If you have an interest in Zen and the martial arts, you may or may not have come across the allegory of ‘The Ten Ox Herding Pictures’.
I have been meaning to post on this subject for a while now, and although I am not really a committed Zen Buddhist adherent by any significant measure, I have an outsider’s interest.
Before I get into it in any detail, let me say that I don’t see this allegory as uniquely ‘Zen’, I think it has a wider application, particularly for anyone exploring the conundrum of self-realisation and self-actualisation.
The ten images tell a story of a boy, the ox-herd, and his search for the missing ox and is a metaphor of the search for the true self (the original self); in Buddhist terms, the search for Awakening and the True Reality. The Ox-herd is the smaller self, the ego, who gradually realises that the reality is actually not far away and ultimately contained within him.
Although these images developed a considerable following inside Japan, they are definitely Chinese in origin (as is Zen Buddhism actually). The earliest record of this sequence of images as a metaphor date back to the 11th or 12th century in China. There are usually accompanied by poems, but I would argue that you really don’t need them. At a visual level, you fill in the blanks with your imagination – no need for words – so very ‘Zen’.
The key differences between the various versions are usually found in the last three pictures. Some versions are content to just complete the series with a blank circle, (which particularly resonates with me), but, arguably, others have a deeper story to tell, making the final picture one of a Buddha or Boddhisatva in the ‘market place’, as if to say, ‘once enlightenment is complete, return to the world, to the busiest place and just ‘be’, amongst the people’. I like that – nobody disappears up into a mountain cave; that is not the place for the sage or the enlightened one. This is a philosophy that is nearer to the Neo-Confucianists, who I believe, have a closer resonance with the martial arts that we know. 
A boy is out in the countryside clearly looking for something. He is sometimes shown holding a kind of tethers in his fist. (The wildness of the landscape increases as the narrative develops, as if to underline the difficulty of the quest).
At first he sees the ‘traces’ of the ox (which is sometimes referred to as a bull). Whether this is tracks, or even other things bulls and oxen tend to leave behind, is not really clear.
He catches a glimpse of the untamed ox. This wild spirit shows him a ‘Way’, it’s a hint, but it gives him direction and purpose. This is the beginning of ‘Do’ or ‘Tao’.
The boy pursues the ox, taking to his task with great determination. He finally connects with the animal and manages to attach the tether to it. The hard work begins. It’s a battle between the raw energy of the ox and the willpower and determination of the boy.
The boy is unaware that he is wrestling with his own true nature and trying to bridge the gulf between his uncultured petty ego and the untainted purity of his elemental self. The Buddhists enjoy the use of metaphor to describe this pure self; they are particularly fond of the image of a lotus flower that rises in its purity from the mud of the pond, perfect and unfouled. This is the true self that resides in all of us that remains pure and clean however much with sully it our own self-inflicted contaminants; which, with discipline, can shine forth again.
This is the discipline of the Dojo and the trials of the martial way; whether you want to describe it as a form of self-transformation (internal alchemy), or the ‘forging’ process of Tanren, it is a deep emersion in the greater process of training.
The disciplining of the ox in the various versions usually seems to take a couple of pictures, as if to accentuate the battles that occur between the boy and the ox. Gradually the creature succumbs to harness and becomes placid and resigned to the process. (In some versions the ox starts out pure black in colour and by degrees changes to white).
Eventually the boy and the ox establish a harmonious union. The boy is shown riding sedately on the ox’s back, playing his flute, without a care or worry in the world. This is sometimes referred to as ‘coming home’.
In the next pictures the boy and the ox are unconcerned about each other’s presence, there is no battle any more, there is no division; they exist in the same space because there is nothing to separate them; they are one and the same; this is a state of total harmony.
The next image is often described as ‘all forgotten’. The transition is virtually complete; nothing matters. The boys is there, the ox is there, but it is as if nothing is of consequence to either of them; it is just ‘being’.
The final images plunge deeply into the unknown and the esoteric, I don’t pretend to understand them, this is ‘returning to the origin’, whether you want to call this ‘the Great Tao’ or the ‘Universal Divine’ is up to you.
As an aside; many years ago, in my college education, myself and my fellow students were introduced to a retired educationalist, I wish I could remember his name. He was a very strange individual, very calm and patient, he spoke to us as if we were his children, but not in a condescending way. Here was a man who had lived a very full life (I think he’d been in the military during WW2). He encouraged us to ask searching questions, far beyond the limited educational brief. As the discussion opened out we found ourselves questioning the meaning of existence. He talked about ‘answers’ and I asked him, ‘what happens after you find all of the ‘answers?’ He paused slightly and then said, ‘You just… disappear’.
I remember, he smiled and just left that hanging in the air. If I am reading his reply correctly, this was the final message of the ox herding pictures. Here was the blank circle, or the empty landscape.
This set of pictures had a further reach than most of us realised.
I don’t know how many people are aware of this but singer songwriter Leonard Cohen had a soft spot for the ox herding narrative. I think it is common knowledge that Cohen plunged deeply into the Zen lifestyle, secluding himself in monastic Zen disciplines, indulging in harsh regimes of Zazen (seated meditation).
Some of his most thoughtful and erudite poetry and lyric writing came out of that experience. What ever you think of his vocal style and singing ability there is no getting away from the fact that Cohen was a talent that maybe even eclipsed Dylan. But people seemed not to have noticed a track called ‘The Ballad of the Absent Mare’ which featured on his 1979 album, ‘Recent Songs’.
Canadian singer songwriter Jennifer Warnes recounts how Cohen came over to her house after a meditational retreat, she said, “Leonard had found some old pictures somewhere, they were called ‘The Ten Bulls’, old Japanese woodcuts symbolizing the stages of a monk’s life on the road to enlightenment. These carvings pictured a boy and a bull, the boy losing the bull, the bull hiding, the boy realizing that the bull was nearby all along. There is a struggle, and finally the boy rides the bull into his little village. ‘I thought this would make a great cowboy song,’ he joked.” 
Here is a sample of Cohen’s ‘cowboy song’, obviously replace ‘mare’ with ‘ox’ and it’s the same tale:
“Say a prayer for the cowboy, his mare’s run away
And he’ll walk ’til he finds her, his darling, his stray
But the river’s in flood and the roads are awash
And the bridges break up in the panic of loss
And there’s nothing to follow, there’s nowhere to go
She’s gone like the summer, gone like the snow
And the crickets are breaking his heart with their song
As the day caves in and the night is all wrong
Did he dream, was it she who went galloping past?
And bent down the fern, broke open the grass
And printed the mud with the iron and the gold
That he nailed to her feet when he was the lord
And although she goes grazing a minute away
He tracks her all night, he tracks her all day
Oh, blind to her presence, except to compare
His injury here with her punishment there…”
For this story/allegory to have been around for such a long time says something about its cultural power and its spiritual value. If you take any of the great or iconic stories that have stayed with humanity all the way from antiquity to the present day, their survival is an indication of what they have to teach us, as well as their resonance with the human condition; from the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ (2100 BCE) to ‘Moby Dick’, they present models and narratives that touch and inspire us.
The ox herd pictures could be seen as a compressed version of what Joseph Campbell refers to as the ‘Hero’s journey’ , but Campbell’s journey has 17 stages rather than 10. Campbell’s idea is so deeply engrained into western culture that we take it for granted; examples are: Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘The Matrix’ and even ‘Harry Potter’.
The ox herd pictures are more overtly spiritual, but given their transcendent narrative there is much there to tie in to the martial artist’s personal odyssey, after all, martial arts also aspire to a transcendence, a development of character, a personal alchemy. Let us not pretend that our martial arts journey is devoid of spirituality; by that I don’t mean the ‘Spirituality’ that is allied to organised religion; but instead, the more secular brand, associated with pondering things that are outside and beyond yourself and your whole purpose of being alive and conscious and the meaning of your existence. Buddhism sought to address these puzzles without the need to resort to Gods or supernatural deities (although certain forms of Buddhism never quite shook off the shackles of shamanism, adding things that were never part of the original message).
Of course, martial arts people tend to be very pragmatic and deep meditation on spiritual matters are not to everyone’s taste. My thinking is that while I have no desire to become a Zen Buddhist there is something to gain from exploring the wider cultural context.
But that’s my view – to you, it might just be a load of old Bull.
For those of you have an inclination towards trivia; Cat Stevens’ 1972 studio album ‘Catch Bull at Four’ is an obvious reference, which may well have flown right over the head of the average pop music fan of the 1970’s. The album cover makes it very clear.
 Through personal research and correspondence with experts in the field, I have come to the opinion that works related to the Japanese martial arts that have been pegged as coming from the Zen tradition are actually Neo-Confucian in origin, e.g. Takuan Soho ‘The Unfettered Mind’.
 See Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’. 1949.
If you are interested in the crossovers between far eastern traditions and philosophy and western psychology, I found that this book has some interesting sections relating to the Ox Herding Pictures; ‘Buddhism and Jungian Psychology’, J. Marvin Spiegelman and Mokusen Miyuki, 1994.
Other references and links:
For an excellent description of the series follow this link: https://jessicadavidson.co.uk/2015/10/02/zen-ox-herding-pictures-introduction/
For the full lyrics by Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Ballad of the Absent Mare’ follow this link: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/leonardcohen/balladoftheabsentmare.html
The image featured for ‘Catch Bull at Four’ is sourced from Wikipedia with the appropriate copyright stipulations cited here: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/3d/Catch_Bull_at_Four.jpg
Ox herding pictures courtesy of: https://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/mzb/oxherd.htm
Continued from part 1. What can we possibly gain from these ‘records’ of genius? How do we read the evidence presented to us?
What are we able to judge?
To return to the martial arts (and other arts).
Observing films on YouTube or other sources; shapes and patterns can only give us so much. It’s how we process the information that counts, but usually we cannot help but to attach our own baggage to it; this can cause its own problems.
To expand: If we look at the idea of works of art; it is said that it’s all about relationships:
- The relationship of the artist to their subject – think of landscapes or portraits. The artist must engage and interpret their personalised understanding of the subject.
- The relationship of the artist to their medium – this is the practical depiction of the theme and all of the technical aspects involved. This is the means by which the message is delivered.
- The relationship with the artist through their work to their audience.
Now, extend that to master Otsuka, (whether it is on film or a demonstration in front of an audience):
- His subject is his understanding of Japanese Budo.
- His medium is his performance – what he chooses to show is through the prism of his selected material, be that solo or paired kata or fundamentals.
- Then, ultimately, the connection/relationship between the ‘artefact’ as presented, and the viewer, the audience.
As with all of the above, clearly, the viewer has to be up to the task.
For a viewer in an art gallery, a Joshua Reynolds portrait from 1770 may present less of an intellectual challenge than a Jackson Pollock ‘Action Painting’ from 1948. The crisp clarity of Reynolds gives the viewer more to grasp on to than the mad, seemingly random, spatter of paint that Pollock applied to his canvases. But both have amazing value and depth (to my mind anyway).
It has been said to me on more than one occasion that those demonstrations that master Otsuka did in his later life were actually designed with a particular audience in mind; for the real aficionados, for those who really had the eyes to see what we mere mortals fail to see. They are not quite Jackson Pollock, this is perhaps where the metaphor is a little too far stretched, but sadly they still reside in an area above most of our pay grades.
To understand Otsuka (or Pollock) we would need to have considerable insight into the workings of the artist’s world combined with the ability to grasp the intangible.
With master Otsuka a good starting point would be to understand the world in which he lived, as well being prepared to ditch our western lenses, or at least be aware of how they colour our understanding of Japanese society and culture at that particular time. But even then, if we plunged headlong into that task, it would need to be supported by a huge amount of practical knowledge of Japanese Budo mechanics relevant to that particular stage in its development. You would be hard pressed to find anyone with those credentials.
The comparison with the visual artists and master Otsuka can also be exercised in this way: It is a sad fact that when we encounter an artist’s work in a gallery it is often in isolation; we seldom see the work as part of a continuum, instead it is a snapshot of their development at the particular time it was produced. There are very few examples in the art world where this development can be seen; the only one I can think of is the wonderful Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where it used to be possible to follow the artist’s development as a timeline; Van Gogh’s immature work looks clunky and uncultured, he’s finding his feet, he experiments with different styles (Japanese prints influenced, pointillism, etc) and then his work starts to blossom as it becomes more emotionally charged. What a pity he only worked for about ten years. My guess is that given more time he would have gone pure abstract, what a development that would have been!
To return to Nijinsky (from part 1) – what if a piece of film was discovered of Nijinsky dancing? What would a modern ballet dancer be able to gain; how would they judge it? Perhaps Nijinsky’s famous ‘gravity defying’ leaps would not look so impressive, in fact, compared to contemporary dancers he might look very ordinary. We will never know.
(Perhaps someone might comment that he has his hand out of position, or that he is looking in the wrong direction?)
But maybe the real power is in the myth of Nijinsky as another form of truth, which allows Nijinsky to become an inspiration, a talisman for modern dancers. 
For master Otsuka, as suggested above, the pity would be that his whole reputation and legacy should hang on hastily made judgements of those movies shot in later life.
But who knows; if he did have film of him performing when he was in his early 40’s (say from the mid 1930’s) perhaps he would have hated to have been judged by his movements and technique at that age? I would suggest that early 40’s would have put him at his physical prime, but not necessarily at his technical prime.
It’s a bit like the way great painters would hate to be judged by their early work. .
Like anything that is meant to be in a state of continual evolution, its early incarnations probably served some uses, however crude, but it’s never wise to stick around. Creatives like Otsuka weren’t going to allow the grass to grow under their feet. 
Anecdotes of Otsuka’s early days told by those close to him inform us that his fertile creativity was a restless reality; his mind was constantly in the Dojo. The truth of this comes from his insistence that Wado was not a finished entity, how can it ever be?
I’m not saying that it is a completely pointless exercise. In writing this I am still working it out in my own head, trying to remind myself that we are still fortunate to have some form of connection to Otsuka Sensei, however tenuous, and how lucky we are to still have people around who bore witness to the great teacher, although, as we know, that will slip away from us so gradually that we will hardly notice it.
I have to remind myself that we are supposed to be part of a living tradition, a continuing stream of consciousness; a true embodiment of the physical form of what Richard Dawkins called a ‘meme’ . This is why instructors take their responsibilities so seriously to ensure that Wado remains a ‘living tradition’, with emphasis on the ‘living’, not an empty husk of something that ‘used to be’. This is why I am reluctant to describe master Otsuka’s image as an ‘anchor’, because an anchor, by its very nature, impedes progress.
The best we can hope for from these ghostly moving pictures from the past is that they can be seen as some kind of inspirational touchstone. But, like the shadows in Plato’s Cave it would be a mistake to take them for the real thing .
 For anyone interested in Vaslav Nijinsky I recommend Lucy Moore’s book, ‘Nijinsky’. It tells an amazing story of an amazing man in an amazing age. Why nobody has made a movie about Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes and Nijinsky I will never know. I reckon Baz Luhrmann would do a fine job if he was ever let loose on the project.
 I have to acknowledge that in most competitive sporting fields the athlete is probably at his/her overall prime in their more youthful days. But, when looked at in the round, karate and other forms of Japanese Budo run to a different agenda. For me, and many others, sport karate is not the end product of what we do – it’s a by-product, an additional bonus for those who choose that path.
Look at the careers of dancers. I heard it said that dancers die twice. The first time happens when by injury or by more gradual natural debilitation they have to stop doing the one thing they love, thrive on and that their whole identity has been wrapped up in. The second time, is obvious. As this BBC article (and link to radio documentary) explains: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1fkwdll6ZscvQtHMz4HCYYr/why-do-dancers-die-twice
 I know that am rather too fond of making references to jazz musician Miles Davis, but I have a memory of reports of Miles refusing to play music from his iconic ‘Kind of Blue’ album in his later years; he would say, ‘Man, those days are gone’ underlining his forever onwards trajectory – just as it should be.
 ‘Meme’ NOT the Internet’s interpretation of the word but, like a gene. However, instead of being biological, it refers to traditions passed down through cultural ideas, practices and symbols. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme
 ‘Plato’s Cave’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_cave
Otsuka picture source: http://www.dojoupdate.com/wado-ryu-karate/master-hironori-otsuka/
On the surface it would appear that we are blessed to have so much film of the founder of Wado Ryu available to us. It is lucky that Otsuka Hironori was not camera shy and showed enough foresight to actually have himself recorded with the intention of securing the legacy of his techniques and ideas for future generations. I have heard that there is even more unseen material that has been archived away, held secure by his inheritors.
Although it is interesting that there seem to be zero examples of film of Otsuka Sensei as a younger man; while there are photographs a plenty. (Otsuka Sensei was born in 1892 and only passed away in 1982).
He appeared to hit his filmic stride in his mid-seventies. Although a while back, a tiny snippet of footage of the younger Otsuka did appear as almost an afterthought on a JKA Shotokan film. It was a bare couple of seconds, it certainly looked like him – he was demonstrating at some huge martial arts event in Japan; the year is uncertain, but I am guessing some time in the 1950’s. In this film there was an agility and celerity to his movements which is not so evident in his later years. 
Historically, it does seem odd that there is so little film available from those years of such a celebrated martial artist.
Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of Aikido has a film legacy that goes back to a significant and detailed movie shot in 1935 at the behest of the Asahi News company. Ueshiba was then a powerful 51-year-old, springing around like a human dynamo, it’s worth watching. [LINK]
On first viewing that particular film it left me scratching my head; initial examination told me that the techniques looked so fake. But the more I watched, there were individual moments where some strange things seemed to happen (at one point his Uke is propelled backwards like an electric shock had gone through him). At times Uke seems to attempt to second-guess him and finds himself spiralling almost out of control. Really interesting.
But for Wado, is this even important? Why does it matter? Afterall, Wado Ryu had already been launched across the world, much of which happened during Otsuka Sensei’s lifetime. Also, the first and second generation instructors were doing the best of a difficult job to channel Otsuka Sensei’s ideas.
So, what can we gain from watching flickering images of master Otsuka showing us the formalised kata or kihon? What value does it have?
I saw Otsuka Sensei in person in 1975. I watched in awe his demonstration on the floor of the National Sports Centre, Crystal Palace in London. I was only seventeen years old. I remember thinking at the time, ‘here is something very special going on in front of my eyes – I know that – but I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is’.
At that age and the particular stage of my development, I had very little to bring to the experience. I lacked the tools. Possibly the only advantage I had at that time was I was carrying no baggage, no preconceptions; maybe that is why the memory has stayed so clear in my mind .
Interestingly, Aikido founder master Ueshiba’s own students, in later interviews lamented that they wished they’d paid more attention to exactly what he was doing when he was demonstrating in front of them; even when he laid hands upon them, they still struggled to get it.
Can we ever hope to bridge the gap?
I think it is useful to acknowledge the problem. The reality is that we are THERE but NOT THERE; we are SEEING but not SEEING. I believe that we often lack the refined tools to understand what is really going on and what is really useful to us as developing martial artists. It comes down in part to that old ‘subjectivity’ versus ‘objectivity’ problem; can we ever be truly objective?
But it is the evanescence of the experience; it flickers and then it is gone and all we are left with is a vain attempt to grasp vapour. But isn’t that the essence of everything we do as martial artists?
Two forms of artefact.
I read recently that in Japanese cultural circles they acknowledge that there are two forms of artefact; ones with permanence, solidity and material substance, and ones with no material substance, but both of equal value.
The first would include paintings, prints, ceramics and the creations of the iconic swordsmiths. For example, you can actually touch, hold, weigh, admire a 200 year old Mino ware ceramic bowl, or a blade made by Masamune in the early 14th century – if you are lucky enough. These are real objects made to last and to be a reflection of the artist’s search for perfection; they live on beyond the lifetime of their creator.
But the second, only loosely qualifies as an artefact as it has no material substance, or if it does it has a substance that is fleeting. This is part of the Japanese ‘Way of Art’ Geido.
There are many examples of this but the best ones are probably the Tea Ceremony (Sado) and Japanese Flower Arranging (Kado). Even the art of Japanese traditional theatre which is so culturally iconic actually leaves no lasting material artefact.
In the Tea Ceremony the art is in the process and the experience. Beloved of its practitioners is the phrase, ‘Ichi go, Ichi e’ which means ‘[this] one time, one place’.
The martial arts also leave no material permanence behind. Their longevity and survival are based upon their continued tradition (this is the meaning of ‘Ryu’ as a ‘stream’ or ‘tradition’, it seems to work better than ‘school’). The tradition manifests itself through the practitioners and their level of mastery; this is why transmission is so important. But a word of caution; the best traditions survive not in a state of atrophy, but as an evolving improving entity. It is all so very Darwinian. Species that fail to adapt to a changing environment and just keep chugging on and doing what they always do soon become extinct species.
Film (Nijinky, a case history).
Vaslav Nijinsky (1890 – 1950) was the greatest male ballet dancer of the 20th century. He was probably at his majestic peak around about 1912 as part of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. To his contemporaries Nijinsky was a God; he could do things other male dancers could only dream of; he danced on pointe and his leaps almost seemed to defy gravity. As this quote from the time tells us:
“An electric shock passed through the entire audience. Intoxicated, entranced, gasping for breath, we followed this superhuman being… the power, the featherweight lightness, the steel-like strength, the suppleness of his movements…”.
But, there was never any film made of this amazing dancer, so, all we have left are these words. Even though, at the time, movie-making was on the rise (D. W. Griffith was knocking out multiple movies in the USA in 1912 and earlier). At the time the dance establishment distrusted the new medium of moving pictures, they feared that it trivialised their art and turned it into a mere novelty; which clearly proved to be incredibly short-sighted.
If Nijinsky, arch-performer, had anything to teach the world of dance it is lost to us. Incidentally it is said that Nijinsky destroyed his mind through the discipline of his body. He ended his days in and out of asylums and mental hospitals.
We will never know how good Nijinsky was in comparison to modern dancers, or if it was all a big fuss about nothing. But then again, the very same could be said about any famous performer, sportsperson or martial artist born before the invention of moving pictures.
Other forms of recollections or records that act as witnesses.
A writer or composer leaves behind another form of record. For composers before the first sound recordings in 1860 it was in the form of published written music or score. We would assume that this would be enough to contain the genius of past musicians?
But maybe not.
Starting right at the very apex of musical genius, what about Mozart?
Well, maybe those written symphonies, operas etc. were not a faithful reflection of the great man? Certainly, there is some dispute about this. There has been a suggestion that rather like the plays of Shakespeare, all we have left are stage directions, (with Shakespeare the actors slotted in whatever words they thought were appropriate!).
We judge Mozart not only by todays orchestral/musical performances, but also by his completed score on the page, and some may see these pages as a distillation of Mozart’s genius; but perhaps Mozart’s real genius was expressed through something we would never see written down, thus, today, never performed? This was his ability to improvise and elaborate around a stripped-back musical framework. It is reported that he was able to weave his magic spontaneously. As an example, Mozart was known to only write the violin parts for a new premier performance, allowing the piano parts, which he was to play, to come straight out of his head. We have no idea how he did it, or what it might have sounded like.
More on this developing theme in the second part. What point is there to all this chasing of shadows? Are we kidding ourselves? Can we be truly objective to what we are seeing?
Part 2 coming shortly.
 If anyone is able to track down this piece of film, I would be grateful if they would let me know the URL. It seems to have disappeared from YouTube, or my search skills are not what they used to be.
 This was the same year as the IRA bomb scare, as well as Otsuka Sensei getting the back of his hand cut by his attacker’s sword.
Image of Nijinsky (detail). Nijinsky in ‘Les Orientales’ 1911. Image credit: https://www.russianartandculture.com/god-only-knows-tate-modern/
Shikukai in Essex is open for business. Since the middle of May we have been managing and designing an intelligent return to training.
It’s not really realistic to just bounce people straight back into a pre-Covid training regime, it needs to be handled with care and consideration, and we are doing just that.
Over the months of lock-down it gradually dawned on me exactly what the full cost of enforced inactivity was liable to be. I know that many people recognised the problem early on and set about engaging with any form of exercise that was available to them. Running and exercise apps acted as motivators to pound the pavement; anything was better than nothing.
But for some this headlong leap into road running may have been great for the heart and lungs and to burn off those indulgent calories, but the joints were ill-prepared for the amount of sudden pressure and wear and tear. The combination of lack of stretching, no real warm-downs and poor footwear soon slowed some of these runners down, or stopped them dead in their tracks. Hamstrings twanged, cruciate ligaments just gave up and knees went into revolt.
Of course, some people just waved the white flag and were content to watch the weight pile on, unaware of how long these lock-downs were liable to go on for, and assuming that their bodies would just suffer a minor physical drop-off and, after a couple of workouts… back to normal. Not so.
As the situation dragged on, the potential for physical and mental atrophy became very real. When motivation was needed anxiety and uncertainty created a kind of brain fog and the normal pressures and purposes of life morphed into something very unfamiliar.
Of course, everyone’s position was different. While for some Covid was a devastating experience, other were able to flip the world turning upside down into something they could benefit from.
The positive stuff.
One positive aspect of this was that we now had time to contemplate. I know that so much navel-gazing happened over the lock-down periods; which is not a bad thing. Normally this generates some kind of plan; but plan for what exactly? And on what time-scale?
I suspect that many people had the opportunity to recalibrate their lives, unsure of what they want, but certain about what they didn’t want. Forget about those pipe dreams of ‘learning a language’ or ‘buying a cello and turning into the next Jaqueline Du Pré, I don’t know anybody who actually did that.
Maybe, out of all that darkness and depressing TV news the human spirit was able to push beyond and reinvent itself? (This is the optimist in me speaking).
Another positive was that we were able to revaluate the importance of connections to family and friends. However, Skype/Zoom calls only went so far; a poor substitute for being face to face. People started talking about ‘hugging’, something that was hardly ever talked about or valued before, it was just taken as a given.
On top of all this, for me, it made me reframe the importance of the Dojo and training shoulder to shoulder, face to face.
It is said that you only really appreciate something after it has been taken away from you – so true.
Our own ‘return’.
When we did return to the Dojo in May; although nothing was said, smiles on faces and a palpable atmosphere of positivity spoke volumes.
After all, karate training is paradoxically something we do for ourselves, but in a group. Just look at all we gain from our training experience.
Put aside the physical benefits and examine all of those other life-affirming attributes.
For that evening, at that time, pressures melt away, you almost become someone else; but in reality, you are tapping into aspects of your persona that normally lay semi-dormant in your day-to-day life.
The Dojo can be described as a crucible or a hothouse, but there is something about being in that supercharged environment, alongside other people that makes it so special. Add to that all the benefits of being in a Flow State [See previous blog post] and it is everything that is positive and rewarding.
The first sessions back have really been about rehabilitation. I knew that the two areas to work on were; looking at what people’s physical condition was like and also how much of a slip-back had occurred in terms of technical knowledge? More of a memory thing.
In the first area, tightened muscles from so much sitting around was something to tackle. I spent longer on the warm-up and stretch and incorporated fascia and core work throughout, and I have kept that going.
I also knew that hammering up and down the Dojo in lines was going to be too much of a shock to the system; so, kihon work has been interspersed with kata.
For kata it was all about memory work and patterns. The same with paired exercises, although these were hindered by the fact that Covid regulations say that we still cannot work in pairs. We did however work body evasions against Jo; this gave some feeling of responding to a threat.
Speaking generally, there never has been a better time to get in the Dojo; if you are a new beginner, or a lapsed martial artist who has never really shaken off ‘that itch’, now is the time to take positive steps.
Even if you are just curious; come along, watch a session, talk to us. If you are of the mindset whereby you want more from your martial arts training than just making ever-faster shapes, then maybe Wado Ryu, as a form of Japanese Budo is what you are looking for.
Photo: George Krethlow-Shaw 2nd kyu working on Kushanku.
In this second part I will attempt push further beyond the boundaries of the standard workings of the paired kata in Wado karate. I am not expecting everyone to agree with me but please bear with me.
In Japanese Budo what I am calling ‘the contract’ is really important. You are measured and judged by your ability to assiduously, almost pedantically, stick to ‘the contract’.
This manifests itself beautifully, almost poetically, when it comes down to working with bladed weapons. One mistake, one ill-considered move or lack of intent and things get messy really quickly.
Consider the Tanto Dori (knife defence) paired kata of Wado Ryu. Uke has the blade, knows his role and not only sticks to the script but also delivers the blade as powerfully and accurately as he is able. Tori knows this and as a result his focus becomes hyper-acute; it has to be. He can’t move early (a clear betrayal of the contract) and to move late is potentially fatal. There is only one option; get it right!
How we got away with that in the late 20th century is a source of amazement to me – today, ‘health and safety’ would have been all over it!
But it has to be remembered that the paired kata are teaching tools. Yes, they are formalised, but as such they are the embodiment of wisdom refined over generations. I know that some may wag a judgemental finger and say, ‘but that’s not real, that’s not what would really happen!’ and of course they would be completely and spectacularly missing the point.
To return to the theme of kihon gumite – if you look across the ten canonical kihon gumite and try to see them through the lens of a protracted sequential dialogue, then the wisdom and cleverness of them just leaps out at you.
Sequentially, they open up a series of overlapping conundrums and a shed-load of ‘what ifs’. I won’t go into them individually, but they offer themselves up like a puzzle box, where positives mesh with negatives in time and space. This is the ‘politics of paired kata’.
Looking at the paired kata as conversations between two protagonists; as we know, conversations come in many forms; not all of them are meaningful or even useful. Some conversations are clear in their intentions; others mask duplicity and deceit.
There are conversations (if indeed they can be called that) where one party harangues another; spouting their pet theories, looking for validation, shooting down any dissent, seeing the other party as an antagonist, not listening to counter arguments, etc. The kihon gumite version of this is where either party disregard the other; just doing their thing. It’s an empty experience for both sides, a total waste of time and energy.
High level conversations.
And then there are high quality conversations; ones where nobody is trying to score points, where opinions are speculations and not carved in stone and both parties have a common cause and listen respectfully. These are truly exploratory exchanges; all parties involved on the cusp of their knowledge, open-minded, aware and unafraid to venture into the unknown, while maintaining the solid foundations of a mindset which is matched to the task.
Within paired kata like the kihon gumite, both protagonists approach the engagement (conversation) respectfully and almost with an air of reverence. Their focus is complete and directed at all aspects of the unfolding sequence of events. They know there is a script but they don’t allow themselves to become totally straightjacketed by it. There is nuance and a battle going on inside the battle, observing keenly the micro-gestures; (whether they are aware of it or not), very much like meaningful and positive verbal exchanges.
Different styles of conversations – successful, or not so successful?
It is said that conversations are generally more successful when conducted between peers and rarely so when directed from the middle or bottom of a hierarchy upwards, as in, an under-manager upwards towards a senior manager or boss. It can be tricky because of the hierarchical positions; the underling has to approach his boss with great care for fear of stepping over the line, or seeming to criticise or undermine decisions or ideas.
But the same situation in paired kata can have a useful dynamic; because; if the junior is open and receptive, they can gain so much from working with a senior grade. Direct physical communication relating to issues like body feel, timing and cause and effect, these aspects almost bypass the intellectual and go right to the heart of the matter; tapping into that weird level of consciousness that exists as what Ushiro Kenji calls the ‘Body Brain’.
There may be more to this than we think.
The politics of paired kata could possibly have more complexity than appears at first sight.
The general understanding is that these kata are seen as sets of prescribed techniques that are linear and ruled by cause and effect, i.e. ‘In response to this attack, my response is…’. This generally fits in with how the physical world operates, or rather how we prefer it to operate; in a very predictable way, it’s comfortable for us. As an example; if someone climbs a high stepladder and drops a golf ball they can pretty much tell you to the millimetre where the ball will impact on the floor. Try the same thing with a piece of paper and, although you know it will eventually hit the floor, you can’t be sure exactly where. In a way, it is comparable to dealing with someone’s direct physical aggression, a random attack; you really don’t know how it’s going to play out. Here we can see the weakness of being bound by linear thinking.
Cause and effect; action and reaction follow a very comfortable pattern of Newtonian physics. For some schools of karate and certainly the so-called ‘Reality based Self-defence’ this is all that is needed, and the simpler the better.
But if you dig deeper, it all goes a bit Schrödinger’s Cat.
There are some tantalising conundrums in the paired kata that lean towards the same kinds of qualities and contradictions found in quantum physics and become a challenge to the Newtonian model .
Examples of contradictions in Wado:
In the Wado paired kata these puzzles are sometimes presented to us overtly.
The second grandmaster would tease us by talking about ‘Wado mathematics’, he would say, “It works like this; in Wado it is 1 + 1 = 1”. How can that be so? Once you see it, it all makes sense, and it sets the bar really high if you want to work it at the physical level.
Another wonderful contradiction is that Tori and Uke are separate, but one. This is very ‘quantum’, the contradiction to the Newtonian form of action and reaction; in the quantum world action and reaction are one and the same, you are not waiting for things to happen, you are not waiting for feedback, you ARE the feedback, you are making your own reality. What happens between Tori and Uke is also an embodiment of a mutual resonance; there is a harmonic interplay which dissolves the convenience of thinking of these roles as separate entities.
Added to that is that the ‘attacker’ and ‘defender’ can be both at the same time! The river flows on and reality changes – like Heraclitus says, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”.
This does away with the idea that Uke is a mere stooge, operating with dumb passivity; a punchbag for Tori to work his magic on.
