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A Martial Arts Journey -- Signposts Along the Way

Yin-Yang-Sign-webThere's a quote that has been attributed to different people, including Voltaire, the famous French philosopher. It goes like this:

"The perfect is the enemy of the good."

As I finish my 40th year in martial arts, I've been reflecting on the journey so far. Since the day I began back in 1973, I've had a goal in my mind of the perfect technique. In my twenties, I imagined looking as good as Bruce Lee. It was an elusive but worthy goal.

As I got older, goals changed along the way. When I was introduced to Chen Taiji back in 1998, the goal of perfection became more elusive.

But I keep trying.

When we study and practice any martial art, we work hard to be perfect. We want to have the perfect stance, throw the perfect punch, move with perfect body mechanics.

Sometimes we get so hung up on trying to be perfect that we forget to have fun, and we forget that being good just might be good enough. Ego can get in the way, and we can fall into a pothole of image -- not wanting anyone to think we actually have a lot to learn.

I'm frequently amazed when I look at videos of some great Chen tai chi masters such as Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing, and others. And when I see them in person, the difference in quality between these guys and regular mortals like us is striking.

I've been told that some Tai Chi students who travel to the Chen Village in China come back to the U.S. and give up Taiji, because they realize they'll never be as good as the people they see there.

It can be a humbling experience to be corrected and made to feel like a beginner. It has happened to me and I've seen it happen to one or two of my teachers. As I've said before, we have an image in our minds when we practice that we look like Bruce Lee or Chen Xiaowang. In reality, we look more like Charlie Chaplin.

I like to compare my practice of the internal arts with playing other sports such as basketball. I can get together with a bunch of athletic guys and do pretty well in a basketball game. But put me up against Michael Jordan and I'm going to be humiliated. Heck, put me up against a good player from the UCLA or Kentucky, or even the local high school basketball team, and I'll be humiliated.

This week I watched a video of a younger Chen Xiaowang demonstrating a form on Youtube. He forgets where he is and does the wrong movement at the end. He tries two or three times to get it right. It's refreshing to see that I'm not alone. And neither are you.

A lot of people expect perfection. A lot of folks in Tai Chi, if they see a photo or video of another Tai Chi student or teacher, will criticize the person's form or skill. I've really never seen anything like it in any other martial art I've studied -- the unrelenting criticism of Tai Chi folks. It's quite shocking. 

You can't let these people bring you down.

I sure do enjoy it, though, and every year I take a few steps farther along the path, getting a little deeper -- just a few baby steps -- and I see the arts getting deeper beneath me. Being on a lifelong journey is part of the fun. 

As you travel this journey, the signposts along the way are the lessons you learn, the  insights you gain, the baby steps you take with your skill, and the gradual improvement and understanding.

I've had many people who have studied Tai Chi for decades come into my classes, and they quickly see that they've been traveling the wrong path. It's the same feeling I had when I met Jim and Angela Criscimagna in 1998.

Suddenly, the sign on my journey said STOP! Like some of the long-time Tai Chi students who have come to my classes, I realized I had to take a few steps back in order to go forward. It was worth it.

The journey is more satisfying if you open your mind to new information. This next month, I will meet Chen Huixian for the first time. I expect to get another perspective and, if I'm lucky, will learn something that will take me a few more steps on my own journey.

It's all relative. If you have skill that another person doesn't have, pass it on while you continue to study and improve your skills. Don't be side-tracked by people who make you believe you have to be perfect, because that may never happen. And don't be sidetracked by the people waving signs that promise you will learn supernatural powers. They have no such powers to teach to you. They will take you down a dead end.

Being perfect is a worthy goal, but in the meantime, let's travel this journey with clear eyes, be as good as we can be and have more fun with these great arts.

Note: My new ebook is a collection of 50 informative and hopefully inspiring posts from my blog, mostly between 2006 and 2010. It is only $3.99 and is called Signposts on a Martial Arts Journey: Tai Chi, Hsing-I, Bagua, and the Art of Life.

