Friday, February 25, 2011

An interview with John Will: Part 1

This is a first for me. I haven’t thought of presenting a transcript of my radio show on this blog before, and for obvious reasons; it is just too darned labour intensive. Try typing out an hour long interview! But in the case of this interview with John Will, Australian BJJ instructor and pioneer, I simply had to make an exception. And I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s been worth it.

John provides one of the most entertaining, informative and, ultimately, profound interviews I’ve ever had the honour of recording/conducting. We touch on his background and martial training, the many characters he has met, trained with and taught, and much of his inimitable, accessible wisdom. I think this is a must-read. So sit back and enjoy Part 1 of my interview with John, which aired on 91.3 SportFM on 4 April 2010.

DD: Good evening everyone, you’re listening to the Combat Sports Show on 91.3 SportFM. I’m Dan Djurdjevic and I’m here with Paul Marston. Tonight we’re speaking with one of Australia’s leading martial arts teachers, BJJ expert and 3 time winner of the Blitz Martial Arts Hall of Fame, John Will — welcome John.

JW: Thanks very much Dan.

DD: Well, I know you’re in town for a series of BJJ seminars John. Briefly, can you tell us your programme while you’re here.

JW: I’ve just come from Adelaide and Hobart. I come over about 3 times a year and – I think I do about 100 seminars a year – I try to get to Perth 3 times and when I’m here I teach for Steve Stevenson in Victoria Park, Lance Johnston in Midland, Paul Marston here at Maddington, Adam Metcalfe in Mirrabooka and Troy Flugge at Wangara, so I usually try to squeeze in 5 seminars while I’m here.

DD: Wow – sounds like a packed programme. I understand you’re still based in Melbourne and Geelong where you have a number of centres but you also travel widely holding seminars like the one you’re holding here in Perth. Can you tell the listeners: What’s a typical year in the life of John Will?

JW: My goodness! I guess my years have kind of settled into a bit of a routine of late. My typical year – as I’ve said I do about 100 seminars – I’ve got an Australian/New Zealand circuit where, they’re not my schools, they’re people I’m teaching, they’re part of our association. I’ve only got one school in Geelong: one school is enough for me! But I do this circuit around Australia and New Zealand covering most of the Australian States and New Zealand. I do that 3 times a year. And in between doing that I teach over in America: I teach for Chuck Norris every July. I go over and he gets all of his black belts together in Las Vegas for me and I teach them for a couple of days. And I teach a few other schools around America – pretty well-known martial arts guys. I teach over in England once a year. I go to England, I teach 8 or 9 schools, Geoff Thompson, a lot of well-known martial artists through the UK. And on the way I do a few things in Singapore for some schools there and some military stuff and then some stuff in Norway. I try to do all that in a 2 week period. Usually, it’s fairly – it’s not what people think, it’s not me cruising, feet up, having a great time. When I’m away from my family – because I’m married and have children – when I’m away I want to maximise the time working and get back home as fast as I can. I don’t holiday much. My wife came with me to Las Vegas to help me out a couple of months ago, so that was good, which was 4 or 5 days off and had a bit of a vacation. But mostly when I’m away I’m on a mission. So I’ll go from here to Singapore, do 3 seminars in Singapore and then on to the UK, do 8 or 9 there, over to Norway – I’ll do all that in 10 days. To Bangkok, so it’s kind of hectic – but hey, someone’s got to do it!

PM: Why do you think it is that she only goes to Las Vegas to help you and not to Perth?

JW: Oh well! You know the travelling… it’s… I love being there, at the location. And I love being on the mat with people who want to be on the mat, which is mostly my work. Every now and again I do some small amount of work with people who don’t want to be there. But that’s very rare, because mostly I train trainers. But sometimes I’ve had the odd job with, you know, police force or something, and you’re teach a bunch of defensive tactics instructors and they’re just told to be there by their bosses.

DD: They’re probably fulfilling some sort of mandatory requirement.

JW: Yes. That’s very rare. So mostly I’m teaching people like you who are enthusiastic. So I’m enthusiastic and I’m into it. The downside is that waiting at the airport for 4 hours, you know, and then getting on the plane, and then other travelling. It’s all that. I make use of that time. That’s where I wrote quite a few books. I wrote my first book solely at airports.

DD: I was going to ask… I was wondering where you fit all that in?

JW: At airports and on planes!

DD: I’ve had the opportunity to read a chapter from your latest book in the “Rogue Black Belt” series and in it you dispense some gems of wisdom that I found quite compelling and inspirational. You’re note one to tread the beaten path are you?

JW: No. I was convinced to write that series. And I don’t consider myself a writer, I consider myself a passionate martial artist. But I was over with Geoff Thompson who is a very well-known author. He wrote “Watch my back” in England, an amazing individual, self-made, reinvented himself from working at the roughest pub (“Busters”) in the roughest, most violent – voted the most violent town in England, Coventry – and he was head bouncer there for 10 or 12 years, and he wrote “Watch my back” which is just a fantastic read. I mean, it should be compulsory for all martial artists to read that. It’s real, I mean it’s real and kind of scary, in a way.

PM: And of course they made the movie “Clubs” based around the life of Thompson. That was quite popular. Even here in Perth they picked up on that one.

JW: Yes. So we’ve become very good friends and a few years ago when I was over there, we get together, Geoff and I, and kick the pads and do a few things and also we go for a walk through the woods and talk about life, the universe and everything, Buddhism and this and that. We don’t talk martial arts a lot; we talk about everything else but marital arts. We’ve become quite close. And he convinced me. After spending a few days with me he said: “Are you going to write some of this stuff down?” I said to him: “No one’s going to be interested in that.” He goes: “Don’t be silly – you’ve got to tell some of these stories!” So I started putting it together, I wrote the first book. I did my first print run of 1000. I reckon I sold out of them within 2 weeks. People were really interested in that, one because I’m not a polished writer so I just write it like I talk.

