Accept where you are

Sometimes the very thoughts that inspire us also lead us to frustration when we cling to them with an all-or-nothing attitude.

Learn from your life’s patterns

Two great obsessions of my adult life have been mastering the martial art I practice and finding spiritual enlightenment. These two subjects have unfolded concurrently, with remarkably similar patterns.

I recognised it sooner in my martial art: 20 or so years of striving made harder by my determination, and my belief that mastery was always within reach yet forever elusive.

If I had found a way to relax and enjoy it, accept where I was, and just let the practice evolve, then I think the same journey would have been a pleasant one instead of an increasingly unhappy struggle.

Still, something shifted recently and I was able to stop approaching it with so much intensity and demand. I’ve found the progress I longed for, but only after I stopped needing it. I understand so much more now, but only after I stopped insisting that this understanding would change everything for me.

Accepting where I am

Spiritually, I have had the same all-or-nothing attitude. Life is nothing, enlightenment is everything; I just need to somehow get there from here. But how?

That attitude has inspired me at times and definitely kept me motivated, but it’s also blinded me and kept my journey volatile and unstable.

It doesn’t really make sense to say that life is nothing and enlightenment is everything, because life is clearly varied and slow and gradual and nuanced.

Wanting enlightenment to transform me is like wanting my practice to immediately give me mastery; but if that was how it worked, why did every master who’s ever lived spend their lifetime training?

What I’ve done is use the ideal of enlightenment to motivate, inspire, goad and cajole myself for years. But the premise was wrong. There is no “enlightenment” that will manifest like magic and transform my reality in a moment. That would be a repudiation of what reality already is, in the same way that mastering kung fu quickly and easily would deny the circumstances that made me desire it in the first place.

Accepting where I am means recognising that I’m not on the verge of “getting it”. But I am always on the verge of feeling better (or worse) than present.

If I had accepted that every training session improved me a little, that would have been enough. Instead I beat myself up thinking that every session was a chance to find “the answer”…and I hadn’t found it.

Methodological modesty

In fact it’s not possible to take what Abraham-Hicks people call a “quantum leap” from terrible circumstances or feelings to amazing ones. That’s not how life works.

To “need” a quantum leap implies desperation. And desperation cannot produce satisfying results. In fact no amount of effort can produce results because you can’t be anywhere other than where you are right now, and from where you are only two things are possible: Feeling better or feeling worse.

If I break it down, the real drivers of my experience are contrast and desire. Both arise naturally, but it’s up to me how I welcome them. Fixating on enlightenment is not a separate ingredient or game-changer. It’s gotta be either contrast or desire and my feelings about it will tell me which it is.

My problem has been taking the inspiration I feel about enlightenment and trying to make that my benchmark for life, when in reality it is a desire. With my desire so clear, I could welcome contrast for what it is: a sign of expansion and good things coming. Instead I treated contrast as a sign that I had failed to achieve enlightenment.

I don’t control desire and I don’t control contrast. Yet every moment of my existence I’m focused on one or the other, and I can focus negatively on how remote my desires seem and how unwanted contrast is, or I can focus positively on how good desires are and how contrast means more good things are coming.

Like kung fu, in the end there are no quantum leaps or sudden transformations. But if you practice you improve, and if you accept that and even welcome it, the journey can be satisfying and progress assured.

Letting go day 01

A series on “letting go” seemed wrong a couple of weeks ago, but now I feel the need for it.

Clarity is good, but I don’t just want clarity. I also want ease and trust and letting go.

In the martial art I learn, it’s just not possible to focus on every aspect each time we train. As much as I wanted there to be a single correct way of training, there are many different aspects that need to be kept up turn by turn if you want to progress.

It reminds me of a story from the Zhuangzi:

‘I have heard my master say that they who skilfully nourish their life are like shepherds, who whip up the sheep that they see lagging behind.’

‘What did he mean?’ asked the duke.

The reply was, ‘In Lû there was a Shan Pâo, who lived among the rocks, and drank only water. He would not share with the people in their toils and the benefits springing from them; and though he was now in his seventieth year, he had still the complexion of a child. Unfortunately he encountered a hungry tiger, which killed and ate him.

