if you want to get anywhere in Tai Chi you need to practice pretty much every day, even when you don’t feel like it, in much the same was as you have to sit and meditate every day to get anywhere in Zen, even when you don’t feel like it. Not that there is anywhere to get in Zen, since you are already right here. In fact, from a Zen point of view it would be better to say that you have to meditate every day just to get back to where you are already, and nowhere else.

Some of my favourite quotes from her work (which I’m not getting just right, but hey, they are close enough):

“When nothing is special, then everything can be.”

“On the withered tree the flower blooms.”

“Stop thinking, stop dreaming and there is nothing that you cannot know”.

Anyway, I’d recommend Nothing Special, the book, and watching the following YouTube documentary about her work.

Charlotte Joko Beck – Ordinary Living-documentary: