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Book Review: ‘The Descent of Man’ Grayson Perry.

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For those of you who don’t know, Grayson Perry is a very successful British artist, initially a potter and past winner of the Turner Prize. He has branched out into lecturing and making TV documentaries. This book came on the back of a recent documentary series examining masculinity, called ‘All Man’ made for Channel 4. Perry is really interested in male identity (he is a transvestite and is married to a psychotherapist); in this book he takes an unflinching look at the position of men in today’s society.

You may ask why is a book on gender politics appearing on a martial arts blog? While acknowledging that martial arts today are not exclusively male, it’s difficult to escape the fact that they originate from a predominantly male culture and even though in the modern scene there are a lot of positive things sadly we still see aspects of unsightly macho strutting and posturing coming out of misdirected testosterone.

Something is clearly amiss when we look at statistics alone; 90% of all crime is committed by men, and at all levels of society and male suicide rate is at an all-time high.

Perry’s book is excellent at outlining the problem and the culture. While there have been some positive signs many men are clinging on to an outdated nostalgic view of masculinity; the embodiment of this is the fantasy of preparation for some kind of imaginary apocalypse; Perry says; “…we see this vision of masculinity rearing its head on TV programmes fronted by the likes of Bear Grylls or Ray Mears. They teach us how to survive in the wild, how to skin a deer carcass or build a shelter from tree branches. I would like to see them trying find an affordable flat to rent in London, or sorting out a decent state school for their children. These are the true survival skills for the twenty-first century”.

It is this same kind of fantasy that fuels the marketing of some of the less reputable ‘Reality-Based Self Defence’ schools. Add a liberal dose of the ‘Fear Factor’ and over-anxious urban dwellers will come flocking, particularly the unfulfilled male of the species, downtrodden and left behind clinging on to an outdated view of antiquated masculinity.

Perry’s view is that the decline of a particular model of masculinity has been going on for ever. For our generation of men masculinity has traditionally abided in the rigours of physical labour, a muscular idealised noble savage. Shipyards, mining, the boxing clubs of the old East End of London, these areas of male life have all but disappeared; but there is a primitive urge there, unfortunately it tends to manifest itself as a kind of comic parody of masculinity; as Perry says;

“One reaction to the redundancy of the traditional male role has been the rise of a kind of cosmetic hyper-masculinity. I see it as an overtly performed version of working-class manhood. The shiny muscles, tattoos, loud music and loud cars all hope to pump out the message that he’s still a real man despite the collapse of heavy industry and a clearly defined status. These performers pay great attention to detail: hair and beards are groomed in precision lines; torsos are waxed till they resemble figures from computer games.”

He also takes a swing at corporate blandness and the assumption of male control in the workplace; as he says, masculinity is not IN the background, it IS the background!

In no way is Perry’s book a manifesto; it does not set out precisely what the new twenty-first century man should be, neither does it act as a sop to overly militant feminism, it just asks men to GET REAL, stop living in a fantasy world and take your responsibilities seriously (particularly as the right kind of role models for the next generation).

In a Dojo situation a male instructor needs to think long and hard about how he presents himself. The good news is that there are many excellent role models who have a good head on their shoulders, are humble about their abilities, kind, compassionate and are comfortable in their own skin. Unfortunately you also come across far too many little boys hiding inside men’s bodies.

As a footnote; Perry made reference to Chuck Palahniuk’s book ‘Fight Club’, (the movie was good, but the book much better), but I would also have liked him to have referenced ‘American Psycho’ by Brett Easton Ellis, which for me epitomises toxic white collar masculinity and narcissism gone mad; as relevant today as it was when first published in 1991. The male political models are currently out there now, strutting their stuff; just think of Trump, Kushner, Bannon and latterly in the UK our own upper-crust version, the entitled members of the ‘lucky gene club’, such as Osborne, Cameron and Johnson et al, these are all part of the problem and certainly not models for the future.

For further reading I also recommend Steve Biddulph; who is excellent on anything to do with raising children, but for this topic his book ‘Manhood’ is another really thought-provoking read.

Tim Shaw

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Mikiri.

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I thought it was time to write something technical, though normally I am loath to do so as I get frustrated with people who ‘learn’ from the Internet, and I have recently had to deal with unscrupulous individuals plagiarising my past articles (this is why I haven’t published any lengthy articles in a long time).

But here goes anyway.

In my attempts to work with my own students on sharpening their paired kumite and develop a real edge to their practice I recently listed a whole catalogue of aspects and concepts that must be ticked off if students are to get under the skin of what is going on. Inevitably some of these concepts are interconnected; this was where the idea of Mikiri came in.

