Thursday, March 21, 2013

Jisui: my hybrid internal/external research form

Introduction

In Parts 1 and 2 of my article "Bridging the gap between karate and the internal arts", I discussed my design of an experimental or "research" form ("kenkyugata") - one that is an "external/internal hybrid".  In this essay I wish to describe and discuss the "final product" in detail.

The goal of this project was to create a form for external martial arts practitioners (in particular, karateka) that enables them to assimilate into their practice some of the principles/concepts (意 or "yi") of the internal arts relating to efficient momentum transfer - both for defence (effective evasion and deflection) and counter attack (landing blows more securely and with "whole body" force multiplication).

Above all else I wanted this kata to be sufficiently familiar to karateka: I wanted to avoid the need for them to undergo lengthy training in the outward form of the internal arts (called 形 or "xing" in Chinese).  The latter can take many, many years to achieve in the traditional way and for very little benefit in the shorter term.  I believe that this factor dissuades many external artists from pursuing this course of action.

So my concept was to use the outward form (xing) of a common, basic karate kata - in this case the goju forms known as gekisai - modified so as to permit the overlay of internal arts concepts (yi) on that form.

It is worth noting that part of my research for this project also involved the design of 3 "interim" forms based on the outward form (xing) of taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan.  This design process was useful in helping me develop the final "karate-like" hybrid.  I might detail the development of the interim forms in separate articles as they constituted quite an exercise in themselves. For the time being I've appended videos of them at the very end of this article.11, 12, 13

A video of the final form - "jisui" - is embedded below.

My performance of "jisui" - my completed "kenkyugata" hybrid internal/external form.
Read on if you want to see how it was designed.

In order to discuss my final "product", I will first need to examine gekisai's external paradigm more closely, noting the issues that run contrary to internal arts principles.  With that understanding as a foundation, it will hopefully become clearer as to how I modified the gekisai template so that it could be consistent with those principles.

Gekisai's opening combination

Gekisai kata (in both ichi and ni versions) opens with an off line evasion, a block and a counter.

The traditional gekisai offline step to commence the kata
The off line evasion is performed by stepping forward with your right foot, then pivoting 90° (on the balls of your feet) to face your opponent.

It is worth noting that many schools perform this as a kind of "informal, short forward stance" (han zenkutusu dachi).  I perform it as a sanchin dachi.  The way I look at it, there's not much use having such a great stance as sanchin dachi and not using it in a more dynamic context like this. In fact, I use sanchin dachi in all my goju kata.

The counter is then performed by making a full step and punching off your leading arm (a lunge punch).  As I've previously discussed, this is unrealistic in the sense that lunge punches are rarely performed with a full step through.

I believe the latter is largely because of the problem of "dead time" in "natural stepping" (ie. where one leg passes the other).  Clearly, "natural stepping" costs you "dead time" and this is very likely time that you don't have.

However the cost of such stepping goes beyond the mere "dead time" factor; it also goes to loss of connectivity between movements.

In this regard it is worth observing that with every "block and counter" you have two moves in response to your attacker's one move.  I've previously discussed that while this is potentially problematic, you often simply don't have a choice but to resort to "late initiative" comprising a block and then a counter; defence comes first under the civilian defence goal of "not being hit" (rather than "hitting").

My demonstration and analysis of gekisai dai ni

So, faced with the reality of late initiative, what you can you do to "make it work for you"?  As I've previously outlined, you need to connect your block and counter as much as possible so that they flow one into the other.  In so doing, you can ameliorate the fact that you've been forced (both by circumstance and ethics/law) to respond to many attacks in civilian defence, rather than pre-empt them.

This should start to give you some idea of why and how connectivity (flow) is important in martial arts:
It's not just about transferring more of your momentum into the target:
It's also about improving your chances of successfully transferring momentum into a resistant opponent in a dynamic setting.  
After all, your opponent isn't just a "board who doesn't hit back":  he or she is actively trying to thwart your responses - both by trying to hit you and (more relevantly) by not letting you hit him or her.

The gekisai opening sequence
Accordingly, flow won't just "increase your power"; it will actually help make your power usable by connecting your block and counter so that any "separation" between them is minimized and the ratio of your movements relative to your attacker's approaches 1:1.  (While you can't ever get your movements to be "truly simultaneous", there are ways which their "separation" can be made substantively negligible.)

By contrast, if you look at the adjacent  pictures you will note that in the traditional gekisai kata this is far from the case.

To begin with, the block does not happen with the offline step, as one might expect if one were to combine evasion and deflection so as to maximize one's chances of not being hit.  Rather, the kata suggests that you step off line first, and only then block as you pivot to face your opponent.1

This is followed by the full step-through (with the "dead time"), then a punch.

The net effect of this sort of performance is that it chops up the two moves of "block and counter" so distinctly that it completely divorces them from each other; they become two separate events with absolutely no connection other than that they follow each other sequentially.

Moreover it also chops up the "block" and "punch" segments even further, namely:
  • the block "segment" is itself divided into a step, then a pivot and block; and
  • the strike "segment" is divided into a step, then a punch.
This leaves you with a total of 4 disconnected movements.  This is very far from a "connected 2:1" - and a great deal farther from the ideal "1:1".2

As you can see from the adjacent gif, it doesn't need be this way.  With the right "internal arts" connectivity, you can make any "connected 2:1" off line step and block come very close to 1:1 - I believe, close enough for it to work against a resistant, determined attacker.

By contrast, the disconnected, basic, "4:1" method of "block and punch" combination as shown in the opening of gekisai kata (and, in fact, almost any karate kata) is, quite clearly, incapable of being applied in reality.  If you don't believe me, try it in sparring (just don't try it in real self defence!).3

Internal principles applicable to the opening combination

Now it is true that there is merit in the external "template" seen in gekisai.  For one thing, it serves as a means of teaching "stem cell movements" - which is precisely how I believe the external arts came to lose their focus on "connectivity" (ie. momentum flow).  For another, it serves to inculcate more fundamental concepts like solid structure, hip use, balance and other good basics.

But, whichever way it goes, this approach is the polar opposite of the internal arts: its focus is more on fixed points (ie. "postures") rather than the transition between those points (ie. connectivity or "flow").

So how would the internal art "connect" the opening sequence in general terms?

I believe the most basic (karate-like) outward form (xing) would have one moving in the way I've illustrated in the adjacent series of images.

You will note that the block wouldn't wait for the pivot to face the opponent: it would occur at the same time as you step offline!

The internal arts principle of "preservation of momentum" (specifically, taiji's "continuing momentum" in this case) would then come into play.4

In order to make sure that you aren't interrupting your flow of momentum, the form would carefully take into account where your weight is positioned at any particular time and, most importantly, in which direction it is moving.

If you consider for a moment that your weight is being transferred to your front leg as you step off line, this means that your back leg is being "liberated" (ie. weight is being taken off it).  That back leg is therefore the best candidate for uninterrupted momentum transfer.

Accordingly that back leg is able to step directly into the opponent as part of one continuous, connected sequence of movements (very much like the chest-level blocking one depicted in the animated gif above).5

Put another way, the practitioner is able to use the momentum of the off line step to power both the block and then to throw the weight of the whole body behind the counter; none of the "moving momentum" is "lost" to disjointed stepping where you spend time "flat footed".4

Of course, this is a very general analysis that still uses karate "outward form"  in terms of blocking and countering.  It certainly does not reflect precisely how any of the internal arts would actually perform the opening sequence of gekisai kata.

I demonstrate the internal arts versions of  gekisai's opening combinations.

Rather, it is my view that the most likely "counterpart" to this sequence is that which is known in taijiquan as "fair lady works at shuttles".  This sequence also has its counterparts in baguazhang  as the fifth palm change, (which is called "white snake flashes its fangs" in the Chen Pan Ling system) and in xingyiquan as the fourth element of  "fire" (called "pao quan").6

These "internal" variants of the opening gekisai combination utilize what some people (I believe, mistakenly) call a "simultaneous" technique - ie. having the rising block remain in place7 as the punch is executed (cf. the method I showed above using karate's outward form of pulling the block back with the punch).

