Saturday, 30 January 2010

Building resilience

I think it is a chinese curse - 'May you live in interesting times.' These are certainly interesting times. Although the international financial recession is officially over in many countries, the knock-on effects are going to be felt for some time. That means lots of change to industries and the way we live our lives.

Throughout all this there have been a plethora of self-help articles talking about how bad it is to have stress..... how much stress everyone is under.... all the business hours lost due to stress.... how many peoples suffer medical conditions due to stress stress stress.

I think there is something missing from many modern people's personal arsenal... resilience.

Resilience in psychology is the positive capacity of people to cope with change, stress and catastrophe. Martial arts are a great way to develop resilience. One can argue that resilience is the biggest attribute that martial arts offers. Here are some practical tips on how to improve your resilience:
  • Learn to accept change as inevitable, random and non-personal.
  • Get a can-do attitude. All problems can be solved if you break them down into small, easy tasks.
  • Learn to observe your mental dialogue, paying particular attention where you limit yourself.
  • Be adaptable. If something doesn't work, merely modify your approach and try again.
  • Take action - do something. Any action is better than doing nothing. You may be wrong to start with, but you can modify your approach.
  • Work hard to discover your purpose in life.
  • Broaden your outlook. Try to think about the biggest picture possible. The bigger you think, the smaller your problems will seem.
  • Work on a positive self-image.
  • Look after your health - exercise well, eat right and get plenty of sleep.
  • Emotionally, be gentle with yourself and forgive. Nobody's perfect.
  • Approach problems as an opportunity to learn and grow. Take a spiritual approach to your development (Please note, I am not talking about any beliefs, religion or dogma.)
Resilience is the antithesis to the victim mentality. Take up resilience and throw yourself into it. The bumps in the road will still be there, but your shock absorbers will make it feel smoother than it is.

Friday, 29 January 2010

No on-line teachings?

A received a very interesting note from a friend asking me why I didn't put many technical articles about how to do Tai Chi. The reasons are legion, but I can condense into a few paragraphs:

No feedback: Showing you is great, and you can go away and practice, but how do you know you are getting it right?

It's very subtle: However I describe Tai Chi techniques, will not be enough to convey what is required. I have tried - and by my own standards - have failed. The best way of learning is like I did - by going to a teacher who is prepared to place their hands on you and move you correctly. I have not known many teachers who actually do this.

Tai Chi should be differentiated for every student: Everyone finds different things easy and others difficult. When given feedback, each student should be assessed and the advice given to them should be prioritised and the most important lessons given first. When practicing on your own, it is easy to become obsessed by a particular aspect of the discipline and neglect what is really important.

If it looks good - doesn't mean it is: External impression can be very different from internal sense - Some of the most impressive fighters I have competed with have had forms that gave absolutely no hint of their skill. In fact some of them appeared to be very crude indeed. Although we all give clues, you only truly know how good someone is when you fight them.

The information age is fuelling a generation of armchair martial artists - people who have read the technical manuals, but have not done the work. Just pick a well-watched martial arts video on youtube, and you can read hundreds of small-minded comments from people who talk the talk and can't walk the walk. I have no wish to provide ammunition for these people.

If you really want to learn, come to my classes. Details are at

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Are your rituals helping you?

This is a continuation from my previous post - Rituals.

As martial artists, we all have inherited rituals that have been passed down by the oral tradition from Teacher to Student. Some are around how we treat each other, how we maintain our floors and equipment. They can prepare us for conflict by focusing our minds and intimidating our opponents. Our forms or katas are also rituals. You may have verses or special words to say; You may salute your teachers and class mates. All of these are rituals.

If rituals have not been taught to beginners correctly, how can they benefit from them? Even seasoned martial artists can become disconnected from their rituals. Over a period of time, these activities can become so deeply ingrained that they are done automatically without any thought whatsoever, and their mental significance is lost. So how do you re-connect with your rituals? Like every other scientific theory - you subject them to scrutiny.

Firstly, you must get your history books and study the history and culture of the area where your art originated from. What were the popular beliefs - political, social and religious? What were the seasons like, and the lie of the land? What was the social status of the people who developed the art? What was the understanding of biology, chemistry and physics like? What were the common dangers that people faced? What were the popular weapons of choice? What assumptions were made about fighting?

Put all these together and you start to get a picture of the paradigm that shaped your martial art. Now compare that paradigm with modern day. What are the differences in popular beliefs? Do you hold the same beliefs as they used to? If not, can you interpret these differences, or do they grate with you?

Now, take an honest look at the rituals that you undertake. Understand what they are doing, and consider that they may be trying to influence others, including your teacher, friends, foes and family. They may have supernatural and metaphysical intentions underpinning them. If you do not believe these, can you find a modern way of justifying them?

Now you understand the origins of your rituals, practice them again. They may have an added level of significance once you know more about them. Finally test the outcomes of your rituals against yourself. Are they working? Do you feel different after doing them? Do they influence your opponents like they should? Be honest, scientific, open-minded and at the same time sceptical.

At this point, there may be some rituals that you want to discard. But the ones that you keep will be the ones that work for you, and through your research and greater understanding will have a resonance that can only add to the richness of your experience.

Friday, 22 January 2010


Many martial arts are full of rituals:

From merely bowing when you enter the room, to the elabourate pre-match sumo display, many traditional warrior creeds and martial arts are steeped in ritual. From the layman's perspective, these can appear - at best a little strange, and at worse intimidating. But if you look past the ancient beliefs, these rituals all have a vital purpose.

When looking at the fundamental reason why we do any ritual, there is no variation. All rituals are physical activities that help people prepare their minds. Bowing in martial arts is all about teaching you respect for your teacher, opponents and friends. Forms and dances teach you to focus your mind for combat. Meditation teaches you to still your mind.

Modern sports psychiatrists and doctors would say that there is little place for rituals today. They utilise neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) or hypnotism to instil the correct attitude in the modern athlete. There are new breeds of martial arts designed purely for success in the ring. They argue that ritual is a superfluous activity and a waste of a fighter's strength. Perhaps.......

But perhaps in the future, there may be an even better way of training our attitudes. We will look upon NLP and hypnotism as being rituals (which - in a way - they are).

Perhaps, it is not the rituals that are the problems, but the beliefs that need to change. For where would we be without some of our rituals? What would we do if we couldn't show friendship by shaking hands? How would we show our team how happy we are if we can't clap and cheer? How would we secure our future with our wives/husbands?

For better or worse, ritual is with us to stay. We must look with "open-minded scepticism" at our rituals and ask are they serving us well, or are they a crutch that we can do without?

I'm going to leave you with one of the greatest exponent of the pre-match ritual. Enjoy:

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The importance of focus - part 2

I received a few emails about my article entitled The Importance of Focus. People wanted to know more about consciousness. From a martial arts perspective, first view my article "My thoughts on martial arts". Done that? Good.

Your consciousness is the information you have obtained from your senses. When we absorb an experience, it is compared with previous memories of experience. When two or more experiences match, they form a belief. Also, if a single experience is of serious significance, it can also create or change beliefs. We have very little conscious control over this process, and the beliefs we learn can seriously prevent us from moving forward in our lives.

When our beliefs are at odds with our environment, we experience fear, anger, hate, jealousy etc. It is possible to unplug yourself from this by reducing the input from your senses, memory and imagination.

This altered state of consciousness is called Meditation. When done correctly, you attain a deep sense of peace and relaxation. However, it is when you plug back into your senses and memories that you start to observe your reactions. You start to realise that it is not the outside world that upsets you - it is you who upsets yourself. From that realisation comes the foundation upon which to build profound and lasting change.

Sunday, 10 January 2010


There has been an alarming trend amongst news services in the UK to grab headlines by announcing things like "The murderer met his victim on FACEBOOK!", or "Chilling final message left by the terrorists on THE INTERNET!" or how about the killer "Children groomed by Pedophiles in CHAT ROOMS!"

So before the internet came along were there headlines like - "Terrorists used TELEPHONES to talk to each other!" or "Terrorist left letter with his GRANNY!"? Or "Pedophiles groom children in PARK!"

Why is the media sensationalising stories about the internet?

The billionaire media magnate, Rupert Murdoch is exactly right (interesting that he talks about choice for the individual, rather than opportunity, control or ownership). The internet is changing the way we do things. Now you know why television & newspapers want to demonise the internet.... The internet is undermining their control. Like it or not, the consolidation of power is moving away from the media giants, and towards the individual.

Do you think this is new? Governments all over the world are seeking the legal backing and the technology to monitor all internet communications. They want to get back the control that they had over the regular communications channels.

Oh this is so disgusting, I hear you say. How can they act like this? We all have rights to freedom and privacy! There is a more fundamental human nature driving such repression. It is the fear of chaos and the need for control. Unless we are unwell or disturbed, we all like things to be organised and calm. Unfortunately, we cannot agree on the definitions of organisation or the correct way to organise everything. So even with the most benevolent intentions, if we exert our control over others, they will resent it.

A martial artist can be seen as an expression of this need for control. Violence is - by it's nature - a chaotic activity. Martial arts give people the ability to anticipate, neutralise and control people who are violent. With this training comes a fundamental easing of the fight-or-flight instinct that brings tension to every daily activity we undertake.

But as martial artists, we must continue to examine our beliefs - to recognise the need for control as an affliction, and to accept that - fundamentally - all control is an illusion.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Down in one

You've trained for years. You are so confident in your skills. All your friends tell you how cool and tough you are. But the truth is.....

It only takes one well-placed punch or kick to leave your reputation in tatters and everyone laughing. Training with your friends and teacher in your martial arts club is a world away from the ring, and even further from the street. You may have a fierce reputation amongst your friends, but life has no respect for reputation or dignity and it has a funny way of teaching you the hardest lessons.