Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Rise and fall" ≠ sine wave theory


The need for distinction

Recent discussions with martial arts colleagues on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum have made me aware of the need to enunciate the difference between using "rise" or "fall" in your martial techniques and the "sine wave" theory of ITF taekwondo.

"Rise and fall"

"Rising and falling" in martial arts techniques not only makes sense, but it is necessarily built into most human movement.

The problem arises when one attempts to become dogmatic about using a rise or fall. Rising and falling should occur naturally; movements should not be forced into a "rise/fall" mould.

And as with "koshi" (using the hips to add force), while rising or falling can be used to add force to a blow, one should not focus too strongly on this aspect. There are multiple ways of generating greater force, and all of them are both valid and necessary. Not one of them is, of itself, some kind of panacea. And all of them must be applied in the course of natural, contextually appropriate movement.

The video below illustrates my point about the fact that multiple "force generating" theories are always working at the same time:


A video showing hip use: but note also the "rise" and "fall" of the body at around 0:59 onwards.

You'll see the isolated horizontal rotation of the hips at about 0:13 (isolated for training purposes only). Then you'll see the "vertical" rotation of the hips at about 0:20 (although it is both horizontal and vertical to some extent). Then at about 0:55 you'll see what I call "contextual" hip movement (some movements taken from taijiquan) which also involve a natural rising and falling of the body.

Particularly at around 0:59 and 1:42 you'll note that my body does "rise" and "fall" depending on my hip loading/unloading. However this movement is intimately connected with the hip rotation and the technique generally.

In short, divorcing either "rise and fall" or "koshi" from this context would be in error, as you would simply be taking out one aspect of a multi-faceted movement. And divorced from its context this one facet is as useless as a car without wheels.

Sine wave theory

While I feel there is some merit to the theory that "rise and fall" can be used to add force, I don't feel there is any merit whatsoever in "sine wave theory" as proposed by General Choi, the "father" of taekwondo.

Why do I say this?

General Choi noted (correctly) that when you step, your body follows a natural "rise and fall" motion that is akin to a sine wave. While this is true, this sine wave is exhibited only when one has reached a "cruising speed" while walking. As I have discussed previously, it does not pertain to the "set off" (your initial lunge that starts you walking). And I believe that in fighting it is this "set off" that is primarily in issue.

In other words, yes the "sine wave" is something you see in person's walking gait. But it is my view that the walking gait has little or nothing to do with fighting.

When you are fighting, you are lunging and moving one metre (3 feet) or so at most. If you are further away than that, then you are out of range; you are not "fighting" (ie. avoiding or landing a blow) but "closing the gap".

If you want to step in to your opponent with a classical/basic "step and punch" then you might discern some "sine wave" - but you'd probably have your head knocked off if you did this kind of step anyway.

This kind of stepping is used in karate/tkd for basic training. In arts like shotokan, a lot of emphasis is placed on NOT rising and falling during basic stepping. Why? Because when you are moving less than a metre there is a premium on getting to your target via the shortest route possible. Training to step without a rise and fall is part of learning how to move in the most direct fashion possible. You do a full step because it is harder than a half step; and the longer/lower your stance, the better the training for your muscles.

This type of low stance training is common to practically every traditional martial art; and for a very good reason. It works.

In baguazhang, for example, a great deal of time is spent "walking the circle" with low, even-height steps. This doesn't negate the value of "rise and fall" - bagua breaks the walking to introduce low and high postures. But the central role of the stepping in conditioning your muscles for fast, direct "lunging" movement remains the same.


Note the low, even-height stepping of bagua on one hand, yet the low and high postures on the other - eg. at 1:34.

I think General Choi noticed how many students find it hard to "stay low/even-heighted" in stepping practice. Rather than see this as a function of the lack of necessary conditioning, he developed a theory that sought to by-pass the need for such conditioning.

I think it follows that in crafting his theory, General Choi ignored/misunderstood millenia of applied wisdom and technical development - all because of 2 false assumptions:

If you try to maximise power via the "rise and fall" of your natural walking gait, you are assuming that "how you walk is how you fight". I've never seen any evidence of this in any fight I've seen - in either a civilian or sports context.