There was also a Kang Î, who hung up a screen at his lofty door, and to whom all the people hurried (to pay their respects). In his fortieth year, he fell ill of a fever and died.

(Of these two men), Pâo nourished his inner man, and a tiger ate his outer; while Î nourished his outer man, and disease attacked his inner. Both of them neglected whipping up their lagging sheep.’

I’m hoping this series will remind me each day to let go and trust, and enjoy the ease that comes from it. I’m hoping it will take me deeper and deeper into letting go and allowing my life to unfold without resistance.

Inspired Feeling for INFP-Melancholics

When an INFP’s introverted Feeling function (Fi) is working well it integrates the auxiliary Ne, tertiary Si and inferior Te perfectly.

When Fi isn’t working the other functions come into play without balance or support and we end up grasping for genius ideas (Ne), trying to remember what worked before (Si), or looking for some kind of irrefutable logic to apply (Te).

How to use Fi (and why we don’t)

Fi at its most powerful is like an actor becoming a role he loves and knows inside and out.

Fi is knowing how things are supposed to feel and it draws on the other three functions to inform it.

Using Fi in this way is powerful but can feel a little fake. Being able to slip in and out of different roles or characters with ease seems too easy or strange, and we can feel insecure about our authentic self.

For example, when I learned to sing in a choir I simply imitated the kind of voice I was “supposed” to have. It took some confidence, and giving myself permission to do it. From my point of view I wasn’t singing with my voice, just imitating the inspired ideal of voices.

But for me that’s what singing is.

Singing in a small church choir was a pretty low-stakes game, and that’s why I could give myself permission to “pretend” to be a singer.

In other areas of life when it seems like the stakes are higher INFPs risk doubting and distrusting their Fi ability.

For example, in martial arts we’re warned against being someone who looks the part but has no true skill or power.

An INFP can take this to heart and reject the Fi approach, searching instead for a more authentic or objective basis of skill.

Building trust in Fi

I think without practice our Fi abilities fall into two categories. There are low-stakes contexts where we use Fi easily, and for that reason don’t prize it.

Then there are higher-stakes contexts where we distrust Fi because it feels unreal. And because we distrust it, we don’t practice it or explore it. It remains dormant or dislocated.

I think the answer is to learn to engage Fi and remain inspired by it even while practicing and improving our skills.

Imagine you’re learning to play the violin. You already have a Fi image of what it looks like, the feel of a highly skilled violinist.

But you don’t have the basic skills yet, and the gap between your skill level and the Fi image of playing like a concertmaster or world-renowned soloist is….embarrassing.

So instead of drawing on that feeling, you think “I’ll practice until I’m good enough and then I’ll start acting like it”.

But it won’t work that way because you’re rejecting your most powerful function out of embarrassment and fear. The fear of “who do you think you are?”

Practice with Feeling

The solution is to do both. Stand inside your Fi image of the highest skill and accomplishment, and bring that to your practice, no matter how basic or beginner-level it is.

Use the Fi to keep you inspired and engaged, facing toward your goal. And instead of looking like a fool or coming across as pretentious, you will bring to your practice the focus and sincerity of the very mastery you desire.

When a master of one instrument comes to learn another they don’t blush and cringe at their mistakes. They don’t cower and slouch like they have no idea what they are doing.

They bring the full bearing of their existing mastery into the practice, with the openness and patience of one who knows they have much to learn.

Anything less is self-sabotage.

The power of inspiration

I’ve been learning martial arts for 23 years, and in the beginning I was inspired by the thought of mastering these arts.

But as a beginner I tempered my inspiration, mindful of the gap between reality and expectations.

Inspiration kept me going but “realism” held me in check. As years passed I ceased to be a beginner, but I felt further than ever from the mastery that inspired me.

Disappointment crept in, and I grew embarrassed and then ashamed at my lack of skill.

Why was I not progressing? Why did I feel like a perpetual beginner? How could I have so little to show for my years of effort?

Realism and self-sabotage

When we pit inspiration and realism against each other we unwittingly bind and sabotage ourselves.

The more inspired I was, the more harshly I criticised myself for falling short of my ideals. I didn’t know how to draw on inspiration without then beating myself up.