Follow this link to

Bruce Lee Was Right -- We Need Emotional Content -- and We Need Shen (Spirit)

Bruce-Lee-Emotional-ContentOne of my favorite scenes in a Bruce Lee movie is when he lectures a young student about what he perceives as a lack of "emotional content" in the young man's movements.

When I was a younger student, practicing techniques with fellow students, one of my teachers would occasionally warn us to maintain our "spirit." When we received a certificate of rank, the certificate mentioned the "spiritual discipline" involved in achieving the rank.

In Tai Chi, the Chinese term "shen" means spirit. It is not a supernatural spirit -- it is an awareness of your action and a physical fullness that means you are giving it 100%. You are in the moment. 

Shen is also translated to mean "heart," but it is the same thing. You are emotionally connected (the heart is often associated with emotion) to the intent of the movement or activity.

It applies to any martial art and it also applies to other aspects of your life, from relationships to work and other activities and endeavors.

How many times have you seen a student in any martial art perform weakly -- no real spark of energy or excitement? Sometimes, you'll see a student stepping through the motions of a form without peng, with no connection in their movements. A fighting application will be performed half-heartedly, with "chi in the chest" and a lack of proper body mechanics or stance work.

How many times have you seen someone come to work listless and uninterested? Or perhaps you've been in a relationship where the person you cared about was emotionally unavailable -- not in sync with you.

Sometimes we say, "His heart wasn't in it." 

We need emotional content.

We all have days when we don't feel 100% -- we're tired, we have deadlines for school or work, we're having problems with a relationship or the family -- there are always excuses to slack off.

That's when the spiritual discipline sets in, and you focus your mind on your practice. What is the true intent of this movement? How can I perform it the best of my ability?

In each movement of the internal arts, whether it's Taiji, Xingyi or Bagua, you should have a whole-body connection through each movement. This also includes a connection of Mind and Heart (Yi and Shen), which leads the Chi and the Li (strength).

If you do not have spirit for your martial art, your relationship, your work -- what are you doing here?

When you perform your movement with shen, then I would ask "How did it feel to you?" Your answer might get you a slap on the head. Without spirit, you may be missing out on all that heavenly glory. :)


Connecting with Your Opponent - Philosophy and Self-Defense In Action

One of the most important concepts in the internal arts is "connecting."

From a philosophical perspective, you should be connected to everything in the Universe. Since you are part of the same energy that created everything, you are connected to it all. Seeing yourself as separate is the first step toward being out of harmony.

From a self-defense perspective, you should connect with your opponent. If someone attacks you, he has stepped out of harmony with the Universe. He will either hurt or kill you, or he will be put back into harmony with nature, which can happen if you are skilled at self-defense.

There is an old saying in Tai Chi -- "My opponent moves and I move faster."

This requires you to connect with your opponent and know his intent almost as fast as he does. To illustrate, I've pulled out a couple of photos taken around 2006.

Ken-Gullette-Speed-Drill-1-webOne of the drills we use is fun and effective. In the top photo, I stand with my palms together and hands extended. My partner stands with his hands at his sides. He is not allowed to "fake" me out. His goal is to slap my hands as quickly as possible with one hand or another -- or both if he's really good.

I must connect and get into a relaxed state of readiness. Too tense, and I will not be able to move fast enough. I detach my mind and become my opponent.

Ken-Gullette-Speed-Drill-2-webWhen I read the intent to slap, or see the slightest movement (bottom photo) I respond by moving my hands out of the way. Let your partner try several times, then switch positions.

It's a good drill that pays off in many ways down the road, in push hands, in grappling, and in "mainstream" martial arts sparring. It also pays off as you learn not to telegraph your movements (if you are the person doing the slapping). This is best done by relaxing and not making any movement before your hand tries to slap your partner's hands. Beginners will often pull back slightly before slapping, or they will move their shoulder. The more experienced you are, the less telegraphing you will do.

Connecting with an opponent and reading his energy and intent is a crucial skill. Connecting with the world around you is a skill with benefits far beyond martial arts.

Investing in Loss - How Losing Your Ego in Practice Allows You to Win

CXX Push 3
Yes, that's me, "investing in loss" with Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing.
One of the more interesting concepts I learned when I started in Chen Taiji is the concept of "investing in loss." I first heard it in Jim and Angela Criscimagna's class as we worked on push hands. It was a foreign concept, but over time, I embraced it. 

When you invest in loss, you check your ego at the door. This can apply to any learning situation, but it is mostly applied in push hands. You experiment against your opponent and learn what works and what doesn't. You learn what's effective and what isn't. 

Your goal in practice is not to win. Your goal is to prepare yourself to win when your life depends on it. So your opponent may get the advantage of you. So what? The question you should focus on is not, "Did I win?"

The proper question is, "What did I learn?" 

After you try it again and again, the logical next question is, "Have I improved?" 

Some people describe "investing in loss" as allowing an opponent to attack while you appear defenseless. For me, that description doesn't work. Pretending to be weak and luring in an opponent so you can lower the boom is as old as the Art of War.

In Tai Chi, investing in loss means giving up the thought of winning during practice in exchange for the improvement you see in your skills. It's a creative process of allowing your partner to "score" while you slowly realize why he was able to do so.

We've all known the guys who absolutely don't want to be seen as weak. They're the same guys who, when you are practicing with them even as fellow students, try to fake you out and get the upper hand even when you're both at a basic learning level.

In my history as a teacher, I sometimes have seen two students working together on a particular skill. One is earnestly trying to learn the skill while the other is trying to do something to "win." If a more advanced student is taking advantage of a lower ranking student, I patiently explain to the advanced student that he or she should let the newer student learn.

To invest in loss, you must also be centered enough to take the hidden "criticism" inside your partner's ability to get through your defenses. As a manager, especially in news, I hired several young reporters over the years who hated to be told that their writing or their vocal delivery could improve. Their egos could not handle it. They perceived coaching as criticism. The people who accepted the coaching and worked on their skills went much farther in their careers than the others.

When I was a young reporter and the more experienced news directors or assignment editors would shoot down one of my ideas, I didn't get angry. Their "criticism" was a learning device that helped me refine my journalistic skills. When they revised my writing, I paid attention.

When I began studying taiji, I had been in martial arts for 25 years. I set that experience on the shelf to learn something new -- something better.

I stopped sparring when I lost my left lung in 2009. Looking back, I remember that when I was a young man, I wanted to win even in practice. As I got older, I wanted to experiment and improve. In practice, punches and kicks would get through, even from my students. However, when the competition began in a tournament and the rubber hit the road, I usually found a way to win. Ironically, the better I got, the less I even kept score during the match. I was simply having fun and being the best I could be at the moment against that particular opponent.

Even now, in our push hands practice, my opponent gets the better of me quite often. It happens because in practice, I learned over time to put my ego on the shelf and focus on experimenting and learning. If my opponent moves this way, what happens if I move that way? Oops, he got me. Okay, if he does it again, what if I neutralize this way? What happens when I change my posture or my position? Can I relax and feel his energy, then remain relaxed, neutralize, and counter? 

Investing in loss again with Chen Xiaoxing. These are the best learning opportunities.
I learned a great lesson doing push hands in my basement with Chen Xiaoxing. In one of the push hands patterns you take turns stepping toward your partner. Regardless of who stepped forward, I would end up on my back on the floor. It kept happening over and over and over. Rather than get discouraged, I started laughing and so did he. After a few more times, and paying close attention, I finally saw the way he was controlling my center just enough to take advantage of my movement and put me down on the floor. It was illuminating, but it would not have happened if I had not been willing to let him humiliate me over and over again. 

Keep trying. Keep investing. In practice, don't worry how it appears when you don't get the upper hand. The questions you must continue to ask as you try it over and over again are, "Can I do that better?" and "Did I improve my skill?"

Eventually, you will improve.

Iron Wrapped in Cotton -- Does Your Philosophy Give You Internal Strength?

My daughter Shara, a few days before her sudden death in 1980. Life was about to hammer me very hard without a warning.
Do you have internal strength? 

It has been on my mind a lot during the past couple of weeks as I prepared my first Kindle ebook for publication on that very topic -- Internal Strength for Tai Chi, Hsing-I and Bagua. It provides instruction on two basic skills for the internal arts -- establishing the ground path and using peng jin.

That allows you to begin developing relaxed power -- internal strength.

So we are supposed to take what we learn in the martial arts and also apply the principles to our daily lives, aren't we? It's not just for combat, you know.

Let's look at the concept of internal strength.

Do you have a philosophy that gets you through the rough patches in your life? Perhaps it's not philosophy but theology -- religion, faith in a higher power -- Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or one of countless others.

Perhaps you have a philosophy that provides a lens through which you look at the ups and downs of life and make sense of it all.

My personal philosophy leans toward philosophical Taoism and Zen Buddhism. I do not believe that invisible beings are watching us and making decisions that have an impact on us. Believing in an invisible authority figure means that someone is in charge of this chaotic universe. It fills a primal need that started thousands of years ago.

In the end, it does not matter which way you go. Does your personal philosophy provide your mind with the attribute of "iron wrapped in cotton?"

I've known Christians who fall apart when bad things happen. I've known athiests who do the same. Why does this happen? I believe it happens because of a weak philosophical foundation.

The longer we live, the more loss we encounter. You may lose a job, a marriage, your parents, and the unthinkable -- you may lose a child, as I did more than 30 years ago. You may develop an addiction or a major health problem.

No philosophy or theology can shield you from life's trials and hardships. But you need an internal gyroscope that centers you after life knocks you down. A good philosophy can help. 

When my daughter died suddenly at six weeks old, my world fell apart around me. In the funeral home, I picked her up out of the tiny coffin and held her in my arms for two days. I think my friends and family thought I was insane. I was walking wounded for a year or two after this, but even when I sat there in total grief and devastation, there was a little voice in the back of my mind saying, "You will get through it. Life and death are two sides of the same coin. How can you appreciate life if you don't appreciate the totality of death?" It was as if Master Po was speaking to me from the old Kung Fu TV show, and even as I sat there with my daughter lifeless in my arms, I knew that my philosophy was my emotional foundation, and it was working.

I have needed this foundation many times since -- the loss of jobs (TV news is brutal), the loss of marriages, missteps in relationships, and the loss of my left lung in 2009. 

Life is a rotating circle of yin and yang. There are many good times, but even in the best of times, one thing is certain; the circle turns, and bad times will come. You may be at the top of your game at the moment, making good money and in a good relationship, as I was in 2008. I was Director of Media Relations at the University of South Florida, a very stressful position that I loved. Within a week, in April of that year, I lost my job and was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. This led to three operations that resulted in the loss of my left lung (a rare side effect of laser ablation combined with malpractice by a pulmonologist who failed to recognize it).

During this time, I created my membership website on the internal arts. I hit a personal creative streak at a time when I should have been really bummed out.

At the Cleveland Clinic in October, 2009, near death after my lung had shut down and my heart had been accidentally pierced.
I was lying in the Cleveland Clinic in October, 2009 after nearly dying when they tried to stent a pulmonary vein and accidentally pierced my heart. I was on a breathing tube, a chest tube also coming out of a hole in my chest to drain the fluid from around my heart, and attempting to drown every half hour or less as blood filled my lungs. I dropped from a muscular 206 pounds before being sick to 156 as I lay in the hospital bed in Cleveland. I had one good lung left but the diaphragm on that lung was paralyzed. I essentially was living with a quarter of my breathing capacity. 

Doctors didn't think I would make it. But I was lying there, visualizing a tournament six months later that I wanted to compete in. I never was afraid of dying. I did NOT want to go so soon and leave Nancy, my daughters, and my grandchildren, but I was not afraid. I knew that death might be coming, but instead of thinking about that, I focused on the tournament that was six months away.

At that tournament in May, 2010, I won a first place trophy doing the Chen Tai Chi 38 form. My breathing was still horrible -- my diaphragm paralyzed -- but I had to do it for myself. I had already resumed teaching, despite struggling to breathe. Over the last few years, my diaphragm was paralyzed for two of those years, but suddenly, as I pushed it with internal arts practice, it began sparking back to life.

Yesterday (as I write this), I went for a major visit with my pulmonologist after taking a chest xray, blood work and a breathing test within the past couple of weeks. He gave me the news I had suspected as I have seen my ability to practice increase. My numbers have come back up, and the diaphragm is now almost completely back to life. I'll never get my left lung back, but at least my right lung is working well. There is a little bit of capacity that I could still regain in the diaphragm, and I believe it will happen.

Sometimes, your philosophy works when you are not even thinking about it. Last night, because I've spent so much time recently working on Internal Strength for the new Kindle ebook, I thought a lot about it. When you have Internal Strength, it doesn't mean you are superhuman. You still can be battered around by life and by people. You can be sad, you can be angry, you can be hurt. But if your internal movements can be trained to function like "iron wrapped in cotton," your goal should also be for your mind to function that way as well.

If your philosophy is not doing that for you, perhaps it is time to explore others. Because no matter what you believe, the Way still runs through darkness and shadow as well as through the light -- through bitter cold as well as comforting warmth. Your philosophy should provide the foundation that allows you to walk on.

What is Internal Strength? New Kindle Ebook Available on Amazon

Internal-strength-for-tai-chiInternal strength is what you have inside -- an internal gyroscope that allows you to get up and center yourself after being knocked down by life. I've needed my internal strength many times, through the death of a daughter, the loss of jobs, marriages, and through illness.

Internal strength is also the physical skill you need for high-quality Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua -- the internal arts of Chinese kung-fu. 

I studied Tai Chi, Hsing-I and Bagua for over a decade before I was introduced to these skills. Imagine my shock to discover how empty and "external" my arts were. I decided that if I had anything to do about it, other people wouldn't waste a decade like I did.

My first Kindle ebook is "Internal Strength for Tai Chi, Hsing-I and Bagua." It's based on my DVD of the same name. It contains 65 photos and descriptions of exercises that give you the foundation for quality internal arts. These are fighting arts -- self-defense arts -- based on unique body mechanics that enable you to use relaxed power. One of the best descriptions is "iron wrapped in cotton." It appears relaxed and "soft," but the body mechanics give it internal strength.

There is nothing soft about it. The internal arts are the most difficult I've studied. They require sweat, pain, and years of hard work. That's why so many internal arts instructors are obsessed with "moving meditation" and "cultivating chi." If you focus on that kind of "intent," you don't have to worry about the real intent of these arts -- breaking an attacker in the blink of an eye and putting them on the ground.

There are six key physical skills involved:

  • Establishing and maintaining the ground path
  • Maintaining peng jin at all times
  • Whole-body movement
  • Silk-reeling "energy"
  • Dan T'ien rotation
  • Opening and closing the kua

Naturally, more skills are needed, but these six are the ones you must develop in the beginning. The foundation of it all is the ground path and peng jin. This ebook helps you build a solid foundation by teaching you how to establish the ground path and peng, even when you walk. This is the first material I teach my new students.

Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang describes peng jin as what you have when you lift a car off the ground and rev the engine. He says when you put the car on the ground, THAT is when it has power. The ground path and peng represent a solid foundation for the internal arts.

This ebook costs only $4.99 through Kindle and can be read on iPads, iPhones, other tablets and phones, desktops, laptops -- it can be studied anywhere.

Here is a link to the amazon listing. If you haven't studied these skills, you owe yourself an inexpensive look. If you have studied this through good teachers, this ebook could serve as a reference.