DD: That’s the best way.

JW: And that wasn’t edited, by the way. It comes with spelling mistakes and everything, that first book.

PM: I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.

JW: Please. Someone help me! But part of that comes straight from the heart. Warts and all. You know, when I’m scared, how I pissed my pants, how I did this… You know, I tell it like it is. Geoff said: “If you’re going to write, don’t hold back. Like, tell them everything and people will respond to that.” Because everything’s so polished, so… what’s the word… over-refined. Food and everything.

DD: Over-produced.

JW: Over-produced! So I just did that. Which I find was quite… it was easy for me to do that – with no editing.

DD: You can be your passionate self and then it’s true – it’s real.

PM: Was it a growth experience for you in any way John, looking back on the stories and the anecdotes, in how it shaped you? Because you’ve changed a lot in the years even since I’ve known you.

JW: Yes it was cathartic in a way. I mean, there was a lot of stuff back there way back, especially my first book “Fear in the Engine” when getting into street fights in Asia, working under cover for the cops over there, getting friends killed, getting their heads chopped off, it was kind of like cathartic. I got a little bit emotional reliving it. You don’t think about those things, you know, something that happened 25 years ago. You’re focussing on what you’re doing today. But to go back and get into your memory and do all that – it’s interesting. I enjoyed the experience because it crystallises your thoughts. When you put it out on paper you’ve got to crystallise it in a different way than it lives in your head. So it was good.

DD: Speaking about your career and your memories, I thought we might, for the benefit of the listeners, cover a bit of that. You started studying back in ’72 I believe. What were you doing back then?

JW: In ’72 I was in high school or college and I started with amateur wrestling. I did it for about a year and a half or something and I broke my leg – outside of wrestling (that was just an accident) – so that stopped that for a bit. And while I had a broken leg and the leg in plaster I thought: “Well what about martial arts?” That was about the time just prior to Bruce Lee coming out and everyone wanted to jump in on it, so I thought: “That’d be good.” So I started doing some goju karate under a black belt who’s under Tino Ceberano and I did that for a bit. Then I changed to taekwondo and by the time I… I kept on doing that until the end of high school. The through a few experiences that I had as a martial artist I decided, the second I finished high school, to go over to Asia and follow in the footsteps of Donn Draeger.

DD: ’75 I believe you went to Southeast Asia.

JW: Remember back then there weren’t many books. Donn Draeger, he wrote a lot of them.

PM: For the benefit of the listeners, Donn Draeger was a pioneer, what you’d probably call a martial historian now. He was an American who got out into Asia and wrote about all the arts which back in those days were quite mysterious and largely unknown in the West. He was a bit of trailblazer. He probably inspired a lot of others.

JW: There was [his book about the] fighting arts of Indonesia and the Southeast Asian Archipelago and [about other] Asian fighting arts – he travelled everywhere. So I figured, I’ll follow in his footsteps. I’ll go to Bali. I trained through Bali, I trained through Java, Sumatra, up Malaysia, hit Thailand, then I’ll go through Burma, then I’ll just train my way through India, go to China and then go to Japan, you know, and do it all. I got stuck in Indonesia for 8 years!

DD: Talking about your time in Indonesia, I remember reading a Blitz article years ago where you mentioned that on one island you could hear the sound of shins smacking against either palm trees or other shins; you could hear the sound echoing through the island. Some serious conditioning going on there! I though you might elaborate a bit on that.

JW: Well the interesting thing about Indonesia, looking back on it now I wouldn’t say it’s... in the light of what we all understand today, I wouldn’t say it’s that practical. Boxing, kickboxing, BJJ, mixed martial arts, wrestling, you know, these are the “hands-on” real-deal. So, what it lacked in practical application I think it more than made up for in “mysterious cultural experience”, especially back then - my goodness!

And in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, I think back then at that time there were about 400 officially recognised (by the Indonesian government) different styles of Indonesian pencak silat. And not just... they were different. Like, some were just hand styles - like wing chun, that kind of looking thing - you know, just 32 hand trapping exercises. And the next village would be just kicking styles. The next thing would be just about grappling and takedowns. The next one would be they had a weapon specialised in. So each - they all had their own... each village almost had their own specialised little...

DD: I was unaware of that.

JW: It was extraordinarily diverse, which is, I mean, fascinating. So, you know, it’s easy to get stuck there because you only had to travel 20 km down the road and there was...

DD: Completely new set of skills.

JW: ...someone who taught different types of elbows, that was it. So yeah, I jumped all over the place and did a lot of stuff over 1975 through to 1982 when I was hanging out there.

DD: Then in 1982 you entered the first world silat competition in Jakarata.

JW: Yeah, I did (laughs). There was about 14 countries entered the first one. I was the only person [from Australia]. Feeling pretty lonely, but they had a little girl holding a sign up the front with “Australia” on it. And there was Germany and Holland and all these other countries and I was the only guy standing behind my sign! Kinda weird! But yeah, I entered that. That was good.

DD: And you won a gold medal did you?

JW: Yeah well... Bit of luck, I guess, on the day. I was training pretty hard and all that kind of stuff and I only had 4 fights because I think there were only 16 competitors and single eliminations so I had 4 fights. It was similar to Kyokushinkai rules. You couldn’t punch to the head...

DD: But you could kick to the head...

JW: You could knee, take them down. If you took them down or knocked them down that counted as a knockdown. Three of those and you win. So it was those kinds of rules. So I had 4 fights in one day and became famous for a day! (Laughs.)

DD: Excellent! The events from the mid to late ’80s onwards were quite pivotal for you weren’t they? For one thing, your friendship with Richard Norton introduced you to many martial arts legends in the US.

