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Episode 11: The Most Important Lesson in Martial Arts

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The first lesson is usually the most important.

Whenever you learn a martial art, the most important thing that you will ever learn is usually taught on the first day. But you will not notice. Perhaps when you are grading for your 3r degree or 5th degree black belt, it occurs to you to look back at that first lesson and say, “Ah! It is really all about that.”

It is as if the teacher said, “Step one: achieve enlightenment……..Okay, since none of you seem to be paying attention, we shall spend some time learning what to do when you are losing, until you realize that you could have started by learning how to win.

As with all things worth learning, this might be confusing at first. So feel free to be confused. Like learning a new language, it seems like it is just noise in the beginning. But by sticking with it and paying attention, you will eventually find yourself understanding quite well. I will start todays lesson with the stuff that doesn’t make sense. If you stick with me, I believe you will get something very valuable out of this lesson.

Perhaps the first thing you will learn when you were being taught Tai Chi is a posture called preparation. This posture is also called Wuji.

Wuji is a Chinese word that means no duality, or no polarity, or singularity. Wuji is what you get when Yin and Yang combine. It is what happens when there is no differentiation between up and down, left and right, forward and back, yes and no, existing and not existing. There is no distinction between past, future and the present. It is sometimes translated as emptiness, or void, or infinite potential.

無極 wújí (S无极)
n. a mind completely devoid of worries, thought, or desires

adj. unbounded, infinite, everlasting

無 without; nothingness
v. not have; there is not ◆n. nothing; nil ◆b.f. no; not; without

極(S极) [jí] extreme; pole/ridgepole;

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Wuji is often distinguished from “Taiji” or universal duality. Taiji describes the dualistic nature of the phenomenal Universe, in which everything is defined relative to its opposite. There is an apparent paradox, however, because while Taiji distinguishes itself from Wuji, Wuji does not distinguish itself from Taiji. Taiji says, “I am duality, and that is quite different from non-duality.” But Wuji says, “There is no distinction between non-duality and non-non-duality.” Taiji is born of Wuji, so Wuji sees Taiji as part of itself. But Taiji has no experience of being Wuji, so it sees itself as being something different from Wuji. 

太极[-極] Tàijí* {F} n. the Supreme Ultimate (in Chinese cosmology)

CIDIAN.WENLINDB

In martial arts, as with everything else, everything that we do is about relative opposites. Me and them, fast and slow, strong and weak, stationary and moving, past and future, attack and defence. But as we improve our skill, awareness, and understanding, we start to get an understanding of the importance of non-duality, and how it permeates everything that we do. Eventually, we start to see Wuji as the anchor of all high level skill, and the source of everything that we accomplish.  

The posture called Wuji is the starting point for the exercise we call taiji. 

When you practice a routine, you start standing comfortably with your fee parallel approximately hip width apart. The legs are straight but not hyperextended. The arms are hanging loosely at your sides. The tip of your tongue is lightly touching the roof of your mouth. 

You relax the body by aligning it perfectly. This takes some practice, and perhaps some physiotherapy, because adults tend to have spent years getting bent out of shape. The taiji curriculum has a number of exercises that can be used to improve things like “sudoku neck” or “gamer’s back.”  Perhaps you have access to qualified medical professionals who can help you fix the problems that are caused by standing and sitting incorrectly. But the traditional method is to practise standing and sitting correctly. 

Fair disclosure, I have made good use of physiotherapists, chiropractors, osteopaths, acupuncturists, registered massage therapists, doctors, and the occasional surgeon. I am certainly not saying that taiji can replace any of those.  However, all of the aforementioned professions are represented by my students, and they recommend me to their clients. I’m just saying. 

When you assume the wuji posture, you refine your proprioception, and open yourselves to what your body and mind are telling you. 

Is there physical tension that you can release right aways? 

Is there tension that can be resolved by improving your posture, or changing subtle alignment of the joints.  

Are you able to breath deeply and slowly, effortlessly expanding the lower abdomen to accommodate the diaphragm and the lungs. If not, how can you adjust your posture to fix that. (some people teach the “pelvic tilt” which contracts the lower abdominal muscles to align the lower spine. But I prefer to engage the thighs more, relax the psoas muscle, and allow the breath to expand the lower belly completely and evenly. That is another lesson.)

The interaction of thought, emotion, posture, and biochemistry

With daily practice, you will find deeper and deeper levels of relaxation, until the different parts of the body are all balancing like a string of peals balanced on end. You will feel relaxed and energized, and your will have noticed the change in your mind, as well. 

Every thought you have, no matter how subtle or conscious, provokes some sort of emotional response. Every emotion you experience, no matter how subtle, affects the body. Things like fear, anger, pensiveness, joy, compassion, etc, all have noticeable effects on your posture, and your biochemistry. The practice of Wuji, will help you to become aware of these changes, and may help you to improve your mental and emotional balance while improving your physical balance.  

As you improve, Wuji will be about clearing the mind, quieting the emotions, and relaxing the body. These skills are of primary importance, for everyone.  

Physical mental and emotional noise are terrible distractions that we all become far too accustomed to. The modern lifestyle makes us particularly prone to distraction. If we can’t go to the toilet without our smart phone because we would be too bored, how qualified are we really for dealing with the complex struggles of life.   

Wuji is a standing meditation that requires you to pay attention to yourself and how you relate to the world. In the beginning, many students find the exercise to be boring, because the normal mental noise of their daily lives is so loud and chaotic that they need an external focal point, in the same way that a person with vertigo needs something to lean on. 

If you cannot conquer your own boredom, what can you conquer? I suggest that if you want to accomplish a long-term goal, you need to practise a skill until you are bored, and then keep practising until you are not bored anymore. 

We don’t practise standing meditation in the beginning in order to do something boring. We don’t practise it in the beginning because it is interesting. We practise standing meditation in order to learn how to find it interesting. 

When you stand in wuji posture, you observer your tension, your thoughts, and your emotions, letting go of each as you find it. When you find tension, let it go. When you notice a thought, let it go. When you notice an emotion, let it go. (That is difficult for beginners. But you get the hang of it.) Eventually, you may notice the connection between the physical tension, the emotion, and the thought patterns. 

Perfect peace is the perfect place for a fight.

Ideally,  you are not thinking about anything. Ideally, the mind is clear, the body is perfectly balanced. You are so balanced that there is no balancing going on. There is no sense of up or down, or left or right, or forward or backward. There is no sense of existing or not existing. There is no past, no future, and no present. Everything is still, and combined.

There is no conflict.  

Okay! Now you are ready to FIGHT!

Ian sinclair’s first rule of martial arts.

“Try not to beat yourself up.” 

Don’t fight yourself.

If you do find yourself in a fight with someone else, you want to make sure that you are not bringing another fight with you.

Things happen of course but that’s when we get into the next level of skill.

Once you have achieve some degree of “stillness”, it is time to take that stillness on the road. 

We can start exploring the difference between not happening and happening…between perfect stillness and perfect action. 

You don’t want to bring your fight to a different fight. If you are fighting someone else at the same time that you are fighting yourself, you will be outnumbered, and not just two against one. 

When we fight ourselves, it’s not just one against one. There are typically multiple aspects of ourselves at war with each other all the time.  

Our thoughts and our emotions are constantly in conflict with each. Sometimes they are friendly disagreements. Sometimes they are heated arguments. Sometimes they are holy wars. Resolving those conflicts can be a full-time job. But most people take far too many vacations. If we don’t take time to resolve those conflicts on a daily basis then we will find things getting out of control. A civil war makes for poor security.

Such tension makes it more difficult to recognize and deal with external challenges as they come up.

Stillness is really the ultimate martial skill. Stillness is balance. 

When someone attacks you they are attempting to disrupt your balance and your stillness. They are trying to make it difficult for you to keep your centre of gravity over your base of support. They want to make you fall down by tripping you, knocking you unconscious, throwing you, insulting you, scaring you, distracting you, etc.

So, all of those martial techniques…all of those punches, kicks, throws, joint locks, are just ways of getting you off balance.