I thought inspiration was about realistic hopes and goals and measurable progress, and in a sense that is true; but inspiration is also the fuel and the transformative power and the inner knowing that makes the goal achievable.

Inspiration is not motivation

I’m now learning the difference between inspiration and motivation. Motivation is what moves you into action. My goal of mastering Kungfu motivated me to practice.

But inspiration is much more than just movement into action. Inspiration informs and guides action with greater insight and wisdom than we could deduce on our own.

Motivation can set you on a path but inspiration creates a path all of its own.

Rediscover inspiration

Inspiration itself is ultimately about feeling good.

When I’m inspired I feel excited and satisfied, enthused and revitalised. My body feels more energetic and alive. My mind is clearer and more alert.

And when we feel this good it means we are in tune with our desires, our own inner being, and our “God’s-eye-view” of life.

So find your inspiration, revel in it, and feel it renew and guide you on your journey.

Feel good all day 4

View of the college where I write sometimes.

Setting intentions is potentially very powerful for keeping us on track throughout the day.

My aim is to feel good all day, and by writing about it I keep myself focused on this goal.

I begin to notice the times of day when I don’t feel good, and I want to bring those moments up to speed with this intention.

Feeling good all day…how does it sound to you? Once I might have scoffed at it, but now it sounds like paradise and I’m more than halfway there.

There are not many subjects of importance to us in life. Most of us desire wealth, a home, good relationships, health, and friendship. If you can prove to yourself that feeling good is the answer to any one of these subjects the rest start succumbing to the same beautiful reason.

Last night I decided I wanted physical vitality. I set my intention, and later that evening while training Kungfu it naturally occurred to me that I can set an intention to be good at Kungfu as well.

How funny! The joke might be a private one, but for many years I’ve strived to be good at Kungfu by understanding it and practicing it. I never thought it could be so simple as just wanting to be good at it, and more importantly: wanting to enjoy it.

So set your intentions, please. I want to feel good. I want to wake up feeling excited about the day. I want to find enjoyment and upliftment in all my activities. I want to enjoy clarity, adventure, satisfaction and ease on every subject in my life!

Happiness Day 26

Letting go vs highest control.

I’ve had some difficulty with meditation in the past, following all sorts of advice.

But I was listening to another Abraham-Hicks video where a woman had a similar problem, and Abraham’s response really spoke to me.

I am a very deliberate person. I like to be in control and I’m not used to “letting go”.

I’ve had a lot of success taking charge of problems and situations and questions and finding the answers by being in control.

So when meditation is presented as letting go of that…I struggle.

But that’s not the only way of looking at meditation. Meditation can be seen not as letting go of control but as utilising my highest control.

My inner being is vastly more powerful and wise than my problem-solving mind.

Or to look at it differently again, my mind is vastly more powerful and wise when it is aligned with my inner being.

It’s like in martial arts: beginners try to do everything with their arm strength alone. Punching and pulling and throwing, they copy the techniques but the power is very little because it’s limited to their arm and shoulder muscles.

But we learn over time to use the whole body in every technique, and the arms become merely the last link in the chain, conveying the much greater strength of the whole body rather than trying to do it on their own.

And in martial arts I faced the same problem: people could say “relax your arms” and for some that is enough of a cue for the rest of the body to be activated.

But I’m so used to being in control, if I relax I just get…weak arms that don’t move!

What I needed was to know that it’s not about relaxing the arms or letting go, it’s about activating and aligning with a much greater strength and a much greater control that the arms (or my mind) can then follow.

And Oh my goodness! This feeling of higher control is such a relief, now I see why people call it “letting go”!

If you’re all about control you can’t simply “let go”. You need to go to a place of higher control, and in that place the small-scale struggle and conflict just disappears.

Abraham recommends meditation not as an end in itself but because it’s the quickest way to let go of resistance. But meditation still has to be tailored to the individual because everyone has different forms of resistance in their experience.

Letting go of resistance allows our natural ease and alignment and flow to resume. And isn’t that what we’re seeking in our efforts to control things anyway?