This is why in Wado the oft-used platitude of ‘Karate Ni Sente Nashi’ (‘there is no first attack in karate’) becomes meaningless to us. It has uses and meaning to the Okinawan branches of karate, but in Wado it is a retrograde method. Japanese Budo has a more refined approach to cognitive reality, completely at odds with the morally ‘safe’ perspective of Okinawan pragmatism. The Okinawan moral standpoint is secure and (for them) unquestionable, but for me it is philosophically unadventurous.
The root of these contradictions is not unique to Wado. Many examples can be found in the older Japanese Budo.
Koryu practitioner and author Ellis Amdur describes the contradictions found within the Itto Ryu school of swordsmanship; specifically, the technique Kiriotoshi (dropping cut) “in which two swords cut along exactly the same path…”.
Amdur makes no bones about it, “Kiriotoshi accomplishes the seemingly impossible – apparently defying Newtonian physics. At the moment of impact, with two objects – swords – occupying the same space. One ‘passes through’ the other. This is the product of one individual who is striking with a sword meeting another who ‘is’ a sword. Literally, the sword and body are one entity.” .
It is sad that some of the most valuable aspects of paired kata get lost in the weeds. In this case the ‘weeds’ are the positional minutiae; where this foot goes, or that hand goes – all of which are important of course, but it is a mistake to think that this is all there is to it. If your objective is doing it faster, harder and stronger, and making great shapes, then eventually you would meet your ceiling, as many do. And to assuage their deep-seated and largely subconscious worries that maybe that is all there is to it, they might feel inclined to just pile on more paired kata and kid themselves that this is progress – when all along all that’s needed is adherence to core sets of principles. It is these same sets of principles that become the fertile ground from which an unlimited range of technical options spring. Get them right and it becomes truly effortless (or so I am told).
Working with principles is like jazz musicians riffing on a theme and exploring each appropriate path of musical possibilities, always in step, even as new options unfold, beyond thought, beyond artifice; the music is almost a power outside of them.
I am tempted to appropriate a quote from the great jazz trumpet genius Miles Davis and apply it to options thrown up within paired kata; that is, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong”.
For me, the spirit of that quote works well with the politics of paired kata.
 I lay no claim to being an expert in the field of physics; please don’t bombard me with harsh and incomprehensible brickbats. I am only an amateur.
 Ellis Amdur, ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ 2000 edition.
Featured image; Tim Shaw and Martijn Schelen working on Tanto Dori.
In this two-part blog post I want to suggest different ways of looking at our paired kata; whether that is kihon gumite, kumite gata, ura no kumite or ohyo gata.
Decades ago, a well-known western martial artist and writer had a chance to observe Otsuka Hironori, the original grandmaster first hand. The writer was from a different martial arts background not a Wado stylist. He wrote at the time that the ‘real’ kata of Wado Ryu were the paired kata. To my mind, either he was being deliberately provocative or he only assumed everyone would look at the context of kata exclusively in solo performance and neglected to draw connections between Wado solo kata and Wado paired kata.
To him the paired kata were clearer and more accessible. It is understandable in a way; particularly when you see what solo kata is currently evolving into, through the athleticism and drama of Olympic sports karate kata.
I am fairly sure that regular readers of this blog don’t need to be reminded of the root origin of the Wado paired kata . These were never intended to be just sets of shallow two-man drills; they were meant to be understood and practiced as repositories of knowledge, containing layers of information in various forms.
It is these very same forms I want to speculate on in this two-part post.
Why did I refer to it as ‘The Politics of Paired Kata’?
When I am teaching paired kata I often explain what’s going on by referring to, “the politics of kihon gumite (or kumite gata etc)”. However, for the sake of simplicity ‘kihon gumite’ is one of the most convenient examples because it often contains the more complex but overt examples of ebb and flow and interchange that will perhaps support my argument.
Bear with me on this. Put simply; it is said that whenever you get two people in a room, politics is always playing out. For anyone with a keen eye its manifestation is obvious and subtle at the same time. Formal greetings, posture, position, proximity, eye contact and possibly small-talk which may lead on to serious discussion or even disagreement are all there to be observed.
There are rules at play, it’s all ‘political’ (with a small ‘p’). Add to that social niceties, protocols and good manners; everyone plays by the rules, you have to, because these same rules oil the wheels of society. Some might say that rules constrain us, tie our hands, and maybe they can become overly stifling – for example Japanese social rules are much more regimented than western European ones are.
The expectation is that all parties agree to follow the rules.
Rules are important.
As an example:
Imagine you are going to teach someone to play chess. They ask you what the objective of the game is? Your reply, “Simple… Your job is to take my king”. To which they then reach across the table and snatch your king off the board, hold it aloft and say, “I win!” By doing such a thing they achieve the logical objective (initially outlined by you) but the complex rules of the game in its entirety facilitate an opening up of amazing mental gymnastics and seemingly endless possibilities. So it is with paired kata.
In kihon gumite you have tightly prescribed roles with attached responsibilities. That is really your starting point. You know the rules – now live up to them and doors will open…or not.
What can go wrong.
Here are two examples of the rules falling apart in Wado paired kata; one more dramatic than the other, but in their own way quite revealing.
The first one is on a grading somewhere in the East Midlands around 1976.
Two girls were taking a kyu grading in front of Suzuki Sensei. Everything went really well until it came time for the paired kata; Suzuki Sensei’s three step kata, sanbon gumite.
One of the girls (the attacker) thought the punch should have been to jodan, but the defender, for reasons known only to her, blocked low; the result was that she took a full contact punch in the face. There was a lot of blood. The girl who delivered the punch was mortified that she had inflicted such damage, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry”, she spluttered, clearly distressed and powerless to do anything about it.
Suzuki Sensei sat at the table initially impassive, and then he stood up and railed at the girl for apologising! “Why are you apologising?” “it’s not your fault; it’s her fault!” he yelled, gesticulating at the girl with the bleeding mouth and nose.
Eventually, the club instructor stepped in and cleared the situation up.
It’s clear, if you operate outside of the agreed rules (deliberately or accidentally) all the wheels will come off.
The second example is not so catastrophic but it didn’t make it any less significant and, in this case, annoying.
For this one, I can guess that all of us have come across it – and, for that to be true, many of us will automatically have been the perpetrators of this particular crime… (but will never own up to it).
The crime is, being guilty of delivering a lousy attack.
The first time I came across this in paired kata was during the practice of Suzuki-ha sanbon keri uke (usually the last kick). Uke, knowing his kick was going to be swept aside, would stupidly and obligingly aim off target and swing it across himself! Deliberately off-line, meaningless, counter-productive… pointless; a parody. Nobody gains anything.
There are so many forms of this criminal disregard for protocol.
A friend of mine, a very able senior Dan grade (from one of the other organisations) told me how he came across a variation of this on a major course.
During the practice of kihon gumite with another Dan grade, (who really should have known better), he had to face an attack that in reality would have never made the distance. Instead of just going through the motions and obligingly allowing this pantomime to play out, my friend just stayed where he was, and as the attack fell short, he said, “What are you doing?” It is not really a polite response, but I would challenge anyone in the same situation to have behaved differently.
All of these are examples of the contract being broken.
I will discuss ‘the contract’ and other aspects in part 2.
 Because of Otsuka Sensei’s background in traditional Japanese Budo (he began his Jujutsu training under the age of eight and continued all the way through his twenties) he understood the long-established teaching method of paired kata, both armed and unarmed. He knew that as a vehicle for transmission this methodology had considerable value, particularly if the intention was to impart layers of established strategy, technique and wisdom. The kata were codified reflections of refined wisdom and the purest form of Principle (Ri) and not intended to be pure embodiments of refined, spontaneous active and living ‘Ri’. As such they were classified as ‘Ji’. (reflections, exemplars, models to reveal how ‘Ri’ manifests itself).
Featured image; Tim Shaw with Sugasawa Sensei explaining kihon gumite in 2017.
About two years ago, by complete accident, I discovered the work and philosophy of Israeli movement guru Ido Portal. I have found him a source of inspiration ever since, particularly through working on my own training during the lock-downs.
I know the concept of ‘movement culture’ has been around for a long time, but the work of Ido Portal and others has put it on a different level, with a newer definition.
Normally, human movement has been focussed on specific aims, ultimately leading towards success in such things as sports, dance or martial arts. As martial artists, working with our bodies is what we do and movement for movement’s sake would seem like a preposterous idea.
We martial artists are surely supposed to be aiming to be specialists; but here’s the news; Ido Portal hates specialists! (more of that later).
If you search YouTube for ‘Ido Portal’ the first thing you’ll find is that Ido can do things that most people can only dream of. Part gymnast, part acrobat, part dancer and… dare I say it… part martial artist. However, I suspect that not many people will get past the twirls, spins, one-armed handstand balances and lizard crawls; it is truly amazing, it’s Ido’s shopfront.
But in a way it’s all confectionary; it’s a distraction; even Ido himself admits as much; he openly dislikes the fact that this is how people view him, and how this side of his work is like catnip to exhibitionists and extroverts. He wants people to look beyond – and for martial artists this is where the really valuable stuff is.
But then for us as martial artists, this is where we encounter the second hurdle to get over.
Ido Portal and Conor McGregor.
His media output trumpets another aspect of the Ido magic. Wasn’t this the same Ido Portal who UFC fighter Conor McGregor worked with to prepare for his fight with Jose Aldo? (The one in which McGregor took the much-favoured Aldo out after only three punches had been thrown). Yes it was.
Oddly, Ido took some flak for that, but only from people who didn’t understand his ideas. The rather conservative UFC community poured scorn on Ido’s training methods and snorted disdainfully that Ido and Conor in their training had been playing, “touch butt in the park”. How wrong they were.
Look beyond the McGregor thing; listen to some well-informed detailed interviews with Ido. I can recommend the ‘London Real’ mini documentary on Ido Portal by Brian Rose called ‘Just Move’. It’s a good place to start. Also, the Coach Micah B Interview with Ido Portal ‘Touch Butt in the Park’. Micah, as a martial artist, asks a lot of the questions that intelligent martial artists would ask.
Origins and development.
As you look into his backgrounds and the beginnings of his developing ideas you will see that it really started for him within the Brazilian art of Capoeira. Ido was clearly looking to go beyond and dig deep into the study of movement. In a way he seemed to me to embrace the magic and methodology that Elon Musk brought to the examination of technology. Musk’s secret ingredient, borrowed from Scientific ideas, is called ‘First Principle Thinking’, and Ido Portal did almost the same thing, going right back to the very source of human movement. Ido Portal studied hard, both through theory and practice and travelled all over the world (If you want to look at some of his sources, you wouldn’t go far wrong reading up or watching videos about coach Christopher Sommers).
Ido’s opinions on ‘specialists’.
What is it that Ido Portal does not like about specialists? This, surely puts all martial artist in the firing line?
To him a specialist is, by definition, a physically limited individual, who within their narrowed field ends up painting themselves into a corner. They are not developing the fuller scope of what their body is capable of, they are wilfully limiting themselves and existing within their own physical echo-chamber.
The good news is that the solution comes in many flavours, and ones which we would not find wholly unpalatable.
Firstly ‘learn to fail’. It is a truism that the zone of failure is the zone of growth. Traditional Chinese martial artists make much of the phrase ‘invest in loss’, this is another branch of the main idea. Not to get too poetical about it, but to grow we must dance the line between order and chaos (credit to J. B. Peterson for that one).
Ido is mischievous in his attitude towards the specialist. The reality is that from his perspective the fully moving, exploratory approach has to either come first or, as with McGregor, become a part of the overall training regime.
Some disciplines/specialisms from Ido’s viewpoint show very specific weaknesses. For example, Yoga he says, has no hangs, no suspension and ‘held’ positions are deemed paramount to the practice; Ido thinks that this is counter-intuitive.
‘Expertise in only one area sets up an habitualised body’, from Ido’s perspective the body is designed to take strain from all directions. This is not to say that we cannot work towards efficient body movement; this is what we try and promote within Wado. We also know that there are such things as movements which create bio-mechanical weaknesses; knees and backs pay the price of injudicious movements; but we also know that we should be looking to explore our fullest ranges of movement.
This is why Ido Portal despises the title of ‘guru’, he is not a ‘guru’. He very much believes that anyone on such a personalised quest must have agency and take responsibility for their own development. He says that nobody should hand over the keys of accountability to another person – own it!
This chimes with my own thinking. Sometimes I meet people who are able to recognise something of quality but are unwilling to put in the work, or believe that the magic only happens when Sensei is in the room; another way of abrogating the responsibility away from the individual; a ‘get out’ card.
Having said that, Ido believes that if ever you meet a real master you must seize what is offered with both hands.
Listen to the wisdom of your own body.
I know I have written about this before; specifically, in the context of the older martial artist; relating to a kinder, balanced approach to your workload; knowing when to allow your body recovery time.
Ido Portal actually suggests two negatives to be aware of. The first being this same error of injudiciously punishing your body and foolishly accumulating long-term damage.
Once, in conversation with a Japanese Wado Sensei (who no longer lives in the UK), over his pint he lamented the training methods we were put through in the 1970’s and 1980’s, “The body can’t take that amount of punishment for long, eventually it will catch up on you” he said shaking his head.
Ido Portal’s second negative is not enough movement. This is an even bigger problem, mainly because it is so insidious and difficult to guard against, it sneaks up on you and you are just not aware of it. This recent lock-down experience for many has let the devil down the chimney. It’s so easy to let atrophy set in, and the damage is done and you won’t even know it until it’s too late, and even then you will probably let the real thief off the hook and blame something else, ‘Oh, it’s my age’, ‘Oh, it’s my underlying conditions, my genetic disposition’ etc, etc, and so the list goes on. Ido really does believe that ‘motion is the only lotion’.
Basic beneficial practice that anyone can do.
Ido Portal strongly recommends two exercises that if built up over time can have surprisingly positive effects.
Firstly; just squatting on your haunches; it’s actually what we were built for and we robbed ourselves of the benefits by inventing chairs. Thirty minutes every day, and not even thirty consecutive minutes, five minutes here, five minutes there is enough. The positive effects on this will be a beneficial manipulation of the back and pelvis, as well as the knees and ankles. There are additional bonuses which impact on digestion.
The second exercise asks a little more in terms of equipment or situation, and this is just hanging from a bar; no pull-ups, just stretched out and extended. There are so many benefits including counteracting the accumulated effects of gravity on your structure. In both exercises we are actively (or passively) working around gravity.
Why failure can be a positive thing.
Although failure can sometimes be a crushing experience, there is so much to be gained from exploring the zone of failure. Often, we find that failing to do something encourages growth (as the Stoics said, it’s the attitude we chose to adopt after failure that tends to chew away at us – and it is a choice).
Ido worships at the shrine of failure.
A typical Ido Portal ‘failure’ challenge.
This involves taking a tennis ball, throwing it against a wall and trying and return it with your fist; see how many times you can knock it backwards and forwards. It’s not impossible, just challenging, and you will fail over and over again.
Eventually you will experience some success and may even get good at it, but, if you reach that point, you may as well stop, because the objective is not to get good at it; the objective is to explore that zone of challenge and failure. That one practice teaches you so much about your body; about adjustments, coordination, control, spatial awareness, footwork and a whole host of other things, and also teaching you something about yourself and your mental attitude towards challenge. It is essentially a growth experience and we as human beings should be engaging such experiences both physically and intellectually.
Conor McGregor was a smart man in engaging the services of Ido Portal. Short snippets of the training practices show how eager McGregor was to take on board Ido’s ideas; commentators and opponents said that it was clear that his style of movement changed.
Ido Portal’s journey from martial arts to pure movement is an excellent exemplar of the evolution of human ideas manifested through the physical mode. This is high-brow physicality, and to my mind it is not at odds with the more sophisticated martial arts; specifically, where there is such a high demand for self-knowledge and body awareness.
Ido Portal, Image credit; London Real, Brian Rose.
Apparently, sales of books about Stoicism have rocketed during the pandemic. Why would there be a surge in interest about a school of ancient philosophy which is over 2000 years old?
Maybe, because one of the specific skill-sets associated with the Stoics is dealing with adversity; which is exactly why the Stoics may well have something to offer martial artists.
It is strange how the word ‘Stoic’ is used today. When you hear of anyone described as behaving stoically, it usually suggests that they are putting up with bad experiences or bad times in an uncomplaining way, or displaying zero emotion, or perhaps indifference to pain, grief (or even happiness). This is a little misleading and over-simplistic, and on its own, not particularly useful.
For anyone who has not heard of Stoicism before, a potted history may be necessary.
Stoicism is a school of philosophy originating in ancient Greece and enthusiastically embraced by key individuals in the later Roman Empire. It was established in the 3rd century BCE by Zeno of Citium in the city of Athens. Its main themes were the search for wisdom, virtue and human perfection.
