Tuesday, October 6, 2015

I do not have a grand idea to present today.

Today, I missed my brothers. To be fair, I think I always miss them. Time and life have spread us thinly over the country and our own passions have pushed us even further into our own little seclusions. I always miss that camaraderie. I am often nostalgic for those twilight hours in a the back of a pickup... Yoohoo in hand and 311 on the radio... united in our anger at being born into a world that did not yearn for chivalry as we did. Fighting, for different reasons, all, but still fighting together.

No. Today, I missed them more than that. I missed them because there, I think, was a place that I could go where I did not have to ask for help. They could tell from a punch without conviction, a blade wielded without passion, a blow that never should have landed... that I was wrong... and they would fix it. Because we loved, purely and utterly, without restraint.

Or maybe I did. Perhaps it is an imagined history that I have colored in later, to provide myself with a romantic backstory.

But I do not think so. I believe it is real because of the lightning that shoots through me when I hold sword or spear and can feel my brothers through it. I still have them, little pieces of the Lohans linger in my forms and sword work. They are with me in my dart... in the only thing I ever found that I felt made me as good as those giants... titans, all of them, men who I never felt I could take the measure of.

So I hope that they can take a moment from their busy lives to remember that feeling as well. I hope they remember that time as fondly as I do. It has given me strength at times where I think that, as brittle as I have become, I will surely break...

I feel it as strongly as ever.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Importance of Trust: Coaches vs Teachers

Over the course of a person's life, they will have many teachers. Academic teachers, spiritual teachers, parents, mentors, coaches, and (in all likelihood, since you're reading this) martial teachers.

There are some key differences, though, in the roles that a coach within a physical discipline and the roles that a teacher in a physical discipline will play throughout a person's development.

Emotional growth and the emotional well being of students is a subject very important to me and I believe one that more martial teachers should be concerned about. Many martial teachers are not. This is not a problem confined to either contemporary or traditional teachers, but rather some endemic in martial practice. Whether this is because martial arts instructors do not care to or simply do not know how to address the emotional needs of their students, I do not know, but the fact is that martial arts instructors are... bad at it, for the most part.

I was very lucky. My teacher was a reserved man in many instances, but always very careful to push students in the direction that they needed. The prideful were humbled, the self-deprecating encouraged, always with the same quiet but reassuring smile. I can count on two hands the times my master complimented me out right, but they are potentially the most important building blocks of my confidence today... those few moments where I knew my teacher had faith in my abilities.

Not all students of the martial arts are so lucky. I have learned from more than one teacher, though I call only one man my master, and I have not always been in such supportive environments. This has helped me pay attention to how many fighters (as well as people who pursue ANY rigorous physical discipline) have had their technique suffer because of doubt or self-deprecation beyond what is healthy in encouraging a student to push themselves.

As I meet more people from other, non-martial disciplines, I see how often this happens to other physical people and I've come to a conclusion: the difference is that other physical disciplines often have coaches not teachers and that martial arts instruction is moving more towards coaching and away from real teaching.

A coach focuses on the movement, the material aspects of training. A coach is less interested in the personhood of their students. They are not invested in the growth of their student beyond the student's ability to mimic... and so that is the best a coach can produce. Mimicry. A student, coached, cannot rise above the level of his instruction.

A teacher is invested in the student and as such has a stake in their growth. They rise and fall based on the success or failure of their pupil and place deep value in their emotional state. They want their student to grow beyond them: mentally, physically, and emotionally. It is the point of teaching.

I am tired of seeing students whose physicality is a thing of real, true, and intense beauty suffer because they do not know that they are believed in or trusted. Instructors take note and students, take the time to encourage and inspire those around you. We could all use it.

Friday, March 28, 2014

It is really about time for martial arts teachers to start teaching.

This realization really struck me when I became an actual classroom teacher. Pedagogy has advanced in so many ways and we, as teachers, know so much more about how the mind acquires information. What's more, we know so many more creative and effective ways to impart information and we see the importance of variety in how we teach even a single concept, that it is possible now to address multiple intelligences, styles of learning, and challenges with a staggering variety of tools and strategies.

So why not in the martial arts?

A student who struggles with a particular concept in a math class might receive specific instruction for that concept, learn alternate strategies, have the methods for solving that kind of problem broken down, or be given additional reinforcement in foundational skills that will assist the student in addressing their challenge. These are opportunities for growth and learning, as students learn not just how to solve a specific kind of problem but (and much more importantly, mind you) they learn how to learn. 

This kind of learning is incredibly valuable with respect to martial arts because it encourages students to pursue the kind of creativity and acumen within their art that is so difficult to attain but so important in attaining mastery. A martial artist who truly knows their discipline as a result of struggling with its core concepts is far more versed and literate in their system than a student who was naturally gifted. Such a student is far more equipped to be a teacher who can pass on not just specific movements but the thinking that accompanied them.

And so we return to teaching. Teaching, as it exists today, acknowledges the foolishness of forcing a student to learn only one method for acquiring a skill. For example, teaching a student who struggles with aerial movements a butterfly kick in the same way you would teach a gymnast is ridiculous. Teaching a student how to do a kip-up the in the same way when half of your students are ectomorphs and the other half are mesomorphs is equally ludicrous.

We, as martial arts teachers, must become more aware of the ways in which people learn and do our best to recreate the ideal learning environment for all students, not our ideal learning environment or the ideal learning environment for just some students.

And that is, ultimately, our responsibility as teachers.

Monday, March 24, 2014

While training with a dear friend of mine over the weekend, he regaled me with a story of a young woman he knew whose teacher had informed her that her decision to go to college after attaining her 1st Dan was somehow an abandonment of her duty and responsibility.

Ignoring the appalling nature of such a claim, such actions seem more and more common from martial teachers lately. This problem is one that is systematically ignored by teachers and has created a generation of poorly adjusted and and often insecure fighters.

Martial arts teachers are ignoring the emotional well-being of their students. As instructors, guides, and counselors we have a responsibility to our pupils to ensure that this element of training is reinforced and to do so in a mindful way. We acknowledge, as a community, the value of sustainable practice, right? We want students to treat themselves and their physical bodies in a way that will allow them to train for a long period of time. Many Chinese martial arts are SPECIFICALLY longevity oriented and yet it is far easier to regain physical health than it is to regain emotional health.

The attitude that martial practitioners simply need to 'toughen up' or that we, as teachers, are only responsible for the physical well-being of our pupils is ridiculous and irresponsible. It represents an intentional decision to be ignorant of one of the most important elements of martial training: the power of the relationship between teacher and student.

So please, for fuck's sake, start paying attention to your students. Their practice will benefit from it hugely as their confidence soars.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Martial Arts and Competition or... 'Please stop... just... stop.'

Traditional Kung-Fu has a peculiary relationship with competition, marked mostly by disdain if not outright hostility in many cases. Many traditionalists have interpreted competition as self-delusion or self-aggrandizement. Its worth noting that the 'super practical' drills of the most fundamental of traditionalists could be viewed in a similar manner by contemporary practitioners, but I digress.

This attitude has developed to its current state because of the going and counterproductive struggle between traditional and contemporary iterations of many martial systems.

Many traditionalists choose to look down upon competition, viewing it with contempt. Whether we choose to admin it or not, we know that stereotype. Sneering and often unphysical fighters who say that tournaments do not reflect real world conditions. This is not to say that all traditionalists are of this ilk, that there is not value to the idea BEHIND this reasoning, or that all those who believe such are, themselves, unathletic. Nevertheless, the stereotype often holds true. You say tournaments don't reflect real world conditions?

You know what? Neither do forms, drills, conditioning, weight-lifting, sparring, weapons practice, road work, or bag work. That isn't the point. Physicality is universal, it supports itself and contributes to development in all mediums. Many of the greatest fighters I know are dancers, acrobats, and gymnasts. Individuals who have learned their own bodies and the nature of physicality intimately before ever thinking of turning that knowledge to a martial medium.

Why? They know their bodies and they are involved in constant intrinsic and extrinsic evaluation.

Watching tape, judges evaluating competition, trainers evaluating the form of their students, coaches evaluating technique. These physical practices contain many levels of examination from multiple sources, many of whom are uninvested (and therefore, more objective) in an individual student.

The point of competition should be internal and external evaluation. It is a starting point, rather than a conclusion, and should be viewed as such. When it is viewed as such it becomes a valuable tool both in improving one's physicality and in helping maintain the mental and emotional well-being of a fighter.

It cannot be viewed as the most accurate representation of skill, but neither can competition be written off as completely irrelevant.

Like many of the more esoteric parts of martial practice (rigorous meditation, weapons practice, specific conditioning), the purpose of competition must be sought out and meditated upon by the individual. It is not handed to you, like all the other valuable realizations that come in a martial artist's evolution, it must be earned.

Are we truly so lazy and selfish that we cannot search for the benefit in something. If it is not immediately apparent, our instinct is to write off the entire process?

This is part of a disturbing trend, where we search for rapid benefit with minimal time investment. It speaks deeply to the lack of emotional and mental investment in martial training. Physical investment, by comparison, is much simpler.

We, as martial artists, must delay gratification and train ourselves to search for deeper meaning in all of our practices.

It is in the search of deeper meaning that fighters find their virtue and become warriors.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Martial Arts and Failure

The concept of failure has a unique place in society and in our minds. Even the word, 'failure', carries with it implications that are important to understand, as the term has become incredibly stigmatized. There is a sense of permanence to failure, that it is a state, rather than a single event, and that recovery from that state is impossible.