But balance itself is a powerful weapon. It is not only the victim here. It is the warrior. Balance is not only what you defend. It is also what you defend with. So, when you master this perfect balance (“Master,” by the way, is a verb in this case. It is a continuous process) So, when you master balance..( “Balance is also a verb.”) So, when you are continually mastering balancing, then you will find that it is much more difficult for other people, and external situations, to disrupt your balance,  because you are constantly and habitually seeking and moving towards that calm and still balance.

Central alignment is the source of power, method, and technique.

Later, when we talk about péng, the fundamental power in tai chi, we will see that it is essentially based on the perfection of this posture, Wuji. 

“Peng” or “Peng jing” (for now let’s call it the “power of boing”) is founded on this central alignment of body and mind.   

When everything is perfectly aligned, and there’s no unnecessary tension or cantilevering, and there is no internal conflict in the body, then it’s as if gravity flows through you like a fast flowing river. 

It is not like a meandering river. It is more like a waterfall. It becomes this powerful energetic current that aligns perfectly with the center of the earth. 

When you engage an opponent, ( when we start doing taiji) then any contact that they make with us will get caught up in that river and get redirected into the ground. 

Imagine you’re standing at the edge of a river and you push a canoe across the river. If the river is moving slowly enough, and there is no wind, then the canoe will continue to drift across to the other side. But if the river is flowing very quickly it will get pulled downstream. It might never reach the other side.

If the river is very fast, then when you push the canoe it will just get pushed back up onto the shore with you, essentially bouncing off the river.

So, imagine gravity flowing through you like this. If someone tries to push you and that current of gravity is very weak, then you will be easily pushed over. But if that gravity if flowing directly to the ground through those muscle trains, and fascia, and well-aligned joints and perfectly balanced bones, when someone pushes you, if they are right on your center, and they if they are perfectly aligned with your centre, and targeting perfectly, then they will get caught up in that current and they will bounce off of you, like bouncing off the earth. It is not like pushing a wall. But Newton’s third law certainly applies. 

Another quality of the central alignment cultivated by practising Wuji is that it is ideally infinitely thin. The goal is to perfect the alignment so that it is like a tiny thread with all the power of gravity flowing through it. By making the current very thin, it is very difficult to target. The opponent may see a target, but the actual centre is imperceptible to them. 

If they bounce off of your central alignment, then we call that Peng, or Boing.

If they are not exactly on your centre, then they will roll off.  That is a quality we call Lu. Some people call it roll, or “roll back” or something like that. 

We say that Peng is like water supporting a boat, and Lu is like the way that a water allows the boat to drift or to rock.

Peng is how a log floats in the water. Lu is the tendency for the log to roll over when someone stands on it. The water isn’t doing anything. it is just being water. 

Likewise, central alignment is not doing anything. It is just a quality that you acquire and improve upon. 

So the log floats in the water. That is Peng. 

A person balances on the log. That is still peng. 

The person loses their balance and the log rolls over. That is Lu.

If the person is perfectly balanced, the log will continue to support them. If they jump up and down, the water will will bounce them. They will bounce off the water. 

If they are not perfectly aligned they will roll off. So that is the nature of Peng and Lu. They are two sides of the same coin. You cannot really have one without the other. Central alignment embodies both of them. 

When you take them on the road, as I said, you must maintain stillness and emptiness within your actions, otherwise, it will be you falling off the log. 

Peng and liu there are two very obscure words. Peng is in very few Chinese dictionaries and it is difficult to find a font that will allow you to type it. Lu is not in any Chinese dictionary. You might say that it is not a Chinese word so much as it is a tai chi word.  But it is fundamental not just to tai chi but to all martial arts practices. Other martial arts have different ways of speaking about it, and you may find corollaries in martial arts.

This is this fundamental principle that comes from standing still and being empty. 

The power and peril of pattern recognition

There’s another vital consideration about the importance of Wuji practice. This has to do with reaction time and your ability to engage a situation appropriately and honestly. 

Let us do a little thought experiment. 