Despite its relative rarity in karate forms, I have included this "simultaneous block" in my hybrid as it is fairly easy for karateka to assimilate.  Furthermore, the added "cover" provided by the keeping the hand in place for a rising block can be quite important (where for chest deflections this issue is less important and the arm left in place can even impede the flow of your momentum - more on that in a minute).

You will note from my performance of the form that I have used closed fists.  While this is unlike taiji and bagua, it is consistent with xingyi.  But, more importantly, it is more consistent with karate which tends to use closed fists more than palm strikes (at least in today's form!).

You'll also note that I've used a vertical fist in this particular circumstance.  This is a small concession to xingyi (which only uses a vertical fist in these circumstances).  If nothing else, I felt would be useful for teaching a bit of adaptability to the karate student. Otherwise, there is no magic to the vertical fist: it merely denotes a closer range (as I've discussed previously).

You will recall that I have not attempted to use xingyi's "san ti" or "zhan bu" stance in the opening, preferring a more straightforward zenktusu dachi/gong bu (forward stance) for familiarity and ease of assimilation.

The downward deflection

The next combination in gekisai is what is known in Japanese as "gedan barai" - a downward sweep.

I have previously discussed its use as a downward deflection (uke), but it can also be a strike (uchi) or any number of other movements (unbalancing, locking etc.).

The combination occurs immediately after the punch that ended the previous sequence.  That punch is executed with the leading hand after a full step through.

The gedan barai then follows by moving the same leg back (with a full step) into a sideways-facing shiko dachi (horse stance). (Note the series of pictures on the left.)

Given my previous discussion, what you should notice straight away is that the gekisai approach is, once again, contrary to the internal arts principles of preservation of momentum (ie. the "rule against double weighting").


In this case, if the weight is moving onto the front leg, then the back leg should be next to move. (Note the series of pictures on the right.)  However this is not what happens.  Instead the same leg moves twice in a row.  

If  I can express any sort of "internal arts rule" here it is this:
In the internal arts, you should never move the same leg twice except is in the context of a "drop step".
For what I mean by drop step I mean the stepping typically found in xingyi (see my article "Xingyi stepping vs karate stepping" and my discussion below regarding the second chest-level deflection).

Thankfully there are a few internal arts techniques which follow a similar model - particularly those that step backward with the downward sweep.  I'm thinking in particular of the technique known in taijiquan as "Part wild horse's mane" and analogous/related movements in baguazhang and xingyiquan.

In each case you'll note that the as the weight transfers to the front leg for the punch, weight is being transferred off the back, meaning it should be the next to move.


I discuss moving in the internal arts - including the rule of "never moving the same leg twice (except in a drop step)".

The chest level blocks

After the gedan barai, gekisai once again breaches the "preservation of momentum principle" by moving the leg that had just moved.

In this instance, the left leg has moved back into shiko dachi (horse stance) with the gedan barai.  The same leg is then used to  step forward into a short stance (sanchin dachi, in my case), executing a chest block.

The next block is then executed with a simple forward step in another short (sanchin) stance.

It is important to note that the first block is not accompanied by any sort of counter.

If you consider the pause typically inserted between the second block and the subsequent kick/elbow combination, it is arguable that there isn't even a counter for the second block; they are simply too disconnected.

So how would the internal arts handle this issue?  By now you should be getting an idea:

As you step off line with your left leg to execute the downward block, it is manifest that you will be moving your weight over to your left.  Accordingly your right leg will be free to move.

This means that the next leg to move should be the right leg (if you are to "preserve momentum", that is).

That right leg will then move forward (or if you prefer, off line forward) with the chest-level deflection being effected by the reverse hand.  Why the reverse hand?  Because it is the hand closest to the attack - and the general principle is that you block with the hand closest to your attacker.

Moreover, if you are moving slightly off line this also makes perfect sense because it means that the deflection is being employed with the correct hand relative to your opponent and your evasive movement.8

For the purposes of the internal arts "preservation of momentum" principle, this step then "gets the ball rolling": it accelerates your body into motion so that you can make a "chasing step-through" while minimizing the "dead time" issue.

Put simply, you don't have to accelerate from 0 while in the "dead time zone" - your body is already travelling at a healthy velocity as you approach it, taking you through that zone in the shortest possible time.

In fact, you'll notice that the acceleration is so great that it takes you forward in a very committed way: ie. a way that risks over-commitment.  As I discuss in my article "How the internal arts work: Part 1", this is a serious issue - and the central one with which the internal arts are concerned.

Neither the taijiquan approach (retracting) nor baguazhang approach (spiralling momentum) are appropriate to prevent this over-commitment.

Instead, given the fact that we are advancing forwards at speed, we must adopt principles from the internal art that specializes in this sort of movement - ie. xingyiquan.

The first xingyi principle to note is that as the front foot reaches its maximum extension, you don't stay in a "gong bu" or "zenkutusu dachi" (forward stance).  If you do and your strike misses, this could comprise a catastrophic over-commitment.  Instead, you want to shuffle up the back foot to recover your balance.  This should happen after the strike lands (as I discuss in my article "Xingyi stepping vs karate stepping).

The second xingyi principle to note is that, having executed the shuffle up, for any subsequent steps you must execute what I call a "drop step" - ie. you must move the front leg again.  I discuss this in the above article concerning xingyi and karate stepping and, more generally, in a variety of other articles.

You'll note that I have preferred the use of open hand chest-level deflections in this form: that is despite the fact that closed fist blocks dominate both gekisai dai ichi and ni.  However the two open hand deflections introduced in the second kata do make me feel that they are slightly more sophisticated.

Moreover, open hand deflections really do suit the aggressive forward movement, as they help give a sense of "pulling" you into your opponent.

Last, I've added two palm heel strikes after the deflections.  This is unlike gekisai, but it does accord with internal arts principles of connectivity: there needs to be a counter strike as soon as possible after any deflection/block, the former flowing into the latter.

In this case, I've used palm heel strikes because they better suit the open hand deflections.  If you like you can always substitute closed fist blocks with closed fist punches.  I prefer my current design!9

Unlike the above gif, I've also used a "rotation" in the forearms so that your pullbacks are "fingers down" while the palm strike is "fingers up".  I think this adds just enough extra challenge for the karateka without overly complicating matters.  It also matches up with the roundhouse block and double palm strike (mawashi uke and tora guchi) sequence at the end.

The kick (and punch)!

I cover my reasons for using a front snap kick in Part 2 of "Bridging the gap between karate and the internal arts".

The kick I've used is a high one - just for fun.  However you can always change it to the gekisai low level kick if you prefer.

I've used a standard ball of foot kick in my form, but a heel kick can be substituted if one wishes.

You'll also notice that I've added a reverse punch that operates simultaneously with the kick.  This might seem a bit incongruous to some martial artists and it isn't really a feature of the internal arts as such.  It does however appear in the other Chinese "hybrid" external/internal forms that I have learned (I refer to these in Part 2 of my article "Bridging the gap between karate and the internal arts).  More generally it also helps teach the internal principle of landing hand with the foot, which I cover in this article.

There are two other reasons I've added the punch:
  • I wanted the form to have a standard corkscrew punch - for familiarity, if nothing else. Accordingly I added one here and kept the other reverse punch after the elbow/gedan barai combination.
  • I also wanted to exploit the principle to which I've previously referred, and that is that a kick in karate (and the Chinese arts, for that matter - internal and external) rarely extends past the length of your arm.  I like the idea of this "double technique" reminding us of this very important fact.
The "elbow to sideways chop" sequence

For the combination comprising the elbow strike, forwards uraken and downward sweeping deflection, I've decided to pretty much keep the sequence exactly as it is in gekisai.

The difference is that I have elected to use a "shuffle up" between the elbow landing and the uraken/gedan barai.

This is in keeping with xingyi's use of "falling momentum": it stops you being over-committed in forward stance (zenkutsu/gong bu) as you land your elbow strike.  Put another way, it enables you to recover from that position with relative ease.

It is worth noting that it is only here that I would advocate the use (in a very transitional way!) of xingyi's "san ti" or "zhan bu" stance.  While the stance is typically very difficult to learn, karate students will find themselves passing through the position very naturally in this context - without having to "rewire their brains" in the process!

The shuffle-up also adds forwards momentum to the otherwise weak uraken.  Last, the shuffle up into the "xingyi stance" permits a further lunging step with the reverse punch.

