Do You Have A Monkey Mind?

I recently wrote about how to keep calm in the face of danger, which was basically about silencing the mind so that it does not distract you too much when you really need it to stay calm.  Shortly after that my Sensei, Paul Mitchell, started talking about the “monkey mind” in one of his classes.

Now maybe I’m insecure, but I wondered if he meant me at first!

However, it is an old Chinese phrase for when the mind wonders, or when you are trying to silence it and random thoughts keep popping in to say hello.  Like a mischievous monkey, the mind cannot be properly controlled.  It can be very difficult to stop those random thoughts coming in, not matter how hard you try.

Me struggling with my monkey mind!

Don’t you just love Chinese phraseology.  As discussed in my previous posting, giving the mind something else to focus on is one of the best ways to deal with this monkey mind and help to banish these random thoughts.  This can be kata/patterns/forms etc.  It is easier in the begining to focus the mind with movement.  Doing it when you are still, as in meditation (moksu) for example is much harder.  However, when we do get to this stage, we start by focus on our breathing.  When we can focus on breathing to the exclusion of the random thoughts, then we can start to even cut out the focus on breathing and just let it happen.  This is when we start to develop a tranquil mind.

Do the Chinese have a phrase for this?  Of course they do.  You feed your monkey mind a banana!

Keeping a Beginner’s Mind

The article below was written by Paul Mitchell, my Karate Sensei and Tai Chi teacher.  It’s a brilliant insight into the mental approach to your training whatever your style.  Paul has always had a very practical approach to martial arts and teaches for real self defence, not just scoring points.  Having said that, he is also a great believer that martial arts are a great form of self development.  Practical streetwise martial arts (“Jutsu”) and self development (“Do”) do not need to be separated.  In fact they each works best with elements of the other blended together.

The article below was written for the Lotus Nei Gong (Tai Chi association) newsletter, so it is primarily from the Tai Chi perspective.  That said, it can just as well apply to any martial art.


Really, this article is just a few rambling thoughts of a martial artist that has trained daily for 30 years and yet still calls himself a beginner.

In Japanese martial arts there is a saying that came from someone who truly understood the martial way: Keep a beginners mind. Sounds easy enough but remember a beginner is always ready to take advice and is always enthusiastic. Day in day out, week in week out, year in year out and decade after decade to jeep training with this concept in mind may not always be so easy.

Then of course we have to look at that concept of ‘following the martial way’. To a non-follower of the way it would seem quite likely that to train daily in a martial art, studying the philosophy and practice of combat would cause a person to become aggressive and confrontational. The truth is that (if studied correctly) martial arts make a person peaceful and well-rounded. The only true fight is internal, the war is against your ‘inner demons’ and lets be honest with ourselves, we all have some of those.

My favourite martial saying is: The fist and Zen are one. Still makes me smile, still just a beginner.

I sometimes say to my students that the only reason we have wars is because the world is run by ‘white belts’. If one truly understands conflict then one avoids it at all costs.

Up until this point I have not distinguished between external and internal martial arts. To me they completely compliment each other, they are indeed two sides of the same coin. Many people studying the martial arts refer to themselves in terms of one art: I am a karate practitioner, I am a Taijiquan practitioner etc. To me there are only martial arts, not styles. Although I have my core systems of Yang Taijiquan and Shotokan Karate I simply think of myself as a martial artist. To limit oneself in any other way seems to contradict the term ‘art’. An artist by my way of thinking should be a free thinking, free flowing, freedom loving individual. To limit the art is to stunt our personal growth in free flow.

I loved the article written by my dear friend Neil Lodge (editors note, see September 2010 newsletter) where he stated that he found Taijiquan so uplifting because it emphasised principles other styles simply touched upon. Principles such as meditation, breath control and Dan Tien rotation. I agree wholeheartedly and reading it made me once again…feel like a beginner.

I have currently studied Karate for 30 years and Taijiquan for half of this time. Although I love both arts I recognise that for me, Taijiquan starts where Karate left off…From the beginning in ‘external styles’ we are taught to be substantial. This means that you study to be strong and forceful. You train to become fast and strong, both physically and mentally. This can be painful, has its moments, but if done slowly, gradually and correctly this process is surprisingly enjoyable! As one progresses through the grades to brown and eventually black belt/sash the martial artist (as this is what the student is training to become) practices more technical, more subtle techniques which aim to make him more ‘insubstantial’. Instead of meeting force with force an advanced practitioner aims to deflect and neutralise incoming force. Eventually it becomes very difficult for anybody but other experienced martial artists to lay a hand upon you. Some good advice is to always assume your opponent has a knife. Good advice I feel as it helps to reinforce the idea of being insubstantial and avoiding an incoming force. This is the point in a persons training where Taijiquan needs to enter their martial path.

