In an amusing way, I feel “compelled” to review the new live-action Mulan, if only because my review of the original animated version has been archived for decades at IMDB for the whole world to see.* But this was also one of the only Disney remakes I was actually keen on seeing. When they announced that they would not be doing a near shot-for-shot remake and would instead be shaking things up (not making it a musical, the removal of Mushu, etc) my interest was piqued. As long as they had good writing, I figured, this could be a good thing: a chance to tell the story in a new way, opening up new avenues to explore and to play in. And even though I have very much disliked most of the remakes thus far, as long as they nailed that one, crucial, thing of good writing, it could turn out well! Continue reading
One of the things that we learn* in our kung fu training is this:
Not everything that feels powerful actually is.
Just because we put in a lot of effort, or engage a lot of tension, or become super fierce, or stoke the fires in our belly… and just because it feels so much like we should be able to resist a mountain and even be able to split it in two… despite all that… when actually test the move we collapse like a house of cards, with nary an ounce of power there.
And then we get angry! And we double down on it! AAAAARRRRGH! Which only ever serves to make it even worse. **
Fortunately, we also (eventually) learn to not force the point*** and to let it go, delve deeper, and adjust our form such that, remarkably and suddenly, it not only works but it works without almost any effort at all.
Like so many things in kung fu, so too does this apply with our ways of being and in the way we live our lives:
Not every emotion or attitude that, again, feels strong is actually strong.
As we interact with the many areas of our lives, we have so many ingrained and automatic responses and views and ways of being, and we often go forth thinking that they are strong, that they are necessary, that this is the way, and that anger and harshness and hostility and posturing and fierceness and downright hostility to the world and everything around it is the way to make our way and, more importantly, to get what we want. We think they make us strong. And wow does it ever feel strong! And right!
And yet, it isn’t. And we aren’t. All that acerbic-ness ends up being unproductive. We expend a lot of effort, and we may move the ball a smidge, but it takes a supreme toll on ourselves and others, and the results rarely stick.
Like with kung fu, we can let it be for a moment,**** set it aside, and bring to it a new level of mindfulness. Within that clearing we can adjust and create a new context, choosing other ways of being that will bring forth what we want with velocity and without effort.
And that there is true power.
* And re-learn and re-discover over and over and over and over again…
** Which, like the above, we do it again and again even though we know it never works…
*** Also fortunately we learn to laugh at our stubborn silliness….
**** And laugh!
***** One corollary to all this is that when we see someone who is all fire and aggression and sees the world through metaphors of attack and destruction and always seems upset by everything, it’s the same thing: It is not strength, they are not powerful people, and they are not paragons to laud. They are all bluster and performance, with little to show for it, no peace of mind, and continually having a lousy experience of life to boot.
Yes! After much intense writing and wrangling, Volume 2 of the Northern Shaolin Kung Fu series that I co-wrote with my Sifu is now available for all!
As before, I might be a bit biased*, but this book is a fabulous addition to your Kung Fu library, whether you practice Northern Shaolin or not. There is so much great insight and wisdom from my Sifu that has been distilled into this tome, covering Northern Shaolin’s advanced concepts, the generation of internal power (and what that even means), the principles of application and fighting, the exploration of all ten of the core Northern Shaolin hand forms, a multitude of advanced weapons, and even more. Coming in at 50% larger than the first volume, this thing is packed with great stuff!
You can order your own copy (and check out Sifu Lam’s other great books as well) here:
And as a bonus, I’ll be hosting a live streamed Q&A session on August 22nd (at 430p EDT/130p PDT). If you order the book before August 12th 2020 we’ll send you an invite to the livestream!
I am thrilled (tempered with the trepidation with something so personal being released for all to see) to have the book released to the world. After nearly 20 years of practice I still love the art, and this book is stuffed with everything I could think of from all that I’ve learned from Sifu and from what I’ve gleaned through all that diligent practice. I worked closely with Sifu to gather the material for the book and get it captured for posterity before he passed. This is most definitively part of his legacy, and I am humbled to be able to be a part of it. I hope it illuminates and teaches, and I hope that our passion for the art and – even more so – for sharing the art comes through its many pages.
* And as before, natch, I am very biased since I wrote it…
While our group classes and gatherings have been completely kaiboshed during these unusual times, I’ve continued to Kung Fu it up in my backyard (including weapons and all). It has been a pleasantly productive time, with growth and new avenues opening to explore and with a wonderful handful of delicious insights.
But there’s an interesting thing about insights:
You never know when they will show up.
You can’t plan for them. You can’t predict them. And you can’t force them. All you can do is go out, practice, practice, and practice some more.
And, of course, that means to practice with intent. Be the force that is pulling for it. Create the conditions for it to show up. Lay the foundation and do the digging and look inside and be mindful and keep looking for what’s missing, what’s next, make the adjustment… and then put it into practice, practice, and practice some more.
Until, without any preamble, there it is. Something new arises! An insight, an epiphany, a shift, a transformation. It might be accompanied with an “Ohhhh,” or a “That’s interesting, what’s that?” or maybe it’s so grand the skies part and the angels sing. Whether it’s low key or a glorious emergence, it’s nevertheless unmistakable.
And it’s yours forever, to move forward into the world with that new understanding, new vision, and new ability, and to enjoy all that comes and flows freely from it. All the while, being ready to lay the groundwork and to continue practicing, practicing, and practicing some more towards the next one.
This is the veracity of Kung Fu, as it is the veracity of any art or skill or ability, including the realms of philosophical transformation and even that of societal shifts.
It is also a counter to resignation and capitulation, taking solace in that uncertainty. It rarely looks like somethings progressing until it moves. And then it does. And it’s glorious and totally worth it for the great days ahead.
There was a funny thing that kept happening. We* would ask Sifu a question about some move in the Tai Chi form, usually a move somewhere near the end of the form, and he would say, “Well, go back to your Wu Ji.”
Now, Wu Ji is the first move in the form. It’s not even really a move – you stand in it. Translated literally, it means something like “Empty” or “Nothing” stance, though the more proper meaning is “Harmonious” stance, with the idea of bringing your body and body tension together in evenness and harmony, like a circle. It’s the starting position.
Which is why we would usually protest. “No Sifu, I meant this move here…” and we would demonstrate. “I know,” he would reply, “But go to Wu Ji.”
Despite our frustration, it does (Of course it does! He was Sifu!) make sense. If you don’t have your Wu Ji, you can’t “have” anything – your moves are all deficient** in some way. We are thinking and asking to tweak something on this one particular move when really a) the problem doesn’t start there b) we apparently don’t even fully grasp the depth of the problem c) tweaking that move won’t really fix the issue and d) if we can adjust our Wu Ji, then we won’t need to fix the problem because the problem goes away. Moreover, it doesn’t just go away, it e) creates a whole bunch of positive outcomes everywhere, in every single move we do.
It is a great way to express the concept of returning to the primordial. Whether martial arts moves or societal systems, whether cultural or our own personal views and realities, or our own identities and who we see ourselves and others to be, it’s hard to poke and prod something so deep and at the end of a long chain and have it be all that impactful. At best we can struggle and strain and maybe keep it (or our Tai Chi structure) from collapsing. But the issues remain, and often compound on each other. But when we get something fundamental and come from first principles, from the primordial, and adjust our Wu Ji so that we begin from a place of proper connection and intent, then massive shifts are possible. Everything sings, compounds harmoniously, and we come to those places of strength with ease, naturally.
All wrapped up in a simple small phrase. Thank you Sifu.
* While it would happen to all of us it seemed to happen to Steve the most… so much so that it has become our affectionate running joke now (and a way for us to remember and honour Sifu)
** Not bad, or wrong, but just missing something. Something to discover, get, incorporate, and grow.
No surprise I’m sure, but I absolutely love that last panel. You don’t want to mess with that lioness!
by Oglaf (Totally NSFW, BTW)
Shaolin kung fu and lynxes, clearly two great things that go great together!
(photo by Cloudtail)
“Distinction” is a term that crops up again and again within the philosophical and ontological arts. But what is distinction? And why is it important?
A distinction separates something into its own category or concept.
A distinction lets us know/feel/understand/grok the difference or particularnless of a thing/feeling/thought/category/concept.
Once a distinction is created, it becomes a vessel into which we can pour our attention and inquiry and understanding into.
Distinctions allow us to see things in greater detail, bringing refinement and granularity to things or behaviours or thoughts that otherwise would be the same for us.
Distinctions, ultimately, open whole new worlds and perceptions and understandings and even realms of possibility, of being, and of living.
Before something is distinct, we can’t really focus on it, because, to us, it’s not yet a thing.
The same happens in the martial arts. The distinction of “rooting” creates a new world to explore: How do I root? What does my body need to do to root? How do I gain that stability? How do I transfer forces into the ground? What does it feel like? What do I have to adjust? Ok, what do I have to adjust now to make it even better?
As we practice, we use distinction between two states or positions to develop things further. Feeling the difference in balance, power, and exertion between two different body positions lets us know which one is more in line with proper rooting. “Here I have to struggle to resist an incoming force, but here I am at ease. This is what it feels like to engage rooting.”
With that double distinction, we know what we’re aiming for, and we gain a better sense of when we’re on target, and when we are not.*
So too when we learn a philosophical distinction. Whether it be about the stories we tell ourselves, or one of the logical fallacies, or about identity, or about the hilarious ways we continually subvert our rationality, whenever we gain a distinction in those realms we gain access to it. Distinction turns it from being a blind spot that we can only ever inadvertently crash into it into something we not only can avoid but can also use to our ever-growing advantage.
Distinctions are the root power of transformation. And from those roots grows a glorious life full of power, joy, and peace.
* And as we gain further distinctions, our idea of rooting improves, which improves our grasp of where we should aim, which we then refine through testing and feeling, and thus the cycle of growth in ability continues evermore.
The spear is the third weapon taught in Northern Shaolin kung fu. Before you begin learning the set proper, there is a basic drill to practice that familiarizes you with the feel of the weapon as well as ingraining an effective and basic technique. It’s three motions: circular snap to parry by your leg, circular snap to press onto the opponent’s hand, stab forward to the full extension of the spear. Pull back, and repeat.
Once you get the hang of it, you drill it with speed. Swoop, press, stab. Swoop, press stab.
“Now, practice it 100 times a day,” Sifu instructed. When Jay learned the drill, he was way more eager than that. “I’m going to practice a ton, get good real fast.” And so he’d go into the kwoon to practice well before class, he’d practice after class, practice on days he didn’t have class. Any moment he had. Swoop, press, stab. Swoop, press stab.
Several weeks later while Jay was practicing in the kwoon, Sifu walked by and noticed that his form was really suffering. The movements were slow, the trajectory all off, and the energy all erratic. “You seem to be regressing,” he called out. Jay could only nod unhappily. “Yes Sifu, I don’t know what it is. I’m practicing, but it’s just not getting better.”
“Let me see your left hand,” asked Sifu. Jay held it out. The web of flesh between his thumb and index finger looked as though someone had attacked it with a belt sander, all raw and split and bloody. “How much have you been practicing?”
“Oh I’ve been real good,” said Jay. “I’ve been doing it around 300 times a day!”
A silence hung in the air. Sifu looked from Jay back down to his bloody hand then back up at Jay again. He mock smacked him upside the head. “That’s why I said 100 times a day!”