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TRADITIONAL MARTIAL ARTS TRAINING

One of the discussions going around in the world of martial arts is whether there is a value in traditional martial arts. Lately the “systems” of Mixed Martial Arts and Ultimate Fighting have become very popular. Students don’t want to go through the long process of traditional learning but would rather start fighting right away.

There are also discussions in the field of education about traditional or “classical” education vs. vocational training (just learning to do a job). On another front, students who are used to texting are having trouble being able to write essays in school or even letters.

In each case there is a devaluing of developing a student as a whole human being. It is a fulfillment of the trend begun in the industrial revolution of turning people into parts of the machine. It seems strange to me that just as we have unparalleled access to information and educational opportunities and as teachers of many styles of martial arts, exercise and healing make their training easily available, we are moving more towards a dumbing down society. The goal is just to make the money or knock out an opponent.

Traditional martial arts training teaches you to live in peace with other people and to feel part of all living things. It teaches you to consider all life to be sacred including the life within your own body so you would strive for a healthy lifestyle.

It teaches you to understand the underlying philosophy of the training and to appreciate education in all its forms. Most importantly, you learn to understand your own behavior and put it in perspective so you can grow as a human being.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t practice fighting. You certainly learn to defend yourself. You also spar as exercise and sport.

Many people recently have asked me to open new martial arts classes, but when they realize that I teach traditionally and expect a well rounded martial arts education, they are less enthusiastic.

I wonder, what is it about this particular time in our society that has changed what people have come to expect of the martial arts or of education in general.

NATURAL MIND AND THE MACHINE

My days as a zoologist, canoeing through the jungles of Central America, gave me a unique perspective of how living in a wild area affects the perspectives and perceptions of people. Living in my canoe or in a small tent set up by the edge of a river made me feel like just another animal among many. The villages I visited were just a few huts clustered together every few miles at the river’s edge. The human presence was small compared to the overwhelming intensity of the jungle – its colors and shapes, its humidity, smells and rhythms of life.
As soon as I arrived in the jungle, it “grabbed” me. There was an instant transformation in the way my mind perceived and understood my relationship to the surroundings. By travelling back and forth from New York to Central America, I could feel the effect of each environment on me. I could also see and understand how the people in each area were very different because of their respective environments.
This experience, plus my life-time of training in several types of traditional healing, has led me to several conclusions. The first is that the natural tendency of our minds, (our consciousness – or what I call “attention”) is to expand into the environment and connect with it. This means more than looking at something. It means that each of our minds, in order to operate properly, cannot be locked up inside of us. The mind is not just a by-product of brain activity. It is the biological glue that connects us to the environment.
One of the effects of modern life is to “lock up” our minds into our thinking process. In this way, mind is no longer connected to the body. The body seems to be “down there”. The mind is no longer biologically connected to the environment, except in the sense that we think about our environment.
I have found a fundamental difference in human nature in those societies in which the mind is “locked up” as compared to those in which the mind is not locked up. Stress levels, for example, are higher when the mind is locked up, as if it were soda in a bottle that was shaken. Warmth and humidity have the effect of making the mind more fluid so that it is like watercolor ink dropped onto the wet rice paper.
Notice how you feel inside your home in the winter as compared to lying in an open area on a warm summer day. We have designed our environment to be disconnected. Our shoes and our floors disconnect us from the ground. Our cell phones and computers disconnect us from other people, even as we try to communicate with them. Our packaged, prepared foods disconnect us from picking food from trees and plants.
Our single celled ancestors gathered together in colonies and eventually formed multi-cellular animals that are now considered to be a single animal. Each cell became more and more disconnected from the “natural” environment. In the same way, we are now creating super-organisms, disconnected from the natural environment.
But there are many people who don’t feel comfortable giving up their individual, biological identity, in a sense handing over their very minds to the “hive”. These people require a direct connection to nature, balancing their membership in society with their membership in the living earth.
One of the things I have noticed is that the more removed you are from nature, the more you are addicted to the “drama of life”. The people living at the edge of the jungle certainly had their interpersonal dramas, but their joy of life came mostly from simpler things. On my first trip to Panama, my hosts sat at the edge of the river every evening, staring at the river. They weren’t looking at anything in particular; they were just participating in the world around them. Even when I was young, people would sit in chairs in front of their houses in Brooklyn, “participating” in life.
Things have changed drastically since then. Now we have our televisions and computers to look at. Our activities are less communal. While our society is becoming more isolated from nature, we are becoming more isolated from each other, even as our society as a whole is becoming more condensed and interdependent.
When single celled animals formed into multi-cellular animals, each cell lost much of its function and became specialized (muscle cell, gland cell, etc.). They were no longer whole organisms within themselves. I am reminded of our educational system, no longer emphasizing a “classical education”, but just teaching students to pass tests.
It certainly seems like we are witnessing the birth of a new type of organism which requires a new type of “mind”. This new mind is not whole and balanced. It is not aware of the whole history of humankind, to serve as the backdrop to understand what is going on now. It is designed to be only a piece of a person that is useful for one particular function of the society.
The goal of many philosophies and religions is to acquire a natural type of mind. When Buddhists speak of Buddha, they aren’t only referring to the person, but to the state of mind that he attained and that we can also attain: The same for Christians who use the term “Christ”, really meaning the Christ type of mind. When Taoists speak of “no-mind”, they mean a mind not filled with excess of any kind.
I consider each to be a rebellion against re-shaping the natural human mind for use in the new societal “machine” of each time period. With the natural mind, each person is a whole human, directly connected to the living earth. Relationships are between two whole people rather than between two parts of a machine. Each person is allowed to grow and develop into a mature, full person, rather than be molded into just a piece of a person.
If we believe in developing whole people, connected to nature, then I believe that a well-rounded education is the place to start, an education that emphasizes creative thinking rather than memorizing answers to tests. Growing your own food is another place to start so that your food is healthy and nutritious and so that you have a feeling for where your food came from.
I cut and split wood for my wood heating stove. If I figured out the amount of labor involved in getting wood and taking care of the heating stove, I’m sure it would be a lot cheaper just to use the furnace. But heating the house by my own efforts keeps me connected to nature, especially in winter. On the one hand, I could just consider how to be the most efficient to amass wealth. On the other hand, I could consider how to be the most efficient to maintain the natural mind. I try to balance the two, willing to sacrifice wealth in order to hold onto the wholeness of my life.
What is the balance of these two factors in your life? It is especially hard to maintain this balance in tough economic times. Putting food on the table – any food – is pretty important. But let’s remember that if we put off the health of our bodies and minds, we are more prone to disease and we feel miserable. If you can find one thing to do that re-connects you to nature, such as cooking your own food, or growing it, that will go a long way to keeping you healthy and happy. Meet someone face to face, rather than texting. Sit in the back yard, or at a sunny window, and watch the sun set. Doing one natural thing each day can help us to maintain our humanity in the face of a more and more machine-like world.

