Sunday, 23 November 2014

Mindfulness: practising kung fu to practise kung fu

I levelled up today, as they say in the modern vernacular: I got to the next grade in wing chun.  Of course, I'm pleased about it, and pleased that other students also got to level up, but for me it was harder than I would have wanted.

A few seconds into demonstrating chum kiu, I was struggling for air.  To explain, for the last few days, I have been affected by a cold or flu virus (I never can tell the difference).  Now I'm not looking for sympathy, nor am I one of those men for whom the world stops moving when I'm ill.  As usual, I'm using today's experience to prove a point, to paint the bigger picture.

Recently, I've been studying mindfulness, and talking to others about mindfulness.  I feel a little uneasy about the term, because it has become something of a marketing gimmick, and what we are talking about could just as easily be described as focus.  Still, mindfulness is how it is currently being described, and I see no good reason to deviate from the trend.

I initially struggled with Thich Nhat Hanh's advice to wash the dishes, just to wash the dishes.  Surely, I thought, we wash the dishes to have clean dishes, but that is not what I read in his book.  Clean dishes are what we have when we have washed the dishes, but not when we are washing them.  His point, as I realised after further reading, was that washing the dishes to have clean dishes is concentrating on some point in the future and missing the experience of the present.

If I had concentrated on making the grade today, I would have put an enormous amount of pressure on myself, and the fact that I did not feel one hundred percent healthy would have shaken my confidence.  On my drive there, however, the venue for the grading may have been my destination, but I was driving somewhere to drive somewhere.  Importantly, when I got there, I was not practising wing chun to pass a grade: I was practising wing chun to practise wing chun.

I often think back to when I started practising kung fu, or even further back to when I wanted to practise kung fu, but had yet to have a lesson.  Why did I want to learn wing chun?  Why do I still want to learn wing chun?  I could tell you that I want to be able to protect myself from harm, if the need ever arises.  I could tell you that I want the sense of accomplishment which comes from progress in a martial art.  I could tell you many things for which I am aiming when I practise wing chun, but those are things towards which I will probably always be striving.

What about now?  How does wing chun affect my life right now?  The answer, again, is that I am practising wing chun to practise wing chun.  If I am not enjoying the present moment, the process of learning, concentrating instead on what may come, I am not making the most of the present moment.  This applies not just to the practice of martial arts, but to everything that we do in the present.  Let concerns about the past or the future invade the present moment, and you are not present in the moment.

Today, I was fully present in the moment.  I wasn't trying to pass a test.  I was simply doing what I was doing, to the best of my ability on the day.  As it happens, that is also the way to pass the test.  Literally translated, kung fu means an achievement gained through hard work.  I passed a test of my kung fu by doing kung fu.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Science vs Spirituality

In modern times, we are accustomed to seeing science and spirituality as fundamentally opposed.  Our thoughts in this direction are possibly guided by the discoveries of Charles Darwin, and the efforts of cosmologists to unravel the mysteries of the universe.  Driven purely by reason and logic, we have largely come to view spiritual matters as misleading superstitions which are counter to rational thought.  Certainly, empty seats in churches show the direction in which we are heading.  Our society has become more secular, more atheistic.

If it is true that science has all the answers, could it be that we are asking the wrong questions?  For what it's worth, I'm in support of a separation of church and state, and my reason is purely that those who govern must be objective, whereas faith and spirituality are essentially subjective.  I would argue, however, that this very objectivity is why scientific research can not provide the answers to all of our questions.

If you were to ask a scientist who you are, they might respond that you are an organic life form, a creature of a species whose superior intellect and adaptability has shaped the world in which we live and, in terms of evolutionary theory, has enabled us to survive far longer than we would otherwise.  They may provide answers beyond the obvious physical description, from the fields of psychology and other social sciences.  Maybe your political allegiance or educational background would contribute towards their answer.  You grew up in a certain environment, a particular culture.  They will tell you facts about yourself.  All of this has value, but is an incomplete picture of you as a human being.

Abraham Maslow, whose work I admire a great deal, developed a hierarchy of needs, which is probably as close as scientific research has come to developing a theory of what makes us happy.  In recent years, a focus on positive psychology, where people are studied for their capacity for happiness, rather than underlying mental health issues.  Of course, the self help industry is still growing, so it would seem we are as far from answers to some questions as we ever were, and possibly more so.

I see my country, and indeed the wider world, falling prey to the cynicism of Neoliberalism.  As we become less focused on the spiritual, our defence against this cynicism weakens.  In the models of capitalism and communism, there is little room for spiritual thought, as they are purely economic models.  Neoliberalism is based on the expectation that people only ever act in their own interests, and science seems to reinforce this view.  What of the human spirit?  Well, here in the UK, there is a small but growing interest in Buddhism, as one example.  Our traditional churches are slowly becoming empty, often closing or being sold for conversion into places of residence, and yet it seems we are still searching for those answers which can not be provided by science.

Maybe I am subject to bias, but it seems that the assumptions of Neoliberalism have become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Could we say that people are now more self-centred?  Are people increasingly egocentric?  Like I said, I may be subject to bias, and it could be that I now see people with little care for the implications of their actions for others due to some expectation to see such an outcome.  It is interesting, however, that we have seen a rise in Buddhism, a system of belief founded on the principle that our own self-interest is the root of our suffering.

As I said earlier, spirituality is a deeply subjective and personal matter.  Unfortunately, this sometimes manifests as fundamentalism, and you need only read the news to see the more frightening conclusions of such beliefs.  I'm not sure how the search for our identity, sense of worth, or place can lead to the atrocities committed presently, or in the past, but I'm sure that science is equally unable to determine why this happens.  It is certainly strange that, in a world that is increasingly moving away from spiritual matters, such destructive interpretations of the ancient texts have become so prevalent or, maybe, when we consider that the more moderate interpretations of these spiritual beliefs and traditions are largely derided by the modern world, we should not be surprised by the rise in religious fundamentalism.

My aim is not to answer questions for you, but hopefully to ensure that you are asking those questions in the first place.  It could be that wealth, technological advances, your work, greater health and other benefits of the modern world have made you happy.  If we can use the growth of the self help industry, or the interest in alternative spiritual traditions as scientific evidence, it would seem that we remain unsatisfied by the answers held by science.  I don't believe that either science or spirituality holds all the answers.  I would contend, despite the title I gave to this piece, that both are necessary, and it should not be a choice between one or the other.  When we shut ourselves off in such a way, our ability to learn from others is effectively closed down.

You may have heard of Carl Gustav Jung.  His analytical psychology was based on a combination of science and spiritual enquiry.  Maybe he had a point.

Keep questioning.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

DivX Plus HD for Handbrake

All trademarks acknowledged in this post.

Some time ago, I bought a TV that will play video files from a USB drive, as long as they comply with the DivX+ HD standard.  My preferred tool for transcoding videos is Handbrake, and this has built in profiles for many devices, but I searched in vain for a profile for DivX+ HD.

Finding specifications for the standard, I entered them into Handbrake, saved the profile and started transcoding.  It works.  If you enter the below text into your favourite text editor, save it as DivX_HD.plist and import it as a profile into Handbrake, you should have similar success.

Note: only use Handbrake to make back up copies of media that you already own, if your local laws permit this.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "">
<plist version="1.0">
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <string>AC3 (ffmpeg)</string>
                <string>MP3 (lame)</string>
                <false />
        <false />
        <false />
        <string>MKV file</string>
        <false />
        <false />
        <false />
        <false />
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <string>The best compromise of high quality video and compatibility with the Divx Plus HD standard.</string>
        <string>Divx HD</string>
        <string>H.264 (x264)</string>
        <string>Same as source</string>
        <false />
        <false />
        <false />
        <true />

Monday, 22 September 2014

Thought for the day: humanity

I often find myself asking why, as someone who is more of a peacemaker than anything else, I find myself seriously practising martial arts. I am reminded on a regular basis, however, that humans have the ability to create conflict where none existed previously, to develop a deep-seated hatred of someone who has done nothing to deserve that hatred, and to cause unspeakable suffering if they feel they are justified in doing so.

Maybe I've witnessed too much hatred, bigotry, violence and cruelty in my time, and maybe it has changed me. I've noticed that, when people make a genuine effort to listen and understand each other, their fear, hatred and anger are no longer seen as necessary. There was a time when I spent many hours listening to people in distress, some of whom had already decided I would be the last person to hear from them. I guess that experience affects everyone in a different way.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

A Journey to Nowhere

On my way to work, I encounter, briefly, many other drivers on the road.  I am astounded by how many of them drive above the speed limit; in fact, many of them seem to regard the road as a private racetrack.

I try to understand before I form an opinion, so I imagine all kinds of reasons for the speed at which they drive.  If someone in the car is seriously ill, needing urgent medical attention, their rush to that destination is understandable.  Maybe they really have to be somewhere at a certain time?  I can never know their routine, so that may also be understandable.  The thought came to me that, for whatever reason, every one of them has their mind fixed on their destination, and wants the journey to end as quickly as possible.

In the early days of my employment, I thought in much the same way.  Inner concerns about getting to the office on time saw me switching my view between the road ahead and the clock on the dashboard.  Sometimes this was interspersed with thoughts about something that had happened the day before, how it might affect me during the current day, and often a wish that it would not happen again.  Occasionally, my focus would drift to how I have less time to spend with family and friends.  At work, I became preoccupied with what I would do at the end of my working day, or what was in store for me later.

If our mind is not focused on the present moment while we are travelling, or when we reach our destination, then are we really present in the moment, during the journey, or at the journey's end?  If thoughts of what has been and what might be cloud our minds, then we are not truly present.  In effect, our journey has been one to a place where we are not.  The drivers speeding along the carriageway, caught up in their thoughts of the day ahead, regarding their journey as a waste of time, have managed to make it exactly that.

As I drove to work this morning, I brought my focus to the journey.  For a large part of the duration, I have the mountains to my left and, to my right, the sea.  I travel through tunnels, and pass by many other structures built by human hands which, when I truly think of them, are wondrous feats of engineering.  I pass many small towns and villages, and wonder what life is like for the people who live there.  I think of my mode of transport.  In modern times, my car is regarded as nothing special.  What would people a hundred, or even fifty, years ago think of this machine I am piloting?  I could so easily miss all of this, if my focus were not on the present moment.

I arrived at the office with a smile on my face.

Throughout my day, I hear so many people who are not truly present in a conversation.  They are simply thinking of what they will say next, and not really listening to the other participants.  How much they miss by acting this way!  At work, too, it could be argued that we work for the money we receive in exchange for our labours.  We spend many hours there, though.  Should those hours be wasted, wishing we were somewhere else?  Maybe such thoughts condition us to work with the mindset that we would rather not work.  I have found that I am much more effective when the greater part of my concentration is on the task at hand.

I must take this attitude with the study of martial arts, too.  Am I learning wing chun to defend myself from attack, or to increase my grade for the sake of my ego?  Maybe a bit of both.  How about I learn wing chun to learn wing chun?  Rather than lamenting my lack of progress towards an abstract concept of perceived fighting ability or rank, shouldn't I just be absorbed in the learning process?  Everything else will come in time.

It's easy to imagine that such a way of thinking is alien to us.  We are so accustomed to our regrets over past mistakes or anxieties about the future that we find it difficult to cast them aside and just focus on the present.  Such focus seems to be beyond our ability, and yet this is probably the default mode of operation for children.  As a child, it is likely that you cared little about the past and worried even less about the future.  More likely, you had the ability to fully absorb yourself in whatever you were doing.

Call it mindfulness, if you like.  It's simply an ability to be fully in the present.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Four Years of Wing Chun

Today marks four years that I have been learning wing chun.  I still consider it to be the most effective street defence method available locally, but any of these arts are only as good as the student.  When I was learning jujitsu, I overcame the limitations imposed by my illness by studying ancient forms of the art and related arts, when everyone else was goofing over Brazilian jiu jitsu and the UFC.

Did it work?  Well, one of my reasons for leaving that class was that no one wanted to train with me any more; I'll leave their reasons for avoiding me to your imagination.  Incidentally, when some Lithuanian sombo practitioners joined, no one wanted to train with them either.

I don't know how to achieve the same thing in wing chun.  Sometimes I think that a long fist style would add something to the close quarters nature of wing chun; at other times, I think that practising arnis is the perfect way to overcome my inherent deficiencies in strength, speed, coordination and mobility.

Recently, I suffered badly in a sparring encounter.  Initially, I felt terrible about it.  The instructor pointed out that I had taken too many hits, because my footwork was practically non-existent.  After the class, he said that this form of panic was common amongst those who were not used to wearing head guards, and suggested that I do my solo practice at home wearing my head guard.

To be honest, I found myself outclassed.  My opponent was someone with whom I train regularly, and his interest in other forms of Chinese martial arts has made him a well-rounded fighter.  His time spent learning wing chun alone is about double my own.  He trains outside of the class regularly, with one of the other well-rounded fighters in the class, who came to wing chun initially because his Muay Thai instructor recommended the art as a way to learn good defensive techniques.

I can accept all of the above excuses internally, because they make sense.  What is harder to accept is that illness may mean I never reach the same proficiency in wing chun as my classmates.  I have had more of a challenge dealing with my fellow wing chun students than I have with the students of any other art I have practised.  The difference I have noticed is that most of them are not just good martial artists, but also competent fighters.  If you ask me whether wing chun attracts good fighters or creates them, I really don't know.  Maybe someone else could answer that.

Is my wing chun useless, given my physical limitations?  Far from it!  My time at a local eskrima club strengthened my faith in what I have learned, and surprised me.  It is said that we are our own worst judge, and that was certainly true in my case.  When they handed a padded stick to me, and told me to spar, I thought that their student, with years of experience in stick fighting, would make short work of me as an opponent.  After a few minutes, they stopped the exchange.

I was told that I should stop thrusting the stick into the body of my opponent.  Such a tactic, I was told, would cause serious injury, might constitute a foul in competition, and was generally a nasty thing to do.  It was also noted that the short, hacking movements I favoured were indicative of a bladed style, rather than a stick-based art.  I was puzzled by this, until I realised I had been applying the principles of wing chun to stick fighting, under pressure, without even thinking about it.

When the eskrima instructor went on holiday, he left his assistant in charge of the class.  An uneven number of students had attended, so he decided that he would be my training partner and ended the class with a free sparring session, to "test" my wing chun.  His history as a competitive taekwondo practitioner and student of Brazilian jiu jitsu meant that I had to maintain focus, because he was more than comfortable at sparring range.  His intention to use me for target practice came unstuck, however, when he realised that every attempt to come forward and push an attack led to the attack being neutralised and a simultaneous shot being landed by his opponent.  The exchange ended with him receiving a kick to the midsection, which winded him enough to put him on his knees.

Towards the end of my eskrima training, I put on some 16 ounce gloves, as did one of the other eskrima students.  This was an attempt to teach the techniques of Filipino boxing, with which my training partner was already very familiar.  It started well, and continued in such a way, until the instructor decided to ramp up the pressure by telling us to speed up.  I honestly tried to stick rigidly to Filipino boxing.  An upper cut came towards my midsection, or ribs.  A jum sau and punch with the same arm proved effective against this attack.  Again, he tried his attack.  Again, a jum sau and punch checked the attack.  Various combinations were met mostly with variations of pak sau and jum sau with a counter punch, much to my surprise.  The "seed" hands of taan sau, bong sau and fook sau were nowhere to be seen.

In desperation, he ducked and rose again to aim a hook at the side of my head.  The gap in his defence created by this made it easy for me to close the distance to one more comfortable for a wing chun fighter.  Unfortunately, my trained reactions, in wing chun and other non-competition arts, led me to simultaneously aim a well-timed elbow at the biceps of the attacking arm.  The fight was stopped, leaving me stunned by the speed of my entry to the range where I could execute an elbow strike.  By this time, I had become somewhat disillusioned by the style of eskrima they taught, though I still have great respect for Filipino martial arts in general.  When I found out that the club did not have insurance, my time there came to an end.

Everyone will have their own interpretation of what they learn: a pre-existing frame of reference through which each new piece of knowledge is filtered.  For me, reading Tao of Jeet Kune Do many times over, and doing the same with books on the ancient principles of tai chi, permanently affected how I see combat.  I subconsciously relate everything I have learned before or since in the martial arts to the underlying principles I learned through those books.  I dare say my fellow wing chun students do a similar thing with their previous experience, whether they realise it or not.  Maybe that is why everyone's way is so different.

Fighters with more experience, and perhaps similar experience, will probably get the better of me.  I'm ill.  I have to come to terms with that.  So, what about the times I have been a worthy opponent, as in the eskrima class for example?  The Japanese Zen masters call it "mushin" - the mind of having no mind.  I would personally say it as the mind of unconscious action.  Bruce Lee, in the aforementioned Tao of Jeet Kune Do, said that we should simply let our arms and legs work themselves, in accordance with the discipline in which they have been trained.  Could it be that, in a wing chun class, I am trying to stick too rigidly to wing chun?  Maybe the fighters of YouTube, trying to give a good impression of their art, are doing the same.

Yip Man is reported to have said that we should be masters of our kung fu, not slaves to it.  I've heard wing chun instructors - most of them very highly respected - say that the principles of the art are far more important than any set movement.  As usual, I think writing this stuff down has allowed me to see a way forward.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Thought for the day, via Bruce Lee

"Do not deny the classical approach, simply as a reaction, or you will have created another pattern and trapped yourself there." ~Bruce Lee

It is often said that Bruce stood in opposition to classical martial arts, but the truth is somewhat different.  Jeet kune do, as developed by Bruce, was more a philosophical framework than a martial art as such.  The weaknesses he perceived in his knowledge of fighting, in his style, were the targets of his own personal interpretation of jeet kune do.

Of the people who Bruce certified as instructors, James Yimm Lee and Taky Kimura were certified as instructors of jun fan gung fu.  Only Dan Inosanto was certified as an instructor of jeet kune do.  People who have said that Dan's JKD is more like a Filipino martial art these days have completely missed the point.

The central principle of JKD, and one which Bruce himself advocated time after time, is to take what is useful and discard what is not.  As martial artists, this is what we do naturally.  If something does not work for us, we do not use it again.  In this way, my interpretation of the art I practise will be different from that of anyone else, as will yours.  Dan Inosanto has taken various martial arts and made them uniquely his own: this is jeet kune do.

My belief is that, when Bruce criticised the classical approach, he was echoing Ip Man's assertion that we should be masters of our art, not slaves to it.