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.

Funnelly enough


No actual snakes were harmed in the linking of this photograph.

I’ve been meaning to buy a funnel for about two years, and having finally built up enough momentum to actually go to the shop and look for one, it turns out that neither of the two main supermarkets and associated discount department stores stocks them anymore. “We used to have them…”

Is this an Adelaide thing, or a general consumer trend? Has the market been saturated with funnels, or do people simply not decant things anymore?

I’ve gotten pretty good at tipping stuff from one narrow-necked receptacle into another, but I shouldn’t have to. This is not the mark of a civilisation on the rise!

Why learn a martial art?

Melancholics have a hard time communicating the value of their interests and ideals. We’ve learned through experience that we are in a minority, that the things which motivate us do not tend to motivate others and vice versa. I was amazed to learn that ‘everyone is doing it’ is actually an implicit motivator for some people, designating the gold standard in life-choices. I’ve only ever interpreted such statements ironically; and though I follow the crowd in many instances, knowing that ‘everyone is doing it’ counts as a disincentive.

But one of the themes of this blog is to begin communicating the value I find in my various, seemingly useless interests, pastimes, and ideals. In other words, can I explain to you why I do things that give me neither money nor social status nor an efficient path to commonly identifiable individual or social goods such as ‘getting fit’ and ‘making friends’?

This time the topic is martial arts. Specifically: why have I spent more than half my life putting time and effort into something that is unlikely to ever prove ‘useful’?

I started learning Taekwondo as a young teenager after my parents gave me a choice: either join the local TKD class or sign up with the local soccer team. Soccer is probably fun if you are somewhat fit, coordinated, and sociable. But since I was none of those things I chose TKD.

The training did improve my fitness, strength, and flexibility, but it did so under the guise of learning a deeper skill – the ability to defend myself against other people.

After a couple of years a friend introduced me to a very different martial art, a rare, difficult style of kungfu from Southern China that was taught informally within a closed group. It was immediately clear that this style of kungfu was deeper than anything I had learned in TKD. The training was much more complicated and intense, the tactics far more committed and aggressive, and the techniques significantly more powerful.

I’ve been training in this art for more than sixteen years, and my motivation, understanding, and interest have changed a great deal in that time. Sometimes I wonder what I get out of it, why I am still motivated. Is it simply that having put so much in, it would be a waste to stop now? Or has it become so habitual that I no longer need a conscious motive?

My recent post on violence and the masculine ideal helped bring out an answer, an enduring value in martial arts that is independent of any particular style or any degree of proficiency. That value is often described simply as ‘self-defense’, but is better described in a more nuanced way as the practised ability to ward off and resist violence.

This is the lasting appeal of the martial arts: they train skills and techniques that in and of themselves increase our self-mastery. They develop latent physical and mental potential in the paradigmatic and pragmatic context of human violence.

Paradoxically, evidence suggests that learning a martial art may make people less inclined to engage in violent behaviour. Anecdotally the logic is obvious: people who learn martial arts spend many hours training techniques and practising them in a controlled environment with willing participants. If you just wanted to get in fights, you’d be better off joining a football team or being obnoxious in popular night spots after 2am.

For me, self-mastery is the core value behind martial arts practice, and provides an answer to the existential challenge of unjust human aggression. I do not want to find myself ever the victim of an attack that could have been avoided or defended with a reasonable degree of preparation on my part. Unlikely as such a scenario is, given the low risk lifestyle of a philosopher who’d rather be enjoying sleep at 3am than getting glassed in a drunken pub fight, I nonetheless have the pleasure and the challenge of training these same skills for their own sake.

The development of these skills has indeed been one of the most challenging and rewarding things in my life. It has been a more consistent part of my life than any other interest, occupation, or training. It has been a source of inspiration, frustration, achievement and dismay, especially for someone whose passion for the art has always outstripped his aptitude. I can’t imagine life without it, and yet my efforts and dedication will always feel insufficient. It is humbling to think that what I get out of it is limited by what I have put in. There will always be more I could have put in, and I can only admit fault in being a less than ideal exemplar of the art.

Perhaps that is why the value of this ideal is hard to communicate – I keep returning to the subject of my failure and inadequacy. But ask yourself whether you have something in your life that makes you want to persevere and work hard in full awareness of your faults? Is there anything that makes you feel inspired and humbled at the same time? Do you have something into which you can keep investing while knowing that the returns will never feel like ‘enough’?

Without exaggerating the hopelessness of the situation, I think this is where philosophy and martial arts coincide. Whether you seek to master a skill or know the truth, you’ll find the horizon always stretching out before you, always out of reach. My teacher tells me he is always learning, and perhaps that is the key to such pursuits: to love the path, and find comfort in being someone who learns rather than someone who has just arrived.

Doing what teacher says

Couldn’t help but repost this:

Finally, out of sheer desperation, Man started doing what his teacher had been telling him to do in every lesson for the past five years. “The results have been incredible!” said Man. “It’s as if following the advice of an older, more experienced musician allows me to somehow cultivate effective working habits better than my own.”

http://throwcase.com/2014/10/27/student-has-amazing-breakthrough-by-doing-what-teacher-says/

Stifling Creativity

What is it that stifles creativity?

I have an idea, and then an almost undetectable movement in my mind nullifies it.

If I gave this movement words, it would say “don’t worry. it’s not important. it won’t matter” and surely part of me agrees.

But the part that wants to write is stymied. It’s very difficult to be productive when your own mind is telling you your creation has no real significance.

