Shaolin kung fu and lynxes, clearly two great things that go great together!
(photo by Cloudtail)
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!”
There were many things that were amazing about my Sifu. I learned so very much from him. One of which he never taught me directly… he was simply an embodiment of it.
Sifu loved Kung Fu. That may seem like an unnecessary statement – of course Sifu loved Kung Fu, you’d think. After all, he practiced it diligently for so many years. But this is not just some matter-of-fact thing. Sifu loved Kung Fu for its own sake. When Sifu practiced, he practiced because of that simple enjoyment. There was no “in order to” behind it.
And that was the great insight, lesson, and wisdom he demonstrated.
Often times in our lives we take on something, practice something, or do something “in order to” accomplish, have, possess, or gain something else. We don’t do it just for the pleasure, satisfaction, or pure difference it might make in the world. We do it “in order to” get that other thing.
We train martial arts in order to feel manly or not scared.
We run marathons in order to look sexy and have something impressive to tell others.
We take a job in order to make money*, because we want money in order to feel powerful.
We buy something in order to distract us.
We like a particular band to fit in socially
We seek conflict in order to avoid loneliness.
Sometimes we undertake things because of some perceived flaw in ourselves. Other times, we may not even be aware of the hidden purpose,** the “in order to” remaining hidden from our view. “I like it!” we think. “It’s just what’s needed,” we add. “I have no choice,” we finalize.
While these “in order to”s can be great motivators, pushing us with an intensity and persistence in our pursuit of that goal, they also rob us. Rob us of freedom, rob us of satisfaction, rob us of joy. Rob us of the experience of the moment. And, most ironically (though you can probably guess), they also rob us of our performance. They get in the very way of the thing we’re trying to get. If anything starts to slip, we become frantic. Small or large, any panic will stunt our game.
When we set aside our “in order to”s, new levels of growth and delight are available. When we practice, do, or take on something for its own sake, we free ourselves to play and dance. What we do becomes a self-expression, leaving us energized and fulfilled.
And In that space, we love it.
** Or we don’t want to admit it to ourselves…
If you want to draw water,
You do not dig six one-foot wells.
You dig one six-foot well.
Variations on this phrase have been attributed to many great philosophers and thinkers over the years (be it Sufi or Buddha or some other), but no matter its origin (which I’d wager is more likely to be pedestrian rather than profound), it remains a lovely little didactic parable that nicely encapsulates a number of philosophical hooks to leap from.
For one, it can be taken as a tale of intention and perseverance: “To flit about and abandon things quickly may not always yield that which will slake your thirst.”
It may also be taken as a tale of collaboration and unity: “When we dig only for ourselves, we come up short; when we dig together, we can reach rewards of superabundance.”
And for me, the most profound comes when I take it this way: “Remember that there are many valid paths, and everyone ends up drinking from the same water. We don’t need to divide ourselves based on the specific well. The important part is that we are digging our well, that our well aims true, and that we dig deep enough to reach the water of spirit and enlightenment.”
In both martial and philosophical arts, I have found that any “style” or “method” or “philosophy” developed to a high level begins to sound the same. They start talking about the same things. They have to. Because we are all the same human body, and the same human being. They may talk about things differently, or have different conceptual frameworks, but ultimately they are all pointing to the same thing. The same water.
Search to find a good spot for a well. Set yourself down. And start digging.
When you find another drinking from a different well, revel in the water below. Look down their well to see what new things might reflect back for you. Share the experiences of the waters you have reached.
When we cease our flitting, begin our digging, work together to bore downward, and support each other in our well building efforts, we can all reach and revel in that sweet, cool, water below.
One of the activities the Black Rock Kwoon often hosted was a push hands* meetup organized by the Dread Pirate Lee. It was a great time to meet fellow practitioners and to get to push against a wide variety of people from all sorts of backgrounds, lineages, and experience levels.
One year, mid-way through, I began to develop a sense of something. Taking it on as an inquiry for the rest of the meetup, I began to formulate a principle/theory I quickly coined as the Tai Chi Push Hands Skill Differential Exponential Experience Factor (or TCPHSDEEF for short**):
If I have 1 level of skill, and you have 1 level of skill, to me it will feel like you have 1 level of skill.
If I have 1 level of skill, and you have 1.1 level of skill, to me it will feel like you have 1.25 level of skill.
If I have 1 level of skill, and you have 1.5 level of skill, to me it will feel like you have 3 level of skill.
If I have 1 level of skill, and you have 3 level of skill, to me it will feel like you are a god.
As the skill differential grows, the one with the greater skill gains the multi-whammy ability to be more relaxed, have less openings, sense the other’s movements and openings with greater clarity, and has the techniques to be able to engage those openings, AND those techniques will have greater subtlety, compounding the lesser sensitivity on the other side to respond before flump! You’re off balance.
The upshot of it was this: when I pushed against those at higher skill levels than me, it almost always felt like I was light years behind (both physically in the movements/responses but also metaphorically), being tossed this way and that. On the other side of the skill coin, however, it mattered little what my partner would send my way, even if I was unfamiliar with the technique. I could remain centered and able to redirect with seeming ease. I felt very much in control.
While the idea of the compounding nature of skill, and the abilities that it grants us, was important enough, it was the experience, the feeling, that came with that really struck me (and stuck with me).
Especially as this, as they so often do, ranges far beyond just implications for the martial arts.
No matter what skill we may aim to develop, whether it be tennis or skiing, drawing or cooking, working or playing, listening, giving, caring, or even in the realm of profound skills such as being peaceful, generous, passionate, expressed, loving… for any of those skills it means that the high level of ability is actually closer than we might think.
For one, that compounding nature works in our favour. But more importantly, it further means that things that may seem out of reach are not really that out of reach. We need not accuse ourselves of lacking talent, or fall into “I can never…”, or relegate ourselves to the dustbins along the margins.
It is nigh-well inevitable that we compare ourselves with others and their skill level(s), but any vast gulf that seems to scream at us that we (still) suck is illusionary and, in actuality, an overly dramatic scream.
We may see someone, interact with someone, be with someone, and come away with the feeling that they so own that skill that it must be ingrained, and I must have an equally ingrained difficulty with it. And yet that feeling is just the Skill Differential Exponential Experience Factor (SDEEF for short…?) at play.
Thus, we can let that feeling be the feeling, and continue to play. For that is what great push hands is, play. You play, you teach, you learn, and ultimately grow, enjoying the moment now and enjoying the fruits and fulfillment that comes with the ever-deepening skill.
* Push Hands is a practice from Tai Chi to develop the basic concepts of sensitivity, following, emptying, redirecting, and effortless pushing, beginning with simple drills where one partner pushes while the other receives and empties, followed by a switch in roles, continually back and forth.
** Well, OK, not really for short…
Well… continuing to explore that crazy amazing insight, I’ve hit that point where now nothing seems to work anymore, where all the amazing feelings and results from just last week now I cannot reproduce one iota and everything falls apart at the lightest push.
When you deepen your understanding and dive into a new or deeper concept, the masters have noted, it will feel as though you are beginning all over.
So, intellectually I know this is on the path, but dang if it still ain’t a bit demoralizing!
And I’ve already got the next practice scheduled to keep on playing.
I’ve just had one of those Niels Bohr-type moments in kung fu, and I’m a) resisting the potential insight really hard and b) finding my mind blown. Cool, weird, frustrating, exciting, confusing, and illuminating, all at the same time! It seems so unlikely… yet somehow logical… and I certainly cannot argue the results when I test the movement.
One of the reasons I love the art(s) so much!
I will never forget the first time I learned that Sifu knew my name.
I had only been at the school for several months. I hadn’t really interacted with Sifu at all – I knew who he was to be sure, and I saluted him as he passed, but to that point all my class time was with his bevy of instructors. As it was, several instructors could not make it that evening, so Sifu was gathered with those that were there, working to ensure everyone was taken care of. “Well, Oliver is learning Tan Tuy right now…” Inwardly, my head whipped around. I was, shall we say, rather high strung back then… “He knows my name… how could he know my name? Is that a good thing? What’s going on? Is this bad???“
It wasn’t. Not in the slightest.
In the years since that night, I came to know Sifu as a teacher, as a guide, and as a friend. If I were to use one word to describe Sifu, it would be generous. One of the most generous human beings I have ever met, in all senses of the word. Generous with his time. Generous with his knowledge. Generous with his assistance. Generous with his patience. And generous with his understanding. He put up with me when I was not at my best, helped me out in numerous ways over the years, explained things over and over, and led trips for us to China.
But above all, he loved to teach and was always ready to give willing of his time to share what he knew. Once, on one of those trips to China, while we the tour participants were practicing with the local master I looked over to see Sifu chatting with a stranger. Not five minutes later, the stranger was in a stance and Sifu was proffering explanations and suggestions. He was that eager. Kung fu was his passion in life, and he expressed it fully.
Of course, there are many words that can be used to describe Sifu. Rigorous: Sifu never rested on his laurels with “this is how things are, this is what I remember, this is how this art is done,” he was always testing, exploring, relearning, and deepening his understanding of every art he learned. Resourceful: Sifu managed to make a living in the Bay Area through his love of the martial arts, without having to compromise the principles of the art. Renaissance Man: Sifu was skilled way beyond just the martial arts, teaching himself to be a weaponsmith, a tui na and herbalist healer, author, video producer, carpenter, businessman, real estate agent, and father. Peaceful: Sifu lived his life with equanimity and faced things as they were. Devilishly witty: Sifu could break out an astute little twist or cutting yet loving phrase or instruction at unexpected moments. Humble: Sifu didn’t like attention or speeches, he just wanted to practice and grow. Industrious, fastidious, inventive, curious… I could go on.
Sifu was a genuine martial artist, interested in the art side of things as much as the martial. He studied diligently and delved deep into the heart of several styles to discover their deepest roots and concepts. He wouldn’t recite answers from memory: ask him a question, and it he would generate it from first principles. Ask him in a year, and his answer may shift as he grew his understanding. He always knew exactly what to give you that would improve your form; never more, never less. And it was all delivered without attitude. He never sought the limelight, he never gated his teachings, he never compared himself to others. He was at where he was at, always walking the path.
Through his school, through his store, through his videos, through his books, and through his disciples and instructors and through their students in turn, Sifu touched the lives of thousands. I count myself extremely lucky to have – pretty much by accident – found my way to his school eighteen years ago and gotten the chance to know him. He has been a major part of my entire adult life. I will cherish all the lessons he taught me, both in the martial arts and in how to be a great human being. I will strive to honour those lessons and his memory, practicing with equal passion and sharing that passion with equal generosity. I will carry on his legacy, in whatever ways I can.
Grandmaster Wing Lam passed away this morning. The world has lost a treasure. I will miss him dearly, as will we all.
Thank you Sifu, for everything.