Mikiri is basically the ability to judge distance by eye and act accordingly. Naturally this is linked to timing as well. In Wado paired kumite the ability to perfectly judge the danger distance, or the potential and reach of an opponent’s technique is vital. But all of this may have to be calculated in a split second. In Wado and other Japanese Budo you can see references to this quite frequently and it becomes more critical if weapons are involved; this means that calculating for one distance (kicking of punching range) is far too limiting; for example, an eight inch blade gives the opponent an eight inch reach advantage.

But this is only a part of what I want to discuss.

We are actually amazingly well-equipped already; we actually do this stuff naturally. Picture a moment from everyday life when we have had to drive an unfamiliar vehicle; something much larger than we are used to. Imagine if you have to manoeuvre the vehicle down a narrow street with parked cars both sides, and, amazingly you succeed; a calculation just based upon a mere glance at your wing mirrors and the distance they occupy. Or even just walking or running. When running you instantly calculate the half second before your heel hits the ground and then all your muscles coordinate beautifully and propel you on to the next stride; and this happens hundreds if not thousands of times! You only really notice it when something goes wrong, e.g. on rough ground where you miss that pothole sneakily hidden behind a clump of grass and then the landing is jarring and the muscles have to go into emergency mode to stop you going head over heels.

But, what is interesting is that when you have to deal with a punch or a kick this well-coordinated judgement eludes you. The reality is that your mind becomes the real enemy; you become overly cautious, fearful of the intent of your opponent and often we just over-compensate.

A conversation with a Japanese friend who has a background in swordsmanship informed me that this same concept is an important part of engaging with the traditional Japanese bladed weapons.

But it’s no use just acknowledging the concept; it’s what you do with it that counts. In training there are multiple opportunities to practice it; not just the formal kumite but also within free sparring; observe how close or far away you are when dealing with a committed attack. Congratulate yourself if the attack misses you by a whisker, or scrapes your skin; but be aware, that is only the prelude…. The opponent has given you a window of opportunity; if you don’t condition yourself to take it the concept becomes redundant and meaningless.

This takes an awful lot of training.

Tim Shaw

Book Review: ‘The Path’ Professor Michael Puett & Christine Gross-Loh.

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Not a book about martial arts at all, but one that relates to the martial arts.

Professor Michael Puett is a Harvard professor who lectures on oriental philosophy. His classes are oversubscribed and often host around 700 students (how is that even possible?). The popularity of the lectures comes out of the promise that these lectures will change your life!

Puett repackages the teachings of Confucius, Mencius and Lao Tzu, etc. for a modern age and presents the ideas of these ancient Chinese teachers in a transformative way. The book contains material from the lectures compressed into themes and chapters making it all very accessible.

Confucians and Neo-Confucians have always had bad press because they have been blamed for Chinese rigid class and social structures, reinforcing gender discrimination and even promoting insular selfishness within the society. This is all a bit lazy for me. The rigidity of the last years of the old Chinese national structure, pre-Mao, was epitomised by the Civil Service exams in which the applicants were expected to memorise huge amounts of the ‘Classics’ to demonstrate their worthiness. Although this served the Chinese well in the earlier centuries the decaying husk it turned in to just proves how things go when they develop into ‘institutions’ and lose their meaning becoming  fossilised relics of what may have originally been  fresh intelligent philosophies on how to live the good life.

This re-packaging of ancient Chinese philosophies gives a refreshing perspective on ideas that are woven into most oriental martial arts and we can easily discover these ideas within Japanese Budo. Have you ever wondered about how ritual is used within Japanese martial traditions? Puett’s unpicking of the importance of ritual in Confucius’s ideas is a revitalising breath of fresh air that blows away the fustiness of institutionalised ‘rites’.

Mencius (372 BCE – 289 BCE) comes across as the voice of reason and has always been a particular touchstone of mine. His views on humanity, development, growth and spiritual cultivation all fit in neatly with the ideals of the man of Budo.

Puett challenges us to think differently, he questions some of our very basic assertions and asks us to re-frame our references; this was refreshing and made me think that perhaps some of my own assumptions need a more rigorous grilling.

The section on Chi is a real myth buster.

His explanation of spontaneity and how it can reach a high level only after prolonged prior training follows the exact model that most martial artists adhere to.

It is a very thought-provoking read and deliberately breaks free from entrenched ideas about how with think the world should work. Definitely worth more than one read-through.