After the Greeks it was eagerly embraced in ancient Rome, first by Seneca (4BCE – 65CE) a writer, politician and philosopher who was heavily embroiled in the politics associated with emperors Claudius and Nero and miraculously escaping two death sentences. Seneca’s ‘Letters from a Stoic’ is one of my go-to reads, an amazingly modern sounding set of conversations coming out of the long-distant past.
Stoicism was then picked up by Epictetus (50CE – 135CE) an educated Greek slave who lived in Rome, but was later exiled to Greece. He left no direct writings, but had one faithful disciple, Arrian, who dutifully wrote everything down.
Perhaps one of the most famous and accessible of the Stoics was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121CE – 180CE). Anyone who has seen the movie ‘Gladiator’ may remember that Marcus Aurelius appeared in the very early part of the movie played by Richard Harris, and although he actually did die of unknown causes whilst on a military campaign at the age of 58, it was unlikely it was at the hands of his son and successor Commodus, as the movie suggests, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Marcus Aurelius was the last of the great and virtuous Roman emperors. Fortunately for us, he left behind a book, now titled, ‘Meditations’ and it is this book of Stoic wisdom that has been snapped up in the recent Covid year.
I had wondered if any modern martial artists had picked up on the Stoics? While there are a few online references, the tone very much suggested to me a misappropriation and over-simplified cherry picking; reminding me of how a particular disreputable 20th century fascist regime (who will not be mentioned) misappropriated and misunderstood the writings of Fredrich Nietzsche.
Yes, some of the writings of the Stoics seem to suggest a kind of toughness, but Stoicism is a bigger package, involving elements of compassion and love. This perceived ‘toughness’ emanates from the Stoics’ detailed dissection of human motivation and how we should respond to the trials of just living. What is really of value, matched against what is trivial and not worthy of our attention.
It is a very pragmatic, workable philosophy. I often wonder if boxer Mike Tyson may perhaps have been influenced by the Stoics when he said, “Everyone has a plan, ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” That might have come straight out of Marcus Aurelius’’ ‘Meditations’. He would have liked that.
There are many cross-overs between Stoicism and Buddhism, as well as Confucianism. It is a strange coincidence but scholars have pointed out that all of these great thinkers sprang up at almost exactly the same time in human history, but in places with no obvious geographical or cultural connections (Persia, India, China and Greco-Roman culture). Philosopher Karl Jaspers called it the ‘Axial Age’. The cross-overs are indeed uncanny, but I can’t help thinking that civilisations reached a particular pitch in their development which supplied the right nutrients for these philosophies to grow.
There is far too much on this theme for one blog post, but I will supply one example which is relevant to martial artists.
Stoicism is often referred to by modern behavioural psychotherapists, who tend to use a very close variation of this particular pattern of Stoic thinking.
(This comes from a recent podcast interview with psychotherapist Donald Robertson, information at the foot of this post.)
The ancient origin of this go back to a mischievous commentary engaged in by Socrates (considered to be one of the root thinkers of Stoicism) and dealing with the subject of managing adversity.
One day, Socrates said that he was incredibly disappointed with the way the heroes of Greek dramas coped with adverse situations, and that they’d nearly always got it wrong. His young companion asked him, ‘how so?’. Socrates then gave four pieces of advice on how to cope with bad situations.
- When bad stuff happens how do you know it won’t actually turn out for the better in the long run? To explain; maybe that job you didn’t get was not really for you and the next job is really the one that will launch you into a more positive future. Or, that girlfriend that you broke up with, actually did you a favour?
- If it already hurts, why voluntarily add on another layer of suffering by indulging in your own misery? (He’s not against regret or even grief, but if it goes on and on, then you are into another realm altogether, in the modern age it would probably described as clinical depression). Incidentally ‘venting’ is also of limited use; again, it can become habit forming.
- Although to you, in that moment, it is the end of the world; but in the grand scheme of things it may well be microscopic (depending on severity of course).
- Anger or freaking out may give you energy, but it actually inhibits clear rational thinking, which is actually the very thing you need to make yourself useful in a crisis. If it is your habit to fire up your adrenal glands to respond ‘positively’ then you’ve got it wrong. Over time, that particular habit will kill you. Some martial artists think that the fire of anger is useful, and train to artificially ‘switch it on’, – big mistake.
Of course, all of the above comes with a disclaimer; i.e. it depends on the situation and how extreme it is, not to put too fine a point on it, but, terminal is terminal, but even then, you still have choices. One of my heroes, Michel De Montaigne once said that the measure of a man is how he conducts himself when the ‘bucket is nearly empty’.
I recently re-read Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. He chimes clearly with the Stoics and supports their idea that even in the worst of situations, you still have choices, you still have control. You can choose how you want to view the situation and you can choose how you want to react to it; even resignation is a choice.
Now put that into a Covid scenario. What is really interesting is how people choose to respond to Covid.
What would the Stoics have made of our Covid days?
Well, for a start, it wouldn’t have been anything outside of their experience. Socrates experienced a catastrophic plague at the age of 38 while serving as an infantryman. Likewise, Marcus Aurelius had to deal with the deadly Antonine plague which started in 165 CE and finally blew itself out in 180CE, with an estimated death toll of between five and ten million, located within a relatively restricted area, all of this at a time when they had none of the tools we have. With the Antonine plague (which was probably Smallpox) there was a dramatic shift in social structure, because, like Covid, it was indiscriminate, but inevitably was the scourge of the poorer classes. Having said that, Marcus Aurelius had to rapidly promote people from the lower orders, even freeing slaves, to ensure the infrastructure was able to operate. This was a perfect opportunity for a Stoic emperor to show what he was made of. Very much the Stoic ideal of changing what you can change, and not obsessing about what you can’t.
Yes, the Stoics taught resilience and a deep examination of human affairs, take these examples from Marcus Aurelius:
“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears”. (Obviously this not necessarily about physical injury.)
“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life”.
And a particular favourite of mine and one to really ponder, “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing”. And this from a man who knew about combat, both individual and large scale.
My view; there is much to learn from the Stoics.
Mo Gawdat podcast, talking to Donald Robertson about psychotherapy and Stoicism (says ‘Part 2’, but it’s really Part 1). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8PH-DL5AI8
Featured image: A marble bust of Marcus Aurelius at the Musée Saint-Raymond, Toulouse, France. By Pierre-Selim – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18101954 (detail).
In this post I intend to take a cautious look at matters connected to the thorny subject of ‘Chi/Ki’ in the martial arts, with the intention of avoiding any landmines that normally seem to crop up when tiptoeing into this area.
Let me start by saying that I have always been sceptical about modalities and cure-all methodology, whether it is the Alexander technique, crystal healing, shiatsu or myofascial therapy. Most of them tend to look towards the science, and, whatever they are selling, they will bombard you with scientific proof through ‘evidence’ in books and on websites.
Personally, if a particular modality catches my attention I try to read up on both sides of the argument. A recent example being the trend towards all thing Fascia – the sheath-like material that sits just under your skin, and is seen in some quarters as almost an additional muscular system that has been anatomically ignored. Through reading up on the pro and anti arguments, I have a better understanding of what Fascia is, or crucially, what it isn’t.
But to return to my theme:
In recently re-reading a book which has been on my shelves for many years, I started thinking again about ‘Chi’ (Chinese) or ‘Ki’ (Japanese).
I am aware that this is sometimes seen as the touchstone for all kinds of charlatans and hucksters, and I have always approached it with a large dose of scepticism.
However, I have to admit that I have twice been under the needles of two separate acupuncturists, for two different conditions, and both times came out seemingly cured. But still, the sceptic in me continued to whisper in my ear; words like ‘placebo’ or, ‘the power of the mind’. I couldn’t keep silent; I asked one of the acupuncturists what he thought about ‘placebo’? He said, “They treat racehorses successfully with acupuncture, and a racehorse has no mental capacity for ‘placebo’”. What could I say? Good argument.
I am not going to try and explain Ki here; I’m not qualified, I can only give my personal take on it and what helps me to understand it as a phenomenon.
I could go into the area of how the word (character) is slotted into Japanese and Chinese language; it’s much more common than people realise, which in a way helps to demystify it, but again, I don’t have the qualifications; but it is a useful area of exploration.
I first came across it in the years I trained in Aikido. I was introduced to a practice called ‘the unbendable arm’; supposedly a utilisation and demonstration of the power of Ki that everyone could do. I even trained on a two-day course with Ki Society Aikido Sensei Wasyl Kolesnikov and found myself mesmerised with the set-piece demonstrations of the ‘power of Ki’.
Years later it was explained to me how some of this was achieved, and, at the time, I felt somewhat cheated. It seemed that most of it happened through well-disciplined and controlled organisation of the skeletal structure, muscles, tissue etc. In retrospect I think the reason I felt cheated was because it didn’t fit in with what I had constructed in my own mind – ‘the mysterious force of Ki’.
The realisation came to me that, although the explanation seemed disappointingly banal; the reality was that for this ‘organisation’ to happen it had to be firstly, highly trained and secondly, ‘energised’, a term which I found much more useful.
I think it is useful to recognise that the opposite of ‘energisation’ is ‘inertia’, being totally devoid of life, the antithesis of being.
The human body is fully energised and at so many levels. At a base level it is complicit with the phenomena of ‘homeostasis’, part of this means that our body fights hard to maintain its optimum temperature, so that it can function efficiently. A rise in ambient temperature will cause our inbuilt cooling system to kick in. A drop in the ambient temperature and our internal heating system comes into play. It’s all really clever stuff, all part of the autonomic nervous system, operating beneath our conscious control, like breathing, or heartbeat, or even blinking.
In death the body succumbs to the ambient temperature, which conspires in the body’s potential to surrender to its own very natural and inevitable return to the source. In the absence of life, the very things that kept it ticking turn against it, and so begins the very natural process of de-composition. The energy force has left the building!
At this point, let me expand on ‘energisation’, and for convenience and clarity abandon the words ‘Chi’ and ‘Ki’.
In traditional Chinese thought a newly born baby is thought of as a fully charged fizzing battery – totally topped up with what is referred to as ‘Pre-Natal energy’. It needs this raw power and strength because of what it has to go through in its initial growing years; physical development, cellular growth, development of the immune system, as well as the rough and tumble of just… living.
The theory is that over time the pre-natal energy dissipates; it gets put upon and is gradually used up to the point where it becomes a shadow of its former self. Hence, it needs topping up, given a boost. The energy which the body is able to draw upon to resolve this problem is referred to as ‘Post-Natal Energy’. What is interesting about these forms of energy (or, we might describe them as ‘nourishment’) is that pre-natal energy is an inheritance, almost a given, without a second thought; while with post-natal energy it is your responsibility to top it up, to nurture and culture it in a very deliberate way. Of course, you could leave this to chance and hope that however you decide to run your life you will just kind of fall into step and automatically do the right thing; this is really what most people actually do. But, it’s not a great plan, given how much is at stake.
So how do you top-up and develop your post-natal energy?
I really don’t have the answers; I have heard a number of variations and theories. Some of them just seem like common-sense measures, which are part natural impulses and part lifestyle choices.
To my mind it boils down to these contributing factors:
- Establishing a balanced lifestyle through the correct measures of rest (recuperation) and healthy vigorous activity.
- Nourishment (a balanced and healthy diet).
- Disciplined, conscious and cultured breathing methods.
- Psychological balance. Understanding yourself, your wants and needs and how you fit in with the world around you.
The reverse of this is to wantonly take an axe to your body’s inheritance and recklessly sabotage your own project. The common and most damaging elements tend to be:
- Inertia, ill-discipline and laziness.
- An intemperate lifestyle with chaotic and indulgent patterns of behaviour, including poor sleep patterns.
- Thoughtless consumption of unhealthy foods (particularly refined foods and sugar).
- Chaotic or damaging relationships which act as a drain on your energy and emotions and end up starving you of one of the most nourishing experiences of human existence; that is the joy of friendship, companionship and human intimacy.
- Allowing an unhealthy level of stress into your life with no strategy for understanding, processing or managing it; or even converting it into an empowering growth experience (you always have choices).
What about the actual use, the direct application of this energising force?
I would say that specifically in relationship to the martial arts, the best visual analogy I have come across is of a kite on a string.
The hand that holds the string is the ‘Mind’ or ‘Intent’, the impetus, the brain behind the action, the motivating force. The kite itself is the manifestation, the resulting action; but the string is the animating conduit, that is ‘energy’, that is Ki in operation. And that, in my opinion, is how your technique operates.
American Anglophile author Bill Bryson has done it again!
Here I have to admit, I am a big fan of Bryson’s earlier books and this one is very much in-line with his ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, the science book for geeks and science popularists everywhere.
This new book bombards you with facts and histories relating to what goes on in your insides (and outsides). One GP wrote recently that he wished all of his patients would read this book! It’s a whole ‘did-you-know’ compendium, enough to bore people at dinner parties (when we used to have dinner parties).
Each chapter supplies punchy, readable descriptions relating to every major organ in your body; plus, the skin, hair, eyes, nerves, circulatory system, the process of ageing, disease, the immune system and, the book is so new, a final short chapter on Covid-19.
But it is the wonder of the human body that you are left with, add to that its fragility and what modern living is doing to us. However, it is a balance of pessimism and optimism. Did you know that it has been proved that good friends and companions in later life actually prolongs your lifespan, as this factor among many protects the degradation of your DNA?
Other sections that come as surprises are things like gender differences and how just by being male (or female) impacts on your ability to survive.
Refreshingly, Bryson doesn’t shrink from stating that there are some things we just don’t know.
He enjoys telling us about medical pioneers and amateur nut-jobs who seem to stumble across new discoveries almost by accident, or succeed in killing themselves in the name of science.
Chapter 10; ‘On the Move: Bipedalism and Exercise’, is particularly relevant to anyone interested in human movement and the consequences of inactivity, counterbalanced against the positive effects of exercise. At several points in the book it becomes clear that the biggest obstacle to our ability to survive and thrive is actually ourselves – personally, I almost want to apologise to my liver! And, as for the heart; I will never take my heart for granted ever again. In reading this, it occurred to me that I have a real advantage being an identical twin, and that maybe, in an medical emergency, I might need my twin brother; or at least a part of him.
Bryson is no fan of the American health system, which just seems to be a total rip-off, and one that actually puts the population at significant risk. However, the UK health system is not exactly sitting pretty; as it is hopelessly underfunded in comparison to other services across the developed countries – but then we knew this, didn’t we.
I had to battle with my conscience to recommend and review this book as I know that ‘things medical’ have been on everyone’s mind recently; but it is better to be informed than live in ignorance.
Other recommended reading:
‘Gut: The inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ’ by Giulia Enders.
‘The Clever Guts Diet’ by Doctor Michael Mosely (not a ‘diet’ book really, but it will change how you eat).
Any book by Mary Roach, but particularly, ‘Stiff: The curious lives cadavers’ (don’t be put off).
‘Bonk: The curious coupling of sex and science’.
‘Gulp: Adventures on the alimentary canal’.
‘Six Feet Over: Adventures in the afterlife’ (ever wondered what happens after you die?).
Currently algorithms tend to be the fall-guys for all that is wrong in the world. People always leap towards the worst possible examples, like; would you every want a computer algorithm deciding who gets medical intervention, or is refused based on a calculated outcome? To some people algorithms ARE Skynet!
But, taken in the broadest definition we use some form of algorithm in many areas of life. In a nutshell it is ‘A’ leads to ‘B’, ‘B’ leads to ‘C’ or options branching off from any of the stages and it is really useful.
I ask this question in the context of martial arts because I have noticed a growth in algorithmic-style explanations of how some martial art systems work.
I can see the appeal of algorithms; they are accessible, predictable, understandable and communicable, all excellent things for a martial arts system to aspire to – the only weakness I see in terms of martial arts is that it’s really hard to make them measurable; but that’s for another discussion.
Building an algorithmic martial arts system is what you would do if you only had a very short period of time to prepare someone. A simplified system, stripped down, discarding all the inessentials (now where have we heard that before?). Four or five techniques repeated over and over until they are excellent would do the job. There are a number of obvious downsides to this; one being that its marketability is undermined by the boredom factor and the irony is that the ‘stripped down’ system has to build in greater complexity to make it interesting (more funky takedowns, armbars, gooseneck wrist locks etc.), and it turns into the one thing it was trying hard not to be.
In a way this follows on from a previous blogpost I had written; ‘Is your martial art complicated or complex?’
There are alternative approaches, but it depends on what your aspirations are – in fact it depends on a whole raft of things, including, how much time do you have available to invest in this? Where do your priorities lie in terms of what you want out of your martial art training? What system suits you both physically and mentally? (No, they are not all the same).
Something that is close to an algorithmic approach might be akin to taking a course in CPR or First Aid. In that instance you might be motivated by the worry of how you might be able to cope if you were unfortunate to arrive on the scene of an accident; would you be able to do the right thing? Lives might be at risk.
