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EMPTINESS IN THE MARTIAL ARTS

Internal of “soft” styles of martial arts require a radically different use of the attention than do external or “hard” styles.   In hard styles (e.g. Karate, TaeKwonDo and many Shaolin styles) your attention is drawn to the power of the opponent. You meet their incoming force with the force of your block.  Whoever is more powerful, wins.

In internal styles (Tai-chi-Chuan, Pakua (Bagua) and Hsing-I), your attention is drawn to the empty spaces where the opponent is not concentrating his force.  You (very quickly) melt away from their force and move towards an empty space next to him to deliver your own force.

In order to train to not have your attention captured by an opponent’s force, you must first learn not to have your attention captured by your own habits.  These habits were programmed into you or were just repetitive behaviors that you fell into.  They are the opponent of your creativity.

The slow forms teach you how to make your attention more liquid so that it cannot easily be grabbed.  You learn to connect your attention to the ground by starting each movement from your “root” so that your attention is not easily pulled out and controlled.

Push Hands teaches you to be creative with your attention and use it in a dynamic way in relation to another person. You learn that force is not “his” or “yours” but lies in the relationship between you.  If his fist is moving towards your head and you move your head slightly away, then there is no force, at least none of consequence to you.

Once you are empty of your own habits, including the habit of letting your attention be grabbed by other people, then you are free to be creative in your fighting and in your life.  You pay more attention to the empty space in which you can move.  You pay more attention to the moving a relationship in positive ways, rather than butting heads.

Emptiness becomes the central focus of your “internal” martial arts training.  The tighter you are and the angrier you are, the less “space” there is.  Without this kind of space, you are forced to fight in a robotic way, becoming tighter and angrier.  If you can give up your inefficient habits, let go of anger and spar in a relaxed way, then the martial arts can be very enjoyable and you will be very effective.

While you are “empty” of habits, you are full of life and vitality

LIFE AS GRAPPLING

The way the martial art of Tai-chi approaches grappling is very applicable to daily life.  The pressures we face on a psychological, emotional and spiritual level are the way life grapples with us.  When common sense is applied to grappling we can easily deal with the strongest opponent.  Rather than fight back against the pressures we examine the nature of those pressures and neutralize them. 

In one technique we can imagine the pressure as a line drawn through the body.  The line starts at the opponent’s hand or arm, where he is applying the pressure and then continues in the direction of the pressure.  Each of his hands or arms is exerting a pressure and each has a line.  You imagine where those two lines will meet within your body and then relax that point.  You only need to relax about one inch of muscle. 

When the point at which the pressures meet relaxes, the opponent’s force is neutralized.  The skill is to relax just that exact point and to not relax more than about an inch of muscular area.  Once the opponent is neutralized, you can do what you want with him.

The meeting point of the pressures shows you how you resist the force of the opponent with your own tension.  You are then more easily able to let go of the resistance.  The opponent depends on your resistance to control you. 

Yet the remaining muscles of the body maintain their firmness to keep the body’s structure intact.  You do not simply collapse your body but strategically relax only the meeting point of the lines.

In our everyday lives we are faced with many pressures – financial, emotional, etc. The meeting point of those pressures show how we fight against the pressure.  If we imagine ourselves as victims in a world battling against us we will wear ourselves out.  We can just as easily ask ourselves, “What is this pressure telling me?  Why am I battling against the pressure?” 

I have found that the reason most people feel pressured in life is that they are unwilling to change as they go through life.  Perhaps they feel they are entitled to a certain high standard of life and resent having to control their spending.  “The other guy can buy these things so why shouldn’t I be entitled to do the same?”

Perhaps you demand certain patterns of behavior from other people.  After all, you are entitled to be treated in the manner to which you would like to become accustomed.   You want the world to conform to your expectations and it usually doesn’t. 

The Tai-chi solution is to make changes from the inside out.  Gain control over your lifestyle before trying to gain control over the rest of the world.  If you can improve your health and your knowledge, your relationship to the world will change.  If you become more aware of your body and end the isolation of the mind and body characteristic of our culture, you will become more powerful.  If you understand how the advertising industry affects your emotions and how other institutions of our society try to control your behavior, you will be freed from their pressures. 

When you notice your frustration, your anger, your sadness, you can then more easily see how these pressures control how you feel about yourself.  Anyone basing their feeling of self worth on the pressures of others who want to control them, is “building their house on sand” which we actually do here on Long Island.  That’s why the wealthy homes on Dune Road get washed into the sea every few years.  When those homeowners expect the taxpayer to rebuild their homes for them or to re-build Dune Road, they are not following the principles of Tai-chi.

There was a time when cultures were based on the warmth, closeness and sharing of small communities.   The world most of us live in seems cold and isolated.  We do seem like victims thrown into a world foreign to our basic natures. 

We could turn cold and accept that the rest of our lives will be a miserable battle.  Or we could build a small community of people – friends and family – and create the kind of culture we would like to live in.  We can do this by starting with ourselves and imagining our own selves as a community.  There is the emotional part of us, the mind, the body and all its individual parts, the will, the internal energy, our memories, our habits and other parts.  Each of these is energized and actively participates in our every action. 

Ancient cultures provided a teaching called “The Elements” which helped people to develop a harmony among all these parts.  We don’t have this teaching in our modern world.  By participating in training such as Tai-chi, Zookinesis and Yoga, which are based on the teaching of the elements, we can create this harmony within ourselves.  That can serve as the basis of a more harmonious attitude and pattern of behavior in our circle of friends and family. 

Whenever you feel a “point of pressure”, use that as an opportunity to shift and adjust something in your life so as to make that pressure irrelevant. 

