Sunday, July 5, 2015


Rob asked -

1)As someone with what seems to be a very good 'student' mindset and experience teaching, do you prefer (as either student or teacher) the direct approach of taking a specific problem and 'solving' it? Or do you like to "go down the back alleys".? Does this 'faith' based approach have more potential to ingrain concepts that can be applied to a range of situations?

First off, I don't really think of the long game, as I call it, as 'faith based', though I guess on some level the student has to have 'faith' that the path is actually going somewhere useful for them.

I do think that some problems need to be faced, looked in the eye and taken on. Seeing one's own faults in an example. You have to admit to yourself that you have a gap in your practice, or something that does not work, and only then can you work on getting rid of it. Where this approach falls down is when you really don't believe you need to change. And remember, belief is an emotional response and not a rational one, however much we try to rationalize it into being logical. Examples of this would be "Well I hit you too (even though I am dead)", or, "I expect to be cut (but I got you too)", or, "Why would I need to practice this dance-y stuff (just because I got cut)"?

"Well I hit you too" really means - I do not need to change.
"I expect to be cut" really means - I'm good enough as I am.
"Why would I need to practice this dance-y stuff"? really means - My imagination is too small.

So how do you show someone a reason to change? How do you create the space in their brains to entertain the idea of change? And how do you get them to actually change?

My thought is that the body knows if something is useful or if it is not, to a much greater degree than the brain. So you have to bypass the resistance by speaking to the body directly, and somehow keeping the brain distracted or busy so it cannot resist.

None of this stuff is instantaneous, so you need to entertain/keep busy the resisting part of the brain for enough time for the material to sink into the body and become useful. The body can then tell the mind to switch tracks.

As everyone is different, this involves some experimentation and calibration by the teacher, and must engage the student to inspire them to continue.

The alternative approach is to say - Do as I say. No questions. No thinking. Absolute obedience. This can work, but it shuts down the brain in a way that I don't think is optimal. The way I learned, and try to teach may be more difficult, and more subtle, but the engagement of the mind in confusion and uncertainty is in itself a far more useful state in which to learn to adapt, because if you think about it, you are actually learning about engaging in a chaotic environment which is what dueling, or fighting, is! It's inbuilt, unlike the rigid way, which is absolutely controlled and thus non transferable.

So yes to the last part of your question too. If training this way can show you chaos, uncertainty, and how to keep a calm focus and less ego ... it absolutely spills over into all areas of human interaction and life in general.

2)As someone that has been training and playing for quite a while, had meaningful teaching relationships with at least two different people and has a wide/eclectic experience within martial arts, how exactly have/do you identify people you want to learn from? How do you analyse and judge what they do? After all there are plenty of people that can move in ways that you can't but I'm guessing you don't necessarily want to be able to move like all of them. On a practical level are there any games or exercises you use for baseline testing when exchanging with someone?

'Identifying teachers' happens differently depending on your skill level.

In the beginning you don't know what you are looking for, or at. There's no real way to gauge what is 'good' or appropriate for you until you try. For me it was a case of seeing stuff and thinking 'that looks cool. I want to do that'. So, I started fencing because I watched Errol Flynn movies.

It can also happen because someone you know says 'you should try this'. So, I started doing Tai Ji because the guy I worked out with at the gym said it improved his lifting form (and I had watched Kung Fu the TV series when I was a kid).

Conversely, I never took up Judo because my first class gave me such a headache from learning how to fall and roll, I never went back.

Later when you start to see levels of skill you had not seen before, you might feel something is missing from what you are doing and start to experiment with going to workshops and seminars and dabbling in stuff that comes your way. Perhaps you read more, or watch videos or other stuff. I started watching Samurai movies and took a year of 6am classes in Aikido Jo because you got to wear a Hakama and I'd always wanted to wear one.

Note that I still did not KNOW what I was looking for, but just by doing, I found (in my opinion), better and better teachers - for me. Or at least I found stuff to do that I thought was totally fun and kept leading me onwards.

I knew I wanted to train with Sonny when I saw him video footage of him. I probably would not have understood his movement had I not already played with both western and eastern sword styles and studied Bagua footwork. However, I saw it and knew. I mean I KNEW that is what I needed to do next. The fact that he was difficult to find and he did not take on many students made it extra fun and exciting to try.