Tim Shaw

Principles.

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In another posting I mentioned the importance in Wado karate of focussing on Principles. Here I am going to present another angle to maybe supply a slightly different perspective.

Principles are not techniques; they are the essence that underpins the techniques. These work like sets of universal rules that are found within the Ryu. Don’t get me wrong these are not simple; they work at different levels and in different spheres. An example would be how these Principles relate to movement. There is a hallmark way of Wado movement; something that should be instilled into all levels of practice, from Kihon and beyond. If in a Wado training environment technique is prioritised at the expense of Principles of movement then students are learning their stuff back to front. The technique will only deliver at a superficial level; the backbone of the technique is missing.

This is where I think that learning a huge catalogue of techniques in itself is of limited application, and particularly mixing and matching techniques from other systems; it may work but only to a certain level. To me personally this approach lacks ambition and has a limited shelf life.

The underpinning Principles are not modern inventions, they originate way back in in early days of Japanese Budo and were forged in a very Darwinian way. These were created and adapted at the point of a sword by men who witnessed violence and blood; these things were deadly serious, no delusion, no fantasy, instead sharp reality. Those days are gone but the Principles stretch forward into the future, but they are vulnerable and the threads can easily be broken, we ignore them at our peril. It sounds dramatic, but in a way we are the custodians of a very fragile legacy.

If we look at the life of the first Grandmaster of Wado Ryu, Ohtsuka Hironori, it could be said that he had one foot in the past and one foot in the future. There is a connection between him and the men of the sword who experienced the smell of blood, particularly his great-uncle Ebashi Chojiro who we are lead to believe experienced the reality of warfare probably in the Boshin Senso (but that needs to be confirmed by someone more knowledgeable than me.).  Traditional martial arts supply a direct line into the past and their values come from concepts that underpin Japanese Budo of which Wado is part.

Principle is the key that unlocks multiple opportunities and techniques. This works surprisingly well. The human psycho-physical capability is amazingly sophisticated. I have often come across students asking about the problem of learning techniques on both sides. My reply is that personally I have had no trouble switching from one side to the other. I remember hearing about sleight of hand magicians who have to learn a piece of complex manipulation with one hand and spend hours and hours of laboriously practice (and failure) to master the trick. But if the one-handed trick was to be switched to the other hand then the learning time was dramatically decreased. This is an aspect of body memory and it is not to be underestimated, it is complex, multi-faceted and amazingly fast when compared to a more calculated thought-based approach.

Tim Shaw

Shugyo.

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There are lots of Japanese terms relating to martial arts that in the West have become either talismanic or even fetishised.  I am certain that there people out there who are non-Japanese speakers who may even collect these terms and phrases.

For me, they are interesting because when you examine them and try to get a handle on what is going on you really have to figure out how they fit into the whole of Japanese culture both historical and present, and that is a challenge in itself.

One phrase that cropped up recently in a conversation over beer (as most of these types of conversations seem to be recently), was ‘Shugyo’.

I remembered an explanation by Iwasaki Sensei about three types of training; ‘Keiko’, ‘Renshu’ and ‘Shugyo’. Keiko was explained as just hard physical training, it could include all the supplementary stuff like strengthening, conditioning, etc. Renshu was like drilling, refining, engaging with the technical aspects. Whereas Shugyo was a period of total emersion, some say ‘austere training’. Sensei explained that to engage in Shugyo you had to imagine some kind of martial arts monk, someone who has nothing in his life apart from mastering his art. At the time the idea seemed appealing; particularly the bit about turning your back on the world.

But there are other ways to think about Shugyo. Does it really have to involve a split away from society? I don’t buy the idea of meditating half way up a mountain, except perhaps on pragmatic grounds (where else can you find peace and quiet?). I am also sceptical about the Taoist monk retreating from the world. I’m more for the Neo-Confucian idea that practice and enlightenment can be found in the marketplace and the hurly-burly of city living.

I am coming round to the idea that Shugyo isn’t perhaps some all-defining experience; a one-off commitment like a pilgrimage. And the idea that you are guaranteed to come out the other side enlightened and cleansed with mastery at your fingertips is perhaps a little too romantic and creates fodder for the fantasists. It also seems to leave no room for one of the rude facts of life….failure.