You think too much

I’ve often been told I think too much, but it has – with no sense of irony – taken years of thinking for me understand what this means.

I would have said that in fact I do not think enough, and I continue thinking precisely because I have not yet arrived at the answers I seek.

Recently I have been thinking about the difference between training and performance, specifically in a martial arts context. My natural tendency upon encountering failure or less-than-ideal circumstances is to think about it. I think because experience has shown that thinking often helps me to understand, and that understanding helps me to do, and to do better than I would if I didn’t understand.

But there are exceptions, and martial arts is one of them. Because, if instead of ‘performing’ the moves I go back to thinking about them and analysing them, the actual quality of the move changes dramatically.  It turns out you cannot both perform a move and analyse a move at the same time. Then the question arises: what are you actually practicing when you practice your martial art? Are you practicing ‘performing’ or doing the moves, or are you practicing thinking about and analysing the moves?

By analogy, it’s as though I’ve found driving a car to be uncomfortable, confusing, and overall dissatisfying, and so I’ve resolved to stay on my learner’s permit for as long as it takes for me to “work it out”.  Sixteen years later, my instructor is thoroughly sick of me, and I’ve finally had to admit that there aren’t really any secrets or revelations to acquire from the learner’s stage, and that I will only ever be good at driving normally if I practice driving normally.

This has particular relevance in martial arts where various luminaries have extolled having a beginner’s mind a la Zen Buddhism, and others have admitted amidst the heights of their skill to be nonetheless always learning.

We obviously aren’t talking about the same thing.

I don’t really know what to make of having spent so long in a flawed approach to practicing a martial art. And paradoxically I still have to credit analysis and “thinking” with having brought me to these realisations. The best I can say is that previously I was thinking about the wrong things. Or I lacked information that I could only come across via the frustration built up through years of dissatisfying practice.

It took years of failure to break through the assumption that kung fu is somehow not dependent first and foremost on a sound physique, or that being bad at sport generally would have nothing to do with being bad at a martial art. Or that the esoteric allure of kung fu might be glossing over a number of more mundane requirements.

Ironically, if I had seriously thought about kung fu in the way that I have learned to think about philosophy, ethics, and other subjects, I would have known to start without assumptions, without desired outcomes. I would have been highly suspicious of the wishful thinking at the heart of my motivation.  At the same time, being more detached from the object of my desire might have left me more open to improvements and inspiration “out of left field”. Instead, my doggedness to pursue this long-standing ideal has been thoroughly detrimental to my development.

All I can say in favour of it is that I have persevered for a long time; but paradoxically, if I had not stuck to this unexamined ideal for so long I might not have needed to be so blindly perseverant.

Craving or desire warps the intellect. We tend to cling to our cravings and desires because they feel so deeply a part of us. But there is always something deeper and more wholesome that is not dependent on external conditions, and if I had been more honest with myself I would have recognised that the very appeal of esoteric martial arts was in fact a symptom of a deeper and more constant awareness that I was not physically strong, balanced, or at ease.

Sertillanges writes in The Intellectual Life:

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

I am familiar with this “zone of silence”, and it is the natural answer to the problem of “thinking too much” and thinking not enough. It is not thinking that matters or that gives answers; we do not arrive at truth by thinking about it, rather thinking is merely a manifestation of the work of attending to the truth in its entirety and without holding anything back.

This is our noble and excellent calling, and it is only in stupidity and vanity that I have failed to turn it to other areas of my life, somehow imagining that truth has no bearing on the mundane or strictly personal, perhaps afraid of what I might find when turning that brightest of lights onto the mess and darkness of my own orbit; or intimidated by the magnitude of the task ahead, bringing my own admittedly pathetic self into the same domain as exalted abstractions, principles and truths.

It’s one thing to know truth, quite another to know that you do not measure up to it, or how far you fall short; better not to ask that question, isn’t it?

Indeed, the prospect of bringing my own deeply held desires and ideals, the very personal themes with which I identify, and submitting them to this “zone of silence” is immediately terrifying. And that, more than anything, indicates that I should do it.