CRITICAL MOMENTUM

There is a point in every practice where the benefit you receive exceeds the effort you put in. At the beginning there is a lot of effort as you learn the principles and condition the mind and body. But then the creative energy of the mind and body begins to take off on its own and lead you. At that point you need to yield to your own creativity.
You can feel this principle with the compression and expansion of the body. As you breathe out in your exercises, your body sinks and compresses into the legs and into the ground (the root). As you breathe in, the body expands and the energy is propelled into the environment. There is an in-between point where this expansive energy (Yang) surges and begins to “leap” out of you. At that point you allow each muscle and joint of the body, as well as the connective tissue, to be pulled by that expansion and stretch. Just when the Yang energy is released out of the body, you begin to breathe out and the muscles, joints and connective tissue begin to relax. This cycle brings flexibility to the body and serves as an “energy pump”.
Our everyday lives can wear us out and the last thing we feel we need is another activity that requires effort. But Zookinesis and Tai-chi can serve as energy pumps. At the beginning you certainly gain flexibility, relaxation, emotional calm and other aspects of physical and mental health. Yet you have to put a lot of practice into it. But soon the benefits you gain each week far outweigh the effort.
An important key principle of the energy pump is that the critical momentum, the point at which you yield to the expanding energy, takes place constantly in your life. It does not just happen at one moment in your life. There is positive energy all around you that can pull you out of lethargy. Some of that energy is natural and some is the creativity, the art of we humans.
If you can be on the lookout for that expanding Yang energy, you will find it everywhere. You will know how to yield to it because you have practiced this kind of yielding in your exercises. You will also recognize what is positive and what is negative energy because of how it feels when you yield to it. Does it lead to more relaxation, health and creativity or less? Does it make you more energized or just more crazy and frantic? You will gain skill at what to yield to and what to walk away from.
One of the great benefits of a practice such as Zookinesis and Tai-chi is that you can take an incident in life and analyze it in your practice. If your interaction with another person went bad, you have the sensitivity to know the dynamics of how it made you feel. You can then practice those dynamics in your exercises to develop greater skills and greater understanding of yourself. You have a framework that can be used to understand your life. You will understand how the positive, creative energy you developed through your practice, can be connected to similar energy in your environment.
This will pull your life in a positive direction, calling on the positive qualities within you. It will allow you to be more “open” because you are clear about when to be open and with whom. When the energy or the people around you are not good for you, you don’t need to close up and tense up. You are so familiar with the principles of connecting that you can avoid connecting with bad influences without completely closing up.
This brings more lightness to your life without making you vulnerable. You will learn that other people can “pull” on that energy and that is not a good thing. If they pull your Yang energy out of you, it depletes you. If your Yang energy emerges out of you of its own volition, that energizes you. Your practice teaches you to discern the difference between the two and to protect yourself from being depleted.
So a simple practice like compressing the body on the outbreath and expanding on the inbreath, can permeate your life, giving you new insights about how to live more powerfully.
My books, Movements of Magic and Movements of Power are mostly about how to take your practices and use them in your daily life. Tai-chi is not just about memorizing a series of movements; it is about creating a critical momentum of positive energy that can transform your life.