If you stand like this and you’re you close your eyes. Can you picture yourself being in the most calm, safe, relaxed, and peaceful place you can imagine.  Maybe your are at a cottage or campsite, or on a secluded private tropical beach, or a nice comfy home or spa. Make it someplace extremely safe, very comfortable, very relaxed. It is the ultimate vacation spot. Just imagine yourself being in that perfect, calm. relaxed situation. You are standing there with your eyes closed and enjoying the peacefulness of the situation.  

And now imagine that you open your eyes and you are suddenly in an octagonal cage in a stadium being attacked by a mixed martial artist. They are punching..no kicking…no throwing. No, it’s a dog biting you. No it’s an octopus. No it’s an alien. No it’s a hawk. No it’s an alien-octopus-hawk. 

Okay it is gone now. You close your eyes and you are back in the most safe, calm, relaxed and peaceful place you can imagine.  

How did you feel before the attack? How did you respond to the attack? How do you feel now?

Now close your eyes and imagine you’re in that perfectly safe situation. You will remain there as long as your eyes are closed. But know that as soon as you open your eyes, the environment will change and somebody or something is going to attack you. 

How do you feel now?  Are you still perfectly relaxed? Are you still on vacation? or are you thinking about what will happen when you open your eyes and what is going to be there? Are you trying to imagine every possible danger that might face you when you open your eyes? 

If this were not just a thought experiment, do you think you would you flinch or tense up first? Would you raise your hands in defence as you open your eyes? This is what most people will do. I have done experiments like this in real life. It can be quite entertaining to watch, if a bit distressing for the participants. 

Okay. Now with your eyes closed, in that perfectly safe scenario, know that when you open your eyes, someone might attack you…. or they might not attack you. Perhaps they will punch you. Perhaps they will give you money. Perhaps it will be a trusted friend giving you a hug. All things are possible.   

This is the problem that faces us in combat and in our daily lives. We can train for particular scenarios. We can learn techniques and methods. We can condition ourselves to be better at withstanding injury and overpowering opponents. But the unpredictable will confound us if we are depending on our ability to predict the future. The ability to identify real threats and to respond to them appropriately requires that we not misidentify threats where there are none.

The ability to recognize patterns is a valuable skill, and very beneficial product of our evolution. But it can get us into trouble in a fight, and can make us see faces on Mars when there are none, or make us think that picture of bird is a picture of a goat. It makes us confuse what was with what is, or what could be with what will be. 

Do you know how many times something has to be repeated in order to create a pattern in your mind? For instance, how many times does an opponent have to repeat a jab in order to make you mind identify it as a pattern? The answer is….zero. 

As soon a the opponent throws a jab, your mind says, “Watch out for those jabs.” Now, with experience, you will learn that there are other punches, and other patterns, and that you should also be careful of those. But with even more training, you will learn to be more discerning about what is a genuine pattern and what is not. 

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Does your monster have your back?
The pros and cons of habits

Much of martial art training is actually the development of habits. This is based on the recognition that we don’t have as much control of our decisions as we think we do, and much of what we think is free will, is actually an illusion. Nearly half of our actions are habitual. To a martial artist this means that we condition ourselves to respond automatically in certain situations. It saves time, especially when we are under stress and not able to think clearly. But it also means that  our opponents also have habits, and we can potentially identify and take advantage of our opponent’s predictability. Of course, they can do the same to us, especially if we have clear tells, or have habits that are typical of most people. 

People in general, do about half of what we do without thinking about it. But that does not mean that the other half of what we do is the result of our thinking and free will. Even when we do think about what we are doing, the decision is often made before we think about it. Yeah. Think about that. 

We believe that we make decisions about ethics, politics, business, investments, personal relationships, and even scientific interpretations, based on our wilful use of our conscious intellect. But there are unconscious habits at work that shape our decisions, and lead to bias, prejudice, and often self-defeating behaviour. A skilled observer can sometimes see this in another person, and predict their decisions before they make them. I self defence, it is sometimes called reading primary intent, or seeing the shape of the mind. You can learn to see what an opponent is going to do, even before they are aware of their decision to do it.  

Often, it is more difficult to see those patterns in yourself. So, martial arts training can help with exposing your own patterns. With a particular kind of partner training, you can learn to “sense the part of the opponent’s mind that wants to get pushed off balance”, and then let them. But if they are observing your mind, they will see what you are looking at and adapt. Then it becomes a game of “sensing you sensing me, seeing you hearing me…and so on.” 