JW: Richard and I were great friends. And still are - I had lunch with him last Friday. He’s an amazing martial artist and, you know, extraordinarily good at many different things. And he doesn’t tell people. So when he’s doing his BJJ people think he does BJJ. They don’t know he does kickboxing. When he’s doing his kickboxing they don’t know he’s doing the BJJ. He doesn’t... he just does what he’s doing. He’s very diverse. So we became good friends in the... must have been late ’70s, 1980, around there. I was never into Zen Do Kai but he was their “top dog” in the Zen Do Kai organisation and I remember seeing him in the Melbourne town hall doing a kata - a sai demonstration. And I went in there I and went “Oh my goodness, he’s really good! I want to go and check this guy out.” So I rock in to the Zen Do Kai Honbu dojo in Melbourne city the next day and at that time they were all just punching the shit out of each other. (Laughs.)

DD: Yes, I’ve seen early footage!

JW: And I rocked in there, no traditional martial arts background (except when I was a kid). I’d been over in Asia - I was wild! And I rocked in there and I saw Richard in a class and I walked straight across the mat. I said “Hey mate,” (laughs) - this is how I introduced myself. He was using some sai at the time, I said: “you’re pretty good at them.” I held out my hand and said: “Gimme a look.” (Laughs.) Just terrible! No manners, nothing. I think he was so astounded he handed it to me. And it was one of the weapons I did a bit in Asia, so I flipped it around for a second and gave it back. I said: “That’s pretty cool.” He said: “Do that again!” I did it again and the next day he was down my place for lunch and we have been friends ever since.

DD: That’s a hell of a story.

JW: I never did Zen Do Kai but I always was a friend of his and I guess a lot of those guys knew I was his friend and gave me a lot of leeway. So it was great. And he introduced... opened a lot of doors in America for me. He introduced me to Benny Urquidez (Benny the Jet), Peter Cunningham and a lot of people. I got sick of Asia so I started going to America and got more into that training.

DD: In your latest book, which I’ve read the first chapter of, you mention 2 things I find quite apposite to this discussion. One is what you call “emergent events” and the other is “immersive experience”. Both apply to what happened in the US and subsequently through your introduction to the Machado family. Can you elaborate a bit on that?

JW: I was interested in BJJ and I’ve always been one to immerse myself into something. I mean that’s a nice way of saying I’m a little bit fanatical and a little bit single-minded...

DD: Obsessive?

JW: Obsessive! (Laughs.) So I’m putting a positive spin on something that other people might consider to be a bit crazy. But I mean, I think we’re like that. When we undergo learning I don’t think it’s gradual - I don’t think it’s on a graph as a nice even curve. It’s something like, nothing happens, not much happens - [then] you live it, breathe it, and just immerse yourself in it. You go along and have some kind of event and you just jump up. I think most of our learning is “jump”. Look at a child: they go along, they stumble, learn a few words, do this. Next thing they’re having a conversation. It’s not a gradual thing and I think most of our learning is like that. And I think that what needs to happen for that to happen is for you to be right in there, up to your eyeballs in it.

DD: And the other thing is, you mentioned the “emergent event”. You have something - and you mentioned it in your seminar earlier on - something that seems to happen at the right time. It usually because you’re suddenly aware of the need for that thing.

JW: That interesting. I think there’s a few reasons... When we talk about “emergent events” I’m talking about, like, an awakening or some “Oh my goodness!” epiphany if you like. Because enough connections happen in your brain. Nothing mystical. Like, large numbers, when you do big math and large numbers, weird things happen. Small numbers, 2 + 2 = 4, these are all predictable but if you talk to a mathematician, when you get to astronomically large numbers they say the rules don’t apply any more.

[I can relate to what John is saying here. When I tackled Fermat’s Last Theorem I found that some of the “safe assumptions” I thought I could make in relation to certain equations (eg. that the equations would generate ever increasing results the higher the variables), turned out not be so “safe” once the numbers got truly huge.]

And I think it’s the same thing: when we start to get enough experience at something and make enough connections in our brain at something, something magical happens. Evolutionary biologists say that something happens, something amazing happens, when you get enough connections in the brain, and that’s called consciousness! So in other words, 2 neuron cells, 2 neurons in the brain are not much more complicated than 2 walkie-talkies from Dick Smith. But if you get trillions upon trillions upon trillions of them to get connected together you’ll get artificial intelligence or people who are self-aware.

DD: A critical mass happens.

JW: A critical mass - a tipping point. So it’s that kind of stuff. We need to make enough connections in our lives and I think that’s what happens when people make enough connections - suddenly serendipitous things happen. Doors start to open. It’s nothing “mystical”, it’s just that enough connections are made...

DD: You start to see the opportunities and you start to see the information you need as well. You’re able to sift through the information and see immediately what’s useful.

JW: There’s a part of our brain called the "RAS" - the reticular activating system. This is why people should have some basic goal setting: It doesn’t have to be pen and paper it can just be daydreaming, but they need to know what they want. Because basically, your RAS acts as a filter. There’s so much information in the world, more so now than ever, that we can’t process it. We can’t take on how many pores are on your skin, how many beads of sweat, all the stuff in this room... There’s so much information, that basically this filter in our brain says: “I don’t want to know about it. I’m going to keep it all out unless it’s relevant.” So by bringing what I want - what's relevant - into the consciousness of my brain - “I want to build a new barbecue” - my brain says: “Okay, now that you’ve told me that you want that, I’ll let anything that pertains to that, any relevant information, I’ll let that through.” So now I’m driving along, I see the bricks on the side of the road. And there it is. Of course, the bricks weren’t manifested by the universe! They were always there. But my brain... the information just wasn’t pertinent until I said: “I need to build that barbecue.” And that’s why it’s important for people to get clarity on what they want. Because by doing that, the simple way to put it is you’re giving your brain permission to let the relevant information in. The information’s all there; we’re surrounded by it. But we need to say: “I give you permission to let it in.”

