A mantis landed on the rail, and it put up its dukes as one might expect of madmen or drunken Irish kooks. Why would one seek out a fair fight with someone much bigger, I shook my head and started to engage in a snigger. But then it did occur to me that he couldn't stand elsewise. So, I tried to gauge his intent, and looked him in the eyes... and he stomped me in my nether bits - much to my surprise.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“The Dokkōdō” consists of 21 precepts written by Miyamoto Musashi in his last days. Musashi was solitary, a minimalist, and single-mindedly resolute as a swordsman – all to extremes few of us can fathom. [Imagine a cross between Diogenes and Muhammad Ali.] These twenty-one sentences barely fill a page, let alone a book. However, as with sutras of yoga and Buddhism, a book’s worth of material comes from elaboration and analysis. This approach is taken in this book by way of five commenters from different walks of life, though all with martial arts experience.
However, normally the explanations would be made by: a.) someone who understands the language (particularly the archaic form the author wrote in – i.e. Musashi’s lifespan overlapped with Shakespeare’s, so consider the changes in the English language that transpired,) or b.) someone with a depth of understanding of the worldview of the author (in this case, that would be someone immersed in a mélange of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, the Chinese classics, and the influence of life in the wake of centuries of feudalism and militancy on a person’s psychology.) This isn’t the approach taken in this book. While the five commenters are clearly well-read and intelligent individuals, they are also firmly ensconced in a worldview that is Western, Abrahamic, and materialistic. [I suspect this was the editors’ intention – to relate to the lives of the likely readership, but it does have stark implications for how the book is perceived.]
If one is looking for a book that will explore what – if anything – from the legendary swordsman’s deathbed lesson aligns with a Western / Abrahamic / American-suburban strip mall dojo lifestyle, this is your book — 5-stars – buy it immediately. However, if one approaches the book from the assumption that Musashi was an exceptional person who must have had valuable insight into how to be exceptional, then one is likely to find this book presumptuous and dismissive of Eastern values and philosophies.
Much of the book is the commenters dismissing Musashi’s ideas as wrong-headed. In some cases, this is because Musashi was such an extremist that few could hope to live a life like his. [It’s not “the way of going alone” for no reason. Though that’s arguably why we are still interested in what Musashi has to say 400 years after his death.] However, in many cases, the commenters seem to be talking past Musashi’s ideas because their assumptions are inconsistent with the swordsman’s cultural milieu.
This is most often seen with respect to a fundamental difference between Eastern and Western psychology. In Buddhism, there are purely mental constructs that have no reality except within the mind, and which can cause suffering with no material upside. For example, in precept #6 when Musashi argues against regret, some of the resulting commentary was as if the precept was “Don’t learn from your mistakes. Never change.” For a Buddhist, not holding onto regrets does not at all mean that one doesn’t learn or make corrections – mid-course or otherwise. It just means that there is this cancerous mental construct that can’t help one because the past is the past, and so it is jettisoned. Another example involves not having preferences, which – again – doesn’t mean that one won’t make a choice (if the situation allows one a choice.) It means not holding onto a mental attachment. [e.g. If I like coffee more than tea, and a choice presents itself, I order coffee. What I don’t do is let my mind obsess about not being offered a choice.]
There are some beautiful insights peppered throughout this book, some that appear to be in line with Musashi’s thinking and others that I suspect the swordsman wouldn’t recognize as related to his own words. However, there is also a lot of commentary that sounds like college students railing against how bad Shakespeare is, in part because they are missing much of the Bard’s nuance and in part because his works seem unrelatable to their experience.
My recommendation of this book would be contingent upon where you fall on dichotomy that I mention in paragraph three. You might love it, or you might loath it.
P.S. If you’d like to know what differences can result from translation, you can find a scholarly translation that is done by a Japanese linguist (Terou Machida) and published in the Bulletin of Nippon Sport Sci. Univ. right here. You’ll note that most of the precepts are (for-all-intents-and-purposes) the same, except the conversion from first to third person. However, you will notice that several precepts (10-12, 15, and 20) are substantially different, and one (#16) is arguably of the exact opposite meaning.
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My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Out: August 10, 2021
This autobiography of the phenomenal Brazilian Ju Jutsu practitioner, Rickson Gracie, begins with ancestral origins that include a Gracie who fought in the US Civil War through Rickson’s boyhood in Rio and his professional fights in Japan, and onward to how he reinvented himself after family tragedy and the end of his fight career. Along the way, he conveys lessons learned not only through personal experience and from his father and uncle, the founders of Gracie Ju Jutsu, but also through his studies with Olando Cani — a yogi and developer of bioginastica. While the book is overwhelmingly about a life in Ju Jutsu, Cani’s influence plays a crucial role as the yogi taught Rickson about breath control, and, among a huge pack of skilled Gracie fighters, that ability was pivotal in Rickson’s rise to the top. (The book’s title, “Breathe,” hints at the role breathwork played in Rickson Gracie’s legendary capacities for enduring, flowing, and keeping his head in seemingly unfavorable situations.)
The memoir is candid, offering insights into not only Rickson’s path to success, but also his failings (which, not unexpectedly given his single-minded obsession with Ju Jutsu and fitness, more often involved life as an impetuous youth, as a father, and as a person – generally – than it did his life on the mat.) The book also explores some of the fissures in the Gracie clan and how they grew under the pressure of the family’s mammoth success. With autobiographies, it’s always a challenge to know how true a picture one is getting, but Gracie’s willingness to self-critique makes this book feel truthful.
This book is fascinating and highly engaging. If you’re interested in martial arts, it’s a no-brainer for one’s reading list, but any reader who enjoys a memoir of a life intensely lived will find the book highly readable.
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This book conveys the teachings of three tai chi masters of old: Chang San-feng, Wong Chung-yua, and Wu Yu-hsiang. However, those masters’ treatises take up only a small portion of the book. That’s not a criticism. No doubt the treatises were cryptic and sparse, and so they are presented with commentary embedded rather than as literal translations. The treatises discuss the concepts that each of the masters thought was essential to the art, and the author conveys these complex and ethereal ideas in a way that is as understandable as possible.
Before presenting the three treatises in chapters four through six, the author offers a three chapter background on essential concepts for the tai chi student to understand. Chapter 1 presents historical background on tai chi and differentiates temple style from the family styles of tai chi, as well as giving insight into the philosophical underpinnings of the art. The second chapter offers a primer on chi, the life-force energy that is at the conceptual heart of tai chi. Chapter 3 describes jing and the means by which chi is expanded and transferred.
After the three treatise chapters, there is a final chapter that is intended to take the book from theory to practice. Most of the final chapter is a step-by-step description of a tai chi form, and consists of line drawings of the positions with bullet point descriptions of the movements. However, the chapter begins with some lists of key philosophical concepts as well as clarifying ideas about movement fundamentals.
There are line drawings throughout the book, not only to show physical positions in the practice but also diagrams to help convey the difficult concepts discussed throughout the book as well as Chinese calligraphy characters. Besides the calligraphy, these graphics are crude, looking as one might expect in a notebook. I don’t think the crude form of the graphics is a problem, and the notebook effect it creates may be an intentional aesthetic. As I don’t believe one can learn a martial art or other system of movement from a book, the fact that the graphics don’t offer much detail isn’t a problem.
I found the book to be thought-provoking and would recommend it for students of tai chi and qi gong.
5.) Take a class / Join a group: While I’m partial to yoga and the martial arts, the class could be in any area that presents a challenge. However, there are a couple of advantages to the aforementioned two (to which I would add dance.)
First, these disciplines train one to be expressive with one’s body and to move more freely. This can do wonders for confidence. People store tension in their bodies without even realizing it. Many have postural problems that effect confidence and self-perception. A 2014 New Zealand study found that posture can have a strong effect on emotional state.
Second, no matter who one is, one will be challenged by new approaches to movement. The average person has great difficulty learning to use their body in new ways. One needs to drill in movements conscientiously to achieve competency. Our conscious mind, frequently gets in the way. Even the most athletic and coordinated people will need to work it, failing repeatedly until they succeed.
Why is the challenge so important? Many people go through life afraid to fail, but far too few fear never failing. Sounds idiotic. Nobody wants to fail. I have some hard news. If you’ve never failed, it’s not because you are unmitigatedly awesome in all things. It’s because you’re living in a box and cherry-picking life experiences that feel unthreatening.