Perhaps Shugyo is more episodic. It is possible that some people have engaged in Shugyo without even knowing it? Maybe those times of intensity were just seen as ‘rites of passage’ but in reality ticked all of the ‘Shugyo’ boxes.  Admittedly they weren’t self-directed, but those grinding relentless repetitions were focussed, unforgiving and as near a perfect hot-house as you were ever going to get. I am thinking particularly of those long, long hours on whatever course or camp it might have been. But here’s the question I have been asking myself; if those were episodic ‘Shugyo’ opportunities were they well-spent? Or did they happen at the wrong time in our development; or beyond that, did we have the right material to work with?

From a personal viewpoint; with the right material, the right direction and the right background, the best time is…now.

Tim Shaw

10,000 hours.

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It has often been said that to an ‘expert’ in absolutely anything you need to have accumulated 10,000 hours of practice.

I am sure that in our search for quick answers and ‘sum it all up in one soundbite’ style solutions many people will focus on this factoid and be instantly comforted by the convenience of this as a theory.

But, unfortunately, like a lot of simple answers this idea supplies a generalised truth but fails to describe the whole story.

Scientists and statisticians have drilled down into this idea and have found it to be wanting.

I must admit to have been seduced by this formula, and even busied myself trying to work out how many hours a day I would need to train in Wado Ryu karate to reach ‘expert’ level. By the way it works out as about 4 hours a day over about 10 years.

This is far far too simplistic. The experts looked at chess masters and classical musicians; a good choice if you want mental capacity and high levels of manual dexterity; I would worry about the levels of physicality required for martial artists, after all, certain types of athleticism have very limited shelf-life.

But, time in service alone did not cut it. The experts found that with chess masters there were examples where it took one expert 26 years to reach a high level of mastery, while another ‘expert’ achieved the same level in two years. Statistics like this make a mockery of the ‘10000 hours’ theory.

So, what’s going on? There is of course the wildcard of ‘innate ability’, but that alone is not a prerequisite for success. I have witnessed individuals of innate ability who reach a glass ceiling and are so cock-sure of their own ability that when they reach a high level of success that they become drunk upon their own perceptions of their ability that they are then unable to empty their cup and move beyond this level –  effectively they become unteachable.

There are of course those who are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again – martial arts ‘Groundhog Day’. Those who claim to have twenty years of martial arts experience yet actually have one year of martial arts experience twenty times!

Personally, I would posit that the way to success is to maintain an active curiosity and a secure work ethic, tempered by correct guidance and a clear direction. Keep your cup empty.

Tim Shaw

Tangible and Intangible.

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I’m going to try to describe my perception of something that is really quite difficult to pin down. This is just my opinion, but it is based upon things I have seen and experienced at one level or another.

When something is ‘tangible’ it is observable from the outside; when it is ‘intangible’ it is often hidden or difficult to perceive. The tangible could be described as the exterior; while the intangible is the interior. Often we think we understand something based upon what we see is happening on the outside but the real truth of the matter is what is going on in the inside. Or we base our judgements upon prior experience and run the risk of misunderstanding what is really going on – like the story of the blind men and the elephant (Link).

When we are looking at the martial arts, specifically Budo traditions we are observing and experiencing something that is often difficult to grasp.

According to Japanese karate master Ushiro Kenji in his book ‘Karate and Ki’; Japanese arts fall into two categories; those that have an obvious outcome, an end product that is a quantifiable commodity, like the craftsmanship of a Japanese carpenter or a visual artist, swordsmith or potter. And those traditions that have no material outcome, like the Budo master or the traditional Japanese flute player; they are just as valuable but their end products are impossible to lay your hands upon, to weigh and measure, they are more ethereal, their true value is found in the intangible. Often they are part of a living tradition, one that has developed over time, but only survives through the physical human frame.

This ‘physical human frame’ is the instrument, not the finished artefact; there is no actual material artefact. So the martial artist’s body is like a musical instrument, superbly crafted in itself but it’s the output, the workings of the instrument where the real value lies.

The instrument is merely the vehicle for the music. As an example; recent studies on the prestigious violins made in the 18th century by Antonio Stradivarius reveal that there is no real difference between the Stradivarius and a well-made modern violin. Blindfold experts could not tell the difference and even favoured the modern instrument over the Stradivarius. This just goes to prove that we have to be wary of mythologies that accumulate over time.

What is also interesting is that these very rare and expensive violins are given out to world famous musicians who are considered as temporary custodians, this is an acknowledgement of the fleeting, intangible nature of music at the highest level; what is produced cannot be held in your hands, so it is with the highest levels of Budo. The exterior appearance can be caught on film, but the real value is in the intangible. Trust your feelings not your eyes.

Tim Shaw