To be continued in Part 2...

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Soto uke: unfairly maligned cornerstone of traditional deflection


Some years ago I was surfing a particular online forum when I came across a "bullshit martial arts" thread in which the basic karate "soto uke" (outside block) was lampooned.

The essence of the thread was that here was a technique that could never be used in "real fighting". In other words, it was held up as the archetypal "karate fail" - a classic example of why karate "doesn't work in the street".

I agree that soto uke is "archetypal" of karate. It is arguably the cornerstone of karate forearm deflection. However I disagree completely with the assessment that it is a "fail". Rather, I think it is one of karate's most applicable and useful techniques, eminently suited to the task of civilian defence.

What I mean by soto uke

Readers of my blog will be familiar with my use of the term "block" to encompass deflections, interceptions and parries as well as literal "blocks". The term "uke" in Japanese comes from "ukeru" - to receive. It is my view that traditional "blocks" (uke) in karate are usually anything but "hard stopping" actions. However, through force of habit I still use the term "block". You will also note from my article "Why blocks DO work" that I think traditional blocks are an essential part of the civilian defence arsenal.

"Soto" literally means "outside" in Japanese. So "soto uke" is a reference to "receiving on the outside". Terminology varies from style to style and even dojo to dojo. In my school we use the term to refer to the outside of your forearm as it is when your arm is resting at your side. I believe my instructor's dojo inherited this use of "soto uke" from its shotokan heritage. Other schools refer to a block that goes from inside to out - using the inside of your forearm as it is when your arm is resting at your side. Needless to say, this is not what I mean by "soto uke".

The criticisms

Given that I have referred to shotokan karate, it is fitting that I reference that style in my discussion of soto uke. It might not be this very video that was being lampooned in the thread I mentioned at the start of this article, but it might as well have been. The performance below attracts all the criticisms that are levelled at soto uke - as well as some others I would add!

Zanshin Shotokan's soto uke

Ignoring for a moment the peculiarities of this particular performance, specifically the extraneous body movement (the rising and falling of the shoulders/body, the opening and closing of the mouth, etc.), the technique is essentially sound. It is a reasonable manifestation of the basic soto uke. I emphasise the word "basic" for a reason. This is what is known in karate as "kihon". It is a basic drill. More on that in a moment.

What critics inevitably point out is that the "blocking" arm is thrown out to the side (in the case of the adjacent image - to the rear!) before it is brought into play as a block/deflection. "I'd just punch you if you did that." Indeed.

Missing the point: what the soto uke is for

What critics of soto uke don't understand is that soto uke - in its basic form - is a drill. It is not designed to be applied in this literal way.

What is this "drill" for then? Quite simply, it teaches you the correct angle of interception when using the outside of the forearm to deflect an attack inward. In order to learn that correct angle, you need to put your forearm in a position where you can move it along the plane of that angle. And for practice sake, it is best to exercise the full length of the plane rather than just a small portion. In application you will probably end up with a very small movement. But in order for that movement to be on the correct plane, you need to explore the full length of that plane.

I'll pause here to point out that discerning a particular plane of movement is very difficult when you are only given a very small sample. If I showed you a movement of 2 cm (less than an inch) and asked you to discern the plane/angle of that movement, you would find it very hard to work out what that was. Similarly, if I tried to teach you to move along that plane/angle, you would find it very hard to follow my directions. On the other hand, if I showed you a movement that was 15 times greater (30 cm or approximatley one foot) then you would have a much better chance of understanding what plane/angle I was talking about.

In other words, students of karate are taught soto uke so that they can learn to move their forearm along the optimum plane/angle of deflection. The basic soto uke is a learning tool. It is not a technique. Yes, you'd hit me if I tried to throw my arm out to the side first. But that is not what I'd do. I'd move from wherever my arm was placed (assuming a soto uke was a suitable defence).And I'd do so along the appropriate plane. I'd know how to move along that plane because of my practice of the basic (kihon) soto uke. My movement might be a greatly abbreviated version of the basic drill - but I'd owe its effectiveness to my basic practice.

How to perform soto uke correctly

Having established what the basic soto uke is for, let us examine how it should be performed as a basic. The video below is apposite:

I discuss soto uke

As I have previously mentioned, it should not have the extraneous body movement of the Zanshin Shotokan video above. It should be economical. Having "full" movement does not entail having unnecessary movement.

So you don't throw your arm out behind you. Rather, you raise your arm out to the side - as if in a salute, but with your fist clenched.

From there your follow an even curved path to the point where your forearm finishes - ie. at 45 degrees to your chest, with a 90 degree angle in your elbow and with your fist at the height of your shoulder.

As I note in my video, the most common mistake people make is to "flap" their elbows: in other words, they let their elbows lead the movement. The forearm is what is being used as a deflection - not the elbow. Accordingly the forearm must move as a single entity. If you lead with your elbow - or any other part of your arm - your forearm will not be moving as one entity.

What happens to the other arm? It should move in synch, pulling back at the same time as your deflection is being executed. This means that in basic practice your blocking arm will go out to the side while your other arm is stationary. When it is up at the side, both arms move. I suspect it is this "apparent absurdity" that beguiles non-traditonal martial artists: why would one arm "do nothing" for part of the movement? Very simply, this is so that students can learn to move their arms together at the right time and in the correct manner.

Some schools (eg. Zanshin Shotokan) effect a punch with the "stationary" arm - presumably to deflect criticism that "nothing is being done" at that time and that it is hence "ineffective". But this misconceives the purpose of the basic soto uke. It is a drill for learning angles and planes of movement. It is not a fighting drill.