Second, in your attempt to add power through a walking "sine wave" motion, you are using up valuable time. That extra millisecond in going up and down makes the difference between whether your strike lands first or whether you get "beaten to the punch". The assumption that "maxising power" trumps the need to avoid being hit contradicts every sound civilian, sports and military fighting tactic.

Conclusion

In short, there is merit in using rise and fall. This is evident in practically every form/pattern/kata/xing as well as in any free fighting. However this is not "sine wave".

The sine wave theory of General Choi is, in my view, fundamentally misconceived.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, March 19, 2010

Fighting like your grandfather: the meaning of "style"


Many years ago I had the good fortune to meet and train under Professor Bata Milosevic of the Belgrade University, a researcher of medieval Balkan fighting methods and the founder of "Svebor" - an attempt to collate these fighting methods into a modern system.

I recall Professor Milosevic making the following statement:
    "When you fight, you fight like your grandfather fought".
By this, I think the professor meant that when you are faced with the pressure of a real attack, any semblance of "style" goes out the window and you fight according to your primeval instinct.

While I greatly respect the professor, I disagree with him in this regard. I see any default to "instinct" under pressure (and a corresponding abandonment of any sense of "style") as a sign of insufficient training.

Doubtless, Professor Milosevic was drawing on his own lengthy experience as an aikidoka, noting how differently some practitioners of that martial art react when faced with real aggression. Indeed many martial artists from traditional backgrounds are prone to this syndrome; they train for years and years, yet when "push comes to shove" they do something entirely different from what their training dictates.

How then does one reconcile this observation with my comment that the training was "insufficient"? Surely these martial artists (many of whom have devoted their lives to a particular discipline) have had "enough" training?

I would argue that while they have had a lot of training, the type of training needed to "bridge" the gap between the dojo and the street has been missing. It is in this respect that their training has been insufficient.

With the appropriate "bridge" training, martial skills taught in a particular "style" can and should be applicable to the real world. In other words, training need not be a pointless exercise from a civilian defence perspective (which it would be if all your training went "out the window" the moment you were faced with a real attack).

I think it is self-evident that training can affect your responses. Consider for a moment the example of fighter pilots: They train in fight-scenario simulators for countless hours. Many fighter pilots have gone straight from these simulators into aerial combat and triumphed over their enemies. It would be no use saying that they must have flown "like their grandfathers flew". Their grandfathers probably didn't fly anything. Even if they did, they certainly didn't fly modern fighter jets.

Fighter pilots train to respond in a very specific way. Each air force teaches particular strategies and tactics - a style, if you will. The same applies to hand-to-hand combat. You needn't "fight like your grandfather fought". You can and should fight according to your training.

Most traditional martial arts teach you a particular "style" of fighting - one where certain tactics and strategies are preferred over others.

These "styles" are invariably the "styles" of an ancestral fighters, sought to be faithfully reproduced and preserved by subsequent generations.

Inevitably, each fighter has his or her own "style", so this exercise is fundamentally doomed. Nonetheless, this process does exert an influence on a fighter's individual style.

For example, each goju ryu karateka has a similar/recognised/related "style" that attempts to reproduce the mould of Chojun Miyagi. They will all necessarily fail in their attempt to emulate Chojun Miyagi precisely; but they will nevertheless retain some nexus to his preferred tactics and to his "way of moving".

This is the case in "formal" movement (eg. kata/basics) as well as in "informal" movement (eg. fighting/sparring). The style of formal movement might be different from the informal movement but the former will always influence the latter.

I think that the most stark example of the impact of formal training on informal movement can be seen in shotokan karateka. They seem to retain their distinctive movement and tactics despite any other cross-training.

I have previously noted that UFC fighter Lyoto Machida retains the legacy of his shotokan karate even though he has absorbed a great deal of other movement into his personal "style". He retains the "counterpunching", the "in and out" movement etc. Formal shotokan movement has left a clear imprint on his informal movement.

So I don't think one can discount martial "styles" as irrelevant or (as some would argue) illusory/non-existent. The argument that "there are no styles, only fighters" is true, up to a point; but fighters can be grouped according to what has influenced their kinaesthetics and general method of movement.