The martial arts encourage an entirely different attitude towards failure. In martial arts, failure is not just an inevitability but an integral part of the process. Failure is necessary for success. Failure builds a student up so that they can break technique apart and understand it in detail, teach it, interpret it and lend it their own unique perspective and life. Failure is the basis from which all martial arts improve, grow, and develop. Failure was celebrated. Sifu brought up, reveled in, and delighted in pointing out my miserable failure. His attitude towards my failure turned it into delight, as we looked upon our efforts as both a challenge and a source of humor. The truth is that the martial arts are hard. We ask ourselves to do remarkable things through hours of grueling practice and emotional investment. Why expect perfection to show itself immediately? Why beat one's self down because you do not achieve this perfection instantly? That's dumb and you should feel dumb for thinking it.

This altered conceptualization of failure is one of the reasons that I blanch when I see notes about martial arts increasing the confidence of its students. I, personally, have never felt more confident because of the martial arts. I have felt objective about my abilities, more aware of both the good and the bad but without stigma or prejudice. This is the real value of martial arts, the belief that the state of a person simply is without there being a judgment value based on their abilities.

Inability was neither viewed with dysphemistic or euphemistic attitudes. As I grew and learned, I never felt that supposed increase in self-esteem but instead lost the stigmatization around failure.

And we all must. Failure simply IS, neither good nor bad. Deal with it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Somewhere along the way, we lost track...

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word 'dichotomy' thusly: a division into two especially mutually exclusive or contradictory groups or entities ; also : the process or practice of making such a division

Any practitioner of Kung-Fu who has been paying attention for more than twenty minutes knows exactly where this is going, however; I promise that this will not be the same bland rehashing of the same argument. My issue is that, if we as martial artists had kept the words of the sages and elders in our minds all along, this argument never would have happened.

My conclusion, set before my facts, is that Chinese martial artists are unsupervised children fighting over a bunch of fucking cookies. We didn't make the cookies. We don't know what the cookies are for. Maybe someone is saving them? Maybe the cookies are poisoned? Who fucking knows? Its pretty damn ignorant for us to say, "I know what a cookie is, I can make a cookie, I've eaten cookies so I can make some really big ass assumptions about what THESE specific cookies are for. Later, I'm gonna yell at some people for saying these cookies are their cookies or really even talking about the cookies in any way that doesn't clearly indicate their mineness."

Sound stupid? So does every person who claims their 'traditional' lineage is an untouchable line of bad-ass throat cutters. Their dipshittery is only matched by the thousands of 'contemporary' martial artists who claim that their connection to the Shaolin Temple dates back to when Walt Whitman and his dinosaur army built it. Shut the fuck up, guys, nobody believes either of you.

What is more, the intense hatred between contemporary martial arts factions and tradition lineages has created very real, non-philosophical differences in the art that are now harming practitioners as well as Kung-Fu's integrity as a whole.

Humor me for a moment more, I promise there's a point coming.

I have huge respect for contemporary wushu. The athleticism is uncanny, the training bitter beyond imagining, the dedication unearthly. I come from a traditional background and I believe firmly in the strength of traditional's training, ethics, spirituality and power. I was always trained that each of these two spheres of martial ability flowed into each other. They overlapped, in essence, making them... well... NOT a dichotomy. A talented contemporary martial artist has learned so much about the art of movement, about their own body and about the efficiency of combat that they would naturally gravitate towards the fighting methodologies practiced by traditionalists (who have over the last century especially proven themselves to be amazing fighters).

On the other hand, traditionalists seeking to learn more about their bodies, to turn themselves into a perfect physical conduit for their art would in turn move towards some of the contemporary training that has yielded such amazing physicality over the years. Why not? Those fuckers can fly just as well as we fight. Why waste a resource?

Apparently over dumb fucking pride.

Inside Kung-Fu published a rather insulting article last month regarding what a 'true' martial art is, essentially playing its traditional and contemporary readers against each other in a not-so-subtle way. Its bullshit and to have one of the only Chinese martial arts focused publications do it is further proof of their stunning lack of integrity.

This sort of animosity has, in turn, pushed both sides far from each other. Rather than overlap, sharing and natural flow the argument has polarized each side. Now, a wushu competitor must be capable of almost inhuman numbers of turns in competition to qualify for high ranking. Gymnastics. Flash without fire.

How has traditional martial arts responded? It has decided that the only martial styles and techniques that possess any sort of worth are the most brutally effective, murderous acts of barbarism that exist within the medium. What if I want to fight a guy without ripping out his throat (I know, I know, I wouldn't but... just imagine)? Well, if I do what Inside Kung-Fu says is 'traditional'... I can't. Gotta kill him. What is more, there is so much emphasis on these 'street effective' techniques that a lot of these Inside Kung-Fu 'traditionalists' look like... well, exactly what they are... fifty year old, bearded, aging fat old men who are pissed they can't do a 540.

It is our responsibility to move ourselves, be we traditional or contemporary, back to the center, back to peace and understanding. There is no point in this dispute, it serves no one, and only hampers the progress of a practitioner both as an individual and as a part of a whole.

And that is how it should be.

A whole.