I must emphasise at this point that the basic soto uke drill is indeed very basic. It is for white belts. But lest you think it is easy, take a good look at how it is commonly done - in your dojo or on the net. Most beginners "elbow flap".

Soto uke as a fighting technique

You will note from my video that soto uke can and is applied in a much more abbreviated fashion than the basic drill suggests. In fact, I find that it is the most commonly applied traditional "block" in sparring. There must be something about the movement from outside to in that lends itself to the "flinch reflex". Regardless, take a look at any "melee range" sparring that involves deflections and you'll see that it is easily the most common deflection applied.

Not only that, but most karateka who are aware of what I have called "secondary" applications of traditional blocks (see my article "Two for the price of one: more about karate 'blocks'") will traditionally show you that the soto uke is actually "built into" the standard jodan uke or age uke - the rising block (another essential basic technique). For example, take a look at the video below at around 1:06:

A discussion of the applicaton of basics, including blocks

More advanced applications: the "scissors block"

The beauty of the soto uke in its basic form is, as you will see from my own video at around 3:10, that it lends itself to quite sophisticated applications, in particular the shaolin "scissors block".

The scissors block is a technique that I have applied in my own sparring many, many times over the years. Sometimes you apply it against a punch, but more often than not it is simply a function of attacking an arm that is extended in front of you. It uses a friction grip rather than an actual grab - reducing the likelihood of your grip reflex leading you into trouble (more on this another time).

The scissors block is commonly attributed to shaolin (for example, I recall it demonstrated in Robert W Smith's "Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing"). But it can be found as an obvious applicaton of many karate kata (eg. the goju kata seiunchin) - as it can of the basic soto uke. This probably has little to do with karate's purported origins in southern China. Rather it is more than likely a case of convergent evolution. The scissors block is there because it works. And it works because the soto uke works.


The basic soto uke is a drill. It is a drill designed to teach beginners to move their forearms along the optimum plane for deflecting an attack inwards using the outside of their forearm. As a drill it can look quite stilted and stylised. But it is designed to teach beginners a concept; not a fighting technique. The fighting technique is a more abbreviated movement. But to abbreviate something you must know what the "thing" was in its original, "fuller" form.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, February 21, 2011

Memories of Taiwan: Third eye blind

The sun has set behind the Kaohsiung skyline as our bus rattles along in the congested rush-hour traffic. I lie back against the head-rest, feeling the vibration on my scalp through the velour, and try to doze. Every now and again a jolt throws me back into the real world and I see flashes: flashes of the faux wood-panelled interior of our vehicle, the slumped, silent silhouettes of my fellow Chen Pan Ling practitioners, chaos passing in every direction, the smoky-red stain on the horizon and the neon glow of the pea-soup sky.

We’re travelling from the Fo Guang Shan monastery into the city centre for our respective appointments with blind masseurs/masseuses. “Go on!” James had said to me in 2009. “Do it. You’ll feel like a new man.” But for whatever reason I declined – a decision I’d come to regret deeply. In fact, the moment I saw them arriving at the Kingship Hotel (each on the back of a scooter) and being escorted in through the foyer to the elevator (aided by the directions of my good friend "Little John" Scott) I knew I'd made a mistake.

So this time when the call came for massage bookings my hand was the first to go up. “Try everything once except folk-dancing and incest,” Sir Thomas Beecham famously said.

I could hardly go back to the West without experiencing the particularly Oriental cultural phenomenon of the blind masseur/masseuse (the Western world of today seems less likely to "assign" such an occupation to people with impaired sight). In fact, I simply had to have this experience, especially given my frequent references to the Hagakure story of the Ten blind masseuses - a story that has become my favourite metaphor for how confronting your fears is often less stressful than avoiding them.

The gnawing pain in my lower back reminds me that there is a more urgent reason than this to call on the services of a therapeutic masseur/masseuse - blind or sighted. I don't know it, but little can help the bulging disc pressing on the nerves in my spinal canal. But at this point I remain hopeful of some relief. So I lie back, cocooned against the hum-drum world, and try once more to clear my mind of the million thoughts.

Try as I might, this is a task I cannot accomplish. Despite decades of chipping away at my mental indiscipline, I remain unable to bring my mind to heel. Finally, I give up. I allow it to wander freely over the tumultuous year that was 2010:

I recall the year of training and teaching martial arts: the many students, some leaving some joining; the endless frustrations of dealing with a recalcitrant body succumbing to arthritis.

I think of the hundred thousand words of this blog (and 2 others), often written in the dead of the night and the associated hours of research, photo/video shoots and editing, and animated gif construction.

I think of my fortnightly radio show "The Combat Sports Hour" on 91.3 SportFM - the many true masters and fascinating characters I interviewed (see for example my interview with John Will, Australian BJJ pioneer, here).

I recall the hundreds of pages of legislation I drafted each month in my "day job" combined with late nights in Parliament. I think of the many challenges of raising a young family.

I think of the months of sustained amateur detective work to uncover, once and for all, the whereabouts of my mother, missing for over a decade; of the hair-pulling frustration of dealing with the glacial South African bureaucracy and how I finally discovered that she had passed away somewhere in Cape Town in July 2008 from unknown causes and in unknown circumstances.

I also remember the many "obsessive" projects, completed at break-neck speed: The gargantuan revision of the Wu-Wei Dao syallbus, now accessible (to members of our Academy) on the web with images and video to illustrate each technique for each grade requirement (from white belt through to the "end"). The web design alone accounted for many hundreds of hours. I recall how I more or less completed my book "Essential Jo" in the 10 or so days preceding my trip to Taiwan. And I remember my crazy two week bid to solve Fermat's Last Theorem using only algebra and trigonometry.