Machida already calls what he does "Machida karate". In subsequent generations there will almost certainly be "Machida karate" schools, with students attempting to preserve the look, feel and tactics of Lyoto Machida's personal style. Invariably each fighter will be doing his or her own style. But they will probably still be recognisable as "Machida stylists", in much the same way as stables such as the Lion's Den have produced similar fighters such as Guy Mezger, Ken Shamrock, Frank Shamrock, and Jerry Bohlander.

So "styles" do exist - at a personal level and at group level. No matter what your "style" is, the challenge is to find that "bridge" to the real world - so that you don't necessarily have to "fight like your grandfather fought".

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Wu-wei vs. pacifism and appeasement


Introduction: the need to differentiate wu-wei and pacifism/appeasement

I've been surprised by the response I've had to my recent articles about the Daoist/Taoist philosophy of wu-wei. I've had quite a number of emails in addition to the comments posted on my blog and on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum. Furthermore I note that the number of daily hits on my blog reached an all-time high in the last week (more than 3 times the average!) - largely due to these articles on wu-wei.



There appear to be some recurrent themes emerging, so I thought I'd address them here comprehensively.

Many readers of my blog were (quite rightly) incensed to read the account I gave of my friend being physically threatened by a pipe-wielding lunatic in a road rage incident - all because my friend had clapped sarcastically as the lunatic swerved dangerously around him in a mad attempt to "get ahead".

A large number of my correspondents felt that something needed to be done; something greater than what my friend had in fact done, which was to say calmly: "Put the pipe down and let's talk".

Many correspondents argued that he needed to "arrest" the aggressor or otherwise "set him straight/teach him a lesson". At the very least there was the feeling that one ought not "appease" such people or "affirm" or encourage their actions through our own inaction.

This is, superficially, a very compelling argument. It appeals to our sense of "moral outrage" and seems quite logical. After all, appeasement of wrongdoing is never a good thing. My friend Jeff Mann referred me to this famous quote:
    "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." - Edmund Burke
Let me say at the outset: wu-wei is not a doctrine of pacifism nor appeasement. It does not require or advise one to simply "do nothing". That is why I stress that wu-wei is not an instruction. It is a description of an ideal state. Part of wu-wei ("not doing") is knowing when "doing" is necessary. Not using aggression, in circumstances where the aggression is necessary, is a kind of action in itself. In other words, appeasement is a kind of action - the kind a Daoist would say one must avoid.

In my view, the reason why the Daoists focus on "not doing" rather than "doing" is because the latter is more likely to get you into trouble. We as human beings have a tendency to respond emotively, and justify it later with various arguments that, while plausible, conceal our true motives.

In my view, most of my "angry" correspondents were just that: angry. This is understandable. However I see their proposed response to the "road rage" incident as an emotive one, not one that is necessarily productive.

So let's examine the arguments for "arresting" the aggressor, "teaching him a lesson" or otherwise "not affirming/appeasing/encouraging" his conduct:

1. We have a duty to stop such people so that they don't hurt others

My friend who experienced the road rage incident is a senior black belt, very big, very strong and very experienced as a security officer/bouncer. If any lay person could overpower this aggressor, he could. But to assume that he should do so would, in my view, be an error.

For a start, he would be putting himself at risk of serious injury. The aggressor had a metal pipe. No matter who you are, when faced with an armed attacker you are probably going to be injured. As my friend Zach Zinn says:
    "The only fight you are guaranteed to win is the one you don't get in."
Second, the aggressor would very likely face serious injury. While many of the angry correspondents would say they don't care, it is worth noting that the aggressor had 2 young children in his car watching. I personally wouldn't want them to see their father being beaten up unless it was absolutely necessary in the circumstances.

Third, irrespective of his martial arts training, my friend is not specifically trained in the apprehension of offenders in the way that a police officer is. He also isn't appropriately armed, doesn't have the back-up etc.

Fourth, he doesn't have the statutory authority/powers of a police officer; what he can legally do in performing a citizen's arrest is really quite limited.

Finally, and most relevantly, he doesn't have the duties/functions of a police officer. It simply isn't his role in society to go apprehending law breakers. In fact, the police (and society in general) actively discourage people from playing "de facto" police officers or worse, engaging in vigilantism. There are very good reasons for this - namely those I've referred to above (specific training, equipment, back-up, statutory powers, etc.).

So we do not have a duty to "correct" the behaviour of random strangers. We can only alert the authorities if it is bad enough.