If, like me, you’re an introvert, this approach offers the additional benefit of social interaction that is of a predictable / schedulable nature. One needs the interaction, but the problem comes when one has social interactions and / or sensory stimulation that go on too long and in an unpredictable fashion. Therefore, being able to schedule such time is a good way to go about being a more productive introvert.
4.) Writing / Visualization: These two approaches to mentally rehearsing allow one to keep one’s inner critic in check. The problem with simply day-dreaming it is that critic can chirp in without being that cognizant of it.
In visualization, one quiets the mind and can then non-judgmentally acknowledge and dismiss the negative thoughts. In writing–be it as a journal entry, poem, or a story–we may not notice the nagging voice of the inner critic on the first draft, but you can take note of it and undo it in rewrites.
3.) Travel / Living abroad: I should point out that not just any old travel will have the desired effect. Many people plan their travel with the objective of being comfortable at the fore. They eat at places that serve the same kind of food as at home. They stay in hotels with virtually all of the comforts of home, and sometimes many more. This is understandable because the traveler might just be seeking rest. However, if one is seeking the epiphany or enlightenment experiences talked of by backpackers and ashram-dwellers, that’s not something that comes from staying in resorts or eating at American fast food joint. Those kinds of brain changing experiences come when one is stripped from the familiar and has to surrender one’s attachments to the way one thinks the world should be. One’s perception of culture and worldview changes radically when immersed in a foreign environment.
2.) Game it / Roleplay: There’s a big movement to gamify all manner of everyday activities. In her book, “Reality is Broken,” scholar of game design Jane McGonigal describes a game called “Chore Wars” that incentivizes the doing of mundane household chores.
What is it about games that help one move beyond one’s limits? First of all, it incentivizes actions. And if you’ve ever noticed people playing games on their phone or FB for hours on end, you’ll note that it doesn’t take much reward to keep people plugging away—as long as the game is structured well.
Second, good games provide a built-in process of “leveling up.” This means that the challenge keeps being intensified as our skill level advances. Those familiar with Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of “Flow” will recognize that matching skill level to challenge level is one of the most crucial elements in facilitating flow-state.
Roleplaying is a bit like the previously mentioned tools of visualization and gaming in that it’s a way to have a low-cost rehearsal. If one has someone with whom one can engage in such a roleplay, than one also has someone to help make you aware of your inner critic and its deleterious effects. And that brings us to the final tool:
1.) Have a spouse, partner, and or confidant: In “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” Robert Sapolsky tells a story of being interviewed by a magazine. He was asked what the number one thing that they could tell their readers about reducing stress. To which he replied that the most well-established factor in stress reduction is to have a spouse / life partner with whom to share one’s challenges. Unfortunately, this was a magazine for women business leaders, a significant portion of whom had given up on permanent relationships and families. They, therefore, asked him what else he had. Still it’s hard to overlook the anxiety-fighting effects of having someone around with whom to share one’s dread.
When I picked up this book, all I knew about Hapkidō was that it was a Korean martial art, that it wasn’t a sport like its more famous martial cousin—Tae Kwon Do (TKD), and that it was a more comprehensive art (grappling as well as striking) than TKD. I grabbed it because at least one of these mental reductions proved only partially correct and I wanted to know what else I might be getting wrong. In the first paragraph, I learned that Hapkidō was heavily influenced by / a descendant of Daitō-ryū Akijūjutsu. (If that art sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it was also a big influence for its most famous student, Morihei Ueshiba—i.e. the founder of the Japanese art Aikidō.)
This book is tiny. It’s an overview of the art in less than 100 pages (and, as is common with martial arts books, at least half the space is devoted to photos.) So the first thing a reader might want to be aware of is that you’ve probably read newspaper articles with higher word counts than this book. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether that’s a good or bad thing.
The book consists of five chapters, but the last chapter accounts for the majority of the page count (but not the word count.) The first two chapters are histories. The first offers an overview of Korean martial arts situated in the context of national events of the time. The second chapter is a history of Hapkidō and gives one insight into Daitō-ryū Akijūjutsu and how it came to influence the Korean founder of Hapkidō, Choi Yong-Sul.