This adds momentum flow to an otherwise "flat-footed" segment of the original kata.

There is no need for a further "xingyi stance" to be effected after the reverse punch as (fortuitously) the next move is a 180° turn.  Accordingly you can use what would have been the "shuffle up" to power the turn, stamp and reverse chop.

The chop is basically identical to the gekisai performance.  The only thing to note is, again, which foot moves after the stamp.

If you look at the adjacent series of images, you will note that as you turn and stamp, your weight lands on your front foot.  Consistent with the internal arts principle of "preservation of momentum" your weight is then transferred from your back foot, which is free to move.  Accordingly you should step forward with your rear foot.

In fact, this is precisely what happens in gekisai: the only difference is that a chest deflection is effected with the leading arm, where in my hybrid form you should effect the deflection with the reverse arm.

The closing sequence: tiger mouth in cat stance

The closing sequences cover an issue that I've previously discussed in the my article "The enigma of tiger mouth in cat stance".

As noted in that article, the only way I've been able to make sense of this technique has been by reference to the internal arts.  The "tiger mouth" push ("tora guchi" in Japanese) is commonly effected while stationary in cat stance - but this has very limited function, if any.

To my mind, the only logical way to interpret this technique is in the context of movement - where you are using your body to drive the tora guch into the opponent (either as a push or, more probably, as a strike).

The most important thing to note with this technique is that the hands should be pushed with the whole body - landing on the "target" at the same time as the front foot does.  This is vintage xingyi (in that art the strike always lands with the front foot).

The second thing to note is that, as with so many other "aggressive" forwards moving internal techniques, you don't want to be over-committed: so once again, your back foot should shuffle up behind.

This leaves you finishing with a textbook "tiger mouth in cat stance" - as per gekisai.  How you got there is however different.

Lest this seem too radical a departure from the standard gekisai, consider that the kata already has all these movements in it, albeit in "stem cell" form:

As the adjacent images show, geki sai dai ni splits the footwork from the push.  But both elements are still there.  I've already noted the finished position above (which the kata "cuts straight to").  However the push with the front foot is also manifestly present:

You'll note that after the first "tiger mouth in cat stance", the kata orients you to do an off line movement.  You then lunge forwards and pivot around.  Only then do you do the mawashi uke (roundhouse deflection) and the tora guchi.  But the fact remains that the push occurs in a lunging forward stance - one that is quickly shortened to a cat stance.

But does the tora guchi always have to be performed forwards?  Surely there are some instances where it is useful to push while moving onto your back foot?

Indeed, I think there are.  That is precisely where the kata's "stem cell" approach becomes evident: I believe that the presence of tiger mouth in cat stance was intended to enapsulate two different types of pushes - one forwards and one backwards.

This distinction is seen in xingyiquan where techniques are also fired either while moving forwards or while moving backwards - with a different stepping pattern.

Essentially, if you move forwards, your strike should be timed to land with your front foot.

If you move backwards your strike should be timed to land... with your front leg (ie. your front leg moving back)!

I shall be examining this issue further in future articles - particularly in relation to xingyi.  For now, it is sufficient to note that this rather simple algorithm makes perfect sense in terms of physics and biomechanics; it is geared at driving the full force of your body behind a technique - either to thrust while advancing or to thrust while retreating.

Conclusion

If you've made it to the end of this article, then I hope that you've actually gained something from my efforts.  Because this project is one that is/was very important to me - and was undertaken with a great deal of passion and energy over at least a decade.

It has been my goal to render more accessible to external martial artists the principles of the internal arts of taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan.  I have chosen to do so by reference to what is (arguably) still the most popular traditional external martial art world-wide: karate.  Accordingly I've tried to stick to the "language" of karate - both in terminology but, more importantly, in terms of technique and movement.

The net result is, to some extent, still a work in progress and possibly always will be.  I also lament the fact that my own performance does not (I fear) do the concept as much justice as I would like.

Nonetheless, looking at the form I have created - "jisui" - I am left with a quiet sense of satisfaction.  Despite my failings as a kata designer and kata performer, I believe I have still gone some way to achieving my goal: a very dynamic form that captures the whole body power and flow of the internal arts while retaining the structure and "kime" of karate.

So what does "jisui" mean? 撃砕 (ji1 sui4) means "to defeat by smashing".  It is just the Mandarin pronunciation of "geki sai".

It is important to note that my form is not intended to be a "new and improved" version of gekisai.  It is not in any sense meant to "replace" the traditional forms.  Rather it is an extension - an extrapolation or exploration of the concept into new territory.

To quote Hinori Otsuka (founder of the style of Wado Ryu karate) once more:10
"It is obvious that these kata must be trained and practised sufficiently, but one must not be 'stuck' in them. One must withdraw from the kata to produce forms with no limits or else it becomes useless. It is important to alter the form of the trained kata without hesitation to produce countless other forms of training."
The traditional gekisai kata of Chojun Miyagi remain favorites of mine: their elegance, effectiveness, simplicity and sheer genius are the precise reasons I chose them as my template.  The fact that I've played with that template doesn't mean that I have tried to make it "better".  Instead I've tried to add something that is both new and (hopefully) of value.

For those who are interested in trying to learn the form, a breakdown and discussion can be found in this longer video:

A count-by-count breakdown and discussion of jisui

Footnotes:
  1. In my opinion the fact that the first block in gekisai (like most karate kata) occurs after off line movement (and not during it) is what permits (perhaps encourages) many karateka to use the hips or "sine wave" to add "power" to a technique that is not a "power strike" but rather a "soft block" (ie. a parry, deflection or redirection).  This in turn encourages the idea that blocks were meant to be "hard", or that they are "strikes in disguise" etc.  Their dominant purpose is largely forgotten the further the block is divorced from the subsequent counter.  And the "power" of the hip or "sine wave" (which has been artificially and unnecessarily inserted before the block) must then be repeated for that counter.
  2. The lack of useful connectivity in karate kata is only compounded by the fact that many external martial artists go even farther down the road of "disconnection" - whether with "power generation" strategies such as "hip wiggling" or "sine wave" or simply by way of artificial pauses "for effect".  And this takes karate techniques farther and farther from being able to be applied (prompting derision from combat sports practitioners and so-called "reality based" systems, etc.)!
  3. No small wonder then that so many karateka have decided themselves that "blocks don't work" - or revised their meaning with the mantra: "blocks are strikes in disguise" (or "locks, throws etc.in disguise" - anything but "blocks"!).
  4. The internal arts principle I call "preservation of momentum" is usually (I believe erroneously) called the "rule against double weighting".  Essentially I believe the principle is less about not having your weight distributed evenly over both feet than it is having your weight constantly moving from one foot to the other - ie. not being caught "flat footed".
  5. But what of "dead time"?  Are you not still performing a "natural step" in my "internal" method of doing gekisai's opening sequence?  Indeed, you are.  I didn't mean to imply that natural steps should be avoided completely.  In fact, they cannot be avoided.  Sooner or later every fighter will find one foot passing the other.  The trick is to minimize the use of natural stepping - and to maintain momentum once you've accelerated. In this case, the initial "drop" into the offline position provides you with instant acceleration, and you maintain your momentum flow from there.
  6. My decision to insert into my hybrid form the sequence known as "fair lady works at shuttles", "pao quan" or the bagua equivalent arose out of the development of my "interim forms", illustrating the function those forms played in developing my final result.
  7. There is a common misconception in the internal arts that one should not "raise the shoulder girdle" with rising block (jodan/age uke) as is done in karate.  I dispel this myth here.
  8.  Xingyi, like karate, moves straight forward much of the time, but a slight off line movement is clearly implied, to be executed to the smallest degree necessary.
  9. If you want to practise two versions, as per gekisai dai ichi and ni, one can be done with closed fists for the chest-level blocks and counters and in the closing sequence, while the other can be done the way I demonstrate the form.
  10. "Wado-ryu karate" by Hironori Otsuka Rising Sun Productions 1997 ISBN: 0-920129-18-8

  11. My taijiquan version of gekisai and some discussion about its development

  12. My baguazhang version of gekisai and some discussion about its development

  13. My xingyiquan version of gekisai and some discussion about its development
Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, March 17, 2013

How the internal arts work: Part 2 - Taijiquan

Taijiquan’s "continuing momentum"

In Part 1 of this article I discussed the internal arts principle of "preservation of momentum" - ie. converting a fully extended or expanded position into something else. In that Part, I discussed how each of the internal arts has its own principle1 or preferred method of doing this.

