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.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Two To The Power of ?

I wrote this post a while back.
I thought about it the other day in a context outside of training and martial arts, but it made me want to write about it again here.

Bagua Zhang has a very simple view of movement -
What you can do going forward you can do in reverse, closing or opening, clockwise or anti clockwise, big and small.

You get the picture. It's all about an idea and then it's opposites.

The fun part is when you realize that any human movement holds within it many different 'opposites'.
Take for example a simple shuffle step forward off a left lead in San-ti (left hand high, right low).

The opposite could be a shuffle step back to where you started. It could also be a right lead San-ti shuffle step forward ... or back. It could be a left lead shuffle step with right hand high and left low, or same reversed hands with right lead, or backwards with same.

And that's just one, single, moving part - pushing off the back leg and resetting.

Why is this useful? Because if you can only see in binary, your affordances are very limited.

The obvious 'opposite' is not always the most useful one to use in reaction to a stimulus, though by default this tends to be what we do - Push directly back against an opposing force.

It should be remembered that the more parts that are involved in the original frame (right hand, left hand, right foot, left foot etc), the more parts can become 'others' in the one labeled 'opposite'.

In even more complex systems, like people, where opposites can be physical, but also situational, psychological, and time related (now/not now).

Confrontation. Conversation. Conflict. Reverse. Inverse. Adverse. It's all relationship. What's the opposite? What's the opposition?

Precision of understanding the situation at hand is key, but just as important is a generous space left un-named for those 'opposites' that may in fact not be opposites at all.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Big To Do

Teaching basic cuts the other day I fell into one of the teaching traps I try so hard to avoid - I taught a fixed step set of strike angles. It's part of Sonny's older system from before he transitioned into flow teaching and he had left it far behind by the time I started. I learned it from other students mostly because it was an interesting part of his history, and we ended up doing it the other day because we were talking about solo practice and striking ideas. It's an engaging little set with many parts to it, and indeed is a great way to put sword, body and feet together .... Well, sort of ....

As a rule, I don't like teaching 'perfection' or taking actions out of flow. In fact, I much prefer having the skills come from giving people problems to solve than doing them as stand alone, repetitive, exercises. It means that there is nothing 'intellectual' being added, just the simple process of seeing a target and reaching out to touch it. Something even babies know how to do.

Of course, strikes need to cut, not just touch, so you need good targeting, accuracy of cut angle and blade angle, along with correct range. Of these, I would say that range is probably the most important, because if you miss, nothing else matters.

But how do you teach the dynamic quality of range from standing still?

Well, generally what happens is because you understand the range issues and thus footwork that the student can't, you start talking and fixing things for them. And before you know it, you have a student trying to keep their hands, their foot placement, their grip, their blade angle, their hip turn, all coordinated in their brains. And if that's too hard, you break it down even more to help students 'remember' all the parts that need to fit together.

*face palm*

How much easier would it be to invite the student to dance, and just say "Can you cut me from there? OK let's move around and only cut when you can reach me". "Oh, you just scratched me - too far away'. "Where were you aiming?" "Try the belly cut". "Ah, you plowed the blade into the target instead of cut it. Feel that"?

Doing the cuts in context makes all the parts that need 'remembering' unnecessary to remember! If you can do a good, clean, cut (blade angle and cut angle the same) from the right place (reach the target and use as much of the cutting edge as possible) and recover the blade easily. You are doing all the bits of blade manipulation, grip, hip movement, stepping, foot placement, and weight shift you need to!

Flowing DOES feel more hectic though, more difficult than the piece by piece version, and it's hard to feel so clumsy and uncertain, or deal with a the high failure rate that is inevitable when learning in real time trial and error.

But we know that it's far more productive to physically 'DO' than loop through 'THINK and DO' when actually in the fight, so if you can leave out the 'think' part in training, surely it can only be a good thing?

I think Sonny thought so, and this is why he changed how he taught. All the same cuts are still there, he just cut out the meaningless step of doing them without connection to purpose.

Flow training may cut out the certainty and the feeling of achievement that doing fixed step or patterns gives you, but that's a bonus too. There are no downsides to becoming familiar with uncertainty, or learning to keep a calm mind in the midst of the chaos of swordplay.