 

The Chinese version of me doesn’t do kung fu

Recently I was following a discussion about Western versus Chinese student approaches to Chinese Martial Arts (CMA).  The premise was that from the perspective of a highly respected Chen Taiji teacher:

It’s harder for Western students to grasp a concept that’s inherent in the Chinese psyche and its culture. At times it seems impossible, as Western students try to interpret the concept on the basis of their own beliefs and interpretations. In approach and practice, Chinese students do, while Western students question. Chinese students go by feeling and sensing movement, while Western students are concerned with the mechanics, or kinetics, of movement.

Speaking as a Western CMA student, I’ve noted some cultural differences between myself and my teacher’s generation that could account for the observations made by Chen ZiQiang. However, I do not think these cultural differences are on the level of interpreting technical concepts within the martial art, but rather play a role in determining the kinds of people, Western and Chinese, who are drawn to CMA, and their different motives and perspectives in learning the art.

The most obvious distinction between Western and Chinese cultural experience of CMA is that for Westerners CMA is a foreign entity, a discipline routinely depicted in Western media and culture as mysterious, exotic, and esoteric.  In introducing and reintroducing Asian martial arts generally to the West, the media has typically sought to distinguish Asian martial arts from Western martial arts such as boxing and wrestling. The cultural context that depicts boxing and wrestling as relatively straightforward and intelligible physical endeavours seizes upon Japanese and Chinese martial arts as somehow being “more than” their Western counterparts.

Western audiences have been assisted in this interpretation by various spiritual and esoteric aspects of Asian martial arts, not to mention the mythic oral histories, performance-oriented demonstrations of skill and strength, and the absence of the kind of regulatory or competitive platform found in Western sports-oriented martial arts.

In other words, some degree of esotericism is built into Asian martial arts, yet this esotericism has in turn been exaggerated and made the raison d’etre of Asian martial arts for generations of Western audiences, and some proportion of Western students.

This is, I think, the first cultural difference between Chinese and Western students of CMA, and I have to admit it is prominent in my own relationship with the art I’ve practiced for more than half my life.

Why is it that I, and others like me, are so drawn to CMA but have no interest in Western boxing, or indeed in sports generally? For us boxing and sports feel like a known quantity, a domain where little counts beyond sheer physical skill. The domain of CMA is immediately appealing because it seems to promise at face value a blending of physical skill with other kinds of skills albeit ones that are only dimly perceived. The whole point of many demonstrations of skill in CMA is to show that there is something ‘unusual’ going on, that the demonstrator has strength or speed or power that somehow goes beyond what we would expect from a purely physical skill.

We expect a boxer to be able to hit hard, or a wrestler to be able to throw or pin people with ease. But CMA demonstrations typically hinge on a disparity between skill and appearance: the teacher who hits much harder than expected and with little apparent effort; the senior student who seems impossible to push or pull or otherwise move; the grandmaster who is able to move you around with ease, with a strength that is incommensurate with his apparent frailty.

None of these demonstrations are ‘obvious’ in their mechanics or physical logic, and they present a puzzle and then a goal that becomes irresistible for many Western students. Western students generally are drawn in and motivated by achieving these same skills or abilities for themselves, but such skills and abilities typically remain incomprehensible despite years of training.

The problem is twofold: firstly, the disparity between the ‘normal’ rigours of martial arts training that develops comprehensible physical skills, and the esoteric and intriguing skill-set of the teacher that remain beyond our understanding and our reach. It is not at all apparent how ordinary training can produce extraordinary results, and many students remain stuck, grappling with this apparent paradox.

For many students the disparity between training and the desired skill-set leaves them preoccupied with a goal they do not understand and do not know how to achieve. Assuming that the teacher is able and willing to actually teach these more advanced skills, they may nevertheless find that their students are so entranced by the idea of unusual power or superhuman skill that they fail to appreciate, understand, or properly commit to the more prosaic skills and fundamental physicality of basic training. The irony is that such students would develop much better skills if they focused on learning the art as though it had no esoteric or mysterious connotations whatsoever.

The second and perhaps more challenging aspect of this cultural problem is that a subset of these entranced Western students are the kinds of people who have no real interest in or affinity for sports and physical disciplines in the first place.  The esoteric appeal of CMA and the demonstration of skills that seem to depend on something other than sheer physical strength attract people who are implicitly poorly equipped to learn a martial art in the first place.