“Continuing momentum” is my name for taiji’s method. What is this?

Essentially it involves beginning a retraction at the very moment you reach full extension and vice versa.

That might sound easy enough. But if you simply “back pedal” after missing a committed haymaker, you will probably be simply reversing momentum - not continuing it.  In that circumstance you might well find yourself smack in the middle of your opponent’s counter. If anything, your opponent is relying upon your back pedal (as a predictable, untrained response).

So how does taiji address this issue?  The answer lies in 5 different, but equally important elements:

Element 1: techniques grooved to prevent over-commitment

First, taiji techniques are carefully grooved so that you never over-commit2 (in the way a haymaker or a swinging roundhouse kick might miss its target, causing you to overbalance or have to do a full turn).

In this respect taiji is not really any different from any other traditional martial art: it stops its techniques at a pre-determined point. This is consistent generally with the conservative nature of traditional civilian defence arts.

But while a committed reverse punch doesn’t cause you to be overbalanced like a missed haymaker or swinging roundhouse kick, it still leaves you at your maximum extension. How does taiji deal with this issue?

It does so via the second element set out below.

Element 2: retraction or extension grooved to minimize your openings and exploit your opponent’s

The second element is the one most relevant to the “internal” paradigm. Essentially it comprises the following: Taijiquan is very, very careful about how the retraction or extension is effected. Specifically it does the following:
  1. For starters, the retraction from the full extension is practised so that it happens reflexively; there is no hesitation or pause at the point of full extension. Rather, you start moving back after exhausting your forward momentum almost as if you “rebounded” off an elastic surface.3
    By practising the taiji form continuously over a period of time, your body eventually “grooves” an automatic response – a situational reflex – to begin that “rebound” the moment the full extension position is achieved. In this way there is no delay or hesitation for your opponent to exploit. Rather, your movement is as automatic and as fast as possible.
  2. Next, taiji is very, very careful in ensuring every available “back up” to support a safe retraction. This means the angle of the retraction from a particular position has been carefully chosen to facilitate an evasion in line with the unavoidable “late initiative” occasioned by the surprise of your strike not landing. Finally, the arms move into optimal positions to avoid the relevant/possible follow-up blows.
  3. Last, the retraction sets you up (via positioning of the feet, hands and body generally) into another optimal position for a counter. If your opponent is untrained enough to simply follow you down the path of your retraction, he or she will have a nasty surprise; he/she will have been set up for a counter, delivered with the full momentum of your body which, having retracted fully, is now coiled up with potential energy. As with the commencement of the retraction, the extension is grooved to happen automatically as a situational reflex. It happens like a trampoline bounce – with no thought required.3
Another way of looking at it is that the "retraction" isn't a mere "reversal of momentum" but is instead part of a "loop" - albeit a very subtle one: an action that appears linear but which is in fact subtly elliptical - so that your flow of flow of momentum is never interrupted (see the photographs of the "brush knee" sequence below).

At the end of the "brush knee" extension, taiji has your body retract back from the committed palm strike by converting the forward moment into an elliptical curving parry (which simultaneously loads you up for another counter).

Element 3 is best understood by reference to the following video (set to start at the right point):


Element 3: optimum use of pivot points

It is important to note that at all times during a retraction and extension, taiji is careful to maximise the flow of momentum through the correct use of pivot points. Clearly where and when you pivot can have a different lever effect, either magnifying an extension or a withdrawal.

I have examined this issue thoroughly in my article "A pivotal question" so I won't cover the same ground again.  For now it is enough to note that this is one of the other important variables in the set up of an efficient transfer of momentum because it:
  • minimizes time spent in retracting/turning; and
  • maximizes the efficiency and effectiveness of the retraction/turn; and
  • maximizes the force applied to any technique coming out of the retraction/turn.
Element 4: training for sensitivity

As I discussed in my article "Push hands or "listening hands" - what it's all about", the internal arts, in particular taijiquan, place a lot of emphasis on sensitivity training. This is generally done through the medium of "push hands" (or "listening hands" as my teacher likes to call it).

The general principle is that you set up a rhythmic pattern of movement with a partner, cycling through particular movements that are themselves the basis of effective techniques.




In taiji such movements often comprise peng, lu, ji and an (ward off, roll back, press and push). You set up a rhythm, then one side abruptly and without warning breaks it so to apply a technique (starting with a push, pull, throw or other projection). The other side should try to sense the change in movement and respond appropriately.


It is important to note that in order to achieve this sensitivity, one needs to be soft and relaxed.  As I discussed in my article "Push hands or "listening hands" - what it's all about", the more relaxed you are, the more sensitive you are to your opponent's movement.

Element 5: relaxed, flowing movement

So we come to what is probably taijiquan's "defining element": relaxed, flowing movement.  It might be said that this alone sets taiji apart from almost every other martial art.4  In fact, one could go so far as to say that you can forget the other elements - that this is the only one that really matters in taiji.  Because, to some extent (as I noted above) the other elements depend on this last one in order to work (or at least, make enough of a difference!).

What is "relaxed movement"?  Essentially this means moving with as little resistance as possible.

Now some resistance via antagonist muscles is not only inevitable - it is necessary!  You need some resistance to work against in order to propel yourself into motion in the first place.

But having unnecessary muscles firing is like driving with brakes on.5 Clearly, this is inefficient and undesirable for any physical discipline, never mind martial arts where efficiency can make all the difference.

Most of us could stand improvement in this regard.  In fact, the "harder" we try to punch, the more we tend to "muscle" things inadvertently - firing muscles unrelated to the task.

And taiji is supremely suited to teaching this.  I've had many students come to taiji over the years from a practical or full contact environment purely because they wanted to learn to relax more in their movement.

Yes, some styles (eg. Chen) have some explosive "fajin" in certain movements.  But otherwise, taiji is overwhelmingly an art of slow, soft, relaxed movement.  It can be practised hard and fast - for sure.  It should be applied in a combat way, if you're looking at practical application.  But in the main, you don't do the movements fast or "hard" until you've acquired the "softness" of perfect movement - movement that features as little of your own resistance as possible.

I've dealt with "flowing" movement in many articles, in particular "The importance of flow", so I won't cover it again except to say that connectivity of techniques and the transition from "posture" to "posture" is really the key to understanding how taiji (as well as the other internal arts) use "relaxed movement" to "preserve momentum".

Accordingly my discussion of "flow" brings me "full circle": back to the core issue of what I call taiji's "continuing momentum".

Brush knee: an example of taiji’s continuing momentum

The best way to describe taiji’s “continuing momentum” approach is not to talk about it in general terms but to examine a particular example, which is what I intend to right now in the form of one of taiji’s most common sequences, namely that which is known as “brush knee”.

"Brush knee" - see points 1 and 2 below
  1. You will see from the above images that brush knee involves an initial retraction. That retraction takes you back into cat stance and it is evident that here you have reached the point of furthest retraction; you can’t retreat any further. In order to safeguard this extreme, the retraction is accompanied by a downward sweeping deflection.
  2. Your body then extends forward as your downward deflection sweeps around your knee (the "brush knee"), pushing you into a forward stance ("gong bu" - "zenkutsu dachi" in Japanese) which powers a palm heel thrust with your reverse arm.  This continues until you reach your maximum extension.
  3. Then, as you complete that forward extension, your body retracts (almost as if you had rebounded off a trampoline) and your weight is draw back to your rear leg.  At same time, your arm that was engaged in the palm heel thrust converts to parry any counter to the side in a circular movement that works in sympathy with the retracted bodyweight.
  4. Having exhausted the momentum shift backward, your bodyweight then extends forwards again in a way that wedges you sideways, slipping any attack with both the body and the downward deflection referred to in point 1 above - and the sequence is repeated.
"Brush knee" - see points 3 and 4 above

Conclusion

Taijiquan's effectiveness is based almost entirely upon efficiency: a flow of momentum that features as little resistance as possible.  This is designed to enable the practitioner to transfer more of his or her momentum into the target as applied force - not lose momentum to extraneous or unproductive movement.