It's at this point that I realise I've been thinking in my "out-loud" voice - something I rarely do, but I'm tired and less inclined to act rationally. My travelling companion is looking at me quizzically, saying: "You lost me when you started talking about quadratics".

Our bus pulls into the kerb at a jostling, sardine-crammed night market. We are dislodged onto the sidewalk, my back sharply protesting at abrupt the need for movement. Out in the open I'm greeted by the familiar mix of Kaohsiung smells: the sickly sweet sewer, chemical solvents and foul, fermenting tofu.

A million voices drown James' as he attempts to give directions to those who have chosen to visit the night market instead of having a massage. They depart and the rest of us follow Master Chen through narrow, darkened alleyways to the "parlour", scooters squeezing between us, mangy dogs running underfoot. Finally we stop outside an ancient grey building and file through its narrow doors.

In the foyer we are promptly greeted by smiling hosts who herd us up the rickety wooden staircase. As I get up to the first landing I'm reminded of some old Western - Rio Bravo specifically. It looks like the accommodation one might find above a saloon, with tarnished brass-handled doors to tiny rooms on both sides of the corridor. I expect Angie Dickinson and John Wayne to appear at any moment.

Once I'm settled into my own room, I gently lower myself onto the bed, wondering what clothing, if any, I need to remove. Moments later there is a knock, and the door opens. The blind masseuse enters, led at the elbow by one of the hosts. "You lie down on bed," the host says to me, beckoning and smiling. "Okay, okay?".
"Xie xie ni," I answer, nodding. Then the host is gone. I take off my shirt and trousers and lie down on the bed, face first. The masseuse, a middle-aged woman, feels her way to the edge of the bed, finds my upper back and starts to knead. "Okay?"
"Hen hao," I reply. My face burrows into the mothball-smelling sheets as her fingers start digging into my trapezius. My mind wanders back to Fermat.

I've previously mentioned how martial arts analysis needs to factor all the relevant dimensions - not only the three dimensions of space, but also the fourth dimension, time. Somewhat synchronously, it is time and its very nature that preoccupies me now.

Most of us are equipped with two functioning eyes. This allows us to see in three dimensions. If we have only one functioning eye, we see in only 2 dimensions. But what if we had three eyes? Would we see in four dimensions - ie. could we "see time"? Lester del Rey proposed just this in his 1977 science fiction short story "Natural Advantage". His alien race, the Ruum, had a third eye that was used for "time depth perception."

I suspect that an added eye would not be sufficient. We would remain four-dimensional beings who can accurately perceive only three of these. Yes, we experience time, but we don't perceive it correctly or fully. As Albert Einstein famously wrote:
    "...for us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one."
"How can this be? Carl Sagan provided an entertaining explanation by way of analogy in his television series "Cosmos". In the segment below he describes how a race of "flatlanders" (who can only perceive 2 dimensions) would react when confronted with a three-dimensional creature. The flatlanders can experience something three dimensional coming into their flat world, but they remain incapable of pointing to that third dimension. They simply don't understand "up".

Carl Sagan discusses the fourth dimension

Similarly, we humans can experience time - but we can't point to it. We can't perceive it for what it truly is - a dimension. We use our two eyes to accurately perceive three dimensions. While we experience the fourth - time - as a linear progression, it is in all likelihood anything but that.

My mind is brought back to the present when the masseuse's sharp knuckles are thrust into the base of my skull just above my cervical vertebrae. The pain is excruciating, so I shout "Ow!" as I've been instructed. She continues regardless. It is only when she starts kneading my other trapezius that I am free to drift back to my thoughts.

It occurs to me that even these thoughts have a physical existence in time and space, however emphemeral. Every thought you've ever had (and ever will have) is an electrochemical process in your brain. For a brief moment the thought has an independent "physicality". It is "something" that can be described in terms of atoms and molecules. It exists in time and space, then vanishes.

The masseuse pressing into my knotted muscles reminds me that I too have a physical existence. And, not unlike my thoughts, the existence of my body is also emphemeral; not as emphemeral as a thought, but emphemeral enough in universal terms (when compared to planet, a star a galaxy or the universe itself)!

We get used to thinking of our bodies as a piece of fixed matter - like a rock or other inanimate object. And yes, like a rock we are subject to physical change in the form of wear and tear over time. But we like to imagine that our "matter" is otherwise substantially fixed. This is clearly false.

While we are living, we are rather more like a river than a rock. Our bodies are in a constant state of flux. I'm sure you've all heard that every single cell in your body is replaced after 7 years or so. In this respect each of us is rather like the mythical "Kelly's axe":
"Yes, this axe really did belong the famous Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly. It's just that the head has been replaced 7 times and the stock more than twice that..."

So if we are not defined merely by our physical matter, then how shall we be defined? Clearly we comprise a physical entity; we are matter. But we are much more than that. Our identity as living beings is dependent precisely on how our matter changes over time. It the very nature of this change that permits our consciousness to persist as a continuum, despite the fact that our bodies (and the electro-chemistry of our thoughts) are, in essence, emphemeral and constantly being changed.

Perhaps that is why when we see a lifeless body we no longer regard it as "human". The life has gone. What is left is stagnant matter; matter that will no longer renew. All that remains is for that matter to degrade and erode. It is no longer capable of change except in the sense of entropy - much like a rock or a dead piece of wood.

So how, if at all, does this dimensionality relate to martial arts? It seems to me that in order to understand ourselves and our complex interactions (of which physical confrontation is but one), we need to understand the nature of change. And I think it is no suprise that the internal arts (particularly baguazhang) relate to this concept. What do I mean?

Su Dong Chen illustrating "indirect fist"

I have previously noted that martial arts are not focussed on fixed postures, but on movement; the transition from posture to posture. However the internal arts go further than this. They don't just focus on techniques (which comprise a series of movements). Rather they examine how those techniques change or morph, depending on the circumstances. Consider the video above of Su Dong Chen, one of Hong Yi Xiang's students, demonstrating the "indirect fist".