Chapters 3 and 4 examine aspects of the art that one might call “pre-basics” for lack of a better term. As ki (i.e. life force / energy, those familiar with Chinese arts might know it as “chi” or “qi”) plays a central role in the art, Chapter 3 discusses ki and describes breathing and meditation practices that are used for building energy. Chapter 4 describes break-falls and the art’s one posture / stance (a natural posture.)
Chapter 5 describes, and presents photos of, basic defensive moves of Hapkidō. There are five sub-sections that explore, respectively, the following types of techniques: disengagements (i.e. breaking away from an opponent who has seized one), joint locks, throws, punch defenses, and kick defenses.
I found this book to be concise and informative. If one is seeking a detailed overview of the art, one might want to look elsewhere. However, if one is just trying to figure out what Hapkidō is all about, it should serve you well. I doubt that an experienced student of the art would get much out of this book as it’s just the bare bones. Not everybody is looking to delve into the minutiae.
This book is one stop shopping for students of the Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Long Form (i.e. 108 forms.) That’s not to suggest that it only describes the sequence of that form. It does that, but it also offers lessons in the history of the art, explanations of chi and qigong, and elucidation of the fundamentals of the art.
The book is divided into four parts. Chapter one examines the history of this martial art and places Tai chi chuan in the context of Chinese martial arts as well as the Yang Style within the context of Tai chi chuan. The nine sections of the first chapter also explore Tai chi chuan as a means to healthy living, and provide guidance to students on how to go about taking up the practice.
Chapter two consists of five parts that delve into the concept of chi (qi), or energy. This section mixes together mythology of traditional Chinese theory on chi with scientific explanations where science has something to say on the matter.
The third chapter describes the 13 postures of Tai chi chuan, which are a set of fundamentals that feature prominently in the martial art. This is a relatively brief section and is where the book becomes photo intensive.
The fourth chapter offers students guidance about the unarmed element of Yang Style of Tai chi chuan. While the capstone of the chapter is a systematic walk through the Long Form, there’s also coverage of some Yang Style fundamental movements as well as presentation of meditation practices taught in the system. It should be noted that this book doesn’t cover the sequence of the Yang Style Short Form (a.k.a. 24 Forms, or the Beijing Standard Form.) (I mention that because that’s the most popular form in the world and many students may want to learn about it specifically. This book offers many insights into the minutiae of the component forms, but doesn’t describe it as a sequence.) There is a fifth chapter, but it’s only a brief conclusion.
With respect to ancillary matter, like most martial arts books, it’s graphic-intensive. The bulk of the graphics are photos that are used in chapters 3 and 4 to clarify the movements and postures. Said photos have arrows and other figures drawn onto them to help clarify the movement involve. There are also a few line diagrams and maps, and chapter 2 has a many scientific photos, diagrams, and anatomical drawings.
There are three Appendices. The first provides a list of the forms of the Yang Style Long Form. The second is a glossary of the many Chinese terms mentioned in the book. The final Appendix provides information about the DVDs that are available to be used in conjunction with the book (there are markers throughout the book to provide suggestions of when students should turn to the video lessons.) There are end-notes of cited material, but I read the Kindle edition, and most of these were unavailable because Chinese characters didn’t convert to the electronic format. This was no big deal for me because I couldn’t read the Chinese reference material anyway, but if you read Chinese, you might opt for the hard copy of the book.
I learned the Yang Style short and long forms several years ago, and bought this book to provide some background and technical guidance. I found the book to be interesting and informative, and would recommend it—particularly if you’ve learned the Yang Style (but one may find the early chapters interesting even if one hasn’t.) The author uses a number of entertaining and educational stories and the book is readable and insightful for students of all levels.
In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to quiet the conscious mind in order to let the subconscious do what it does best. There’s a lot of terminology that’s used to describe the mind state in which one’s actions are effortless and one can adjust swiftly to unforeseen challenges: e.g. “in the zone,” the Flow, Zen mindset, and (in the Kotler and Wheal book I just reviewed) ecstasis. However, regardless of the name, one key to this state is a reduced activity of the part of the mind that’s self-critical and overly cautious, and that requires not letting the conscious mind do what it’s prone to do.