This is what enables a smaller, weaker person from being able to match a larger, stronger, heavier opponent: making the most of what you have - by throwing as much of your momentum into both your attack and defence as possible and by doing so in a way that is still conservative enough for the purposes of civilian defence.

Coming soon: 
How the internal arts work: Part 3 - Baguazhang 
How the internal arts work: Part 4 - Xingyiquan

Footnotes:
  1. It is important to remember that each of the internal arts uses the mechanics of the others (to varying extents). My observation that a particular mechanics are “preferred” by one art is not intended to convey any sort of exclusivity. Rather it is just my attempt to classify the main identifying characteristics of each internal art.
  2. "Over commitment" does not mean "no commitment". Clearly there will be times where you are falling forward into a technique. It is what happens after you land your technique that determines whether you have "over committed" or not. If, after you finish your technique you are in a compromising situation, then you are "over committed." However if you are in a position to recover and deal with other threats, then you are not.
  3. It’s a bit like bouncing on a trampoline: at the highest point and lowest point your body briefly comes to a stop. When you are “stopped” you have to accelerate back to full speed in order to generate any momentum (and hence any force) behind a blow. And, from a defence perspective, you also become a “sitting duck” target; your opponent might already moving at speed, while you are stationary. This means you have to “find time” to accelerate out of the way.
    The difference, however, between a trampoline and reaching the end of your extension or retraction in a martial context is that with the trampoline you have an automatic impetus to reverse direction: At the top of your jump, gravity will pull you down. At the bottom, the elastic surface of the trampoline will start to propel you up. In the case of an extension or retraction (eg. a committed punch) there is no such “automatic” impetus. This is something the internal arts specifically seek to overcome with an appropriately grooved situational reflex – see under the heading “Taijiquan’s preferred approach: continuing momentum”.
  4. Taijiquan is one of the few martial arts where such a high premium is placed on relaxed movement.  In every other system (with the exception of, say, liu he ba fa - see below) some element of "muscling" is at least tolerated, if not encouraged, from time to time. Not so with taiji.  Again, it is important to note that the other internal arts of baguazhang and xingyiquan share the element of flow - it is just that taijiquan emphasizes it just a little more.
    Arguably only liu he ba fa emphasizes flow just as much as taijiquan does - see Helen Liang's form below:



  5. I have previously written extensively about the "power" inherent in only firing the muscles that need to be fired.  For example, note my article on "Chi/ki tests" (which rely very much on this principle), my article "A fistful of details" where I discussed (among other things) "tight fist, loose wrist" (ie. selective tensing of certain muscles to permit flexibility in the wrist, yet a solid striking surface in the fist) and, more generally, my articles on "Shaking, extraneous movement and inefficient technique" and "It's all about technique".
Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, March 15, 2013

Misuse of Australian and UK statistics in the US gun control debate

Introduction

I wasn't going to write any more concerning gun control, but a friend posted a link on my Facebook page to a blog featuring the dreadful video below:



The blogger asks: "What happened to gun control successes in Australia?" My Facebook friend wanted me to respond and, so to avoid having to repeat it elsewhere, I thought I'd deal with here in a comprehensive way.

And at least this time I can't be accused of "meddling in US issues" - because the statistics being misused here are not US ones but rather those of my own country and of the UK!

So let's examine what this video actually shows:

Some US network (Fox, I imagine?) reporter asks a few very disgruntled gun owners in Australia about the 1996 gun restrictions, then quotes some Australian crime "statistics" to establish a "link" between these restrictions and the general increase in crime rate in Australia.

What's wrong with that?

Well I'll say this: The video is titled "Watch and Weep" and that is precisely what I felt like doing - not because Australia has "lost the plot" with its gun laws, but because a "news report" that is so:

  • poorly researched; or
  • deliberately dishonest,
(take your pick) can be passed off in the US today as "journalism". It is nothing of the sort as I will now detail. In fact, it has all the journalistic credibility of a rant by Alex Jones.

Correlation? Causation?

It is true that in the past 2-3 decades Australia has had some increase in rates of "violent crime" (more on what that means – and how that meaning differs in various countries – in a moment). But the suggestion that the 1996 restrictions have any connection with that increase is, frankly, laughable.

For a start, as you can see from the adjacent graph, the rate of violent crime was already rising before 1996 – at pretty much the same rate it rose after that year. So attributing the rate of increase in violent crime to something in 1996 is totally without foundation even in the sense of a mere correlation.

But this observation misses a much bigger point: even if there were a correlation between the 1996 Australian gun restrictions and a rise in violent crime, we would need much more than this to establish causation. Put simply, correlation ≠ causation. You need something more than mere correlation to suggest causation.

Okay, I know that some people (like the makers of the above video) probably can't grasp such a "sophisticated" concept. So I'd ask them imagine this:

What if, for example, 1996 had also marked the start of a new trend in society – say a new fashion in haircuts or clothes, or the use of file sharing or social networks on the internet? Would they say that a rise in violent crime from 1996 might be attributable to such a trend?

"Of course not," would be their answer. "We're not talking about something so unrelated. We're talking about guns! You've taken them away, and now people can't protect themselves. Surely the connection is rather obvious?"

I'm afraid it isn't. You see, scientific analysis doesn't rely upon "feelings" about things "being obvious". Rather, it relies on observation and data. And it is important to note that those who study criminal statistics in a rigorously scientific way – in particular the researchers at our Australian Institute of Criminology – haven't even suggested a link between the Australian gun restrictions in 1996 and the increase in violent crime statistics from that time (and before!) to the present.

Why not?

Because, apart from the general observation that some crime rates (including those for violent crime – but notably not homicide) have been rising from the time of (and before) the 1996 restrictions, there is nothing – I repeat nothing – to suggest that we should be looking at those restrictions as a potential "cause".

Now, researchers at the Australian Institute of Criminology have some ideas about the factors contributing to the increase in our rates of violent crime – but gun restriction isn't one of them.1 (I'll let you read through just one of their reports here. You'll note that they don't mention guns except to note that gun-related homicides have declined.)

Factors explaining the rise in "violent crime" rates in Australia

So what sorts of factors might underlie the increase in rates of violent crime in Australia? Well, for starters, things like changes in the rates of reporting. For example, you'll note that rates of reporting of sexual assault against young children have increased – probably as a consequence of both more effective policing and greater awareness of such crimes in the community. Greater reporting = higher statistics for sexual assault – even if the actual incidence of such crime remains largely unchanged.

As a legislative drafter, former prosecutor and former student of criminology, I am also aware of the changes in definition for various crimes over the past 2 decades – both in legislative and statistical terms. So comparing data from one decade to another can be quite problematic and potentially misleading unless one probes a bit deeper.

Other general factors not dealt with in the above report, but commonly considered by criminologists in attempting to understand trends in criminal statistics, include things like abrupt increases in population density, changes in societal homogeneity, economic factors, cultural aspirations, political upheaval and other social changes (including statistical "spikes" due to things like riots).

Why criminologists don't even think of attributing causation to the 1996 restrictions

I know what the people behind the opening video might say in response: "But why aren't the criminologists investigating whether there is a link between the gun restrictions and the rise in violent crime?"

Well, I suppose they might. But there would first need to be some good reason to do so – at least some logical impetus for such a hypothesis.

For example, if it were the case that:

  1. Australia had (by international standards) high rates of private gun ownership; and
  2. data existed to support the proposition that those guns were being used to deter crime; and
  3. a high percentage of those guns had been confiscated,
this would provide a good reason to examine the link between that confiscation and any rise in crime statistics.

But this is very far from the case.

First, Australia has (before and after 1996) always had a very low rate of gun ownership by international standards (in 2007 we had a rate of 15 per capita, where the US had 88.8). This makes the role of guns in relation to crime deterrence a very small one at best.

And we can be even more certain that our 1996 restrictions had absolutely no statistical impact on Australian crime rates since the guns subject of the restriction (ie. high capacity, semi-automatic rifles) comprised only a very small precentage of the already low number of guns privately owned in Australia.