Every practice in Taijiquan and its related exercises in Qi Gong and Nei Gong, pushing hands and other two man drills is designed to help the martial artist become more insubstantial. Over time one learns how to lessen the use of their external force (generated by muscular power) and begin to use their internal power which, I feel, is such a complex subject that it warrants several more articles on this subject alone!

Obviously, as practitioners of Taijiquan our study is not just related to martial arts in their narrow sense but the study of conflict on every level. Realisation of this makes approaching resolution of fighting (literal, internal and cosmic) anything but narrow.

Final words of advice from this rambling beginner…Keep practicing…

Pre-Emptive Strike: Modern Reality Based Training Or Traditional Karate

I am a big admirer of Geoff Thompson.  He has done a lot to promote the cause of reality training and is very much into keeping it real.  His training methods are often as much about how to avoid getting into a fight (not taught in many martial arts) as has how to actually conduct the fight itself.  Traditional martial arts generally teach you how to win in a fair fight.  But that’s the problem, most fights aren’t fair.  Sometimes you could be outnumbered, your assailant(s) could have a weapon and they often start from right up in your face without warning (rather than bowing first from a safe distance before gradually moving in).

So assuming that you’ve done all the avoidance techniques and the guy is still coming in and it is clear that the conflict is going to become physical, what is universally the best tactic to use?

Note, I said tactic, not technique.

In the words of Geoff Thompson himself:

“And if an encounter does by necessity become physical I teach and I preach the pre-emptive strike (attacking first). It is the only thing that works consistently. All the other stuff that you see, that you are taught or that you imagine might work ‘out there’ probably will not”.

And:

“If your choice is a physical response, my advice is to be pre-emptive and strike first – very hard – preferably on the jaw (it’s a direct link to the brain”.

In the Karate world in particular, people used to quote Funakoshi when he famously said:

“In Karate, there is no first strike”.

This has been taken to mean that we have to actually wait for an attacker to throw the first strike and then try and block and counter it.  This is a dangerous game to play.  Geoff is spot when he describes this as:

“not only unsound it is dangerous and extremely naive”.

It’s not so bad when you are in a competition and your opponent is just out of range, then suddenly tries to attack (usually whilst still maintaining full leg or arm range).  But in a street where somebody may be right up in your face, nose to nose, screaming obscenities at you, its not so good.  Also, in a street fight an attacker is likely to grab you and pull you around or off balance (a tactic that is banned in Karate, TKD, Kickboxing and some others sport fighting systems).

So why would Funakoshi give advice that would leave his students in a vulnerable position?  Well it is widely accepted by many now that something has been lost in the translation and what Funakoshi really meant was, that you don’t instigate or look for the fight.  However, when in a  situation when physical threat is unavoidable and you cannot get away, Funakoshi wrote in his book, Karate Do Kyohan:

“When there are no avenues of escape or one is caught even before any attempt to escape can be made, then for the first time the use of self-defense techniques should be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first let the attacker become careless. At that time attack him concentrating one’s whole strength in one blow to a vital point and in the moment of surprise, escape, seek shelter, and seek help.”

Funikoshi is clearly talking about a pre-emptive strike.  He recommends that you strike a “vital point” which is not so different from Geoff Thompson recommending that you strike the jaw as it has a direct link to the brain.  He was trained for reality, not competition.  This is the part that has been overlooked in the way that so many people have trained for a number of decades.  I believe that this is largely because Karate has been dumbed down (see my 5 part video course if you haven’t already) and the fact that for such a long time Karate has been interpreted through the eyes of competition fighters.

Geoff Thompson and the other modern reality based martial arts teachers are not the first ones to train this way.  Clearly the old Okinawan masters did too.  However, after decades of being dumbed down for social and political reasons, Geoff and the other masters of reality based training have helped to bring the “lost” elements to help us make our training more complete.

Some people will (quite reasonably) have a concerns about the legalities of using a pre-emptive strike.  Firstly, as you can never be sure how far an attacker will go, it is best to make that you are still around to deal with the legalities.  No point being killed for the sake of worrying about going to court.