Before we are about to attempt anything, the attention assesses the body, mind, will – all the “elements” – to see if you are prepared to accomplish the mission.  If your attention feels that you are not ready, it will cause you to hesitate or stop trying.  By building your inner strength you feel more prepared and are more willing to try new things.  You no longer consider a new challenge with fear.  Your attention assesses your elements and finds them strong and ready.  This creates an entirely new attitude which leads to success.

Even though we may be dealing with a mental or emotional challenge, the attention assesses the body’s physical condition to determine if you are ready to deal with the challenge. Is each part of our body flexible and strong and is it filled with our awareness?  Our intellectual way of interacting with each other in modern society is a more modern form of behavior.  Our biology still works on a physical “flight or fight response” mode.  So in order to feel confident to tackle a modern type of interaction, we still instinctually assess our physical readiness. 

When we are grappling, we also need to assess the partner’s readiness.  We need to use our attention to assess his body. His grappling behaviors will come from his own sense of physical readiness.  We need to be more aware of his readiness than he is of his own.  This is the skill that push hands provides to us. 

We can also block the ability of his attention to assess the readiness of his body.  This can easily be done by constantly shifting the meeting point of your two lines of force on his body.  His attention may be able to assess if he is ready to deal with any particular pattern of pressure but if that pattern shifts slightly and regularly, his attention will be worn out quickly.  You don’t want to shift it enough to throw your own body off – the smaller the shifts the better.  As you practice this you will begin to vividly feel how his attention panics and his body tenses when you shift the pressure and how his attention tries to re-assess the situation.  The grappling game is then played on the basis of attacking his attention rather than his body.

Another important principle in grappling is “Let Yang be Yang and Yin be Yin”.  This is an expression from Zookinesis training.  It means that the Yang energy, which is expansive and energizing, should be allowed to fully express itself.  The Yin energy, which is grounding, should be allowed to fully express itself.  Imagine walking a dog on a leash.  The dog pulls you forward and you tug back on the leash to control the dog.  If you let the leash go, the dog would run as fast as he could and feel very free and happy.  You would be able to relax.  Letting go of the leash is “letting Yang be Yang”.  Relaxing is “letting Yin be Yin”. 

Don’t pit yin against yang as when you are holding the dog back.  If you do that throughout your life, one day your Yang energy will give out and your Yin energy will implode within you causing death.  Rather, allow each energy its full expression and in that, seek balance.

Grappling is different than the dog on the leash situation because the grappler’s force presses inward.  In this case, seek balance by your yang force filling the yin areas of the opponent’s body.  This balance evens out the opponent’s superior physical strength.

Allow your Yin force to be grounded by his physical force, bringing him into your foundation.  This is “letting Yin be Yin”.  Allow your response to originate in your foundation to destabilize his alignment. 

His Yang energy is now in your foundation so you can upset his whole body from there.  Let him feel the pressure of the volcano in your foundation as Yang energy builds, and the endless depth and power of the magma about to erupt.  His force will be burned with only scattered cinders remaining and you will be in control.  Then allow your Yang energy to be Yang.  It will erupt by itself.  You don’t need to force it.

The mistake many grapplers make is to turn Yang energy into tension.  In this case your Yang energy jumps within your own body, hardening it.  Rather, allow your Yang energy only to jump within the opponent’s body, leaving your body as relaxed as possible while still maintaining its structure.  You will need very little physical movement.

Remember also that expanding Yang requires an in-breath into the lower part of the lungs.  You should not breathe out or bring the breath upward when Yang leaps out. 

All of this requires a great deal of training of course.  But the result is that when you are faced with everyday life you respond the way you are trained.  You don’t get rattled.  You simply assess your own balance of energy, the other person’s balance and make the most advantageous response which is usually the simplest.  You let the other person fill their bodies, minds and emotions with Yang energy while you remain balanced.  And you don’t wear yourself out by pitting Yin against Yang.  This keeps you young and energized.

LIFE AS AN INTERNAL MARTIAL ART

The internal martial arts train the student to become more powerful in his everyday world, not just in fighting itself.  They were a way of encoding ancient secrets of keeping your body and mind young throughout your life and developing magnified vitality.

The first principle is the use of minimum movement.  While you duck away from a strike, you move only an inch away from the opponent’s fist.  When you strike, you tense your arm only as much as needed to prevent the arm from collapsing.  Your power comes from the sequential expansion of your joints and muscles from the ground up.  The power is a surge through the body and the body as a whole stays still. 

In everyday life you change your perspective from reacting to the negative qualities of other people to letting go of the “handle” that other people seem to have on you that allows them to affect you with their behavior.  Your mind and emotions become like a still lake.  The lake reflects the scene around it but is not disturbed by that scene.  In the same way, you are fully aware of all that is going on around you but you have dropped the internal mechanism that makes your “internal waters” choppy.

This does not result in losing your emotions.  It just means that your emotions don’t get churned up because of the behavior of other people.  You are still affected by the beauty around you and your connection to nature.  The result is that you can be the calm in the middle of the storm and clearly see how to be effective in any situation.  In our modern world the “storm” never seems to end.

In grappling, you can maneuver the part of the body the other person grabs while keeping the rest of the body calm.  Your whole body is not thrown by the force of the opponent.  If he grabs your arm, your arm joints, including the shoulder, move and rotate to deflect his force.  If he grabs you from behind, a small shift in the hip joint can break his connection to the ground (his “root”) and allow you to throw him. 

Your body becomes a collection of many parts and you have control over each part individually.  When confronted with force you don’t tense up the whole body.  Instead you direct his force through your body into your own root and use it to strengthen your foundation.  Once the opponent’s force has been drained in this way, you can throw him.

