Saturday, 15 August 2015

Titles and Tai Chi

When do people call themselves 'Master', what are they actually saying? The Mandarin for 'Master' is 'Shifu' (or Sifu). It means 'accomplished worker' or 'skilled person'. Generally, it is used as a respectful term for people in skilled manual trades - particularly where there is a relationship between apprentice and teacher. Apprentice monks can also refer to their teachers as 'Shifu'.

When asked about how to call them, most Chinese 'Grandmasters' that I have come across prefer the term - 'Laoshi', which means 'Teacher'. To me, this applies not only to humility, but also acknowledges how the terms 'Master' and 'Grandmaster' have come to signify almost mythical status.

So when a person is granted (or grants themselves) a title, what are they saying about themselves? I can't possibly answer that, because these words mean different things to other people. The titles they choose reflect their understanding of their martial art, perhaps their position within a hierarchy, the relationship they want to make with their students - many things.

To me, using the titles of 'Master' etc. elevates my position, and makes my skills seem unattainable to my students. I don't want that. I want to put the least amount of impediment between my students and their success. The term 'Teacher' - to me brings up too many bad memories of school and mandatory work. I want my title to imply success and enjoyment. I want to say that anyone can attain and exceed my level of skill. This is why I prefer the term 'coach'.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Keeping calm

When the American author - Josiah Gilbert Holland wrote, "Calmness is the cradle of power", he uttered a truly profound statement. This is a valued state of being within many cultures across the world, yet has been lost in our modern lifestyle in a subtle and pervasive way.

'Busy' is the new 'happy', and calm has been submerged in a torrent of emails, text messages, to do lists, social media posts, manipulative media, telephone calls, businesses and conflicting demands. The promise of technology setting us free has largely removed a lot of the physical effort. For many people, that reduction of manual work has been replaced with a barrage of information overload.
Many people's only contact with martial arts are through films and TV shows, so they can be forgiven for thinking that martial arts are only about fighting and stomping your opponent into the ground! Nothing could be further from the truth. The meditative approach to Tai Chi is not necessarily about being calm for calmness' sake. It is a valuable tool for self defence.

When the mind is calm, the body movement follows intention better. You are able to defend yourself better. When there is confusion in intention, there is confusion in movement.Therefore, it is vital to be calm at all times. Without calmness, you cannot effectively comprehend the movements of your opponent. Without calmness, you cannot discern the correct and appropriate action.

So how do you embrace calmness? It must be a total lifestyle approach.

Discover meditation, or any gentle focusing activity that makes you calm. Do it at least once per day. Treat it like your 'reset' button.

Choose an exercise that calms you as well as making you fit. Make sure you have genuine useful goals, rather than goals that are based upon vanity and insecurities.

Rest regularly
If you work, split your day up. Take regular breaks. Ensure that your sleep is undisturbed and restful.

Do the right thing
When your values are not in line with what you are doing, you will experience enormous conflict. If you are in a job that is against your beliefs, stop it. Examine what goals you are chasing. Are they truly your own? If you are not living your values, find the right way of living.

Learn the danger signals
There are clear signals that your calmness is being disrupted. Learn them and watch yourself keenly for any signs that you are slipping:
  • Physical tension (everyone keeps their tension in particular places. Learn where you keep yours and watch out for it.)
  • Agitated thoughts
  • Repetitive thoughts 
  • Headaches
  • Increased eating and drinking
  • Tiredness that rest does not solve
  • Inability to just sit without thinking "I must be busy".
Above all else, calmness is the first step on a transformational journey
that will affect you on multiple levels.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

3 little words

If there is an enduring motto to Tai Chi (and any other martial art), it can be summed up in 3 little words....

"Just keep practising."

Whatever happens in your life, just keep practising. Even if it's just for 5 or 10 minutes, find something that you can do. When I first started, I didn't always have the time to dedicate to a whole session, so I used to do silk reeling in the photocopying room where I worked. I used to stand in Standing Pole or any of the Tai Chi postures while I was waiting for food to cook, or the kettle to boil.

When I'm not well, I usually concentrate on technique. I will stay seated and practise hand movements and shoulder alignment. From a seated position, I can also practise spinal alignment. I can also meditate, which is excellent for all martial arts. Mental practise is as important as physical. As long as I just keep practising, I know I'm going to be okay.

In an account about Lou Reed's last days before his death, he practised his form with just the hand movements, lying down in bed.

Practise is my default setting. If I'm upset, I practise. If I'm feeling good, I practise. When I'm bored, I practise. This compelling juxtaposition of posture and movement that we call Tai Chi keeps me endlessly fascinated and occupied.

I know that everything will be okay, as long as I just keep practising.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Lessons we can learn from Greece

In these times of cynicism about the state of worldwide democracy, one thing we can look to is the country who invented it - Greece. Many of the concepts that were introduced by the Greeks are still highly relevant today.

One such concept is Plato's allegory of the cave. Plato describes a cave where there are prisoners sitting in the dark, facing the flat wall of the cave. Puppet masters with a fire stand behind them, casting a great shadow show against the wall. 

At first they may have been chained there, but after a while, they gladly accept the shadows as reality. Even the person who is casting the shadows may believe what they are doing is right, and that the shadows they create are real - hence, they are all in this delusional cave.

One or two prisoners may question the show, and discover diffused sunlight at the back of the cave, and begin their ascent to true reality until they see the sun, feel it's warmth upon their bodies and all the wonders that reality truly holds. Those who learn the truth may then return to tell the prisoners about what lies outside the cave. But the prisoners and the puppet masters will most likely call them crazy.

This allegory works on many levels. For many, the journey of the escapees describes a philosophical or a scientific search for truth. But for me, it is the cave that is fascinating, for it could also describe our modern consumer society; the aggressive manipulation of language and concepts to manufacture consent; our culture of high entropy fear motivation; our amplified and distorted survival instincts; the media, it's propaganda machine and even the corporations, governments and religions that are the highest stakeholders in keeping their prisoners (us) in this state of altered reality.

The allegory of the cave is a call for everyone to examine their conscious world and reject the artifice that is everywhere.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Martial Arts and entertainment

Since the Beijing Opera first became popular in the late 18th century, martial arts have been depicted as an integral part of Chinese entertainment.

Modern movies are very much in the same fashion. With the advent of wire work, Computer Generated Images and sound effects, the results are becoming increasingly intense and spectacular.

When martial arts are not in films, they are often on television in the form of contrived conflict, like UFC, wrestling and mixed martial arts bouts:

With all of this high entropy behaviour being encouraged and portrayed in the media, people can be forgiven for thinking that martial arts are too violent and extreme. I often wonder how many people are put off by the reputation that is generated by our mainstream media.

With the extreme cutting and special effects, movie stars appear to defy gravity and perform superhuman feats. This can give new students high expectations that reality just can't live up to. How many people have left their class, disappointed that they cannot knock down doors within a month of training?

Martial arts are primarily about a person becoming self aware and able to take care of themselves on every level - physically, and mentally. For the real conflict is not with each other, but against our own fearful nature.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Students and teachers

There is a very popular quote in eastern philosophy:

"When the student is ready the teacher appears"

You can tell how powerful a quote is by how many people on the internet try to claim it for their own. A quick internet search will reveal that this particular saying has been attributed to both Taoism and Buddhism. There are variations, some people use sage or master in place of teacher. but the context is always the same.

When I first heard this quote, I thought that it alluded to some kind of strange cosmic ordering. Like Aladdin rubbing a lamp, your teacher would magically appear.... genie-like.

The truth is far more subtle and compelling.

The teacher is not a person, but a metaphor for the nature of reality. This simple saying is a call for everyone to learn from life itself. For there are lessons to be had everywhere - not just from everyone, but everything, and also your reaction to everyone and everything. It is a call for true mindfulness, to awaken from your torpor. For when you are ready to learn from life, it is life itself that becomes your teacher on a profound basis.