Secondly, in the UK at least (and I suspect most other countries), if you feel that you are in a real danger of being harmed by a would-be attacker, you are legally entitled to use a pre-emptive strike.  I don’t know about other countries, but this is a defence that will stand in a British court.  However, you will have to give good reason why you thought that you were in very real and very imminent danger.  Somebody giving you a dodgy look will not be accepted.

Tai Chi: For Advanced Martial Artists

Many martial arts are misunderstood.  I have written a number of times about how Karate and other arts have become dumbed down and stylised to a point where a lot of what is practiced would not work under pressure.

However, I don’t think any martial art is more misunderstood than Tai Chi.  I think this is for a number of reasons, but mostly:

  • Many people practice it purely as a for health and well-being, with no martial applications at all.
  • Many people do not believe in the concept of “Chi” energy on which Tai Chi is largely based.
  • With more and more people getting into “reality based” training, “hard” styles being seen by many as stylised and ritualistic; the slow practice of Tai Chi seems even further from being a real form of combat.

So lets have a closer look at Tai Chi.  Firstly we should look at the modern emphasis on health and well-being.  I am told that the Chinese communist government wanted to exploit the the health properties of Tai Chi as a simple way to keep people healthy and keep down expenditure on their health service.  They therefore called together a number of top Tai Chi masters and told them to create a simplified version of Tai Chi for introduction to the masses.  When the masters initially refused, they were told that they and their families would be sent to labour camps.  So they agreed.  The simplified Tai Chi that they created was nicknamed “Beijing Tai Chi” and this is the version that spread most rapidly around the world.

As for the concept of chi, some people will never believe in it which is fair enough, we are all entitled to our own views.  I just ask that if you are somebody that does not believe, then please just respect the views of those that do.

As for a combat system that is performed slowly, that one takes a bit more to get your head around.  The part which is often missed is that Tai Chi as a combat art was never designed to be, or expected to be the starting point.  In China, in the Shaolin monasteries and elsewhere, they would alway start with a “hard” style first and only after they mastered that would they move on to Tai Chi and other internal styles.  It is not simply that they start young and young people relate better to harder styles (which is true in itself), but learning Tai Chi is actually easier if you have experience in a harder art.

By learning the hard art first (such as Kung Fu, Karate or similar), the practitioner learns about speed, raw power, distancing, dealing with somebody steaming in full power, aggression, adrenalin and all the primary aspects of combat.  Many people will be quick to point out that Tai Chi does not teach these things.  In the main they are right; because Tai Chi is designed for people who already know them.  Tai Chi is not a stand alone fighting art, it is the polish and finish on other fighting arts, which takes them to higher levels.

As my instructor Paul Mitchell says, most martial arts teach you to be substantial, whereas Tai Chi teaches you to be insubstantial.  What does this mean?

Well in most martial arts, we learn the things mentioned above (speed, power, aggression, etc); how to meet somebody head on, or even when evading how to hit them like a hammer when you do strike.  These make you act and feel to the opponent very substantial indeed.  But with Tai Chi, somebody attacks and you learn to almost “melt” out of their way letting them finish an attack after you are no longer there.  To be able to move like this requires a high degree of relaxation.  This is being “insubstantial” so that you can just not be their when the attack is completed.

So why is everything practiced so slowly?

Firstly, it is learn the relaxation to be able move in an “insubstantial” way.  This primarily uses the internal muscles of the body rather than the major muscle groups (as most other martial arts do).  Learning to use the internal muscles can not be done by practicing fast.

Secondly it is learn to use and move your internal energy.  As mentioned above, I know that a lot of people reading this probably won’t believe in Chi, but again, please just respect that this is the belief of most people that do practice Tai Chi.  The idea is to learn to co-ordinate your internal energy with your physical movement and this can only be done slowly.

Thirdly (and this is where some people will probably think I’ve gone mad) it is to learn to deal with the effects of adrenalin and to stay calm when confronted by a hostile person.  Now people who do the reality based scenario training that I’ve discussed in earlier postings will probably have trouble seeing how moving slowly through a form can possibly prepare you for the effects of adrenalin.  Well the short answer is it doesn’t, that should have already been accomplished by the previous martial arts training (Kung Fu/Karate etc).  By the time you take up Tai Chi you should already be familiar with the effects of adrenalin and confrontation.  What Tai Chi aims to do is to keep you calm in the face of confrontation and to actually negate the effects of adrenalin.