However, taking a course on mauythai advanced fundamentals recently has reminded me of the important roles the conscious mind plays in learning. The challenge is to use the conscious mind effectively–without letting it running amok.
The conscious mind is largely driven by anxiety about uncertainty. This makes the conscious mind a planner and worst-case scenario generator extraordinaire. (In meditation, I’ve begun to not only note what thought popped into my head before I dismiss said distraction, but I also have a classification scheme of kinds of thoughts, and “planning thoughts” are probably the most common type of thought to hijack my mind.) This planning / forecasting proclivity can be beneficial if one is doing a job that requires such planning, anticipation of possible hazards, and the need to adjust to complex difficulties. However, it can also make one neurotic, overly risk-averse, and pessimistic.
So, here are my five thoughts on the conscious mind in martial arts training.
5.) Feed the right wolf: There’s a well-known story about a Native American man telling his grandchild that inside each person there are two wolves at war, one good and one evil.
The child asks, “Which one wins?”
The old man replies, “The one you feed.”
This is a variation on the theme–not so much about good and evil as about positive and negative outlook. In martial arts training there are often competing emotional states. On one hand, there is often anxiety about either being injured or even about the embarrassment of being bested. (Surprisingly, it seems like the magnitude of the latter is often greater than the former.) On the other hand, there is an intense thrill that comes with making progress. For those who don’t understand how martial artists can put themselves through what they do, this is the part for which you’re probably not understanding the intensity of the high. When it clicks and you’re getting it right more often than you previously did, the feeling is transcendent.
So, when one sees either of these two feelings arising, choose the latter. If one notices the anxiety, remind oneself the promise of that awesome feeling of having it fall together.
4.) Scanning for lapses in form: The process of learning a martial art–like any movement art–is repetition of the movements until they become ingrained in one’s procedural memory. Early in the process, this feels clunky as one has to scan for imperfections in form with one’s super-intelligent but slow and cumbersome conscious mind. However, increasingly, the body begins to incorporate these movement patterns and they start to become second nature. The trick is to keep this in the moment and not let one’s thoughts linger on what one just got wrong, or any perceived ramifications of getting it wrong.
3.) Try visualization: This once would have been thought hippie guff, but now it’s entered the mainstream. Of course, the advice from #5 must be kept in mind. When I think of the technique of visualization, I’m reminded of a story that Dan Millman told about a girl that he was coaching in gymnastics. He came to check on her only to find her repeatedly cringing and grimacing. He asked what was going on, and she said she kept falling off the balance beam whenever she visualized her routine. It sounds silly, but attitude is a powerful thing, and I lot of people sabotage themselves in ways not much different from this. It’s your mind, you have the power to do the move perfectly every time, if you take the proper mindset.
2.) Conscious mind as governor of action and agent of trust: The subconscious mind can be feral. As one spars, one has to match speeds with one’s opposition so that learning can take place. While sparring looks reminiscent of fighting, the goal of sparring is learning, whereas the goal of fighting is winning (or–as a minimum in actual combat–not being destroyed.)
This is another role for the conscious mind. It can keep reminders to the fore to keep one’s movement appropriate to the occasion. It can inject an awareness that there’s a relationship of trust rather than warring competitiveness between. That one needn’t respond at the same magnitude that one would under attack.
1.) Dropping the Conscious Mind Out of the Equation: While the conscious mind is critical in the learning process, eventually one must do something that feels uncomfortable, which is shifting subconscious operations to the fore and quieting the conscious mind. Overthinking can be death in tests, competitions, not to mention, I’m told, actual combative situations. At some point you’ve got to have some trust in what you’ve trained to do up to that point. It might fail you, but not necessarily as spectacularly as if you let your conscious run amok, getting caught in a death spiral of self-criticism and futile guesswork.
Since I’ve been watching quite a few muaythai fights recently at the Rangsit Boxing Stadium, I’ve begun to wonder just how useful corner advice is. I know that people think it’s beneficial because it’s done in droves. Not only is the fighter’s trainer trying tell them what to do, but also his parents, his siblings, his granny, and a hundred random people who may or may not have put money on him. It would be interesting to see a scientific study of how fighters performed who tuned everything out between rounds versus those who tried to take in all the advice. I tried to look up whether any such study had been done, but a cursor Google search came up empty.