So what guiding forces do we have so far?  
Following someone I thought was cool.  
Elitism coupled with super badass coolness.

Not exactly a role model of rational sense and virtue am I?

So ARE there any guidelines? No, not really. It's a very organic process which will probably have a fair few dead ends as part of the path. But that's OK, and as it should be. Often we need negatives to point out the positives and I really don't think they are anything to avoid or worry about.
If anything, the only red flags to watch out for are systems that are rigidly closed, secret, and obsessively cultish, and ones that do not 'allow' you train elsewhere. Also best to avoid teachers that are self titled, or who abuse their status, and especially ones who you never get to actually touch or move with.  Another good tell is if the senior students are assholes. If they are, all you will learn there is how to be one too.

In a nutshell, if you let go of the idea that there is only one 'best and only truth' you'll never make a 'wrong' choice.  Just keep an open mind but believe nothing. Do, but do not take too seriously.

Be an explorer not a consumer. But whatever you do keep going. It's all intel the system can use to improve if you engage with it that way. The only certainty is that if you do not practice, you will never get anything.

As to the very last part of your question. Can you give me some more detail about what you mean by 'baseline' and what you are trying to find?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Snickets, Ginnels, and Wynds

I can tell you in words why something is useful, or good, or is worth doing, but your resistance to doing it will be in direct proportion to your resistance to the idea that you have a gap that needs fixing.

If there is no space for something to change, you won't change, however much I try to convince you it's a good idea.

Sometimes pointing out the problem to you physically helps. For instance, if I can make you notice that you can't find a clean exit after your entry, it will hopefully become obvious that you do indeed have a gap in your strategy, and thus opens your mind to the idea of change.

Thing is, sometimes taking a problem head on makes it worse. The mind gets in the way. It comes up with reasons and rationales to stay as it is, or stay within the bounds of it's imagination.
Sometimes problems need to be sidled up to, casual like, and worked on, without looking them directly in the eye.
Not for everything. Not all the time. But sometimes, especially when the existing program is hard wired, you need to take the more circuitous route to avoid heavy resistance.

But the circuitous route, almost ignoring the original problem, can bring up resistance too. For instance, I might know that doing seemingly unrelated X is the best way to help with problem Y. X might seem counter intuitive to your brain and it will start wondering why you are doing it, but remember, I'm teaching your body, not your mind.

I know that if you keep at it, your body will find a use for X without you thinking about it.  It's like an after market part that bolts right into the system and improves the running profile. The body is smart. It learns stuff and stashes it away. Then it reappears all over the place as the connections in the brain rewire, and if I'm right, suddenly your gap that needs fixing, will start to go away.

But you have to put the work in. And that's the hard part. Do you trust that this material really is good, even though it seems unrelated? Do you try it? How long for? Does the teacher know something you don't? Or do you know more than them? Are they selling you snake oil? Or might it actually be gold?

Everyone has to take responsibility for their own decisions. The way I do it is to ask myself if I want what they have, and by 'have', I mean how they move? If I can't do what they do, I want to learn how.

That's all. I'm happy to follow instruction until I find a dead end.

I will add one thing more.

Sonny asked me a long time ago if I was a 'good student' or a 'bad student'? What he meant I think was if I was capable of putting the work in, but also of thinking critically about everything that he taught me to do. He wanted us all to test the ideas. Are you better? Did it help?

Do the work, but obviously be careful who you follow down the back alleys. They are often the fastest route even though you can't see where they are going, but still, you need a guide who knows where they are going.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Time Machine

The previous Puzzler post shows that you can beat speed and power with timing. More importantly perhaps is that if you have less speed and power than your opponent, then timing is your best physical skill outside of deception. You will also need accuracy and targeting of course - you have to do something useful with this time that you have created.

So, timing. What does that mean?

To me it means being in tune with the action and playing between the beats. This can mean before, during, or after something that your opponent is doing. And because time and space are essentially the same thing (It takes this long to move that far), you are also working in the empty spaces around the action.

Whether you look at time as a linear function or as a spatial phenomenon (or even just a single morphing affordance) is of no matter.

In some ways I prefer looking at the space, because space allows, or limits, movement depending on the relative positioning of the players. It's also easier to understand angles, and thus where the danger is, and is not.

Actually, what is even more important than where danger IS ... are it's precursors. If you are only seeing danger once it's happening, how can you use the act to your advantage? You will be reacting only to the moment at hand, and thus are at the OO stage, whilst your opponent is having a blast at the OODA stage.