But let’s say you really wanted to dig deeper into this area, really wanted to become actively and positively involved in the saving of lives and human physical welfare. Surely then, if you had the opportunity and the inclination to do so you would study medicine? To do so would be to plunge deeply into what lies beneath the skin; even to looking at what operates at cellular level, with all the hours of dedication and years’ work that this involves. And for that to happen (as with all complexities) you have to go backwards before you go forwards, you have to turn over everything you thought you knew. In reality, this is a description of martial arts as a ‘Way’, a non-algorithmic ‘complex’ system; this is Budo.
Why would you want to put yourself through the long painful slog of a Budo system, one that is so arduous that you feel you are moving backwards instead of forwards, one where you are actually significantly weaker, structurally confused, coordinationally muddled and intellectually perplexed; in other words, not all that dissimilar to a first year medical student. Why would you do it?
To be clear; martial arts and everything associated with it is a physical conundrum that is engaged in by humans, not robots; fighting is not mechanistic, it is organic, it is a ‘complex system’. It is like swimming in the ocean, it’s not a two metre paddling pool.
A question that is often asked; just how do you engage with martial arts as a complexity; how does it actually work? I will have to be honest here; to answer that question I feel I really don’t have the qualifications, but I might offer some pointers. There are definitely guiding concepts that act like a map to keep you on the right road. But make no bones about it; knowing the concepts only in your head is about as useful as land swimming; this has to be done by the body and in as live a situation as is possible, while still remaining within civilised constraints of course.
To explain further:
The ‘complex’ martial art system differs from the algorithmic approach the same way that the chess computer AlphaZero was from its nearest rival Stockfish 8. For Stockfish all possible chess combinations were programmed in manually, while AlphaZero only learned the rules of chess (it took a mere 4 hours), AlphaZero then played itself through a phenomenal number of games to build up its stock of possibilities. It subsequently played a challenge match against Stockfish 8 and in a 100 games it never lost a single one. AI people say this is how human intelligence works. I would argue that this is how the ‘complex’ martial artist works. In algorithmic martial arts it’s pretty clear that you have to slip between modes, a bit like changing gear, but with a ‘complex’ Budo martial arts you are always in gear, because it’s built around a fundamental integral core of Principles, this is the nucleus of what you do, everything spirals out from that point; anything else is just nuts and bolts; even the funky takedowns, the armbars and the gooseneck locks.
The bad news is that you don’t read this stuff in a book, you don’t see it on YouTube and, unless you’ve got the eyes to REALLY see what’s going on, you certainly won’t find it in a one-off seminar.
Postscript: As an afterthought, Budo, like Medicine is not solely about the visceral stuff, both disciplines are underpinned by ethical, philosophical and moral considerations (in medicine it is reflected in the Hippocratic Oath).
In our training as martial artists we are taught ‘disciplines’, but are we taught how to get in touch with our own bodies?
As part of this we may ask the question, how do instructors teach people to move? How do they help the students to have a conversation with their own bodies?
In a way students are encouraged to have a shouting match with their own bodies – like that very English thing of trying to make yourself understood to someone who doesn’t understand English by just raising the volume; our internal voice is yelling at our bodies and the body just stands there literally dumbstruck.
Often the student wholeheartedly and with good grace buys into the whole teaching method associated with their system, with the assumption that everyone learns that way, it works for them, it will work for me, because I am supposed to have faith in the system… aren’t I?
The answer is, ‘no’, ‘no’ and ‘no’.
What should be happening is that a good teacher supplies doorways and access points for each individual student, because they are ‘individuals’.
However, we make an assumption that you know your own body, but this is far from the truth. ‘We know our own body like we know our own mind’, again, a false assumption. In the case of the mind, psychologists will tell you that you have much to gain from standing back and examining your own motives, noticing the times you lie to others, but more importantly, when you lie to yourself. ‘Tough Love’ administered to your own thoughts and motivation mechanisms is hard to do.
It’s the same with the body. You are only vaguely aware of your own somatic bad habits (unless someone points them out to you, like a well-meaning and observant instructor).
For example, problems with your posture, which then become the root cause of other problems, or when one muscle kicks in to take the load for another muscle, that should be taking the main load itself. Now, why is that muscle not doing its job? It might be transferring the strain from an area that is carrying a chronic weakness, an old injury, maybe one you are not even aware of! Consciously or unconsciously you protect the weakness as an ingrained habit and it’s not always in your interests to do so. Without expert advice you could well cause that part to become atrophied through under-work, thus compounding the problem.
On top of this, the human physical framework is a complicated system, and, as with all such complicated systems, you can’t move or adjust one part without it having an effect in other places, often the whole structure has to kick in to compensate for one small movement. I heard it said that even the action of raising a single eyelid has a micro-effect on the whole body.
However, you have to cope with one key reality – the body is a bodger!
The dictionary defines a ‘Bodger’ as, ‘A person who makes or repairs something badly or clumsily.’.
When an injury occurs the body goes into emergency mode and executes a short-term fix, enough to get you out of trouble, only ever meant to be a temporary thing, Nature has designed us through survival to work this way. When we hurt our foot we take the pressure off that side of the body and transfer it across to the other side resulting in a limp. That weight transfer throws the hip and back alignment out, and if it remains in that state a chronic problem sets in.
Millions of years of evolution has resulted in this, but even then there are contradictions.
I was having a conversation with my dentist, during which I happened to say that human teeth were a lousy design, I think at the back of my mind I was reminded that when a shark breaks a tooth off a new one grows back. His answer surprised me, he said, “You are not designed to live this long, that’s why your teeth are letting you down”. A depressing thought, made even worse by what he followed it up with, he said, “as far as evolution is concerned it doesn’t care about you beyond a certain age, you are surplus to demand. Your job is to breed and then die, that’s it”.
I must have walked out of the dentists lighter in pocket, numbed in the mouth and depressed about my fragile place in the world.
I am reminded about an energetic debate I saw regarding ‘Intelligent Design’, one person said that the human body was the pinnacle of God’s design process, to which his opponent replied, “I only have three words to say to that… The Prostate Gland”. I expect most men are aware of the preposterousness of the positioning of that particular doughnut shaped gland, hardly ‘intelligent’! I won’t dwell on that particular thought, but I will leave it there for men to contemplate their own prostate and women to be puzzled.
After writing the initial ‘Use it or Lose it’ blogpost and listening to feedback, I realised there was more scope for exploration.
Right at the start I must say that I don’t hold myself up as an expert in this field, and I only have the layman’s understanding of the science behind the subject; so, as is often the case, all we are left with is opinion.
I will start by stating the very obvious; but it is useful to have these things nailed down to establish some kind of context, or framework.
It is clear that all living organisms have a limited shelf-life, and within that allotted time (which is in no way guaranteed) there is likely to be a physical peak which we as humans (hopefully) climb towards, this is sometimes referred to as our ‘prime’, and then we have to resign ourselves towards a steady slide into decline. It’s sad, but it has to be said.
What has always been of interest to me is how we manage this particular ‘allotted time’, specifically relating to our physicality. Do we stumble into an uncertain future and hope that our bodies follow some kind of unwritten innate game plan? Or should we perhaps be more proactive and realistic about how we want to develop and mature?
As I mentioned in the first blogpost, we are designed for movement; we are very good at it, well at least we start out being very good at it. Eventually, throughout our early development we emerge at the top of a very steep learning curve. Young children learn about movement through an amazing capacity to bounce back from failure and pure trial and error, while still remaining emotionally resilient they cope with adversity amazingly well, full of optimism and a ‘can-do’ attitude. If you think about it, it’s truly inspirational.
We all did it; we rode on the crest of a wave… and then the wave dropped flat and we descended into habitual modes of movement; for example; it’s much cooler to walk instead of run; take the lift rather than the stairs – there’s too much effort required to do otherwise, it’s a much smarter way of operating; or so we tell ourselves.
What happens to our youthful selves?
While still in the flush of youth we are corralled into institutionalised physical activity in schools, with one-size-fits-all P.E. lessons. For some people it worked; for the majority the wind was taken out of their sails and they had to navigate rules and regulations, militarised team structures, pecking orders, triumphs for a minority and potential humiliation for everyone else, and then, to add to the misery, a sizable majority found their ship colliding with the rocky coastline of puberty and body awareness of the most negative kind (particularly, though not exclusively, girls). The P.E. teachers I have met are always well-intentioned and very good at defending their corner of the curriculum; with talk of ‘team work’ and ‘life’s competitive realities’, they believe they supply a partial antidote to the snowflake generation. More progressive P.E. educationalists have tried to rethink what is essentially a 19th century mind-set but it’s like swimming against the tide.
But what happened to ‘play’? It always intrigued me how, in school gymnasiums and on sports fields the word ‘play’ (as in its most refined form) became redundant or even sneered at; unless, of course, it was used as a command.
Playfulness, the most valuable thing in children’s early development (of both mind and body) has been left behind. To ‘play’ is to explore. In its purest form it exists unashamedly in only a few disciplines.
Without apology or pretensions, musicians ‘play’, and when they get together they are inclined to indulge in ‘free play’, they might call it ‘jamming’ or free improvisation, a common thing with most musicians, particularly in jazz, but it’s still ‘play’ in the original meaning of the word. What is interesting about these musicians is that their freedom to play tends to come after a period of intense discipline, a prolonged apprenticeship. In the visual arts Picasso is supposed to have said something to the effect that you need to learn the rules well before you are allowed to break them. This does not mean it is the only path to the top of the mountain; some of the greatest musicians or visual artists achieved amazing expressive work without formal training, intuitively through play, unconstrained by boundaries.
Israeli movement guru Ido Portal holds ‘play’ as central to his system. He has developed some interesting practices to explore movement as a mode of personal discovery and development. One of his methods is to punch a tennis ball against a wall, to see how many times you can return the ball with just your fists; of course everyone fails horribly, but for Portal that is the point. Really the aim is not to get good at returning the ball, because as soon as you get ‘good’ at it, the benefit has gone; the cutting edge of exploration has disappeared. This is very similar to Jordan Peterson’s demarcation of the line between chaos and order (See blog post) you engage freely and willingly with chaos. As soon as we start to think this way we are in the zone of real learning.
The body needs to experience significant challenges through movement if we are to explore our fuller potential; but not in a damaging, reckless way. But beware of what your body is telling you, it is too easy to get boxed in by habitual patterns, to slump into a chair and tell ourselves we are being kind to our body, when the truth is the complete opposite.
A Pilates teacher confided in me that she observes how people get in and out of a chair; she says it tells her so much about their physical condition. After hearing this I became quite self-conscious and started observing more closely how I moved, which parts of my body were taking the strain, or rather not taking the strain when they should. Very young children use their knees when standing up; their body movements are instinctive, uncultured yes, but natural.
It’s similar with animals; I would challenge anyone not to be in awe of the movements of both hunter and prey caught on documentary films of big cats in action.
It is a truism that you really only appreciate something when it’s gone. From my observations young people take their mobility for granted; they seem to assume that it will stay with them throughout their lives, despite observing the opposite in members of the older generation.
People in the second halves of their lives tend to have a more uneasy relationship with their bodies; after a while the wear and tear begins to make it mark. It’s a complex subject but don’t believe everything you hear; sports people don’t necessarily reap the benefit of a lifetime of activity. For example; statistics seem to indicate that people who are long term and active sportsmen/women seem to go to the doctors less often. The assumption being that they are more healthy because of their sporting activities; this is not the full picture. Further research says that they may reap some specific benefits, but in their sporting lives they have also accumulated more reference points to pain and how to manage it. Put simply, they suffer pain as much as everyone else, but they just learn to put up with it.
Part of the answer is to know your own body, be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses and don’t be afraid to take advice from the experts. I know there are a lot of ‘modalities’ out there, many offering miraculous results and claiming to have the evidence, but do your own research, look at the counter arguments, and, if you have the time, look towards the science. Figure out what works for you.
My conclusions to all this (bear in mind this is advice I direct towards myself):
- Don’t take your body for granted.
- Embrace movement in all its forms, even if it is outside of your usual discipline/comfort zone.
- Enjoy movement; engage with the idea of ‘play’.
- Recognise the opportunities created by chaos.
- Learn to have an open curiosity to all forms of human movement, whether it’s dance, gymnastics, or balancing and acrobatics.
- Look towards your own habitual ways of moving, and if you don’t like what you see, change it.
- Decline isn’t inevitable; everything is under your control. If you are smart you can stack the odds in your favour by making good lifestyle choices.
- Turn human movement into a study, but don’t accept everything at face value.
- Be wary of ‘modalities’ in the same way you would be wary of ‘Big Pharma’, after all, it’s just business.
- Look towards functionality rather than vanity.
Here is quote from Fred Turok chairman of ukactive from 2014,
“By 2020, the average Brit will be so sedentary that they will use only 25 per cent more energy than if they spent the whole day sleeping… Over the last 50 years in the UK, physical activity levels have declined by 20 per cent. Even worse, they are projected to decline by a further 15 per cent by 2030.” And here we are, in 2020 (but maybe not the 2020 that Fred Turok envisioned) and have we sunk to the levels that Turok predicted?
Despite the fact that evolution has designed us for movement technology has relentlessly moved us step by step towards a utopia we shouldn’t really be aspiring to; a future of avoiding movement.
For example; we travel short distances and long distances in motorised armchairs; we seldom make our own entertainment any more, we sit back and let other people do it for us. The argument has been that ‘labour-saving’ devices have freed us from domestic drudgery; but what do we do with that freedom? We ‘rest’, but ‘rest’ from what?
Essentially we have made terrific inroads into NOT using our bodies.
If we look at the longest timeline of human existence, the vast majority of it had movement as part of its vital make-up. This is movement for survival as hunter-gatherers; movement for warfare, movement in migration and movement in rituals and dance and other creative activities.
Maybe there is some good news – but it’s mixed.
It could be said that a kind of counter-culture has been around for a very long time. The so-called ‘fitness industry’ has been in existence in one form or another since the days of the ancient civilisations, but interestingly physical culture for its own sake was mostly available to only a limited range of people. The list included; the wealthy, with leisure time available, and the young. Looking at the price of modern gym membership and who the advertising is pitched at, not much seems to have changed.
We are now being told that poor diet and obesity is a national problem (particularly in the light of developing information about Covid-19). It is an interesting observation that for the first time in many thousands of years, the rich get thinner while to poor get fatter; what a turn-around that is.
But there are other contradictions here:
I see online ads for gyms full of people engaging in what I’m sure they consider as low-tech training methods; tractor tires are rolled, turned over and hit with sledge hammers, sometimes happening in converted industrial units – oh the irony. I wonder what my grandfathers would have thought about that?
My paternal grandfather’s job was described as being a ‘hewer’ or a ‘ripper’ which Wikipedia describes as, “men who remove the rock above the coal seam and set rings (arches) to raise the height of the gate or road as the coal face advances”. I never knew him; he was killed in a roof collapse at the age of 48 in 1935. My maternal great grandfather was a railway navvy (navigator) and a bare knuckle fighter; he dug tunnels, extending the London Underground network in the 1880’s. Both of these would probably have been amused beyond imagination at the sight of people sweating and grunting with tractor tires and ‘battle’ ropes, (snort!) and paying for the privilege! Pumping iron in ex-industrial units where men used to ‘pump iron’ for real. I’m sorry to say it but, this is satire beyond satire.
My physio says he loves these people who ‘play with’ tractor tires; saying that they keep him in business. I quote, “Here are people who in their daily lives never pick up anything heavier than a pen – nobody teaches them proper lifting techniques, nobody thinks to start them off on smaller tires and they wonder why their back has gone out! They keep me in business. Give them my card”.
‘Boot camp’ training often has the same problem; the assumption being that training that is designed for indestructible 17 year old recruits is going to work for flabby office workers, really?
Forgive my cynicism, but, despite all these advancements I wonder if we have over-complicated the issue. It is true that generally we are not moving enough, we are not engaging with our bodies or celebrating our own individual capacity for movement and hence not reaping the benefits. Fitness culture is too often conflated with vanity; certainly the Ad men would want us to believe that, it sells gym subscriptions and feeds off our insecurities.
But what about movement for movement’s sake, as when young children play, run and climb, or movement as part of human expression, as with dancers? And for the older person, there are immeasurable opportunities for engaging with movement, either through structured meaningful disciplines or just taking to your feet and indulging in the clean open air, in sunshine or foul weather and celebrating just being alive.
Random reading during lock-down lead me back to a theme that had interested me for some time. In the past I had picked up a number of books on the history of the martial arts in the west. (I will give a list at the end of this post if anyone is interested).
What always intrigued me was the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. I was particularly interested in the civilian arts, how they were developed, how they were taught and how they were commodified.
This is a complex story but I will give a couple of examples that surprised me, and sometimes amused me.