In tai chi, we call this skill, “listening” or Ting. It is difficult to hear what your neighbour is saying is you are making too much noise yourself. You need to stop yelling and turn off your stereo before you can eavesdrop on your neighbours.  This is why I say, “If you want to learn to read another person’s mind, you need to practise reading your own.”

Imagine that you are both in dark cavern. The only source of light is the miner’s headlamp, mounted on the front of your head. If you look for your shadow, you won’t be able to see it, because everywhere you look the light is shining on that space. The light is your conscious interpretation of the environment and your place in it. The shadow is all your unconscious habits to which you are normally oblivious. You know there is a shadow. But it seems insignificant because all you see is the light. You are unaware of what you are unaware of. On those rare occasions when you think about your shadow, you turn to look for it and are reassured by the light. But that shadow is like a monster always behind your back controlling almost everything that you do.  Through training techniques and conditioning, you can train that monster to do things that work under certain circumstances. But when you face a unique situation, the monster will fall into old habits, and you won’t be able to adapt because you have forgotten that the monster is even there. 

Now, with another person in the cave, you look for their shadow. But you can’t see it because your own light is illuminating the places where you look. You can only guess where their shadow would be based on where they are looking. In a fight, you can use that to inform your tactics. But it is still not perfect. Your own mind is still confusing your interpretation of what their mind is doing. 

But what if you turn your light off. Suddenly you can see their shadow very clearly. This gives you the ability to recognize what their monster is doing, and respond to it even before they do. 

Of course, this involves a comprehensive integration of the senses, and I don’t just mean the five senses that we typically refer to. There are dozens of senses, and what we call extra-sensory perception is probably just a combination of those as interpreted by a clear mind. 

But our minds have evolved to be habitual, and that works for us most of the time. Otherwise, we wouldn’t act habitually most of the time. But clearing the mind enough to identify our habits is essential because it allows us to form new habits, and adjust the programming to adapt to a changing world. If we are going to survive as a species, we need to be able to do this frequently and rapidly. Because if we don’t, the world build will not be the world we are built for.  

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Delete your mind’s browser history,
and clear your cache

Have you ever experienced a webpage failing to refresh or load properly? When you and your computer visit a website, your computer stores things like historical information, cookies, files, and forms. When you clear your browser cache, it prevents you from using old forms, and helps your computer work better. It also protects your personal information. Wuji is like clearing your own browser cache and internet history. It prevents you from reacting to old information and helps to make you less predictable to your opponent.  

The practice of Wuji allows us to clear our browser cache so that we can load the appropriate information, and apply whatever settings are appropriate for the moment.

So, the goal is to be able to be in that calm state and not respond to the danger until it happens.

Do you bring calm to the battle, or the battle to your calm?

With time, you can get very good at this. Then, when you open your eyes, if somebody attacks you you’ll respond very quickly and very spontaneously to whatever is happening. This is especially effective if you’ve done some basic training and you have useful options for what to do under such circumstances…that is to say, if you have some basic concept of self-defence, and have some useful habits that you can choose from. 

But if you are in that perfectly safe situation and thinking about the fact that when you open your eyes somebody’s going to attack you… Well, you are not on the beach anymore. You are not in that safe situation, and your mind is not seeing where you are. It is looking at all of the possible things that could go wrong. You end up fighting against yourself so that, when you open your eyes, you try to open them without opening them. You try to squint through your eyelashes or you put your hands up to guard even when you don’t know what’s coming. You end up defending against things that are not happening.

There is a kind of training that we do where we try to go from non-duality to duality, and from perfect stillness to perfect action, without any kind of anticipation or bleed-through from one state to the other. This has multiple effects. One is that when you need to be in a state of calm, you can actually be calm.  Another effect is that, when you need to act, you will be able to act appropriately and not according to some kind of imaginary threat that you conceived of beforehand. 

One of my students spoke of leading a fireteam behind enemy lines and getting stuck in the tall grass when an enemy platoon they were watching was joined by an armoured regiment. He and his team lay still in the tall grass all day and into the night before they were able to sneak past the sentries and start the hurried 6 hour hike to make a delayed rendezvous with their troop. The other three were exhausted when they arrived. He chastised them for not getting some sleep during all that time when they were lying down. Rest is a weapon, they say. So it was important for him to sleep, even in the midst of his enemies, knowing that if they were discovered, they would not escape, and if they were not discovered, he would need his rest. 

Wuji practice also helps you to bringing your calm and your balance to the battle. So, you are less confused by the action and potential of the situation. It makes the violent situation less violent. 

If you don’t train to do this then not only will you fail to act appropriately, you will also end up bringing the violence into your calm situation. Your peace and your meditation will be disrupted constantly by what might happen when you are not meditating. 

So, you want this ability to go from calm, still, and empty to genuine appropriate action and then to be able to immediately recover the calm. This is an extremely important skill in martial arts. It is neglected far too often.

Now, learning martial techniques and martial method and learning strategy and tactics and developing conditioning and doing scenario training and training the mind: all of these things work together to improve this skill. Wuji can be applied to them, and they can be applied to Wuji.

So, if you have some techniques that you can use then when you open your eyes, you have something you can do. You’re not just standing there calmly observing your imminent doom. And if you have a methodology for applying those techniques, all the better. And if you have proper conditioning then your body will be properly aligned and you’ll have that gravity flowing through you so that you have a balance to fight with and a balance to defend.

Wuji is like cultivating the way of life that you want to defend, and not just spending all of your resources cultivating a military to defend your way of life against something that is probably not a threat anyway.

Balance is the weapon. The thing you are defending is what you defend with.

Liberation. Make it a habit.

Ideally, you should practise at the same time every day. This is a crucial element when you do a practice like this. When you are doing a calm meditative exercise or any kind of training that requires your mind to be calm and still,  it’s very useful to do it at the same time every day. This way you program your mind to allow for that time. It allows your mind to say, “Yeah I don’t have to think about the laundry or about the shopping I have to do or that the boss is going to fire me for practising kung fu in the lobby, or about the guy who’s waiting for me after school to beat me up, or any other problems, because they exist in another spacetime.” You have this time to yourself and it is allotted specifically for this. Your mind will then allow you to find that stillness and that calm and that peace. 

The goal of Wuji is to be still and empty, and to not have to think about anything. But we have little rules you can think about if you need to think about something. One of these rules helps to balance the head properly and to avoid “sudoku neck” or “gamers back.” We also have stretches and exercises and movements that we do to adjust and fix the musculature and the spinal alignment. Imagine a string attached to the top of the head lifting it up. 

I used to go around to my students… back when i had students… and I would just lightly grab the hair at the top of the head, right above the ears, and I would lift up the hair and ask them to drop their chin and see if they can get their head back into position. I don’t do that so much anymore because, well, many of my students don’t have hair. Also, the occasionally student will have a very convincing toupee, and then when you lift the hair the toupee comes off. It is an interesting moment for everyone.

Other rules involve the shoulders sinking downward, and loosening the intercostal muscles, and adjusting the thoracic spine and the lumbar spine, and breathing with the belly, and making sure the waist is loose, and levelling the pelvis without tensing the stomach, and relaxing the psoas muscles, and on and on. Then, after an hour of detailed instruction, the teacher will say, “Great, remember all of that, and clear your mind.”

The fact is that many corrections eventually lead to one realization. Then the many exercises are one exercise….and then they are nothing….and that is really something.

Coming soon…

Once you can master not fighting yourself. Then you will be ready for Ian Sinclair’s second rule of martial arts: Don’t fight other people. This is an important combat principle. Martial arts, and practical self defence, are based on the recognition that violence is what happens when you don’t do martial arts. Martial arts are intended to be the cure for violence. Anyone can be violent, although some people are more susceptible to it, just as anyone can get an illness, although some people are more susceptible toward illness.
But more than that, you will seldom win a fight, or effectively apply a martial technique, by contesting your opponent’s opposition.  You need to cooperate with the opponent in order to find techniques that they will allow you to use.