Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Training Rust in Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from a post at Paul Bowman's Martial Arts Studies. The topic is rust, but it's not what you think. The full post may be read here.


To begin: as I said, one of the first things relevant to today that I didn't know was the Dutch word rust. So I needed to look it up.[1] So I duly turned to the OED, and it presented me with a phenomenal amount of etymological information.[2] Most of which I could do absolutely nothing with.

So next I just Googled the word, using search terms like 'Dutch word rust' and 'meaning of Dutch word rust', and I was immediately pointed to a couple of good sites, which proved much more useful than the OED.

For instance, the first site I found told me this:

English words for the Dutch word rust
calmness dead ease half time hush imperturbability intermission let-up
lie-off pause peace placidity quiescence quiescency quiet quietness quietude recess reposal repose rest silence tranquility tranquillity wait at ease[3]

Another site concurred with all of this, saying that 'rust' means 'break; calm; ease; half‐time; pause; peace; placidity; quiescence; quiescency; quiet; quietness; quietude; recumbency; repose; respite; rest; surcease; tranquillity'.[4]

And it also told me how to use the word, in the imperative, as a command: rust!, which means 'stand at ease!'

So now you can rest easy (or rust easy), safe in the knowledge that I am now a bit of an expert on the Dutch word rust, even though I didn't even have a teacher, and can't otherwise speak Dutch.

Rust and Flow

But what has this got to do with Eastern or Western philosophy, or Eastern or Western martial arts, or their relationship? I'm sure that some will see an immediate or obviously potential connection. There has long been a connection made between East Asian martial arts and sometimes Taoist, sometimes Zen Buddhist ideas of calmness and tranquillity.

But, in the face of this connection, one thing I do know is that most of these connections are mainly based on myths (and mainly media myths, at that).

Moreover, I also know that 'rust' in martial arts is not exclusive to either Taoism or Zen. Anyone who has ever done any wrestling or groundfighting learns quickly not to panic or tense up when rolling around on the ground with an opponent who is trying to choke or lock or pin or hold or strangle you out. Beginners tense up to high heaven and panic and expend enormous amounts of energy. The more advanced you become, the more you stay calm, relaxed, tranquil, and the more you can (ultimately) flow.

The ability to flow is the objective: not to get knotted up wherever the opponent is trying to take control or issue force; but rather to flow (or crash) around it and turn the tables from behind.

If we are face to face and you push forward into me and I push forward into you, then whoever is stronger will prevail. But if you push forward and I flow around that, then you end up pushing nothing and I should be able to capitalize on that – to the extent that I can flow. And the extent to which I can flow is the extent to which I am relaxed and calm in a very particular way.

As Bruce Lee famously put it, 'be like water', because water can flow and it can crash, it can push and it can pull, but you can't grab it with your fist and if you try to punch it you won't hurt it; it fills any space and passes through any gap, but try to wrestle it and you end up wrestling nothing.[5]

Perhaps in all martial arts, relaxation is the thing. Calmness of mind. Acuity of consciousness. Clarity of intent. Fluidity of body. Each martial art has a different way of being relaxed and in flow, a different ideal that practitioners aspire to.

The boxer, kickboxer, Thai boxer, karateka, escrimador or kung fu hard stylist have certain kinds of ways of flowing – combining striking techniques fluidly, rolling with the punches, capitalising on the gaps and opportunities provided by the other, smashing their way through. The judoka, wrestler and jujitsuka rely on the same principle, although it is very differently actualised.

But the premise, aim and ideal is always calm relaxation, if not simply tranquillity.

Tranquillity is normally associated with the most internal of what they call the internal martial arts. The ultimate example is tai chi ch'√ľan [taijiquan], of course. But many anecdotes from many different martial arts styles convey a sense that the highest level practitioners of almost any martial art can convey an air of tranquillity when fighting.

Training Rust

Still, tai chi is certainly a notable case. For, all of its training is designed to train relaxation, calmness and a great deal of what is conveyed by the Dutch word rust. Advanced-level tai chi practitioners fight like they are strolling, not running, charging or dancing. It's like they are simply carrying out a task that they have done countless times and it's simply second nature. So watching them deal with opponents is like watching someone steering a boat or flying a kite or mowing a lawn, folding laundry, or rolling up a cable; or someone in a warehouse folding or unfolding cardboard boxes; or a fisherman casting and reeling, casting and reeling. It's a very simple, very unglamorous, very relaxed, very natural, yet very skilful thing.

I have occasionally had the pleasure of being the one who is folding and felling opponents like a laundry worker folding and flattening out sheets. And when you are in that zone, that state of flow, it is very much like that – just something that you are doing; pleasurable, but natural – no real effort; no real striving, planning, pursuing: just feeling and doing.

Of course, I have much more often been on the receiving end, against someone who wants to treat me like some laundry that needs to be straightened and folded and flattened out. A popular martial arts saying is 'you either win or you learn'. And I have done a lot of learning.

And not just in tai chi. I have been folded and flattened in many different martial arts styles over many years. Occasionally it has been me doing the folding and flattening, and that is always a very nice occasional treat. But none of the other kinds of sparring that I know involve activities that are as necessarily calm and tranquil as tai chi.

Doubtless, this is connected with the unique and uniquely philosophical way that tai chi training is approached. In it, all of the attention is put on teaching relaxation. But this is not quite as simple as it may sound.

It is actually surprisingly hard to teach relaxation in tai chi, and the type of relaxation that is the ultimate goal is not simple relaxation. It takes different forms, from mental relaxation, to the hyper-awareness of tension and looseness in the body to enable higher levels of sensitivity and responsiveness, to the ability to be relaxed in otherwise difficult postures or transitions, and through to the cultivation of what they call 'sung jin' or relaxed force in the application of techniques.

There are other dimensions to tai chi relaxation or restfulness too. But the point is: learning it all is no simple matter. It takes a great deal of patience, commitment, and trust – trust in your teacher, trust in the investment of time and energy, faith that it will all pay off or yield dividends.

In many respects, rather than being anything like lying down and relaxing; training for this kind of relaxation is actually analogous to weight training, strength training, or bodybuilding.

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