We do however have a legal duty not to be agents in causing unnecessary violence. Had my friend engaged the aggressor in a fight, there is every chance that both he and the aggressor might be prosecuted; the police might have a tough time deciding "who started it". And assuming they decided that the fellow with the pipe was primarily responsible, they might still look very dimly on my friend if it were clear that a physical confrontation could have been avoided.

2. But if we do nothing we're "affirming" their behaviour; these people need to be sent a message that what they are doing is wrong!

There are a number of false assumptions inherent in this statement.

The first one is that my friend, in not physically engaging the aggressor, was "appeasing" or "affirming" his conduct. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was strongly against the aggressor's conduct and he made that clear. He just didn't do so in an in way that might have escalated the situation into a full-blow tragedy.

Had he suddenly started apologising to the man with the pipe and saying "it was all my fault, you had every right to come at me with a pipe", things might be different. This would be a kind of "doing" - and a very bad kind of "doing" (unless he were forced to do so for reasons of self-protection or protection of another).

Second, it is wrong to assume that the aggressor would have accepted any kind of "correction" from my friend or from anyone else. In short, he was never going to "learn a lesson".

It occurs to me that often the aggressor in a road rage incident thinks that he or she is actually the "good guy"; ie. the one who is "teaching a bad guy a lesson" or "not letting a bad guy get away with it".

For example, the fellow who wielded a pipe at my friend was shouting, blaming my friend for "almost causing an accident". He was wrong, but he didn't think so. He no doubt felt he had to "teach my friend a lesson". He probably took the pipe with him "for self defence" because he anticipated violence from a much bigger, stronger and younger man (whom he had already categorized as a "bad guy"). All of this is an "after the fact" justification. In reality, he was just feeling bad-tempered and took it out on my friend who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is my view that those who would argue that my friend needed to "teach the pipe-wielding guy a lesson" are falling into the same trap: they are responding emotively, and following up with a justification.

This serves to illustrate the dangers inherent in this line of reasoning. You risk becoming part of a vicious cycle of escalating violence. We need to get out of this mindset or we are just part of the problem; we become just like the "bad guys" we are trying to stop (or at least others have a hard time figuring out who is "good" and who is "bad"). As I've said above, the courts certainly frown upon violent interchanges, and often convict both parties in a physical altercation.

As an aside, I would argue that appeasment/affirmation is only an issue between people who have a standing relationship and where conduct is affirmed/appeased on an ongoing basis (see my article "Bar stools and mosquitoes: more about wu-wei"). I seriously doubt that an encounter with one particular stranger is going to have any real effect on encouraging (or changing) the behaviour of any individual to any significant extent.

But lastly, even if we could change people's behaviour on a "one on one" basis, we get back to the inescapable reality that there are too many people to "correct". This is what I have previously described as "trying to swat all the mosquitoes at a barbecue". You could live your life seeking out people who were bad-tempered in traffic and never dealing with more than a tiny fraction of them. Such a life would be, in my view, utterly wasted.

3. This wu-wei is fine as a theory, but it is just too hard/unrealistic to implement

I would strongly disagree with this statement. Wu-wei is nothing if not a practical philosophical maxim. I have managed to live most of my adult life by it. Like anyone, I lose my cool occasionally and make mistakes. But I can usually tell afterwards where I've gone wrong and inevitably this has to do with not following wu-wei.

People who argue that wu-wei is "too hard" are, in my view, ignoring the fact that their response is primarily fuelled by emotion. Instead of acknowledging the role of these emotions, they doggedly stick to their intellectual justifications (we can't appease bad behaviour", "we can't be passive", etc.).

As my friend Angelo said on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum:
    "I do not take the doctrine of Lao-Tzu as an injunction to absolute pacifism or inaction. Rather, the doctrine of 'Wu-wei' means to me 'right' action, attained by the shedding of all excess and 'unnaturalness.' The difficulty IMO is separating the wheat from the chaff."
"Separating the wheat from the chaff" as Angelo puts it, is indeed difficult, but this difficulty doesn't mean the philosophy is "unworkable" as some people seem to think. It means acquiring wisdom. And acquiring wisdom is necessarily difficult (otherwise everyone would be wise).