Scenario based training as discussed in other postings is geared to giving you an adrenalin rush (so that you get used to operating in that state), which is fantastic when you start your martial arts career.  However, Tai Chi being geared to advanced martial artists is geared to stop you having an adrenalin rush.  This will not happen overnight and will take years to achieve, but it is a long term training program and that is what is works towards.  That is why as a martial art, it is only really for already accomplished martial artists.  As a form of health and well-being, you can start it anytime without any experience in other martial arts.

The slow movements are designed to give the feeling that you “have all day” when somebody attacks you.  Of course you don’t.  Of course you have to move very fast.  But that’s why you should have done another martial art first.  You are also training to achieve a deep state of relaxation which permeates into every facet of your life.  This includes staying relaxed when in a violent confrontation and we all know that you move faster when you are relaxed.

Some people may be concerned by the idea of negating the effects of adrenalin as it boosts strength and speed (which are obviously useful) so why loose these positive effects?  Well again, we go back to already being an accomplished martial artist.  You should be strong and fast already.

But what about the negative effects of adrenalin (which will vary from person to person and situation to situation)?

  • Blood goes away from your brain and into the major muscle groups so you loose some of your fine motor skills.
  • You tend to get tunnel vision (which is not good for multiple opponents).
  • You can’t think so well and you may blank out verbal advice from friends/allies trying to help.

So if you could function with speed and power (from previous training) without losing fine motor skills, without losing mental faculties, being aware of multiple assailants and being aware of helpful/warning shouts around you, then you can take your fighting ability to a whole new level.

Kata: Training Beyond Technique

Much is debated and demonstrated about the fighting applications within kata (patterns/forms), myself included.  But not too much is spoken about the mindset, or mental approach you should take when performing your kata.  Yes we all know that we should concentrate and focus, but beyond that . . . . what?

Whilst we are learning our kata, then obviously a certain amount of our concentration will be on making sure that we get the techniques and sequence correct.  With practice we should be able to perform our kata without having to think about them very much.  So now that we no longer have to think about the movements, what do we think about?  What’s for dinner?  Going for a drink afterwards?  Or how cool we look doing this kata without thinking about it?

Well my answer might surprise some people, especially as a large part of our training is about self development and making ourselves better people.  What I think you should do when you perform a kata that  you know well is to pour all you nastiness, malevolence, viciousness and malice into your kata.  That may sound strange from somebody who believes in self development as well as practicality, but please bear with me.

Real violence is nasty, malevolent, vicious and full of malice; and performing kata (or basics) is a mental rehearsal as well as a physical rehearsal.  Thugs may not have good technique, but they are used to “training” in the “adrenalin zone”. When you have to fight to defend yourself or your loved ones, then you are entering the thugs world of real violence and you have to be able to cope with it.  Adrenalin will effect your body, your perceptions and your ability to think. Your training should be real enough in your mind that you get a small adrenalin rush each time.  Whilst too much adrenalin can be unhealthy, a regular amount at low levels is fine, plus you become more immune to it’s negative effects after a while.  You will be able to remain calmer in a crisis.

Now some people may be concerned that training with this mindset may also train a thuggish mentality.  But as soon as you finish your kata, you step up into Yamae (finish position), you go back to calm.

We train ourselves to “switch on” quickly and “switch off” just as quickly.  If somebody attacks us, we do not want to freeze in shock (which happens even to high grade martial artists).  That said, if we successfully defend ourselves and incapacitate our attacker, we do not want to jump up and down on their prostrate body or perform River-Dance on their head.  We need to be able to stop and not be carried away in the heat of an unfamiliar moment.

As martial artists we need to know when to stop for  legal and even more importantly; for moral reasons.  We need to enter the world of vile malevolence when needed and exit it just as quickly when the job is done.  However, nasty the thug may be, we as martial artists should be able to show mercy once we overpower him/her.  It is part of the Yin & Yang of training and of our development.  Its about balance in our personality.

The only way to have little or no fear of violence is to be good at it.  I am not advocating that you act in a violent manner, but when you know that you can handle yourself in most situations, you project a confidence which most predators of the human world will recognise and they will be more likely to avoid you.  Please note that I say “most situations”, as there will always be someone more experienced or better armed then you.

Most human predators mirror the animal predators.  Think of the lion, king of the jungle.  They hunt in prides, but do they for the big muscular young bull buffalo with the great big horns.

No.

They go for the old, the young, the weak, the one with the gammy leg that can’t run properly.  Basically, for predators its about finding an easy target.  For us training is about making you a hard target, physically and emotionally.  The big fit bull with the horns does not need to threaten the lions, the lions just know.  So it is when you walk with an air of confidence, the human predators just know.