Not only that, but it is worth noting that these restricted firearms were never likely to be used in self-defence anyway, nor was there ever any sense of fear in criminals that these guns would be used in self-defence by home owners or store-keepers. This is because these firearms (as rare as they used to be in private hands!) were also required to be stored unloaded in locked cabinets, with ammunition stored in other locked cabinets.

Furthermore, no one has ever been allowed to "carry" such firearms here, nor has any store-keeper ever been allowed to keep one at work etc. for "self-defence".

So the notion that restricting them has led to a "crime wave" is borne out neither by the statistics nor logic.

Problems with comparing international "violent crime" statistics

That should really be the end of the matter in terms of showing that there is no reason to suppose that the 1996 restrictions played a role in any "rise in violent crime" from the 90s to the present. But I know that many will persist in arguing that they still comprise evidence that "more guns = a safer society". I've heard this argument from a number of people, notably Alex Jones in his "debate" with Piers Morgan.



I know a lot of folks find Alex Jones' arguments persuasive. Emotively, I suppose can see why. But logically they hold as much water as a colander. Let me explain:

Essentially Jones is making the same sort of mistake as the first video makes: he's citing "statistics" for violent crime from another country (the UK), noting a "correlation" with firearm restrictions in the mid-90s, and imagining a causal link between them. All without any basis; when no criminologist has even postulated such a link.2

But in order to satisfy some people who still think Jones has a point, I know that I will have to dig a bit deeper to establish exactly why his argument is a nonsense.

Comparing "apples with apples": international comparisons

Most significantly, when analysing crime statistics, you need to compare "apples with apples" – and preferably apples of the same sort. The closer the compared data, the more meaningful the comparison. The greater the difference in your compared data and the more your conclusions will become strained, if not completely untenable. And the latter increases exponentially the greater the difference in data.

So you really should not be comparing Granny Smith apples with the Pink Lady variety – never mind with oranges. And certainly not with potatoes, giraffes or air conditioners. To get any sort of meaningful comparison, you need your data to match very closely indeed.

I say this because we're all familiar with the common refrain from the gun lobby that the US doesn't have very bad rates of violent crime in international terms. And sure, it doesn't: not when compared with, say, South Africa, Colombia, Estonia, Brazil, Mexico, Philippines or even Taiwan. As this site notes, the non-gun murder rate of each of the latter three is in excess of the total US murder rate (ie. gun and non-gun!).

But here we're starting to compare apples with something else entirely. Because, as any criminologist will tell you, culture plays a huge role in criminal statistics – a role so huge that it can render any attempted comparison meaningless. There is simply too much data – social, economic and political – muddying the water.

If you doubt me, take a trip through China, Japan and South East Asia and try to find examples of graffiti (I thought I saw one in Taiwan but it turned out to be a builder's mark). Then take a trip through any of our Western nations and note the difference.

Why don't young people in the Far East do graffiti? The answer has nothing to do with higher penalties or better policing. The people there just don't tend to do it. Their culture is different.

Okay, so when it comes to violent crime, to what countries should the US be compared? Clearly other Anglo-Celtic nations would provide the closest "match": Canada, Australia, New Zealand the UK.3

Comparing "apples with apples": comparison of "violent crime" statistics

"Aha!" I hear some people cry. "That's why Alex Jones has compared the US to the UK. And the video at the start compares the US to Australia. Gotcha!"

They might then cite the above graph (from this report of the Australian Institute of Criminology) as "proof" of their claims.

I have to admit, that graph certainly looks alarming. But once again, you have to start looking a bit deeper.

First, what are we comparing here? Apples with apples? Or is it apples with oranges? Or potatoes etc.?

"Don't be stupid!" is the inevitable response. "You've asked for a comparison of similar countries didn't you? And violent crime is violent crime!"

Except it isn't. As Wikipedia will tell you: "The comparison of violent crime statistics between countries is problematic. Valid comparisons require that similar offences between jurisdictions be compared. Often this is not possible because crime statistics aggregate equivalent offences in such different ways that make it difficult or impossible to obtain a valid comparison."4

You see, in the US the only "assault" covered by "violent crime" is "aggravated assault". In Australia and the UK, the term also covers "common assault" which includes such things as a fight between two men/women in a bar or outside nightclub (whether a full blown punch-up or even just bit of "push and shove"), a domestic assault, sport hooliganism and even an unauthorized medical procedure.4

Similarly, in terms of sexual assault the US definition of "violent crime" only covers "forcible rape". The Australian and UK examples cover many other forms of sexual assault where consent is absent but no physical force is actually used (at least not of the kind people commonly associate with that term), eg. raping someone who is unconscious due to drink or drugs.4

For that matter, the Australian and UK definition of "violent crime" would cover "groping" (ie. "indecent assault" – what the Japanese call "chikan") where the US definition would not.

If you pause to consider how the inclusion of "non-aggravated" and "non-forcible" assaults dramatically increases the figures, you'll appreciate just how ignorant and simplistic – indeed laughable – arguments such as Alex Jones' actually are.

But it only gets worse for people like Jones. If you read the Australian Institute of Criminology report from which the above graph was taken you'll note that the apparent spike in "violent crime" in the UK is actually an artefact of the data.

The report states that the "increase is largely the direct result of major changes to the way crime data are recorded in England and Wales. First in 1998 and then again in 2002, amendments were introduced to include a broader range of offences, to promote greater consistency, and to take a more victim-led approach where alleged offences were recorded as well as evidence-based ones."5

Indeed, as Chris Smith points out in his blog, an examination of data from the British Crime Survey actually reveals that violent crime has been decreasing in the UK from 1996 – and quite significantly so (see the above graph).6

Meaningful comparisons

Okay, so we can't use "violent crime" for the purposes of a meaningful international comparison. What can we compare? Well how about "apples with apples" – comparing, say, murder rates with murder rates. That would be a start.

When we do that, the picture changes drastically from that suggested by the opening video, Alex Jones and various others in the gun lobby. In comparison to the other Anglo-Celtic nations, the US goes from having the lowest rates to having the highest.

Consider the above graph. A quick glance will confirm that the US murder rates are at least 4 times higher than those in the UK and almost 5 times higher than those in Australia.

Does this show that higher rates of gun ownership in the US are responsible for this difference? Far from it! Unlike the gun lobby, I'm not going to note a mere correlation and suggest necessary causation (even if the correlation in this case is real, unlike the illusory correlations upon which Alex Jones and others try to rely!).

No, in order to examine the effect of guns (and gun control) on crime, the only statistics worth examining are those that actually relate to guns! In every other case the "firearm data" simply cannot be separated from other data.

Consider for a moment that if you compare rape statistics to get a picture of the effect of gun ownership or gun control on rape, somehow you have to filter out all those rapes in which guns did not play (and/or could not have played) any role – either in offence or defence. Date rapes would, for example, be one example. Rapes of minors would be another.

In fact, as a prosecutor I noted that very few rapes actually involved the use of a firearm by the perpetrator. And very few involved cases where the victim was realistically likely to be have or use a firearm – even assuming a "gun culture". The "criminal breaks down your front door while the woman waits with her glock" scenario might reflect how we think (or want to think) violence plays out in society. But in fact, violence mostly follows a far less "scripted" pattern that this.

Gun-related homicide statistics: the only ones capable of meaningful comparison in the gun control debate

Okay, so what "apple with apple" gun-related crime statistics do we in fact have? Really, for international comparison there is only one:

Gun-related homicide.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why Piers Morgan was trying to bring attention to the fact that in 2012 the number of gun deaths:

  • in the US, was than 11,000;
  • in the UK, was a mere 39.
(See this report.)

He wasn't trying to force some little "factoid" onto Jones. He was citing the only criminal statistic one can relevantly and reliably cite in relation to the gun control debate.

It might not prove that "more guns = more crime". But it does go some way to establishing that "more guns = more gun-related homicide"!

In this regard, the 2012 figures are particularly interesting since they reflect trends that are even more damning of Jones' argument: the US figure was up from 2010 (when the US had a total of "only" 8,775 gun homicides) while the UK figure was down from 58 (see this report). In other words, in terms of gun-related homicides, the picture in the US appears to be worsening. The picture in the UK seems to be improving.