I learned that historically the English did what the English are always prone to doing, i.e. despising the foreigners and always holding themselves up as the best. If you are interested read up on George Silver, whose book ‘Paradoxes of Defence’ written in 1599 took a swipe at the cowardly foreigners use of the rapier to stab with the pointy end instead of the slashing action of the ‘noble’ English backsword. The Italians and the French bore the brunt of Silver’s ire and he aggressively sought to make his point stick – literally. He had a hatred for immigrant Italian fencing masters, particularly Rocco Bonetti and Vincentio Saviolo. He challenged Saviolo to a duel, but Saviolo failed to turn up, which caused George Silver to crow about his superiority to anyone who would listen.
Fast forward nearly 200 years and the fencing master is still in demand. There was a market for slick Italian and French ‘masters’. Many of them taught horsemanship and, surprisingly, dancing (thus proving an observation I made in an earlier blogpost; ‘a man who can’t dance has got no business fighting’). The demand did not come from the hoi polloi, the proles – no, it came from the aristocrats, and for good practical reasoning.
From the 16th century onwards the idea of the ‘Grand Tour’ was all the rage. Wealthy young bucks were sent abroad to widen their horizons and soak in the classical antiquities around Europe and the Mediterranean. Although there was some effort made to chaperone these entitled and indulged young men (almost exclusively men) there was an expectation of expanding not just their minds but their… worldliness. This often resulted in an awful lot of bad behaviour (see, one of my particular heroes, Lord George Gordon Byron, 6th Lord Byron). Unfortunately, quite a number of these heirs came significantly unstuck. Sometimes whole fortunes were lost through gambling, or they fell under a robber’s blade or some equally dastardly misfortune.
Hence preparation for the ‘Tour’ was deemed necessary, and not just preparation of the mind, but the skills of defence, and often of fighting dirty. It was here that masters like Bonetti, Saviolo and in the 18th century the wonderful Domenico Angelo (more of him later) came in. These masters were paid well to teach sword and rapier, left-handed dagger and, intriguingly, skills like ‘cloak and lantern’; put simply, the cloak was used for defence and sometimes ensnarement, and the directed light from the lantern was used to dazzle or temporarily blind an opponent to allow the use of the sword or left-handed dagger.
But to return to Domenico Angelo (1717 – 1802). Angelo was sponsored by the Earl of Pembroke and later the dowager Princess of Wales; this patronage did him huge favours and boosted his reputation enormously. He was astute enough to build a business from his arts and turn it into a dynasty, three generations of Angelo’s thrived in their property in Soho Square and other premises. Angelo was an excellent example of early marketing, publishing a fencing instruction book, L’École des armes”, in 1763. He is said to have single-handedly turned the art of war into sport and health promotion; where have we heard this before?
But it is the issue of publication that intrigues me. This dissemination of martial skills through whatever means possible had been around for hundreds of years. There are medieval European fencing manuals still in existence. These are pored over by enthusiasts, researched both intellectually and physically by obsessives who enjoy nothing better than swinging two-handed blades at each other in full armour – the medieval version of Fight Club.
The manuals served a number of purposes. Expert in the field John Clements proposed eight possible motives for the creation of these books, all of which have resonance with recent discussion regarding how we access and archive martial arts material in the 21st century:
- To preserve the instructor’s teachings.
- As a private study guide for selected students.
- As a primer or reminder for students when not in class.
- To impress nobles with their knowledge as a professional instructor in order to gain patronage.
- At the behest of an interested sovereign or aristocratic supporter of the art.
- To promote themselves and teachers of the craft and acquire new students.
- To publicly declare their skills or dispute the teachings of other masters.
- As a means of acquiring a pension through recognition or appreciation of years of service and dedication.
What motivated medieval masters and swords masters right up until recent times to publish and present is pretty much the same as it is now. If we look at Japanese martial arts a similar pattern can be seen.
From the ‘patronage’ perspective I will cite a few examples:
The Yagyu dynasty of swordsmen from the 17th century, sponsored by the Tokugawa clan.
The 20th century sponsorship of Ueshiba Morihei founder of Aikido by various well-connected individuals.
Also Funakoshi Gichin, who worked hard to establish karate on mainland Japan in the 1920’s, something he could not have done without courting the right kind of sponsorship.
In the far east books and ‘master texts’ on martial arts have a long history; whether it is the ‘Bubishi’ or ‘Karate-Do Kyohan’. But they are never all-encompassing; it has to be said that it’s a virtual impossibility to give the complete body of information through the printed or written medium.
In line with the above list these publications fall into various categories; crib books, catalogues, visual cues, or in the case of Koryu Densho, transmission scrolls with opaque lists meant to be decoded only by the initiated. What surprises me, in this age of digital curation, archiving and future-proofing is that the old technology of printed paper versions have held up so remarkably well.
Some martial arts are better supplied by these various types of repositories. If your fighting method is comprised of only a handful of techniques, as can be found in some military manuals, then all you need is a few diagrams and a basic description. But if your art is more refined, with nuances and subtleties it is impossible to put these across in anything other than face to face encounters. The founder of Wado Ryu karate Otsuka Hironori is said to have expressed his frustration with trying to put his ideas into printed form. As this extract from a 1986 interview with Horikawa Chieko, widow of Daito Ryu master Horikawa Kodo tells us;
“On one occasion… an expert in Wado-ryu karate by the name of Hironori Otsuka happened to visit the dojo. He and Horikawa got on quite well. He was a wonderful person, and very strict about technique. He was talking with Horikawa and he said, “I’ll never write a book either” for example, there are many ways to put out one’s hand, but in a book all that can be conveyed is the phrase “put out your hand”, which misses all the subtleties. Both he and Horikawa agreed that techniques cannot be expressed in books or in words.”*
This is a discussion that could go on and on, and it is clear that the market place hasn’t so much become crowded as to have almost decamped altogether to the online world, where clamoring voices and slick marketing compete for our attention, almost to the point of overload.
A debate as to how this could all work out in the 21st century, with the involvement of new technology, can be found in an excellent slim publication by Matt Stait and Kai Morgan called ‘Online Martial Arts. Evolution or Extinction’. Ironically available in printed form and download from Amazon.
*Pranin, Stanley, ‘Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu’ 1996.
‘By the Sword’ Richard Cohen 2002.
‘The English Master of Arms’, J. D. Aylward, 1956.
I was recently teaching and explaining the concept of ‘Irimi’ within Wado on a Zoom training session. This post is meant in part to reinforce and extend that particular lesson.
Taken simply ‘Irimi’ is a Japanese Budo term which means to enter into your opponent’s space in order to defeat them. I once heard someone describe it as a ‘mad dash in towards the centre’, a good image to hold on to.
The concept of Irimi has been a part of Japanese Budo, armed and unarmed for a very long time and is inextricably wrapped up in issues of timing, distance, rhythm and ‘Initiative’ (‘Sen’). The founder of Wado Ryu, Otsuka Hironori would have understood this concept from the very early days of his training.
In Aikido, the founder, Ueshiba Morihei, thought it so important that he made it one of the cornerstones of his art. Ueshiba had gained experience in the concept of Irimi at the very start of his martial journey, even as early as his short military career, where he learned the importance of the ‘mad dash towards the centre’ in hand to hand bayonet training. Developments of this bayonet training (Jukendo) remained part of his personal repertoire, and can be seen in the iconic 1935 Asahi Newspaper film shot when Ueshiba was in his physical prime at the age of 51.
Ueshiba Morihei in military clothing, with bayonet, photographed for Shin Budo magazine March 1942.
Sometimes Irimi is seen as a sidestep in towards the opponent; this can be quite misleading. A more meaningful and sophisticated way of using Irimi is to understand it as moving in deeply to occupy your opponent’s space – he wants to dominate and abide in that space; it’s his territory; the centre of his operation; his physical and psychological core. The laws of physics say that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time; so your job is to turn this particular law on its head – you conquer time and space; not through anything supernatural, but instead by an orchestration of superior judgement, the right timing, the right distance and the right cadence all working together with determination and commitment.
In Wado there are multiple opportunities to operate and sharped Irimi; it is part of our refined art, for example by creating narrow corridors of access through positioning and reading your opponent’s intent. For this you need sharpened perception (Kan) and an acute awareness of the ebb and flow (Kake Hiki), which is clearly a part of the formal kumite of Wado Ryu.
In my Zoom session I was teaching it specifically through the mechanics of Shuto Uke, starting with the slide into position and narrowing of the body to ‘sneak’ into the opponent’s centre. The body and the arm move in like a blade. If done correctly the point of contact becomes irresistible as the elbow of the blocking arm stymies the opponent’s attack without any harsh, angular clashing of force. This results in superior positioning and direct access into the opponent’s weak angle and the contact arm effortlessly slides into the inside line accessing the head/neck; all of this supported by kuzushi and together would have a devastating effect, following the dictum of ‘fatally compromising the opponent while putting yourself into a position of safety’.
An article by Ellis Amdur which partly inspired this post: https://aikidojournal.com/2016/05/06/irimi-by-ellis-amdur/
I was recently listening to a very good series of Shotokan karate podcasts.
The interviewers were discussing how the various Shotokan split-offs were sometimes characterised not by adherence to the Shotokan system, but instead by one individual’s interpretation of Shotokan karate. This was sometimes based upon that individual’s physical build, specialist area, or even their own blinkered understanding of what Shotokan karate was.
One of the conclusions they came to was that although the Sensei could make it work for him, the student’s attempts to ‘be’ him were doomed to failure. In the some cases the senior students techniques become an empty parody of their teacher – to borrow from Ellis Amdur, they are a ‘shadow’ of their teacher, and… a shadow doesn’t cast a shadow of its own.
Some do this in the name of ‘tradition’ but, it’s tempting to quote Gustav Mahler, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire”.
Thinking about this, I had seen manifestations of this myself, and not necessarily in Wado.
I trained with a Goju Ryu group many years ago; excellent hard working dedicated people, but I distinctly remember them talking about the need to develop a ‘Goju Ryu body’; to them this was the barrel-chested, stocky legged, powerful solidity of the likes of Miyazato Eichi or Higoanna Morio. I am sure that for some of them this was a physical ideal they tried hard to achieve; they seemed to suggest that this physicality was the embodiment of the ryu – how true that is I don’t know.
In the interview the Shotokan guys spoke of the physical models of Shotokan leading lights like Enoeda and Kanazawa; but one of the interviewers was quick to add that he thought this was a fallacy; he said he believed that people had to find ‘their’ karate, not somebody else’s.
This is something I would agree with; but it comes with some caveats. For example; I am reminded of a very senior Japanese Wado Sensei who once grumbled that students tend to imitate their instructor’s bad points but seldom their good points – it’s a fair comment. Also, in pursuing and formulating ‘your’ karate be sure you are not pandering towards your own weaknesses.
I suppose it comes down to the understanding of Principles. This is certainly true in Wado. If the core Principles are fully recognised and adhered to your Wado may become nuanced but never flawed. Right Principles, right techniques, right mentality. In Wado this can work well with dedicated students because Wado allows for nuances. But the down-side of this is that it doesn’t necessarily work well in mass teaching situations, unless your objective is cookie-cutter Wado. For me Wado works best as a bespoke, tailor-made thing, which is perfect, but only it is overseen by a master tailor.*
I couldn’t resist this; a very old example of Jewish humour.
*The Suit Joke. Source: https://www.121msg.com/single-post/2017/10/04/A-Fitting-Point-for-a-Classic-Joke
All his life, Blevins wanted a tailored suit. With hard hard work and self-denial he was finally able to afford one. He found a classy tailor and was measured and fitted. After two weeks he went to pick up the suit.
He tried it on and looked at himself in the mirror. He could not believe how elegant he looked.
“Gorgeous,” said the tailor.
“Unbelievable,” said the tailor’s assistant.
“Only one thing,” said the tailor. “You have a little scoliosis. Maybe you didn’t know. But your right shoulder droops. I did what I could to correct for it, but there’s only so much I can do. If you really want the suit to look good you’ll hoist your right shoulder a little.”
Blevins lifts his right shoulder slightly.
“Ooh!” says the assistant
“Wow,” says the tailor.
Blevins begins to go. “One more thing,” says the tailor. “Your right leg — maybe you don’t know — is about an eighth of an inch shorter than your left. I did what I could to correct for it, but you don’t want too much material on one side compared with the other side. So if you just straighten your right leg and bend your left leg a little, it’ll fall perfectly.”
Blevins straightens his right leg and bends his left leg.
“There!” says the assistant.
“Magnificent,” says the tailor.
“One final thing,” says the tailor. “Because you’re bending one leg and straightening the other, the crotch area is a pinched, so if you just tilt your knees out a little… there!”
And the assistant says, “I’m crying it’s so handsome.”
Blevins leaves and exits onto Main Street. He walks down the block with one shoulder up, one leg straight, one leg bent, his knees bowed out.
He passes two men.
One says, “Oh my, do you see that horribly crippled man? He must have been in a terrible industrial accident.”
“Yes,” says the other, “but that’s a beautiful suit he’s wearing.”
I think the phrase ‘unprecedented times’ despite its accuracy has been overused of late, but really these are the unforeseen times that we were always told would come – ‘Not a case of ‘if’, but ‘when’ the experts always said.
But… what has been so uplifting in this current crisis was to see how karate could still function in people’s lives and perform a valuable service. This seems to have been almost exclusively accessed through various on-line platforms. Instructors and students have had to get nimble with new technology; necessity is truly the mother of invention. People have been going Live on Facebook (see Jerry Smit and Martijn Schelen’s Facebook classes), have been submitting videos through YouTube, and have been keen to let everyone know that despite the lock-downs they are keeping body and soul together and pursuing their passions. Tacitly people are making statements through their actions; whether they are conscious of it or not – they are saying ‘we are doing our best to work towards a future time when this will have all blown over’ while also acknowledging that the world will not be the same place afterwards.
The other side of this is ‘community’.
These various platforms are supplying extended virtual communities.
Most good Dojo are communities, offering companionship and mutual support as well as shared enthusiasm for the chosen discipline. Through these on-line platforms these communities can still function. Clearly, it’s not the same, but in a world of diminishing possibilities with everyone hunkering down behind closed doors, even a bad option is better than no option at all.
With this in mind Shouwa Jyuku (Chelmsford) decided to construct our own virtual Dojo through the conferencing platform Zoom. As of this posting we are only a few classes in but so far it has been a real success, although it has been a steep learning curve. Currently it is operating as a closed group but that may not always be the case. Sugasawa Sensei has even developed the habit of dropping in and observing lessons!
There is clearly scope for more flexible thinking incorporating targeted classes for grade groups, or exploring kata in greater depth. Shikukai members are presently enjoying another Zoom project championed by Shouwa Jyuku assistant instructor Steve Thain 4th Dan who is running an early morning kick improvement, strengthening and flexibility class, but 7.30 am may not be everyone’s prime time; but people are rediscovering their personal discipline, reclaiming some kind of structure and getting a definite feel-good buzz from knowing that they are doing something.
I suppose at some level we could all see it coming; on the eve of this recent course in Holland Covid-19 was knocking on the door of European civilisation like the Goths invasion of the Roman Empire. We weren’t to know it but this course happened just before the doors were slamming tightly shut, and who knows when they will be opened again.
Naturally we had our reservations, but as of that particular time we followed guidelines and took the safety of participants very seriously.
I honestly thought that attendance would be very low but was surprised that only a handful of people had cancelled. This meant that the Dojo was not too crowded and we had the space and the time to make sure that everyone gained individual attention and we could really dig deeply into the planned agenda.
I had thought this one through very carefully – I always plan the courses in detail, and this time I wanted to tackle some of the lesser covered themes. This was deliberately designed to be challenging, not necessarily physically, but mentally and technically.
For our first two hours on the Friday night I chose Tanto Dori (knife defence). Initially we looked at techniques that were from the standard Wado playbook. I made sure that people understood that these were densely packaged forms (kata) with layered lessons contained within each specific part of the sequence. I then moved on to lesser-seen Tanto Dori; ones which operated from the formal kneeling position; much more demanding physically, as the body manoeuvres and evasive techniques demanded absolute concentration and control to avoid being skewered.
Saturday’s class was for three hours and covered different dynamics of movement which ultimately took us into Kushanku kata. For some reason a kata that contains so much information tends to be left behind, I’m not sure why. We did not avoid the more athletic aspects of this form; in fact I encouraged people to embrace the character of the kata, with its elongated movements, low drops and demanding spins and turns.
The last day, Sunday, everything was geared towards pairs practice with Kihon Gumite No. 10 as the apex technique. We explored other principles which acted as an introduction to Kihon Gumite and made links to moves found in the Pinan kata. We were fortunate to have mats available and this gave everyone a chance to experience that big over the top throw found in Kihon Gumite 10 (in a safe manner).
And so it ended, and, with a heavy heart, I had to leave my friends in Holland, not knowing when we would all get a chance to train together again. We have spoken optimistically about another course in October, but let’s see how things work out.
Huge thanks to Martijn Shelen and his team who hosted this course and to everyone who came along.