For me this part of the problem is personal: why is it that I have no interest in boxing, yet an overwhelming and enduring interest in CMA? Because CMA somehow promises more than boxing does.  From an early age, CMA seemed to draw upon more than raw physical talent, and so for someone quite lacking in raw physical talent CMA is an attractive proposition.  But the reality is that CMA is intensely physical, at least as much and perhaps more than boxing trained at the same level. The esotericism is a physical esotericism, built on hard training, strength, flexibility, and other fundamental physical attributes that can be developed, yet come more naturally to some of us than to others.

Returning to the original point, I suspect that for people raised in a Chinese culture, the esotericism and mysterious skills of CMA are less salient than the physical discipline required. It’s not that Chinese people generally are better suited to CMA, or that their psyches are somehow more attuned to CMA principles, but rather that those who – like me – are naturally unsuited to physical disciplines and lacking in raw talent are much less likely to be entranced and attracted by CMA. CMA to a person raised in a Chinese culture is more like boxing to a Westerner.  The analogy is not perfect, but cultural familiarity strips away much of the esoteric appeal that draws in Westerners like me.

In other words, the Chinese version of me doesn’t do kung fu, and through self-selection, teachers like Chen ZiQiang will encounter more over-analytical, questioning, missing-the-point Western students than they will Chinese.

The irony is that magnifying the impression of esoteric or mysterious skills prevents us from truly developing any significant skill.  The answers could be right in front of us, yet the sense of ‘something more’ prohibits us from recognising the real nature of the skills exhibited by our teachers.

Having trained a martial art for more than half my life with fundamentally the wrong attitude, I should probably be relieved to have nonetheless made some progress, rather than being disheartened by my lack of progress.  Perhaps a better attitude for people like me is to recognise from the outset that CMA is not a physically less demanding discipline, but a more demanding one; that whatever physical problems or lack of talent we face will not be compensated for by something esoteric within CMA; that ‘understanding’ CMA without doing the physical work will be as fruitless as ‘understanding’ boxing, weight lifting, or jogging without doing the physical work.

What I really need to understand is not how my teacher ‘mysteriously’ has so much power, but why I mysteriously have so little. My goal should not be to discover the esoteric logic at the heights of CMA, but to work out the overlooked question of why I have failed to fully embrace the most basic physical form and discipline.  I need to start looking at CMA not as a way to compensate for physical impediments, but as a context in which to challenge, identify, and remedy them.

 

 

 

 

 

The ideal approach

Embed from Getty Images

Melancholics are idealists, and in any venture or activity we seek out and adhere to the ideal.

This can be both an advantage and an obstacle. For example, I mentioned in a previous post that I always thought the ideal approach to exercise would be to incorporate it into everyday life, avoiding ‘exercise for its own sake’.

What I neglected in this approach is that such an ideal may not be attainable given the circumstances of a contemporary lifestyle, but also that people do in fact ‘exercise’ for fun and enjoyment. People run, ride, walk and play sports because it is enjoyable. But if you presume at the outset that exercise is onerous and pointless exercise is adding insult to injury, then this insight will evade you.

Growing up with numerous vague and confounding frailties of posture, coordination, physical tension, fatigue and other interrelated yet undiscovered obstacles may have contributed to this blind-spot toward exercise. On my better days it is obvious that exercise is enjoyable. But most days merely remaining upright is enough of an effort to make exercise seem implausibly demanding.

Nonetheless, since I started jogging regularly I’ve noticed a number of minor improvements, but more pertinent to this post, I found myself once again inclining toward the ideal – idealising the difficulty and purity of running or jogging as a simple and complete form of exercise.

What this shows is that ideals can be mistaken, ideals can be incomplete, but ideals can also be useful.

Perhaps it is best to consider ideals in this context: not so much as eternal and objective truths to be discovered but as a way of seeing the world, a way of understanding, communicating, teaching, and learning.