But projecting true confidence is not just about how you walk or your posture.  It’s about knowing that you are prepared physically and mentally should a conflict make it necessary.  As Bruce Lee once said in his films, “the art of fighting without fighting”.

I heard of a study years ago where they got 3 groups and tested them at throwing balls through a basketball hoop.  After recording the results, they had one of the groups practice shooting the balls at the hoop, one of the groups not practice at all; and the third group just visualise throwing balls at the hoop.  Later they tested the three groups again.  The group that practiced improved by something like 24% (if I remember right).  The group that did not practice made no improvement at all.

The amazing thing though was that the group that just visualised throwing the balls improved dramatically, with about a 23% improvement.  Visualisation achieved almost as good a result as doing the real thing.  Therefore whilst practicing kata, using visualisations of the violence and malevolence of the situation can actually help you prepare for it more than most people give it credit for (even if you don’t fully understand the bunkai).  Although good technique is important, unless you are practicing primarily for competition it should not always be your main focus.  Funikoshi said that spirit is more important than technique and he primarily taught by kata rather than kumite (sparring).

This concept may be a bit new to some people.  Whether it’s new to you or not, please leave a comment below to tell me what you think, I’d like to hear from you.

Is Kata (Forms/Patterns) Without Realistic Bunkai “Organized Despair”?

Bruce Lee once famously referred to the way that many traditional martial artists train as, “organized despair”.  The full quote is reproduced below for you:

“Instead of facing combat in it’s suchness, quite a few systems of martial art accumulate “fanciness” that distorts and cramps their practitioners and distracts them from the actual reality of combat, which is simple and direct and non-classical. Instead of going immediately to the heart of things, flowery forms and artificial techniques (organized despair!) are ritually practiced to simulate actual combat. Thus, instead of being in combat, these practitioners are idealistically doing something about combat”

So, are our katas/forms/patterns “flowery forms and artificial techniques“?

Whilst some undoubtedly are, I don’t believe that all of them are and I think that it helps to look at a historical perspective.  When Bruce Lee made that statement, martial arts were very new to the West and they were not as well understood then as they are now.

Traditionally masters would teach a small number of students and the students would have to gain the masters trust before being taught anything of consequence.    However, when fully accepted the student would learn a full system of self defence which would include kicks, punches, locks, throws, breaking bones/joints and much more.

So when Karate was introduced into the Okinawan school system, would you want the school kids knowing how to break each others bones?

Funikoshi took Karate to Japan at a time when Japan was building up for war and saw unarmed martial arts as obsolete, except for personal development.  Do you think Funikoshi who wanted to gain acceptance for his art challenged this stance?

When the Americans occupied Japan after the war, they banned martial arts.  To get permission to train, the Japanese had to play down the martial aspects in favour of sport and self development.  This is the version that the GI’s learnt and took back to America.

The Chinese community in Bruce Lee’s day, were very reluctant to teach Kung Fu to non-Chinese.  When they did finally open up to the Western public, do you think that they would teach mass audiences their best techniques?

Even Ip Man who taught Wing Chun Kung Fu to Bruce Lee is believed to have held back information from Bruce Lee because Bruce was not a full blooded Chinese.

The bottom line is – a lot of information was held back for one reason or another and in Bruce Lee’s day, many people did not have much clue about what the katas/forms/patterns were for.  With Bruce Lee’s very pragmatic approach and with information held back by even his own teachers, can you blame him for seeing it as “organised despair”.

Although so much has opened up today and is continuing to do so all the time, there are still very many people (and whole associations) still caught in trap of not knowing what there katas movements are really for.  So we go back to the question, is Kata without realistic bunkai, just organized despair?

Undoubtedly kata WITH realistic bunkai is a much better way to train.  It brings the katas to life.  However, there is always the old maxim, that before you can control somebody else (in a fight), you must be able to control yourself.

This is where I believe that kata will always be useful.  The turns and spins in different directions; landing with co-ordination, speed, power and crispness are excellent ways to learn that control of yourself.  You will learn more control and co-ordination with kata than you will by pounding pads or punchbags.  You also learn form, structure and principles of movement that you can apply to other things.  That is not to say that pounding pads/punchbags is not useful, because obviously it is.  However, I believe that kata training in its own right does have something to offer martial artists of all styles, even without good bunkai.

I do not suggest that kata training kata should be pursued at the detriment of other aspects of martial training and I agree with Bruce Lee, that in itself kata does not prepare you for actual combat.  However, as part of an fully rounded taining system I do believe that it plays an important part.