Aspiring to be wise is a good thing. Letting oneself be "unwise" because "wisdom is too hard" is not really a compelling argument.

In this respect I will quote the Lao Tzu:
    "41
    When the highest type of men hear the Way, with diligence they're able to practice it;
    When the average men hear the Way, some things they retain and others they lose;
    When the lowest type of men hear the Way, they laugh out loud at it.
    If they didn't laught at it, it couldn't be regarded as the Way." - Robert G. Henricks translation
Conclusion

People often mistake wu-wei for pacifism and/or appeasement, however as I've said, this is profoundly incorrect. Just because wu-wei advocates not taking emotionally-charged action (eg. revenge) or action one might ordinarily expect a person to take but which is unproductive (eg. insulting someone who has insulted you) does not mean that you "turn the other cheek" (ie. do nothing about factors that are detrimental to you). Wu-wei means not taking unnecessary action - and by necessary implication it requires the taking of necessary action.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The sight of 2 hands clapping: wu-wei and the threshold test for "aggression"


In previous posts I have outlined the Daoist concept of wu-wei and how it can be applied as "enacting aggression only when it is a regrettable necessity". Last time I discussed what I meant by "regrettable necessity". But what constitutes "aggression"? You might be surprised by my definition.

Again, I will explain my argument by reference to recent events.

Just last weekend I took my family to a local beach that has a wonderful children's playground, grassed areas and barbecue facilities. I watched happily as my 2 children ran ahead of me across the park towards the sand dunes. But my serenity was soon shattered as I saw my youngest slip on a concrete slab surrounding a barbecue. She fell badly, her head whiplashing onto the concrete with a sickening crack. As I got to her I slipped as well. It was only then that I saw the entire area was coated in a thick grease that had oozed out from under the barbecue: a torrent of grimy cooking fat that had created a dangerous glaze over the surface.

While my wife iced the head of my semi-conscious 3 year old I rang the council's after-hours paging service to alert the ranger to the hazard. Even as I was phoning, people were walking towards the slippery area. An elderly gentleman explained to me that he'd seen other children slipping there and that he himself had done so. While I waited for the ranger to return my call, the gentleman and I dragged some wheelie bins in the way of the hazard - which was directly in the thoroughfare to the beach.

When the ranger finally called me he was immediately defensive. He spent an inordinate amount of time asking me what I meant by "grease" before correcting me that it must be "cooking fat". After disputing my assertion that it was seeping from the base (and not the top) he finally said that he would contact the "Parks Department" as it was their responsibility, not his. I got off the phone shaken by his brusqueness and lack of concern for my daughter. Yes - I was distressed in my manner and tone. But I did not attack him (warranting his negativity): my conduct was consistent with that of an upset parent of an injured child, concerned about the ongoing hazard - no more, no less.

Five minutes after the phone call I saw the ranger's car pull into the car park. He strode out in a huff and began pulling away the bins that we'd put in front of the hazard. He saw my wife cradling my little one but didn't ask how she was or even acknowledge our existence. He was clearly annoyed and agitated.

Seeing this, and having overheard my phone conversation with the ranger, the elderly gentleman approached the ranger to remonstrate about his attitude. While I respected the gentleman's motives I could see it was unwise; it was what I categorise (for the purposes of this article) as an "aggressive act". I say this without any implied criticism - it merely fits my definition. There is a time and place for such acts. But as you will see, I don't think this was one.

The ranger proceeded to raise his voice as he "explained" that the Parks Department would clean the mess the following day, since he did not have the facilities. It was only after he'd vented some steam on this topic that the ranger said that he was going to cordon off the area in the meantime (which is all any of us ever needed to know).

"I hope so," replied the gentleman.

As he said these last words I winced: it was another "aggressive" act that, while understandable, could serve no useful purpose. Implicit in this remark was a lack of confidence in the ranger - a criticism of his conduct. Indeed, the ranger's immediate response was to rush up, almost nose-to-nose, in a highly aggressive manner. "All right then," he spat out, "what's your name?". Then he pulled out a notebook (as if he was going to give the elderly man a ticket!). The fact that he had no basis upon which to exercise his "power" to require a name and address appalled me, but I could see that there was no point taking him to task about this. He would use whatever powers he had - lawfully or unlawfully - in answer to the gentleman.