You will note that a punch can be diverted or deflected. What most martial arts then seek to do is to follow up with another strike. This seems logical enough: the first one has failed, after all. Yet the internal arts of taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan all approach such a scenario differently. They focus on what happens to the deflected punch - just as much as they focus on any follow-up movement. In Su Dong Chen's example, the deflected punch doesn't just stop after it has been deflected. Like a flowing river encountering a rock, it flows around. It doesn't stop. It continues. It morphs into something else.

I have previously discussed the importance of understanding what to do when your technique fails (see my article "Really USING your kata"). The techniques of the internal arts do more than focus on "conversion upon failure". They recognise that your techniques are constantly morphing - whether they fail or succeed. For example, there is no point in the taijiquan "long form" where one technique is finished and another begins. The techniques flow one into another, seamlessly converting and changing. This is the very nature of taijiquan; to move like a cloud, endlessly forming and unforming. When forward energy/momentum is exhausted, there is a withdrawal; when a withdrawal is complete there is a forward or sideways or backward lunge. The body weight is constantly shifting, the movement evolving, changing. Like life itself.

I demonstrate the third section of the Chen Pan Ling taijiquan long form

To analyse taijiquan, one needs to start with the appreciation of what it is designed to teach. A friend of mine is fond of saying "I don't teach techniques - I teach principles." This is very much the case with taiji, bagua and xingyi. What do they teach? The principles of change: when you should change, how you should change, the different ways of changing. Changing what? Your movement, your momentum, your technique. An exhausted punch becomes a deflection, a deflection becomes a lock, a lock feeds into a throw, a throw feeds into a strike, a strike becomes a deflection... and so it goes.

Pragmatic sports fighters are inclined to look to an art like taijiquan and see "old people's dancing". It is nothing of the sort. It is an exploration of change. Correctly understood, it can be analysed and applied in a very pragmatic way.

After enduring another excruciating round of knuckle burrowing into the base of my skull, I feel a quick double-slap on my back. The massage is over. I rise (relaxed but still aching in my lower back) and dress. After that I gingerly descend the rickety staircase, back into the hum-drum world below.

I have changed. My waiting colleagues have changed. James was right. I do feel like a "new man" - and in some respects, I am.

The past, the present - these are both illusions. All that exists is the present. Live it.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Memories of Taiwan: Synchronicity

It’s almost midnight and I’m limping in the blue shadows of the monastery grounds finally deserted by the maelstrom of day-time activity. I'm limping because I’m alone and no longer inclined to hide the pain in my lower back – pain that stabs like a thick syringe-needle with every step and the slightest knee lift. It is an injury I sustained in my very first training, and which scans will later reveal to be a prolapsed disc in the lumbar spine. Here’s a tip: don’t travel for almost 36 hours, then attempt long xing (dragon form of xingyi) without a sufficient warm-up.

What am I doing? Oddly enough, I am searching. I’ve arranged with my photographer friend Lucia to take photos at the following dawn for the cover of my book “Essential Jo”. I’ve carted my gi and hakama all the way from Australia for just this purpose. I have come completely prepared – except that I have no jo (4 foot staff). You’d think that a Buddhist monastery built on a bamboo-forested mountain would have such a stick – somewhere. But this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Half an hour before, I’d given up on sleep: the bed that had initially promised so much comfort (but turned out to be not much softer than a kitchen stool) had effectively tossed out my bruised body. And if the bed hadn't done it sooner, my troubled mind, egged on by stabbing pain, would have done it later.

At first I tried to read the magazines I’d purchased at the airport – an unlikely mix of Rolling Stone and New Scientist (“A bit of yin and yang,” I explain to James when I'm passing them on to him later). But half way through the last recorded interview with John Lennon (and a minute into an article about why our white sun can appear “gold”) I gave up, exasperated by the absence of my foolishly-forgotten reading glasses, and turned out the light.

I went to the window to gaze out at the myriad speckled lights that decorated the temple grounds. Something about this glittering star-scape felt irresistibly inviting, drawing me down. And so, only moments later, I found myself dressed and heading out into the fresh night air – away from the stifling confines of four walls and the million thoughts echoing in my head. If I could find a suitable stick, I reasoned, at least one of those thoughts would be silenced.

As I walk, I’m realising the hopelessness of my task. It isn’t just my failure to find a stick. I’m finding it impossible to outrun my other thoughts; they keep pace, dogging me at every turn. The four walls that trap them are not those of my room. Of course, thoughts have no geographic boundary. They limp with me along the temple grounds as surely as they have followed me across the globe.

“People think we meditate for happiness,” said our monk-guide Hue Shou. “What nonsense! Who cares about the happiness of monks? We meditate for only two reasons; to learn concentration and to gain insight.” He’d said this the night before as we sat cross-legged in one of the monastery’s many wood-panelled meditation rooms, each in our own alcove propped up against a rolled-up towel. Speaking, somewhat incongruously, via a microphone in the muffled stillness of the chamber, he told us to meditate for no more than 20 minutes as it would then be his bed-time. I lasted about two minutes into the Buddhist breath counting (something I’d first practised on a training camp in Africa 20 years before) until my aching back and growling stomach forced me to tip-toe quietly out of the chamber.

I observe that for someone who doesn’t care about happiness, Hue Shou appears to be remarkably happy. Like the guide from our previous visit, it would not be an exaggeration to say that he (figuratively anyway) radiates happiness. There is something indefinably contented about his person and manner – at the very least something tells me he is not trying to outrun a million thoughts.