Rumours about the appearance of this book circulated a long time ago, and so finally it is here.
For me it was well worth the wait. Although it is a weighty tome I found it difficult to leave alone and so now I am on my second reading.
The organisation of the book is neatly packaged with many excellent photographs, diagrams and images. It covers historical, theoretical and technical aspects of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu and supplies very informative personal and anecdotal experiences of key figures within the Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu.
The history section immerses you into the complex world of what was to be called ‘Koryu’ Budo/Bujutsu and it easily dispels any myth, which usually come out of oversimplification. Piece by piece an image of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu starts to appear out of the miasma of Japanese lineages. Facts collide with legend, which in turn throws up further questions, some of which are unlikely ever to be answered.
It is clear that Threadgill Sensei and the late Ohgami Sensei have been involved in significant on the ground research; chasing down leads and engaging with surviving descendants of some of the main SYR players involved in this complicated saga.
Throughout the complexities, the jigsaw images of evidence, anecdote and documentation SYR appears as a system that was buffeted by change, navigating around the powerhouse that was late 19th century, early 20th century Judo, which lured traditional Jujutsuka into a world of Randori and contest and away from their fuller curriculum. It also describes the ascent and descent of various SYR branches which echoed much of what was happening to the traditional martial arts of Japan in the Meiji to Showa periods of Japanese history.
Does this book have relevance to students of Wado karate?
It depends where you are on your journey in Wado. For history buffs like me it was like catnip. I couldn’t get enough. But also, although SYR and Wado are as different as cats and dogs their connection cannot be ignored and as such, a surprisingly large section was devoted to the founder of Wado Ryu, Otsuka Hironori.
I was impressed with the author’s approach to the potentially thorny issue of Otsuka Hironori’s role in all of this. This was dealt with in an even-handed and factual way with Otsuka Sensei reputation intact, perhaps even boosted. Throughout the book the authors acknowledge the huge contribution Otsuka Sensei had made to the survival of SYR, without really being aware of it. The irony of course being that at the age of 30 Otsuka Sensei left SYR behind to synthesise his accumulated Budo experiences into the formulation an entirely new entity, Wado Ryu Jujutsu Kempo. Thus, for a long time, SYR became a footnote in Wado history – but not any more.
It is clear that Wado enthusiasts were drawn by curiosity to the surviving SYR and this curiosity extended sufficiently to cause some of them to beat a path to the door of Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu Kaicho Tobin Threadgill Sensei – his recent seminars in Europe attest to that.
In the technical section of the book, although deliberately and understandably incomplete, it is possible to see common strategies and common nomenclature. Within the body of this section it is possible to read between the lines and gain glimpses of Otsuka Sensei’s technical base and the underlying strategies of Wado Ryu. My conversations and experiences of people within TSYR have certainly informed my reading of this text, reinforcing my view that when Wado was formed the baby was not thrown out with the bathwater.
Who knows, perhaps there is more to come from the pen of Threadgill Sensei. I certainly hope so.
I have it on good authority that the late Ohgami Sensei was able to see advance productions of this book and greatly approved of the completion of this joint project before his passing. Although I only met him once I know that he will be greatly missed.
This is about systems; and martial arts are systems.
I came across this while reading up on the influences and developments of new technology and found myself reading Jordan Hall’s analysis of the dangers of the evolving ways that people communicate in the modern world.
I found myself thinking; whichever martial arts people choose to pursue they may find themselves engaging with a system that could either be described as ‘complicated’ or ‘complex’. This might be down to the system, or the practitioner’s approach to the system.
But first of all, what is the difference between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’?
To quote Jordan Hall, “A complicated system is defined by a finite and bounded (unchanging) set of possible dynamic states. While a complex system is defined by an infinite and unbounded (growing, evolving) set of possible dynamic states.”.
He uses a Boeing 777 as an example of a complicated system; it is VERY complicated but it is still a bounded system; very linear with regard to cause and effect. The only time a Boeing 777 can come unstuck is when it clashes with a complex system; like the weather or a flock of birds. We can read from this that Nature is the domain of complex systems – and, probably one of the most amazingly miraculous complex systems is the human brain, which truly has no limits (despite how people choose to run their lives).
When I first read about the definition of a ‘complex system’ the first image that came into my head was the sea; being both predictable and unpredictable; its capriciousness is held in awe by even the most experienced sailors. But it can be navigated, but not by approaching it in the same way you would a complicated system.
Complex systems have ‘dispositions’, the funny thing is that sometimes they can only be understood with hindsight, ‘oh, that’s why that particular thing happened!’ we get a reflective overview, this is why stories and metaphors can be useful; for example, old sailors telling tales of the sea – this is accumulated knowledge; valuable attempts to make sense of the truly complex.*
To work with complex systems you have to sense the patterns, read the signs. If this involves other people it can get even more complex, this could even include the messy interpersonal stuff. There can be cause and effect but in an amazingly interconnected way, not linear – focus on one small part and you are lost. Very much like fighting.
So, is your martial arts system complicated or complex? Or maybe you are approaching your system as if it were complicated, for convenience sake, when it is really complex? I have no doubt that some systems were deliberately designed to be complicated, bounded and finite. This may well have been out of pure necessity, for example, limited by time or situation.
A complex martial art system is perhaps too daunting for most people. For anyone wanting immediate results taking up a complex system may not be for you, unless you have an insane level of motivation and conscientiousness and a lot of free time on your hands. It is also possible that people might come to the realisation that they have bought into a system that they assumed was ‘complex’ only to hit the buffers on its limitations, or THEIR limitations, but for argument’s sake let’s say it’s the former, then to avoid backtracking they feel a need to concoct complexities that were never there! As the saying goes; what a tragedy it is when people spend their whole lives trying to get to the top of a particular ladder, only to find that it’s propped against the wrong wall!
It has to be said that ‘Complicated’ can reach its limits when it is driven by simplicities like ‘harder’, ‘faster’, ‘stronger’.
When navigating a truly ‘complex system by necessity we are driven into instantaneous and creative actions; verging on the instinctive and intuitive. This is the domain of ‘potential’, and growth, everything about human life is about about engaging with the ‘potential’, there is nothing else. The opposite of potential is stasis and inertia. For the martial artist (or the fighter) inertia is not just negative, it’s potentially fatal.
There is one more ‘system’ that has to be taken into consideration; but it’s really a system without a system, and that is Chaos.
The fact is that Chaos can erupt around us at any moment, this is when unpredictable events happen within something that should be navigable. Everyone has their own pet theory of how to cope in the middle of Chaos; whether that be, ‘stop, pause, think and re-evaluate’, or ‘just do something – anything!’. But overall, it would be wrong to fail to consider Chaos as a possibility we may have to engage with.
The last words on this should be with Otsuka Hironori founder of Wado Ryu karate, “Martial art technique is like the cosmos; it is infinite. Know that there are no such things as limits”.
*I am also tempted to draw a connection between the idea that the difference between complicated and complex are the same differences between technicians and artists.
For anyone interested in looking at the origin of these definitions, Google, ‘Dave Snowden Cynefin Framework’.
‘Finding Your Balance Using the Japanese Wisdom of Chōwa’ by Akemi Tanaka.
‘Chōwa’ when broken into its two parts means, ‘Cho’ ‘searching for’ or ‘working at’, establishing ‘Wa’ Harmony (Yes the very same ‘Wa’ 和 as in Wado Ryu!)
Although this book only takes a gentle nod in the direction of Japanese martial arts it is nonetheless a fascinating study and guide for anyone wanting to gain an insight into Japanese culture and society; as well as gaining an understanding of how the all-encompassing Japanese concept of ‘Wa’ operates within Japanese society.
The book is multi-layered; yes it gives a wonderfully unique perspective that crosses between eastern and western cultures but it also delivers incredibly practical and usable advice for modern living.
Akemi Tanaka casts an objective but critical eye on her native Japanese culture; unafraid to outline where she believes that Japanese culture has been somewhat adrift. She includes issues such as feminism and aspects of personal relationships, love, romance and family dynamics. She runs useful comparisons between the western approach and the eastern approach that were particularly enlightening and she includes fascinating Japanese concepts; some of which we encounter within our studies of Japanese Budo.
Her suggestions for focus and tips for modern living were a real breath of fresh air. There are ‘Chōwa lessons’ and suggestions about how to uncomplicate and unclutter your life. For anyone running a hectic household and balancing family life there are some real practical gems.
Akemi Tanaka is open and frank about her personal life and the difficulties she experienced trying to carve her own way in the world. The book crackles with her personal energy and drive; her battles to establish herself and her triumphs through her charity work. She adeptly balances the concept of ‘the self’ and ‘society’, encouraging individuality and creativity.
For me the book unravelled some of the complications I had often puzzled about when dealing with all things Japanese. I had always admired the very practical way that Japanese people dealt with the social conundrum of close living, particularly household living. The book outlined how carefully crafted social conventions acted to oil the wheels of people accustomed to living cheek by jowl. But this is also living Artfully, not just ‘existing’, which is a whole exercise in enrichment and personal fulfilment while still being inside of society and contributing fully.
At the end of the book there is a feeling that author has shared with you something truly personal.
For my mind the book was too short; but then isn’t that always the case with a really good read?
I had heard a while ago that theory and practice in martial arts were like the two wheels of a cart. One without the other just has you turning around in circles.
It is a convenient metaphor which is designed to make you think about the importance of balance and the integration of mind and body. On one hand, too much theory and it all becomes cerebral, and, on the other hand practice without any theoretical back-up has no depth and would fall apart under pressure.
But here’s another take on it, from the world of Yoga.
Supposing the ratio of theory to practice is not 50/50, and it should be more like 1% theory and 99% practice?
So, for some of the yoga people it’s is very nearly all about doing and not spending so much time thinking about it. I sympathise with this idea, but I feel uneasy about the shrinking of the importance of theory and understanding about what you are doing.
I am sure that I have mentioned in a previous blog post about how the separation of Mind and Body tends to be a very western thing. In eastern thinking the body has an intelligence of its own, over-intellectualisation can be a kind of illness. How many times have we been told, “You’re overthinking it, just do it”? Or, “Don’t think, feel”.
Maybe this points to another way of looking at the diagram above…
Perhaps it’s more like this?
I.e. a huge slice of theory, study, reflection, meditation, intellectual exploration and discussion (still making up only 1%), and an insane amount of physical practice to make up the other 99% to top it off!
Just a thought.
A presumptuous title, I know, but bear with me, I have a theory.
I have often wondered how Otsuka Hironori the founder of Wado Ryu thought. I wished I had been able to climb into his head, navigate all those very Japanese nuances that are so alien to the world I live in and see as he saw; a bit like in the movie ‘Being John Malkovich’. But more importantly and specifically to see what he saw when he was dealing with an opponent.
I am fairly convinced he didn’t see what we would see in the same circumstances, the mindset was probably very different.
This is all guesswork and speculation on my part but to perhaps support my claim, let me backtrack to a comment made by a very well-known Japanese Wado Sensei.
I was present when this particular Sensei made a very casual off-the-cuff comment about Otsuka Sensei – so quick and matter-of-fact it was easy to miss. It was in a conversation generally about movement; I can’t remember the exact words but my understanding was this; he said that Otsuka Sensei’s ‘zone’ was ‘movement’ – he (Otsuka Sensei) could work with ‘movement’, but inertia held no interest for him, it was no challenge. That was it; an almost throwaway comment.
I held on to this and thought about it for a long time, and out of this rumination I would put this theory forward:
It is highly possible that Otsuka Sensei was acutely tuned to zones of motion and energy; like vectors and forces governed by Intent and energised by Intent; an Intent that for him was readable.
For him it is possible that the encounter was made up of lines of motion which, in a calculated way, he chose to engage and mesh with. These involved arcs of energy that extended along lines limited by the physiology of the human frame (a refined understanding of distance and timing), but also he was able to engage with that frame in itself, not just its emanations and extensions. He saw it as Macro and Micro, as large or small scale tensions and weaknesses and he was able to have a dialogue with it, and all of this was happening at a visceral level.
The computations normally associated with reasoning and calculation would have just gotten in the way – no, this was another thing entirely; this was the ‘other’ brain at work, body orientated, woven into the fibre of his being, much more spontaneous, coming out of a cultured and trained body. And there is the catch… it would be a great thing to have the ability to ‘see’ those lines, energies and vectors, but ‘seeing’ on its own has no meaningful advantage; it becomes a self-limiting intellectual exercise; an academic dead-end. No, the body (your body) has to be trained to be refined in movement, otherwise the necessary engagement/connection is not going to happen; or, it happens in your head first and your body is too late to respond! The key to unlocking this is there, it always has been there; but unfortunately too often it is hobbled by formalism, or that perennial obsession of just making shapes.
It’s a lifetime’s work, and, even with the best will in the world, probably unobtainable. But why let that put you off?
Re. Wado Kata performances on YouTube or forums, be they competition honed kata or personal kata movies. Comments are invited, but I really don’t understand what people want these comments to say?
Competition kata is… a performance, practiced to comply with a set of criteria so that one kata can be compared to another and clearly people look at examples of the kata online and match it off against their own personal expectations.
No kata is ‘perfect’, but if we notice flaws in the kata through the imperfect medium of video what kinds of flaws are we looking for?
Some people get all hung up on ‘a foot position there’ and ‘hand position elsewhere’ yet fail to see the bigger picture. I guess people will disagree with me here, but surely the bigger picture is the method of actually moving – and I don’t mean how fast or strong a technique is delivered; that would be a bonus – if the techniques are performed with the refined principles of Wado AND have celerity, energy and intent, yes that is probably going to be a damn good kata.
Surely we have come a long way from ‘harder, faster stronger’? Wado is a complex system – by that I mean ‘complex’ not complicated; there is a difference. One move, like Junzuki, can contain many complexities, while 36 kumite gata can become complicated – but not insurmountably so.
For me the curse of kata appraisal is what I call the ‘picture book approach’. In that some people judge the kata in a kind of ‘freeze frame’ of the end position of any individual move, taking that frozen image and judging it just by its shape. This method of judgement is really low on the evolutionary ladder. Since the 1960’s Wado has evolved significantly and students and instructors have access to a far greater level of understanding than they had fifty years ago, except of course for those areas where people have clearly opted for a policy of arrested development.
Then there is Observer Bias:
“Observer bias is the tendency to see what we expect to see, or what we want to see. When a researcher studies a certain group, they usually come to an experiment with prior knowledge and subjective feelings about the group being studied.”
People see what they want to see, because they are uncomfortable with anything that interrupts or contradicts their current world view – it’s human nature. Thus, when we feel a need to say whether this approach to kata is superior to that approach, maybe it’s just an expression of our own bias; we focus on those things that either comply with our world view, or don’t.
Judging by comments of forums regarding Wado kata, it also tends to bring about a worrying tendency towards tribalism. I fully understand this, and I am sure that at times I have also felt the knee-jerk inclination towards my own tribal instincts, but I try my best to keep these in check. However, as long as we recognise this for what it is, without the need to call it out, then it will hopefully wither on the vine and conversations will remain civilised and polite.
Then there comes the argument; is there such a thing as a bad kata? I would say; yes there is.
Some say that as long as they stay within a particular bandwidth that represents an acceptable understanding of Wado then that’s fine. But that’s just a fudge – exactly how wide is this bandwidth?
Is the bandwidth just about shapes? From my understanding Otsuka Sensei established some very sound guidelines and sent his best students out into the world with the responsibility to pass on these essential guidelines and although it may have been part of it, shape-making was not the main priority on the list.
A shout out to one of the nicest Dojos I have ever had the privilege to teach and train in.
Kenkokai Dojo in the Netherlands is situated 14 miles south of Amsterdam and 6 miles outside of Hilversum. It is the personal project and newly formed business of Martijn Schelen, who is an instructor both with Shikukai and the Dutch organisation the KBN.
When I first visited there in May of this year what struck me was the amount of care that had been taken to create the right feel. Martijn explained to me that he was particularly careful to utilise aspects of traditional Dojo design supported by ideas of Fusui, which is the Japanese version of Feng Shui, where the orientation of the Dojo is in harmony with directions and elements. To my mind this created a positive vibe that worked within the space. Inevitably the Kamidana was the main focus of the room, Martijn had designed this in a way that was personal to him and it remained tasteful and not overblown, as sometimes can be the case when people just try too hard. ‘Less is more’ was probably not a quote of Japanese origin, but it should have been.
The Dojo space is perfect in size for manageable classes. What was noticeable this time round was that I never had to raise my voice; the acoustics were ideal. The air circulated freely and sunlight was able to spill across the Dojo floor. Really, unless you were in some ancient revered location in Kyoto, you couldn’t get a more photogenic set-up (I hope the photos will prove my point for me).
