Welcome to The Palace Guard, the tai chi chuan and martial arts blog for intelligent martial practitioners. As the blog develops, I hope to feature other writers with a fresh take on the martial arts and related subjects. For now, I hope you enjoy my posts: feel free to leave comments, or email me at the address available on the profile.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Hand-to-hand experience

In Zen Buddhism, they speak of the transmission of the Buddha mind as being accomplished "warm hand to warm hand". Similarly, in the sphere of martial arts, and more particularly in tai chi, there's no substitute for a real, live human teacher.  Due to the wonders of technology online courses in tai chi are now appearing. But don't you think we already spend quite enough time messing about in front of screens? One of the reasons I love tai chi is that it points away from all that. I love that, to learn this art, we have to stand up somewhere with a teacher, and move our bodies and minds around until we really feel it. Two hundred years ago in China, it was done the same way. The context and the surroundings may be different; but our efforts in training link us bodily to those largely unsung tai chi ancestors.
Tai chi is one of the most tactile activities around. The visual element of it is purely incidental. The passing on of quality tai chi depends on feel, upon contact with someone who knows the art deep in their bones. One of the online courses currently available offers "in depth workshops", but how in-depth can we get with a screen? I'm all for making tai chi accessible. But at the same time, when someone does get into tai chi, I want it to be worthwhile, for the "game to be worth the candle". Tai chi is one of the few things which conforms exactly to the dictum "you get out what you put in". I am reminded of Keanu's immortal line in The Matrix after he downloaded hundreds of fighting style directly into his brain: "I know kung fu!". But kung-fu of any kind isn't known: it is felt, and it is lived.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

War drones and fish without fuss

I came upon a strange thing in my local supermarket: "NoFuss Fish!" it proclaimed. "No smell, no mess, all the taste without the fuss." My heart sank,and then leapt up again. This kind of thing makes me realise just how much I love tai chi chuan, and the martial arts in general.
I'm no Sgt Rory Miller (whose books I implore you to read ): I don't deal in violence for a job. Nor do I live in a dangerous neighbourhood. I have an easy life. I get up, and have hot water at my disposal for a shower. I have water from the tap for drinking. Food is readily available. I earn my money in a civilised and mostly stress-free way. No-one has ever pointed a gun at my head, or forced me to become a refugee. I like this modern life, and I realise what a lucky bubble I inhabit. Which is why it's important to do something like the martial arts in which this bubble is at least acknowledged : my life is free from violence, but violence is always a possibility, and for many, a daily probability. In the martial arts, you can't avoid responsibility: no-one else can do your defence for you. There may not be anyone else there when you need help most. So you train, and take on the duty of being at least semi-aware of the dangers of our society,as well as the responsibility for your body and your reactions.  This brings me to the drones, articles about which can be found on the Guardian website here and here. Now, I don't know what the "average" soldier might think about the use of unmanned drones in warfare. If it makes their job easier, they may agree with it. But I wonder if there isn't part of them which feels that it may be wrong to kill individuals in this manner from a distance. One of the arguments  for would be that we already have many "impersonal" weapons: laser-guided and smart bombs, missiles and of course nuclear weapons. But the intent is different. Where these are designed to be used against installations, buildings and vehicles, the drones are for use against individuals. It the military equivalent of the NoFuss fish. We want the taste, but not the mess. To take an individual's life must be a terrible thing indeed, but I can't help but think there are ways of doing it which will heap ignorance and denial on top of the already steep cost of killing. The drones I think will do this. Hitler will of course crop up in the counter argument: "Would you have used a drone on Hitler?" But then of course, we have to imagine the situation if Hitler had been the one in charge of the remote control.
It seems to me that the further we put our bodies from dealing with suffering, the worse that suffering becomes. I'm lucky that in my life that manifests as NoFuss fish. I'm lucky that it doesn't involve someone I love being murdered by a flying, semi-autonomous killing robot.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Softly, softly...

The best recommendation I can make if you are trying to convert your "Handform-only" tai chi practice to a martial one is to take it slowly and softly,which we should have no problem with, right? You would think that after years of doing the Handform, all that flowing and relaxed movement would cross over into our martial training...
In my experience, people who do mostly Handform, and then get into a bit of Pushing Hands, tend to be stiff, tense, overt strength-users intent on "winning". This is a very curious thing. Often, they will do everything  in this way, whether it's compliance-based or not, whether it's a drill or more free-flowing.
Now "softness" is a terrible term, but it's the word that has become symbolic of what tai chi practitioners are trying to achieve. There's a reason for this quality of softness. It has nothing to do with chilling out or going with the flow or magical chi energy. It has to do with the fact that "softness" is better for fighting with than "hardness". People may become confused at this point. They may say "well softness is fine for defence, but what about when you have to put someone down to stop them hurting you?" Yes, softness is also better for that. It isn't that softness is yin, and hardness is yang, or that softness is defensive and hardness offensive. Softness can be present in both attack and defence. Which is also not to say that you don't need strength. You do need some. We might  rather say that good structure is required, which in turn requires a certain amount of trained strength. People have a tendency, especially in Pushing Hands drills, to approach them as if they were in a Strongman competition: their arms are tense, their movements mechanical, their listening skills non-existent. Four Directions or Seven Stars is not the place to train strength. You should have conditioning training for that. These drills are for training sensitivity which is best discovered through slow, soft and awareful (I know that's not a word but it ought to be) movement. An old Wudang maxim is "Fine work, neatly done." So it is with martial training. Of course, we then need wilder, more intense arenas in which to test what has been taught, but the "structured" training is best done soft and slow, unless its aim is particularly geared towards pressure testing, in which case it needs to be free enough to let the learner discover for themselves if it works or not. Put another way: one drill cannot test everything. You can't elicit dexterity, strength, spontaneity, aggression and cool-headedness from just one drill. Everything we do in the martial arts is a drill, because it happens in a controlled environment (unless you really are putting yourselves in danger) so you have to think: what is this drill for? Do it softly, and find out.