In our everyday lives we have many “parts”.  There is the physical part, the emotional part, the mental part, the spiritual part, etc.  The study of how to keep all those parts in balance is called, “The Elements”.  In this training we learn to be a “passive observer” (of our own behavior) as if we were an audience member watching a play.  We ask ourselves, “Does our behavior make any sense?”  Then we play the part of the director and adjust the script.

In this way we don’t have an investment in any particular pattern of behaviors.  We realize that we are not those behaviors – that we are so much more.  We are a beautiful, natural creature connected to the rest of nature.  So much of what wears us out in everyday life is our investment in a set of behaviors that hurt us.  Even though we know that our addictions and negative behaviors hurt us, we feel they are us and we don’t want to change who we are.

The key is to learn who we truly are – not a set of damaging behaviors but an incredible interaction of many parts, all of which are connected to every other part of nature.  We learn to become like an orchestra conductor harmonizing many instruments to play a beautiful piece of music, and that music is our lives.

When I listen to Public Broadcasting programs of the oldies groups, I am still amazed at the talent of those groups.  It used to be all about the music.  While there is still talent to be found now, it is more about the money now.  I don’t hear the kind of talent there used to be (or at least that kind of talent can’t seem to get commercially successful).  We use a lot of throw away products now that are cheaply made.  Is that what is happening to our lives? 

Even our religions, which are supposed to guide us, are more cheaply made.  If you are a member of this religion you will go to heaven.  If you are a member of any other, you won’t.  So religions are based more on the fear of going to hell than on spiritual development.  That to me is “cheap” religion.

The cheapening of lives wears us out.  When we yearn for value in our lives, to develop ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, we continue to grow and improve throughout life.  We become healthier, stronger, smarter and happier.  The quality of our lives reflects the quality of our products and our art. 

Martial arts are called an “art” because they really train you to improve your everyday life.  The internal martial arts teach you how to let go of unnecessary movements and behaviors, to stay calm in the midst of turmoil and to become intimately aware of the balance of your “parts” so that you stay in harmony within yourself.  They teach you that sparring is not a struggle but the art of remaining calm and centered and yet effective. 

You strive not to conquer the opponent, but to conquer your own ineffectiveness.  You learn that your power comes from your awareness of what is going on around you and your stillness – reacting only as much as is necessary.  In this way you don’t wear yourself out by living life as a great struggle. 

As the minutes and hours go by in your life ask yourself if you are enjoying those minutes and hours.  How much of the day is spent being aggravated and worried and how much enjoying life?  Isn’t it worth investing time to change that proportion?  Life goes by quickly and time can’t be recovered. 

While ancient knowledge can’t help us with modern technology it can help us change that proportion.  It can help us stay healthier and more active throughout our lives, enjoy each day and become more effective.  That is the kind of technology some of the ancient cultures were good at.  While Tai-chi and Zookinesis may seem just like physical exercises or a martial art, they really teach so much more.  They are a treasure of ancient knowledge.

FUNDAMENTAL CAUSES OF ILLNESS

At a certain point any healing teacher looks back over all the clients he has healed and asks, “What are the main problems causing poor health among all these people?”  Is there a fundamental change in our lives that can heal all people at once? 

In my experience as a teacher of Tai-chi, Zookinesis age reversal exercises and massage, I have been astounded by how disconnected people are from their bodies.  Their understanding of proper body mechanics is way off and the result is that they are constantly injuring their bodies. 

This is actually very understandable.  In ancient cultures a student would learn from his teacher in an apprenticeship position.  He would be practicing his craft while the teacher taught him – learning and moving at the same time.  Action was coordinated with using the mind. 

In our culture we learn to freeze our bodies by sitting in a still position while we learn to think.  Then when we go to a gym class there is little thinking and only action.  We have learned to separate the movement of the body from the movement of attention in the process of thinking.  So when we are about to think we automatically prepare ourselves by freezing our bodies. 

When the dynamics of the body and the dynamics of attention are separated, it is as if a large knife cut you in half.  Attention normally energizes the body.  The body’s dynamics ground the attention.  The attention/body split de-energizes the body and the attention as well. 

We are left with a very different type of thinking – that of imagining that we are split into two people and one person is talking to the other.  This is the constant mental chatter that all of us are too familiar with.  Many cultures teach sitting meditation to clear the mental chatter.  When Bodhidarma, a Buddhist monk, first came to China, he found the monks there sitting all day in meditation.  Their health was very poor because they didn’t exercise.  He taught them to exercise and from these basic exercises the martial art of Shaolin was born. 

There is no point in fighting against the mental chatter because you are then just creating a battle.  By teaching the body to move and to be mindful of that movement, you are re-joining mind and body.  This mind is not the talk-chatter type of mind but what is called, “The Ancient Mind” or “Body-Mind” which is attention joined to the body.  This can eliminate a fundamental cause of illness in our society and it is the basis of such teachings as Tai-chi, Zookinesis and other forms of chi-gung, Yoga and even modern Pilates exercise.

Our methods of education are not the only causes of illness.  When I ask people in class to tense up a muscle, they can do that with ease.  But it is very difficult for them to relax a muscle.  Tensing involves sending a signal through the nervous system to the muscle.  When you relax you just stop sending the signal. 

It would seem that it is easier to stop doing something than to do it.  In Tai-chi this is called, “not doing”.  It really means “not doing anything you don’t need to be doing”.  As people learn a Tai-chi form or Zookinesis exercise, the movements are quite simple.  Yet they struggle to learn them.  The process of learning involves more of “not doing” extra, unnecessary things than it is to learn the actual movements.  You learn to do each movement in its simplest, easiest form with no excess movement or intention.  The result is an effortless flow as if you were a cloud drifting in the sky.