Whether or not an increase in gun-related homicide is off-set in the US by an decrease in the total number of homicides is another matter. I very much doubt that is the case from a comparison of the overall murder rates mentioned previously. However I also acknowledge that as we move away from gun-related to overall statistics, the conclusions we can reach relating to guns start to become a bit more tenuous (albeit still a darn sight more solid than any conclusions reached by Alex Jones!).

Conclusion

Analysis of crime statistics is not something that can be done superficially and unscientifically. And mere correlations are not indicative of causation.

Instead, to get any meaningful comparison, one must evaluate the data carefully to see first whether there is even a correlation in the data.

Once you have established a correlation, you need to make sure you're comparing apples with apples – not apples with something else. This involves removing from the equation such issues as varying rates of reporting, changes in definition, societal upheaval etc.

For international comparisons, this involves picking countries that are substantially similar in cultural, social, economic and political terms. Then you need to examine only that data that is directly relevant to your study.

When the gun lobby and its supporters try to appropriate Australian and UK statistics, they do none of this:

Their attempted comparisons of Australian and UK vs. US "violent crime" statistics ignore very large (indeed, insurmountable) definitional, logistical, social, economic and political factors that might be at play.

Accordingly if you want to examine the effect of gun ownership or gun control on crime levels by reference to international statistics, you need to look at those statistics that are comparable and to which guns are directly and unambiguously related. In this case, criminologists the world over have only ever been able to agree on one set: those pertaining to gun-related homicide.

A comparison of these figures does not flatter US gun policy at all.

Footnotes:

1. In fact, it is hard for criminologists to point to any effect at all from the 1996 restrictions – good or bad – on broader criminal statistics. That is because it is very hard to divorce social, economic, political data from that pertaining to the restriction of a discreet class of firearms.

2. Alex Jones would probably argue that the criminologists, like most of the media, are part of some sort of "conspiracy" to cover up the truth. I won't bother addressing such blatant nonsense, except to say that scientists (including social scientists like criminologists) aren't being dictated to by anyone – never mind some sort of leftist "conspiracy".

3. It is important to note that the UK has a far older European culture than, say, the "frontier" cultures of the former colonies. And it is worth noting again that New Zealand's culture is closer in some respects to the UK's than it is to Australia's. These sorts of things have to be kept in the back of the mind when making any comparison between these countries and the US.

4. See the Wikipedia entry on Violent crime.

5. See this report of the Australian Institute of Criminology.

6. See also this report.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, March 4, 2013

Wanting more

Introduction

In my article "Banishing self-doubt" I discussed the importance of positive thinking. Yet we all know how hard it can be to attain (and maintain!) such a state of mind. How many of us feel a quiet sense of achievement and contentment in our lives (martial and otherwise!)?

Not enough, I suspect!

On the other hand, how many feel only a growing sense of despondency whenever we look in the mirror (metaphorical or literal)? I don't really have to answer that, now do I?

So in this article I want to deal more squarely with this:

What is it that keeps negativity at the fore of most people's minds (and positive thinking at the rear)? Why do so many people think so poorly about themselves that it is actually at complete odds with reality?1

Why do so many people seek reinforcement from motivational speeches, self-help books, sacred texts, counsellors, friends and family – even memes – but mostly to little or no avail? And what can we do to improve this situation?2

Is much of this to be blamed simply on wanting more - and, if so, what can we do about it?

Dissatisfaction and the human condition

In my observation the bulk of our "negativity" seems to come from a dissatisfaction with our status quo. To quote Henry Thoreau: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

Ironically, this can happen even to wealthy, good looking and talented people, as a quick glance at the celebrity gossip columns will reveal. It seems that whatever we might have, we end up wanting more.

As Aldous Huxley wrote, this is very likely attributable to:

"the sorrow inherent in the human condition, the price we must pay for being sentient and self-conscious organisms, aspirants to liberation, but subject to the laws of nature and under orders to keep on marching, through irreversible time, through a world wholly indifferent to our well-being, toward decrepitude and the certainty of death."

Desire as the root of our discontent

In this context it is unsurprising that traditional wisdom puts the blame for negativity (and hence, unhappiness) squarely at the feet of desire.

If you read Eastern philosophy – in particular Buddhist literature and the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing) – you get the same message time and time again: abandon desire and you will find "happiness". (I've appended a quote from Lao Tzu along these lines but there are many more like it.)

As a Daoist (philosophically speaking), I happen to adhere very strongly to this ideal: it makes intuitive sense to me on many levels. And yet I am also acutely aware that the philosophy is difficult (if not impossible) for most of us to implement on a daily level. The most obvious problem is this:

It flies in the face of modern life.

Yes, it appears that many who eschew the our present societal ideals appear to find a greater contentment than those who follow them. For example, see my articles "Memories of Taiwan: encounters with spirituality" and "Memories of Taiwan: synchronicity".

As I note in the above articles, Buddhist monks in particular seem to be able to use meditation to eliminate desire – and find "happiness" in the process. And this is confirmed by more than just anecdotal account, as you will note from this report and the video below taken from that report:



Desire is not a dirty word

But in the end there is something deeply unsatisfying on an intellectual level about the notion of "eliminating desire". I think this is because at the root of our consciousness is the realisation that we can't all be Buddhist monks.

Someone has to grow and harvest crops. Someone has to make tools, products, buildings etc. Someone has to care for, and heal, the sick and injured. Someone has to do all the myriad things upon which we depend in an complex, cooperative society.

Moreover, to run such a society (especially in a rapidly changing world with a growing population and threatened environment), someone has to make new discoveries – and do so all the time (in technology, medicine or otherwise).

Leaving aside physical necessity, someone has to enthuse, entertain and inspire us - through works of wisdom, art (painting, sculpture, writing, music, performance) and other areas of achievement.

In other words, people need to create. They need to excel. Both are fuelled by passion. And passion is, of course, nothing if not a kind of desire.

So how can one "square" the preceding observations? We're told (on good authority) that desire is the root of all our discontent. On the other, we know only too well how desire can compel us to great heights. Is there some "middle ground"?

You will recall that I previously discussed that it was possible to reconcile a kind of "positive thought" with "skeptical thought"; well, I believe it is possible to do much the same with "desire" and "contentment".

"Being thankful" vs appreciating what you have

Many people in the West have been raised on a Protestant work ethic that esteems enterprise. Being "ambitious" to "succeed" is regarded as a desirable, even noble, trait.

In many respects, I don't disagree.

But while it is tempting to ascribe "abandoning desire" to some modern "hippy" take on Eastern mysticism, it is worth remembering that this concept is also an element (albeit a rather conflicting one) of the Christian philosophy that underpins most of modern Western society.

Remember that Christianity (like the other Abrahamic religions) has a strong culture of "being thankful" (eg: saying "Grace" before a meal). Even we atheists who come from a Christian background will speak in those terms. We will "count our blessings" and "thank God" for any number of good things in our lives.

Whenever we find ourselves complaining about our home, our car, our work, our bank balance, our relationships etc. we have a tendency towards self-admonition. Like the old saying goes: "I cried because I had no shoes. Then I met the man with no legs."3

This story is powerfully retold today in the form of motivational speaker Nick Vuijcic – a man born with neither arms nor legs. As he puts it, the first key principle to a happy life "is to be thankful":


Nick Vuijcic – the real "man with no legs

Without wanting to detract from Nick's inspirational message, I would say that it doesn't come down to "thankfulness" – at least not exactly. Instead I would say it comes down to appreciating what you have. The difference is subtle, but significant.

I can see why Nick would have his own preference for referring to "thankfulness": he is a deeply religious man. However, I am not. Accordingly I don't see it so much as a matter of "thanking" anyone (or anything) for something I've been "given" – but rather recognising and appreciating what I happen to have, however it came to be in my possession!

So I go back to my earlier point:

When it comes to contentment, there is nothing wrong with wanting more. It's appreciating what you have that makes the difference.

A lesson from the past

A short aside:

Sometime in 1994 I was travelling up to the small town of Derby in our State's far northwest to conduct a prosecution. On the way back my flight stopped off in Broome where I had a couple of hours to kill. There I had the pleasure of meeting a man who has left a lasting impression on me. He was named Clare St Arnaud: a native American, in his mid-50s, about 6'6", well-muscled and wearing a Stetson with a cavalry insignia displayed upside down (in protest). We started a conversation that lasted until we were both in Perth many hours later (we moved seats on the plane so that we could continue our chat!).