If you could know what they were going to do next, whether by reading their movement or intent, or by forcing them into an action, you could also see the empty space, the safety if you like, around them. Not where it is now, but where it will be.

For that's where you need to move to, and act from, to gain advantage.

And this is why it pays to play within an unscripted flow, so the precursors, 'the bits before,' actually exist to be seen.

How else can you learn what they look like or how to use them?

Sparring is obviously one way, but sometimes it's hard to pay attention and learn efficiently when winning and losing are such great barriers to focus.

Random Flow Training is another way, limited by parameters but basically just one long stream of real life precursors.

Want to learn how to look back (or is it ahead?) in time, and perhaps to deflect it's course a little? Get out of your dead drills, and embrace the wonderful world of Physics - Cause and Effect.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Puzzler

For all those of you that are fans of Car Talk. Here's a Puzzler for you


I was sitting at the traffic lights today next to a young guy in a car with way better acceleration than mine. It's obvious that he wants to be first off the lights. But I beat him. Easy. (Of course he then passes me a few yards further up as he keeps on accelerating, but whatever.)

He was not on the phone or texting. In fact he was watching the light. I didn't run the light, it was green when I went, and because he was revving a bit, I'm assuming that he had a manual (stick shift) transmission like me and we were both in gear and feathering the clutch.

Is my reaction time way better than his? Probably not, seeing as he looked alot younger than me.

So how did I beat him?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Risky Business

They say you should imagine the scariest opponent you can think of, and that your training is valid if only if it works against them.

I get this - Certainly if your training only works against an inexperienced, clumsy, compliant, half wit you are indeed doomed to failure. But is the opposite true for the other end of the scale?

Who would you most fear to cross swords with? Not in a sport context, but in an imaginary lethal encounter?

My personal nightmare is a bigger, faster, stronger, insane person. (Let's not go into multiples/ambush/unarmed vs armed etc. Just keep it simple, to a one on one see 'em coming both equally armed context). And for me, the 'insane' part is the part that makes them the most scary. If someone is insane and does not care if they live, what options do you have? Not many. There is no potential harm you can threaten them with. They cannot be reasoned with, and the height/weight advantage means they outmatch you once contact is made.

When the odds get this bad, you have to risk everything to stand even a small chance of prevailing. Your options narrow down to the smallest of windows of opportunity, where the risk of injury or death is almost a certainty, and your only option is to 'go'. Once. Win or Lose.

You could argue that this is the most important place to train because it matters the most. But it is also extremely rare. Many people might outweigh or outreach you, and there are certainly people out there who are more highly skilled, but insane? Not so much. For someone to care less if they 'die' just for the pleasure of taking you out? This takes a very particular type of individual with a very, very, personal grudge.

Why does any of this matter?

Because this is the opponent most people seem to fight, all the time.

Is this 'wrong'?

There is a logic that says that if you have the answer to the most difficult problem, you also have the answer to all the easier problems, because the only thing that is changing in the equation is the threat level the opponent presents. As the threat level goes down, so the winning should become easier and easier. Right?

Well, kinda ... yes, the technique might be very effective, but no, because the risk to self is left extremely high.

Remember, in training smart, we are looking for maximum gain for minimum risk. When you have no time or space, you have to judge everything, from range, to timing, to angle, perfectly. Even if there is only half an opening, you hope for some luck to add to your slight chance of surprise and you take it. Because you have to. And if nothing else, it never hurts to increase the chaos if you are losing.

But what of mere mortal opponents? I would argue that here, you actually do have the luxury of space, time, and especially rationality, to play with. You have choices, and those choices actually increase as the RELATIVE level of the threat decreases.

Rory once said something to the effect that time is a commodity, and one of the differences between a veteran and a rookie is knowing when you have it, and when you do not. If you do have it, it is far better to spend it gaining intel, rather than rushing straight into an unknown chaos without understanding what you might be facing.

Same can be said for sword play. If they are not insane, gain some intel first. Don't risk yourself unnecessarily. You do have the time and the space. Use them. Make a smart decision.

I found the quote below on the internet. I have no idea if it is a real Native American saying, but I thought it was quite good. It speaks both to the difference in attitude whilst training versus in 'reality', but perhaps it also applies in a dueling situation, to the one who controls the game versus the one who does not?
"The huntsman can make many mistakes, the hunted, only one".