And yet people feel they need to whip their bodies into doing the movement “right”.  They use excess movement and tension and their thinking minds are buzzing with worry about how they look and what others might think about them. Their minds and bodies are in a great battle.  Yet when they finally learn the movements, it feels as if they are not even doing them because the body and mind are so light and effortless.  In this state the body is constantly re-energized yet relaxed.  The mind is calm yet very alert and responsive. 

As a teacher I am most excited by teaching people who want to become teachers.  I can get them involved in much more advanced training.  People ask me, “How do you have the patience to teach beginners?”  Teaching beginning classes involves going over the same basic training again and again. 

Yet teaching beginners gives me a great insight into the most basic causes of illness and the most basic problems in coaxing people into a better state of health.  I can clearly see the resistance people have to letting go of their lifetime of destructive habits.  They feel those habits as being who they are.  If I suggest that they change the habits they feel that I am challenging their identity. 

So identity is the second fundamental problem to heal on a cultural level.  After all isn’t much of the cause of war that this guy feels he belongs to one group and has to oppose the other guy who is a member of another group?  We may fear belonging to the wrong group because we may not get to heaven.  The groups fight with each other about who has the only right philosophy. 

On an individual level we may identify with our thought patterns, tension patterns and emotional patterns.  Patterns are fixed and not creative, not adaptive.  It is the rare individual who identifies with his or her creativity.  Creativity is not fixed and it is adaptive. 

When we identify with fixed, rigid patterns, our bodies become rigid.  When we go to a Tai-chi or Zookinesis class and are taught to relax and let our bodies move fluidly, this may seem like a challenge to all the fixed, rigid patterns of our lives.  It is a challenge to our identity.  This is what makes learning these arts so difficult.  We resist healing ourselves because that may undermine our habits of injuring ourselves, habits we have identified with. 

What a teacher must do is to get the student to appreciate the beauty and fulfillment of his body moving properly and his attention becoming more creative.  Rather than putting the student down for being incompetent, the teacher should take a more positive approach and show how beautiful the body can feel and how calm the mind can feel.  When you are in this state you truly feel connected to nature.  Your skin is not so much of a boundary anymore because you feel the natural energies of nature flowing through you.  Those energies then heal you. 

As a simple example, you may feel gravity as a force pulling you down.  Yet if you yield to gravity, allowing all joints and muscles of the body to relax a little, your body becomes properly aligned and your movements become easier.  If you relax both your chest and your upper back at the same time, you will notice that your head pops up into its proper place because of this alignment.  Gravity becomes a force that relaxes and aligns you and because of this, actually energizes you.  You no longer battle against gravity but use it to energize and heal you.

You can think of gravity as a masseur, massaging you.  Your muscles can fight against the pressure of the masseur’s palms or fingers or you can yield to them, allowing the muscle to relax.  Many people are uncomfortable about massage precisely because it is designed to eliminate the rigid body tensions which a person identifies with.  But the result is that your identity itself is cleansed.  You now identify yourself with the healing process of your body, with your awareness of life around you and with your creative attention. 

The type of massage I practice is called “Tai-chi Massage” or “Chi-gung Massage”.  It is not the type in which the masseur just pushes your muscles around as if to fight against their tension.  It is a gentle, slow massage which coaxes the body to relax and allows the person being massaged to become aware of the process of relaxation.  In this way that person becomes more connected to his own body and the internal battles gently melt away.

One by one, all the battles of life are transformed into sources of healing.  Your life becomes much easier and more effective.  As a teacher, I can only work with a few people at a time.  The instructional DVDs listed in the “Online Store” on this site can reach even more people. 

But I think that the real healing transformation of our culture will happen when people take the principles of Tai-chi, Zookinesis and other such training, and incorporate them into other fields.  In this way these principles can permeate into our everyday way of life.  Who knows what creative ways people will find to use their own experiences in healing to heal others?

A MORE POWERFUL LIFE

In an internal martial arts system, the smaller your movement, the more powerful it is.  The goal is to send your energy into the other person.  If you can do that without using up that force in your own movements or in tensing up your body, you can send almost all of your force out.  In external martial arts systems, the body tenses up to provide solidity.  There can be no small subtle movements within the body and so the body moves in a stick-like fashion resulting in large movements.

In an internal system such as Tai-chi-Chuan and Phantom Kung-fu each muscle is under your control and is kept relaxed.  You can move several muscles and joints just a tiny bit each to result in the strike so that the overall movement of the whole body is very little. 

Power comes out in a spiral pattern from the ground up through each joint.  This spiral pattern magnifies the force.  At the moment of impact the body tenses just enough to prevent the arm from collapsing and to allow the force to flow through the arm.  The internal martial artist is aware enough not to tense up even the slightest bit more than is necessary.

It is the degree of his or her awareness, to be able to make such subtle adjustments in just a fraction of a second that results in power.   If the martial arts student can make his concentration fine enough to make these tiny adjustments, he can be powerful.  And so there is a general saying that the smaller you can make your attention, the more powerful you are. 

As an example, if you think that a punch is the thrusting of the arm forward or turning the whole body to thrust the arm forward, then you are only aware of the arm as a whole or only the movement of the whole body.  If you think of a strike as a quarter turn of the spine and a slight upward quarter turn of the hip, your movement will be much faster, more connected to the body and to the ground and more powerful.  As far as your attention is concerned, you will be striking from the ground up and from the inside of the body out, which is the proper mechanics for sparring.  External stylists generally keep their attention on the outside of the body, keeping their bodies rigid.

When you can bring your attention to a point you become very powerful.  When you can work with many of these points at once then you can really start to learn.  Internal stylists also learn to bring their attention into the joints and muscles of the sparring partner so that he feels completely connected to the partner.  In this way he can feel what the partner is going to do before he actually does it.