My wife was carrying my little girl to the car at that moment, so I left with them. Luckily all my child suffered was some concussion and a nasty bump. It could have been much worse.

So why do I say the elderly gentleman's behaviour was an "act of aggression"? Surely the ranger "deserved" to be questioned about / called to account for his attitude? Indeed, I think he did. And as I said earlier, I don't wish to sound judgmental about the gentleman's actions. I'm merely pointing out that his (implied) criticism of the ranger - whether justified or not - was, by its very nature an act of "aggression".

Regardless of his hostility, it was clear that the ranger was doing something about the hazard. And it was also clear to me that criticising his attitude would not achieve any better outcome. So while I understood the elderly gentleman's motives and shared his outrage, I didn't think it was necessary to take any aggressive action against the ranger. As it happens the gentleman's actions only led the ranger to abuse his legislative power to ask for a person's name and address. Depending on how things had escalated, it might have had other consequences...

I've contemplated filing a complaint with the council about the ranger, but this would also be an act of "aggression": it would constitute a direct attack on the ranger's conduct. Would it be a "regrettable necessity" for me to file such a complaint? Probably not. I doubt the council would fire the ranger. He would give a conflicting account of what happened. And even if the council believed my version of events, I doubt it would consider his behaviour sufficiently bad to warrant some sort of disciplinary action. I also doubt the ranger would have any remorse or "learn" anything from the experience. So faced with these observations, I must conclude that it would be pointless to file a complaint. The "aggression" would not be a "regrettable necessity". All it would do is draw undue attention to me and my family, which might or might not have its own ramifications.

Almost every day I find myself faced with similar decisions. Inevitably I've found that adhering to the concept of wu-wei means doing the exact opposite of what I would normally do. The temptation is always there to respond to a slight or insult in kind; to have a good (and preferably quick) come-back/put-down. However when I apply the test of whether it is regrettably necessary that I do so, I usually find that it is not. There simply is no point.

For example, some weeks ago a fellow posted some very nasty remarks about one of my jo drills, to the effect that it was "like a bad aikijo 'kata' mixed with fantasy". It seems he was unhappy with the fact that the drill wasn't "traditional" (and hence wasn't "useful", "practical", "effective", "authentic" - you get the idea). I deleted his comment and went to his own page where I saw literally hundreds of irate Youtube users berating him for his rudeness. He laughed each comment away. I was sorely tempted to add my own voice to the tirade; to explain that, after 30 years of training with the jo (in traditional aikijo as well as Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu), I felt entitled to develop my own practice drills. I wanted to say that everything I post on the internet is under my real name (unlike this person who posts under a pseudonym). Furthermore I don't make any comments to a person that I'm not prepared to say to his or her face. I wanted to say that this person was nothing but a coward. I wanted to say so many more things. But what would be the point? He would use any comments I made as a springboard for further insult and ridicule. In short, he would drag me down to his level and beat me with experience. There is simply no point in getting into a squabble with such a person.

Nor does your action have to be particularly strenuous to constitute "aggression". Consider this story for example:

A friend of mine was driving in his car the other day when someone overtook him in a most unsafe manner, weaving at illegal speed between the other vehicles in an attempt to "get ahead". My friend was suitably disgusted at this and made a sarcastic clapping motion as the other guy's vehicle passed him. This was enough to make the fellow pull up sharply ahead of my friend causing him to bring his vehicle to a stop. The fellow then got out of the car with a pipe in his hand, ready to enact some road-rage. It mattered little to the fellow that he had 2 young children in his car. It was only my friend's large size and calm manner that defused a potential assault case.

Was my friend's "clapping" an act of aggression? It was. It was intended as a sarcastic put down of the other fellow's driving. As deserved as this might have been, ask yourself: was this "clapping" regrettably necessary? Did it serve any useful purpose? "Surely it would educate the other driver," you might protest. No - it wouldn't. I don't know of anyone who looks to other drivers (and to their criticism) as a means of education or training. My friend's actions are understandable and I have every sympathy for him. But what he did ultimately failed the test of wu-wei. It served no useful purpose and almost provoked a road-rage incident. If the other guy was driving dangerously enough, the appropriate action would be to take down his licence plate number and report him to the police. Short of that, he shouldn't have bothered doing anything.