Be the hunter.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Friends /Enemies

I'm taking requests about what to write about.

So today, the question: From a strategic viewpoint, how would you make a friend out of an enemy?

My immediate response to this was to say - Well, that's easy, you don't care that they are an enemy. Friend or enemy is all the same, if you know where someone stands in relationship to you, you can use the relationship to your benefit.

So was that a cop out? Did I answer the question?

Answer these - 
Why do you want them to be your friend?
What does 'friend' or 'enemy' mean?

You could get a bit more complex and ask - Are there definitions in between friend and enemy that are acceptable? Honorable enemy? Distant respect? Polite disdain? Not dangerous? Completely unimportant?

And, if you really needed their 'friendship'. What for? And what time scale are we looking at to achieve this goal?

We are all defined by relationship and are nothing without 'other'. Not just person to person, but us with gravity, time, air. It's why we do what we do and are how we are.

And relationship just 'is'. Everything has a place if we choose to see the relationship, and not just ourselves. Enemies are not afraid to criticize, or show us our weaknesses. Nasty, mean, people show us who we don't want to be, and perhaps point out our hypocrisies. Cool people encourage us to go further and expand our imaginations, smart people teach us, students teach us too. Family (blood or chosen) keep us safe and feed our souls.

Don't be afraid of enemies unless they are threats. (Threats and enemies are not the same. Threats require action, enemies probably don't ... not for most of us at least.)

Embrace adversarial interaction, be it with sword or words, not so you can prove your perfection to yourself, but to find out who you truly are.

Like Sonny said- Don't keep them away, they are coming anyway. Let them in but choose how you open the door.

Next question ...?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


Before last month, I had not done much plastering, barely any really, but it's a skill set related to other skill sets I have. It turned into a big part of the scenic job that I was working on and there was nothing else for it but to get good at it. Fast.
The main difference was that it requires specific tools new to me, and that the consistency and behavior of the material is different from stuff I've worked with before.

The first job is to be able to apply the material to vertical surfaces, smoothly and in even thickness, leaving no thin spots. You try to have as few build ups, blobs, or hard lines (where the blade edge moves across the wall) as possible. At this point the plaster is the consistency of yoghurt, slowly becoming like thick custard as the minutes pass. You have to get it all on the wall in one go so it will all harden at the same time. It's a fast paced job that can't be stopped once started, and at first the biggest skill for me to learn was how not to get half of it in my shoes.

The hardening happens as a chemical reaction, not through water evaporating off. This hardening time is known as the 'workable' time, it is variable and dependent on temperature, humidity, and the original composition of the mix. Something else to learn.

Once it is 'just so', you have to work it again, after its just dry enough that it doesn't pull right off the wall when you touch it, but not hard enough that it's set solid. Then, you have to 'press it' with a different tool, pulling up the remaining moisture into a slurry and moving the surface around to bring out the beautiful, alabaster like, quality of the plaster. The skill here is to keep the surface smooth, and use the movement of your tool to make random and dynamic sweeps to create a homogeneous whole with no repeating patterns.

I know, fascinating eh? And what on earth has this to do with martial arts?

Well, the way you learn how to do this can only be done ... by doing it.

My learning curve was basically - Here's the tool. Watch me. Make it look like this. Go.

Skill comes from understanding the material, from the kinesthetic feedback you get about the material through the tool and learning how to play with it. How heavy is it? When is it too wet? How does it move? What do problems look like? What is fixable? When is it perfect? When is it 'done'?

And the tool itself has a personality. It can be used in different ways, with the flat, with the edge, hard, light, with water, without, tapping it gently to add material, scraping off, scraping on, using different grips, easing off, easing on ...

But none of this means anything in the written word, or in verbal instruction alone. It's a completely touch sensitive art. Words only come into their own when you are in process - "Feel this? This is how it should be".

They say a potter needs to throw 100 pots on the wheel before trying to make a finished product. Throw, and throw it away. Over and over. Losing the sense of having to succeed. Just do. Fail. Fail again. Try new things. Do it again. Try. Fail. Do.

If you take this practice to heart and really do it, the material will start to 'speak' to you. IT will teach YOU ... you will learn how to ask it questions and then learn how to listen for answers.

Not so different really from swordplay or martial arts.