The martial arts practices have their greatest benefit in everyday life.  If you can take this training into dealing with other people, with business strategies, with goals in life and with your health then your life can become powerful.  A few examples will explain.  It is very easy to get caught up in the emotional patterns of other people.  This is because most people cannot bring their attention into the subtle changes of feeling inside their bodies.  If your attention were everywhere inside of your body and at the same time was inside of the other person, you could tell how the other person’s emotional patterns were affecting you.  You could see the mechanism of how your own feelings and reactions change due to the other person.  You could then take control of that mechanism so that you do not copy their emotional patterns or even react blindly against those patterns.  You can remain centered and examine how you can be most effective.

In the martial arts, each partner tries to control the behavior of the other, confusing them or freezing their attention.  In everyday life, most peoples’ emotional and mental patterns are so chaotic that they constantly damage the people around them.  It is important to be so aware that you are immune to that damage. 

On the other hand, your own behavior patterns from the past, may have taken control of your present behavior.  When you react to a situation it may not be in the most effective way or even the least bit logical.  If your attention is so pinpointed that you can feel how your own patterns are affecting you, then you can get beyond them.  They only have control if you can’t see them, if you feel you ARE them. 

That is the most powerful effect of developing the fineness of attention.  We have come to believe that our identity is the patterns of behavior and reactions that have programmed us.  Most people have really lost the awareness of themselves.  When you reach your original creative, connected self there is great calm and joy.  But most people are trying to follow the “breadcrumbs” home, meandering through the thick forest in search of themselves. 

The finer your attention, the more you can see the mechanisms that control your behavior, the more you can see what is not you and the quicker you can discover the source of your creativity, of what makes you a unique individual. 

At that point you can see that while we are all unique individuals, we are also completely connected to each other and to nature.  At that point we can finally love fully and let go of anger and resentment that may have been seething inside us for many years – about issues long since gone.

I have also found that in business, you are able to get to the heart of any negotiation and better understand the issues that bother the other person.  Very often in business negotiations the other person is not saying exactly what they want.  They’re trying to be coy.  It is important to sort out the issues so that you immediately understand where the other person stands.  This makes for more effective negotiations for both sides.  If your attention is strong and can follow many lines of discussion at the same time, it is easier to sort out the underlying themes and get to the heart of the issue.

Training the attention in this way is not easy.  The Tai-chi forms and Push Hands exercises and the Zookinesis exercises teach the attention to seep into every crevice of the body, to follow many patterns of energy and movement at the same time and to constantly re-adjust the body and mind to changing external conditions.  It is said that it takes five years of Push Hands training to be able to consider yourself to be a beginner.  This is because the condition of our attention in modern times is so poor.  Our attention can be considered to be in critical condition – almost dead.  To bring it back to even normal health takes a lot of work.  But the result of that work is not only a more effective life but great health and joy. 

There are two reactions to practicing Push Hands among my students.  The first is laughter.  They laugh at how dead their attention is compared to how healthy they know it can become.  The second is shaking their heads and saying that they can’t believe how stupid their bodies are.  They know what they should be doing, but the attention is so rigid and so programmed with useless patterns that it is a great struggle to free the attention.  It is as if their attention is entangled in a net. 

And yet, as a teacher, I see that they are making great progress in every lesson.  It is just such a long journey back home!

You can go through the rest of your life knowing and being yourself and enjoying the thrill of living or trying to follow the breadcrumbs through the forest as if you are lost.

ANIMAL STYLES OF KUNG-FU

Kung-fu systems such as Tai-chi-Chuan and Phantom Kung-fu are based on the way animals defend themselves.  The student learns to copy the body mechanics and skills of several species in his sparring. 

In the 1960’s and 1970’s I owned an animal importing company to provide wild animals to organizations and individuals that were studying how to breed them in captivity and develop captive breeding populations.  Every few years, I traveled through the jungles of Central America to study the animals and for adventure.

Up until the 1990’s, I kept a collection of over 150 reptiles, many of which were part of breeding populations and some were used for educational programs.  My sparring students were required to work with these animals to get a feeling for their power and body mechanics. 

It was exciting to introduce new students to the animals.  They had never seen these species before in person.  The black, rough necked monitor lizard sat in its own huge cage.  At six feet long, thirty inches tall (when straightening out its legs) and about two feet wide (when puffed up), it was an impressive animal, especially when hissing and whipping its tail.  Its long neck, covered with large spiked scales and long, narrow head and nose gave it a bizarre appearance.  It was as black as Darth Vader. 

The students had to enter the cage and, while the dragon lizard hissed and whipped its tail, the student had to pet it to calm it down.  Soon the lizard’s hiss changed to what was obviously a hiss of ecstasy.  The ability to walk right over to what seemed like a live, angry dragon, changed the perspective of the student.  It allowed him to overcome his fears and spar better. 

I found that each encounter served to alter the state of consciousness of the student, gradually bringing him or her to be able to connect better with the animals, and with each other.  It allowed the student to be able to perceive the consciousness of the animal and understand how he could control his own behavior to control the behavior of the animal so it would calm down.   This is an essential skill in sparring.

The pine and bull snakes were great teachers.  Their hiss was so loud it seemed like you were standing right next to a steam locomotive.  You would walk near the cage and the incredible hiss would suddenly be upon you.  It was very hard not to jump into the air with fright even though you knew it was just a harmless snake.  The student would pick it up and the snake dug the tip of its tail (which was fairly sharp) into his arm as it stared at him.  It looked like it was saying, “Now take that!” 

The students soon realized that as frightening as the animals seemed at first, they were very gentle when handled correctly.  I once bought a thirteen foot reticulated python from someone because it was too vicious for them to handle.  I thought this would make a great animal for my students to handle.  But when I brought it into the Tai-chi studio the snake became very tame.  We couldn’t get it to misbehave if we wanted to.  I had played up this snake as being very tough to handle.  I guess it sensed the peaceful atmosphere and felt safe. 

I used to have a very large African python.  This species is very active and very intelligent.  As you hold it, the snake brings its face right next to yours to see you (snakes’ eyesight isn’t very good).  Its movements are sudden.  It will quickly turn around, come right up to your face and then just stare at you without moving (just sticking out its tongue).  I have found that there are some people who don’t like that (though I can’t imagine why. It seems endearing to me) If you can get used to the African python, you can get used to the intensity of sparring. 

I used to bring in many species of monkeys and to keep them from getting bored, we would play fight with each other.  I got into the cages and just started mixing it up.  The monkeys loved it so much that each time I stopped fighting they would complain loudly to keep playing.  So many hours were spent fighting with the monkeys that it was easy for me to spar in their “style”.  The same was true of snakes and lizards of course.  But I worked with many strange animals as well.  The best fighters were the tayras and grisons which are related to the weasels but much larger.  Each species loved to play fight and they had more strength and endurance than I had.  Raccoon-like animals like the coati mundi were also a lot of fun.  I probably spent two hours a day fighting with various animals to keep them amused. 

Sparring with people then became easy.  No person was as quick or had as much endurance as the animals.  The animals were my real sparring partners.  It would be impossible to duplicate the training you get when working directly with animals.  Yet few people have this opportunity.  These days I have too much work to maintain a large collection of animals and so my students don’t receive that kind of training anymore.  I hope one day to create a training center where people can learn directly from animals as well as from human teachers, as I did many years ago.  Wouldn’t it be a great experience to learn martial arts and healing exercises from both a human and from animal teachers? 

My students and I used to have long talks about what we learned from our experiences with animals and how to apply them to sparring or to healing.  I could tell which animal the student had been working with from how he sparred that day. 

You always have to respect the animal’s power, though.  I remember working in the Bronx Zoo one summer.  I worked with the small mammals, the monkeys and the apes.  I opened the shift case for a gorilla.  This allows the gorilla to move to this separate cage so you can clean its main cage.  After he entered the shift cage, he sat down.  I then began to close the large iron door.  It weighed five hundred pounds and was closed by pushing an iron bar.  It took all my might to gradually push it closed but about one inch before closing, the gorilla placed his finger on the door and flung it back.  The door came crashing open.    I believe the gorilla gave me a little smirk.

When I spent two months in Nicaragua we had to catch our own food.  The townspeople were going on a caiman hunt (caiman are a type of alligator) and I was invited.  At night you can only see their eyes reflecting back from your flashlight.  The head caiman wrangler used a forked stick to catch the caiman’s neck and he and another man flung it into the canoe.  He turned to me and said, “Grab its head and close its mouth”.  Now, this 10 foot caiman was snapping its jaws and thrashing its tail.  I wasn’t prepared to move towards the snapping jaws let alone to grab them.  But the alternative was for us all to just stand there with a snapping caiman in the canoe.  So I jumped on top of its head and bear hugged its jaws.  The head wrangler then tied the mouth with a rope.  We ate well that night.

If you can jump towards the snapping jaws of a Central American alligator, you won’t fear sparring or for that matter, doing anything else in life.

The animal forms of Kung-fu give you a taste of fighting like wild animals.  I believe that a teacher of animal styles should have extensive experience with the animals of those styles.  Otherwise you are just doing “empty” movements with no real experience of what is behind the movements.  When the student spars with the teacher, the student should really feel that he is sparring with an animal because the animal spirit is indeed, in the teacher.

As our civilization moves further away from nature, the Kung-fu forms can help us keep a feeling for the wild so that at least, our bodies can remain natural.

THE USE OF MINIMUM FORCE

This principle applies to everyday life as well as practicing forms, push hands and self defense. It is the main factor eliminating excess tension and keeping the mind and emotions calm while still being active. In Zookinesis training, this principle is called, “Start at the End”.
When you begin an activity, you would normally  judge how much effort and time it will take, and you gear yourself up for the task. If you were to push against a heavy object for example, you might tense up your arms and body to prepare for the resistance of that object and then begin to push it.
The principle of minimum force works mechanically as follows: You approach the object, or the task at hand with relaxation. As you feel the resistance of the object or of life’s tribulations, you firm up your energy only as much as is needed at each particular second. You do not tense yourself up in preparation for what your mind anticipates. The reason this is called, “Start at the end” is that at the beginning, we usually tense up and at the end, when the task is completed, we relax. If we start the task by relaxing, we are approaching the task in the same state as when it is finished and when we can take a break.
Push Hands is a great exercise for developing this ability. The tendency is to tense up when you are about to push and this lets the partner know what you are about to do. This is called, “telegraphing”. You are expressing your intentions before you even begin the task. If you push by placing your hand very gently on the partner and then gradually increasing the pressure, it is much harder for him to deflect your pressure. You can much more easily “stick” with him and re-orient your angle of push so that your force continues to aim at his center. If you tense first, you lose your sensitivity and cannot adjust to his deflections and neutralizations.
In every day life, if we worry about the upcoming task, we wear ourselves out by anticipating every possible outcome. This means that we don’t trust in our ability to deal with the situation. We don’t trust in our power. Trusting in our power is necessary for relaxation in life. Even if you feel you don’t have much power, trusting in yourself is required to act. Otherwise, you will equivocate and create a situation in which you rob yourself of power.
But you may say, “Why act if I know I don’t have much power?” The key is your understanding of the word, “power”. Power, in the sense of Tai-chi or Zookinesis, is not raw muscular strength or behavioral aggression. Power is attention. It is the ability to pay attention to the fine details of what is going on and the changes taking place second by second. When you have the power of attention, you can adjust second by second to place yourself in the most powerful position at each second. Then you don’t need to be overtly aggressive physically or behaviorally. You act lightly but efficiently.
In Phantom Kung-fu for example, we don’t waste our time blocking the partner. That also wastes energy and can bruise our arms. We may also fail in blocking and get hit. We just quickly move away from the incoming strike and strike an unprotected area. In this way we don’t waste our energy combatting the partner.
In life we can analyze our reaction to situations and ask ourselves, “How much energy do we spend combatting (even if only in our minds) and how much do we spend actually doing something useful?” Once we see this in various situations, we can use different tactics to be more effective.
As an example, instead of creating conflicting stories in our minds and rehearsing our battles, we can pay attention to what is going on right now. This brings us back to reality and also gives us practice paying attention to what is right in front of us. If you fill your mind with combat then a lot of your lifetime will be spent in combat.
How much time do you spend in these negative mental stories and how much time do you spend practicing exercises that make you more healthy and aware? Can you transfer a couple hours of the mental combat to going to class? Minimum force means that you trust your awareness more than your tension. You trust your relaxation more than your combative attitude. Your life then becomes easier and more enjoyable.