For example, I’ve been learning a particular martial art for about 16 years now, and for nearly half that time I was preoccupied – perhaps ‘obsessed’ is a better word – with finding a definitive copy of the names of the various moves in Chinese. My teacher’s generation were more focused on actually learning the art, and admittedly it seems a bit strange to feel that the name of a movement is in any way key to understanding or performing the movement. A fist by any other name will smack you just as hard around the head.

It’s only taken eight years for my enthusiasm to dim; hopefully in part as a result of improving at the art itself. But on reflection I can see that what I hoped to find in the names was not so much a better technical understanding of the movements, but a way of idealising them, of getting to their essence and encapsulating them.

It’s true that techniques are not definitive; they can be adapted, changed, put to multiple uses. But the mere fact that a technique has a name means that someone saw fit to name it in a particular way and denote from their own perspective what made this technique specific or unique.

In the 2005 doctoral dissertation of Jude Chua Soo Meng the author analyses the correlative theory of naming in the neo-Daoist philosopher wang Bi:

clearly for Wang, the names do in fact correlate to a certain actuality, a certain reality, and is not something which is random or frivolous. In his Laozi Zhilue, he presents explicitly the correlative theory of naming:

“All names arise from forms [phenomenal manifestations, (xing)]; never has a form arisen from a name. Therefore if there is this name, there must be this form, and, if there is this form, there must be its separation [fen] [from all other forms]. If “benevolence” [ren] cannot be called “sagehood” [sheng] or “intelligence” [zhi] called “benevolence,” each must have its own actuality.”

This passage clearly indicates that for Wang Bi names are not conventionally determined, but are determined depending on the shi [actuality/essence] of things, on which basis he can say that one cannot trade a name for another, since names have to accord with their actualities, and are determined by depending on these actualities, and not according to the fancy of the person. Again, names arise from xing, not the other way around, for “the name arises from how it appears to us” So in effect for Wang Bi the shi is manifested through the xing, and the names are determined according to the xing. Thus names ultimately are dependent on the shi through the xing, and the names are dependent immediately on the xing. Hence he can say that if there is this name, there must be this form (xing), since the form is the source of the name. Names come from somewhere objective, and this somewhere is the form.

What this describes is the creative process inherent in naming a thing. We look to the form, the form in turn is a reflection of the actuality or essence of the thing. Hence the name, deemed appropriate to the form yet also being mindful of the essence behind the form, is always in relation with the reality. No one names things arbitrarily, or rather, an arbitrary name is not a true name.

Chua addresses the allocation of arbitrary names in the context of conventions, drawing on Wang’s comments on ‘designation’ as opposed to true naming:

To accommodate this latter class of words which are conventional in order to distinguish it from the determination of names which follow from phenomenal manifestations (xing), Wang Bi calls it “designation” cheng:

“To name [ming] is to determine [ding] objects [bi]. To designate [cheng] is to follow what objects are conventionally called. A name arises from the object, but a designation issues from the subjective [wo].”

Now the designation is said to be subjective because when I designate something, I simply follow a convention and not the objective xing. Compared to naming, it appears that it is up to me (wo) that the designation is what it is; I am not immediately constrained by the objective form in the thing itself, as I would be in naming. After all, in choosing to adopt a conventional designation, I have implicitly chosen to follow convention even if the words fail to name or correspond to the phenomenal xing, if there is one.

In the context of martial arts, as someone who can’t speak Cantonese and doesn’t know the name of a technique, I am instead ‘designating’ a technique through the convention that has evolved in our practice. I can say to a newcomer “We call this move ‘jong’ or ‘kwan’,” but I can’t go beyond that to say that these are the techniques’ names or to explain their meaning in the context of a technique’s form (xing) or actuality (shi).

But the subjectivity of designations cannot be overstated. Subjectivity is not arbitrariness. We should be clear that designation is subjective comparatively, not absolutely. For despite its (comparative) subjectivity, designation for Wang is not divorced from objective reality simpliciter. It is only divorced from the objective reality qua form or shape. Thus he writes, “…designations do not arise without cause.”

Indeed, the designations used in our art are derived from oral repetition and aural impression of the actual names. The designations are far from arbitrary.