This was the second time Martijn had invited me over for a course in this particular Dojo; I had been over before either on my own or assisting Sugasawa Sensei, but this was organised differently; numbers were limited to 20, which was ideal, as it meant I could work easily with everyone in the room and we could really get into things. What was really enjoyable was that it allowed information to flow in both directions; I learned so much from the lines of questioning; obviously people felt comfortable asking questions and exploring different possibilities. There were three sessions organised over the weekend and we were able to build upon the previous themes and look at Henka waza exploring many of the varied possibilities found within Wado (well, at least that was my intention). Another attribute that dawned on me over the weekend – I noticed lots of smiles…. it goes without saying that this has to be a positive thing in training.
The course was not confined to the Dutch; Wadoka had shown up from the Czech Republic, Belgium and the UK which gave a real international flavour.
Of course the weekend wasn’t all work and no play. Saturday evening out in Hilversum, perfect for good food and good company.
If anyone reading this finds themselves in this part of the world contact Martijn and drop in for training. It’s not just about the location and the Dojo, Martijn is genuinely one of the most knowledgeable Wado instructors you will ever come across and one of the nicest people in the world of Wado.
Monday, 16:00 – 17:00 children, 19:30 – 21:00 adults.
Wednesday, 16:00 – 17:00 children, 18:00 – 19:00 teenagers, 19:30 – 21:30 seniors.
Saturday, 8:30 – 10:00 karate, all groups.
Martijn also runs classes in, Do-In Yoga, Critical Alignment Yoga, Corestability and medical fitness
Days and times are Monday 16.00 – 21.00, Wednesday 16.00 – 21.30 and Saturday 8.30 – 11.00
Dojo address: Vogelkersberg 5E, 3755 BN Eemnes
Phone number +31641977773
As a follow on to my 10,000 hours post
in which I looked at the amount of time and effort needed to build a high level of expertise, I came across an article which set out an interesting addition to the debate; something I hadn’t really thought about.
The article was headed, ‘Generalise, don’t specialise: why focusing too narrowly is bad for us’ and was a condensed version of a larger work by David Epstein.
Epstein set up two very different examples by giving the back story of two of this century’s most stellar sportsmen; Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Essentially this was the story of ‘push’ and ‘pull’.
Tiger Woods was famously hothoused by his ambitious father; while Roger Federer, as a youngster, was given the freedom to access all kinds of sports and generally ball-based activities.
Woods was an example of hyperspecialisation, he was ‘pushed’ while Federer was risking what’s sometimes categorised being a ‘late developer’ and frowned upon by the establishments in whose interests it is to keep this mythology alive – for, as the article shows, it is a myth that a single focus specialisation is the only way to achieve success. Hence Federer was ‘pulled’ by the opportunities and enjoyment of tennis.
Epstein was able to draw upon multiple examples where athletes bounced from one sport to another before crucially moving into their specialised field. Federer was able to draw upon a broad base of physical skills to enhance his approach to tennis; his mother was a tennis coach and she found herself having to resist the urge to check his unorthodox approach to specific techniques and problems found within a tennis match; he was liberated from ‘textbook tennis’ and as such was allowed to flourish. Federer’s mother was worried that her son was becoming too obsessed with tennis. I couldn’t imagine that Tiger’s father Earl would have thought such a thing about his son.
Specialisation has a number of negative aspects, Epstein said, “I came across more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range – and that there are benefits to doing so. I discovered research showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident (a dangerous combination).”
Epstein’s conclusions were that although the generalised approach appears slower it has a greater shelf life than the specialising approach.
To give the other slant to this argument – very much drawing on the ‘mastery takes 10,000 hours of practice’ – read Matthew Syed’s book ‘Bounce’. Or read this neat summary by Paul Arnold, here.
As a postscript (and returning this back to being about martial arts) I wouldn’t be in a rush to go running around randomly ‘cross-training’ with other sports or other martial arts, particularly if you are at a point where you have clearly decided what your life’s focus will be.
I always think about a story of two men prospecting for gold. One just runs around digging lots of little shallow holes hoping to strike it lucky; the other does his research, locates his prime spot and invests time and money and digs one shaft really deep.
As I am a big fan of metaphors and also enjoy when the essence of one metaphor contradicts or reinforces another. On this theme, and to maybe complicate things, I would add one more; a quote from Thomas Merton.
“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall”.
*Recommended reading: ‘Range – why generalists triumph in a specialized world’, David Epstein.
Isn’t it interesting how we use language in martial arts?
Within a teaching/training environment instructors will use all kinds of examples, metaphors etc. to communicate their ideas. Over the years you develop a whole arsenal of teaching ploys aimed at getting things across to your students.
For a martial art as an ‘art of war’ it is surprising how un-warlike the language can be. It tends to be just very practical, workaday, descriptive (in a mechanical, functional way) no emotion necessary just direct communication.
Compare that to types of language used by professional sports people and sports commentators, these tend to be oh so very warlike!
Battlefield and human combat metaphors and expressions come thick and fast. Tennis players are described as ‘punching above their weight’, the last time I checked punching wasn’t part of tennis – oh, apart from that really puzzling ‘punching the air’ gesture that top tennis players do when they win a point or match – what is that all about?
Golfers have a ‘battle on their hands’ – really? Footballers ‘hold the line’ – very 1914-18. And so it goes on.
Yet in serious martial arts disciplines you never hear these phrases.
This first occurred to me in a multi-discipline seminar, working with other martial arts styles. I found myself puzzled by phrases I had never heard used in traditional Dojos. I heard one instructor telling students that the objective of the technique was to “destroy the limb”, the phrase was clearly meant to dramatise the the effect of the technique rather than describe it. Opponents were described as “the bad guy”, ribs were “crushed”, and attacks to the knees were intended to “cripple” the opponent.
This was an emphasis on the after-effect of the technique and certainly not about the physiological mechanics of the technique, or how it affects the opponent’s structural integrity.
I know that in saying this I am sounding like an awful snob and being too picky, but I draw attention to it to maybe prompt people to think about where this is coming from, or even to think about what signals instructors send to their students.
So what is happening? Why that choice of language?
In part I think it is the cynical use of the language of fear. Consciously or unconsciously the instructor is cooking up a scenario of good versus evil – you are the good guy and you are having to ‘destroy’ the bad guy (and the world is full of ‘bad guys’, isn’t it? Well no actually, not if looked at proportionally; besides there’s good and bad in all of us).
For anyone familiar with Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ you will know that if you want to motivate people into taking action all you need to do is remove one or more of the component parts of the hierarchical building blocks, particularly level 2. Remove ‘Security’ or ‘Safety’ and people are forced into stressful, fearful mindsets. Remind them of their own fragility (illustrated with lurid examples) and then offer an antidote and you have a model for business success. But you have to keep the illusion/fantasy alive – hence the language; we can ‘take the man out’, we ‘annihilate the opposition’, ‘take him down’ literally and metaphorically.
I realise I am probably going to have to be super-cautious with my own teaching language from now on, or I may find myself ‘hoisted by my own petard’.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Back of the net! Tim Shaw
In Ushiro Kenji’s book, ‘Karate and Ki – The Origin of Ki – The Depth of Thought’, he mentions that when your sensei asks you if you understand, you should always be wary of answering it with an emphatic “Yes”. A better answer may be, “Yes, but only to my current level of understanding”. How can you really state that you are fully in the picture of what your Sensei is trying to communicate? It all becomes relative to your current point of development, and (if we are being realistic) we are all existing on a continuum of expanding knowledge – or we should be.
This is nothing new. Socrates (469 – 399 BCE) had worked it out (and was despised by some of his contemporaries for this). Here is a quote from the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy [online], “[The] awareness of one’s own absence of knowledge is what is known as Socratic ignorance, … Socratic ignorance is sometimes called simple ignorance, to be distinguished from the double ignorance of the citizens with whom Socrates spoke. Simple ignorance is being aware of one’s own ignorance, whereas double ignorance is not being aware of one’s ignorance while thinking that one knows.”
In my last job I spent many years advising teenagers about to depart for university, and one thing I used to say to them was that one of the worst insults that could ever be thrown at them was for someone to describe them as ‘ignorant’; I also included shallow as well, but ignorance was the most heinous of crimes.
An obvious part of this is to be aware of the lenses you are looking through (check out, ‘observer bias’ and the closely related ‘cognitive dissonance’). Martial artists seem particularly prone to this. We see this when someone has a pet theory, or a favourite concept and feels a need to carve it in stone. Once it’s gone that far down the line there’s really no going back, and even in the light of new evidence which contradicts or turns over the pet theory they are stuck with it and it can become a millstone around their neck.
The error is in not acknowledging your own ignorance; feeling you should set yourself up as the authority in all things.
We are not very good at understanding the limits of our own knowledge. We make an assumption that in all areas of life we are existing on the cutting edge of what is possible – that may be true but we still encounter stuff that is either imperfect, or goes wrong, or breaks down; be that in systems, societies or technology. Deep down we know there is the possibility of improvement and advancement, but that’s always for tomorrow.
Take medical science as an example. Someone recently said to me that there’s never been a better time to be ill. Now, I take issue with that in more than one way; the obvious one being that really there is no ‘better’ time to be ill at all! Another point is that this comment was probably the same one used by an 18th century surgeon when he was just about to saw someone’s leg off without anaesthetic.
I suppose it is the arrogance within humanity that arrives at these rather bizarre conclusions. Perhaps in a way it is a kind of comfort blanket; maybe we are hiding from a much more sobering reality? Sometime in the future will some social historians be looking back at us and marvelling at how primitive and naïve we were? Or perhaps this is already happening within our own lifetime? Maybe my generation has been the first to witness such a dramatic rate of change and advancement. It’s a fact; compared to previous centuries the rate of change has speeded up phenomenally. One factor alone sums it up nicely – the Internet. I think we can talk confidently about ‘Pre-Internet’ and ‘Post-Internet’.
However, human skill development at a physical level does not increase at the same high speed that technological development can. Athletes can still shave a hundredth of a second off a 100 metre sprint, but it can take years to achieve this comparatively tiny gain. In fact any significant human skill still takes hours of dedicated practice to achieve. A 21st century aspiring pianist still has to put the same amount of hours in that an 18th century one did. Of course we are smarter about how we organise the learning process, this is sometimes supported by technology but the body still has to do the work. Our attitude towards human physical achievement and ambition has changed over the last 100 years. Take the example of Roger Bannister’s breaking of the 4 minute mile; critics at the time claimed that Bannister had cheated because he trained for the event! Their attitude of course was that Bannister should have done it based upon his own innate undeveloped physical attributes; his God given talent.
The acknowledgment of ignorance is inevitably a positive thing; it’s the acceptance that there is a whole big world out there, a boundless uncharted territory which is loaded with amazing possibilities.
For the 6th year running we have been honoured to host the Shikukai Karate-Do International winter course presided over by our chief instructor F. Sugasawa Sensei 7th Dan.
We at Shikukai Chelmsford (Shouwa Jyuku 翔和塾) have been surprised as to how the popularity of this annual course has grown over the years; even more so when it became recognised as the official Shikukai winter course. Attendance this year increased even more and we have had to plan for larger venues to cope with the numbers.
This year we had students from as far afield as Hungary, Holland, The Czech Republic and Norway, as well as students from Devon and Yorkshire.
In all this was an opportunity for four days training, kicking off with our regular club night on the Thursday. This was taken by Shouwa Jyuku instructor Tim Shaw 7th Dan and assisted by Steve Thain 4th Dan. The class was centred around some very usable, carefully designed continuous paired drills which incorporated Wado’s characteristic body shifting (Tai Sabaki).
Friday evening’s training was orchestrated by Sugasawa Sensei. Sensei started off with training and grading for the children’s class who are based at the Woodham Walter Junior School and instructed by Sue Dodd. He gave them some very useful kata instruction, particularly on Pinan Sandan. The children taking the examination had been well prepared and inevitably succeeded in their grading. They were a credit to themselves and the care and attention taken by their instructors.
In the senior session Sensei based the first part on the use of the elbows; this naturally led on to the correct application of the elbows in Kake Uke, and then on to paired kumite.
After the training a meal had been organised at the pub across the road, who coped really well with such a large group taking over their dining room.
Saturday training was at the Danbury Sports & Social club. The three hour training began with foundation techniques for everyone and then the class was split three ways with training directed by the senior instructors. We were lucky this year as we not only had Sugasawa Sensei overseeing the classes but also Shikukai seniors, Tim Shaw Sensei, Steve Rawson Sensei, Carol Chatterton Sensei, Richard Barham Sensei and Tim Dixon Sensei. The last half of the class was selected kata for each of the grade groups.
Saturday night was a chance for everyone to get together. We took over a town centre restaurant and for some the revelry went on into the early hours of the morning – others took to their beds at a more sensible time.
The training on Sunday started with an excellent warm-up and stretch by Richard Barham Sensei, Keri Waza in all its variations followed split within grade groups. The second half was dedicated to Kumite, with Dan grades getting some detailed breakdowns from Sugasawa Sensei.
The course ended with a Dan grading. Mark Troman of Shene passed Shodan and Adam Jakab from Hungary passed Nidan. An excellent finish to a very successful weekend. Planning for next years winter course has already started – keep your 2020 diary free.
A huge thank you to the main organisers Sue Dodd and Natalie Hodgson who worked tirelessly to ensure things ran smoothly, as well as the army of people who organised restaurant arrangements, accommodation and airport runs.
My intentions are to present a book review and at the same time expand it to look at the potential implications for martial artists of this very interesting theme.
For anyone who has not discovered the ideas of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi get hold of his book. ‘Flow – The Psychology of Happiness’.
This came to me from a very roundabout route. Initially I was curious about Mushin no Waza, (technique of no-mind), a concept many Japanese martial artists are familiar with; but further research lead me on to ‘Flow States’. Musicians might describe this as working ‘in the groove’, or ‘being in the pocket’, psychologist Abraham Maslow called it ‘Peak Experience’, being so fully immersed in what you do, in a state of energised focus almost a reverie. It’s all over the place with sporting activities. Csikszentmihalyi describes it as an ‘optimum experience’.
I should say at this point that it’s nothing mystical or magical, although some would like to describe it as such. As with magic – magic ceases to become magic once it’s explained. I know that once the illusionist’s sleight of hand technique is revealed we all feel a little disappointed and the magical bubble has burst, but if explanation leads to greater understanding it’s a loss worth taking. So it is with Csikszentmihalyi’s book; he unpacks the idea and neatly describes the quality of flow experiences as well explaining the cultural and psychological benefits.
In a nutshell, flow states happen when:
Whatever activity you are engaging in creates a state of total immersion that you almost lose yourself within the activity.
The identifying qualities include:
- Total focus (excluding all external thoughts and distractions).
- The sense of ‘self’ disappears but returns renewed and invigorated once the activity has concluded.
- Time has altered, or becomes irrelevant.
- The activities must have clear goals.
- A sense of control.
- Some immediate feedback.
- Not be too easy, and certainly must not be too hard and entirely out of reach.
Now, I challenge you to look at the above criteria and ask yourself how these line up with what we do in the Dojo. I would bet that some of your most valuable training moments chime with the concepts of the flow state – you have been there. Many of us struggle to rationalise it or find the vocabulary to explain it, but we know that afterwards we have grown.
This ‘growth’ is vital for our development as martial artists and human beings. This is what they mean when they describe martial arts as a spiritual activity; but ‘spiritual’ devoid of religious baggage, but ironically in traditional martial arts there is generally a ritualistic element that sets the scene and promotes the mind-set necessary to enable these flow state opportunities; so I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss this side of what we do.
Csikszentmihalyi says that flow experiences promote further flow experiences; i.e. once you have had a taste of it you yearn for more, not in a selfish or indulgent way but instead part of you recognises a pathway to human growth and ‘becoming’. We become richer as these unthought-of experiences evolve; we become more complex as human beings.
What is really interesting is that flow states are not judged upon their end results; for example the mountaineer may be motivated by the challenge of reaching the top of the rock face but it is the act of climbing that creates the opportunity and pleasure and puts him in the state of flow and rewards him with the optimal experience that enables him to grow as a human being. So, not all of these experiences are going to be devoid of risk, or even pain and hardship, they may well be part of the package.
Another aspect is that in the middle of these flow experiences there is no space for errant thoughts, if you are doing it right you will have no psychic energy left over to allow your mind to wander. In high level karate competition the competitor who is ‘in the zone’ has no care about what the audience or anyone else might think about his performance or ability; even the referee becomes a distant voice, he is thoroughly engaged in a very fluid scenario.
How many times have you been in the Dojo and found that there is no space in your head for worries about, work, home, money, relationships. You could tell yourself that this ‘pastime’ just gives you an opportunity to run away and bury your head in the sand, but maybe it’s more a case of creating distance to allow fresh perspective.
If Otsuka Sensei saw Budo as a truly global thing, as a vehicle for peace and harmony, then consider this quote from author and philosopher Howard Thurman, and apply it to the idea of Flow;
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”