USING INTERNAL ENERGY

The use of internal energy (chi) as power is a very difficult subject to understand and to use in actual sparring. We usually associate power with muscular tension and with forcing the opponent’s strikes out of the way. Internal martial arts systems are based on a different concept of fighting. I was trained in Tai-chi-Chuan (“the Grand Ultimate Martial Art”) and in Zookinesis which is my translation of the particular type of chi-gung training I teach. I combined the two into what I call “Phantom Kung-fu”. The principles of this system are as follows:
1. Move away from the incoming strike and move into an unprotected area of the opponent. You learn to perceive when the opponent is about to strike so that you can move at least as soon as the opponent moves. Your strike is delivered at the same time as his would have landed on you. There is no attempt to knock his strike out of the way. You move your own body out of the way.
2. When you strike, your force should come out of you like an arrow coming out of a bow. The bow (body) has the energy and the arrow (arm or leg) transmits the energy. The arrow does not generate the energy. When you send out the bow, it is a release of the stored energy of the bow. You let go of the string. In the same way, the stored energy of compressed springs of the body, stretched ligaments and tendons and the internal energy which is connected to an inbreath, is what shoots out the force. 
3. Your physical tension maintains the structure of the body; it does not generate the force. Your force is stored in the structure and is released from that structure. If you try to use muscle tension to generate force you have to tighten up the body to maintain your structure and strike at the same time, which in turn, blocks your force from coming out. We train to use our muscle tension to maintain the body structure and to use compression, stretching of the connective tissue, breath etc., to store energy. 
4. The explosion of the outgoing force must have the floor as the base. In external styles, the tension of the body is the base against which your strike emanates. In internal styles, the floor is always the base. The explosive force presses as much into the floor as into the partner. So your legs press into the floor as you strike and release your energy. This results in the upper body expanding spherically outward. It is the structure of the body which channels this force specifically in only one direction – towards your strike. Tension is like a pipe. Your energy is like water or air flowing through that pipe.
5. Internal energy (yang) flows through the yin parts of the body. The yin parts are the front and the insides of the arms and legs. The yang parts are the back and the outside of the arms and legs. We channel force through the yin areas and use the yang areas as the structure. In external styles, muscle force is channeled through the yang parts. 
6. Power comes from the balance of yin and yang. There is a tendency to feel that the more yang you are, the more powerful you are. In Phantom Kung-fu it is the resilient springiness of the body and the connection of body, breath and attention that results in power. We do NOT magnify anger to stimulate us to fight as in some styles. We must stay in a meditative state.
7. Force is generic. We deal with the opponent as force and do not bring emotions into the interaction. We do not view the situation as some big, strong person is about to beat me up so I’d better beat him up first. We view the situation as dealing with force and we use the Tai-chi and Zookinesis principles (Taoist principles) to deal with that force, through neutralization, letting the force slip by or re-directing the force back to its source. This is done with complete calm (in order to be effective). Our attention remains completely connected to the behavioral patterns and intentions of the opponent but we do not allow those behavioral patterns to stimulate similar patterns inside us. We just use his patterns to our advantage.
8. There is no opponent. In this way, you deal with force as you deal with the everyday events of life. You do not view force (or situations) coming at you as an opponent attacking you but live your life second to second through Taoist principles of living in harmony with nature. Each action on your part is an attempt to create maximum harmony. In a sparring situation, that may have to be achieved by striking the other person with force but it is not done with anger. In our classes, when someone does get hit, the person who got hit usually laughs and contratulates the partner who hit him. Yet the strikes are done with great force. (We use padding).

RELAXATION IS POWER

The power in Tai-chi-Chuan sparring comes from relaxation with a minimum use of muscle tension. This contrasts with “hard” or “external” styles. The power of the punch, for example, originates in the foot as it presses into the ground. Each joint expands sequentially from there so the force emanates upward. The force moves through the leg and hips and then directly to the elbow and fist, bypassing the upper body. The upper body sits loosely on the lower body. To the extent that the upper body tenses, this detracts from the force that moves out into the opponent’s body and increases the amount of force that stays in the puncher’s body.

At the moment of impact, the body must not tense up any more than is minimally necessary to maintain the firmness of the body’s structure (including the punching arm). Any tension beyond that point decreases the amount of force moving into the opponent. Your fist is not completely tensed up as you strike.

In the fraction of a second it takes to impact, your body must perceive the balance and alignment of the opponent so that your body can re-align itself to take the opponent’s situation into consideration. Your body aligns itself to deliver the most effective punch according to the alignment of the opponent. Your muscles and joints must re-align, all at the same time, instantly. And of course, your body must have the knowledge of how to sense the opponent and re-adjust. If your body were stiff, you would sense nothing and not be able to re-adjust.

Your force must move out equally into the floor, through the foot, as into the opponent. In external styles. the tension of the body is used as the “floor”. You punch out from your own tension. In Tai-chi-Chuan, the actual floor is used as the floor. This releases the body to be flexible and responsive.

As the front part of your body expands to deliver the punch, your back must relax and sink into the floor. Your front cannot expand if your back doesn’t relax. And if you expand your back and front at the same time, you just lift yourself out of your root (your connection to the ground). There need to be an equal amount of you sinking as expanding.

In this way, your center remains still, and the stillness of the center is necessary for power. It is like jacking up a car to change a tire. If you place the base of the jack on marbles or on slippery mud, it will slip and the car will fall down. If your center moves about, the structure of the body cannot remain aligned to deliver the maximum power.

Even the arm itself remains relaxed until it makes contact. Only then does it tense and only enough to prevent the collapse of the arm. The arm does not create the power. The body creates the power. Any attempt to add more power by using the arm muscles to punch actually cuts off the body’s power.

So relaxation is a vital ingredient to developing power in sparring. And in life, relaxation allows the body to remain strong and not be worn out. Your training in sparring helps you to deal with life in a more realistic way. You no longer feel you are battling your way through life.

PHANTOM KUNG-FU – DIVIDE AND CONQUER

In most martial arts styles, technique is pitted against technique and one body is pitted against another body. In the Phantom Kung-fu system you divide the opponent’s attack into its smallest components. You analyze the structure and movement of the body and the dynamics of the opponent’s attention, second to second, tenth of a second to tenth of a second.

This requires an extreme familiarity with proper body mechanics and alignment. It requires being able to sense the dynamics of the opponent’s attention and how each of his body parts would be able to respond to any action on your part. It requires that your sense of time is expanded so that one second seems like a long time to you and you can move and adjust easily within one second or even a small fraction of a second. It requires that your own attention is not just pulled by the opponent’s actions but is independent.

Phantom Kung-fu requires three years of preliminary training, including learning Tai-chi forms and Push Hands as well as the Zookinesis exercises, so that your mind and body can be conditioned to function in this way. Since most potential martial arts students want to fight from the very beginning, this eliminates those students from participating. They are welcome to join the classes but usually choose not to or drop out quickly when they learn they will not be fighting for at least three years.

The divide and conquer strategy means that you view the opponent, not as one big person, but as a combination of many body parts and behaviors. You can perceive which part or which behavior is central to any particular movement and strike the root of that movement. In Tai-chi it is called, “Striking the root”. The root of a punch may be the shoulder or it may be a hip. You strike whatever destabilizes the opponent the most, both physically and mentally. In other words, you go right to the root of the problem and don’t focus on the end result (the fist or foot).

As a strike comes in, we often slap the top of the incoming wrist because that tends to break the strike and we don’t need to move much to get out of the way. A tiny slap to the top of the wrist allows us to strike the opponent at the same time as we are defending. Both actions take place at once. In fact we use the least motion possible to cause the desired effect. Striking the root requires less movement than blocking the end result.

If our actions are small enough, people watching won’t notice any movement on our part. This is because the opponent’s movements are usually so extreme that ours seem non-existent in comparison. The opponent seems to be magically defeated with no apparent effort on our part.

Yet there is a lot of effort in terms of concentration. Our attention must be very active to assess every little action and behavior of the opponent and to be aware of every little part of our own body so that each part is ready to respond. The more internal activity in terms of the dynamics of attention, the less physical movement is needed.

This is true in life in general. The more we are aware of what is going on around us, the sooner we can respond to situations. We deal with a situation at its root. We don’t let things drag on and hope they will go away. This creates a very powerful way of life. It is not aggressive in a negative sense. We just deal with each situation as it comes up. The sooner we deal with it, the more choices we have and the nicer we can be about it.

When we observe the details about a situation, we can avoid another problem. There is a tendency to label the situation. When we call it a name then we respond to it in a programmed way – a way we are used to and comfortable with. When we examine it more closely and learn about its component parts, we find each situation is different and we can be and need to be more creative in how to respond it.

In Phantom Kung-fu we create our techniques each moment anew. We do not use a pre-set series of responses. Every moment is different. We cannot let ourselves get caught up into a pre-conceived idea of what is going on or we will miss what is really going on. Let go of your pre-conceived ideas and just observe. Observe the opponent and observe your own behavior. Look for programmed behaviors in both. Take advantage of those in the opponent and drop those inside you like a “hot potato”. If you are observant and creative each moment then you won’t miss anything. Your responses will be more appropriate to what is really going on and therefore will be more effective.

Some people focus in on their problems and others on their self-image. There is often a central focus in our lives that everything else revolves around. It is the central reference point for our lives. Yet we rarely examine it. In Zookinesis, the central focus is attention and creativity. Attention and creativity don’t have any fixed form. We humans tend to want a fixed structure as our central focus and therefore we ourselves become fixed. Those first three years of training are designed to soften that fixed state of the body and mind. This allows you to see life itself as kaleidoscope of interacting forces and to respond to it in that way. It allows you to perceive the fullness of your life and to allow creativity to flow through you. This is a joyful way to be. In this way, Phantom Kung-fu not only teaches you to protect yourself but to experience life more fully.