I’m passing the monastery’s gymnasium where I know James had kept a whole bunch of rattan sticks. From memory these were all either too long (6 foot) or too short (baton or walking cane), but they are worth checking once again. I recall grabbing one from the pile at our first training and thinking it would do, if only it weren’t so long. Maybe I’ll find a shorter one.

As I approach the gymnasium I catch the unexpected sound of karaoke wafting in the breeze. At first I think the singing is in Chinese, then I realise that it is in fact in English. Through the gymnasium's double doors I can see the remains of some sort of private function. The karaoke performer is standing on the stage in front of a microphone, her face wringing out as much passion as her voice. It takes a moment longer before I realise that she’s singing a track from Sting’s album “Nothing like the sun”. Somewhat synchronously I look up at the starless sky and catch sight of the three-quarter moon just above the tiled rooftops.
    “Sister moon, will be my guide.
    In your blue, blue shadows, I will hide.
    All good people asleep tonight,
    I’m all by myself in your silver light…”
I don’t bother to look for the sticks; I remember now that they have been moved to a storeroom in a building further up the hill (the same place we conducted the bai shi ceremony a few days before). So I leave the lights of the gymnasium doors and plunge once more into the shadows hoping to find the storeroom and hoping it will be unlocked…

As I limp up the hill the singing voice fades and my mind wanders from Sting, to the moon and then to synchronicity. Synchronicity is, of course, a term coined by Swiss Freudian psychiatrist Carl Jung to describe (apparently) meaningful coincidences; disparate events that are not causally linked but are somehow correlated. This theory is closely related to Jung’s other theory of the “collective unconscious” and the broader notion that all living things connected at some “cosmic” level.

My late father was a firm believer in spiritus mundi. It was in this context that he and my mother would often read the Chinese classic called the I Ching / Yi Jing (Book of Changes). The I Ching is a Neo-Confucian philosophical treatise, however it was/is used by many (including my parents) as a means of divination - a way of tapping into synchronicity via the collective unconscious.

To ask a question of the I Ching, all you have to do is throw 3 coins, 8 times. How the coins land is said to reflect your thoughts – and hence the universe with which your thoughts are inextricably linked – at that exact moment. A particular (traditional) matrix provides a means of decoding that coin sequence. Once decoded, you go to the relevant chapter which will synchronously pertain to your question, or at least the thoughts that occupied your mind at that moment.

The truth of the matter is that, much like other Chinese classics, eg. the Tao Te Ching / Dao De Jing, the I Ching can probably be opened at any page to reveal a truism. And a truism will serve as good advice for (and appear entirely applicable to) any particular situation.

I’m struggling up the final, steepest, part of the hill to the storeroom, simultaneously recalling the events of the previous days. In particular I’m thinking of our practice of baguazhang (which is said by some to be the physical embodiment of the I Ching). I also remember how, earlier that day, my good friend Tony Nguyen took me inside the base of the giant Buddha where I had a “reading” from a monk. We walked into a little chamber, paid our respects, then took a random scroll from a bin. A monk then read out and interpreted the scroll. From what I could tell, the idea wasn’t to tell your fortune; rather it was akin to the I Ching – the scroll would reflect the moment and contain advice synchronously pertinent to your situation.

The advice I received was just this: “That which you seek, you have already found.”

Last year I had the good fortune to interview prominent BJJ instructor John Will on the Combat Sports Show on 91.3 SportFM [Part 1 of this interview is to be found here.] John noted how receptive you become to certain information once it assumes relevance – where otherwise that same information might be filtered out by your mind. So does that pile of free bricks on a verge “suddenly materialise” when you’re looking to build a barbecue – or is its synchronous appearance attributable entirely to your heightened awareness of the need for building materials?

Either way, I’m looking for both a stick and a certain peace of mind, and I'm not having much luck finding either.

In the darkness I grope for the handle of the storeroom only to find it locked.

On the way back to my room I search amongst stray groves of bamboo, along promising fence lines and in strangely-placed closets in rabbit-warren buildings – but ultimately to no avail.

Finally I’m standing in the chill breeze outside the main eating hall that is only metres from our accommodation, considering one of the many cartoonish paper monks. This one has a staff braced across his shoulders, 2 pails dangling from either end. It seems strange that I never noticed it before: the staff is exactly the right size and diameter. For a brief minute I toy with the idea of “borrowing” the staff; it is connected to the pails very loosely, after all. Then the absurdity of the situation hits home.

Is my troubled mind really burdened by a missing stick, a too-hard bed, forgotten reading glasses, an injured back and the other health issues and challenges I face? Are life’s frustrations the result of such external factors – or are they attributable to how one thinks of them? Is synchronicity working against me in as much as my mind is not filtering out information it otherwise could - and should?

For a moment I recall the story of the Ten Blind Masseuses. Then I realise that somewhere between the locked storeroom and the cartoonish paper monk whose staff I was thinking of "borrowing", I had actually started to enjoy myself. Walking out in the fresh early morning air had gone from a dispirited search to a pleasant experience. Happiness, it seems, is found not in the presence of “happy thoughts”. Rather it is found in the absence of unhappy ones. Feeling a greater sense of peace than I have in many months, I wander back to my room and into bed.

The next day’s photo shoot does not go on as scheduled. But it does go ahead later that day. The stick I end up using is, ironically, the very same one I picked up on my first training in the gymnasium. Yes, it is manifestly too long. But it can be - and is - miraculously shortened using Photoshop. That which I sought, I had already found.


The night photos and the photo of the "paper monk" are courtesy of my new Chen Pan Ling brother, Rob Himes. The photo of the moon was taken by my brother Nenad almost exactly 28 days after the events described in this blog post. The photo of me with the jo is a composite of 3 photos taken by Lucia for the cover of my forthcoming book “Essential Jo”. I'm indebted to her both for taking the photos and her "Photoshop magic".

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic