Self-defense Prerequisite

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DSC04708Wow, it’s been a long time since I wrote. Life and training have been moving forward at quite a pace of late, which gives me plenty to write about but less time to digest the material and get it down in words.

I was home in the US this winter, in Maryland for December and January, in New York City February and March. I missed more training than I would have liked, but I was busily trying to lay some groundwork for my more permanent return home in September of this year, so I needed a little more time.

I have written a lot about internal self defense, and I will write a lot more. Right now I am facing some fairly big changes and decisions, and talking with a lot of people about them.¬† There is an essential ingredient in these discussions that I’d like to explicitly point out, an understanding without which internal self defense is crippled.

We do not experience our reality as an absolute; we interpret it. The interpretation happens very quickly, faster than the blink of an eye sometimes in the act of perception, but nonetheless we assign value to things that we experience. I won’t say we decide our emotional reactions, because it is generally not as cerebral as that, and indeed trying to intellectually change how you feel about a thing often just causes counterproductive strain. But our mental state, the health of our bodies, our habits of perception, “mood” one could say — these things can be changed, and can be used to change how the world impacts us on a fundamental level. Is the thing I am experiencing good or bad, proper or improper, fair or unfair, stressful or relaxing? The belief in our ability to change these value assessments independently of the experience that inspires them is a prerequisite to studying internal martial arts.

The antithesis of this is the belief that we see reality merely as it is, that there is a direct and unalterable sequence of cause and effect from stimulus to senses to brain to reaction. To believe this, reassuming the self-defense metaphor, is to believe that the enemy is already within the gates, and there is no possibility whatsoever for preserving ourselves from him. Most people I have met who think this way bear their lives and experience like a collection of scars that have never healed properly.

Others, however, are as perfectly content as they could wish. Acknowledging the malleability of our perception is not necessary to happiness. It would be wonderful to see the world always optimistically with no shadow of suspicion that there is any other way to see it. But for those of us who need to practice our internal self defense, there is no going forward without this basic premise.

Relationship Premises

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dogcatI’ll tell a little story about life here at the kungfu school. Our dormitories are located in a former hospital, in two buildings with a courtyard between. But when I first came here in early 2008, the kungfu school only occupied the front-most¬† of the two buildings. Shifu acquired the back building shortly before I started studying here full-time.

The rooms of the former hospital had been being used for residence for a while, and there was one occupant who would not leave when the kungfu school took over. In the spirit goodwill, I imagine, no big fuss was made and that man– an older, retired herbal doctor — has continued to live at one end of the dormitory hallway. As a matter of fact, he is my next-door neighbor.

For various reasons, tensions between the kungfu students and my neighbor escalated. Not the least of these was the intrusion of pervasive Chinese culture shock into our ex-patriot stronghold, the one place in China we hoped to call our own. Also, he did not share our training schedule, so when we desperately needed rest he might be having a loud and alcoholic card game with his friends or stomping down the hallway or loudly and revoltingly clearing his throat and spitting on the floor. For a while we even shared a bathroom with the guy, and finding the remains of his having cleaned fish for dinner in your shower drain is never fun. Things bottomed out with multilingual screaming matches in the hallway and hard feelings all around.

But for me there was a significant turning point where my relationship with the guy stopped getting worse and started getting better. That was the moment when I realized he wasn’t going away. I think subconsciously my fellow students acted on the premiss that they could choose not to have this relationship, that if they antagonized him enough, he would move out. When I accepted that he was not going to move out, and that I didn’t want to be the kind of person who would drive him out, the question became not if I was going to have a relationship with this guy, but what kind of relationship ours would be.

There is a degree of satisfaction to be gained just by committing to a thing, that can’t be found while we withhold acceptance of that thing’s actuality. New people or circumstances are like a new piece of furniture that surprises you by appearing in your living room; if you can’t fit it out the door, it is better to rearrange the furniture and make a place for it than to leave it sitting in the middle of the floor.

As for my neighbor, all I really did was smile at him when I saw him in the hallway and compliment him once in a while if I liked his clothes or something. More than my external behavior, my internal behavior changed. When I started acting on the premiss that he was part of my life here in Wudang, his noise, his smelly cooking, his loud TV, it all stopped annoying me because I acknowledged his right to be there.


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We had a lecture on discipline this week from Master, which dovetails nicely with my own recent reflections. While I was in Hunan teaching that summer program for kids, the effort of trying to get them to rise to an acceptable discipline level had me thinking about how discipline is taught. I think it is a great mystery to me still, but I am starting to get a few ideas.

There are, of course, two kinds of discipline: external discipline and internal discipline. External discipline is when someone else is yelling at you and punishing you when fail to meet expectations. China in general, and our kungfu school in particular, is a great place for external discipline. When one steps out of line, there are shouts, lectures, and ultimately a cane to put one back on course.

Internal discipline is the real prize, however. It is self-discipline, self-control that lets one do what one needs to do when no one is there to motivate you. This is what a human being needs to live well, and this is what we train kungfu to find. It is the superior kind of discipline; a self-disciplined individual thrives even in an external-discipline environment, but an externally disciplined individual withers without their discipliners.

I have come to believe that we in the West misunderstand the role that external discipline plays in developing internal discipline. It is logical that if one is always externally disciplined, one never develops the responsibility to be self-disciplined. This is certainly true. But I think this leads people to try to teach self-discipline with a kind of sink-or-swim approach. We throw ourselves, our students, and our children into deep water, trusting to instinct or chance to teach them the right self-reliance. If they sink, we drag them out, but just chuck them back in the deep water at the next opportunity. Without incredible luck, failure cycles downward into more failure, and discipline is lost altogether.

I feel that external discipline is like the shallow end of the pool. It’s true you will never truly learn to swim if you never leave the shallows, but there are valuable lessons to be learned there: comfort in the water being foremost, but also coordination. In terms of discipline, comfort in the water is just confidence and an understanding of the benefits of discipline.

Coordination means fidelity between the part of your mind giving commands and the part carrying them out. This is critical. When I first came to Wudang, getting up at 5:00 AM was a huge challenge. I would tell myself to get up, but the part of me receiving the command didn’t believe it would happen, and this lack of faith made self-discipline impossible. I didn’t believe I would do what I told myself to do. So I would be late for training. Punishment pushups and the humiliation of being punished are not fun at 5:15AM, and after a while I learned to get up on time if only to avoid them. But in that process, my lower mind began to believe that it would do what my upper mind told it, and this was an important step for me.

So I have come to believe that teaching self-discipline needs external discipline. Opportunities for self-reliance must be given, but the time in between must be used to practice the coordination that makes success possible.

Internal Self Defense

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A small shrine near Five Dragon Temple

What does it mean to practice Martial Arts in your daily interactions? The uninitiated might imagine this as fearsome, like a businessman using The Art of War to overwhelm rivals. Myself — years ago when I had only been training long enough to develop some arrogance and little else — I had to give a speech in front of a large group of people. I was nervous, so I drew confidence from my imagined superiority. They might not like my speech, but I could beat them up. Ha.

Aikido was my first experience of how martial arts could be applied positively when dealing with strangers, friends, and loved ones. Aikido’s philosophy separates the intent to do harm from the art of defending oneself. The goal is to use sensitivity to neutralize the conflict without harming either attacker or defender. While the principles of block and counter-attack would only do harm if manifested verbally in an argument with a loved one, Aikido’s methodology provides a healthier model for conflict resolution.

I found myself reflecting on these things this week after listening to an impromptu lecture from my master. I paraphrase, but he was discussing external self-defense versus internal self-defense. Imagine a punch to your nose. You block — you break the attacker’s arm. An effective defense, no? But what if the attack is verbal? Words that wound, that make you sad, or angry. Words that keep bubbling up in you, and each time make you sadder and angrier. That same attacker has now given you a festering wound that will take longer to heal than a bloody nose.

To take this seriously, you must accept that emotions have power. Negative emotions do violence to the heart and mind. Chinese medicine also links emotion to the health of the major organs. So an unusual mood might be a symptom of a developing illness, or conversely, learning to calm the emotions might bring better health. But I think what makes negative emotions so dangerous is the way they influence behavior. If they lead to self destruction, no one else can help you, and you yourself are already out of control and not well prepared to protect yourself. Internal self-defense means keeping calm and choosing happiness in every event. The more I train, the more important this seems.