It turned out that Mr Arnaud was a professional ultra-distance triathlete – then ranked No. 3 in the world (despite his relative maturity in age!). He was a many-time veteran of the infamous Ultraman event; a competition held over 3 days on the Big Island of Hawaii (with day one comprising a 6.5 mile ocean swim and 90 mile cycle, day two comprising a 171 mile cycle, and day three comprising a double marathon (52.4 miles)).

Before that Mr Arnaud had led a varied life, going from a corporate executive, to working as a farrier on a native American reservation, to being a fitness consultant to Biosphere 2 and then, in his middle age, competing at a world-class level in one of the most grueling sports imaginable (and now, it seems, to being a farrier again!).

In our discussions I remember complaining to Mr Arnaud about my job – and almost immediately voicing guilt about it. As I said: "I have a lot to be thankful for."

He shook his head and replied:

"There is nothing wrong with wanting more. Just don't let it take away from what you already have."

It has taken me 18 years to realise the full import of what he was trying to tell me. I've spent all that time suppressing some level of subliminal guilt at not being "thankful" enough - just because I wanted to do something else with my life than be a court lawyer. And it's easy to feel that way when you watch a Nick Vuijcic video - particularly when you have a career of which many in the First World (never mind the Third World) would be envious.

In the end, I believe what Mr Arnaud was telling me was this: Wanting "more" needn't involve devaluing what you already have.

The right calculus

Using Nick Vuijcic's own calculus, it was pointless for him to "wish" for arms and legs, because that could never happen – it was physically impossible.

But clearly Nick could "wish" for things that were possible: he could wish to go on speaking tours; he could wish to write books; he could wish to get married, etc. And "wishing" these things didn't mean he had to spend time moping around and generally feeling negative until they happened. He could both "wish" and "be happy" at the same time. The notion that one necessarily excludes the other is a false one.

Clearly most of us (particularly in the privileged West) can and should be happy and contented with how things are. But wanting more is not a mark of ingratitude nor unhappiness. Rather, it should be a mark of optimism. If the more "happens", then that is fantastic. If it doesn't everything is still fine.

Put simply, your happiness shouldn't depend on what you want (or even what you already have).4 Rather, it should depend on who you are - right here and right now.

"Negative fuel"

So who are you? Are you a positive and contented person - or a negative, dissatisfied one?

And is there any benefit to being the latter?

A student of mine has spoken to me of the power of "negative fuel" - driving yourself forward with dissatisfaction.  This can seem to be an attractive formula, particularly when it has yielded results in the past.  Fear, anger, unhappiness, self-criticism - these can all serve as powerful motivators.

[It is important to note here that by "negative" I'm not talking about being "contrary" or "nasty". I'm talking about being a "glass is half empty" rather than a "glass is half full" sort of person.]

However as a philosophy of life I hold this to be manifestly flawed.  For one thing, it goes back to my previous essay: if you are constantly thinking negatively about yourself, then you are putting obstacles in your own path.

It is true that this sort of thing can temporarily motivate you: the added obstacles of your own mind add "urgency" to the situation and help you overcome your natural tendency to laziness, apathy and general inertia.

But let's not forget what it is you're actually doing:

You're adding "virtual obstacles" - ones made in your own mind. In this regard, your negativity is hardly a manifestation of "banishing self-doubt"! Even if this serves as a temporary motivation tool, it unequivocally adds to your load. You really need to find a more productive way of motivating yourself than this; it is simply not efficient.

Moreover it unsustainable.  You can kid yourself that adding extra stressors isn't doing you any harm, but your body will eventually tell you differently; living in a constant state of dissatisfaction has more physical effect on your health (mental and physical) than we might be aware (and contrary to what we might think in our "indestructible youth").

Imagining that you can "cope" with the psychological "fall-out" is all very well (in the longer term, I don't think anyone can).  However it is important to remember that stress is a physical process as much as a "psychological" one - the dichotomy of "mind and body" is totally flawed.  You are one organism - and every "negative thought" is actually an electrochemical process in that organism - and one that affects it directly and in a bad way.

Leaving aside the health ramifications, remember John Lennon's words:

"Life is what happens while you're making other plans."

It is all very well to use "negative fuel" in order to prepare for brief moments of "glory".  But if you look back on your life and the vast majority of it has been spent in abject misery so as to fuel these (relatively discreet) "moments of glory", how can this make sense?

Far better then to find some "positive fuel" for your goals - "fuel" that makes life wonderful in between any brief "moments of glory".  After all, life is a journey - not a destination. Defining your life by reference to goals misses this point.

Making your own luck

So imagine for a moment that you wish for a particular outcome (eg. to find a girlfriend, make some money, paint a picture, write a novel, get your black belt, etc.): how can you go about wishing for it in a productive way?

I'm suggesting that rather than wishing for the outcome as a necessity, you should simply wish for it as a bonus.

Clearly, if you invest emotion in a particular outcome, you will be disappointed if it fails to materialise. But if you wish for something without any such investment, you have nothing to lose. The likelihood of the outcome is irrelevant.

This doesn't mean that your passion and effort should be somehow "reduced": if anything you should pursue your goals with even greater vigor! It just means that you should do so with a smile, not a frown.

Put another way, "wanting more" need and should not manifest as "negativity". Rather it can and should go hand in hand with banishing such negativity. In this form, "wanting more" is not only unobjectionable - but it is desirable.

Why?

First, you have nothing to lose. Even if the outcome you want is both vague and unlikely (eg: "Something wonderful is going to happen today!"), you can still wish for it with a quiet optimism. If it happens, this is excellent. If not, so what?

Second, you have everything to gain. You're not adding extra obstacles in your own path and unnecessarily burdening yourself with stressors. You're certainly not dejectedly giving up before you've even started.

In other words, you're giving yourself the best chances of achieving your goals.

And even if this does not yield any "wished outcome", you've still been happy in the moment. Remembering John Lennon's words, the act of "being positive" in your daily life is ultimately its own reward - as well as the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy.

Conclusion

It is no doubt true that you can achieve happiness by eliminating all your desires. That is one (rather drastic) way of going about things.

Another way to do it is to make your "desires" independent of your happiness. I think the latter is eminently more achievable by the ordinary person today than former.

So value what you have: don't let unfulfilled expectations define your present. You can do without that negativity.

But by the same token, don't let self-doubts stop you pursuing whatever it is you want to do. Because this gives in to a different kind of negativity: one that lets self-imposed limitations map your future.

This might all seem like a very fine line to tread, but I believe it is possible to do.

As you tread that line, be wary of those who dismiss your dreams by reference to "thankfulness". They are usually well-intentioned: often they just don't want you devaluing what you already have. But more often than not, I've found that they are simply projecting onto you their own limitations (objective or subjective).

Don't let them.

And if they refer you to that "Buddha quote", give them the adjacent one I just made up in reply!

Footnotes:

1. I have previously written of the Dunning-Kruger effect; many capable people's self-image is drastically lower than what it should objectively be. This illustrates the reality (and enormity) of "creating your own obstacles" with self-doubt.

2. My article "Banishing self-doubt" was meant to be a "celebration" of positive thinking. But I am acutely aware that it probably didn't come across that way. And there is a good reason: I spent a lot of time dealing with the "logic" of being positive – not with reinforcing the message that one needs to be positive.

But I am not going to be apologetic about that. To me, understanding why one should be positive is more important than any "feel-good" meme that repeats this statement as a kind of mantra. And understanding how one should go about differentiating appropriate self-confidence from dangerous self-delusion is far more useful.

So rather than simply add t the chorus of "positive messages" I want to probe a little deeper – to get beyond the temporary "fix" people have with "pick me up messages". If I can, I want to get to the heart of the matter!

3. Many people think this parable comes from the Christian Bible. It does not. In fact it seems that this is an old Persian tale that entered our lexicon via Islam.

4. My friend Jeff points out that even "what you've got" can be taken from you at any moment. "If you crave, desire, and covet the things you already have, there is suffering when they're taken away. Peace is found when you can appreciate the things you have, but without grasping as if they are yours to keep."

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic