Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Mindfulness

Few things puzzle me more than humankind's talent for making things complicated which should be simple.  So it is with mindfulness.  If you have young children, it is likely that you are observing masters of mindfulness at play on a daily basis.  Strange then, that something children are able to achieve without conscious effort should require so many pages to be written, so many courses to run, and so many fortunes to be made.

So, let me simplify mindfulness for you with a definition.  Mindfulness is a focus on the present moment.  That's it.  Whenever we feel anxious about the future, or let concerns about past mistakes cloud our mind, we are not being mindful of the present.  Ask someone who drove, or was driven, to an important meeting, for example, to recount their journey to the meeting.  Beyond telling you the route they took, they will probably be unable to tell you any more details.  Why?  Well, the likelihood is they were too focused on the upcoming meeting.  It would be nice to think they were focused on their driving, on where they were going, but it is likely that some of their focus was diverted to other matters.

In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh uses the example of washing the dishes.  Are we washing the dishes to have clean dishes, he asks, or washing the dishes to wash the dishes?  Paul Wilson, in Instant Calm, refers to this as "the total effort".  The basic idea is a total focus on what we are doing in any given moment.  This principle, in both cases, is explained within a few pages, surrounded by numerous other pages which contain useful exercises.

Modern life teaches us bad habits.  In our work, in our lives away from work, we seem to have so little time that we are tempted to attempt multitasking.  As a result, our focus is pulled in different directions.  Ideally, we need to prioritise and give our focus to one thing at a time.  Few of us have this choice, so the exercises in those guides to mindfulness become necessary.  We should set aside some time each day, the guides say, to sit quietly, focus on where we are, what is happening right now, and concentrate on our breath as a method of grounding us in the present.  They sell this to us as "mindfulness meditation".  Wrong.  It is simply meditation, and it has retained the same basic form for thousands of years.  Mindfulness is not the process of meditation; it is the result.

I've heard it said that, as we age, time seems to pass more quickly.  "Where did the time go?", I have heard people ask.  It should be clear, from what I have said here, that life continues to pile distraction upon distraction on us, so it is increasingly difficult to be mindful, to be completely in the present moment.  Once these moments are gone, they are gone forever.  If we are not mindful of their passing, they are lost to us.

You may have heard yoga, tai chi, chi kung and similar disciplines referred to as "moving meditation".  If done correctly, it is an accurate description.  A focus on these movements is more effective, for some, than a simple seated meditation.  The day's problems, and concerns about the future, fade away as we are absorbed in having correct posture, performing movements correctly and being aware of how our bodies respond.

If you are eating, actually taste your food.  Savour every bite, rather than greedily shovelling it into your mouth and swallowing, barely registering its presence.  Notice your surroundings.  If you are taking a walk, take time to think about how the sun, rain, wind or snow feels on your skin.  What do you see?  What do you hear?  What do you smell?  What do you feel?

This present moment is all you have right now.  Make the most of it.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Not commenting on YouTube

I watched a video on YouTube, where a wing chun instructor (I'll leave my opinion of the quality of his wing chun to one side) was showing why the back fist breaks the wing chun structure.  All well and good, until I read the comments and saw him label jeet kune do as "a sheep's martial art", for those who follow the words of a dead man.

I almost broke my rule about not commenting on YouTube.  The service is full of keyboard warriors, who, if you believe them, seem to know everything about every martial art that was ever developed.  I did, however, get as far as typing a comment, before I remembered my own rule...

"+Izzo Warrior Academy Whoa!  I understand you have a problem with Bruce Lee, but at least give Danny Inosanto some respect.  Most of what JKD Concepts has become can not be credited to Bruce.  He's been dead for more than forty years, so it would be fair to say that his input in that time has been limited.

As for Bruce's wing chun - the first two empty hand forms and forty movements from the dummy form - clearly he knew too little to criticise the system.  He knew this, so became obsessed with other arts and weight training.  The problem with this is, his speed and power overcame errors in his technique, much like Muhammad Ali got away with things that other boxers could not.  How good was he as a fighter?  To put it bluntly, we will never know.  All we have are anecdotes.  To be honest, I lost a great deal of respect for him as a martial artist after reading "Bruce Lee's Fighting Method."

If he had learned the power development of biu jee, the fight with Wong Jack Man would have been over more quickly, removing one of his main problems with wing chun.  When he left Hong Kong, Ip Man still saw him as an ill-tempered kid, so the OP's assertion that he was made an assistant instructor...  I question where that came from."


I said everything that I wanted to say, but then didn't post it.  It's a shame, but the trolls would most likely jump on it.  If you happen to see this, Dominick Izzo, please take it in the spirit it is intended.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Letting go of a friendship again, and why this keeps happening

Yesterday, I turned my back on someone I have known for many years.  As I haven't seen them for a long time, and am unlikely to meet with them again, it was as simple as removing them from my social media accounts.  Unfortunately, this met with the assumption that I'm intimidated by strong women, because this person chose to identify herself as being a strong woman.

I learned, a long time ago, that there are times when the best reaction is no reaction.  It's simple enough to say, but difficult in practice.  If we take this most recent example, it is said that I am unable to hold my ground against a strong woman, implying that I am, therefore, a weak man.  What actually happened is that I was exercising a right that is rarely given much thought.

A disturbing trend I have noticed in modern times is the tendency to ignore, deliberately misunderstand or misrepresent a point that has been made, in order to "win" an argument.  In their eagerness to avoid being wrong, some will just pretend that anything which contradicts their views does not exist, no matter how reasonably it is presented.  As a result, there is an inability to understand, and empathise with, the views of others.

The right to free speech is often quoted.  Yes, in theory, you can be as outspoken, and even downright offensive as you choose to be.  In these days of political correctness, it is unlikely that any of us will not, at some point, say something which offends someone.  I will not take away anyone's right to express themselves as they see fit, but I would urge those exercising their right to free speech to consider the rights of others, and that is where most seem to go wrong.  You have the right to cause offence, but that goes hand in hand with the right of others to be offended and to respond in an appropriate manner.

There was a time when I had to deal with a large amount of abuse.  The stated purpose of my role was to support those in distress, by phone, face to face contact and email.  The anonymity, and confidential nature, of the service provided a means for individuals to talk about their problems and, unfortunately, for those who wished to verbally abuse and hurt someone to do so with the protection of anonymity.  For a time, I reasoned that something had led to these people needing to be abusive, and they were in need of help too, so I chose to be patient.  Sometimes, it paid off, and I discovered that, as I thought, the behaviour was fuelled by a deep despair.  There was always a cut off point, however, a point where I had to accept that a caller would just continue with the abuse, and the call must be ended.  Put simply, there was a point where I had to stop listening.

It makes sense for me to apply the same rules to friendship.  If we accept one of the principles of Zen, that it is better to avoid contention, and add in my own interpretation that sometimes the best reaction is not to react, then it stands to reason that there is a point where a friendship may come to an end.  One of the many unfortunate things about social media is that we can't just walk away.  When we reach the point where our attempts to resolve an issue, or issues, are continuously being ignored, when what we say is wilfully misunderstood, what do we do?  Do we reason that we have nothing productive to say?  Do we start thinking that maybe we don't deserve a listening ear?  Does it cross our minds that we might be fundamentally flawed in how we deal with others, and ultimately it is our fault that we are misunderstood?  Believe me, I've been through all of that.

If we seek to limit our suffering, to preserve our inner peace, there is a point where we must stop listening.  To my mind, continuing a conversation where one party is no longer listening is an exercise in futility.  It's upsetting that someone who knew me for a number of years chose to label me as weak, but it's a further sign that walking away was the correct thing to do.

Edit: I question the use of the term "strong woman".  There are women all over the world who face sexual abuse, violence and other abuses of their human rights on a daily basis, in countries where gender equality is but a distant hope.  They carry on, and some have the courage to fight against the way of things.  These are strong women.  Elsewhere, I look at the way the word "bitch" has been appropriated as a badge of honour, even though it essentially means the same thing it has always meant - a spiteful or unpleasant woman - and I have to say that maybe we took a wrong turn somewhere.  Since when has being unpleasant and spiteful been seen as a desirable trait?  Is "winning" at all costs, no matter who may be hurt, what it takes to be a strong woman?  I question the value of such a victory.  Sun Tzu states, in The Art of War, that it is better to achieve victory without bloodshed or, to translate it into more general terms, it is better to bring someone around to our point of view without causing lasting damage to our relationship with them.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Feeling alone

During my first visit to Manila, a young Filipino woman was walking past the bench where I was sitting, waiting for my girlfriend to finish her work.  She broke from the conversation she was having with her two friends, approached and asked "Why you look so alone?"  I let her know that I was okay, so she joined her friends again and the three of them walked away, going back to speaking in Tagalog and giggling.

I often ask myself why the incident affected me.  My focus at the time was how my visit to Manila and, more importantly, the relationship with my new girlfriend were going.  From an objective point of view, the young woman wasn't unattractive.  She appeared to be in her mid to late twenties, just over five feet tall, dressed in a loose fitting tee shirt, denim shorts and a pair of sandals.  Her natural black hair had been coloured with ginger streaks here and there.  I've probably got some of the details wrong, but that is how I remember her.  More to the point, why do I remember her?

My impressions of Manila, up to that point, were not favourable.  The security guard at the airport had suggested that I use another man's phone to see why my girlfriend was not waiting for me, a privilege which cost me most of my wallet's contents.  Taxi drivers had also tried to trick me into paying more for a journey than I should.  I regretted not learning more about the food, because I made too many visits to the local branches of US fast food chains.

Sitting on that bench within the grounds of a mall in Makati, I had far too much time to think about the situation.  I was in a strange country, far from my family, friends and all that I know.  I'd like to think that the young woman had no ulterior motive because, for a brief moment, her expression showed genuine concern for another human being.

As she walked away with her friends, I thought about her question.  Why did I look so alone?  Maybe she was asking why I looked so lonely?  If she really looked at me and felt genuine concern for how I was feeling, then it was correct to ask why I looked so alone.  The irony is that, on a later visit, some children took to referring to me, in Tagalog, as a ghost.  I know that I was thought to be a ghost because of my pale complexion but, on that first visit, I spent a lot of time feeling like a ghost.  Going into a shop led to some interaction with the shop assistants, though this was clearly in the hope that I would make a purchase.

It's difficult to explain how the sight of my girlfriend (now my fiancée, I might add) made me feel.  As I saw her emerge from the approaching crowd, I suddenly felt less alone, and then not alone at all.  I was happy that the bar girls would no longer be walking past me several times, each trying to gauge my level of interest in their presence.  I was also glad that I could stop looking so alone, spending my evening in the company of a truly beautiful woman instead.

It's unusual for people to see loneliness in us.  A good friend of mine is known to say that we only see the edited highlights of the lives of others.  I should mention that my friend is a personal counsellor, and his website is well worth a visit.  I would add that a lot of people feel more lonely than we know.  When a member of my fiancée's family enquired about people in a country as relatively rich as the UK seeking the support of a counsellor, she asked if the issues were mainly linked to loneliness.

It's funny that we have so many ways of communicating with each other, and yet so many of us feel isolated.  Maybe technology is not the answer.  Maybe we buy into the whole communication technology thing in the mistaken belief that, some day, it will make us feel less isolated, less alone.  We seem to be spending less time in the company of other people, genuinely feeling a connection with them, and too much time staring at screens.  No wonder we feel lonely.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Surviving a knife attack

Assume nothing.  It's a pretty blunt way to start a treatise on dealing with sharp weapons, but it's also a concise way of summing up.  The hand coming towards you may be empty but, in the fractions of a second by which a violent encounter turns, you may realise that the hand wasn't empty when it is already too late.  Bearing this in mind, it would be a good idea to look at how we might survive an attack with a bladed weapon, or at least give ourselves a better chance.

I'm not going to go into great detail about my experience with knives, but I suppose this reassures some people that I know what I'm talking about.  Growing up in Manchester, I witnessed a knife attack from a distance.  When I had to face a blade myself, I was relatively lucky.  My attacker was drunk, and seemingly unsure about whether they really wanted to cut me or put a hole in me.  In that situation, the judo I had learned up to that point, combined with some necessary improvisation, was enough for me to gain control of the situation.  I escaped unharmed.  This is unusual.

I apologise for any offence I may cause here, but the eskrima class I attended was a disappointment.  I can tell you that Filipino martial arts have excellent knife survival techniques but, like with everything else, this can be undone by poor teaching methods.  Many of the "knife defence" techniques I have seen are useful, but I see them being poorly implemented.  At worst, I see things which give a false sense of security, and may just get someone killed.

I will give credit to the instructors who say that the preferred option is always to run.  The only exception to that rule is where escape is not possible.  If an instructor neglects to mention this most important point, you should question whether they can reasonably be regarded as an expert on surviving a knife attack.

Rather than give you some set defences, which would be of limited use, I'm going to give you some principles.  The same principles are useful for an attack by any weapon, bladed or otherwise, including empty hands and feet.

1.  Don't be there

As previously stated, escape is always the preferred option.  The outcome of any encounter is always unknown, but a blade certainly stacks the odds in favour of the person holding the blade.  If escape is not possible, or the knife-wielding fiend is already close enough to make the attack, mobility is the key.  Your first priority must always, always be to get out of the weapon's way.  Those footwork drills that everyone neglects, because they want to get to the "fun" stuff - think of them as your best friend.  Whether you run, side step, move out of range or use a redirection technique, the principle is still the same: get out of the way.

2.  Defence

If you have managed to get out of the weapon's path, and especially if you haven't, controlling the path of the weapon is your next priority.  The two ways of doing this are to stop the weapon or to redirect the weapon.  Redirection is always the better option, because stopping the weapon's motion relies on the momentum of your block being greater than that of the weapon, whereas redirection makes use of the weapon's momentum.  If you are at all unsure of your ability to deliver a block with speed and power, then you must concentrate on learning to redirect an oncoming attack.

In the absence of anything else, the 360 degree defence from krav maga is pretty easy to learn.

3.  Hit

You may have heard stories of boxers surviving knife attacks.  Strange then, that knife defence videos seem to concentrate on applying locks.  It's all the more strange when you consider the fine motor skills that are needed to apply a joint lock.  All those pin sharp techniques you developed suddenly fly out of the window when a good dose of adrenaline hits your system.  Boxers are no stranger to adrenaline, and know that their best chance is to use those powerful punches they have trained time and time again.  Sure, it doesn't have the finesse of a perfectly executed joint lock, but that's the whole point.  We are dealing with simple, brutal and effective here.

More to the point, simultaneous attack and defence is the key.  If you're applying a block or redirection, it is advisable that it is accompanied with a strike of some kind.  What about kicking them as they approach?  You'll be lucky to get so much of a warning: the knife will usually be drawn when the attacker thinks you have the least chance of reacting.  If your attacker is stupid enough to make it obvious that he is drawing a knife at such a long range, I would still caution against kicking.  Half expect that your leg will be cut, affecting your mobility and, therefore, your chance of escape.

So, you've hit your attacker, possibly a few times.  Should you apply a lock?  Well, in the eyes of the law, if your opponent is stunned enough that you can apply a lock or throw, why did you not take advantage of this and escape?  If you are skilled enough, and immune enough to the effects of adrenaline, to disarm him or her, fair enough.  Otherwise, remaining with someone who is holding a blade and wants to use it is foolhardy in the extreme.

Summing up

Control, manoeuvre and hit, control, manoeuvre and hit, control, manoeuvre and hit.  As soon as a means of escape is available, take it.  If you hit your opponent hard enough to dump them on the ground, then run.  Never follow them to the ground: it puts you in a shaky position legally and you have lost the ability to easily escape.  If they have an accomplice, and you go to the ground, you're probably dead.

Filipino martial artists say that any improvised weapons that are available should be used.  I'll leave the legalities of this to one side and say that, from a practical standpoint, they're correct.

Always expect that you will get cut by a knife, and try to minimise the damage.  As I said, not getting cut is unusual.  Avoid being on the wrong end of a blade, if at all possible.  Of all the rules I could possibly pass to you regarding knife attack survival, that one is by far the most important.

Update

I came across a discussion about ground fighting against a knife, which broadly supports what I'm saying.  I took heed of the advice about the video, and decided not to watch it.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

For the love of duotone

One of my fondest memories of being a child is the time I spent reading comic books, or comics, as we referred to them in the North of England at the time.  British comics, in particular, were printed in high volumes with the cost of printing very much in mind.  As a result, they were mostly either monochrome or duotone.  After much searching, I found a good explanation, and a few good examples of duotone illustrations at http://todaysinspiration.blogspot.co.uk/2008/05/charlie-allen-on-other-black-and-white.html

There is now no sound financial reason to produce duotone illustrations, as far as I am aware, and my worry is that the format will die.  You see, it doesn't matter how many forms of art I see, my favourite will always be duotone illustration.  Out of the examples given, I particularly like the one with the amber highlight colour.

I can't explain it, but there is something about the combination of black, white and amber in a duotone illustration that pleases me.  If I am ever successful in finding a suitable example, framed, it will be with great pleasure that I hang it on one of my walls.

Thought for the day: respect the wisdom of the ancients

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

I should stop reading the comments on YouTube: therein lies madness.  It should be enough for the users to slate wing chun but, when they give their reasons for believing it to be useless, something finally becomes clear.  They don't understand wing chun.

As the above quote suggests, believing that classical arts or thinking offer nothing of value is a mistake.  Things have changed, but not so much that we can allow ourselves to believe that our predecessors were somehow less cultured, less knowledgeable and less worldly than we are.  Such arrogance will mean that we lose so much accumulated wisdom, judging it to be outmoded or obsolete.

The world is a different place now.  Has the world changed for the better?  Maybe.  Has our world changed in ways that make things worse?  Maybe.  We like to think that the current pace of technological progress is faster than it has ever been.  Is that true?  More importantly, is it a good thing?  Maybe.  Is it a bad thing? Maybe.  If you're questioning my responses, you should watch the story of the Chinese farmer.

Again, Alan Watts represents a system of thought which came into being centuries before his birth.  I look at how busy our lives have become, how little time we spend with those we love, how technologies which were meant to promote communication have instead isolated us, and I wonder what the ancients would make of the assertion that we are more cultured, intelligent and civilised.

I see a growing interest in Buddhism here in the UK.  People who have turned away from our native religious traditions have turned towards ancient belief systems from elsewhere.  For what are they searching?  A sense that there is something more, something bigger, than our seemingly limited existence?  Some kind of moral code for a world where the old rules are no longer observed?  A feeling of calm to counter the stress and anxiety of the modern age?

Wing chun represents the old world.  To accept that it is still relevant is to accept that we haven't changed so much, and some would rather not accept such a notion.  It is better for them to believe that something of lesser value was created in the past, and has been made redundant by modern innovation.

Personally, I have found much of value in the thoughts of those who were here before me.