It is important to note that this is not a moral matter: I am not judging my friend any more than I judge the elderly gentleman who locked horns with the ranger. Wu-wei is an amoral (as opposed to immoral!) doctrine. It concerns itself with logic and pragmatism - not with who is "right" or "wrong" or what someone "deserves".

As I have said previously, you can't swat every mosquito at a barbecue. You have to be judicious in your use of aggression. And be aware that even "the sight of 2 hands clapping" can constitute an act of aggression - one that can unnecessarily escalate a conflict into full-blown physical violence.

It matters not what your action is - but what it is intended to effect. If your purpose in taking an action is to put someone down - whether by insult, sarcasm, innuendo or otherwise - then it is an act of aggression. You should only take such action when it is the lesser of evils; when the risks of escalating a conflict are outweighed by the benefit or usefulness of your action.

"But," I hear you ask, "surely I am allowed a bit of back-chat here or there - I can't always turn the other cheek." Wu-wei is not about turning the other cheek. It doesn't mean that you shouldn't take aggressive action. It just means that you should evaluate the likely outcomes before taking such action.

So when can one provide a "quick come-back" in response to a slight? I'll give you an example of something I should have done:

Many years ago, when my wife was 8 months pregnant with our first child, she was diagnosed with an aggressive tumour in her throat. It went from the size of a pea to the size of an egg in 2 weeks. She needed surgery even though she was almost at full term; she might go into labour on the operating table. I remember boarding the bus shortly after hearing this news - in a fog of grief and worry. Shortly after I took my seat a man who looked for all the world like Mr Burns from The Simpsons approached me with righteous indignation and proceeded to berate me for not queueing. He gave a a full 2 minute lecture before returning triumphantly to his seat.

What I should have said after his lecture was this: "My wife has just been diagnosed with cancer. She's about to give birth to our first child. I boarded the bus in a daze. I'm sorry."

This would have been an "aggressive" act of a kind because it would have lowered him even further in the eyes of the other commuters (I think his kind of righteous indignation and sanctimonious lecturing is quite unseemly at the best of times). In short, he would have looked like a real prick - and a callous one to boot. But it would have been necessary to do this. He was attempting to demean me and I had every right to self-defence. Notice that my response would not have tried to justify my queue-jumping; it would merely have explained it in a way that highlighted his own pre-judgment. Note also that I didn't need to add: "and you're a sanctimonious, pathetic little worm who looks like Mr Burns from The Simpsons." Like an aikidoka, I would have let his own actions/words work against him. This would have been what was necessary - nothing more and nothing less.

Unfortunately I was so overcome by shock and grief that I barely mustered any reaction. I just sat there. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I remember how this person attacked me, assuming a whole range of things about me and why I had done what I had done. It was an uncaring and nasty little act of aggression that I should have responded to, had I had the presence of mind.

Luckily my wife's tumour, while aggressive, turned out to be the type that doesn't spread. It was successfully removed in an operation. My daughter was born 2 weeks later and all lived happily ever after.

I often wish I had the chance to give a serve to "Mr Burns". In fact, I saw him about 2 weeks ago in town. I thought about approaching him but reconsidered. There would be no point. Whatever I had to say was useful as a shield - not as a sword. The time for using the shield had long passed.

In the end, wu-wei does not mean that you should not take aggressive action. It merely suggests that you should only take aggressive action when it is necessary for you to do so. All aggression is regrettable; conflict is never a good thing. However if it is necessary, then so be it.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bar stools and mosquitoes: more about wu-wei


I experienced an unpleasant event a couple of days ago:

I was walking along a busy walkway at the Wellington Street Bus Station here in Perth when a bus pulled up and people started pouring out. A fellow stepped off the bus straight into my path and we bumped into each other. I apologised (even though it wasn't my fault) and I stepped to the side to give him room to pass me. This is consistent with my nature: my first reaction is always a conciliatory one. And usually in such "bumping" cases the other person also apologises, we both smile and head off in our separate directions.

This case however turned out to be different. Even though I stepped to one side in a conciliatory gesture, the other fellow decided to plough straight into/through me (rather than avail himself of the gap I'd created).