Nonetheless, to the original point: I realise now that my fascination with names is a function of idealism more generally. To know the name given to a technique by someone grounded in their practice and study is to have an insight into both the form (xing) and essence (shi) of the technique. It is a somewhat idiosyncratic way of making sense of the art, consolidating and encapsulating it, and translating it into the realm of ideas.

I can do things without an idealist approach, but idealism is my greatest strength, the way that makes most sense to me. While other temperaments are inspired by different aspects of life, the melancholic thrives in a world populated by ideals, and a life lived through them.

The uselessness of a martial art

gate
I took this photo about ten years ago at WuYi Shan in Fujian. To me, Kung Fu is kinda like this gate: very old, well-worn, but beautiful, and always promising more on the other side.

My kung fu teacher has always emphasised the dangers of fighting, regardless of one’s skill or confidence in a martial art. Last week he put it more succinctly, noting that the greater our ability and knowledge, the greater our awareness of the danger implicit in any physical confrontation. Paradoxically, the better we are at kung fu or any martial art, the less likely we are to use it.

It reminds me of one of my favourite passages in Thomas Cleary’s translation of the Wenzi:

When you go on the Way, it makes other people unable to wound you no matter how boldly they stab, unable to hit you no matter how skillfully they strike.

Indeed, to be immune to stabbing and striking is still an embarrassment; it is not as good as causing people not to dare to stab you no matter how bold they are, not to dare to strike you no matter how clever they are.

Now not daring does not mean there is no such intention, so it is even better to cause people not to have the intent.

Those who have no such intention do not have a mind that loves to help or harm. That is not as good as causing all the men and women in the world to joyfully wish to love and help you.

If you can do that, then you are a sovereign even if you have no land, you are a chief even if you have no office; everyone will wish for your security and welfare.

It’s an amusing quotation, a kind of reductio ad absurdum, but well worth considering in the context of martial arts, and learning to skilfully attack and defend oneself. Skill in attacking and defending are a part of ‘the Way’ even if we never have to use them.

There’s a difference, after all, between a person who has a skill but doesn’t use it, and one who doesn’t have the skill and hopes he never needs it. Likewise, there’s a difference between the kinds of people who get in a lot of fights, and the kinds of people who devote years of their lives to learning a martial art. Certainly the former are more dangerous than the latter, but mostly in the same way that a drunk-driver is more dangerous than a skilled driver.

These days it is considered vital for martial arts to be ‘reality-based’ or tested somehow in a sporting context or a military or law-enforcement context. But for most of us the reality has nothing to do with these contexts, and even the ‘reality’ of the most common assault scenarios is relative. A few years ago I came across a map of Adelaide that showed the crime rate for specific crimes by suburb. Want to avoid violent assault? The best approach appears to be: a) don’t live in the lower socio-economic areas of the extreme Northern and Southern suburbs, and b) don’t hang around drunk or on drugs in city night-spots in the early hours of the morning.

I don’t know a great deal about the historical context in which the Chinese martial art I learn was first created, but chances are it is still more ‘reality-based’ than the behaviour of the drug and alcohol inspired perpetrators of casual violence in our society. In a city with an excellent state-subsidised medical system and a responsive network of paramedics you don’t really need to worry that starting a drunken fight might get you killed, or worse still, leave you injured, disfigured, and unable to work with a string of dependents beggared and homeless thanks to your irresponsible behaviour.

I think what attracts many of us to martial arts is that they promise something beyond a mere set of skills driven by utility. They may have started out as that, once upon a time, but in the present era they take on a life and a purpose of their own, bringing a great deal of richness to our own lives even if we are never in a position where the art is ‘useful’ in the most practical sense of self-defence.

For me, my martial art encompasses self-defence but goes beyond it, with enough physical, cultural, technical and psychological benefits and fascinations to keep me at it, hopefully until I’m too old to do anything else. This alone is enough to distinguish such a martial art from whatever realities motivate people to start pub-fights, to ‘king hit’ random strangers, or generally stir up trouble wherever they go.

But admittedly there is also a pleasure in knowing that if I or someone I care about is ever attacked I won’t make it easy for the attacker. It is good to know that I have developed the strength and the skill to give as good as I might get, while still knowing the limits of what any level of skill can guarantee.