I’ve tried to trace out the contours of this strange mental landscape where intriguing thoughts and moving ideas can fall away as sudden as their first appearance. I’ve searched for a logic or a balance to it: maybe my desire to publish distorts and inflates the apparent worth of ideas that don’t really have enough substance? Like someone who falls for get-rich-quick schemes, confirmation bias exagerrates the evidence of success and hides any evidence to the contrary.

If I forget about wanting to write, I will recognise worthy ideas and motivations when they do arise. Yet the fear is that this laissez-faire, natural approach will not be enough, that I must really push if I want to get anywhere. I’m too easily caught up by hopes and expectations, and for all the stress and strain that follows, accomplish little more than anxiety. Such fears are totally contrary to my own deeper beliefs.

This lesson is reflected in Zhuangzi’s anecdote of the archer:

“He who is contending for a piece of earthenware puts forth all his skill. If the prize be a buckle of brass, he shoots timorously; if it be for an article of gold, he shoots as if he were blind. The skill of the archer is the same in all the cases; but (in the two latter cases) he is under the influence of solicitude, and looks on the external prize as most important. All who attach importance to what is external show stupidity in themselves.”

This idea of the natural, ‘ziran’ 自然 , is prominent in Daoist philosophy and we shall return to it in future posts. For present purposes ziran means that it is better, in relation to new ideas, to let them arise naturally and without pressure. Having a purpose in mind distorts perception, judgement, and reflection, even to our peril.

You cannot force your creativity, though you can feed it. We can also, like the archer, hone our skills through hard work and diligent practice. These aspects of self-cultivation mean that hard work does take place, effort is fruitful, and creativity remains spontaneous and free, because these diverse functions retain their proper place, the correct relationship with one another. External influences – hopes and expectation, worries and fears – throw our internal state into disorder such that we end up trying to be creative by force, make our efforts spontaneous and diffuse, and, in Daoist terms, neglect the root in favour of the branches.

Communicating Value

The Master said, “If the search for riches is sure to be successful, though I should become a groom with whip in hand to get them, I will do so. As the search may not be successful, I will follow after that which I love.”
– Confucius, the Analects (7:12)

The previous article declared that:

the idealist dream is to find a way of earning a reasonable living without compromising his ideals.

But this ‘dream’ is itself a form of compromise, in recognition of a fundamental divide between wealth and ideals.

In comments on the previous article, Jack Saunsea presented a different angle on this intersection of wealth and ideals:

For me, the question is not whether or not my “idealistic” endeavors can be used to make money; rather, if I do find them valuable, as is it likely I would find them to be the most valuable, am I communicating their value to others? Are others finding them valuable? If others do find them valuable, then my needs in life, whether being provided through monetary gain or simply through the relationships that the value I offer benefits, will be met.

This is, quite appropriately, an ideal vision of how to make a living. Rather than seek a compromise between the pursuit of ideals and the need for wealth, Jack has identified what they have in common: value. Both money and ideals are premised on value, value to oneself and value to others in relationship. The exchange of money for goods and services can be further summarised as an exchange on the basis of perceived value.

Indeed, there are plentiful examples of talented artists or craftsmen – idealists who do excellent work but fall into the melancholic trap of doubting the objective value of their creation. Their failure to set an appropriate price for their time and labour arguably reflects a general failure to honour and communicate the value of their work. Melancholics are typically more afraid of over-promising than under-selling, confident that the true value of their ideals and creations will shine through in the end.

But what if it doesn’t? Or rather, what if we are neglecting to examine how we communicate the worth of our ideals? It is typically idealistic to think ‘let the results speak for themselves’, but the reality is that we ourselves are a part of that ‘result’. The melancholic harbours a fear, or better yet: a self-consciousness, that he is a poor exemplar of the ideals he values, and that presenting himself as a product of his ideals will somehow tarnish those cherished ideals in the eyes of others. He will experience shame and humiliation, something the melancholic dreads.

As we discussed in the previous post, it is in the nature of most skills and disciplines that as we make progress, we find that there is always more progress to be made. By its very nature, attaining skill makes one more aware of the greater horizons and hence the limitations of whatever skill is attained. This is especially true of philosophy, where the search for answers brings with it an ever expanding awareness of the unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, questions.

It is counter-intuitive for someone in the midst of their philosophical journey to turn to others and say “You see how much I have gained? You see the skills I have developed and the rewards those skills have brought me? You see how satisfied I am in my pursuit of philosophy?”
Instead the philosopher is intent on the horizon, on the limits of his understanding. It is hard for someone always focusing on his limits to start telling others about his strengths.

But the answer may lie, as Jack suggests, not in telling others how great you are and how philosophy or some other ideal made you popular, famous, rich, and attractive; but in taking stock of how the yet-unattained ideal has enriched your life and brought value to it. You may not have answers to your philosophical questions, but you have the great enjoyment of losing yourself in the consideration of matters far beyond the trivia of everyday life. If that is something you value, perhaps you can do a better job of conveying it to others?

And if you find (to your melancholic horror) that you are not, for example, an impressive exponent of your martial art or a thrilling performer of your ancient chant, perhaps it is time to consider whether you have directed sufficient time and effort toward achieving -or better yet: expressing– in your own person the things you value in your discipline? It is, after all, typical of the melancholic idealist to forget in private enjoyment of his interests that there is a value in communicating that enjoyment to others; and that letting the results speak for themselves can mean, at times, that you are the one doing the speaking.