He was a big fellow - at least a foot taller than I am and about 40 lb heavier. As he started to push into me I could see him looking straight ahead with a sneer, as if I didn't exist. I did some taisabaki/tenshin (body evasion) and slipped his pushing motion and we only made light contact.

As he stepped past I almost stuck out a leg to trip him up (I'd just done heaps of bagua trips in my workshop, so the idea was fresh in my mind). I didn't however.


Some of the things I'd like to have done to a particular fellow...

Three or four people around us looked at him as he powered off, shaking their heads. He might have been "big" in stature, but his actions made him look small. I certainly glad I didn't sink to his level by taking unnecessary aggressive action.

But this event raises a question: when does aggressive action become necessary? I have discussed previously my view that it is not appropriate to try to "teach people a lesson". But if we let others bully us, are we not encouraging their actions?

In this regard I'll quote my friend Miguel who said on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum:
    "I feel there's something fundamentally wrong with just backing off without protest. It just serves to promote more bad behavior. It's not a question of "teaching a lesson" as refers to better manners. As previously stated, this type of idiot feels himself to be the aggrieved regardless. What registers sometimes is that not everybody is going to tolerate his conduct, and he runs the risk of getting his butt kicked. As is well known, most bullies are fundamentally cowards. So standing up to him may give him pause down the road. On the other hand, I'm entitled to my dignity as well."
Heck, even my daughter said to me: "Why didn't you use your karate on him Dad?".

Well let us examine this argument:

I read Miguel's comments as "anti-appeasment". And I agree that appeasment is bad. But I don't think that letting him walk away on this occasion was appeasment. If I saw him every day, and every day I let him push me, that would be appeasment.

On this subject, I remember speaking to my sensei Bob Davies many years ago, and asking him this question: "At what point does it become necessary for one to take aggressive action?" He gave me the following example:

Supposing you go to a bar and take a seat. A man walks up and says to you: "That's my seat." Should you fight him over it? The answer is probably "no". Even if he says the same about every seat you choose in that bar, in most cases it is better to walk out than get into a fight.

However what if this bar is your particular "haunt" - a place you go to regularly to "unwind"? And every time you go to the bar you have to face the same idiot? In this example, giving in to the idiot is, in my sensei's words, compromising your very way of life. And in that case it is probably necessary to take some sort of aggressive action - otherwise you are appeasing (and therefore encouraging) his actions and contributing to your own misery.

This contrasts very strongly with what happened to me the other day. I will probably never see this man again, and even if I do, I won't recognise him. I think the chances of him shoving me again are remote.

In any event, I seriously doubt he would register any one-off "resistance" on my part as a message that "not everyone is going to tolerate his conduct". Rather, he would simply justify his initial aggression (to himself and others) and do the same for any subsequent escalation ("it wasn't my fault", "he started it by pushing into me first" etc.).

I think the "behaviour modification" I am likely to exert on a total stranger by offering "resistance" in a one-off situation is very small. I'm sure he's gotten his way through being spoilt by his mama since he was a baby. When someone offers resistance and he doesn't get his way, he probably just throws a bigger hissy fit. This is behaviour ingrained over many, many years and my resistance on one occasion would, I suspect, have done "diddly squat" to arrest/change it.

On the other hand, I would have risked escalating a very minor incident into a major one. I'll only offer this kind of resistance if my life is compromised on some sort of ongoing basis - and the resistance (with the risk of escatating violence) is the lesser of evils - ie. it is a regrettable necessity. I explained it rather more simply to my daughter. I said: "Would you have liked me to come home with some broken teeth - or perhaps to have broken some of his?" She didn't like either idea (particularly the former!).

In the end, I don't have to live with this fellow, so I don't really care if he is an idiot. And we can't all go about our lives trying to correct the behaviour of idiots.

In this regard, I always say that it is pointless trying to swat mosquitoes at a barbecue. You'll never get them all. You're far better off applying insect repellant or moving indoors. Idiots are the same: too numerous to deal with on a case-by-case basis.

So I agree with my friend Jeff Mann when he says:
    "I completely understand and share your sentiments. While some of the resistance we may offer (verbal or otherwise) is designed to make us feel better, there is an element of spite in there as well."
As understandable as it is to have a strong reaction to bullying, I don't think emotion should be the impetus for our actions.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic