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.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Beneath the surface, all is dark

Today was a difficult day.  Even as I write those words, I realise that countless others will have had days which were immeasurably tougher than mine.  Maybe it would be more accurate to say that I didn't deal very well with the events of the day.  Much as I pride myself on my capacity for acceptance and tolerance, my personal reserves of those virtues seemed to be exhausted today.

Over the past few days, I've heard a name which I don't like to hear.  It's never an easy decision to turn our back on someone, especially for those of us who try to practise tolerance, but what if that person has been a constant source of trouble and suffering for us?  The situation is further complicated if it is a member of our family.  I'm not talking of hatred; it is simply a firm belief that letting my guard down again will lead to further trouble and suffering.  If I were to make allowances, one would be that this person was used, from a young age, as an agent for another who found my distress comical.  Unfortunately, setting such a pattern in infancy seems to have created a conditioned response to my presence, and I am seen as one who must be subjected to torment.

You might ask why I have heard this name many times over the past few days.  The rest of my family have gathered round this individual, offering their support, because she is responsible for another life being brought into the world.  Needless to say, I have stayed away, I have sent no card congratulating the new mother on the birth of her child, and the occasion means little to me.  What does mean something to me is that I find myself in an awkward position.  You see, this new mother has been a source of friction within the family many times, and those now rushing to her side have previously fallen foul of this aspect of her nature.  I hope, for their sake, that she has changed.

Ongoing problems with anti-social behaviour from my neighbour are another source of today's lack of tolerance.  To some degree, I have developed ways to cope with this issue, but the issue is still there.  When I saw examples of nationalistic bigotry today, caused by nothing more than a sporting fixture, it brought back memories of a time when I was subjected to that same bigotry on a daily basis.  Suddenly, it all became to much for me, and deeply held resentment came to the surface.

I have been reading a non-religious book by the Dalai Lama.  In this book, he writes about compassion and restraint.  Today, these were absent, along with acceptance and tolerance.  Compassion, or empathy, is the key here.  If I had made an attempt to understand the contributing factors in the behaviour of others, it may have been easier to tolerate such behaviour.  This is usually a strength of mine, but today I was found to be deficient in this respect.

Should I feel bad that I allowed a darkness from within to rise to the surface?  No.  If there had been any real damage done, I should try to repair that damage, admitting fault and apologising to anyone affected by my actions.  Beyond that, I should simply acknowledge that I did not show compassion, restraint, acceptance and tolerance when they were needed.  You see, compassion for ourselves is equally important.  We can never forget that we are only human, and we should forgive ourselves for occasional lapses from our greater virtues.

There will be some darkness within us, or, as Carl Gustav Jung suggested, a shadow side to our personality.  To deny this is to deny our humanity.  In more simple terms, it is impossible that every day will be a good day for us, without challenges, and finding these challenges difficult is not a crime.  We should practise acceptance, compassion and tolerance, not only for those who are external to us, but also towards ourselves.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Leaving wing chun

There will be a time when I am no longer able to practise wing chun, at least in a formal setting.  At some point, for reasons I'm not going into here, learning wing chun in a class will no longer make sense.  It would be wise, therefore, to spend time learning how to make the most of solo practice.

I'm pretty obsessive when it comes to learning the forms.  I'm by no means perfect - I doubt that description would apply to anyone - but I've got the general structure of sil lum tao, chum kiu and the beginnings of biu jee.  What about the muk yan jong?  For now, I've changed the order for myself and, when I think about it, this is just one of many modifications I've made along the way.

Why study biu jee next, leaving the dummy form until later?  The best I can do is to say that, for me, it makes sense to learn the forms in that order.  Knowing that the next step is to be graded on muk yan jong does nothing to change that.  What I learn has to be effective when the brown, smelly stuff hits the spinning cooling device.  How one person makes wing chun effective will differ from how another makes it work for them.  The next step, at least in my practice away from the class, is to learn what I can from biu jee.

None of the above is meant to offend my instructor, who stands as the only one of the many martial arts instructors I've had that I'm actually able to respect.  Nor is it meant as an insult to those who came before him, who played their part in the history and development of wing chun.  In truth, these people serve as pointers of the way, and we may ultimately walk a different path or, as Bruce Lee did with jeet kune do, create our own path.

I have to train twice as hard to progress at the same pace as other students.  Again, I'm not going into the reasons for this, save to say that they are the same reasons that I know formal training in wing chun will, one day, no longer be in my interests.  Everyone's wing chun will be different, and I'm certain that my fellow students will realise that my wing chun is very different, but again I'm not going into the reasons for those adaptations being necessary.

In some ways, I have already left wing chun and, at the same time, am still very much involved in it.  If that sounds like a contradiction, you have to realise that no two people will do wing chun in that same way: they will naturally prefer some aspects of the art to others, and have their own interpretation of how things are done.  In effect, they have their own wing chun and have left a generalised understanding of wing chun behind them, though the same principles underpin what they do.  If they punch, is it wing chun, or is it simply a punch?

Arnis has also affected what I do.  Importantly, working with a weapon has a positive effect on hand-eye coordination.  In my opinion, if the ability to use improvised weapons is available, it is wise to take that option.  Again, adaptations are made, some of which aroused the concern of the instructor at the eskrima club I attended for a few months.  I was asked what style of Filipino martial arts I practise, because I made comparatively short, hacking movements with the stick, combined with a lot of thrusts.  For this reason, it was suggested that I had learned a style with a focus on bladed weapons as opposed to the sticks.  In reality, I was using the principles of wing chun, adapted to stick fighting: covering my centreline, not overextending, and so on.

To be fair, I train privately in modern arnis and kombatan, so those influences are obviously going to make themselves known if I have a weapon in my hand.  Maybe I'm picking it up wrong, but the focus of the arnis of Luzon seems to be on the shorter blades, as opposed to a focus on longer blades in the eskrima of the Visayas.  I have no doubt that I will be corrected, if I am mistaken.

I also noticed a striking similarity between the movements and principles of arnis and those of biu jee.  When you think about it, this makes sense.  The point of Filipino martial arts is that something has already gone very wrong, and you are probably on the wrong end of a bladed weapon.  Logically, this is not dissimilar to the idea in biu jee that we are fighting from a position of disadvantage.

I think I understand the past masters who took their secrets to the grave.  I see the lack of tolerance in the modern age, and I'm able to remind myself of my reasons for wanting an effective method of self-protection, but I also see an argument for advanced methods of combat being concealed.  I will occasionally walk by someone whose eyes are nervously darting all over the place, and I understand them.  As much as we like to think we are civilised, there is an ever present undercurrent of barbarism in our society; it has probably always been this way, and probably always will be.

Through the martial arts, I unwittingly internalised some of the teachings of Zen from an early age.  The irony of this is that, although I see the value of learning a method of combat, I have little desire to use it in anger and certainly no need to prove myself.  The motivation I have for learning martial arts is that humans continually fail to live in peace with each other and, in some cases, actively seek to prevent others living in peace.

As I've said before, I'm nowhere near considering myself a master, and probably never will, but there is still the idea that I should keep some of my relatively limited knowledge under my hat, as it were.  At the same time, I hope that what I choose to share proves to be valuable in some small way.