One Journey Leads to Another
Here is a "Table of Contents" of all of the "100 Days of Xinyi" that I wrote about over, well, the last one hundred days... I hope that this will make it easier for someone trying to scroll through the postings in search of certain individual topics.
0 - Putting my boots on...
- "Xin" - Heart-Mind
- "Yi" - Intention/Will
- "Liu" - Six
- "He" Harmony
- "Quan" - Hand/Fist/Boxing
- Ten Animals - Eagle
- Getting Older
- Ten Animals - Bear
- "Seventy to eighty percent"
- Ten Animals - Rooster
- If you can't say something nice...
- Ten Animals - Tiger
- "Keep your head up and your chin down"
- Ten Animals - Snake
- Unnecessary Armour
- Ten Animals - Horse
- Ping Pong Lessons
- Ten Animals - Hawk
- Limits and Boundaries
- Ten Animals - Dragon
- Prevention - Part 1 of 2
- Ten Animals - Monkey
- Prevention - Part 2 of 2
- Ten Animals - Swallow
- "One thousand times; Ten thousand times; One million times"
- Seven Fists - Hands
- "Internal martial artists should never lift weights" and other misunderstandings of history...
- Seven Fists - Feet
- Positive Regrets
- Seven Fists - Elbows
- Battlefields vs. Gardens
- Seven Fists - Shoulders
- Rest and Recovery
- Seven Fists - Knees
- All You Need is Love - And a Whole Lot of Hard Work...
- Seven Fists - Hips
- Diversity Saves Pies
- Seven Fists - Head
- Driving Metaphors
- Levels of Training - Muscle Level
- Levels of Training - Bone Level
- Levels of Training - Energy Level
- Levels of Training - Spiritual Level
- Levels of Training - Natural Level
- Getting Outside
- Indoor Training
- What do you mean you don't play classical violin!?
- Home Safe Home
- Fresh Starts
- Minimally Processed
- Eight Senses - Seeing
- Eight Senses - Smelling
- Eight Senses - Hearing
- Eight Senses - Taste
- Eight Senses - Touch
- Eight Senses - Balance
- Eight Senses - Proprioception
- Eight Senses - Thinking
- The Cocktail Party
- Kung Fu Tea
- Yin and Yang - Part 1 of 2
- Yin and Yang - Part 2 of 2
- Five Elements - Metal
- Five Elements - Water
- Five Elements - Wood
- Five Elements - Fire
- Five Elements - Earth
- Thank You
- Extreme Balance
- Make Mistakes
- Training Etiquette - Part 1 of 2
- Training Etiquette - Part 2 of 2
- One Glass of Wine
- Whale Watching
- Excess Capacity
- The Soundtrack of Your Life
- Strength Through Diversity
- The Grumpy Old Man and The Sweet Old Lady
- The Karate Kid
- Stuff Happens
- Writing Your Own Story
- Shooting Pool
- Great Teachers
- What's worth being afraid of?
- Gentlemen and Gentlewomen
- Order of Safety
- Slow Down
- Walking the Long Run
- Flip a Coin
- Put On Your Shoes, The Rest Comes Later
- Blood and Guts
- Most Obvious is the Least Obvious
- May You Get What You Want
- Erring on the Side of Softness
- You Are What You Do
- One Journey Leads to Another
As I wrap up my "100 Days of Xinyi" journey, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it will be great to have some more free time - these posts certainly have taken a great deal of time and effort! I am very glad, however, that I took the time to write out some of my thoughts on martial arts and the intersection of martial arts and day-to-day life - but it has meant some chunks of day-to-day life had to be put aside to write about it...
Over the next few years I will see what becomes of this blog. I am going to do some editing, add some photos, etc. I am also considering re-working some of the pieces in it for submission to other publications. Above all, I hope that it will continue to be visited by people with similar interests and passions.
My evenings will soon be occupied by holding a baby and studying. I will continue to do my Xinyi training consistently, but I am looking forward to balancing that with returning to other exercise a bit more regularly, too (like cycling to work a few times a week and getting back to the gym a couple of times a week, too).
My very best wishes to anyone out there trying to find their "way" and trying to bring some "gong fu" diligence and dedication to whatever positive they are trying to bring to life in the world. I have met many amazing people with "gong fu" (skills earned through time and effort) in a variety of fields - from martial artists to mechanics to medics to musicians to moms! If you are living your life inclining towards being upright, and you are striving to be good at what you do - then I doff my hat to you.
If our journeys and our paths cross, I look forward to our meeting.
All good things to all,
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 99 - Sept 22, 2014
We Are What We Do
"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly. These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit"
Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy [discussing the thoughts of Aristotle]
I have done my utmost to work towards the goals I set out 100 Days ago. I have not been perfect, but I have worked very hard and have actually far exceeded my "Seventy to eighty percent" best [see "Day 10"].
I have been practicing Xinyi, I have been trying to recruit students to train Xinyi with me, and I have written a daily reflection, every single day, on aspects of Xinyi (and martial arts more generally) and the intersection of martial arts with working through the challenges of daily life.
It has been a fair bit of work, and it is not over - as I hope to do some gradual editing of typos as well as add some photos and illustrations to the posts over the next year or two - so that it is not quite so daunting to the casual reader on the internet (the full "100 Days of Xinyi" now being over 86,000 words...).
One of the goals of this project has been accessibility - particularly for those wanting to learn more about Xinyiliuhequan, martial arts as an approach to daily life, and what my thoughts are on martial arts for anyone who might be interested in training with me. Hopefully it is not an overwhelming amount of information and reflection - but more an open buffet of work from which people can sample and taste sustenance.
With the coming year of my regular professional work, my attempts to keep up my Xinyi training and recruit students to teach, my second year of my Master's degree courses starting, my regular duties as a husband and friend - and mostly importantly with a baby on the way any day now! - I have no plans to attempt another "100 Days of Xinyi" project on this scale again in the foreseeable future... A colleague and friend of mine said - "Perhaps again when your child is 21!" :)
Of course, I do have other significant projects on the go and other goals I am working towards. It has been a real privilege to take time out of the past 99 days to work on this, but it is now time to work on other things, from my business to my education to my fledgling steps at parenting, and keep "gong fu'ing" at other tasks and activities in my life besides this blog.
For anyone out there who finds this blog, and gets anything positive out of it, all I ask is that you please share.
Please share this blog with others and let them know that there is a gentleman out there in Victoria, BC, Canada who is working, always, on his personal mission of "Positively Influencing Health" through his professional duties, his martial arts, his academic studies, and the life he tries to live each day.
Please also feel very welcome to contact me (email@example.com) and share your own stories, or come out and train in Xinyi, or learn gong fu cha from me, or seek me out for my consulting services for your organization or business.
And, the other way that I ask you to share, is to try to use anything you have gleaned from these writings - combined with your unique set of strengths and abilities - to help others. It is the only way that the world is going to become a place of more joy and less suffering - for my children and for yours.
I am always happy to hear from people out there who are dedicated to translating and using both ancient wisdom and modern scientific knowledge in harmony, to promote harmony.
Thank you for reading and thank you for sharing.
All good things to all,
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 98 - Sept 21, 2014
Erring on the Side of Softness
Back when I taught and trained in the basement of a Karate club in Winnipeg, I had the experience of watching people practicing karate. There is much great about various forms of Karate and much of its training. What I saw certainly looked solid and practical.
One of the regular practices was for a student to be doing some breathing techniques whereby they were half-holding their breath and they were grunting, groaning, hissing, and straining as the senior students and teachers walked around adjusting stances, encouraging solidity, and hitting students (not so hard as to hurt too much, I hope) to ensure that they were tight and solid. I once watched a senior student circle a sweating, straining, red-faced junior student, while hitting various spots saying, "Harder here... harder here... harder here..."
I then went downstairs and spent my entire training session doing the opposite with my training partners.
During my kung fu uncle's Tai Chi class, we strove for softness and suppleness of movement. While breathing we attempted to be as calm and gentle as possible. During push-hands practice we tried to use the minimum amount of force necessary to deflect our opponent and yielded to force instead of trying to fight it.
During my Xinyiliuhequan teaching part of the class, I actually had everyone assume various postures and I then walked around, pushing and striking at their defences, circling my students saying, "Relax here... relax here... relax here..."
I am in no way knocking Karate - I have long been an admirer of Japanese and Okinawan martial arts! It was just that the contrast and juxtaposition were so marked! At least in the style of Karate that I had witnessed the prior few years, clearly they had made a choice. If they were going to err on either side of hardness or softness, they had chosen hardness. This may make sense in many martial encounters.
Personally, however, I will always try to err on the side of softness. This likely comes from my love of Chinese internal martial arts. It also comes from the fact that tightening up is completely natural for me. I have never, once, found that when being attacked (physically or verbally or otherwise) that I had any difficulty getting my body and mind to tense up... I may be unique in this reaction, but I somehow doubt it!
I view tightness, hardness, strength, "muscle", etc. as the methods and reactions of last resort. This is not because I think they are ineffective - but because I know that I can always go to them out of desperation in a conflict. For me, the real challenge in fighting - and life - is to not get so tense. To keep my options open. To be flexible. To create opportunities. To problem-solve creatively. All of these require me to keep a clear head and that means that my body and mind have to harmonize in a more calm way.
When push comes to shove, I know I can push and shove. But where does that leave me? Strength on strength? Now I am hurting someone, or also getting hurt, in a conflict that I may have been able to completely avoid, had I just stayed relatively calm.
I think about this in every relationship I am in - be that with my wife, my family, friends, co-workers, impolite drivers, crossing paths with strangers, etc. If my "go to" position is strength, and power, and winning - what the hell kind of a life am I leading? Likely a stressful, unpleasant one with a legacy of anger and resentment.
It is, most definitely, possible to be too soft... In Tai Chi we used to hear the term "tofu Tai Chi" or "armchair Tai Chi" to describe people who always practiced soft, or who only knew Tai Chi only in theory, but never demonstrated it in practice (e.g. to do push-hands). Too soft can mean mushy.
There is, however, a range of "just right" amounts of dynamic tension to bring to any particular encounter, and great Tai Chi practitioners can emulate and embody (as I have argued in previous posts) all forms of water - from steam to ice.
And the same clearly goes for an art like Xinyiliuhequan. The art is based on the adaptability of animals - but if your "tiger pounces" is like a baby tiger cub and your "eagle seizes its prey" is like a baby bird accepting food from its mother - your Xinyi will be useless.
A "tiger pouncing" however, depends upon a tiger that can rest and sleep, can play, can stalk, can move quickly, can change speeds and directions flexibly, and can then bring its force and weight down on it prey, when necessary.
Like I say, I have a lot of respect for all martial artists who use their arts and skills for good. Throughout the past 98 days I have repeatedly argued for, and defended, diversity. I am so glad that there are so many martial arts and (good) martial artists. That said, the errors I make in the second half of my life, when compared to the first half, I want to be from leaning slightly too far towards kindness, softness, compassion, patience, flexibility, etc.
If I am (inevitably) going to err, I want it to be towards preventing fires - not towards putting them out and having to clean up the mess afterward.
I would rather be remembered as slow to anger and quick to forgive. We all make mistakes, so I am going to set myself up to make the best ones I can. I am pre-committing myself to take a deep breath before reacting to my family, my friends, my co-workers, etc.
Sometimes, in the worst case scenarios in life, it makes sense to go to war, but I am always going to argue that should always be the last option. Ask any veteran of any war if they feel it should be the first. We should be looking to our leaders, and ourselves, to practice prudence.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 97 - Sept 20, 2014
May You Get What You Want
There are some different translations of this famous "Chinese curse", but I have always liked the simplicity of "May you get what you want".
I spent much of my childhood dreaming of training with an old martial arts master someday. I spent many years as an adult practicing martial arts with some excellent teachers and training partners. I achieved two university degrees, and even studied "Mandarin" Chinese on the weekends for several years - in hopes that I would eventually have the means and skills to go live in China. And, in 2003, I achieved my life dream of training with a truly great Xinyiliuhequan master while living in Shanghai. I did it! Woo-hoo!!
And then, in 2004, I returned to Canada, and I moved to a new city, and I returned to the regular grind of work - and I wondered, now what?
It is not that, in any way, I thought my martial arts journey and training were at an end. It was, quite simply, that I always figured that getting to go to China and train with an amazing Grandmaster like Yu Hua Long, was always going to be one foot beyond my grasp... Therefore, on some level, perhaps I figured I'd always have a goal like that to drive me forward, to keep me reaching, to challenge me - and to center and focus my efforts.
This led to (once I'd "lived the dream") a lot of soul-searching, and a lot of reflection, and a lot of confusion!
It has really taken another ten years since returning to Canada for my life purpose to re-coalesce and grow in its current direction. In the past ten years I lived through some truly terrible tragedies and I also had a lot of great and amazing experiences, too. The past few years, I find myself working at a job I love, living in a nice home, cultivating my ongoing interests in health and mindfulness practices, enjoying my Xinyi training (and still trying to recruit students again to share it with!!), part-way into a Master's of Science in Public Health, married to a wonderful woman, and expecting the birth of my first child any day now...
The last ten years have seen so much change in my life that I still sometimes find myself sitting down in the evening and wondering - how did I get here?
"May you get what you want" is a curse, at least in part, because people are absolutely abysmal judges of what would actually make them happy. Dan Gilbert brilliantly illustrates this throughout his book Stumbling On Happiness and it is well worth stopping to consider that we are terrible at figuring out what choices to make now in order to be happy in the future.
What I have come to realize, however, since the first time that I "got what I wanted", in terms of "achieving my life's dream", is that as important as it is to have goals and dreams, it really matters much more how one lives each day. I know that sounds trite and cliché, but that makes it no less true.
I am definitely not saying that people should ignore the future as they live each day (anyone who has been following this blog should be able to attest to the fact that I believe in setting long-term, "gong fu" style goals - and that I think a major part of being human is using our frontal lobes to inhibit myopic instant gratification so that we can do so). I am also so grateful for my time in China and the opportunities I had to learn from Grandmaster Yu.
What I have become increasingly convinced of, however, is that reaching goals is of very limited importance relative to striving for the goals. As long as each day we feel we made a bit of progress and that we put in a good day (be that of work, love, training, parenting, art, etc.) - then that day was a good one.
For example, I have enjoyed, and been challenged by, the last 97 days of training, blogging, and trying to tell people about Xinyiliuhequan. I will likely enjoy and be challenged by the next 3 days until I am finished my "100 Days of Xinyi". But then, I will be working on my other goals and I'll be living my day-to-day life, and soon I'll be helping take care of a child... These are all lovely things, and I am grateful that I am able to choose to live the life I live. But, I find I am no longer so driven to "get somewhere", or grasp for things so blindly, or to try to hold on to them so tightly. "Day 100" is not going to be radically different from "Day 51" or "Day 1".
I have learned, more and more, that, as they say, one of the keys to happiness is to "want what you already have". It is also to decrease suffering (my own and others') by resisting the desire to "hold onto things" which creates suffering. I am truly lucky in this life that I have gotten what I wanted sometimes. But I consider myself even luckier that I have the will and courage to get up each day and just live the best life I can - regardless of whether I achieve the next goal or not, or if I get what I want.
My deep respect to all those people out there who are balancing trying to get what they want with being grateful for what they've got. To those who balance going for what they want and helping others towards what they want - while also balancing that with the fact that we need to really carefully examine what it is we think we want...
It all reminds me a bit of my favourite old Irish toast:
"May we get what we want;
May we get what we need;
May we never get what we deserve"
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 96 - Sept 19, 2014
Most Obvious is the Least Obvious
Over twenty years ago, my friends and I had a realization - and we regularly used the expression, "Most obvious is the least obvious" to summarize it.
I would like to say that we had this realization while doing some deep philosophical pondering or while engaging in some sort of high level holistic challenge. It was much more banal and vulgar, however (although something we did find highly motivating...) - we were trying to sneak some beer across town...
As teenagers, we realized that if we stuck a few beer in our jean jacket pockets (or sleeves) and tried to skirt through the bushes to get to a party, we would almost inevitably draw the attention of watchful neighbours and/or the police.
Yet, somehow, if we just hoisted a case of beer on our shoulders and made a bee-line down the road (and it was a small town - so this often meant right down the middle of the road!), we not only got to our destination much faster, but nobody seemed to bat so much as an eyelid!
I remember one time walking down the street (yes, the middle of the street...) as a teen, with about six other teens, drinking beer and singing "Amazing Grace" (in harmony, actually - or at least it seemed so at the time...) while coming home from a night out of drinking at the "diversion damn" (I never saw the double-meaning in that name until now!).
There we were, walking right down the middle of the street, sipping and singing, and no one seemed bothered in the least. I have little doubt that should we have tried to sneak back to our parents' homes we all would have been caught.
Now, before you take this as a tale endorsing underage drinking - it is most definitely not. It is, unfortunately, sometimes a part of small town life, and probably "mostly harmless" for most, but it was not without its casualties, for sure. Some truly horrific casualties occurred among people I knew.
I, for one, luckily managed to escape those years of alcohol experimentation relatively unscathed - partially because after making a completely stupid fool of myself one too many times - I swore off drinking of any sort at age seventeen. And, I did not consume ETOH in any form ("not even the rum balls at Christmas" as I used to say) again until I was twenty-eight years old! By that time, I realized that I could quite contentedly have a drink or two, not feel any strong desire to have more, and have a quite safe, wonderful time.
Those eleven years during which I did not drink were very good ones. Having foolishly pushed an activity too far at a young age (and then having given it up for a good, long time) taught me not to push activities too far - lest one should have to give them up! I went from the guy getting himself in trouble, to the guy usually getting his friends out of trouble - and it is a role I have much preferred over the last 20+ years!!
I have digressed, but this brings me back to my original point - that the most obvious is the least obvious. I have met so many people who want to be healthy, or in good shape, or good martial artists, or good at anything - and they seem to spend a lot of time, money, energy, etc. stressing over a lot of small, esoteric details (the least obvious), when the "low hanging fruit" seems to be things like:
- Eat a moderate amount of healthy food; If you drink, do so in true moderation
- Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep a night
- Train/exercise most days - varying the intensity on different days
- Take some days off from exercise periodically - and at least have regular (and extra as needed) "recovery days" more dedicated to stretching, skills training, etc.
- Don't sit for too long without standing up; Don't stand for too long without sitting down
- Drink plenty of water
- Don't eat junk food and processed food (or do so rarely)
- Work your weaknesses, but celebrate your strengths
- Don't do anything to excess
Being fit and being decent at a martial art is not rocket science (despite what thousands upon thousands of books and fads and gurus might try to convince you!). There are, when it comes right down to it, only so many basic ways to approach martial arts. Yes, there are a million variations based on those basics (thank goodness for variety and diversity!!), but the basics are not that different between genuine martial arts practices, particularly between things like the main Chinese internal martial arts.
So, as much as I love seeing the newest/oldest/coolest/toughest things going on in training and martial arts - I always go back to "most obvious is the least obvious". The road to longevity and "gong fu" in martial arts, or any endeavour, is most often just to work the basics over and over again until they become second nature. Stressing about being perfect - and pretending that you need some secret, magical knowledge is just going to result in all sorts of foolish silliness.
Growing up and living a relatively clean, upright life with some time carved out for training and mindfulness (and integrating training and mindfulness into day to day life as much as possible, too) is so obvious! And yet, it seems to be among the least talked about, and taught about, and practiced - aspects of martial arts. It's right there hiding in plain sight.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 95 - Sept 18, 2014
Blood and Guts
I am reluctant to comment on politics and policy in a blog such as this, but there is certainly one I am willing to take a stab at... Any martial artist worth his/her salt should be a registered organ donor - and potentially a blood donor (if not donor of other things like bone marrow, too).
I have met many martial artists (and read the views and opinions of many, many more in books, magazines, and on the internet...) and on some basic level it is clear that some of the justification for knowing a martial art (or having some sort of means of self-defence) comes down to this - "To defend myself and the innocent from harm".
Hmmm... Yet, some of those same martial artists would do things like drive drunk, speed, argue with other drivers on the road, etc. (all risking harm to others). They would allow our schools to be underfunded, our health care system to be underfunded, and our military and police to be underfunded (all risking harm to others). They would rather spend money on prisons than on early childcare and they would rather "let the market decide" than listen to scientists and try to prevent bad things happening in the first place (all foolishly risking harm to others...).
All of this appals me but, c'est la vie, we can argue about politics and policy without end... What drives me absolutely crazy, however, is that, regardless of people's politics - so many people don't sign and send in their flipping organ donor cards! In fact, what makes me even more incensed is the fact that the default position (at least here in British Columbia) is not simply that everyone is automatically considered an organ donor - unless they fill in the card stating that they do not want to be an organ donor!!!
The sheer denial, ignorance, selfishness, and laziness of masses of people who are not willing to fill out a single piece of paper, and then have a small chance of parting with some of their organs (after they no longer even need them!!) is mind-splitting to me. I think that as a society we should not tolerate this. We should be building statues to organ donors as heroes and we should be shaming those who bury their heads (and more importantly any useful organs) in the sand. We should be demanding of political candidates - are you an organ donor? And if not, we should be declining to elect such cowards.
And, as a martial artist, I simply cannot fathom how someone might claim that they would be willing to fight (and even maim or kill - or die themselves if it was absolutely necessary) to protect their loved ones, the innocent, their country - but they won't take two flipping minutes to fill in their organ donor card to potentially save lives by having to do absolutely nothing (other than sign the organ donor card!!).
If you are a martial artist who is not an organ donor you need to take a good, hard look at yourself and your values, and decide if you really are someone who practices martial arts for any of the right reasons... If you are a complete pacifist and you are not an organ donor you have got to ask yourself why if you are truly committed to not hurting others - why you wouldn't be willing to let someone else have a chance to live if you happened to die?
So, I am really looking to people to look at their values. What matters to you? Why are you willing to fight? Why are you willing to not fight? Because either way, if you really gave a crap about others, you'd have the guts to fill in your organ donor card and send it in. And then, you'd probably also be willing roll up your sleeves and give some blood - not to mention roll up your sleeves and work towards creating a society where giving (blood, organs, money, effort, time, etc.) to help others would be the norm...
[Note: If, on the off chance that you are reading this and your religion or your personal belief system somehow truly forbids you from giving blood or organs - then open your wallet, and give some extra money to a worthy cause]
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 94 - Sept 17, 2014
Put On Your Shoes, The Rest Comes Later
I remember reading a magazine article about depression when I was a kid. It had a truly depressing line in it, stated by a man that was phenomenally depressed for years: "I just grew so tired of buttoning and unbuttoning... [his shirts]"
Later, I remember seeing a documentary about depression in school where a woman described working with various counselors, therapists, and doctors - and she was so angry because they kept pointing out that she had a good job, a good husband, good kids, etc. She finally just said, "Didn't these people understand I was depressed?! I didn't give a f--k about any of those things. I wasn't sad about my life situation - I was completely depressed. None of these things registered for me!"
I have been reminded of these stories recently, with the suicides of several prominent celebrities of late. I have had a few people ask me what I thought about these suicides and here is a summary of my thoughts:
- It doesn't matter how rich or successful someone is, if they are truly depressed then they can't feel or appreciate any of those things
- Depression is not just feeling sad - it is an all-consuming state of hopelessness with a full range of associated psychological and physical symptoms and experiences
- When someone is deeply depressed, no single thing (e.g. medications, talk therapy, exercise, meaningful activity, social supports and friendships, etc.) is likely going to be enough to help them come out of it. A deep depression often seems to need to be treated from all sides - with each mutually supporting and benefitting the other (e.g. taking medications allowing for enough improvement to get some exercise; exercise helping create enough improvement to be diligent about taking medications, etc.)
- Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures - and that is when people need to be supported in life-saving decisions such as hospitalization or ECT or other options, if those are the best options for their well-being and survival
- Not everyone is going to survive a significant depression - but there are many, many things that individuals, organizations, systems, and our society can do to keep minimizing the risks and harm - and that starts with reducing stigma, but it certainly does not end there!
For example, I used to co-facilitate a weekly "Lifestyle and Wellness" group for adults who were also being treated in an associated group teaching and using Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy. In addition, these clients were being followed by a psychiatrist to manage their medications and were also seeing individual therapists/counselors.
The groups I co-facilitated with a wonderful and dynamic Recreation Therapist (named Elserine) included, among other things, sessions involving yoga (with a guest Yoga Instructor), exercise, communication skills, self-regulation skills, music (with a guest Music Therapist), mindfulness (in the form of a Labyrinth walk co-led by chaplains from spiritual care), art/clay, goal-setting, and a group field trip decided by the group members. Each ten-week group ended with me serving a Chinese Tea Ceremony to the whole group and a chance to reflect back on the previous ten weeks, thank each other for our efforts, and provide some closure as group members moved on with their lives.
I have many memories from the many groups that Elserine and I co-facilitated together - the vast majority of them good! :)
One comment, however, really stuck with me - above all else for its profound simplicity and honesty, and I think because it also reminded me of that article I had read as a child... We were talking (after a group workout) as a group about the importance of regular exercise in the management of depression. Much brainstorming and problem-solving were taking place when a woman in the group explained her experience this way:
"I never regret going to exercise. I have never once gotten home from the gym or just having returned from a short walk and said to myself, 'Well, that was a waste of time'. It is always worth something and I always feel a bit better, but it is getting out the door that is so hard. It is so hard to think about the effort of going to exercise, let alone even the effort of putting on my gym clothes."
The group agreed with her thoughts and it led to further discussion. Someone asked this woman what had sometimes actually worked for her in getting going. She answered:
"When I have even a little bit of energy I lay out my workout clothes, and my socks and shoes. Then, when I have even an ounce of energy to get moving, I don't have to think about it. I don't have to wonder what to wear or where my clothes are. I just go to them and put them on and put on my shoes. Once my shoes are on, I've always been able to get out of the house. It doesn't mean I have a perfect workout, but I at least got out of the house."
For those of us lucky enough to not have faced a severe depression, I think that this woman's wisdom deserves our attention. If you are trying to get into a regular exercise/activity regimen [consider something like Xinyiliuhequan...], put your workout clothes in one spot, ready to go. That could be hanging up on a hook by the door, or in one dedicated drawer, or in a bag in the car - it doesn't matter. What matters is that there is always the means to get dressed for exercise and get moving readily at hand. It won't necessarily always work, but it sure can increase your chances of making it happen.
So, try to listen to that inspirational woman from that group. Put on your shoes. Getting started is the hardest part. It is unlikely, no matter how hard it was to get those shoes on in the first place, that you will take them off before taking a few steps. Then, rest.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 93 - Sept 16, 2014
Flip a Coin
I had an argument years ago with a friend who was defending the use of tarot cards (and other supposed methods for telling the future - from horoscopes to the I-Ching...). I was decidedly on the side of these all being bunk. As far as I am concerned - as long as we've had oracles, we've had people manipulating the use of oracles. I imagine it is the sort of problem even the oracles would have foreseen...
What happened during the argument, however, was that my friend convinced me that tarot cards, or the I-Ching, or just flipping a coin were all valuable undertakings. [As you may have guessed this was a real argument - i.e. one in which my friend and I were actually exchanging opinions and information with the goal of actually learning something from each other...]
I stalwartly maintained that looking at cards, or star charts, or broken pieces of tortoise shells with scratches on them, or which side of a coin was facing up would (and could) NOT be an accurate reflection or indication of what was actually about to happen.
My friend simply said that was not at all the point of consulting the cards. Only a fool would look at a card and say that it tells him/her what to do next. It is, however, a person's reaction to the card, and their subsequent reflection on their reaction that is useful - because that will help the person determine what he/she does next!
I heard another wise person once explain to me that making a decision based on a coin toss is absolute lunacy. But, making a decision based on a reaction to a coin toss was perhaps the most sane way to figure out what you are really thinking and feeling about a potential decision!
Although I still don't consult tarot cards or subscribe to horoscopes - I have used the coin trick on more than one occasion. And, it was for some fairly big decisions, such as buying a home or deciding which job offer to take! I have found over the years that I don't even need to actually flip the coin anymore - I just need to imagine flipping the coin and then I can more fully picture my life and my future with either of the two scenarios.
I encourage anyone to try this for an upcoming decision. For example, before heading out to do some training (be that the gym, getting for a walk outside, or even some Xinyi...) flip a coin (after stating which side will result in going and training for thirty minutes and which side will result in giving it a pass). There are then four main options of what could actually happen following an affirmative flip:
-Coin says go work out - you are glad it says this and you go do it
-Coin says go work out - you are unhappy it says this, but you trust the coin and go out to exercise
-Coin says go work out - you are glad it says to do this, but you don't go do it (?)
-Coin says go work out - you are unhappy it says this, and you change your mind based on it (?)
And, four main options of what could happen with a contrary flip:
-Coin says do NOT go work out - you are glad it says to do this, and so you do not work out
-Coin says do NOT go work out - you are unhappy with the coin toss so you ignore it and go train
-Coin says do NOT go work out - you are glad it says this, but you go work out anyway
-Coin says do NOT go work out - you are unhappy with the coin toss but you accept it and skip working out
I really like this idea of flipping the coin when feeling indecisive. For me, it gives me a 50% chance of getting validation for what I was likely supposed to do in the first place. Even a "negative" flip yields at least two scenarios in which your pre-commitment gets done. And, if you chose not to work out, you now have some basis to think about why it did not happen (e.g. If you got the "blessing" of the coin [not to] and then did not work out, perhaps you are quite sore/tired/burned out/etc. and needed a break; If you got the "no-go" from the coins and you heeded the coin then perhaps you needed a break, too, and it was nice to get some "permission" to take a break).
[Note: This is the perfect sort of discussion (and permutations and combinations) to help me to fall asleep a little earlier than usual tonight...]
The coin toss is just a coin toss, but your interpretation of it imbues it with meaning. Same thing with anything "randomly" thrown into your life (martial or otherwise). You have almost no control over what happens to you, but you do have opportunities to think and to decide what to do with the randomness.
So get up and train. Unless, that is, you strongly overruled a coin toss encouraging some training (in which case you likely need a break) or you strongly agreed with a coin toss telling you not to go training (in which case you also likely need a break)!
And, if you are like me, and you aren't really into tarot cards and the like - then you can always save yourself some time, effort, and confusion by just going and training! Sometimes the correct decision is the one with the least thinking - as long as you thought about how some things really are better off with less thinking. This is certainly not the case for many things (see my many past arguments for nuance), but for long-term commitments, like training, it might be best just to persevere, regardless of the coin toss!
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 92 - Sept 15, 2014
Walking The Long Run
For centuries, many great things have been said and written about walking. It is clearly a great form of exercise - and the sort of holistic exercise that is great for mind, body, and spirit. For those unable to walk, the next-best-thing is at least getting outside and moving at a similar pace (e.g. on a scooter, using a wheelchair, etc.) as it seems there is just something so important for our well-being about being outside and moving along.
Others have even told stories of Xinyi-trained bodyguards who used to do their training while walking in circles (practicing their forms with and without weapons) around caravans as they travelled. Talk about a way to get a functional workout on the job!
I will leave the reader to discover what Hippocrates and Thoreau and many others had to say about walking and health. Instead, I am just going to tell a story or two about Grandmaster Yu Hua Long. He was definitely a man that went for regular walks around his neighbourhood and he was still doing this when I was training with him in 2003. Whether it was going out to grab some groceries, or just making the rounds of the neighbourhood, he was out-and-about pretty much every day - well into his seventies.
I asked him about his walks and, in turn, he told me a story about some visiting martial artists coming and exhorting him to come to the park to train with them. Apparently he was a bit frustrated by their insistence, but he agreed as he was going to go out for a walk anyway... The whole way to the park he openly practiced various types of Xinyi footwork and demonstrated movements, while talking about Xinyi. The martial artists pretty much ignored him - just pushing to get to the park to do some "real" training. Once at the park, Grandmaster Yu thanked them for their interest, told them they just missed 40 minutes of training, and then he walked home on his own - training the whole way back, too!
I loved that story, as it reminded me of how much some of the great martial artists I've had a chance to train with are so dedicated to incorporating their training into their daily life and their regular, daily movements. I even remember Master Xu Guo Ming demonstrating "tiger pounces" while reaching down to tie his shoes!
This does not mean that every moment and every step has to be "fighting". It does mean, however, that there are thousands of potential moments for training every day. Being stuck in traffic is a chance to practice deep breathing. Waiting in a line is a chance to practice balancing on one foot. Waiting for the bus is a chance to practice stretching. Attendance at long meetings is a chance to practice mindful attention and creative problem-solving - or, at the very least, patience!
So, I feel a bit sad for people that tell me they have no time to train, or no time to learn an art like Xinyi. It only takes a few minutes! A few minutes a few times a day. A few hours a week. And that adds up over a lifetime of training and applied practice.
It reminds me of that old cartoon which shows a guy at his doctor's office and he is complaining that he can't schedule enough time for exercise. His doctor responds by saying that, if that is so, he better schedule some time for being sick (!).
We don't have to set records running sprints or marathons. You can actually cover a lot more ground, over the long run - when you walk.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 91 - Sept 14, 2014
I have rarely found a philosophy, or movement, with which I could agree whole-heartedly (most not even half-heartedly - and some I would outright oppose!). I remember taking "Political Doctrines of the Twentieth Century" during my first degree, and loving the course - but being sorely disappointed that I could not find something suitable to which I could subscribe.
I mean, we covered a lot of flavours in that course, and yet I found the menu entirely unsatisfactory. There was noting I could sink my teeth into...
And then one day I was listening to the radio while stretching out at home, and a documentary came on regarding "Slow Food". And, I found myself nodding. I found myself agreeing with the vast majority of what was being put forward. Here was something with some sustainability and sustenance.
After that, I read Carl Honore's book In Praise of Slowness. This book is a masterpiece and it changed my life. Although the title would seem self-evident (i.e. much can be gained from slowing down a variety of activities in life - from food production, to music, to exercise, to making love), the author repeatedly makes the argument for the "tempo giusto" - or the just right speed for any given activity.
Sometimes, fast is good. If I sometimes enjoy heavy metal (and speed metal, in particular) then it is supposed to be fast. If I go to hear a symphony, however, I want to hear the concert musicians playing at various (appropriate) speeds - so that I can appreciate the contrasts and juxtapositions between fast and slow and medium - and the silences in-between. And if someone is bleeding in the ER, I want someone to slow, or stop, the flow of blood - but do it bloody quickly!
But fast is not always better. Increasing speed limits past a certain point just leads to more accidents and more wasted fuel. Faster eating just leads to over-eating and under-appreciating food. Honore describes (with appropriate horror!) considering the appeal of shorter, faster bedtime stories for his kids - which led to a re-examination of his life, his priorities, and the writing of the book!
So, when I do my Xinyiliuhequan training, I always try to vary the speed. I always start with slow warm-ups to allow blood to circulate to the muscles and synovial fluid to lubricate the joints. Then, throughout the session, there are varying speeds, with some movements approaching full speed, but plenty of repetitions done slowly, medium speed, or even freezing/stopping to check the postures and structure throughout.
Xu Guo Ming once told us at a seminar, "Don't crash your car learning how to drive it!" and I took this to mean - don't think that just because you now have a fancy new move from an awesome ancient art, that you should just hit the gas and do it as fast and hard as it can possibly go... That is a recipe for injury and an irresponsible way to practice gong fu. Doing anything with "gong fu" takes time.
Almost always, we would likely do better if we took a breath, relaxed our shoulders, dropped our elbows, let go of our egos, and slowed down. The ability to buy time, and space, in a stressful encounter (be that martial or otherwise), is what generally separates wise experts, from hotshot cowboys.
And your car, when driven at a variety of (slower) speeds, sure will last a lot longer and will sure be less likely to be in an accident! And if you've done that preventative maintenance, and built up your driving skills, then it is also nice to know that, if it is the appropriate time - you can brake suddenly, or you can swerve decisively, or you can even "give 'er" if you have to.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 90 - Sept 13, 2014
Order of Safety
I know that it is a somewhat morbid thought, but my wife and I had a fairly frank discussion about safety today on a car ride while heading out to visit friends. We'd had a similar talk before, but the make-up of our family is about to change, so it was worth re-visiting.
I know that living in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada - that my chances of being a victim of extreme violence are actually fairly low. I do currently work in mental health, where there are some slightly increased risks of violence (and certainly of some volatile situations), but I am not in the military, or a police officer, or a gang member, or a criminal. I am not out late at night consuming drugs or alcohol. I am not homeless or a sex-trade worker. I am not any number of other factors that would make me much more likely than I currently am of being exposed to an increased risk of extreme violence.
Considering all of that, I am still a person very much concerned with being prepared. The unsung heroes are those who prevent horrible things before they ever happen - and therefore, as the horrible thing did not happen, they never get called heroes (which is usually just fine with these people) [Nassim Taleb did an extraordinary job of describing this in The Black Swan]. Just as I need to be prepared for an earthquake in my part of the world, there is also a risk of violence for which I need to be prepared. And, more importantly, I want my wife and our soon-to-be-born child to be prepared. And, for the most part, the very frank conversation with my wife was that - should some sort of violent situation arise (or any sort of catastrophe, really), the order of importance for survival is child first, mother second, father third.
Some might call this old-fashioned. I would call it older than that - as I'd call it evolution. For most people, it's pretty obvious, but rarely discussed. If the s--t hits the fan, my wife's job is to protect our child and get herself and the child to safety (and, whenever safe to do so, call for help). My job is to get my wife and my child to cover. If that means that my thirst and hunger go unsatisfied - so be it. If that means that my wife ever has to choose to get our child to safety - and that means leaving me behind or stopping a search for me so that she can get our child to safety, so be it. If that means I have to stand in front of someone wielding a knife or a gun - so be it. I'd much rather it not come to that (I am all about prevention!), but if it did, so be it.
Do the people in your life know the order of safety? Do they know where they fit in and therefore what they should, and should not, do when considering your safety relative to their own - and their own relative to others?
I think it is the sort of discussion worth having, as uncomfortable as it may be. For those who need the most protection - it should be done in a reassuring way, but also in a way that helps ensure that they do not endanger themselves trying to protect their protectors.
For the protectors, it is probably worth talking and thinking (hard) about sometimes, so that there is predetermination and willpower exercised ahead of time to increase the odds of doing the right thing if a moment-of-truth were to arise. No one can predict exactly how they will react if the s--t hits the fan, but you are much better prepared to act functionally and as you hope you will - if you have pre-set your heart and intention in the direction you want to act.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 89 - Sept 12, 2014
Gentlemen and Gentlewomen
I find myself using the term "gentleman" quite a bit with the boys I work with. I know that it is an old-fashioned term. I also know that its etymological roots do not necessarily have much to do with what I am referring to when I exhort a client to "act like a gentleman when walking in the hall" or "try to be a gentleman this weekend when you are out with your mother"...
I do not want to get into a long discussion of gender role and differences between the sexes, etc. That is a long and winding rabbit hole from which I fear I would not emerge without a stress headache and a case of carpal tunnel syndrome...
All I want my male clients to think about when I say "gentleman" is of someone who thinks before he speaks, thinks before he acts, and thinks of others - if not before himself - then at least in addition to himself.
A "gentleman" does not have to be perfect, or a constantly ideal model of external etiquette and internal virtue. Nor does he have to wear a suit and tie or other external trappings of refinement. Nor does he have to always think pure thoughts. A "gentleman", in my opinion, simply needs to be striving to be a good person and to be the best man that he can be.
What I write in some of the kids' going away cards it is often some version of the following: "When you were focussed and calm you were really cool to hang out with and do activities with. At those times you were a true gentleman. Remember, to strive to be a true gentleman you must be both GENTLE and a MAN. You have to be kind and considerate of others and you have to use your strengths for good. I know you will be a great gentleman someday if you keep working on being the best YOU that you can be."
Yes, it is a bit old-fashioned sounding... But, many boys still respond strongly to the archetypes (good and bad) of our culture - from knights, to police and soldiers, to firefighters, to superheroes, to Star Wars... Many boys can relate to these archetypes and they want to be like these role models. If we don't cultivate the best of those traits (and many, many other positive options of masculinity from artists and musicians to farmers and mechanics) within our boys and teenagers, I fear that we risk them not having positive role models at all - and, by default, them reacting by finding "role models" to which they feel they can aspire and achieve a sense of belonging, purpose, and power - as gang members, criminals, sociopaths, wife-beaters, flavour-of-the-month celebrities, etc.
I know there are some people who want to throw out all vestiges of the past, or of gender differences, or of culture and society. I can respect many aspects of this. I always loved the expression "Question Authority!" Some things definitely need to change. The "good-old-days", as many have pointed out, were not really so good. A time when tyrants ruled by the sword, when slavery and serfdom were the norm, when superstitions led to people being tortured and burned at the stake, etc. - is not a time to which anyone but reactionary extremists would ever want to return!
I am all for "question authority", but then, once it has been questioned (and it should be regularly questioned and re-questioned as times and knowledge change) we might not want to throw everything out. We may want to keep some things and we might want to modify some things, too.
So, when I encourage the boys and teens with whom I work to strive to be gentlemen - I want them to be the gentlemen of the future. I want them to take the best of the past, the best of our cultures, the best of our shared human history - and use it to kindly think and act appropriately for our shared future.
And that means all working together - gentlemen and gentlewomen (I hope that some women out there are fighting to take back and redefine the term "ladies" and/or are going to really own a term like "gentlewoman", too). That means thinking about how we really want to live. How we want to be treated. And, how we are going to treat others.
A gentleman/gentlewoman who is also a martial artist is, to me, a truly high ideal. But I have seen it. I have seen it when martial artists have calmly resolved disputes (with and without violence). I have seen it after combative sports (where the winner has humbly acknowledged the loser, and the loser has graciously acknowledged the winner). I have seen it in teachers like Yu Hua Long who, particularly in his later years, continuously reminded his students (men and women) to only use what they were taught as a last resort, and to never harm the young or the old. To protect one's family and country, but to only fight if it was absolutely necessary.
Let's strive to be gentlemen and gentlewomen. Let's practice the "gong fu" of striving to be fully realized human beings. Let's be the best people - as well as for some of us martial artists, too - that we can be.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 88 - Sept 11, 2014
What is worth being afraid of?
The question, "What is worth being afraid of?" is an important one. So much of our lives, whether we are aware of it or not, is governed by fear and fleeing discomfort. This actually makes plenty of sense. In nature, we would not have had that many chances to learn that is worthwhile to be afraid of tigers, or snakes, or poisonous spiders, or people intent on hurting us, or fire, etc...
It would have been much better to learn from a single experience of events like this. I would have been even better than that to learn from someone else just telling about an experience like this so that we could learn vicariously without being at physical risk ourselves.
I don't really like spiders much. But, I have worked with so many kids over the years who are afraid of them (and so many fellow staff members who are afraid of them), that I have managed to learn to calmly catch and release (outside) the spiders we find at work. I do this very mindfully, as I want the children to see that it is quite possible to catch spiders without hurting them and without getting too scared. Having a plan and a method (I usually catch them under a clear cup and then I slide a piece of cardboard under them so I can transport them outside) allows for me to both teach kids a way to deal with the thing they are afraid of, while also showing them that I am not afraid myself (and I always give the kids a chance to take a good, long look at the spider and help me release it outside.
I also, when working with older kids or teens, tell the kids that although I am a bit scared of spiders, I keep getting less and less so through practice and exposure. I also tell them that I have healthy respect for spiders such that I don't usually handle them with my bare hands or try to tick them off - there is a reasonable level of respect for nature that we should all have! And, for the most sophisticated of kids and teens, I explain that I used to live in Manitoba and that there the real plague and enemy is the mosquitoes -- so despite my distaste for spiders, in the battle of the bugs, the enemy of my enemy is my friend!!
I have the utmost empathy and respect for my clients who are afraid of things - and particularly for those who are willing and able to learn about, and try out, exposure-based therapies. I have been honoured to watch clients, over the course of weeks of preparation and gradual exposure, be able to far exceed their wildest expectations regarding accomplishing things they had long been stopping themselves from even trying.
And the more I learn about martial arts (over the past 25+ years!), the more I learn that so much of martial arts is about managing fear and anxiety to the best of our ability, while learning to actually work with this energy and use it to accomplish what we set out to do - be that short terms goals of survival or long-term goals of self-improvement, achievement, or otherwise thriving in life.
The best of both worlds seems to be walking that line between having enough fear and energy to be motivated to train hard and perform well - and not so much that our function is compromised or freezing (at the moment of truth) and procrastination (day after day) take hold of us!
As I have said to many clients, many times: "I would never want to go to an accountant that doesn't have any OCD traits" or "I would never want to go to a doctor who does not worry about doing a good job" or "a lawyer that has no fear of ever losing" or "a police officer that has not fear of what criminals are capable of doing". The relationship between anxiety/arousal in psychological research - of the "Inverted U-Shaped Curve" - created by plotting anxiety on one axis and performance on the other is so powerful and has, for the most part, stood the test of time.
So, be afraid.
Just don't be too afraid! And try not to be afraid of the wrong things! Terrorists and Ebola Outbreaks and the Zombie Apocalypse are all "scary" - but they are highly unlikely to happen to most of us. What is likely to happen is being in a car accident, being robbed or assaulted, getting diabetes if you are obese, getting lung cancer if you smoke, etc...
And for those who are out there serving and protecting us, in the military, the police, the fire department, corrections, etc... - it makes very good sense to be afraid of the bad guys and dangerous situations - enough to prepare well to defeat them and to do everything possible to manage risks - to give yourself the best shot at coming home safely. But, again, that doesn't just mean learning how to fight and shoot (although those would be very important). It, as importantly, means taking good care of your own mind, body, and spirit - such that you can do the jobs we depend on you to do, but you can also do it for long time without getting health problems that are every bit as likely to take you out as the bad guys might be (if not much more likely to do so!).
We all would likely benefit from sitting down and assessing our personal risks - and the risks to our most treasured institutions (e.g. democracy, science, health care, equality, diversity, the environment, etc.). Sometimes it makes good sense to be afraid and it makes good sense to "fight" (more often with words and votes than with fists or weapons) for the things we most value and believe in.
As Aristotle supposedly once said (translated):
"Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy."
The same goes for any emotion. Not the least of which is that it goes for fear. We need a healthy amount of fear to live (and even to appreciate) a good life. And we need to stop treating fear like it is the enemy. It is lack of nuance and black-and-white, all-or-nothing, extremist thinking that is the enemy. It is not being able to manage fear that is the energy. It is jumping to simple conclusions that is the enemy. And let's never forget -it is the bad guys who want to do bad things to good people who are the enemy!
And our response to the feelings within ourselves and to the real threats outside ourselves ought to be to the right degree. This is incredibly important. And it is definitely not easy.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 87 - Sept 10, 2014
Thirteen years ago I graduated with my second university degree. It was a "Bachelor of Medical Rehabilitation in Occupational Therapy". It was the culmination of three very long years of school (actually four years worth of credit hours crammed into three years!!!!). Also, both of my summer jobs during school were related to rehabilitation (it was like getting two extra-long fieldwork placements in addition to the six unpaid ones I already had to do through school during my degree!).
I was very fortunate to graduate with a variety of honours from my program. I won the awards each year for the highest mark in my class (I happily tied with a classmate for the highest mark in second year). I won the Psychosocial Prize at graduation (for highest overall marks in all the psychosocial courses during the degree). I won the Fieldwork Award (as during my 6 fieldwork placements I had the most professional supervisors nominate me as an outstanding fieldwork student). I also won the Future Leadership Award (as voted by my professors and instructors at the end of the program).
It was pretty incredible to have won so many awards across so many areas of learning and practice. I was both proud and humbled by the experience and the awards.
I have done my best to practice with integrity as an OT in helping clients. And, I have tried (to the best of my ability) to ensure that my profession honours and protects its history, its diversity, and its most experienced practitioners and mentors (battle cries which, unfortunately, continually need to be raised...).
I wanted to take a moment today and say a big "THANK YOU!!!" to all the great teachers I have had over the years. In over ten years of university education - and the twelve grades of school prior to university - I can count on one hand the number of truly bad teachers I have had the unfortunate experience of running across. The rest have all been good, great, or truly amazing.
And, as far as great teachers go, I want to also include fieldwork supervisors, workplace mentors, martial arts teachers, my tea teacher, martial arts training partners, etc. The vast majority have been a pleasure and an honour to work with and learn from and with. I cannot thank you all enough.
The few terrible teachers, at least, also taught me a few things:
- I am responsible for my own learning and therefore I can learn despite obstacles thrown in my way
- I can overcome incompetence and think for myself when the instruction and/or role-modelling is poor
- Just because a teacher may be great in their subject or field does not make them necessarily a good person - so know what to learn and what not to learn from such teachers...
- I can keep my head down when I need to (either switching teacher/course or just getting the course/learning done) - and I can fight back when I absolutely need to (e.g. successfully launching a petition to change a horribly taught and organized course)
- Life is going to throw terrible teachers/bosses/bullies/tyrants at me (and all of us) that I will have to either survive, deal with, or escape - and I have the ability to do so
What did the amazing teachers teach me? Well, I am not going to write a list of the hundreds upon hundreds of positive influences that those great teachers had on myself and my fellow students in the wide area of subjects I have studied. It would simply be too long! And, great teachers give you lessons that are not only useful at the time, but may be useful long afterward in the future. So, I am still learning things each day - sometimes from teachers I had over twenty years ago!
And this makes me reflect on what I would love to hear from my students someday (be those occupational therapy fieldwork students, volunteers at work that I mentor, new staff I orientate, people that have come to me for advice, martial arts students, tea students, etc.)... Yes, I always like hearing a "thank you" once in a while, but what I also love is hearing is years later that I made some kind of positive impact on the person's actual behaviour.
When a former student later tells me how they overcame an obstacle, or worked through a very challenging situation, helped someone else in need, or stayed calm and acted appropriately when others were starting to panic - and they tell me they remembered some bit of advice I gave them, or some resource I had pointed them towards, or some experience they had while working with me - well, that's priceless. I don't want credit for their achievements - their achievements are well-deserved from their hard work. But, it really is amazing when you hear you might have helped out a little bit.
Because my experience with great teachers has been that what they really want is students who are, first and foremost, out in the world acting with kindness, compassion, and honour. None of them have ever told me I need to be "the greatest" or that I need to be a "master" or "perfect". All of my great teachers have told me that I need to use what I learned to go after my goals, to treat people with dignity and respect, and to try to do a little part towards making the world a little bit of a better place.
So thank you so much to all the teachers out there spreading that message. And thank you so much to all the students out there trying their best to employ and embody what their great teachers are trying to teach them.
Living a good, honourable life is the greatest lesson you can ever provide as a teacher - and trying to do so is the best thanks you can ever reciprocate as a student.
[Note: To see a little article I wrote just after graduating where I tried to describe the experience of being a student and thanking my teachers, you can check out this link:
And for more information on the "Levels of Training" model described - please check out Days 42, 43, 44, and 45 in the "100 Days of Xinyi" below.]
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 86 - Sept 9, 2014
When I was a kid, I could barely wait until I was old enough to go to "The Teen Center" in my hometown. The draw of going there for me was that it had a pool table.
I spent a fair number of nights there in my junior high school years, trying my hand at eight-ball. I never got particularly good at pool, but I could make some decent bank shots and could hold my own against my friends. As an adult, I played sporadically in university and then once in a while in the past decade, if a friend invited me to go out to shoot some stick.
In the past year, however, I found myself wanting to re-visit some of my old interests - so I connected with a co-worker whom I had heard was "decent" at shooting pool.
Turns out, he is a very good player. One of the better players at the billiards hall we play in! He is not into martial arts at all, but I found myself laughing, often, when he started teaching me how to play better than I had been. Turns out, shooting pool well (and doing lots of things well) is very similar to doing martial arts well.
My friend did not really try to adjust my basic shot too much. Unless I wanted to start right from scratch, it made the most sense to accept my basic shot for what it is. That said, he taught me how to ensure that my stance was correct and that I was truly taking the weight through my legs. He also taught me how to make sure my elbow was at ninety degrees when I hit the ball - such simple structural rules that vastly improved my game!
Then, he taught me that to be any good at pool, it really is all about looking ahead and planning out your shots. Yes, you will occasionally have to make crazy-good shots to save yourself from a horrible position - but what consistently wins games is consistently getting the white ball into the position you want it in for your next shot.
As I have little desire to ever become a pool "master", I have just enjoyed the process of learning and seeing myself get better each week and each month. I try to shoot once or twice a week (once seems to provide maintenance - twice seems to allow for improvement) for a couple of hours. It is a great, not-too-physical task (I already get lots of exercise and physical training through Xinyiliuhequan and other pursuits) that I find mindful enough to be relaxing, and relaxing enough to not fully mind when I miss shots or lose games.
And, I win often enough (against other players - not my tutor!) that I see progress and it feels nice to win some.
And to my pool-playing co-worker - I lose plenty... In fact, it is only recently that he has even started to have any "worry" during games against me. He had, for months, not only the advantage of knowing that he was almost always going to win, but the added advantage of knowing that even if he made serious mistakes during his games that I would be unable to capitalize on them and come out on top. This has changed a bit - I can at least "threaten" now and push him to play better when he makes mistakes!
Of all the comparisons between pool and martial arts that I like best, It is the division of mindfulness into three separate realms which I observe when playing.
The first is the big picture of the table. From the moment of the break it is looking at the whole table. Trying to assess if high ball or low ball is better positioned. Which balls are problem balls? How and when can they be dealt with? What order should the balls be sunk in?
The second realm is the exact opposite mindset... How am I going to make this shot in front of me, right here and right now? This requires narrowing of focus right down to how you approach the ball, how you line up the shot, and the split secondof truth when the cue contacts the white ball, leading into the follow-though. That second has to be just right.
The third realm of where the white ball is going to go after the shot, however, is what separates someone who is good at making shots from someone who is good at winning games. You can make the greatest, most-impossible shots in the world, but if you then sink the white ball or hook yourself - it's all for naught. You always have to be trying to set up your next shot, while at exactly the same time not already focussing on the next shot - or you will miss the current shot!
I don't want to go too overboard with all the comparisons (there are many, many more), but those three levels of long-term strategy, short-term making your shots, and mid-term setting up your next shot - well, that really seems to describe a martial arts encounter, or an investment plan, or a career, or life in general!
We need to stop and take a step back and look at the big picture - otherwise, all the work in-the-moment is useless "busy work". But, we can't just sit back and look at the big picture all the time - or nothing gets done! And, the only way things get done is trying to do our best right now, and trying to set ourselves up for our next goal. One step leading to the next step.
And, when things don't go as planned, we do our very best to either use our overlearned, overcapacity skills (e.g. crazy banks shots!) to get out of a bad spot, or we otherwise mitigate being in the bad spot (e.g. if you can't make a good shot for yourself, at least set up a bad spot for your opponent!).
Shooting pool is, in no way, a substitute for regular exercise or martial arts training at this point in my life. But one thing I like about pool is the potential to just keep plugging away at it like a "gong fu" practice and get better-and-better over the years to come. As I say, I am not so much seeking mastery at it, as I am trying to enjoy it and have an activity that I can go to for relaxation, socialization, and fun for many years to come. The same thing I often tell people to encourage them to at least come and try out an art like Xinyi.
Are there any practices in your life completely unrelated to martial arts or gong fu, that you think you could bring a little bit of martial arts or a gong fu mindset to?
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 85 - Sept 8, 2014
The other day I got some "unsolicited advice" from a friend's wife recommending a book about children and sleep, as she knows that my wife is expecting our first child in October. I told her I was more than happy to receive unsolicited advice - as I dispense it myself on a regular basis... ;)
After she told me about the book for a few minutes I told her that I was completely sold. I think this surprised her - likely because she thought she would have to explain more about the book and because it caught her off guard that I actually listened and was open to the advice!
I tried to explain to her how much I love sleep. I told her that I have read many books and articles on sleep. I told her that I have watched and listened to documentaries on sleep. I told her that I teach sleep hygiene at work.
I told her that one of my absolutely favourite quotes in the world is a translation of Chang Tzu (Zhuangzi) in which the author describes waking from a dream and wondering if he is a man dreaming he is a butterfly or if he is a butterfly dreaming he is a man... There are many interpretations of this quote and the context around it, but I always took it to mean - how do I know that my dreaming life is not my so-called real life, and what I consider my so-called real life is not a dream?
Of course, the narrative of my "real life" seems more coherent, consistent, and literal (most days) - so I don't think I would too often risk reversing the two! But, my point is more simply that I don't understand why we don't appreciate or "value" our dream life and our unconscious life a bit more. It seems to me that something we spend a third of our lives doing is probably pretty important - particularly, as until very recently, much of our waking hours were spent just trying to survive (and we probably spent a lot more time sleeping, too).
I have definitely chosen to believe, and think in terms of, my sleep time/life as being very worthwhile and very valuable. With a baby on the way - I have no doubt whatsoever that the underappreciated value of sleep will soon be made even more apparent! If anyone has any doubts as to how important sleep is - talk to new parents.
What makes me ponder the value of sleep - more so than for basic rest and recovery (which are already under-rated and indescribably important!) has been reading about volunteers who take part in sleep studies in underground bunkers (where exposure to light and darkness can be completely controlled). Not only do these people, who truly get away from night-time artificial light, finally get caught up on their "sleep debt" (something almost all of us carry around), but they also describe, when finally caught up and finally getting consistent, ample sleep - the experience of being truly awake!
So maybe I am onto something when I describe how my sleep life and my waking life are both so important to me. Maybe it is because I recognize the importance of sleep - but maybe it is because, like so many people in the modern world, my consciousness is sometimes, sadly, a bit of a blurry haze between wakefulness and sleepiness. It is not a nice thing to admit - that I (and many others!) may be sleep-walking through life to some degree or another...
When I read about all the things that not getting enough sleep supposedly does to people (slows reaction time, hurts overall health and fitness, slows healing and recovery, interferes with learning, etc.), I can't help but think of how much the opposite would benefit a martial artist! That is, what martial artist, ancient or modern, wouldn't sign on for a completely safe and legal "performance enhancer" that can accelerate reaction time, improve health and fitness, speed up healing and recovery, and consolidate and enhance learning?! Show me a "supplement" or "drug" that really delivers all of that and I will show you the item that would next be added to the list of banned and controlled substances in sport...
And, of course, you can have too much of a good thing. As a psychologist I used to work with once pointed out - "The people in population studies that get the most sleep are not the most healthy - because they are the same ones who are unemployed, or facing mental or physical illness, etc.". And, each person is going to be somewhat unique - such that some people may be able to thrive on as little as six hours a night (or in extreme cases, less) whereas some people may need ten (or more)!
Just like training - it takes practice and experience to sort out the right amount and the right duration. But also just like training - it takes some discipline to actually try it out and see if it is working or not.
Interestingly, the secret to overcoming this is not to "do more". It is not to do anything more than staying up less late. The secret to waking up is going to sleep. How's that for a yin-yang transformation? The key to being more awake is to sleep more. The key to doing more in your waking hours is to spend more time sleeping. The key to living a fully awake life is to live a fully asleep life, too.
So, here's to the lowest effort training you will ever be encouraged to do. This isn't advice to train more or harder. This is not even advice to focus and be mindful. This is advice to turn out the lights an hour earlier than you currently do - and go to sleep. I hope it's some of the most sound and useful unsolicited martial arts and day-to-day life advice you ever get - and that you consider being open to trying.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 84 - Sept 7, 2014
Writing Your Own Story
If you read yesterday's post, you might get the impression that I don't believe that anything happens for a reason. Without knowing me, or reading posts prior to that one, you might take me for a nihilist - and you would be sorely mistaken!
I am strongly idealistic and I am definitely an optimist. I have also read a fair bit of positive psychology and Martin Seligman's (and others) studies of optimists and how, in almost every endeavour in life, personal and professional, it is best to go into most situations with an optimistic personality and mindset. This does not mean that one has to be Pollyanna or Pangloss - it just means that you are much more likely to be both successful (e.g. at solving problems or overcoming obstacles) and happy (and I mean a balanced, realistic type of happiness) if you approach the world from an optimistic point of view.
This is, of course, as true in martial arts as it is in the rest of life. Who would even undertake the study of martial arts if she/he did not believe that by studying and practicing she/he could get better at their art? Find me a true pessimist and it seems likely that this is the sort of person who would not undertake any rigorous course of study (or the long term practices of "gong fu" in any craft) because - what's the point? It could all go to heck in a hand-basket any minute so why even bother?
Another place to really see this in action is when watching fighting sports. If you see interviews with two boxers before their bout, and they both seem confident and convinced that they will win, then you would have to base your best guess of the outcome on a variety of other factors (e.g. experience, conditioning, past record, etc.).
But, if during those interviews one of the fighters said flat out, "You know, I've trained hard and I am in great shape, but I am going to get my ass kicked! That other guy is too good and there is no possible way I can win." - you wouldn't really need to know much else to have a very good shot at picking the winner and loser of the ensuing bout (assuming the fighters were being fairly honest about their state of mind - which if one were not feeling confident he/she would likely be better off to disguise before a fight!).
Of course, both fighters would ideally be convinced that they were going to triumph. And realistically only one of them is going to! Is that foolish optimism? Perhaps. But if you are committed to "going for it" in life (whatever your "it" might be), in any endeavour, you need enough pessimism to be appropriately worried and work hard, but enough optimism to let go of doubt when it is time to just go for it.
I have read almost no stories of survival (the kind where people had to carry on for weeks or months or years before making it to safety, etc.) where pessimism was what got people through.
If you have not read about, or even seen a film about, Sir Ernest Shackleton, please take the time to do so. If ever there was a tale of a person exhibiting strength of character to save the lives of his crew, it is this nearly unbelievable story. And this is not to argue in any way that Shackleton did not have his doubts or his pessimistic days - but he always managed, when push came to shove, to err on the side of optimism - and this was necessary for survival.
I do NOT believe that "everything in life happens for a reason" (see yesterday's post for my strong feelings regarding that expression...). What I do believe, is that after-the-fact we humans as "makers of meaning" can, over time, write the story of our lives in ways that make our lives meaningful - or we can write the story of our lives in ways that make our lives seem meaningless.
To quote Soren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” To some, this is tragic and part of a big "cosmic joke" on all of us. For others, this is the whole point - life is going to be a variety of experiences, some of which we have some influence and control over, most of which we will not - and what matters is how we come to understand our lives. What matters is the meanings that we ascribe to what happens to us and what we do.
I think that martial arts (and "gong fu" more generally), are one of the best ways to approach much of surviving and thriving in life. There is definitely an edge of pessimism involved. A certain realism that violence can happen and an acknowledgment that we are all also going to get older and "weaker" and eventually die. But, more importantly, gong fu gives a person tools for optimistically "living forward" despite the risks and tragedies - and a way to constantly spar and dance with the unfolding story of our past, our present, and the future.
Everything that happens - happens (at least it sure felt like it happened...)! What matters is how you live with it, how you react to it, and how you decide to understand and make sense of it. Some of it may not make any sense at all (or not make any sense for years to come) - and that is fine. And some of it makes sense but is still completely absurd, unjust, and unfair. What is intriguing to me is that as fully realized human beings we can have a hand in writing our own story. We can, with the teachings of our own and other cultures, with our friends and family, and with our own minds and our own bodies - wrestle with life and flow with life and contribute to other people's lives and stories, too. And stories should be full of richly nuanced characters with interesting experiences and takes on the world - not cardboard cut-outs or oversimplified villains and heroes.
As one of the greatest modern philosophers ("lovers of wisdom") - a man who was truly engaged in his particular art, both as a great player and a great coach - once said:
“If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.” Yogi Berra
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 83 - Sept 6, 2014
Among my least favourite expressions in the English language (and there are several), there is one that I find consistently grating. I know it is uttered by people meaning to say something comforting. And, it is often uttered by people I truly care about - but I still wince every time I hear anyone say it: "Everything happens for a reason".
Instead of being comforting, I find this expression excessively simplistic to the point of being hurtful. On the one hand, yes, everything does happen "for a reason". If you trace things back enough steps you will find that one thing led to another. Duh! It's called physics. Is this helpful for suffering, though? For the family of a woman just starting college who was killed by a lightning strike, is it particularly helpful to trace back the steps of how lightning works and how a storm is formed and how sheltering from the rain under a tree may have been a mistake, etc.? Is it really helpful to come up with the "reasons" why this woman is dead, while other people sheltering under countless other trees, that same day, and countless other days, are not dead?
The second part of "everything happens for a reason" that I find so hurtful is the implication that the suffering people subjected to it are supposed to find it comforting... When a child dies after years of chemotherapy to deal with a cancer they had since birth is it particularly comforting to hear "everything happens for a reason"?? If that is supposed to be comforting what could you possibly say to these people that might be more hurtful?? How about poking them with a sharp stick and adding things like: "Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah - there is some good reason that your kid suffered and died while other people's kids thrive and live! God hates you. The universe hates you. You did something to deserve this. Now, make sense of it - because it happened for a reason! Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah!!"
Of course, when people have tried to comfort me by saying this piece-of-garbage expression, I don't get mad at them. I know that what they are really saying, I hope, is something like: "Holy f--k! This reminds me that the world is so damned scary that I just can't deal with it and the only way I can contain and manage my own terror and horror is to try to tell you that there must be a reason for this and I hope to God that reason also means it can't and won't happen to me!"
And, I don't point out people's own terror when they have tried to say "everything happens for a reason" (or when I have heard people I care about lamenting that people keep telling them this crap, too). I simply have chosen to completely reframe and reform their words so that by the time they reach my heart, I have instead heard: "I am so sad to hear that happened. I guess we could all have everyone and everything we care about ripped from us at any possible second. I love you and care about you and I don't know what else to do or say".
Because I have lived through a few truly horrific things, and I have friends who know this, I end up being a person that sometimes gets called when terrible stuff happens (and I am so grateful that my friends feel that they can call me at these times because I want to be there for them!). I think this is partly because they know that I will be able to relate - and it is partly because they are so tired of talking to other people who say such shallow treacle to them...
A friend of mine, after a terrible tragedy, finally said to me, "Sean, if one more person says 'I'm sorry" or 'It must have happened for a reason' or 'I guess God just works in mysterious ways' or anything else like it I am going to completely lose it!!"
I taught him my trick of hearing all of these things as "I love you", first and foremost, and, if the person was particularly patronizing, persistent, and grating, adding that they are also really saying: "I am a terrified little speck in the universe and I need to comfort myself more than I need to comfort you so I am going to dispense this mush instead of really empathizing with you as a fellow, vulnerable, suffering human being".
As much as I believe in prevention and as much as I believe in personal freedom and responsibility - sometimes s--t happens!!! It did not happen for any good reason. It did not happen to this person over that person due to anything other than sheer, dumb luck. Life is full of suffering and there is more than enough to go around.
Through martial arts, you can train yourself into a tough and finely honed weapon. You can even learn to shoot guns and build a bomb shelter. You can drive around in a damned tank or a nuclear submarine - yet you will someday die all the same. And, ironically, the longer you do manage to truly live - the longer you are going to have the time and energy to get to know and love and watch suffer and die more people you care about, too.
And through some of that training and some of that living - one of the greatest things you actually can offer to the world and the people around you is your strength. Not muscle strength - but emotional and spiritual strength. You don't need to explain to people who are suffering that "everything happens for a reason" - not just because it is a BS answer and patently false - but because you are strong enough to sit with suffering people and just be with them - and then offer any wanted help or comfort that is actually helpful and comforting.
You can sit with the fact that sometimes things happen for no reason. Often life is completely unfair. Some horrible, monstrous human beings live long lives of blissful, hurtful, willful ignorance - while millions of innocent children die s--ting their guts out from highly preventable diseases.
And if you can sit with that, and with suffering people, you can do at least five potentially useful things:
- Actually being with them and staying with them - and returning to them - long after the supposedly sympathetic have said a few meaningless words and moved on
- Actually offering to help them by providing something to drink, something to eat, some money, respite for their kids, a shoulder to cry on, diversion, a sounding board, etc. - as needed
- Actually telling them you love them and that you are sad and there is no good reason that this happened to them
- Actually acting in the world, from a place of calm and stillness and compassion to help reduce suffering without just blindly striking out and adding to it
- Actually compassionately taking care of yourself adequately so that you keep up your strength to help others
And for those who actually did, and do, one or more of the five things above, and who continue to be those truly strong people in the world for others - I love you. And you are truly amazing heroes of strength and compassion. You live your practice. You are ready and there for others when stuff happens.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 82 - Sept 5, 2014
The Karate Kid
I had a client at work who could focus for all of one or two minutes at a time. He was glazing a clay object under my watchful eye the other day and I could not, no matter what I tried, get him to slow down and take his time. Finally, I said, "Have you ever seen the movie 'The Karate Kid'?"
He paused (for a second) and said he had seen the recent remake. I tried not to sigh too audibly... "Well, in the original movie there is a scene where the main character, Daniel, has to paint a fence. And he has to put all his focus and effort into deliberately painting the fence - 'up, down, paint the fence, up down'. Try to imagine that when you glaze the mug you are working on."
My client got the point and he was able to focus for about three minutes instead of two. Which you can either look at as still problematic, because it is! Or, you can look at it as a 50% improvement in performance, which it also is...
A couple of days later a co-worker and I were chatting about my use of the "Karate Kid" example, and it got round to the story of how I ended up involved in martial arts. I must have been ten or eleven and I went to a birthday party at my friend Stephen's place. After the games, and cake, and singing, etc. - we went down to the basement to watch a movie that was fairly new on VHS.
Well, for those of you who have seen the movie, you know that it is a somewhat cheesy (but awesome!) tale about a teenager (played by Ralph Macchio) who is eventually taught karate by an old master (played by Pat Morita). The primary message of the movie is that through hard work (often through lots and lots of repetition of daily tasks/chores), discipline, listening to your teacher, etc. - one can craft oneself into a martial artist and a better person. [If you have not seen the movie, it really is worth seeing. Accept the cheesiness and just go with it - and just be sure to eat some extra fruits and vegetables afterward to balance all the cheese].
Of course, even though it purports to be a movie with a message that transcends violence, it actually ends with a karate tournament and a whole whack of fighting (set to awesome 80's music!). And, of course, after watching this movie my friends and I proceeded to take the message to heart - and beat the ever-living-crap out of each other for the next hour or two, until we were sent home after a variety of minor injuries were sustained by some of the guests.
I went home and began one of the those seemingly classic childhood obsessions on karate and all things martial arts, Far Eastern, etc. Except this obsession lasted. And, bless my mom, she decided that the only way to safely channel this would be if I actually started taking some martial arts lessons (as I was already kicking up a storm in the basement with no instruction whatsoever). She enrolled me in some classes that were starting just down the street. Thus began my first lessons in Tae Kwon Do - and over the years my eventual involvement in Chinese martial arts - and my enduring affinity for Xinyiliuhequan, travelling to China, etc.
Although "The Karate Kid" movie has not aged all that well (I insist it is still a classic, though!) and the sequels were pretty terrible - and the latest remakes were pretty terrible (why didn't they just call them 'The Kung Fu Kid" and start a new, related franchise right from scratch??), I still find myself referring to it - occasionally with the kids I work with, and occasionally with martial arts students and training partners over the years.
Because as silly and cheesy as much of the movie is - it has the archetypal "hero's journey" within it, and it has many of the archetypes of martial arts and "gong fu" based training within it. It is well worth a watch. It is even more worthwhile to get outside and do some chores mindfully in a "paint the fence" fashion - and to actually practice some martial arts moves, too.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 81 - Sept 4, 2014
The Grumpy Old Man and the Sweet Old Lady
Before anyone jumps on me for the metaphor the I am about to describe - I want to make it very, very clear that the "grumpy old man" and the "sweet old lady" I am about to refer to are, very intentionally, clichés. They are stereotypes. They are tropes. No one can (or at least no one should) ever be able to be summed up in such a way - with three words. These are not real people to which I am referring. This is simply a way that I have (grossly) oversimplified the ongoing state of détente within me, and that I try to use to describe its yin-yang interconnectedness.
At parties, if someone asks me to describe myself, and I am feeling particularly open and playful, I will sometimes joke that there are two people living in my stomach... One is a "grumpy old man" who sits on the porch and yells at kids to stay off his lawn (!). The other is a "sweet old lady" who serves tea in little teacups and eats cookies and scones with guests. These two appear to be complete opposites, but somehow they get along. They more than "get along", actually - they need each other. They balance each other. They "complete" each other (to continue to over-squeeze, cliché expressions...
People who are just meeting me usually laugh at my self-description. And, it sometimes leads to some further discussion (and a great deal more nuance!). People who already know me, usually laugh pretty hard at my description - because they know it is actually somewhat accurate!
There is a part of me that can be quite grumpy and irritable and impatient and defensive. That same part of me, however, has a fairly good BS detector, is quick to call out BS, does not waste too much time on BS - and is among the first to defend his family and friends from BS!
That "grumpy old man", however, is completely unbalanced, and unsustainable without the "sweet old lady" who lives with him inside me, who is sociable, outgoing, forgiving, and nurturing. She also is quite willing to take time to herself, read and reflect, remember things from the past, and be willing to give a good lecture or scolding when one is long overdue!
These two characters clearly represent aspects of my interests. It may be the "grumpy old man" that loves practicing martial arts, sipping a beer or glass of wine, striving to conserve and improve things, shooting pool, etc. It may be the "little old lady" that loves working with youth, studying, sharing learning, and meditative/mindfulness practices such as serving tea.
These two characters each have their strengths and limitations. They each have their excesses and their insufficiencies - but they each balance each other. They protect each other (each in their own way) and they take care of each other.
I know that some of this metaphor comes from an experience near the end of my first visit in China when I served traditional Chinese tea (gong fu cha / cha dao) to a table of Chinese people (who were somewhat flabbergasted that I knew what I was doing) and one of them said to me at the end - "You remind me of my grandfather!" It was one of the best critiques and compliments I have ever received!
I was reflecting on all of this right after work today while having a coffee with a friend from university. I talked about how much I value my martial arts practice because it helps to balance out much of my day which is spent working with children.
At this point, I am not interested in teaching children martial arts (unless that were just a couple of children I would teach privately with their parents), as I already spend my days working with kids and I am about to spend my evenings with my own kid once she/he is born!
That said, if someday my job switched to working with adults, or managing adults, or consulting with adults - I might really start missing my work with kids and want to actively recruit kids to teach! For the time being, I am really looking for adults (and even older teenagers) to teach Xinyiliuhequan and/or Gong Fu Cha to - because I feel that it would greatly help them find balance in their lives - and also because practicing (and teaching) these disciplines has always helped me find balance in mine.
And now, considering I have done my Xinyiliuquan practice for the day (this morning) and I even got in some exercise and stretching this evening - I am going to finish this post and settle in before bed with a good book and a cup of tea (non-caffeinated - it is nearly bedtime after all...). My "grumpy old man" is already contentedly dozing on the couch - and my "sweet old lady" is going to enjoy some peace and quiet.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 80 - Sept 3, 2014
Strength Through Diversity
As I have argued many times, it is, first and foremost, from the diversity and variety of the animals in Xinyiliuhequan that we derive strength in our practice. Diversity and change allow for a martial arts tradition hundreds of years old to still be relevant today and into the future.
When facing a martial situation, it is the ability to adapt and confidently respond in a variety of functional ways that creates options. This does not mean that we want to be paralyzed by an excess of options (there need to be moves and responses that we have overlearned to the point of automaticity). It means, instead, that we need to have trained a variety of skills in a variety of ways - so that even if we are facing a brand new situation we can creatively improvise using infinite permutations and combinations of what we have practiced.
There is a certain strength and power that comes from uniformity. Thank goodness for some standards and regulations! In Canada, we all agree to drive on the right side of the road - and this uniform standard sure makes it easier to drive and get places safely! The problem is that we also need to be able to react appropriately when someone comes barreling directly at us in our lane - driving directly in their left lane! According to some research I have heard about, many accident investigations discover that some people never even took evasive action when someone was clearly driving straight at them. Some people didn't even brake fully. It was as if there was a denial that there could possibly be a car driving straight at them in the wrong lane!
A truly great, defensive driver is able to use a variety of maneuvers to deal with safety. They would have been scanning ahead, behind, and to the sides while driving - and done their best to avoid or prevent an accident long before it happens. And when the unexpected happens, because they are scanning, and because they are trained and open to responding in diverse ways, they have a much better chance of knowing when it is safe to suddenly change lanes, to go off the road onto the shoulder, or to maximally brake. Few drivers ever reach this level - but it seems worth it to try driving as fully mindfully as possible and to keep learning and improving (as opposed to falling into bad habits, stagnating, and denying driving's risks) - as the average person is vastly more likely to be in a potentially lethal car accident than a physical fight to the death.
Another example of diversity upon which our survival depends is regarding food. Uniformity has given us mass, industrial agriculture - and there is a certain strength to that. But it has also created some severe vulnerabilities (not the least of which are susceptibility to crop diseases in monocultures and overdependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides). Not to mention that the "uniformity" it has given us is uniformity of taste (yuck!) and destruction of healthy, diverse nutrition...
A friend gave me Magaret Visser's book, Much Depends On Dinner, and I want to share a quote from page 54:
"Uniform crops are easy to sow, easy to harvest, easy to sell. Machines like, demand, and produce uniformity. But nature loathes it: her strength lies in multiplicity and in differences. Sameness, in biology, means fewer possibilities and, therefore, weakness."
When I read that a couple of days ago, I had to chuckle and think back on some of my earlier posts in the past 80 days. I thought about all my writing about the Ten Animals. I thought back on my writings of "Battlefields vs. Gardens", too. Because right there in Margaret Visser's writings in the paragraph quoted above was the combination of battlefields and gardens! Instead of working with nature, we have declared war in the garden and in the fields. We have declared war on diversity. We have declared war on diseases and pests. And yet, it is diversity that is our best defense against the diseases and pests!!
Please think about this when you practice martial arts, too. As much as I love "Mixed Martial Arts", I don't want to see all martial arts just blended and reduced to one supposedly all-mighty system [Note: I am always willing to train mixed martial artists in Xinyi - and, I would argue that a martial art as diverse as Xinyiliuhequan is "mixed" in its own way too...]. The thought really concerns me! What should make mixed martial arts "mixed" should be that we have lots of different people training in lots of different martial arts - and meanwhile these are feeding into, and feeding back to, the traditional martial arts, boxing, wrestling, fitness, etc... I have no desire to train exactly how everyone else trains - that is not only phenomenally boring to me, but in the long run it will be a source of weakness. It will be like everyone growing the same corn crop in North America - as we will have extremely limited diversity of options. We will lose the knowledge stored in thousands of kernels of truth out there - and be dependent on one, and one only, way of trying to sustain and nourish ourselves.
Diversity is not always easy (a diverse garden is not going to be one with straight, neat rows of everything growing exactly the same way), but in the long run it is how nature has survived and thrived. It is also the only way we are going to survive as part of nature. Practicing an art like Xinyiliuhequan reminds me of this, and makes me grateful for it, and value it, every day.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 79 - Sept 2, 2014
The Soundtrack of Your Life
When I was working as an OT in Calgary almost ten years ago, I had an interaction with a teenaged client that I remember like it was yesterday. We were sitting across a table in a little interview room, talking about life and getting to know each other, and in the course of the discussion music came up. I asked him what he liked listening to and he said, "You wouldn't like it".
"Does it matter if I like it? Try me."
"I like Slayer and Metallica"
"Really? And you think I wouldn't like these? I spent my teenaged years listening to that music. I was listening to Metallica when they were still making heavy metal! I used to listen to 'Creeping Death', 'The Four Horseman", and "Damage Inc." during everything from working out to falling asleep at night. I owned every Slayer and Metallica album on EP... that's cassette tapes... and played some of them so many times I wore them right out. I was listening to that music when you were likely still sucking your thumb to fall asleep."
The conversation took a turn for the better at that point, as the teenager in front of me started to realize that I, too, was once a teenager - and that as uncool as I was/am at this point in my life, I actually had some similar tastes. We talked about various topics, but we wound and looped periodically back to music repeatedly - as he tested my knowledge of various metal bands (I knew quite a bit of classic and contemporary metal at that point, and I was honest in admitting what I did not know, too). It took a while, but he finally was convinced that the conservative-looking man in front of him (who had spent a lot of time and money to jump through all the right hoops to become an occupational therapist so that he could actually try to help people like this teenager in front of him...) was actually able to empathize with some of his experiences and interests.
And then, when I saw an appropriate opening, I seized the moment to hit him with a new thought: "You know how the movies you love have great soundtracks? I mean, the really great movies - how some of them have epic classical music, classic rock, metal, etc.? That's how I want you to consider listening to music. I know you love Slayer - but if you were making a movie and the entire soundtrack were Slayer or Metallica - what kind of a movie would this be? Would you want to always watch just that movie? Because your life - your life has a soundtrack - and the music you choose to listen to influences the mood and experiences of the life you are living. I strongly believe that we need 'metal' in our lives - but we also need classical music, and opera, and rock, and rap, and country -- or at least the options of these other genres and other flavours."
In future sessions, we looped back to this conversation, again and again, working towards expanding possibilities. Working towards him becoming the director of his own life - with the ability to influence the direction of his own experiences. I am proud of experiences with clients like this - I hope I have occasionally had a positive influence on a client like this - and I am certainly proud of the fact that I was the first to expose this client to classical music and classic rock (I think I was the first person to play him some Led Zeppelin! He didn't know they were among the grandfathers of modern metal!).
One of my martial arts teachers, to whom I will always be grateful, once told me - you should be able to do your Xinyiliuhequan at any speed. You should be able to do it in a slow, relaxing rhythm. You should be able to do it as a moderate tempo exercise. And, you should be able to do it at high-speed, with full-power explosiveness.
If you can't slow it down enough to teach it, you don't really know it. If you can't do it at a moderate speed you aren't going to enjoy practicing it regularly and stay healthy with it. If you can't do it full-out you aren't going to be able to use it.
And, although most of the time I train without music, I sometimes put on music to train to - because it reminds me of my teacher's advice and it reminds me of my advice to my client. Sometimes you should just train for fun like a pop song. Sometimes you should train to classical music and churn through the movements like your life - and the whole world - depend upon your efforts. Sometimes you should train to traditional Chinese instruments to try to be in touch with another time and culture. Sometimes you should train to music you find relaxing. And sometimes, I train to metal - because it makes me feel young again and it brings those raw, youthful emotions right to the surface where I can work with them and sweat them out.
And often, I train to silence. So that my sole focus is on the training - or the background sounds of my home reminding me of my day-to-day life - or nature itself which grounds me when I am training outside.
What matters is having a diverse soundtrack for your life, and dynamic training, and diverse ways to approach martial dilemmas - and the challenges of life. And I hope that client I saw years ago has carried on and expanded his soundtrack. And I am grateful that I can always return to what is comfortable and familiar, but that my soundtrack also continues to expand. And I am grateful that it has been so varied and interesting so far.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 78 - Sept 1, 2014
When I first started studying martial arts over twenty-five years ago, I wondered - what's the deal with all these high flying kicks? When I later got into Chinese internal martial arts, I wondered - what's the deal with all these low stances?
The answer to both questions is simple and profound - it's about testing limits and creating excess capacity.
When I practiced Tae Kwon Do as a boy, I practiced throwing kicks at all heights (from the shins to as high above my head as I could get them). This was not so that I would learn to kick seven-foot-tall people in the head - it was so that I would know I had the full range of options and capacity from the shin to above my head. Realistically, when I sparred at class (and in my mom's basement - ruining several walls over the years and smashing at least one mirror) with my friend who was six-foot-seven, I never once tried to throw a kick at my friend's head (and not just because we are friends!). It would have been ridiculous to think that I could generate much power at that range and it certainly would have put me in an awkward, unstable position against a guy who must have outweighed me by a hundred pounds. [Mind you, Paul's jabs always seemed to find my face!].
Because I had thrown thousands of kicks at various heights, from various angles, against various sparring partners, I at least had some idea of the where the edges of my own personal envelope were, and I could operate from its centre and know how far out to the edges I could reach if I needed to. Not to mention, the effort and dedication put into learning a bunch of high kicks, spinning kicks, etc. drove me to keep learning and gave me something to channel at least some of my highly excessive youthful energy...
When I started practicing Chinese internal martial arts, I was a bit surprised to see some very low stances, and some jumping movements - I thought these internal arts were all about generating internal energy and the physical body didn't matter?
Of course, I was naïve and incorrect. The body does matter [it needs to be part of a balanced whole]. It needs to move and it needs to be put through its full range of motion. That does not mean that is not going to change over time (for instance, some of those low stances are going to get higher and some of those jumps are going to get smaller...). Nor does it mean that, in terms of martial applications, that we ever have to actually dive that low or jump that high - it just means that we know we have the excess capacity (strength, range of motion, flexibility, balance, speed, etc.) to go to those edges if a situation were to demand this.
The vast majority of martial arts situations (and life) are going to be approached from my (intentionally) overlearned, over-practiced "strengths" in terms of what I know best and have practiced the most. But the only way to ensure that my "strengths" are actually "strong" - is to continuously be seeking to expand their edges and have other movements/practices that are out there supporting the whole structure.
[Side note: I could think of my core Xinyi training like a well-constructed power tower on a solid foundation - with lots of other practices like the support cables running off in various directions... Although, to expand that metaphor, I'd like to think of my gong fu practices and approaches, and my deepest values, in general, as buried power lines running deep underground - with the tower and the cables above just being the parts visible to others... But I digress...].
If you know the edge of your strengths, then you also know your limits. You know how far you can go day-to-day, and you have a better idea of absolutely how far you could go if you had to (although the only definitive proof of that is when life periodically delivers you overwhelming disasters - then you get the opportunity to try and show what you are really made of - even if, and when, you lose). And if you are working to consistently expand your capacity (and expand capacity in some ways to make up for the inevitable decreases in capacity in other ways) then you keep finding ways to last, and excel, being the best version of yourself that you can muster each day.
The other reason to train for excess capacity (in martial arts and in life in general) is so that you can be generous. When you help carry someone's groceries to their car - you are demonstrating excess capacity. When you give money to charity - you are demonstrating excess capacity. When you let the guy in front of you into traffic - you are demonstrating excess capacity. When you are confident enough to make some space and take a breath and think before reacting - you are demonstrating excess capacity.
The people with the zero-sum-game, unimaginative, limited vision, reactionary, greedy mindsets are the ones running this world into the ground... They are the same people that will advocate for fighting over other people's oil half-way across the world, not look for alternatives and diversity, not understand their own blind spots, and simply not share. If you want some understanding of why the world is the way it currently is - spend a day with a toddler. Then, look at the way that our elected officials handle everything from foreign wars to local job actions. We need to do a whole lot better than this. We need the capacity of full grown, fully realized human beings - not toddlers.
As the old expression goes - "If all you have is a hammer, the whole world starts to look like a nail". What we really need is a whole range of tools. What we also really need are broader lenses that even question whether the model of framing everything as a problem that needs to be "fixed" is even a good one...
So please consider some of the alternative lenses that can be offered by practices such as gong fu. In martial arts, people have been trying to address the problems of how to survive and thrive in the world for millennia - and even though the world (and many of the tools) have changed - there may be some wisdom (i.e. "applied intelligence") that could be applied to modern problems of surviving and thriving - if we really delved into these practices. And as for gong fu (aka "kung fu"), more generally, this may be a time when our modern, rushed world most needs to look at knowledge, approaches, and practices which could best balance and stabilize things for people and society so that our planet has a better chance of surviving and thriving, too.
I know we have massive, untapped capacity to live better lives and to help others and the planet to survive and thrive. The question is, are we willing to exercise that capacity? Why do we keep settling for something so limited? It is likely because we don't know and fully appreciate our limits - despite indisputable evidence that our civilization is exceeding them.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 77 - Aug 31, 2014
My wife took us out for a treat this morning - a whale watching tour. I had never been before, so I didn't really know what to expect.
It was great to be outside in the fresh air on the water (despite the almost incessant noise from the boat's engines...). My wife commented on how there "really is nothing like water and air" - and I, of course, agreed. I remember pointing out the same thing twenty years ago to my friend Brad who loves to sail. I thought: "You know, when it comes right down to it sailing is all about air and water, two of the most basic requirements for life!" I thought it was a strangely deep thought - or maybe just patently obvious! Sometimes that's the same thing.
Over the course of our three-hour tour we saw Seals, Minke Whales, Sea Lions, and Humpback Whales. It was pretty incredible.
I was also glad to see the other boats out there keeping a respectful distance from the animals. I am a bit torn about the concept of people going out into nature to try to see nature - because the more we go out into nature to see it, the less natural we seem to make it! Of course, if people don't go out and see nature sometimes, then they may not appreciate it and "value" it and strive to protect it. I don't know if there are any perfectly right answers to this dilemma (and many others regarding our relationships with the natural world) - but I do feel strongly that the right answer is definitely leaning towards conservation of vast areas for nature to "do its own thing" - and whenever visiting, doing so at a respectful distance.
I feel the same way about the human animal. We should all be treated with due respect and we should all give each other some respectful autonomy and distance. And we should, at exactly the same time, try to follow the generally agreed upon rules to try to get along. And, if we are not given a respectful distance by others, we need ways to ensure that we can defend that distance or escape to that safe distance.
Our culture seems to have gotten to a point whereby people are expected to act in a "civilized" way. Overall, I am all for this! But where it really breaks down for me is when our society then feels it can trample over the private rights of individuals because the individuals have become so docile that they are not expected to resist, even when power is abused. It also really breaks down when some individuals completely ignore the rules of civilized society - and then all the docile "civilized" people find they are so domesticated that they may no longer be able to protect themselves, or others [see "Day 62 - Safe" for more reflection on that problem].
More pressing, day-to-day, is the problem of all our little day-to-day decisions... Because the whales, thank God, no longer seem to be in serious danger of us hunting them to extinction for their oil (now we, more disturbingly, kill people fighting over oil...) - but instead the whales are now in danger of us killing them (and the whole planet) with things like garbage, pollution, climate change, ozone layer destruction, overfishing, etc., etc... This is "civilization" at its very worst - abhorred by the thought of "hunting" a whale, but blissfully, intentionally-ignorantly content to gradually poison the entire planet.
As a practitioner of Xinyiliuhequan, I feel completely indebted to animals. It is the emulation of animals that animates and energizes much of martial arts practice - and most obviously the external "animal styles" and the "animals" of arts like Xinyi. As I use the example of animals each and every day to protect myself and my own health, and try to think about how to live a good life - I feel that I have no choice but to give back to the animals by supporting people and practices that protect the environment. This includes everyone from the scientists that study it, to the organizations that seek to conserve it, to the trying to make little decisions every day that either support the earth or do as little damage as possible.
So, I want to thank my wife and the whales for reminding me how important water and air are for all of our health and well-being. We are all in this together. We all share the same air and the same water on this planet. So let's try to do that a bit more respectfully than we have been so far.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 76 - Aug 30, 2014
One Glass of Wine
Over the years I have worked in health care, I have watched witnessed some very strange things... Not the least of which has been the ongoing discussion regarding moderate drinking and health.
I remember reading the American Medical Association's initial guidelines regarding moderate drinking back in the 1990s, and what struck me then was how much they wrestled with the available data at hand. The basic question was - should doctors be recommending a drink of alcohol a day for health, when, as any physician can tell you, alcohol is one of the number one causes of illness, injury, and death.
Over the years, the debate has continued to rage. For a while, it was all about red wine and its supposed health benefits being linked to specific polyphenols and antioxidants (e.g. resveratrol). But, it turns out that it seems that any type of alcohol, in moderation, seems to provide some cardiovascular benefit, maybe (and those specific "magical" components, when isolated, don't seem to do much of anything good).
Of course, alcohol is also a known carcinogen - so adding alcohol to the diet (for example if someone is a non-drinker) may actually increase their chances of dying (at least of cancer). And, women seem more sensitive to this risk due to the way they metabolize alcohol, so if women are going to drink, their level of "moderate drinking" needs to be "more moderate" than that of men.
I feel that I have had a healthy skepticism regarding alcohol being a health tonic since the very beginning of this discussion... And it turns out I have not been alone. And, it turns out the original health associations between moderate drinking and health benefits have shrunk over time - as more sophisticated analysis of the potential (known) confounders continue to be adjusted for in the analysis... The effect does still seem to be real, but smaller than originally thought and the mechanisms are still not entirely clear...
Now, if you are more interested in this feel very free to read the scientific medical and public health literature on the topic. I will, I'm sure, continue to learn more about this issue and follow it over the years to come.
What is of more interest to me are the lessons that we can glean from a case like this - in evaluating our own health decisions regarding what to imbibe, how to live a healthy life, and how to do our martial arts training.
For me, these are at a minimum:
- If someone tells you that eating some processed product compared to the original food itself is "healthier" be extremely skeptical (e.g. if wine is so good for you, why was/is there not a major media and public health push to eat more grapes? [as a starting point, I would guess that grape growers have less lobbying power than alcohol manufacturers...])
- Every coin has two sides - particularly when it comes to consuming "more" of something to be healthy. Clearly this should be a reminder that "more" does not equal "better". Perhaps one glass of wine is good for us (if we are people who already enjoy alcohol) - but perhaps not drinking at all, or even dropping an equivalent number of calories from the diet is just as good, if not better. [This is a pet peeve of mine - reading various men's magazines that constantly recommend eating "more" of the latest "superfood", be that almonds, goji berries, acai berries, steak, hemp, or whatever... It is simply an amazing coincidence that magazines that depend on advertising and selling more and more "products" never recommend eating or doing, "less"...]
- It seems highly likely (as others have argued) that the sort of people who drink one glass of wine a day (on average), and rarely drink more than that, are exactly the sort of people who are more likely to live longer lives! It might not explain all of the difference (alcoholic drinks may well have a real effect on longevity), but the sort of people with the means and self-control to drink wine most days in complete, consistent moderation also seem like the sort of people who will be much more likely to drive the speed limit, exercise regularly, follow their doctor's advice, not use hard drugs, eat in moderation, socialize regularly with other moderate people, etc., etc...
- It has also been argued that as much as likely blood-thinning effects and/or antioxidant effects alcoholic drinks may have - it may also just help people to relax a bit! Relaxing does not require alcohol - but people definitely benefit from relaxing both in terms of their quality of life and mental health (which feeds right back into their physical health).
- Are a million new-fangled training techniques and programs always needed - or does it make sense to get back to basics? That is, whatever training you do should have components of flexibility, endurance, balance, coordination, and strength. Sure sounds to me like something martial arts has been practicing for centuries...
- Doing regular training is good. If you can get some sort of movement and exercise into most days of your life (some days a little more, some days a little less, occasional hard days, and some days of pure rest...) that sounds great. If you are striving for longevity - not training at all or training too hard seem like dead ends.
- Bring your attitude towards training to the rest of your life. Yes, once in a while you might have to pull an all-nighter at school or work, or you might have go without sleep for the sake of kids - but in the long run you should always be striving for moderation (and a life lived with moderation allows for the health to go hard when necessary!).
- Find ways to deal with stress. Exercise is great for stress reduction. A practice like martial arts - with the opportunity to both face some aggression and manage it safely (not to mention things like qigong, deep breathing, stretching, etc.) seems like a recipe for learning to manage stress in the training hall - and in the rest of life.
I do find it strangely funny, however, that one of the ironies is that for people who are the most healthy the possible protective effects of a glass of wine a day may even be less - because if you are healthy then you don't really need to be taking blood-thinners, do you? [I once asked Xu Guo Ming what Chinese herbs, ginseng, etc. he takes as part of his health regimen - he looked at me incredulously and said, "Do I look sick? Why would I take herbs and medicine if I am healthy!?"]
In my case, I have learned so much about cigarette smoking (and its horrible health effects on individuals, the health care system, and society as a whole...) over the past twenty years that I almost want to start smoking -- just so I can reap all the health benefits and contribute to the world by quitting! ;)
What I can confidently say, however, as a martial artist, is that doing some training pretty much every day seems to be the route to longevity (at least increasing one's chances in this direction). And if having a glass of wine or a beer sometimes seems to enhance your life - then go for it. But just don't think that wine is a health tonic or that martial arts training on its own is a panacea. It's all about how you live all of your life.
It's all those little decisions every day - to do, and to not do, things that add up. And structuring your life to make the "right" decisions as easy as possible (and the "wrong" decisions difficult or unthinkable) is way easier if you've first accomplished the priorities you set out to do each day.
And it sure is easier to accomplish, and think clearly about, your priorities if you've only had, at most, one glass of wine.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 75 - Aug 29, 2014
Training Etiquette - Part 2 of 2
As far as traditions and etiquette go in my experience as a martial arts student and a martial arts teacher - I keep it pretty simple. Here are my basics (in bold) with explanation for those who need or want it:
- Show up on time to lessons/classes. It shows respect for your teacher and respect for the other students. Also, you will be in a much better mindset for training if you arrived 15 minutes early and you used the time to relax, take some deep breaths, stretch, warm-up, etc... - as opposed to supposedly being ready to train after rushing around like a chicken with its head cut off just prior to class! Personally, I would rather someone miss a class (almost always acceptable) rather than walk in the door half an hour late and disturb my training and/or that of other students.
- Pay your dues on time and do so in an organized manner. The way I was told to do this in China was to put my lesson fees in an envelop and give it to my teacher before or after training. You should not be pulling your teacher away from teaching/training to pay him/her - and you should not be handing your teacher a random pile of change or scrunched up bills mixed with the lint you are digging out of your pocket... Put the money (change is fine if it is contained in something) in an envelop and pay your teacher by handing them the fees with both your hands. [Note: In my case, going to China (twice) cost me tens of thousands of dollars in airfare and lost professional wages (opportunity costs), not to mention all the actual paying for lessons there - and for the years of lessons and training since I was a child (at which point my parents were paying for my lessons). I have no pretensions that students will ever be able to reimburse me for all of that (nor should they). But, students should consider how much they might pay a yoga teacher with a six-month teaching certificate - and perhaps consider that paying someone with 25+ years of martial arts experience and 15+ years of teaching experience might be worth paying their very reasonable fees on time (!). The least a student can do is pay the fairly modest fees that most teachers in Canada charge (if the fees are ridiculously expensive that is another story) in an organized way and NOT make their teacher have to badger them for unpaid fees.]
- Bow at the start and end of class. Some people make bowing out to be a big deal (some teachers and some students). It is important to me - but it is not a big deal. It is a way to mark the start of formal training time and to show mutual respect for tradition and for each other. It is a way to acknowledge the student-teacher relationship and the boundaries around that relationship for the interim hour or two of training. It is also a nod acknowledging the generations of student-teacher-student-teacher, etc. relationships that brought us to the current moment. The bow that I do when starting a class/lesson is NOT a bow of worship. It is not a full-body prostration. It is not (as Grandmaster Yu Hua Long described having to do before his teacher every time he wanted to learn a new move - a "kow tow" knocking your head on the floor and begging to learn the next move!). It is simply a small bend of the back, and nod of the head, with the right fist inside the other hand in front of you (and if you mix up which fist, it is not a big deal to me). I, personally, do not need (or want) to be bowed to when I correct you. I do not need to be bowed to when you learn something new from me or appreciate something I have shown you or explained to you. I simply expect a small, mutual bow at the beginning and end of our formal time together. If you can't wrap your head around that, for whatever reason, then you likely should train with someone else. [Note: Some people have cited religious reasons for not bowing - and I am willing to hear them out. However, my understanding is that they are allowed to perform a small bow to/with their teacher - it is just the full/deep body type of bows that would be discouraged. ]
- Always respect your fellow students. If there is one rule that is completely non-negotiable for me it is respecting and looking out for your fellow students. It is completely unacceptable to hurt a training partner physically or to belittle or bully them. When doing two-person drills, you should be matching the energy your training partner is putting into the movements - and that matching should always be at the level of the person putting out less energy or force. If you injure your training partner you will not have training partners to train with. And, you will not have me as a teacher to teach you.
I could go on and on - but hopefully people get the point. This is an hour or two of your life - once or twice a week. You spend this time practicing something very structured and traditional - so that in the long run it can help you improvise better in the modern world. This requires focus. It is not easy to focus - so we do our best to have some order and safety so that we can relax and dedicate and free up our minds to learning.
Again, no one is expected to have perfect etiquette. I really just want nice people with good intentions to come out and train.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 74 - Aug 28, 2014
Training Etiquette - Part 1 of 2
I am a bit of a "traditional" guy. "Small 'c' conservative" is the term I sometimes use to describe myself. Social liberal, fiscal conservative is another. I go to work. I pay my taxes. I generally follow the speed limit.
That said, I don't view myself as a complete conformist. I also try very hard to be open-minded and respectful of a multiplicity of views of the world - and the subsequently valid multiplicity of ways to live in this world. I don't believe in anything goes, but I do believe there are a lot of valid "ways" nonetheless.
I don't really want people to have to hide who they are. In fact, I feel a strong argument could be made that we should encourage people to be open about who they are - so that we can actually decide if we want to spend time with each other.
I remember as a teenager picking up one of my sister's or mom's magazines and reading an editorial at the back (I think I had hoped that by reading a women's magazine I would better understand teenage girls - turns out it was not particularly helpful in that regard!). In the editorial, the author lamented the lack of manners among "modern" men. She was particularly appalled by a recent incident at which she had been at a party and a guy was walking around showing people a Polaroid picture of a giant crap he had recently taken...
Now, while I agreed (and still agree) with the author that this is absolutely appalling behaviour (and simply disgusting), I will maintain my argument that this supporting the argument for manners from the author was/is very foolish. Had I been able to talk to the author, my counter-argument would have been such: "Would you actually prefer a world with better manners, where this man would not have done this at the party? That is, would you prefer that he made pleasant small-talk, said all the right things, took you out on a few dates, pretended to be a gentleman, started an intimate relationship with you and THEN he showed you pictures of his craps in the privacy of your home? Would you really prefer that??"
I would argue that it is much preferable to live in a world where people would openly do things like bring pictures of their craps to the party and show them off - and then a few things could happen:
- We would be able to clearly identify people like this, so that those of us who are disgusted could more easily avoid them
- People could make better informed decisions about people they are meeting when they first meet them (and it would certainly help the people who like looking at pictures of craps to better find the people who like taking pictures of craps - a match made in heaven, I imagine!)
- Those of us who try to act pleasantly in social company could be more readily trusted as actually pleasant people - because our outward behaviour (e.g. not taking pictures of our craps, nor showing them off...) would be clearer outward signals of our internal ideals and values
This is not to say that we need to have perfect manners and etiquette all the time. It is also not to say that some people with "perfect" manners may not be absolute sleaze-balls... It is to say, however, that when we are trying to get along with people - be that at work or at a party or at a training hall - we should learn the ways of interacting with others in that place and we should strive to practice how people practice there - if that is really the place we want to be.
And, in practicing manners and etiquette as part of our training we can actually change and improve the sort of people we are. If we practice (not hide or pretend - but genuinely practice) being respectful, being patient, being calm, etc. then we get better at these things. And, the better we get at these things the less we are feeling as if we are "pretending" - and the more we are actually embodying our practice.
So, if you are interested in learning a traditional martial art - try out some of the traditions of martial arts. Try practicing the movements with as much genuine intention to emulate as possible. And try being balanced, respectful, honourable, etc. from the moment you first introduce yourself to your teacher. No one expects perfection from you (nor should you from your teacher). But, you are expected to try.
If your teacher turns out, in the long run, not to be worthy of respect - fine. You will figure that out soon enough and you can find another teacher.
But if your teacher turns out to be a good one, whose outward behaviours seem congruent with her/his inner (and professed) values, and you keep trying to be a good student - in the long run you will benefit from all of your genuine efforts to learn. In fact, you will learn a lot more during your practice after class - in day-to-day life - if you are striving to behave on the outside how you are trying to develop yourself on the inside.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 73 - Aug 27, 2014
I have shared this advice in the past, and I will share it again in the future. I am also far from the first person to have recommended this - make mistakes!
It is simply impossible to learn something as complex and messy as martial arts (let alone a trade, a profession, navigating relationships... life!) without making mistakes.
What matters more than anything is how you make mistakes and how you recover from mistakes.
The mistakes you make should, ideally, be made slowly and openly - so that your teachers can see them clearly and can provide you with real-time feedback. Your mistakes should also be risky and "painful" enough that you actually learn something useful from them, but not so risky or so painful that they dissuade you from making future mistakes.
After making a "mistake", you need to be humble enough and open enough to learn from it and learn from the feedback provided by reality and your teachers. You need to at least try to adjust your new behaviour, based on the feedback, in a slow and clear enough way that you can demonstrate you actually listened - and so that you can demonstrate whether you are still making the same old mistake or if you have moved on to making new mistakes!
Of course, all of this begs the question - is there really any such thing as a "mistake" at all? Particularly if your "mistakes" prove to be steps toward your goals? [Note: the footwork towards a goal my be direct, zig-zagging, or even backwards sometimes!]
The worst thing you can probably do when training is to try to hide your mistakes by training too quickly and too small. That way, you never open yourself up to criticism and correction. Not only that, but your training sessions become thousands of repetitions in covering up - instead of in building something up from a stable and continuously expanding base.
The thing you can learn to do, over the course of making thousands of mistakes, is recover from mistakes and roll with them. A "mistake" can then become a learning opportunity or the basis for a spontaneous correction or improvement - or eventual innovation. Your first years of training should be all about correct reproduction of forms - your later years of training should be all about mutation and change - but built on stable, healthy structure.
So, please go ahead and make mistakes. Make them on purpose sometimes! And then we can all relax and actually have fun and learn a lot more. Because real life is full of messes and mistakes. And life only means anything worthwhile if we keep learning from it.
Like the old expression goes: "Fall down seven times, get up eight".
It is never a mistake to fall down as long as you keep getting back up.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 72 - Aug 26, 2014
I have grown so weary of the term "extreme" attached to so many pursuits and products... It seems that everything has to be "extreme" of late. Sports. Deodorant. Cooking. You name it - there can be an "extreme" version of it...
I feel a bit sad about this. Don't get me wrong - I like watching high performance at its very best. But since when do I have to see "extreme" nature films? Since when do cooking shows have to consist of people being sworn at and abused, followed by people being "eliminated"? WTF!?
What is really "extreme" in the world is the background that we accept as normal. We accept that over a billion people are malnourished. We also accept that a billion people are overweight. Millions of children die every year of preventable diseases. Cigarette smoking kills over three million people a year worldwide. We pollute the air with enough Carbon Dioxide to change the earth's climate and then we completely ignore all the other pollutants and carcinogens that go up in the air! Aren't these examples "extreme" enough for our insatiable appetite for "extreme"?
In Canada, we have a nation of people getting fatter and fatter (at one extreme) and then a group of people starving themselves (at the other extreme). So, do we provide people with some cooking shows that teach them how to make healthy food at an affordable price? No. We have everything be about bigger, greasier, more expensive, more competitive, and more "extreme". Is this really creating better cooks and better food? Is this teaching people to cook at home? Or, is this adding to a problem of people watching other people on TV do "extreme" things while demoralizing a nation - leaving many thinking that it isn't worth doing things (things as real and day-to-day as cooking!!) unless they are done to the "extreme"?
The same goes for sports. In Canada, we have a national obsession with hockey. It is an incredible sport with some of the world's most amazing athletes. Most Canadian children dream of being NHL stars at some point in their childhood (well, boys mostly, because God forbid we ever have integrated/co-ed sports and these be televised and therefore "important"...). Many then get on the treadmill of working towards this goal and over time fewer and fewer "make the cut", until there is just a tiny elite of a few men playing in the NHL. This is great - for selecting elite athletes and making for an amazing professional spectator sport - but it is absolutely disastrous for the health of the nation.
Because what happens to all those hockey players over the years that don't make it to the NHL? From the first kids cut from the "elite" teams at age seven to the NHL farm teams... Do they keep playing hockey all of their lives as a way to stay fit and vigorous - or when the dream ends do they give up on hockey altogether (other than to watch it on TV...)?
I have a few good friends who do play hockey as adults. They are certainly not alone and they certainly keep their youthful enthusiasm for, and from, playing. As far as I am concerned - they are playing hockey in the most traditional, real way possible. They are using this great sport to stay fit, stay connected, and have fun. The NHL dream has long since faded - and yet there they are doing it for the love of the game. But sadly, such a small percentage of those who played hockey in their childhood play hockey in adulthood...
I worry about the same thing happening to martial arts. As things like MMA in general, and the UFC in particular, become more and more popular - I am afraid that people will not bother with martial arts unless they can compete in "extreme" combat. They will just view it as not "worth" it and they might view MMA as the only game in town. I have met so many people as adults who say, "I did some [inset name of martial art here] as a kid and I loved it, but I never kept it up". Will this only get worse as the martial arts presented to us becomes, potentially, more and more "extreme"?
The number one thing that fascinates me and drives me in my martial arts practice is that it can be a lifelong pursuit. The martial arts I have been most interested in, and the martial artists I have been most interested in studying from, are those that keep training - their whole lives. They aren't training to win belts or get rich and famous or prove that they are the best. They are training because it is part of their daily life. They are training because it fascinates them. They are training to stay healthy. They are training because it is a fundamental part of who they are, and who they are always becoming.
As those who know me will attest, I love watching UFC - a few times a year. The level of fitness and skill that these "extreme" fighters have in their sport is amazing!!
But what I really, really love is trying to work on my own training and trying to help others to learn martial arts and use them to survive and thrive in their real, daily lives. Occasionally, martial arts may prove invaluable in an "extreme" situation. But, their real value day-to-day is that they teach balance, harmony, wisdom, health, etc. - in very practical ways.
So, if you love your cooking shows with people swearing at each other (engaging in workplace abuse and bullying), fine. Enjoy the show. But please, please don't be intimidated by the ridiculousness that is presented on TV. Get up and make some real food from real ingredients. Go to your local farmer's market. Try a new recipe and realize that it can be delicious and nutritious. It can be so "extremely" satisfying to feed your family and friends some good, wholesome, balanced food - in the least "extreme" ways you can find...
And if you are thinking of getting back into exercise, or hockey, or martial arts - know that it does not have to be all-or-nothing, black-and-white, take-to-the-limit "extreme".
If anything, try an experiment. Try practicing "extreme balance". Try finding a way to avoid the extremes at all costs and live a healthy, compassionate, productive, kind life. I think people doing that are what we should really be role-modelling and celebrating. I know, perhaps I am "extremely" naïve...
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 71 - Aug 25, 2014
Another beautiful morning of training overlooking the ocean... I cannot help but feel the need to be thankful. I am thankful I can move and breathe and use all my senses to experience the world.
No, it is not always so easy to give thanks - for example when stuck in traffic or dealing with the sometimes silly behaviours of "bureaucratic systems" (i.e. B.S.). But on a day like today - gratitude just flows out of mind, body, and spirit.
One of my favourite fun authors is AJ Jacobs. His irreverent approach to self-improvement and his openness to exploring change (and the title of a collection of his essays, My Life as an Experiment) are a source of inspiration - including for undertaking my current "100 Days of Xinyi".
AJ Jacobs has described his primary three books as attempting to address aspects of mind, body, and spirit. They are (in the order of mind, body, spirit - not order of publication): The Know-It-All; Drop Dead Healthy; and, The Year of Living Biblically. Each of them are exercises in humorous extremism - ultimately resulting in some sort of more balanced approach to the topic at hand. They are well worth a read.
One of his self-experiments from The Year of Living Biblically that most sticks with me was his attempt to constantly give thanks. He describes going through the day, in a somewhat obsessive-compulsive sort of way, giving thanks for everything from the elevator arriving after he pushes the button calling for it - to giving thanks that it got him to the correct floor and did not crash and kill him (!).
What he appears to have learned from this exercise (and unceasing gratitude would be an exercise in futility - as you would have no mental space to do anything else) was that we likely should, as a starting point, being much more grateful for the countless things that go right each day - as we too often focus on the few things that go wrong and frustrate us.
Sometimes my Xinyi training is easy and sometimes it is hard. This morning it was pretty easy. I set my timer, I relaxed and focused, and I had a great workout while breathing fresh air at a beautiful spot.
Later this morning, my host served me excellent coffee and waffles with yogurt and freshly chopped fruit. Pretty easy to be feeling thankful! The "thank you's" rolled off of my tongue without hesitation.
And, while I admire those who can be thankful for even the worst things that have happened in their lives (I am not one of these people - when something sh--ty happens I am more than willing to call s--t, s--t)... I can, at the very least, always find something I am grateful for. Be that the friends who helped me when I was down or, when tragedies have befallen my friends, the ability to lend them some comfort and strength in the midst of it.
So, thank you! Thank you for reading this and thank you for your positive efforts in whatever good things you are trying to do in this world. Thank you for any acts of compassion that you are undertaking. Thank you for showing up - and for trying to reduce suffering. And thank you for stopping once in a while and taking a deep breath - and giving thanks to whatever you are thankful for.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 70 - Aug 24, 2014
Five Elements - Earth
This morning I trained just after sunrise - at the same spot where last night I had trained while observing the sun beginning to set. It felt good to return to familiar ground. I knew where to plant my feet while facing the ocean, warming up with a few qigong exercises. I had a solid sense of my surroundings and this then made it easier to relax my body and focus my mind on my Xinyi practice.
To be in touch with the ground is to feel stable, balanced, harmonious - "grounded". As the old expression goes (and the title of an excellent little book on mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn) "Wherever you go, there you are". Admitting that concept, there is also "no place like home" and there is almost always something comforting about something familiar.
I find it intriguing that one of the ways to best maintain one's root is to keep the crown of the head gently pulled up. Try standing still in a comfortable stance and then pull the head up. Almost immediately it feels as if more weight has shifted into the feet. Then, start thinking excessively about your feet (instead of keeping your head up) and it is likely your balance starts to get a bit more shifty. Then, try the same thing standing on one leg. Again, the more you pull the head up, the easier it is to maintain your balance. The more you bring your focus down to your foot - the more you will feel yourself start to sway and have to keep readjusting.
So, in order to stay balanced and rooted - in martial arts or the rest of life - you need to keep your head up. Keep your awareness and your senses and your wits about you. Don't let every passing thought or any passing breeze, or anyone, throw you off of your stance. That said - if they do, then fully and flexibly change stances and reestablish your root again. It is the ability to recover and adapt and stand up again that makes us resilient!
And, when practicing the earth element/phase/change/process in our Xinyi and "crossing" within the Xinyi movements, try to use this energy to work on balance. So many Xinyi movements cross midline while coming up and working to unbalance and uproot an opponent. But, as most training is going to be on your own, and most of your life is not going to be fighting - what does this crossing actually do?
From my perspective it forces balanced bilateral physical training and it forces balanced cross-brain coordination. It provides constant opportunity to check-in (within) and see if I am leaning too far one way or another or if I am depending on old habits when I should be using my strengths to forge new pathways.
And, as always, the earth element should remind us that we need to cultivate stillness. If we are constantly acting out of instinct or emotion, we are are not realizing the true genius of our human-ness. To be fully human is have the ability to wait, to plan, to take turns, to share, to contemplate, to delay gratification, to plant seeds today that may not be harvested for many years. This does not mean that we should not satisfy our animal nature (as they say - if you are thirsty drink; if you are hungry eat!) but it does mean that we should be doing so with the addition of our thinking minds. We need to be balanced and stable in both body and mind. We need to be both human and animal. We need to feed ourselves from the earth, but be mindful of the values that inspire and uplift us, too.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 69 - Aug 23, 2014
Five Elements - Fire
Fire - talk about an "element" that is actually a "process"! Nothing static about fire. It depends on constant fuel and is a metaphor for constant change. It is also the classic example of what makes us human - our control of fire (although perhaps out-of-control fire and our seemingly unquenchable thirst for oil and cheap energy is proving to be civilization's undoing, too...).
This morning, I was at my regular Saturday morning wood-chopping duties. I enjoy this so much once a week - practicing the "splitting/metal" energy while breaking down fuel for the wood-fired oven at the bakery. It is a great workout and it means that I had great bread and muffins to take home, too.
And in the late afternoon, when I did my formal Xinyi practice of the day, I had the perfect spot overlooking the ocean - my wife laying on a blanket, reading a book nearby. The sun was just starting to come down across the sky and I could feel its fire reflecting off the water while I ran through some movements and standing practice.
In the back of my mind I was already thinking about food (frontal lobes working on training - reptilian brain getting hungry!) - as I knew my friends would be barbecuing for us when we returned to their place for an evening meal. But my primary focus remained on the "pounding" energy of fire. I slowed my movements down and dropped my stances low and tight. Each movement was like the meticulous loading of a canon. Slowly and thoughtfully, I worked through each movement and then "pow!" I would speed them up and think of "exploding" outward.
While practicing various standing poses (e.g. "tiger looks down the mountain"), I could hear each wave rolling onto the shore and I could see the sun starting to set. The sun. The source of all life on the planet. The ultimate fire in our galaxy.
And then, while stretching out against a tree, my thoughts returned to dinner. I thought of two great reads I had last year. One was Michael Pollan's Cooked, a masterpiece reflection on food and various ways that it is prepared. It is one in a line of his masterworks that have included The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defence of Food. Besides martial arts training, one of the ways I have tried, over the years, to connect to my "animal nature" is by trying to eat well - and that means eating good food and eating food that is well-prepared, but not excessively processed and industrialized.
The second great volume on "cooking" I read last year (which came to mind in light of the knowledge that it was grilled food on the menu...) was Richard Wrangham's mind-blowing work Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, another masterpiece. This book is science at its best - both providing an amazing education of past scientific discovery and exploring the newer hypothesis that cooking was not only conducted by humans earlier than was previously thought - but also shaped the entire course of human evolution and human civilization and history!
Fire. There is nothing quite like it (despite my appreciation of the convenience of electric lighting). Whether lighting a candle for a special dinner or staring into a campfire while out in nature.... Fire is a great tool and gift - but it can be dangerous, too. This kind of "energy" represents the very best and the very worst of what humans are capable of. Nuclear energy (and nuclear medicine) to nuclear bombs... It all depends upon learning to work with energy, to control and channel energy, and to both explore and understand our limitations.
But for now, I am just reflecting on a delicious dinner and enjoying the warm postprandial glow of good food with good friends. My body is warm. My heart is warm. No fire can burn forever - so it is worth pausing and giving thanks for our own fire while it still burns in its current form.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 68 - Aug 22, 2014
Five Elements - Wood
Since I was a boy, my favourite colour has always been green. I imagine it has something to do with growing up on the edge of the Canadian shield. I spent a lot of my childhood and young adult years out "in the bush" - either running around in the pine forests around my hometown, or on the water in a canoe [definitely less mosquitoes once you were out on the water!]. The tripartite colours of the shield are grey (granite), green (trees), and blue (sky). That palette is painted right onto my heart.
When I resettled five years ago in British Columbia (after living in various locations across Canada), there those three colours were again. Only this time, the rocky outcroppings of my youth were now mountains... The scraggly pine trees were giant firs... The river I used to walk and bike along - and canoe upon - has been supplanted by the ocean, too!
And when practicing various Xinyi moves that Wood Element is expressed in various ways. It does correspond to "crushing" in that it is straightforward in its strikes - often straight from the body and straight at the opponent's body! Knocking down branches and going straight for the trunk. This is very clear in movements like "snake fist" and "tiger pounces". There is subtlety and flexibility in these movements (and all Five Elements in them, too), but the dominant stripes are forward power and momentum.
Another way that the Wood Element presents itself is in the way Xinyi movements are sometimes described as hitting "like a piece of rattan". That is, they have a flexible, accelerating nature that whips and bites upon impact. This is, again, within all Xinyi movements, but is (painfully) obvious in movements such as "tiger whips its tail" which remains relatively soft until suddenly "tensing" (remember - "tension but not tense") at the moment of contact.
There is something about being near trees. Whether that is laying on the ground and leaning back against one while reading a good book, or happily training under one for shade and shelter from the sun.
When I do my standing/stillness/mindfulness practices (e.g. standing in various Xinyi postures, seated meditation, etc.), I always imagine myself "standing like a tree" (even when sitting). That is, not standing there like a rock or a dead post of wood - but standing there alive - with roots growing down into the earth and my head gently reaching for the sky. And in-between is life, too - coursing through my arteries and veins. And breathing deeply and naturally the air - which is filtered and recycled by the actual trees...
When we find ways to live in balance with trees, and nature (both outside nature and our inner nature), we can truly observe and experience the Five Elements interacting. And, we can see the expansions and contractions, the in-breaths and the out-breaths, of the dynamic interactions of yin-and-yang which animates the whole process. It all starts with black and white - but from there comes a whole infinite palette of possibilities.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 67 - Aug 21, 2014
Five Elements - Water
From the first time I heard the three main "internal" Chinese martial arts well described, I was hooked on how they could be summarized (admittedly very oversimplified!):
- Xinyi - All about animals - look to the nature of animals (both in terms of fighting and health)
- Bagua - All about circles - look to the nature of tornadoes (e.g. turning, spiraling, etc)
- Tai Chi - All about water - look to the nature of water (hard like ice; soft like steam; flowing like liquid)
I have always loved being in the water and I absolutely love all of the wonderful metaphors it creates. That classic Bruce Lee movie quote: "Be like water" is absolutely timeless. In addition to "flowing" and "crashing", water can also hold us up or it can pull us down - it all depends on how we approach it. If we thrash about, we drown. If we trust the water to hold us up and we move with it, we can swim.
And, yes, water can explode like a powerful geyser or crush like Niagra Falls - but it can also ever so slowly drip, drip, drip wearing down mountains over centuries. The slow drip of water is a wonderful metaphor for gong fu practice - what seems like only a few drops or buckets a day accumulates rivers in a lifetime - and we are all sampling from, and adding back to, the larger body of work/water across time...
Here we have arrived at an element that is most near and dear to my heart. "Water" is something that is absolutely essential for human life (let alone all life as we know it on earth). The majority of our bodies are not solid - but water. And every process and change necessary for life (e.g. cell metabolism!) occurs in a watery medium. Taste your sweat, or tears, or blood - and it is said that you are tasting the ocean of millions of years ago - carried around and meticulously maintained and recreated generation after generation by the life forms that moved on to land...
Okay, I could keep going with thoughts about water for a long time, but I will get back to some concrete thoughts on water in the five elements in Xinyi. Water corresponds to "drilling" and this kind of power in Xinyi comes up from the legs (and up from the earth) and spirals and drills forward. It occurs (like all Five Elements) in all of the Xinyi moves to lesser and greater degrees, but it is particularly emphasized and obvious in movements like "horse breaks out of the corral" - where the legs drive the movement up and forward, the waist begins spiralling, and the hands go from complete pronation to complete supination, while also going from open fingers to closed fists. This drilling action means that whatever the fists are contacting along the way to an opponent's centerline is deflected, while the fists keep heading for their intended target. Or, the drilling my be expressed as full-body coiling and wrapping like the tornado that is "dragon swims through the clouds".
And then, when you are done training - it is important to be like water, too. To stretch out and relax, and gather up your energy. And besides practicing moving, it is important to practice being still each day, too - if only for a few moments. And the only way to get water (at least in liquid form) to be still is to stop disturbing it! Try to stop waves in water or ripples in a pond by smoothing it with your hands and it is only going to add ripples. The way to truly let the mind relax is to stop adding things to it all the time - let the ripples come and go, and, over time, the water will achieve stillness on its own.
Our minds are the same way - despite our beliefs that our constant thinking and interfering are somehow what will hold it all together and prevent inevitable change.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 66 - Aug 20, 2014
Five Elements - Metal
In my experience, the Five Elements (Wu Xing) feature much less prominently and concretely in Xinyiliuhequan (Henan Style Xinyi) than they do in the Shanxi or Hebei styles of Xingyi (where, for example, each of the Five Elements has its own specific movement/form/shape). Xinyilihequan, in contrast, focusses much more on the Six Harmonies, the Ten Animals, the Seven Fists, etc. as has been discussed in earlier entries.
Acknowledging this surface difference, the Five Elements are another traditional Chinese model, and lens, for examining the world/reality (which is always changing) and shaping dynamic approaches to interact with it. These theories have been successfully applied to fields as diverse as martial arts, medicine, and music.
Every move in Xinyiliuhequan should be imbued with all of the Five Elements (to lesser and greater degrees depending on the intention and shape of the move) as the elements are not supposed to represent static individual "elements" (like separate boxes in the periodic table...), but are, instead, representative of processes that are constantly interacting, combining, and changing in relation to each other (as elements actually do). Again, I would direct anyone with a strong interest in learning more about these theories to consult any number of good books regarding Chinese philosophy and/or fields of study that still use the Five Elements as a reference point (e.g. Traditional Chinese Medicine).
The metal element is expressed in Xinyiluhequan most prominently (and obviously) in the "chopping" movements, including, but not limited to, "snake whips its tail", "heavy chop" (from eagle), "rooster chop", etc. All of these movements involve the hands rising up and the body opening up - and then contracting and dropping the bodyweight with the hands whipping around (travelling at increasing speed to cover more distance than the relative distance travelled by the centre of mass) and both chopping and splitting (the "splitting" often being a very obvious expression of "yin" and "yang" working in both combination and opposition as discussed in the previous two posts...).
Splitting-type "energy" or "intention" or movement, is not limited only to chopping. It occurs all the time in all movements in Xinyi as the body turns and one hand "cleans" or protects and the other hand strikes or seizes.
When people first learn some Xinyi movements (and their applications) they often get the impression that Xinyi must be a wholly defensive art - at least in that they think it must depend on first blocking and then countering. This is because when demonstrating applications, I will often show how the lead hand (or any of the seven fists), in most moves, can be used to intercept or block or "clean" away an opponent's fists, and then the following hand attacks.
I rapidly dispel this misunderstanding in at least two ways. First, I make it clear that this initial "cleaning" is actually striking - hitting whatever the opponent puts in your way - both as a way to clear the way to the opponent's centre, but also to keep you safe while doing so. Xinyi moves tend to be designed for "safety first" in that they always teach the possibility of a block before a strike - but that does not mean a person has to wait for a strike to block before striking back!
Secondly, and more plainly, however, is the fact that if their is nothing in the way to "clean" out of the way, or if what is being cleaned has been dealt with, those so-called cleaning movements (which I had been demonstrating as "blocks") are always actually chasing the center of the opponent - so if they meet no resistance they simply hit the centre of the opponent!
While I do believe there is wisdom in the old expression, "the best defense is a good offense", this does not, in any way shape or form, mean that I am advocating the concept of a pre-emptive strike as a way of approaching individual conflict - not to mention conflict between nations!! I am also not advocating violence as a primary goal or end of martial arts practice (for my many thoughts on why people should actually be practicing traditional martial arts in the modern world please read my many other posts!). But, I am trying to say that built into every Xinyi form and move is the potential to both defend and attack - if it is being used for combat. And, as 99.9+% of life is not combat, I want to also take other lessons away from the Metal Element and the concept of "splitting"...
For me, it is about considering breaking problems down into smaller pieces - and dealing with those problems one piece at a time. Attacking any problem (be that a martial one or otherwise) means starting somewhere - and often the best place to start is "at the beginning" - with whatever is staring you (or jabbing you) right in the face. That said, at exactly the same time, the same solutions that you start to implement to deal with what is right in front of you may turn out, when followed through, to eventually deal with a deeper or larger problem.
For a very banal (but incredibly common) example, if someone knows that their diet is loaded with junk food and crap and they keep watching the scale creep up - the immediate problem may be trying to lose some weight. This could be initially "attacked" with something as basic (albeit challenging) as reducing portion sizes and/or increasing the proportion of vegetables in the diet. This initial approach will likely help to stop (or slow, or reverse) the upward creep of the scale. It can also, however, help reduce the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, etc. One "move" in the right direction can both attack an immediate problem and help deal with future (and worse than a number on a scale...) problems.
And, that first chip off the problem might very well be what was required to create an opening for the next move (e.g. eating more organic, supporting local farmers, reducing sodium intake, etc., etc...). Each move creates more openings and each move actually gets more towards the center of the problem (e.g. overall health, the environment, the economy, etc.).
Now we can always "split hairs" about all of the details - about how best to do all of this (be it martial arts or healthy eating or trying to make the world a better place! But, I find that I am increasingly drawn to the quiet "doers" of the world, who are willing put their hands up and forward, turn their shoulders into it, and don't shy away from engaging with what is going on. It may feel like all we are doing is putting out fires, or blocking the next crisis, but if we pick our spots and carve off something to work on improving - we can often find that even small efforts - done with heart and correct intention - can get to the heart of the matter over time.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 65 - Aug 19, 2014
Yin and Yang - Part 2 of 2
As I recently have had a new student coming out to try some Xinyi, I have had to go right back to basics in terms of teaching warm-ups and movements. This can be a good thing, of course, as the quality of everything that eventually gets built depends upon the quality of the foundation - and it never a bad idea to take a second (or thousandth) look at your foundation!
As I started teaching this student a new move, I found myself repeating a kind of mantra that I have said hundreds of times over the years. It goes something like this:
"Open, close; up, down; left, right; forward, back; head pulled gently up, feet rooted down; let the legs do the work, turn the waist, relax the arms; drop the shoulders, tuck in the elbows; tuck the chin slightly, breathe. Open, close..."
This quasi-mantra, and my many variations of it, are worn into my brain like "grooves on a record" (to use the old neuroscience analogy - and date myself at the same time...). Or, walking paths across a field (or practicing lines of Xinyi movements back-and-forth across a field!).
Over and over again we are scanning for the potential yins and the yangs within every form and every movement. Sometimes these are very obvious - such as in moves where one hand is pushing forward and the other hand is pulling back. Sometimes it is less obvious, such as when gently pulling the head up to allow the feet to root into the ground. Sometimes it is quite dynamic, such as opening and closing alternating sides of the body (using intercostals and and core muscles on alternating sides). Sometimes it is completely "intentional" or "internal", such as when having the feeling of the two hands separating - but when someone looks at the move they would see the two hands (externally) staying the same distance from each other.
For every Xinyi movement there are many potential yin and yang oppositions and complements to be explored and played with. These can be as simple as a the fingers going from open palms to fists (or vice versa) to as full-body as the entire form coiling and compacting - and then exploding outward. Or, an entire form expansively spreading upward - and then collapsing down heavy and sharp on a single point.
And the same goes for the energy of the moves themselves. Often there is a "looseness" or "softness" (not mushy, just soft...), that is then followed by a "hardness" or "tension" (not tense, but dynamic tension...) which then returns to flowing movement...
One of my metaphors for this ongoing dynamic tension is for practitioners to imagine rubber bands attached to their joints (for example when practicing movement such as "snake parts the grass" flowing into "snakes darts out the tongue"). That image of stretching the rubber bands and then releasing the stored energy can help to animate and "fill" the movements, that can otherwise risk becoming too "one-two", "start and finish" as opposed to being sensitive and dynamic throughout.
Or, I will have a student hold a posture and I will gently tug (with their permission) on their elbows, or an elbow and the opposite hand, and get them to imagine the rubber band pulling from the wall in front of them and from the opposite wall behind them.
Setting up a series of yin and yang separations is one of the first, and most important steps, in making a form come to life. Of course, the idea of waves and cycles - ups-and-downs - is the very nature of life itself. As many others have argued and pointed out - everything in life pulses. In order for the heart to work it must squeeze and then relax. In order for a neuron to function it has to fire and it then has recharge. Even day-to-day as martial artists we need to train and then we need to rest and recover!
Real life is complicated. It is never just "good or bad" or "positive or negative" or "yin and yang". I have argued repeatedly throughout this blog that martial arts and life are almost always more complicated than we want to acknowledge (!). So, don't think that I am arguing that seeing "yin and yang" in things means that we have it all nicely reduced and figured out. Instead, think about how complicated life is and how nice it is to be able to take a step back and put some artificial simplicity over top of it - to at least get started on a problem, or learning something new, or taking on a new challenge. Then, accept that once we separate something into two parts - it is just the first step towards infinite complexity. What is binary computing language if not a type of yin-and-yang model of zeros and ones? From that alphabet, we get the entire internet! From simplicity, we get infinite complexity.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 64 - Aug 18, 2014
Yin and Yang - Part 1 of 2
You can find plenty of things to read on this subject on the internet or in books on Chinese philosophy and religion, Traditional Chinese Medicine, feng shui, martial arts, etc... I am not going to try to get too deep into any of it here, as others can explain it much more fully, and much better, than I can. I am going to try to share a few thoughts, however, as to how I try to apply some basic thinking about "yin and yang" to training and daily life.
As a child, I certainly found myself fascinated by the "yin-yang" swirl diagram (sometimes called the "two fishes" diagram - a name which made sense to me after a cocked my head slightly to the side and looked at it again).
As a young adult, I found myself slightly "hypnotized" by the swirling figure (it reminds me a bit of the way cartoon characters' eyes are sometimes animated...), again, and it led to a fair bit of reading about "qi" and renewed my interest in learning more about China, Eastern philosophy, meditation and mindfulness, and, of course, my ongoing passion for the practices of martial arts and tea serving.
Although it is cliché, I feel that, at its most basic, it is important to think back to that two fishes diagram whenever thinking about yin and yang. Anything that is supposedly yin (e.g. the moon, shade, softness, physical, etc., etc.) has some sort of yang (the sun, light, hardness, energy, etc., etc.) within it, too (and vice versa...). And, the two are always interconnected and interacting and dynamically changing. And, yin and yang are always relative to each other (such that we might say a thing is yin when compared to another thing, but then that same thing may be yang when compared to something else).
I also do not want to dwell too much on the other root of yin and yang which goes right back to the most basic ideas of negative and positive. This leads to many branches of thinking influenced by yin and yang theory - from the very nature of the origin of the universe (e.g. did something come from nothing? is nothing something? is something nothing?), to ways of looking at health, to concepts of "emptiness and fullness", to Wu Xing / Five Element concepts (which I will delve into a little bit in the coming week)...
My opinion on these topics generally boils down to a belief that these are all models for looking at the world. And, as such, they are potentially quite useful for reducing and organizing and understanding the world (even if these models continue to be supplanted by modern models such as modern science) - as long as we don't excessively confuse these models for the world which we are trying to help us to understand. So, although my take on "yin and yang" and "the five elements" and some other related concepts is somewhat minimalist and reductionist, I am also well aware that some who massively expand these concepts and models (or overly idolize these models) also run the risk of, as the expression goes, "confusing the map with the territory" (alla Alfred Korzybski).
So, for those interested in learning more about yin and yang, and the five elements, they will likely not feel fully satisfied after hearing some of my simple examples and takes on them in martial arts, tea, and life. And they shouldn't. These theories and models were developed and argued about, and thrown out, and revived, and adapted, and evolved over centuries (!). For those who love theories and philosophy - I recommend reading much more and finding excellent teachers of theory to study with! This is a noble undertaking!!
But, for those who want to at least get a glimpse at "the menu", I will try to share a few of my observations. And, for anyone who wants a taste of some of these models - as expressed through a daily practice - please feel welcome to come try out martial arts or tea, with me.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 63 - Aug 17, 2014
Kung Fu Tea
While living in China in 2003, I had the opportunity to study with a teacher of the Chinese Tea Ceremony (aka "cha dao" / "gong fu cha" / kung fu tea).
It was an incredible experience for me, and it gave me the opportunity to learn another tangible type of gong fu / kung fu that I hope to keep practicing for the rest of my life. Better yet, it is a type of gong fu practice that is delicious and can be readily shared with others. I have served tea to many friends and clients over the past eleven years, and I look forward to serving tea thousands of times more during the next forty or fifty years, too! ;)
My weekly tea lessons were something I greatly looked forward to. It was a long trek (including walking, subway, and taxi) all the way out to my teacher's shop, but it was well worth it for the three hours of lessons and the copious amounts of tea consumed.
I won't try to describe too much about gong fu cha, but if anyone is interested in learning more about it, and/or getting some lessons in the art, I am open for teaching.
My own lessons with Zhang Laoshi (Teacher Zhang), were a dynamic mix of fun, sensory experience, mindfulness training, cultural education, and self-improvement. As Teacher Zhang got to know me better, and came to realize just how serious I am about gong fu (and she was very interested in, and supportive of, my martial arts training, too), she became increasingly serious about making sure that I would go back to Canada with a solid foundation in serving tea.
Most of our sessions were fairly friendly - with lots of laughing and plenty of opportunities to hear great stories about tea, drink lots of tea, practice serving tea, and discuss tea-related topics while nibbling on some snacks (this was to prevent us from getting "tea drunk" - as we were imbibing a lot of tea [and caffeine] over the course of three hours!).
As the sessions progressed, and the practice deepened, there came a week where I just wasn't feeling that great. I was in the midst of culture shock, I was still adapting to the heat and humidity, I had experienced some frustrations at work, I was sore from martial arts training, I was tired from so much extra time spent travelling and so much extra effort required to accomplish daily tasks that would have been so relatively simple for me back home in Canada, in English, in a familiar setting...
I arrived at my lesson and tried to maintain my normal level of focus, but I was distracted. Then, when it was my turn to serve tea, we switched places at the table and I found myself struggling with the steps, worried about getting things right, and even scalding my finger tip on the tea pot! :(
Teacher Zhang watched all of this and then took a sip of the cup of tea I had served her. She grimaced. She dumped her cup out into the tea tray and began a speech. She set about pouring out a list of my various flaws and weaknesses, which the translator diligently listed for me. I felt my heart pounding and my head steaming. After a few minutes, Teacher Zhang looked at me (likely I was beet red) and suggested we switch places. We didn't speak, she just served tea (masterfully as usual), and it gave my body and mind time to settle down. I drank the tea and relaxed and we had a pleasant remainder of the session.
I went back to my apartment that night and really reflected on how I was feeling - both about my level of stress leading up to the class and the feedback I had received from Teacher Zhang during the class. And, I decided that she was correct. I was stressed out. My flaws were all being pushed on and pulled on and amplified by the stress. And, the tea I had served her had reflected this in its terrible taste.
As the weeks and months progressed, I settled into my experience of China more and more. I adapted to the heat. My work became more predictable and manageable. My Xinyi training continued to progress and became less "muscle level". I felt much less tired and felt much better physically. I learned how to get the things I needed to get done, done. And the things I didn't need to get done day-to-day (or could not get done), I learned to better let go of.
My tea lessons continued to be fantastic and challenging. Teacher Zhang continued to expose my flaws and weaknesses, but she continued to give me tools to work on them, too. At the very least, she never again felt compelled to pour out the tea I served her!
When I returned to China in 2008, I got to receive some more tea lessons with Teacher Zhang. I was a bit nervous about this, as my tea serving style had certainly changed over the previous five years in Canada. After drinking some tea served by Teacher Zhang (which she served differently than she had five years before - because her gong fu had, of course, changed and improved with time and practice!), I got my turn behind the table - and I got to serve her and the other guests some tea.
She smiled a huge smile as she sipped the tea I served her. After a few rounds, she described how much I had changed and grown as a person - and how the tea I served was so delicious. I had not expected this. I was expecting a lot of correction on my technique! Instead, she commented on how she liked what I had done in terms of adapting my hard-learned techniques to my body, my personality, and my evolving "way" of being - while I still worked to remain true to the necessary basics of gong fu that that she had been so adamant and strict in imparting.
I draw strength from this experience - even now while I sip a cup of tea and write this. Good teachers are ready and willing to get to the heart of their students' difficulties and apply some pressure when and where it is necessary. And great teachers also want to see their students truly improve and become better at their art and better as people.
I still have plenty of flaws and weaknesses, but I am also most certainly a better person than I was back then. That is what practicing kung fu is supposed to be about: improvement through time and effort. Sometimes this is as simple as one sip of tea at a time.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 62 - Aug 16, 2014
When I think about feeling safe, and helping others to feel safe, I think about a question as simple as "Would I trust this person with my wife?" or "Would I trust this person with my child?"
I think about the answer to this question in at least two ways. The first is whether this person would be the sort of person who would harm my wife or child (intentionally or unintentionally). The second is whether this person would be able to protect my wife or child (from a bad situation or a bad person).
The answer to the first question is usually quite straight-forward. If I actually think the person in question could, or would, do harm to my wife or child - then I have some serious misgivings about this person and I want to be around him or her as little as humanly possible (and certainly not bring them into contact with my family)! It is a fairly quick and easy test, and it may deserve some second thought later, but I think I need to trust my guts if I find myself feeling this way about someone based on the available evidence.
The answer to the second question is a little more complicated. For example, I would feel completely safe leaving my wife or child with their grandmother, but am I convinced that their grandmother would be able to protect them from a bad situation (say, being pulled out into the ocean by a riptide) or from a bad person (say, a drugged-out psychopath attacking them)? Of course, the chances of these latter situations occurring is exceedingly rare - and made even more so by things like keeping a watchful eye on children playing at the beach, parking in well-lit areas, always locking house and car doors, staying in safer neighbourhoods, knowing how to dial 911, etc.
Day-to-day, the answers to both questions above are usually pretty straightforward for me. The "yes" answer to the first question describes almost all the people I would normally choose to spend time with, and the answer to the second question being a "yes", "no", or "maybe", while perhaps worth considering, rarely matters too much or stresses me out.
Where things get interesting, at least as an intellectual exercise, if not in the few actual cases when the s--t hits the fan, is when a person who I would answer "no" to in question one (I would not trust them alone with my family) may be a "yes" to for question two (they would be able to protect my wife and/or child)...
As a horrible example, I think of the news reports regarding a recent multiple-victim-stabbing at a house-party in Calgary. I know very few specific details of how the stabbings went down, other than the fact that one young man seems to have managed to stab five people to death at a house party.
The media, as is so often the case, has released little real information since the murders (God forbid we could actually learn from these events!?). And the police (I assume in order to protect the integrity of the evidence and their case) have also remained tight-lipped. So, anything I am going to say about this situation is, very admittedly, complete conjecture on my part. But with the limited information I have been able to read, and exposure to some commentary I have read and heard, I am going to at least use the basics here as a bit of a (morbid and tragic) thought experiment...
The most basic question I have is this - how does one person manage to stab five people to death at well-attended party and then leave the scene?? [I believe he was apprehended by police soon afterward]
As I have worked with people with anxiety disorders for many years, I am well acquainted with the fight-flight-freeze model of fear response and I have to assume it was a major factor. I am going to assume that each of the people being stabbed had no idea it was coming and were probably dying, or already dead, before they even knew what was happening to them and they could even begin to take any purposeful actions to protect themselves. I am also going to assume that at least a couple of these stabbings may have occurred out-of-sight (again, complete conjecture on my part!), say at the end of a dark hallway, or in a dimly lit corner, or in a room alone with the attacker. This still means that it is probable that at least a few, if not all, of these murders may have occurred in front of, or right next to, witnesses - some of whom may have quickly become the next victim...
This led to a few more thoughts and questions on my part. While it is easy for me to ask - why didn't someone do something to stop this guy? - I was not there and I have no idea what I would actually do when push comes to shove (or stab immediately comes to stab) in such a horrific, nightmarish situation. It is easy, from the relative safety of my living room, after-the-fact, to say what I believe (or hope) I would have done - so I won't. That acknowledged, why didn't anyone do anything [again, conjecture - maybe lots of people tried to intervene]?
My guess is that this all happened pretty quickly. My best guess is also that it is precisely because this was a party of good, decent young adults - the kind of young adults I would probably, if I got to know them a bit, be quite willing to imagine hanging out with my wife or babysitting my kid! It is precisely these sorts of people who would be completely in denial that they, or people near them, are being stabbed to death - even as it is, in fact, bloody well happening.
In the modern, civilized world, most of us have (thankfully!) so little first-hand contact with nasty, brutish, unprovoked violence of this sort that we cannot imagine it happening to us. We can't even imagine it - if it is really happening to someone right next to us. If we were being stabbed, most of us would go into shock (mentally and physically) almost immediately. If we were watching someone else being stabbed most of us would freeze up and our thinking brains would be churning away - searching for something rational to explain this - when our animal bodies should, instead, be doing something! A fundamental problem is that we would be trying to rationalize the irrational. We are trying to get answers to questions with no answers (and wasting precious acting time thinking).
Sadly, this murderer would likely have been stopped a stabbing or two into his rampage - if he had been stabbing members of a "rough" crowd! The sort of nasty, brutish people who are well-acquainted with violence (both as its victims and perpetrators), likely would have started yelling, running, hitting, smashing - and stabbing back (and reaching for things like baseball bats and guns, if available) as soon as they were being stabbed, or as soon as they saw someone stabbing their fellow friend or party-goer...
And please don't mistake the paragraph above to mean that I think it is safer to hang out (at parties or elsewhere) with generally brutish people. Of course, your baseline risk of getting stabbed (or otherwise attacked and injured) goes up for each increase in the nastiness of the people you associate with! If you are seeking increased opportunities to be stabbed or shot, join a gang and make it quite a lot more likely to happen than it is for most of the population.
But I am wanting to make the point that as our culture continually becomes safer and safer from physical aggression (again, thank goodness for this!!) it will become, in my opinion (and some other commentators, for sure), increasingly likely that when the "bad guys" (or the temporarily-completely-unpredictable-and-dangerous-for-whatever-reason...) use violence, an increasing number of people will be left increasingly defenceless. This seems at least a possible explanation as to why and how FIVE people ended up stabbed to death instead of one or two that night. [I guess we'll have to wait for the trial to hear more. My hypotheses could very well be all wrong as to what actually transpired.]
I do not want to see a society where those who eschew violence need to learn and experience violence in order to feel safe (that Catch-22, as a person who wants people to feel free and safe - is not one I want to force upon anyone). But, I do want to be reminded by tragedies such as the Calgary stabbings that violence is still very much part of the human condition and that we cannot always depend on our so-called natural instincts to protect us. All five of the victims had natural instincts - but for whatever reasons those instincts did not save their lives.
Anyone who was watching this unfold also had natural instincts - and for some of them it may have saved their lives (e.g. they may have run away or they may have frozen and the attacker may have killed a person who tried to intervene or fight). But apparently no one's natural instincts stopped this attacker from killing five very dynamic, intelligent, creative young people (according to the news reports). Likely part of this is because as much as natural instincts still exist - they were either overridden or did not turn on.
And even if they did turn on, the reactions were too little or too late. The level of response required to stop someone hell-bent on stabbing a bunch of people to death is something that few people could access and channel effectively - particularly without a fair bit of experience and training (e.g. someone who started stabbing a group of elite soldiers at a party may actually get a couple of them before the soldiers could react - but they sure would then react...).
So, who do I feel safest around? I feel safest around people I would trust with my wife and my child.
And, I also feel safe around people who can protect my wife and my child (assuming they met the first criterion for safety).
Not everyone can be, or should be, expected to be, both. But, I strive to be the sort of person who would be both. And I am glad that there are other people out there who strive to be both. Because the world would be a safer place if more of the people we trust day-to-day were also able to react appropriately (be that intervening or running/calling for help) when the s--t hits the fan.
And even if you have no desire to learn much about doing violence - at least learn enough about violence, and help those you care about to learn enough about it, to increase the chances of avoiding it and reacting appropriately if it ensues. This could be as simple as learning to immediately react by screaming and running like hell and crying (and calling) for help! Again, I DO NOT want to imply any blame at all regarding the Calgary victims and the other party-goers!!! It is just so completely f---ing horrible what happened that night and what those people experienced - and what the survivors and the friends and family members have to experience and grieve for the rest of their lives.
The man stabbing people with the knife is to blame!!!
But, I do want to learn from this. I do want people to think about this. I want to see less victims. I do not want to see the kindest, smartest, most creative, most trusting, etc. people be the ones most easily hurt. I want them to be safe. I want to see more good people in the world who can act to keep them safe. I want them to know how to keep themselves, and those they care about - safe.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 61 - Aug 15, 2014
The Cocktail Party
Of all the professors I have had a chance to study with at university so far (over the course of 10+ years of university wanderings...) there are some really amazing ones that stand out. There were a couple of truly terrible ones, too, but I don't want to dwell on those!
Among the very best was Professor Richard Coe at Simon Fraser University. I had the privilege of taking one of his classes as a post-degree student in 1997, and it was a brain-rattling (in one of the best ways possible) experience.
I am not going to even try to explain (because I am still trying to figure them out myself) many of his lessons - including his many arguments regarding "life as metaphor"... But one metaphor that he exposed me to (whether it was his originally or not) was the idea of learning anything high-level (in academia or elsewhere) being like attending a cocktail party.
Imagine yourself invited to a cocktail party (something that means you have already, luckily, met some interesting people who have the organizational abilities, and means, to throw a party of this kind and they have considered you interesting enough, in your own right, to attend...). You dress up and you head there in hopes of meeting interesting people and having interesting conversations.
You walk in and realize that you didn't really know all that much about attending cocktail parties! Everyone else seems to be better dressed, more eloquent, and more comfortable than yourself. You see lots of little groups of people engaged in spirited conversation and you find yourself trying to get the nerve up to go and join one of these groups.
But it's hard. It takes a lot of effort to walk up to these strangers... So, you head for the bar to grab a drink. Finally, you get your nerve up and you approach a group that looks like they are having a great debate. You start catching little snippets of the conversation, but you realize that you really have to wait for a while to even understand what people are talking about - it's like a whole new language - and even then you realize they are alluding to all sorts of things you have never heard of, so the conversation is hard to follow.
After a while, you start to catch what some people are talking about. After a while, you may even think you have something interesting to add to the conversation. Just as you get ready to seize a pause to say something - some drunken a--hole just stumbles right into the middle of the group and starts ranting and raving and saying this is a BS conversation. They make a huge scene and temporarily silence the discussion. They ruin the debate. Higher thought ceases. Angry words are exchanged. Perhaps security is even called... But when the drunken fool finally moves on, the conversation eventually resumes. At long last, you get a chance to say something. Some people agree, some disagree.
Then, someone gently takes you aside and explains that the point you just made (so brilliant and paradigm-shifting in your humble opinion...) was made a lot earlier in the conversation and that it has actually been made many times before - and it was actually discussed, even tonight, quite a bit before the conversation had eventually taken its current course... You feel a bit flustered, but the person explaining this to you, thankfully, did it in a fairly nice way and they take you and guide you gently by the shoulder back into the conversation.
I could go on and on (yes, even more than I already have!) with the description above. However, I will stop there. In case I have been too subtle: The cocktail party is learning something high-level (or deep). The groups of people are studying various subjects. The drunken idiot is someone who walks into any established discussion (be that one of Master Tradespeople, Scientists, Martial Artists, Science Fiction Fans, etc....) and starts spouting off like an expert when he/she has no respect for the fact the conversation they just entered has been going on for centuries! [On the internet, I believe that these jerks are referred to as "trolls"...]
When I heard this metaphor, it changed my view of learning anything at a high level. As much as I love to talk, I realized that I needed to show up and listen. I needed to realize that the conversation, and debate, has been going on for a very long time. I needed to come to things as a curious and tentative student and - after listening - ask plenty of questions. I needed to think for myself, but I didn't need to impose my every thought on others. I realized lot of things - some of which I actually practiced! - and I am still realizing things from this metaphor to this day.
So, if you are new to martial arts (or any new learning endeavour), try to think of yourself as coming to a party that has been going on for hundreds of years. Bring your excitement and enthusiasm, but bring some humility, too. Consider that people have been immersed in this stuff for a long time and just because you are "gung ho" does not mean you yet have any "gong fu" (i.e. skill earned through time and effort!).
You might find that it takes a lot of pressure off of you - and you can actually relax, and listen, and learn. And over time, you will learn what people have been talking about. And with more time and study, you will find that you truly do become part of the conversation. And eventually you may be part of welcoming other people to the conversation, too.
I really appreciate many teachers in my life, such as Professor Coe, who both challenged and corrected me, but also kept guiding me by the shoulder to feel welcome at the party.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 60 - Aug 14, 2014
Eight Senses - Thinking
And (a little drum roll here please...) the eighth sense is (ta-dah!) thinking! While this may seem odd to some people, those versed in philosophy, particularly of the Buddhist flavour, may know that "thinking" is sometimes viewed as another one of the senses - akin to those discussed so far.
I have always found this one a bit hard to wrap my head around (and still do), but, at the very least, I can see how it provides some sort of reasonable perspective (and humility) regarding thinking. I have long loved hearing philosophers argue about consciousness - and my favourite quotes regarding this are usually something along the lines of, "If your proof that you exist and are conscious is because your brain told you so, perhaps you need to question that. Because your brain has a vested interest in convincing you that consciousness is real, whether it is or not". And, how do you question that - when thinking is how you would try to figure out if you are just thinking...
That sort of dragon-tail-chasing used to amuse me as a child, annoy me as a teen, amaze and scare me as a young man, and now comforts me as I get older... Of course we all need to think and act as if we exist and are making conscious decisions with our conscious minds!! That's how we are able to operate in the world and do things like eat, sleep, and reproduce to keep our DNA coiling along into the next generation. It's also why it is important to respect the rights and beliefs of other people as they are also operating under that same perceptions themselves. But, in the same breath, we need to also not take ourselves so damned seriously.
We must try to think and act like we are the most important thing in the world - and we must simultaneously realize that we are but the tiniest of specks on a tiny speck that is somewhere in the unfathomable vastness of the (known) universe...
I remember laying in bed one night after some major tragedies had occurred - trying (with some difficulty) to fall asleep and thinking - if I could just get out of my head for a while...
I started "thinking" as far as I could outside of the room, outside of my country, outside of the earth, outside of the galaxy... I stretched and stretched my imagination further and further - thinking about all the shows I have seen about astronomy and the universe and multiple universes, etc. Then, I started thinking about time, about human history, pre-history, origin stories, back to the big bang, off into the future, etc. Then I started thinking about smaller and smaller things like cells, DNA, molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles, etc...
And then, I started laughing. Because, of course, no matter how much I tried to stretch my thinking outward in any direction, inward in any direction, or even stretching across time - there was no getting out of my head (!). The whole exercise took place laying there on my bed, in the dark, inside the confines of my skull! [I still thank God for my Xinyi practice during that time (and for my family and friends!) - as daily training helped me balance being in my head too much by returning to my body each day, too.]
One of the quotes of my mindfulness teacher, Professor Barber, that still rattles around inside my skull, was while he was discussing, in passing, the classic Rene Descartes saying, "I think, therefore I am". But, when Professor Barber said it, he added some air quotes: "'I' think, therefore 'I' am". I took this as a complete reversal of Descartes' assertion - that is, the illusion of what we experience as conscious existence is created by the brain - and this artificial illusion then "thinks' to generate an "I" that is therefore convinced (or tricked!) into thinking it exists.
Of course, I may be thinking about this all wrong...
On a day-to-day level I am definitely convinced I exist and I definitely would like to keep existing. Tell me (or most people) that they (and our built up layers of "I") might not exist and they can tend to get quite irate (and even aggressive) in trying to convince you they do (often by threatening you). "I" assure everyone - my "I" does not like to be overly questioned or threatened by too many doubts... ;)
My brain and body, and many of its thoughts and experiences, are relatively important to me (!) and I use them to construct an experience of the world which then influences my actions. In this regard, "thinking" is not just the eighth sense, but it is probably hundreds, or perhaps many thousands, of "senses".
It is a sense of decorum. A sense of decency. A sense of modesty. A sense of reverence. A sense of right and wrong. A sense of justice. A sense of fatigue. Of hunger. Of thirst. Of kindness. Of love. Of betrayal. Of pain. Of compassion. Of contempt. Of forgiveness. Of awe and wonder... All this thinking going on seems very important day-to-day! All this picking and choosing and sorting and deciding! This is the job of the thinking mind, I think.
And, if you run out of things to think about for even a moment, the mind will rush in to fill the void. Have to sit or stand still in a mindfulness practice? Your brain will go wild within - coming up with things to think itself about. Go into a sensory deprivation "flotation tank", depriving (or at least limiting) your brain's flow of constant input from the other seven senses, and your brain will generate images and thoughts and feelings from nothing!
So take very good care of your brain and the vessel which you carry it around in. Take good care of the people around you. They are important, sacred vessels, too. Take good care of the earth we depend on to eat, and breathe, and live and experience with our senses.
But, at the same time, consider stopping once in a while to think about thinking (and think about thinking about thinking...) - and think about how phenomenally important thinking is and also how thinking may be another sensory phenomenon that has its limits - despite thinking's best attempts to convince you otherwise.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 59 - Aug 13, 2014
Eight Senses - Proprioception
The sense of proprioception tells us where our bodies and limbs are in space, and in relation to each other. This is the seemingly miraculous (at least it seems so to me) ability demonstrated by closing your eyes and moving your hand around and still knowing where it is.
When proprioception is working well, things seem effortless. Most of us have no trouble (since we learned to keyboard), for example, of typing on a keyboard while watching the screen with our eyes. That is proprioception in action. The fingers can do their job while the eyes (and the thinking part of the brain) are free to do their job - and the words just end up getting written down.
Or, when you have diligently over-practiced some other physical skill, like a martial arts move, and you are able to, finally, simply do the move without having to think about it - without having to think about where your feet, knees, hips, hands, elbows, shoulders, and head are all lined up - because they just move in unison in the direction your heart and mind have determined.
When Xu Guo Ming talked about occasionally using the martial arts he had spent years honing in actual fighting, one of the comparisons he described was signing his name. He asked us how much we have to focus on signing our name anymore? The task is so overlearned that the hand can just do it while our eyes and other senses are directed elsewhere.
While this is an incredible level to attain at any skill or art - it is not necessary to be at that level to reap great benefits from the practice. In fact, it is the hard work of trying to get there that is really changing the brain. Within a few weeks of practicing some basic Xinyi moves and footwork, it starts to feel easier. And when the brain has adapted to that, we add the next part of the move, or the next move, or we start stringing moves together... If we keep adding "just right challenges" it doesn't stress us too much - it stresses us just enough. We keep getting better and it keeps getting easier to get better.
Of course, proprioception is how the body figures out where we are physically. The bigger question is, where are "you"? Are you right here, right now - fully inside your practice and your life?
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 58 - Aug 12, 2014
Eight Senses - Balance
It's what it's all about, isn't it? Talk to many people about martial arts, or life, and they will often say "it's all about balance". It's all about balancing this and that...
I don't necessarily disagree, but I certainly have some issues with the idea of "balance", particularly when it is tossed around so casually and carelessly. When it becomes simply another buzzword. When it supposedly saves us from excess - or rationalizes selling out.
When I picture "balance", I often picture one of those ancient scales. It has a balance arm and two pans on either side. "Balance" is achieved when what is placed on one side is of equal weight to that put on the other.
That image alone should create some doubts as to the wisdom of seeking balance by adding things haphazardly to your life in the hopes of creating "balance". First of all, even if both sides of the scale were completely empty, the balance between the two would be precarious, at best. If one of the two pans weighs even a little more or a little less than the other, it won't be balanced.
Then, we start adding things to the scales... That could be weight to an actual scale, or that could be personal and professional responsibilities. In order to achieve "balance" we could just keep adding things to both sides of any situation. Too tired from working too hard? Add stimulants. Too stressed out from too many responsibilities? Add relaxants. Too much sitting? Go to the gym. Too sore from the gym? Add anti-inflammatory drugs...
Adding more and more in hopes of seeking balance is a self-defeating task (and likely a self-destructive one, too). And any martial artist worth his salt better be seeking ways to find balance within him or herself before going out there and trying to use martial arts to uproot others. Who needs enemies to throw you out of whack when not sorting your own stuff out will cause you to be a constant source of your own instability?!
Xinyiliuhequan, like many martial arts and many other gong fu or mindfulness practices, starts by throwing out the balancing scales metaphor.
Adding more and more (money, power, strength, goals, etc.) is not the way of martial arts. It is almost always the opposite - slow down, take a deep breath, learn to be still. Let go. Learn to be comfortable being still before you try to move. Find stability first, then put mobility on top of stability.
And to find balance "out there" in the rest of our lives, we need to start by finding balance "in here" - right within our own hearts, minds, and bodies. The body is a way in. Close your eyes. Can you tell where your head is in space? Do you know up from down? That is the vestibular system at work. Trying standing very, very still. Try closing your eyes. Try standing on one leg and doing the same. One quickly becomes aware that balance is a process. It takes work.
It was only after many years of doing martial arts that I became willing to do some yoga. I just did not feel comfortable being in postures that were so vulnerable. I was so used to the Xinyi mentality - that every inch of every move I needed to be focussed on my form such that I would be safe when hitting or if someone was trying to hit me. The idea of contorting myself in a bizarre non-fighting position or laying on the ground with my eyes closed pretending to be a corpse had zero appeal. The whole point of doing martial arts, at least at it's most basic levels, is to prevent laying on the ground as a corpse!!
But with practice, I came to know that some yoga was good for me. I knew enough martial arts to feel safe - even when doing yoga with a bunch of strangers or in some non-defensive position. And even though I have no desire to pursue my yoga practice anywhere near my martial arts practice, it does not hurt when I do yoga that I bring to it my martial arts training background. And, it does not hurt my martial arts practice that I bring some of the recovery and relaxation and flexibility that yoga reminds me to practice within my Xinyi.
Do I need to start doing yoga every day, go to India to train with a great yogi, and practice every day? No. For a person with a life as busy as mine (and only getting busier), that would be ridiculous.
What I actually do is practice a bit of yoga once in a whle, stretch out a bit after doing my daily Xinyi, and snag some extra stretches at work when I am in staff meetings.
The internal balance I strive for now using Xinyi has some similarities to yoga practice. On the outside it often looks completely different from yoga and from things like "corpse pose". But there is a similar striving for a sort of balance that goes deeper and lower and wider and more real each day (despite the fact that the fluid in my inner ears helping with physical balance may be getting a little bit more thickened with each passing year!).
It is the type of balance that is comfortable anywhere. It is the type of balance that leans towards the light but is not afraid of closed eyes and stillness and whatever unsettling thoughts that may bring.
It is the type of balance that is completely solid and unchanging, yet flexible and adaptable, at exactly the same time.
It is this type of balance that old masters talk about when they say nonsensical-sounding paradoxes like "emptiness in fullness and fullness in emptiness". They are talking about throwing away the standard scales and balances we think we know and are looking for, and instead, looking for something truly new, and something that's always been there inside us, too.
Sometimes balance means making a choice and putting a bunch of weight on one side of the scale. That side of the scale then sinks to the ground and the scale now sits "balanced". Sometimes it means taking a bunch of weight off of one side of the scale, resulting in the other side resting on the ground, in stillness. Sometimes it means knocking the whole scale, or the whole model of scales, onto the ground, creating stillness.
Building something new from the ground up is not as hard as it sounds - because the more we keep going back to the foundations of our practices, the closer we are to the earth, to the ground, and to our roots. Sometimes it is better to have a small, well-built structure with a good foundation, than a huge overly complex structure built on shifting sands...
Sometimes just laying on the ground (or sitting on a mat, or standing in a Xinyi posture...) is the very best way we can practice stillness and balance for ourselves - and for then creating whatever our next move needs to be.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 57 - Aug 11, 2014
Eight Senses - Touch
The past few weeks have been great, but they have been hard on my back. My wife and I drove from Victoria to Calgary and back again (with some great stops along the way) and then after a week back at work, we were back in Vancouver for the weekend. It has been great - but exhausting!
Sitting really is one of the new plagues for many Western workers in the modern age (for those of us fortunate enough to have jobs). At work, I mitigate the sitting by setting a timer and at least trying to stand up every twenty minutes. I also wear a pedometer and try to be sure to get in some adequate steps during the day, logging a few extra at lunch or during a break if I find the number of steps is "sitting" too low.
Even with these efforts (and daily Xinyi practice sessions), it is hard to undo the tightness and stiffness that excess sitting can create. So, after the past days of driving, days of getting caught up on reports at work, and then another trip on the weekend - my body was sending me very distinct signals that I needed to take care of.
Fortunately, I have a couple of secret weapons in the war on sitting. These include a foam roller, a shepherd's hook (a bent piece of aluminum with a plastic knob on the end of it), and a lacrosse ball. These three tools changed my life (for the better!) over the past several years, and as much as I believe that prevention is the best medicine - sometimes you have to manage the inevitable aches and pains of both a sedentary and an active life.
I remember my first time using a foam roller about five years ago (at the behest of my physiotherapist) and feeling as if rolling on the outside of my leg was both tearing my skin and ripping my muscles... My physio encouraged me to stick with it, however, and I am nothing if not diligent when given sound advice. I rolled for about 15 minutes a day for about six weeks. And then, my knees stopped aching.
Now, that might not sound like much, but my knees had been aching for the past twenty years! Ever since I developed some "growing pains" during an early teen growth spurt, I had come to believe and accept that I was just going to have achy knees. I stretched diligently, I exercised diligently, and followed the advice of other health care professionals - but I also just came to accept that my knees would ache. So, there was a strange sense of denial at, at first, when my knees just stopped hurting!
Since then, I have still gotten aches and pains from sitting too much, or exercising too much, or any other number of causes of general aches and pains. But, I also have gotten much better at both preventing the aches in the first place, and managing them afterward if I could not.
I am known as a guy who stretches at work during meetings and who can sit in rounds and listen while also working out a knot in my back with my hook. I have even converted some colleagues to adopt some of these practices, too.
When I started my current job almost five years ago, I decided that I was going to do my very best to practice what I preach at work - and while I have slipped up sometimes, I have been 70-80% true to my word of taking care of myself so that I am better able, in the long run, to take care of others. I have come to fully accept that sustainability must be the foundation of work, exercise, relationships, etc.
I am grateful to my physio for having recommended (strongly!) that I give the foam roller a good, solid try. And, I am grateful for knowing enough "gong fu" to know that the trick to improving at pretty much anything is to stick with it over time. Sometimes it just takes a little nudge in the right direction. Some people just have the right touch when it comes to getting you to practice in the way that you know you are capable of practicing.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 56 - Aug 10, 2014
Eight Senses - Taste
It was a little harder to get up this morning to train than usual - and I don't usually find it easy to get up early to train. :)
I attended a wedding last night, and ended up staying up pretty late. It was the second wedding I have attended in the past three weeks and it was, again, beautiful. It was a highly inclusive event - with all ages, a significant nod to First Nations culture, the languages spoken switching back-and-forth between French and English, and a great mix of interesting people. It was, as always, an honour to be invited to witness someone's wedding vows. It was also certainly a pleasure to dine on delicious food and enjoy a few cold drinks, too.
The two weddings I attended were fairly different. They each had their own unique flavour and seasoning, yet both were true to form. Both were fantastic, beautiful affairs, for sure. Both were reflections of the tastes and preferences of the couples involved. Both paid homage to the necessary, traditional wedding tropes - and I mean that in the best way possible. When I go to a wedding, I look forward to a certain degree of form and tradition. I like knowing that there will be some ceremony, speeches, etc. - and usually something good to eat! There is a certain basic recipe to most weddings, and then it is intriguing to experience how the couple have decided to interpret, combine, fuse, enhance, omit, innovate, etc. within the limits of the structural cuisine they have chosen.
It reminds me very much of a discussion about Shakespeare that I also had this weekend with my wonderful hosts. We ended up talking a bit about how much we love "The Bard" and how we actually like it when directors choose to set his plays in different times and situations. We are more than willing, for example, to see duels become gunfights or feuding families become warring gangs. We are even willing to see the occasional insertion of modern vernacular or obvious attempts to shock the audience out of complacency and excessive devotion to "the standard approach" of staging Shakespeare. Devices, such as anachronistic juxtaposition or some other attempts to acknowledge just how different the values of society are now when compared to Shakespeare's time can enliven the old master's works - while at the same time honouring his unparalleled writing and timeless observations of the human condition.
I feel similarly regarding traditional martial arts. The basic recipes are tried-and-true. It makes little sense to me to mess with them too much. If you substitute steak for bread, lobster for eggs, and pepper for cinnamon - you can't say you still have "French toast" because you still had butter on the plate to dip the lobster in! You have made "surf and turf" - and that's fine - but it is no longer French toast!! If you choose to throw out all the "old" forms, structures, shapes and traditions, fine, but don't then turn around and tell me you are serving up a recipe passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. And don't expect me to find misleading people distasteful. Serve up what you want, just be honest about it. What you produce might be excellent, too, but if I am trying to feed myself some French toast for breakfast, no matter how good the steak and lobster might be, they are not the same thing.
What I find important within traditional martial arts, however, is to both honour the original recipe and tradition, but, once you are very confident that it can be crafted and handed down as to close to what you were handed (particularly if you were entrusted with a recipe by someone who wants you to hand it down as genuinely as you are capable of), then you can also play with how you prepare the dish. My best teachers have been able to both say - "This is how to do the move. This is how my teacher taught me to do it" and also say "Here are some variations on the move. Here is how some people, including myself, have improvised and interpreted it".
We don't get evolution and adaptation and improvement without change. But we don't get the delicious continuity with past cultures and traditions unless we try to conserve things, too. Both are, in my opinion, very important to be mindful of - and the mark of good taste.
So this morning, as I look forward to the French toast my host is making for me, I will also think about nourishing martial arts practice. I have been told French toast is on the menu this morning - but I am curious about what variations will be involved. Will they use butter? Cream? Milk or Almond Milk? Cinnamon? How much? Syrup? Maple Syrup? Powdered sugar? Fruit? French baguette or some other bread entirely? There are infinite variations within the form and it is the structure and form that allows us infinite variations. We can still retain the taste and nourishment from the past and allow both the great chefs and home cooks to play with flavour while feeding themselves and others.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 55 - Aug 9, 2014
Eight Senses - Hearing
I want to move on to hearing sounds, but right now I am lingering over a cup of excellent coffee after a relaxed, early (moderately early) morning training session.
It is still that time of day when the world of people is just starting to stir. I can hear cars outside, doors opening and closing, water running through pipes… In the more distant background I can hear leaves rustling on trees and a wind chime somewhere in the neighbourhood.
I think back to a morning about six years ago when I sat down to do some seated meditation. I have never really liked "just sitting" all that much, but I had dabbled in learning about, and trying out, seated meditation on and off for many years (since picking up a little book by Alan Watts about it off of my parents' book shelf as a young child).
I settled in the best I could and tried to ignore the noise. I turned my attention inward and there they were - no surprise - my regular stream of unconscious worries bubbling up to the surface. I was thinking about money, about work, about relationships… I thought about professional frustrations and past hurts and insults and slights. I thought about social situations in which I was embarrassed. I thought about traumatic things that have happened to me and to others close to me. I thought about mistakes I've made and regrets and the many times I wished I had been more patient and compassionate. I thought about over-arching problems in the world - from global warming, to pandemics, to war, to famine…
All of these thoughts bubbled up and, to the best of my ability, I tried to practice the techniques I had learned over the years, including those I was currently learning from Professor Barber, my meditation shirfu of the past few months. He is a man I was lucky enough to have met several times over the years - once when he gave a lecture I happened to be invited to and then a year later when he was on a panel at a film festival. I tried to get to a chance to meet briefly with him one-to-one and see if he was taking on students, and of course, he welcomed me to do so - but thank to many twists and turns in life it took two years to finally get it to happen!
So there I was, about six years ago, trying to just sit there and not get too attached to my brain's attempts to keep me "entertained", distracted, distressed, and otherwise occupied. "Anything but nothing!" could easily be the rallying cry for my mind...
After about twenty minutes of this process - of trying to let go, trying not to try too hard to let go, trying to hang on, trying to hang on to letting go, trying not to hang on to trying to let go - it got really, really quiet.
I sat and listened. What the heck? When had it gotten so quiet in the house? And I laughed! Because I realized that the noise that had dropped away after twenty minutes was the noise in my own head. My ears actually perked up and started to hear the world around me. A few creaks of hardwood, some gurgles in the plumbing (and a few gurgles from my stomach), a dog barking in the distance. All those external "distractions" were almost nothing when compared to the phenomenal amount of noise my mind had been generating from within.
I'd like to say that my mind has been still and calm since that day... That somehow I have "mastered" the art of mindfulness! ;)
I'd even really like to say that now I can easily switch off the internal noise more easily and more quickly! Fact is, my brain is still my brain - it is still churning away in my head creating all sorts of experiences that have little to do with reality.
The difference is that I am a little more aware of it. I am a little more able to change the volume. And, I am vastly more confident that I can both "sit" with the noise my mind generates and that I have the skills to manage that noise much better. And I also love much of what my mind generates. I just try to laugh about it more often when it is generating so much unnecessary stress or BS!
And the more I can at least recognize the noise my brain is creating, the more I can direct my hearing towards my friends, family, and teachers. The more I can try to just sit and listen. That starts with paying attention and taking the time to actually hear. And hearing is going to get worse as I get older - as it is an external, physical thing. Listening, however, is a lifelong skill, another type of gong fu, that can always be improved and cultivated.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 54 - Aug 8, 2014
Eight Senses - Smelling
Perhaps I should have started my entries regarding the senses with olfaction - as it is one of our most ancient, primal ways of gathering information about the world.
Throughout most of the day we are barely aware that we are constantly smelling our surroundings. But there our noses are - sniffing out potential problems and trouble, monitoring for anything markedly different. Otherwise, for the most part, our brain is working to ignore and habituate to the background scents of the landscape.
The vast majority of what our "lower" brain receives as input is simply filtered out, never reaching our "higher" conscious awareness.
Of course, training has its own unique set of scents associated with it - such as sweat. I am glad I usually don't notice this too much until I get home and get a chance to get cleaned up!
It turns out that we can actually smell millions of scents. It is our noses that help to inform the most basic decisions regarding what is good for us and what is bad for us; from the first time we try a new food; to enjoying the aromas of coffee, tea, or wine; to deciding if those leftovers in the fridge are still safe to eat…
I consider scent the most instinctual of my senses, and I try to heed my nose when it sends me a message. If something "doesn't smell right" about a situation, I think twice about it. If I find I am in a situation that "stinks", I try to change the situation and get myself out of it. Often, I just need to get some fresh air - and then I can think more clearly.
I try to start every day, and every training session, with at least a few deep breaths through my nose. I also try to end each day with some sort of mindfulness practice - again breathing through my nose. This is, perhaps, one of the most straightforward ways to connect the body and the mind - our animal self with our human self.
It is easy to take scent for granted, but there it is "as plain as the nose on your face". It is at our own peril that we ignore the signals coming in from around us, and the information processed deep within our reptilian brains. We may want to "think" we are above the odours, fragrances, and stinks of life on earth. The scents of daily life, however, keep us humble, grounded, and rooted.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 53 - Aug 7, 2014
Eight Senses - Seeing
I am someone very interested in the senses, and how the senses work together. I have long been fascinated with how the senses feed into our brains to generate functional, adaptive responses from our minds and bodies (something that in my profession is referred to as "sensory integration").
Although I want to get into discussing "Yin and Yang" and "The Five Elements" in the context of Xinyiliuhequan, I am first going to go on a tangent and explore the eight senses and how I feel they influence, and are influenced by, the practice of Xinyi.
Starting today with sight, I am taken back to training outside early this morning. When I left the house to train, the sun was not yet above the horizon. I was extra careful looking both ways to cross the street - both because of the poor light and because I knew that my eyes (and those of drivers out at that point) were not fully awake yet! I walked up to the top of a nearby hill, but once there realized it was going to be too bright. As I walked down, I scanned for a good, flat spot, with a nice mix of sun and shade. I found this in a nearby schoolyard field and ended up having an excellent session. I kept scanning around me between lines of movements and I also made a concerted effort to pick objects to walk towards while keeping my gaze (and my head) up.
Grandmaster Yu Hua Long once explained how we need to "look" in front of us when we train (and fight) - but also to the sides of us, below us, behind us, and above us! He did not necessarily mean we have to constantly moving our head and eyes around in every direction, but that we should be aware of our surroundings as much as possible - particularly if we were entering a potential confrontation.
This reminded me of one of my fieldwork supervisors, Naty Ibay Yasay, who I once watched explaining to a depressed client (who happened to be a truck driver) how he should be "viewing" things in his life. She asked him where his eyes are when he was driving and he explained that they were on the road in front of him.
"Only on the road ahead?", she asked.
"Well, no," he answered, "I'm also checking the mirrors [behind me], too.
"Only to the front and behind?" she asked.
"Well, I check to the sides as I near intersections, too."
"Only to the front, behind, and sides?"
"Well, I guess I look up if I am going under a bridge or a low-hanging wires"
"Only to the front, behind, sides, and up?"
"Well, I guess I look down if I am trying to get around a parked car or avoid something on the road."
"How far do you look forward?" she explored.
"Well, mostly a little ways down the road, but sometimes scanning way ahead and sometimes right ahead."
"How about inside the truck?"
"Well, I guess I check the instruments, my speed, other gauges, you know..."
"I guess if I have a passenger with me, like my wife joining me on a run, then I glance at her when we are talking or once in a while to check on her."
"I want you to think about this. You are an expert driver - is this how you view your life, too? Are you primarily focussed on the near future, keeping an eye out far ahead, checking behind you a bit, and keeping some awareness of the present and people close to you? Or, are you living in such a way that you are constantly looking in the rear view mirror dwelling in the past, or too focussed on and worried about things so far ahead you can't yet see them?"
I had heard versions of this metaphor before, but because of my supervisor's skill in delivering it and exploring it with this client (and its relevance to his job and his situation) it really caused him to stop and reflect on the concepts. It really changed their professional relationship and rapport and I think it had a real impact on his recovery and then his subsequent journey forward.
Ideally, students should look and see what their teachers are trying to show them. It sometimes takes a long time, however, before they actually perceive and understand what they saw.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 52 - Aug 6, 2014
I have done A LOT of reading the past five years regarding healthy eating. I have read academic articles, books, websites, and blogs. I have watched documentaries and lectures and listened to countless podcasts. I have explored everything from "raw organic vegan" to "low carb paleo" - and pretty much everything in-between.
In addition, I have been a "foodie" for many years - exploring many different cuisines and having successfully completed some formal courses in wine-tasting - as well as studying tea and "Cha Dao" (the way of tea / Chinese tea ceremony) while living in China (another type of Chinese "gong fu" that I continue to regularly practice to this very day).
Last year, I also started my Master's of Science in Public Health, taking my first two courses: Statistics for Public Health and Epidemiology. Combine that with my prior nine-plus years of university, and two degrees, and I am bringing (I feel!) a lot of knowledge and quite a few lenses to bear on the issue of what the heck I should be eating and drinking!
With all of this knowledge and all of these perspectives, I still get quite confused - and I often get quite frustrated. For example: Is a glass of wine a day really that good for you? Or, does a glass of wine a day mainly benefit older people who are otherwise only of average health (eating "SAD" - the Standard American Diet) but who are also the sort of upper-middle-class, self-regulated, self-disciplined people who can afford to drink a glass of wine a day and have the self-control to stop at one glass of wine a day...
Are animal products bad for us or not? Does it matter how the animals are raised? Does it make a difference if produce is organic or not? Are supplements good for you, neutral, or even bad for you? Is coffee healthy or unhealthy?
And all of the above are fairly mainstream questions - the farther one goes in pursuit of healthy eating (or any healthy "practice") the more esoteric and detailed (and opinionated) the questions and "the answers" become...
At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, I have come up with some guidelines for myself regarding what I eat - and how I try to respect what others want to eat:
1) Try to ask myself before eating anything: Is this going to nourish me? Is this going to positively influence my health? Has the life (and death) of this food been consistent with my values?
2) If I am eating something "less healthy" (e.g. a piece of cake at a party) I make sure to really savour and enjoy it if I am actually going to eat it!
3) Unless a food is totally aversive to me, I tend to eat what I am offered when I am a guest somewhere.
4) When I am with vegan family or friends, I am more than happy to eat vegan food - as it means that the vegans and the omnivores can all eat all the foods (whereas if we eat omnivore foods, then many of the foods will not be accessible for the vegans).
5) In general, I try to eat "minimally processed" foods. This does not mean not cooking or avoiding all processed foods (e.g. for convenience sake canned beans are better than no beans at all!), but certainly it does mean avoiding "highly processed foods" (if you can still call these "industrial food-like products", food...). I am talking about the "industrial food-like products" that are highly salted, highly sugared, highly refined, highly chemically-preserved, etc. etc...
6) I don't get too stressed out over any of the above and I try to avoid entering into arguments with others who want to eat differently.
In my experience with martial artists, I have run into pretty much every style of eating - from organic raw vegans to grease-and-salt-seasoned junk-food lovers. I would argue that there is a 'general trend' of sustainable practice (i.e. longevity) towards those who have eaten the more healthy, moderate diets (as opposed to loading up on junk food), but of course there are always exceptions to every rule (including to the rule that there is an exception to every rule)...
And the same applies to the practice of martial arts. Some people love certain types of training and eschew mixing any modern methods (e.g. modern weight training, modern cardio training) into their practice. Others argue only for modern methods and have stripped away anything they see as "traditional" in their practice. Some people like to stick primarily to one art and even one teacher or lineage - others "cross-train" in a variety of styles ranging from East to West and ancient to modern.
Again, I do not believe in all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking. I love practicing the traditional art of Xinyiliuhequan, handed down to me in a fairly "traditional" way from great teachers and a great Grandmaster of the style (including my treasured time and effort spent training with the late Yu Hua Long himself!). I guess I am 'old-fashioned' in many ways... But I still review and learn more Xinyi ongoing - even from book and videos and the internet, too! ;)
That said, I am also grateful for my exposure over the years to other martial arts outside of Xinyi. I loved practicing Tai Chi and Bagua - and those experiences certainly still inform the way I look at, and practice, Xinyi. Before that, I loved practicing Tae Kwon Do as a kid - and then even getting some experience with other martial arts and even a little Western boxing.
I greatly enjoy watching "MMA", such as UFC. I don't watch it all the time, but it has been a fascinating sport to watch evolve - and I love that I am fortunate enough to be able to go see the opera on a Friday and then go to the pub and watch UFC on a Saturday (sometimes in the same weekend)! Talk about getting to experience different flavours in this life! :)
And for all of that, what I love best is just training. Just spending an hour on my own working through some movements or a form - or getting together with others to share. I get a visceral nourishment from this in the way I might when preparing a good meal for myself or when hosting others.
It does not have to be too complicated or elaborate. What matters is trying to provide something that is good for myself and also can be enjoyed and comfortably digested by others. I find this is best when it is minimally processed - when I just try to share as basically and genuinely as I can. When my "guests" walk away from a good meal, or a good training session, I want them to feel nourished, satisfied, healthy. I want them to feel appropriately "fueled" for whatever it is they are going to do for the rest of the day or the rest of the week.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 51 - Aug 5, 2014
Although I have just crossed the half-way mark of my "100 Days of Xinyi" I actually want to reflect on new beginnings and fresh starts.
I have always felt happy to have my birthday in June. Why? Because not only do I love the chance to make new resolutions at New Year's, but also love to take stock and renew at the half-way point in the summer.
I love the start of each month because it is a chance to set goals and start fresh, too. I even like the start of each week - I do like Mondays - as it is then that I try to set my intentions for the week.
Any day, in fact, can be the start of something new. Some clichés exist for good reason: "Every day is a new day"; "It's never too late to start over"; "You're never too old to learn something new". Yes, there are counter-clichés as well - "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" comes to mind... ;)
Of course, the hot thing in neuroscience over the past decade, and more, has been "neuroplasticity". The understanding that the brain can (and does) always change. This does not mean that it is easy or "perfect", but it does mean that we are always changing as long as we are living (and depending on your perspective we may be changing in a variety of ways afterward, too...) - and every choice we make is influencing the direction of our minds. And, our conscious minds should be directing where we want to go.
I have certainly had some bad things happen in my life. Many times, regardless of the best of intentions and preparations and efforts - things will go wrong. If you are living fully and trying to go places and do things, you are inevitably going to periodically get knocked on your ass. One of my very favourite Eastern sayings (which I write on the "goodbye cards" to many of the kids I work with when they graduate from our program) is as follows: "Get knocked down seven times; Get up eight".
Practicing a martial art like Xinyiliuhequan has served me very well in terms of both avoiding many potential unnecessary difficulties in life, but also in helping me through the times that life has knocked me down. The practice and philosophy of the art has, I feel, helped allow me to get up, recover, and move on more quickly - and to learn from each setback.
As I have discussed in other posts on this site - every day life is training and training is every day life. We almost always deserve "do overs" and second chances - and it is up to us to seize opportunities for fresh starts when we are lucky enough to get them.
We cannot prevent all disasters, but we have a duty to mitigate in the face of adversity. The ability to mitigate well, however, should not start after a disaster - it should start now, wherever we are, so that we are becoming stronger, more flexible, more adaptable, more calm, more compassionate each day. When life is good, these traits serve us well in striving appropriately and sanely towards our goals. When it all goes to hell, however, these same traits become indispensable for survival. Whatever it is you do in life, try to enjoy each day, but also be sure to be setting goals for tomorrow and building resilience and reserves for the inevitable difficulties that life brings, too.
As a student of history (world history and my own personal history), I know that I am the sum of all of my life up to this point - but I am also at exactly the same time, at any given moment, starting from scratch - able to create and influence the course of my own history, too.
I know it is another cliché to mention it, but I am going to anyway... The Chinese character for "crisis" is often broken down into its components of "danger" and "opportunity". In my view, life is always full of danger and opportunities. We are constantly living on a continuum of the little decisions we made over the thousands of day up to now. We are constantly reaping the little daily seeds we have sown. That said, we can also suddenly be thrust into the unknown by outside forces or by our decisions (for good or for bad). What matters is that we keep getting up - and we find ways to be grateful that we could get up and make a fresh start.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 50 - Aug 4, 2014
Home Safe Home
After spending the past ten days on the road, it felt so nice to return home last night. My body and mind deeply relaxed as I neared our place and I re-settled into my familiar environment.
I remember moving into residence at the University of Manitoba in 1993 and feeling quite overwhelmed. There were more people living in residence at UofM than there were in my entire hometown! For the first two weeks, I ventured out pretty much only to attend classes and to eat.
My roommate, and, over the years, very good friend, Paul, asked me why I seemed so stressed out. I told him how worried I was - that I might let everyone down. What if I didn't do well this year? I'd be letting down my mom, my teachers, myself... I talked about how big the campus and crowds seemed to me. I talked about the uncertainty of what I wanted to study and whether it would eventually lead to paid work. I talked about the student debt I was just starting to accumulate and the fact that it was going to grow considerably before school was over!
After all of this Paul did not give me any particularly deep advice or try to make things better for me. He basically just let me know that he was available to chat and that I was welcome to hang out. Well, after those first two weeks of hunkering down, I started getting out there and I had a chance to discover a whole new world of learning - both academically and socially.
I had initially dreaded residence and figured I would move out after the first semester - and, instead, I ended up living there for my entire first degree (!) making friends that I still feel honoured and grateful to have to this day.
And then, when I moved out of residence, I moved to Vancouver for a while to do a post-degree year at Simon Fraser University. And then, I moved to Kingston (following my heart - and a wonderful woman...). And then we moved back to Winnipeg to do my second degree. And then we moved to China - where I got to train privately with Yu Hua Long! And then we moved to Calgary. And then, after many curves in the road of life, I ended up moving to Victoria.
Every move has been difficult, on some level, but every move has been amazing, too.
And the past week's driving vacation with my pregnant wife was wonderful. I trained each morning - whether that was in a park outside a bed-and-breakfast, looking out a hotel window, on the patios of friends' homes, gazing toward the mountains while visiting extended family, etc. it was so nice to get that morning training in and then just "sit back" and embrace whatever the rest of the day would bring - which was many wonderful visits and experiences!
But, as Dorothy said, there is "no place like home". And now that I am home it is nice to examine my old routines with refreshed eyes and to reflect on the past, present, and future. What is most important to me? What has visiting so many friends and family over the past ten days helped bring into focus?
So I think about my friends, like Paul, who have always been there with two friendly ears and the ability to sit and listen, in addition to imparting advice and debating my reasoning. And I realized that is also much of what I have tried to do for others the past 13+ years as both a martial arts teacher and a health care professional, too. I have a lot of skills and "techniques" - and I am certainly one of the biggest advocates you will ever find for meaningful, purposeful activity (i.e. doing something!).
But, I also keep working on stillness, too. On being able to just sit with things and provide a safe place for a client to work through their thinking and feelings. Or, for a martial arts student to get to safely and calmly experience the initial discomfort of learning a new "way" of moving and thinking.
I am so grateful to all my "teachers" (be they formal teachers or not!) who have helped me to access this place in myself and continue to help me to do so. I am also honoured that I am able to sometimes do the same for others.
I feel that there are few things that are more valuable in this world than helping someone to feel safe enough so that she or he can access their own mind, body, and spirit. So that they can come home to themselves and their own heart-mind wisdom. That way, wherever they go and whatever they do, they are able to be at home.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 49 - Aug 3, 2014
What do you mean you don't play classical violin!?
In order to be able to live in China in 2003, I was teaching English at a school in Shanghai. This was a full and interesting (and challenging) experience in and of itself. It certainly was eye-opening to work with so many students (over 450 students in my classes - from junior high to high school). My job was to be the "native English speaker" and to try to get students talking and engaged in actual English conversation. The students' formal English grammar was actually superior to my own (they certainly knew the rules better!), but their ability to speak out loud and engage in functional English language communication could be a challenge, so my job was to get them talking.
Over the months, I went through many activities such as games, role-plays, etc. to give students a chance to interact with each other, and myself, using English in more informal ways. Eventually, I figured I would ask the students a bit about Chinese martial arts. I surveyed each class and found out that of my 450 students - not one practiced a traditional Chinese martial art (!). This really shocked me.
About half a dozen of the students practiced Tae Kwon Do and about another handful practiced Karate, but not a single one was practicing wushu of any sort.
I asked the students about this. There were a variety of explanations, but the main ones could be lumped into two categories: 1) Chinese martial arts practice is very hard - in terms of effort and time; 2) Chinese students are too busy, and tired from, learning math, science, history, English, etc. to be able to dedicate themselves to practicing something that (supposedly) has limited value (particularly economic value). I was appalled.
It took me a couple of weeks to realize just how ridiculous and arrogant I was being regarding the lack of Chinese martial artists among my Chinese students. Not one of them had said they thought Chinese martial arts were foolish, or ineffective, or invalid - they had simply made a sort of triage-type decision regarding what they were going to focus on at this point in their lives. And, it was over the months that I found out that dozens of my students, in addition to the ridiculous study load they were bearing, were also doing things like studying Western Classical Violin...
It was at this point I really was humbled. I imagined walking into one of my high school classes in Canada and surveying myself and my peers. How many of you practice Classical Violin? What!? Don't you realize this is one of the greatest Western cultural traditions? Why on earth would you not put in the time and effort to learn to play Mozart and Beethoven and Bach? Why are you spending so much time learning to use computers and do trigonometry when you could be studying these great past masters from great living masters???
I realized that these great traditions will survive, because there will always be people who do love them and will be willing to put in the time and effort to practice and appreciate them. Whether that is a local amateur string quartet in Victoria or a martial artist sharing his knowledge and skills with students in China or abroad.
The students were right in one regard - learning to do wushu (or any practice worth practicing!) is hard work and takes time and effort. Where I feel they were wrong, however, is their all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking (which, to be fair, is to be expected of young people!). Of course, no one has to become a "master" violin player to make learning the violin worthwhile. And no one has to become a "master" martial artist to develop some reasonable martial arts skills (and develop themselves through martial arts).... No one has to be a "master" baker, either, to learn to make cookies and share them with their family and friends!!!
Thank goodness there are masters out there - but what will keep these traditions alive in the long run is going to be people out there who love them at whatever level they choose to appreciate and practice them.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 48 - Aug 2, 2014
There are plenty of valid excuses for not getting in some daily training or exercise. An injury, fatigue, lack of sleep, sickness, etc. are reasonable reasons for taking a bit of time off from significant physical activity. Although, even at those times it probably still makes sense to get in some movement, stretching, deep breathing, etc. - as is possible. As for making excuses not to train I have nothing but empathy for those who make them - and I have certainly made many myself over my past 25+ years as a martial artist!
One excuse, however, that I find I have a low threshold for is "space". I've had people complain they don't have a good training space - or they don't have "enough" space to train or they need a space with better/more light/height/width/equipment/etc...
I never bought this excuse when it comes to martial arts. It may be quite valid in sports such as cycling or tennis or bobsled - but it is completely without merit in martial arts. Fortunately, I have had some very good teachers and training partners over the years and they always demonstrated to me that a person can (and should) be able to train anywhere. When outside under the shade of a "perfect" shade tree, with a cool breeze maintaining twenty degrees Celsius, is pretty awesome. However, the only combat I've ever seen or heard about in those conditions is in wushu cinema!
Life is lived under much more modest circumstances for most of us. One of my teachers once told me - "you should be able to train in a small cell if you had to" - and I took that advice to heart. I don't want to sound all paranoid and morbid, but it seems that if someone ever had to use their martial arts for combat (which fortunately few of us in the modern world ever have to do) that it would be at exactly the worst moment - and certainly in the worst place! An elevator, a dark parking garage, a party in an unfamiliar house, a public washroom, etc., etc... That is not the time or place to discover that you can only train under endless blue skies and with plenty of room to roam and play...
Later, when I trained with Grandmaster Yu Hua Long as an "indoor student" in Shanghai, I certainly learned that I would (and should) be able to train anywhere. He so graciously and generously welcomed me into his small home (a tiny, old apartment just off of Wusong Lu). The stairs up to his place were like climbing a ladder and the entire apartment/room he occupied with his wife was smaller than my current living room! As they had no bathroom in their apartment, when I trained back-and-forth on a small open strip of hardwood floor by the bed, I had to be extra-mindful not to kick over the bedpan!!
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 47 - Aug 1, 2014
The past week I have been doing my daily training sessions outside. It has been incredible to train in the cool, fresh morning air and watch the sun climbing in the sky, streaming through the trees, and even reflecting off of mountains.
Training outside has a variety of advantages, not the least of which includes the unevenness of terrain (even just training on asphalt or grass). This forces the brain to do millions of extra micro-calculations and subtle adjustments for balance while moving about. It forces me to be very aware of my stances and very mindful of my footwork. In a martial engagement one has to be careful where of where one steps - this is no less valid when walking lines in a field with dips and holes that animals have burrowed!
As I have argued in previous posts, it is possible that old Chinese martial arts masters trained in the morning in order to maximize their qi/chi - but it is much more likely they did so as it was cooler outside, and so that they were sure to get there training in first thing each day before putting in an exhausting day of work!
Also, in the days before mass-produced time pieces, training in the morning would have meant that people (e.g. teacher and student) could meet at a pre-specified time - dawn. Meeting at dawn is no longer necessary of course - as we now have very accurate watches (okay, I'm getting older - we have very accurate cell phones, I guess...)! This is also why duels were held at dawn or "high noon" - as it was a time both disagreeing parties could agree on...
Fortunately, I have not been up fighting for my life at dawn each morning! Instead I have been up a little while after the sun is up - "training for my life" to improve my martial arts skills and maintain my health.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 46 - July 31, 2014
Levels of Training - Natural Level
Turns out, of course, that there is on more "level" of martial arts training (or martial artist, generally). While the levels of training discussed so far are more or less arranged in a pyramid (with muscle level at the bottom moving upwards to spiritual level), the Natural Level is a whole separate category.
Master Xu explained all the other levels very carefully and one needs to start at the bottom and work one's way up. When asked if it is possible to fast-track through the levels or skip levels and jump ahead, he explained that this really is not possible. Diligent training, good teachers, focus, and an attitude of non-attachment towards achievements at lower levels may allow one to not dwell too long in the realms of muscle and bone, but the hard work is required. In addition, there is always going to be some muscle and bone - this is what we are built of, after all. And, has already been described, when learning new skills (be they in martial arts or otherwise) there is always going to be the need to put in some "muscle" effort, to eventually find ways to incorporate the knowledge into existing knowledge structures and get that knowledge deep into the "bones". How nice it might be to have everything flowing like "energy" and all efforts as light as "spirit" - but that is not the real physics and psychology of real life!
So what is Natural Level? This is basically thanks to statistics... As there are so many people on earth that there are always going to be some outliers that are just born wired up to be good at certain things with minimal effort! You give the right kid a bit of music training and she is writing symphonies... You give the right kid a hockey stick and he is skating circles around his classmates... You teach the right kid how to make a fist and throw a punch - and she is knocking around people way bigger than her!
Natural Level is not something to aspire to - it is really all about luck! And, we all have some level of Natural Level just by being alive and whatever genetics brought to the table for each of us. That said, Natural Level is also why it is important to give children access to opportunities to try out different things. BUT - just because someone is potentially "naturally good" at something does not mean it is going to be his/her passion or what they want to do. And, even if one is lucky enough to be naturally good at something and love doing it - it is still going to require hard work to do it at the highest levels.
Natural level should also keep people humble. You may have done martial arts for years - but, for example, some old farmer who spent his life working hard may be able to put you in your place if you step up and are an ass - not only because he is ridiculously strong, but because he may very well be a Natural Level martial artist, who just never happened to get a chance to formally study martial arts!!!
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 45 - July 30, 2014
Levels of Training - Spiritual Level
Although I am loathe to start delving into trying to define "Spiritual" in any way, shape, or form - on some level, Spiritual Level training, is about a "way" of letting go of shape and form! :)
The Spiritual Level, in terms of martial arts, can be epitomized by the classic situation where two high level martial artists size each other up visually, or after just "touching hands" and then they back up and start bowing to each other and swearing-up-and-down that they should not fight! Often it will be the slightly higher level martial artist who makes the most excuses not to fight - because he/she is desperately trying to help the slightly lower level martial artist save face. Of course, the slightly lower level master is desperately trying to make excuses to save face and to not risk embarrassing him/herself - or embarrassing the slightly higher level master!! :)
The Spiritual Level is very much about going beyond forms and techniques and all the other external trappings of martial arts. A key part of getting to this level, however, is to learn (and over-learn!) the forms and techniques and external trappings!
Non-martial-arts examples of this transcendence might include a great entrepreneur who starts out working very hard for very little money, then finding ways and systems to earn money more efficiently, then finds that success builds upon success - and then, once highly successful, works hard to put her/his money to use for others and give it away (e.g. starting charities, building hospitals, funding research for technologies to help people, etc.).
It is important to remember that Spiritual Level is both a never-ending ideal that is something to strive for - and also something that a person can get a taste of every day... For example, after only a few years of training, most martial artists who have dedicated themselves to improvement should find themselves moving in-and-out of the Muscle, Bone, and Energy levels in their martial arts practice and in their daily lives. When learning something new (be that in martial arts, at work, or otherwise) they will have to revert to Muscle Level and put in some effort to (and tolerate some discomfort) to adjust to new information and accommodate new knowledge. Hopefully, this new knowledge can fairly quickly be hung upon, and integrated with the current Bone Level structure that they generally "walk around with" in their personal and professional lives. Over time, this knowledge is further absorbed and digested and able to be expressed at the Energy Level. When necessary, or even without effort, it may, at times, show up at the Spiritual Level - when everything is able to just "go with the flow".
This is not the "go with the flow" of someone who is lazy or does not care - this is the "go with the flow" of someone able to tap into their own flow, and the flow of the situations they are in, and able to provide the best possible response with the least necessary expenditure of Muscle, Bone, or Energy! This is "a few ounces can deflect a thousand pounds" that they talk about in Tai Chi - and it is most certainly looping back to the very "Heart" of Xinyi - being able to best express one's heart and mind in ways that can best benefit others, while creating the least negative consequences.
This is about things moving towards what your mind directs its will towards. This is not "magical" - it is about hard work - but hard work done so mindfully that it may look like "nothing".
This is the doctor who cures the disease before it ever started to make someone sick. This is the politician who prevents the war before it ever takes a life. This is the mentor who plants a tiny seed of hope in a child's mind that leads them towards goodness and away from despair. There are so many spiritual "ways" to express this level...
And the other beauty of the Spiritual Level is that you can taste it, at least fleetingly, each and every day. Truly relax and be still for a few minutes. Truly train with full intention for a few minutes. Stop rushing somewhere and help an elderly person across the street. Smile at a child. Smell a flower. Give blood. Donate to UNICEF or the World Wildlife Fund... These, and so many other ways, can make the world a better place. Repeat. Practice trying to act from your heart every day.
It does not matter if one ever "gets there" - because there is no "there" to get to. There is no gold medal. There is no finish line. There is no end to the Spiritual Level. There is only doing something (even when doing nothing appropriately!) every day. Every day is training - from our first day to the last. Inevitably we will get knocked down, bruised, bloodied, beaten. That is why we train. Because we want to be able to survive and get up and do our best at the aspects of our lives we feel are most important (and sometimes that means dialing it back!) - whatever our best is, whatever it is we are doing.
I have only had little tastes of the Spiritual Level, both from seeing it in my teachers (martial arts and many, many other types of teachers!) and from getting little tastes of it in my own life from time-to-time. I am certainly still Muscle, Bone, and Energy - and I am alright with that, for sure. But the tastes of the transcendent are worth savouring and worth the effort, too.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 44 - July 29, 2014
Levels of Training - Energy Level
The Energy Level of training is significantly harder to attain and maintain than the previous two levels. This is, however, one of those things that makes an "internal martial art", "internal". The basci idea is to use the muscles to do plenty of practice to build
We all know people who have more or less energy than others. We don't necessary have to start talking too esoterically about internal energy or qi to identify this... We also know people that are "energy vampires". This does not mean that they are necessarily low energy themselves - but that they don't share their energy with others and they seem to suck the energy and positivity out of those around them.
Having plenty of energy (and reserve energy capacity) does not mean that someone has to skip around and be bubbling with excitement and joy all the time! What it means is knowing that, ultimately, our muscles and bones are built from, maintained by, and moved around by - energy! Our brain runs on neurotransmitters and energy! This energy can come from things as essential to human life as food and air - and it is expanded or contracted by things are diverse as exercise, meditation, diet, work, sickness, emotions, etc., etc. While I am open to talking about qi with people - I am much more interested in how people manage their energy (more generally) and capacities, and their limitations, day-to-day in their lives.
In martial arts, the Energy Level is observable, for example, when you see someone moving (seemingly) effortlessly. This does not mean the practitioner is not "working hard" - it is, instead, that you are seeing the results of all their hard work! The practice has fullness of energy - but emptiness, too. The practitioner can unleash a great deal of power - but is doing so in the laziest, most relaxed way possible!
Energy Level is also about recovery. It is about always having something in reserve and always working to expand internal capacity - even as external capacity (e.g. muscle power, bone power) may have hit some limits and be on the decline.
There is so much more that can be said about the Energy Level, but it would be a waste of energy to keep trying to use words to explain something some like electricity. You can learn all about it from books. But, in a split second, you can know it in a very different, tangible way - when you feel it!
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 43 - July 28, 2014
Levels of Training - Bone Level
The Bone Level of training is where many martial artists reach once they have sweated and strained for a good while and then come to the realization - "Wait a minute. Perhaps there is a reason that my teachers keep repeating and emphasizing some basic rules and guidelines for training and the art..."
For example, I recall hearing over and over again that I should "let the shoulders sink", "keep the elbows down", "keep the head gently pulled up", "tuck in the chin slightly", "keep the mouth closed", etc., etc., etc... It is still a lot to remember and practice, but it is not just about muscling through every single minutiae anymore - as much as it becomes about being true to the forms and structures of the style.
Almost every traditional martial art has "forms" (be those referring to individual postures, movements, or sets of moves strung together) and there are many good reasons for this. The forms provide something to hang the rest of the art on, and then to fill it up with practice, experience, and knowledge. Quite literally, the Bone Level is also that of the skeleton and how it is lined up. The muscles need to move to line up the bones and then this structure is what provides strength and stability and form and function.
Intellectually, the Bone Level refers to things to starting to have a "bigger picture" or "Gestalt" view of the art you practice. Initially you are learning about one tree at a time - eventually you should be able to see the forest for the trees. In Xinyiliuhequan this can be as simple as having a basic grasp of the animals you are trying to emulate and evoke, or the elements you are trying to bring to, and express through, the movements. It can also be as deep and philosophical and one wants it to be or it can be plainly, bone-headedly, simple, too.
Even when learning a new movement and one has to, temporarily, feel they are regressed back at Muscle Level, once the skeleton or Bone Level of training is well-established it becomes the dependable structure upon which new movements and skills can be supported. New forms can be learned relatively quickly, because the foundation (e.g. footwork, guidelines for movement, posture, etc.) is laid to support new additions. It is also a good reason to be sure that the "skeleton" of whatever you are practicing is set up well - because this structure is going to get worked over and over by the muscles and it is going to have to contain whatever is being developed in terms of energy at the next level.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 42 - July 27, 2014
Levels of Training - Muscle Level
Another of Master Xu's great models was his descriptions of various levels of training. His basic model was that of Muscle Level, Bone Level, Energy Level, and Spiritual Level.
We all start at the Muscle Level. This is the way that we learn anything new - we often have to strain and sweat and "muscle" our way through it. This goes for the first time you learned how to do long division, to when you are first learning a new martial arts movement. This level of training is hard work. It can be uncomfortable. It is tiring. It takes determination. We can get tired and sore. You risk injury if you overdo it with excessively youthful enthusiasm.
Much of the world runs on Muscle Level. We make cars with bigger engines that can drive faster and faster. We create technologies with speed that application that is beyond what humans were designed to do - and we play catch-up, to keep up with what we have unleashed. We work longer hours. We pull more and more resources from the planet. None of this is necessarily terrible - as long as there is a longer term vision. A bit of sweat and short term pain may be necessary for some endeavours. The ability to delay gratification for a long time in the search for a higher goal is something humans may be uniquely good at (thanks to those huge frontal lobes relative to other mammals). We can use our minds to put our muscles to work on long term goals - be that planning a hunt, planting crops, or going to school for many years until able to secure a career we desire.
Muscle Level may be necessary, but the trick is not to get stuck there. You have to put in the time and effort (this is gong fu, after all!) to get good at something. But once you start to get good at it and you have the hang of it, you don't want to just keep pushing harder - that is the path of diminishing returns. It is also a path without longevity. You can't just keep getting physically stronger and stronger. Physical strength is great when you are young - but even for the Arnold Schwartzenegger's of the world - the physical is going to peak and it is gradually going to decline. The trick, it seems, is to use the Muscle Level to acquire new skills, but then to work to let go of the muscle, to relax, and to move to the next level of training.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 41 - July 26, 2014
Master Xu had a variety of "driving metaphors" for martial arts which I always liked. One was regarding standing meditation practice (aka "post training"). He would encourage people to work towards standing completely still and he would argue that, like observing cars, you could tell the quality of the practice by the level of stillness. For example, if observing a car stopped at an intersection you should be able to tell how well it is running not just by how fast it can go, but by how still it can be. A rusty old car with engine troubles would be making a lot of noise and bouncing around at a red light, whereas something like a Rolls Royce might be difficult to tell if it was even running (because it was so quiet and still) for the outside observer.
When training, Master Xu would exhort us to train hard - and he would have little sympathy for us having sore muscles after a couple of days of training ("If you have really been training internal martial arts you should be sore in your tendons and bones, not your muscles..."). Yet, as much as he made us train hard, he also would repeat many times - "Don't ruin your car learning how to drive it!!" - his way of telling us to train hard, but not too hard...
Other of his car metaphors included one I have already mentioned in this blog - the idea that if you were designing a great "car" then how much time would you spend on designing and building a great bumper - when that time may be much better spent buiding a great engine and transmission. Although body toughening/conditioning exercises are important, his argument was that our efforts were often better directed at internal training as opposed to building up tough, calloused fists.
I have reflected on these car metaphors a lot over the years. I feel very grateful to have a nice, dependable car and I try to take good car of it so that it can serve me well. In health care I have heard the metaphor many times that men, in particular, will often take better care of their cars than they will their own bodies and minds - constantly maintaining and putting premium gas in thier sports cars, yet often failing to practice any preventative diagnostics or healthy eating themselves!
Driving is also an interesting metaphor for avoiding violence. It is almost always best to drive defensively and to avoid ever hitting another car! When two cars collide, there is almost always damage to both cars and there are always risks to the drivers and occupants in both cars. So much better to engage in full awareness - checking in front, to the sides, and behind, and avoiding accidents whenever possible.
Yes, it is nice to have a nice bumper and air bags - but it is far better to avoid collisons and to drive your car in such a way that it lasts for a long time and everyone stays healthy and safe. Your passengers in this life should feel confident that you are looking out for them - and that means taking good care of your car. Yes, you should know how to fix things if they go wrong (or know who to call) and you should be able to mitigate disaster if an accident is completely unavoidable (e.g. be able to react appropriately in-the-moment to a skid, etc.).
You should also study well how to be the best driver you can be and learn how best to get along with the myriad of other drivers out there. What can you do to be a more relaxed, kind driver - both on the roads and in terms of taking care of others and of yourself?
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 40 - July 25, 2014
There are not enough words to express the gratitude I have for those who have taken me in and provided me shelter (physical shelter and mental shelter) over the years. For the most part, I have bought into the Western ideal of doing my best to stand on my own two feet. I believe in freedom and independence. I have long admired those who choose their own way and present an image of solitary strength. Interesting ideals...
What I have long experienced in life, however, has been the constant interplay between needing to define who I am - and also depending upon and helping others. When, for the most part, things in my life have gone fairly well, I have tried not to forget about my friends and family. My former roommate marvelled at the fact that I try to regularly sit down and go through my address book, at least trying to leave a phone message or send an email to some of my closest friends from childhood. I always try to spread some cheer or lend an ear if it is wanted or needed. I love sharing.
And when things have not been going well, I have called upon those same friends for help. They have been incredible companions over the years, and I continue to try to make new friends. When I first met my wife - (a "strong independent woman") - we talked about the idea of interdependence in a relationship (as opposed to independence or dependence) and I think that although this is an ongoing, dynamic dance, it is definitely worth the dance.
And, as much as I strive to be strong and independent (so that I can bring something to those interdependent relationships in my life), I am truly grateful for the times I have allowed myself to lean on friends and family, too. Borrowing the strength of others sometimes is an amazing gift to be able to accept.
I remember my friends Ashley and Alistair putting me up for the week in Victoria when I had moved out of my previous place, but could not yet move into my new place. I felt quite displaced and there they were - models of simple hospitality. They certainly didn't have any more money than I did at that time (!) but they gave me a roof to sleep under and a mattress on the floor to sleep on. Alistair made me "eggy bread" (he refused to call it French toast as it was literally just cheap bread soaked in egg and fried) each morning and we spent many hours each day in great conversation. I was living out of my boxes and suitcases - and yet I felt so safe and taken care of.
Again, I always ask people - why are you interested in studying martial arts? If the answer is to be able to better survive on your own, then great. If the answer is to be able to protect others, then great. If the answer is so that you can have the flexibility to both be strong (hard) and gentle (soft), to be able to care for others and be cared for, and to be able to feel calm and safe and help others to feel that way, too - then fantastic!
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 39 - July 24, 2014
Seven Fists - Head
The last of the "Seven Fists" is the head. Last, but not least. If anything, we come full circle back to the Mind/Intention/Will/Focus of "Xinyi".
There seems to me to be something paradoxical about using your head as a "fist"/weapon when it is, to no small extent, your head/brain that you are most trying to protect... Guarding your brain is probably one of the best reasons for practicing martial arts - both in terms of physically protecting your brain and in terms of protecting your physical and mental health - which is ultimately about protecting your brain...
If you are going to use your head to hit things, you better do it mindfully and it better be only if, and when, it is absolutely necessary for the survival of the brain and the rest of the body.
There are a couple of Xinyi movements that are clearly designed with head attacks as their primary intention, but it is just as important to remember that this "seventh fist" is always available. If, after closing the distance with feet, hands, knees, elbows, hips, and shoulders there are no "fists", or room, left available, using your head is still often an option (be that knocking its hardest parts forward, sideways, upwards, or downwards - or if grabbed in something like a bear hug, backwards).
As I have argued many times, however, you need to ask yourself (either preventatively or retrospectively) why and how you found yourself in a position such that you needed to be using your head as a physical tool, when it is so much better used as a mental one.
As much as the head can be a fist (and a very solid and powerful one when used correctly) it is always better to be using it for setting, and following through on, the very best of intentions.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 38 - July 23, 2014
Diversity Saves Pies
There are many, many reasons why diversity is good and should be encouraged and generally celebrated... These range from the schema-shattering experiences of learning from other cultures all the way to the prevention of war and atrocities!
I am eternally grateful for my time in China in 2003 and 2008 (and the people closest to me at that time who supported me in "my dream" of getting there and training there). I am so glad that the whole world is not all just the same and that there are different places, people, cultures, and traditions to learn about, and learn from, and share with.
Even within Xinyiluhequan, I am so happy for the diversity within my practice as I learned it (e.g. 10 Animals, 7 Fists, 5 Elements, etc..) but also for the various other lineages and branches of Xinyiliuhequan, other types of Xinyi, Xingyi, other Chinese martial arts, other martial arts from other countries, etc., etc., etc...
A little more banal example of my appreciation of diversity is also illustrated by one of my early experiences in the city I currently call home.
When first living in Victoria in 2009, I was pretty broke. My savings had been drained, thanks to moving to here in 2008 to pursue some schooling. And when I decided I wanted to stay here, I found out that getting a full-time position was going to be a challenge (and I stayed here on a leap of faith - before I had found a job). With a lot of good luck and diligent searching, I eventually managed to secure enough work to make a go of it.
Early on during that lean year, I went to a party at my yoga instructor's house - as she was celebrating moving in with her hippie boyfriend (he was a self-identified "hippie"). The party was a "pot luck" and I wanted to bring something special from my (then) neighbourhood bakery - Bubby Rose's. This bakery is awesome, and among their many treasures, they had these fairly expensive hand-crafted, organic "lemon shaker pies" that I finally felt I could try. And when better than when I could share it with others? I dutifully and happily bought one of these very special pies and brought it to the party.
Now, I had limited experience with "hippies" at that point in my life (however you want to define a contemporary "hippie"). My yoga instructor's boyfriend did not "believe" in wearing shoes, did not believe in washing with soap, was into hand drumming, was unemployed, smelled of patchouli oil, had quite left-leaning political views, etc... None of those things on their own, let alone in combination, make one necessarily a "hippie" (and it is just a label I use as half-joking short-hand), but, to steal and twist the old "duck test", if he looks like a hippie and talks like a hippie - he might very well be a big 'ole hippie.
I did have some more experience with yoga instructors, though. Again, I am hugely overgeneralizing here - but these tended to be women in special "yoga clothes" who were soft-spoken, candle-lighting, Rumi-reading, vegetarian, financially strapped, and generally quite pleasant, peaceful people. There are, I am sure, many, many exceptions to the stereotypes described (and that's just among the several thousand yoga instructors in the Greater Victoria Area alone...). My yoga teacher wonderfully embodied the most positive of these traits - and more. She was awesome.
I have no problem with hippies. In fact, there is likely much common ground we could agree on (e.g. love of nature, etc.).
I have no problem with yoga instructors. In fact, I seek them out when I want to practice yoga to work on my flexibility and relaxation (hence I am drawn more to relaxed yoga practices than say "hot" yoga).
What I realized I have a problem with is a lack of diversity - of pretty much any sort. Case in point: that party was a gong show.
The supposedly peace-loving hippies ended up taking over and dominating most of the house with a drumming circle (and I even usually like drumming circles...). This meant that anyone who wanted to do anything else - such as talk or not end up bleeding from their eardrums - was driven to the edges of the residence or even ostracized outside.
The flexible yoga instructors, which I ended up trying to chat with turned out to be so jello-like that they were unable to stand up for themselves regarding the hippie incursion. A few of them, at the same time turned out to be some of the most rigid, most judgemental, close-minded people I have ever tried to engage in casual conversation... It was very funny to find out how un-open-minded some of these supposedly flexible people were. For example, when I was asked to explain my professional work (which is probably pretty non-traditional to many) in the public health care system, a number of the yoga instructors turned out to be the sort of anti-science kooks who are anti-vaccine, anti-allopathic medicine, and pretty much anti-anything that might dare disrupt their rubber-mat-cocooned take on reality...
As I sat there experiencing this, and observing my own reactions, and reminding myself that this was an exercise in my own ability to stay open-minded and non-judgemental - I realized that I could sure go for a piece of the pie I had brought... I headed for the kitchen, and there I found a pile of lumpy burnt mush that had been the lemon shaker pie (!).
One of the (most likely quite "baked" himself at this point in the evening) hippies (in his free-loving why-ask-for-guidance? way) had taken it upon himself to decide that my (already baked and ready-to-eat-refreshingly-cool) pie needed to be both baked (again) and, apparently, carbonized (because I guess it's just not "cool, man" to set a freaking timer!).
After talking to a few people and figuring out what had happened, I wandered around the house and laughed. I found my hostess, wished her a wonderful evening, and headed home.
To this day, I have wonderful friends that I consider "hippies" (or somewhere on that spectrum with "hippie tendencies" that inform the rest of their diverse ways). To this day, I have friends wonderful friends who are yoga instructors (again - as one part of their identity).
What I do not do, however, is ever try to "put myself in a room" (or live a life) dominated by only a few ways of viewing the world. A couple of hippies at a party makes for a great time - for example, some nice drumming sounds coming from a side room, and no risk of running out of hummus where the potluck has been assembled.
A few yoga instructors makes for spirited conversation and the joy of exploring both the worlds of intuition and science and how they can inform and challenge each other. And this conversation can be both spirited and compassionate.
And the mix of hippies and yoga instructors and the martial artists and the businesspeople, and the soldiers, and therapists, and the many, many other people (each with their own diversity - both externally and internally) make for one heck of a great party (and life, and world...).
And, as much as I love martial arts - I would not necessarily want to spend all of my time with martial artists - talking only about martial arts, practicing martial arts, and viewing the whole world (and reinforcing each other's views of the world) as a great, big martial arts dilemma.
That is why I like to train with diverse people and why I like to always get back to the bigger issue for me: how can martial arts inform and help you in the other aspects of your life which are also important to you (be that saving the rain forest, teaching yoga, running a business, counseling people, raising children, or any million other jobs and ways of making one's way in the world)?
My gift pie, I believe, would not have been so easily sacrificed at a balanced party with a truly diverse group of people.
Please save the pies - by tolerating, encouraging, embracing, and celebrating diversity. One of the greatest reasons to work so hard to be confident and strong is so that you can be welcoming and gentle with others, and their gifts, too.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 37 - July 22, 2014
Seven Fists - Hips
As someone who enjoys watching a good hockey game now and again, I have little doubt that hips can be used to uproot an opponent. Anyone who has ever seen a hockey player go "ass over teakettle" (I've always loved that expression...) when hit with a low, solid hip-check (or experienced this) will be able to comment on its effectiveness.
In Xinyiliuhequan, as in hockey, the sides of the hips (and/or shoulders) can be used to knock into an opponent, and the hips can also certainly be used both a source of power, and a fulcrum point, when throwing an opponent.
There are some very cool two-person drills through which the angular movements of "triangle stepping" are practiced while toughening the body through hip checks, shoulder strikes, etc.
These two-person drills are a fantastic way to improve your own skills and also help your partner improve his/hers. And much like a good hockey practice or a good hockey game - it is important that these hits be delivered safely (!). As it is often said: "Do not hurt ever your training partners - or you won't have training partners!"
When those I have trained with in the past have reached a level of skill at these drills, it is an incredible feeling to be practicing just on the edge of our abilities together. Few things filter out distractions like launching a well-practiced move at a good clip with a training partner doing the same thing towards you! I remember practicing some solid two-person drills with my training partner Nigel (he has a wealth of health, fitness, and martial arts experience and then a few years of Xinyi with me as well) and after finding myself getting knocked around a bit on one move I laughed - "Dammit, I have taught you too much and too well!" :) Those sorts of moments are a teacher's raison d'etre. That's why I try so hard to do what I do.
In a basic sense, some of these drills are two people knocking into each other to practice the move under some level of pressure... This is mental training, emotional training, and physical training. At its higher levels, however, it becomes much more of a dance - where there is a sense of practicing the standard steps, but also improvising and reacting in-the-moment. Sometimes leading, sometimes following. Trying to anticipate your partner's next step, but at the same time not reacting too early or overreacting. It become very complicated - but just like learning to dance, it is accomplished one step at a time.
As much as I love practicing Xinyi on my own (and just like a musician or a dancer or any type of "gong fu" practitioner - it is necessary to put in regular time practicing on one's own) - it really becomes something so much more dynamic (and fun!) during the dance of practicing and playing with others. It is when training with others that you get to build that camaraderie and sharing and sense of meaningful play.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 36 - July 21, 2014
All You Need Is Love - And, A Whole Lot Of Hard Work...
While working for a truly terrible boss years ago, I was obliged (along with my coworkers) to sit through an absolutely atrocious "documentary" about how people can simply manifest what they want with the "correct", positive mindset... [Note: This boss did many much worse things to me over the short tenure of my employment - but suffice to say, in retrospect, I look back on this early experience there as a harbinger of the horror and doom to come...]. I don't want to slag this piece-of-garbage film, so I will keep its title a secret.
The basic idea of the show was that if people simply adopted the correct mindset, unlimited wealth and material possession would ultimately just flow into their lives (these seemed to be most people's goals in the show - boats, cars, money, fame - all those "important things" that make life worth living...). Of course, those of us forced to watch this crap [I can almost imagine some empathy for Alex experiencing the Ludovico Technique...] never got a chance to discuss it afterward and tear apart this meaningless, unhelpful, blame-the-victim drivel...
Apparently, all the millions who have died as victims of genocide over the course of human history were just thinking negative thoughts! All the victims of natural disasters were just thinking negative thoughts! All the countless poor of the world, the millions of children that die of preventable diseases each year, the millions of people facing cancer, etc., etc., etc. -- it's just their own darned fault for being so damned lazy with their mindsets!
And for those who have succeeded and survived - it wasn't skill, hard work, knowledge, and good luck - it was simply always focussing on positive thoughts and keeping away from a negative mindset!
Smallpox was apparently eliminated by happy thoughts. Hitler was, according to this theory, defeated by good intentions on the part of millions of soldiers (and apparently all the negative thoughts of those who died fighting on the "wrong" side). Slavery was abolished in North America when people sat around and thought really positive thoughts about its end and then it just "manifested" without any pain or effort...
The not-so-secret truth of the matter is that real life is really complicated, messy, unfair, and often quite random.
Of course, if I want to accomplish something I am going to have to use my mind to focus on what I want to accomplish (!) and I am going to have to get motivated (i.e. put my heart and emotions into it, too). But, the missing step in the bull---- above, is that I have to work. There are good reasons that for many millennia, the route to full engagement and actualization has been a combination of mind, body, and spirit. Not just sitting there and supposedly willing things into existence. And even with full engagement there is no guarantee of success!!
And after that rant, I come to love...
For me, sustainable love (as opposed to lust) is all about the fundamental need to know yourself, understand yourself, and be striving to be a strong, fully realized human being. It is also about being open and vulnerable. It is also about working hard to build something that is lasting and can stand the test of time (i.e. once the initial, wonderful, delirious lunacy of fresh love has calmed down...). And then, it is also about letting go and realizing that no matter how much you love someone it cannot last forever - if only for the simple truth that we cannot live forever.
Wrestling with that endless series of opposites and dilemmas - that's what a life worth living is all about. That's a life worth epic love songs as much as countless commutes to work... Loving and connecting with someone, or something, so much - and at the same time knowing with all your mind and heart that it cannot, and will not, last forever... And, when accepting that it cannot last forever, still getting up each day and loving and putting in the effort anyway.
And that is not just going to "manifest" itself - that takes hard work.
That is a real relationship between you and another person, or you and the universe, or you and your Lord, or you and your work - or whatever it is that you are willing to be passionate about AND work at. There is no "gold star" at the end of that assignment. There are no guarantees. Sometimes we will "win" and sometimes we will "lose" and we will inevitably be "fooled by randomness" (to use the title of one of my favourite books in the world, written by Nassim Taleb).
And, it will end. And, that makes it all the more courageous to do the work anyway.
Just make sure you do it out of love. Make sure your heart moves first, your mind checks it out and decides, and the rest of your being then goes for it. That applies to life as much as to martial arts. Of course we need to work on the right mindsets and beliefs in our lives - but we sure need to do a whole lot more - and, we sure need to be a whole lot more compassionate towards others who are not so lucky.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 35 - July 20, 2014
Seven Fists - Knees
The knees are certainly two of the heavy weapons in the Xinyi arsenal. Having received a few knee strikes from Grandmaster Yu Hua Long while demonstrating applications (and he was being nice!), I can attest to how unpleasant it can be when even someone half my size is coming at me - an unavoidable assortment of jagged edges (e.g. hands, elbows, feet) and clubs (shoulders, hips, head, and knees)...
Despite his small size (which was further exaggerated by the fact there was not an ounce of excess fat on his frame), Grandmaster Yu always appeared gigantic when he went into his incredible stances - and particularly when he was coming at me to demonstrate a move! There was a relentless intensity to those knee strikes, too, even when he was sometimes calmly smoking a cigarette in one hand and pulling me in close with the other to better deliver a knee!
While there are some movements that are very clearly knee-focused in Xinyi ("monkey stands on the rock" is a prime example), the overarching concept of the "Seven Fists" is that they are all readily available tools in any move, at any moment. Knees often pop up (literally and figuratively) once an opponent has a grip on you or you have a grip on them (it doesn't really matter who started it - once in contact you know exactly where your opponent is and now they aren't going anywhere...). Knees also tend to arrive when you close the distance faster then expected (e.g. if your opponent fails to take a step back or evade a prior strike). In that case, having overlearned knee-up footwork/walking means that the knees just start hitting whatever happens to be standing in their way.
Of course, no self-defence class in the world does not mention the idea of a knee to the groin as one option for temporarily stopping an attacker and then getting away to safety. There is good reason for this. Although it has become a "painful" cliché in movies, getting hit in the groin will often, at least, slow someone down. There are also good reasons that this is outlawed in pretty much every "combat sport" from boxing to the UFC*. They are potentially permanently damaging and they are terrible ways for otherwise awesomely athletic bouts to end - but they are certainly effective...
*[e.g. For a brutal example of this see Alessio Sakara at UFC 55]
All of that said, when I think of knees, I also think of one of my most cherished training sessions with Grandmaster Yu. I had been learning from him in Shanghai for a few months at this point, when during a break he delivered a demonstrative speech to me regarding why he was willing to teach me so much. He told me that he never would have taught me had he not felt I was a decent person. He reminded me of the first time he saw me practicing Xinyi in Canada several years earlier - and how he had pointed me out as an obviously diligent student of the art. He repeatedly emphasized I could have offered him all the money and "gold" in the world and he would not have taught me - unless he was convinced that I would use Xinyi for good and try to teach it to good people... He told me stories of having to repeatedly kneel and kow-tow to his own master after practicing the same one move for six months straight (!) before he was allowed to learn the next, but that he knew that students nowadays would have to be taught differently. There was a lot in his speech which I still go back to my diary from time to time to review - and doing that can take me back to those moments and can still make my eyes well up. I know that it was not a lesson saying that I had to be perfect, but that I did need to keep my eyes on my ideals. When he was finished, he invited me to drink from the very mug he had been drinking from while he had talked and he explained that we would always be connected as teacher and student. He then even made me pose for a few pictures wearing the hat right off of his head, too (which I pretty much had to perch on top of my head as it was several sizes too small)!!
Yes, knowing the "martial" aspects of any martial art is essential (be that knee strikes or otherwise) - but remembering that there is so much more to martial arts and "gong fu" is essential, too. Each of us is just a little stitch in a great, wide, continuous tapestry of learning and life that is beyond any worldly ambitions or rewards. Without a higher purpose it can just devolve into people kneeing each other...
Moments like the one above that I shared with Grandmaster Yu are woven into my heart and mind - and humble me - to this day. Grandmaster Yu's knee strikes are still stitched into my memories. But his heart and mind loom much larger still.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 34 - July 19, 2014
Rest and Recovery
One of my favourite books in the past few years has been How To Be Excellent At Anything by Tony Schwartz. I bought this book after reading, the also excellent, The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.
How To Be Excellent At Anything was originally called The Way We're Working Isn't Working and was then re-issued with a new title. I have now bought it under both titles (as I keep giving my copies away to family and friends). I continue to find it intriguing that exactly the same book could have had two different titles with such different connotations. Personally, I preferred the original title, but I can understand how marketers might prefer the pollyannaish, overly-positive-sounding title...
Whether you tend to have a "glass half empty" or a "glass half full" outlook on life, don't let either title turn you away from this very practical book. It has fantastic information on "energy management" and Tony Schwartz has his finger on the pulse of much of what is ailing us in the modern world and the modern workplace.
One of the key themes explored in The Power of Full Engagement, and then built upon and expanded in How To Be Excellent At Anything, is the inescapable importance of recovery. I won't try to reproduce the full message of the books here, but one basic concept is that the very best "performers", be they in athletics or the workplace, are those who can recover the most quickly. Tennis players are a key example in the book - in that their performance and victory can actually be fairly well predicted based on how well their breathing and heart rates recover in-between each rally and in-between sets. Anyone who has every watched combative sports such as boxing also develops an eye for this - by watching the fighters in the their corners between rounds it is often quite possible to predict how the next round is going to go!
The importance of rest and recovery should not be underestimated. Getting adequate recovery should be built into any endeavour. As Schwartz repeatedly argues - human beings are not machines! The beauty of machines and computers is that we can just run them (supposedly) non-stop at a steady state and they will just keep going and going (although of course they need maintenance if they are going function for long). Schwartz makes it very clear that human beings are made to work in pulses and waves and that the (internal) recovery between tasks is every bit as important as the (external) performance and output.
I certainly see this in martial arts practice. We need time to train and we need time to not train. We need time to focus on martial arts and we need plenty of time in life to not focus on martial arts. We need to be able to go hard and we need to be able to sit still. We need to be able to fully turn on our output of energy and we also need to be able to shut it off and relax, and recharge.
When I watch animals (as opposed to machines) this seems very clear. As much as I am blown away by the awe-inspiring explosiveness of a crocodile bringing down a wildebeest - most of the time crocodiles are resting and quiescent - waiting, digesting, and conserving energy. The same goes for tigers (which apparently spend much of their day sleeping...) and bears (which not only sleep, but hibernate!). How about snakes spending much of their time stone still, being warmed by the sun and soaking up energy?
Although I think that learning from wild animals is probably for the best, even watching a housecat or a dog can teach us more than a few new tricks... Lounging around is something that is clearly a dominant part of the lives of these animals - and it is why they are also able to be so active at other times!
This week I am definitely going to continue to train hard - but I am going to make a serious effort to relax, too. Internal martial arts, in particular are both internal and external. About softness and hardness. That old martial arts metaphor - "steel wrapped in cotton".
It is okay to wrap yourself in a blanket on the couch and enjoy a good book (be it non-fiction or fiction). It is more than okay - it is truly part of what modern humans can do to cultivate our best humanness. It is at least one way for us to stop, rest, and feed the highest parts of our minds - that then allows us, when it is time to move and act, to express our highest human potentials for both Reason and Compassion.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 33 - July 18, 2014
Seven Fists - Shoulders
One of the nicknames of Xinyiliuhequan is "the sideways style".* By turning sideways a few things are accomplished. These can include, but are not limited to:
1. Greatly reducing the potential, vulnerable targets for an opponent
2. "Winding/loading the spring" such that by subsequently "uncoiling" one can quickly release stored power (instead of waiting to "load up")
3. Presenting the shoulders to an opponent - which are both physically strong and a way that many animals (including people) signal - don't mess with me (e.g. when a canine or ape "raises its hackles" as both a form of warning and preparation)
The shoulders are also used to knock down the door/gate of the opponent (i.e. their center line). In most moves this occurs after the hands have initially "cleaned" (made sure the opponent's fists are cleared out of the way), the elbows have then cleaned and/or hit - and now the shoulders arrive on the follow-through (fully connected to the mass and acceleration of the whole body).
When people talk about "putting your shoulders into it" - they are talking about putting one's whole body and effort into something. I have had a few training experiences with people where they seem reluctant or tentative to do this at first, but it can often be cured by spending some time with a heavy bag. Fists can definitely move a heavy bag - as can elbows - but nothing seems to send it flying quite the same way as a well-rooted shoulder strike.
And then there is the idea of "shouldering" a heavy burden. It makes me think of Atlas with the weight of the world on his shoulders...
...And that makes me think about leaders. For example, I have worked with some amazing doctors over the course of my career so far. One of the ways others of us on the team compliment them is to say "they carry a lot for the team" or "they have broad shoulders". I know sometimes it has become trendy to knock the medical establishment in general, and doctors in particular, but the good ones I have worked with are invaluable.
Working with suffering clients under all sorts of complex conditions is hard on all of us (and weighs us all down, sometimes worse than others). Most of the time, however, I can generally go home after work and fall sleep at night (most of the time) because the final calls generally come down to the psychiatrists. For better or for worse, they write the "orders" and they have the most power and the most responsibility...
When a whole team is functioning at it's best, however, we are all "shouldering" at least part of the burden. We are all complementing each other's work in trying to help clients and their families.
And, in life when there is a great success, I am just as happy to be held up for my hard work as I am in hoisting someone else up on my shoulders for their well-deserved recognition. Both supporting others and leading requires "big shoulders" - not of the muscular type - but of the mind, body, and spirit type.
*[Note: If you want to see Western boxers who are true masters of sideways movement consider watching, at least some highlights of, Bernard Hopkins and/or Floyd Mayweather Junior. Whether you are fans of them or not, they are incredible at using sideways in the ring for defense and offense).
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 32 - July 17, 2014
Battlefields vs. Gardens
I have long viewed life as a battle... I certainly was not the first person to use this metaphor, nor will I be the last. So much of life can be a struggle. It so often feels like we are constantly "fighting" so many things - from gravity to tyranny, such that we can get caught up in thinking of everything in terms of battles, wars, competition, "survival of the fittest", etc.
This metaphor of life as a "battle" can be very useful. When I used to work in a child and youth anxiety disorders program I supported some great "victories" over anxiety with clients. When we initially drew out our "battle plan" - we needed to develop courage and our "allies" were things such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, exercise, relaxation tools, positive self-talk, cognitive restructuring, challenging unhelpful thoughts, "detective thinking", etc...
In the spirit of John March's books, such as Talking Back to OCD, clients and I would draw out a picture of a battlefield on which there were marked territories that had long ago been conquered (fears that were no longer fears), territory that was newly conquered (fears that were in the process of falling before exposure tasks), and then fears and worries that were still deep within enemy territory - but which would gradually be attacked and conquered (through exposure hierarchies). Each new fear overcome was a "victory" to be celebrated and rewarded. And, even setbacks were managed and minimized by turning them into "strategic retreats" and then returning to "the frontline of fear" after more training...
Yes, battles that are worth fighting can be good. But is every battle worth fighting? And, is everything really a battle after all? And, does considering things a battle often start limiting options? Perhaps the very first casualties of war are creativity and flexibility...
As I have gotten older, I have certainly tried to become more nuanced in my worldviews. As I have brought up before - former United States president George W. Bush once famously stated, "I don't do nuance" - and such a statement from the once most powerful person in the world with the world's most important job is a terrifying thought to me... You don't "do" nuance!?!? Aren't you the man with your finger potentially "on the button" of the world's most lethal nuclear arsenal? Aren't you responsible for being the CEO of three hundred million citizens, half of whom (of those who even voted) did not vote for you? Aren't over six billion people from so many countries, cultures, religions, etc. looking to you and your dynamic country for true leadership - to find common ground and creatively problem-solve? To appropriately apply just the right amount of leverage when necessary? To apply force only when all else fails? And you don't "do" nuance, eh?
Decisiveness can be good - but it needs to be balanced with an understanding of the complexity of reality...
So, a few years ago I really tried to embrace a second (at the very least) worldview metaphor - that of a garden. I am certainly not the first to have adopted this one either, but I do feel it helps balance my first metaphor of a battlefield.
The garden metaphor (and having multiple metaphors) creates all sorts of different options besides black-and-white, victory or defeat. In a garden one exerts a great deal of control - deciding what to plant where, digging, fertilizing, watering, weeding, etc. But, there is also so much out of one's control, too - as seeds are going to grow sometimes and not grow others. And no matter how much one tries to exert control there is always going to be the weather, weeds, bugs, diseases, etc. and there is only so much one can do... And, of course, the goals are quite different. Instead of thinking about the destruction of enemies - the goal is producing beautiful flowers or "produce" itself.
On my second date with my (now) wife, we went to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and one of the main exhibits was on gardens. It felt a fitting place for our date, after I had been considering this metaphor for a few years. We wandered through the museum and were having a great conversation when we hit a major disagreement. I could feel myself closing off in our discussion/debate about a topic and I wanted to "win", or hunker down, or retreat, or some other battlefield metaphor... The last few women I had dated had been lovely, but I was feeling "defensive" after those relationships had crashed and burned...
I knew it was a key moment, even at that moment, and I looked around at the beautiful paintings of gardens around us - and I turned... I turned squarely towards her and I physically and mentally opened my stance and I really listened to what she was saying - and I then also made my opinions clear, too. Then, we even started talking about ideas such as battlefields versus gardens...
We were engaged a little less than a year later and we have been married for almost two years now. Our first child is currently growing inside my wife as write this!
Life is not just a battle. I feel strongly that people need to know how to battle and how to fight (and that does not necessarily mean martial arts - that means assertively standing up for what we believe in through constant re-examination using our hearts and minds) - but we also need to know how create things, grow things, cultivate things, heal things, etc.
Be very careful of what you cultivate in your own life. If your only, un-nuanced, metaphor for life is one of battles or suffering or competition - you will invariably further create those things.... If your metaphors and models are much more diverse - be they "gardens" or something else entirely - you have a much better chance of turning towards, and being open to, the things you really want around you and the thoughts and feelings you want within you - colouring and flavouring your daily life.
I still work on my skills "for battle" to preserve and protect my garden. But I have become far more concerned with ensuring that I am putting efforts into cultivating the garden in my life that is actually worth protecting. Fighting over a destroyed battlefield seems pointless... Having a rich "garden" that produces plenty for your loved ones - and extra to share with others - that seems like something worth the work and endless weeding. A life worth relaxing into and enjoying, too.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 31 - July 16, 2014
Seven Fists - Elbows
As has hopefully become clear to anyone reading the posts up to now - I love the fact that Xinyi emulates the movements, strategies, attacks, defences, intentions, wisdom, metaphors, etc. of animals. There are many animal movements in which the elbows feature prominently - from "snake comes out of the hole" to "dragon swims through the water" to "monkey scratches", etc.
It was practicing some of the various Xinyi elbow strikes with some training partners in Winnipeg one day, however, that I ended up joking with some students - "You know, when I practice elbow I love using those wonderful animal names and metaphors. But last night, as I turned off the lights and crossed the living room to head to bed, I encountered the perfect, solid manifestation of the pain-inducing power of a well-structured corner... That is, I banged my shin right into the edge of my coffee table!"
How's that for a modern, approachable, relatable, everyday metaphor? "When attacking, try to imagine your elbow strikes as if you were striking your opponent with the corner of a coffee table... When setting up your elbows for defense, imagine your opponent trying to attack your elbows as if he were angrily, irrationally trying to kick a coffee table after stubbing his toe... Stay low and rooted (still like that coffee table) and just let him damage himself while you use the form and structure (still like a coffee table) to cause him to cause damage to himself".
This led to a host of "modern metaphors" for some of our favourite Xinyi movements. For example, the classic "tiger whips the tail" became "car door slams shut" (if you have ever accidentally slammed a car door shut on your own fingers [I did once as a kid] you will know how incapacitating and devastating this would be)...
Okay, okay, I think I am going to stick to the traditional "10 Animals" and other classical (and beautiful and wonderful) Xinyiliuhequan metaphors... They have served people well for hundreds of years! I think that something a lot more rich, deep, and dynamic comes from those traditions than from coffee tables and car doors! Always fun to play with metaphors, though.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 30 - July 15, 2014
Over lunch today, I was reflecting with a co-worker of mine, who is also into Chinese martial arts, about how much we continue to draw inspiration from the ideals of our masters and the ideals of martial arts and Eastern philosophical traditions... We were laughing, because we both had quite busy weekends - and weekends during which we found ourselves tired and frustrated with people and situations around us!!
As much as we both aspire to live the ideals we admire, we are, of course, very human and when enough physical fatigue and "decision fatigue" (alla Professor Roy Baumeister) has set in - we can find ourselves operating from our limbic systems instead of from our frontal lobes!! "Ideals" are just that - something to look to for inspiration, but real life is pretty messy.
For me, it was after a very long work day last Friday during which I had "held it together" (and done some good coping and some good work) through some stressful experiences. My frontal lobes were clearly running out of energy by the end of the day, but I figured I had made it -- through the week, and a particularly hard day of working with challenging kids, stressed-out caregivers, and even a particularly hostile teenager. All I had to do was get home - and then I could relax, rest, and recharge...
I got on my bike (my wife needed the car after work) and started my ride home, when I found myself on a short stretch of the road without a bike lane. Further, I was stuck behind a large transport bus spewing exhaust at me. Further, I was crossing an intersection where drivers were pushing to make the left turn in front of me - and I therefore had to take the middle of the lane so that they would see me behind the bus. And then, right behind me, a convertible revved through the yellow light at the intersection and accelerated dangerously close to me. All of this happened quickly - but I was happy I had made safe decisions and managed to keep myself visible and prevent disaster... When at that point, the convertible swerved and sped by me and the driver yelled - "Stay to the side of your f---ing lane!"
I would like to say how I chuckled to myself and it improved my mental outlook...
I would like to say how I took a deep breath and relaxed...
I would like to say how I noted and memorized the license plate number so I could report the driver...
I would like to say I practicing mindfulness in motion and was untouched by the vulgar realities of the world...
Unfortunately, what I did was flip them the bird (it was three university-aged guys in the convertible) and proceed to unleash a string of full-volume obscenities at them.
They quickly drove away and I biked home, fuming for the next 20 minutes... As much as I knew that this is not my normal behaviour (I certainly can get mad, but I have worked hard on harnessing this energy over the years) -- and it is not my preferred, trained, or "ideal" behaviour -- and as much as I knew it was the result of my being too mentally and physically energy-deprived for (and from) frontal lobe inhibition, I felt bad.
I did not feel bad for the jerks in the car, but I felt bad for letting myself down. I know I am capable of better and I should not have let them get the better of me.
Now, I work in mental health and I am tempted to challenge my own "negative self-talk" in the paragraphs above - but I am not going to. I failed in that moment. I regret my reaction in that moment. I was far from actualizing my best self in that moment. I felt/feel bad about it - and it is okay to feel bad about it.
Any real person is going to lose sometimes (or even lose it sometimes) and it is the people who dust themselves off after this happens and truly examine their (sometimes poor) performance who are going to come back from defeat or setbacks - stronger than before.
One of the programs I used to work for years ago had a group of clinicians in it that seemed to believe that clients should not feel bad or not feel guilty - even when they had done bad things... In team discussion ("rounds") one day they were lamenting a middle-aged male client who was carrying around guilt for doing a bunch of crappy things to his friends and family - and they felt his guilt was "the cause" of his anxiety and depression.
I thought this was a ridiculous position to take. This man had done icky things to his family and friends and he SHOULD feel bad about them. If anything, it would be pathological NOT to feel bad about what he had done. The root of his anxiety and depression, in my opinion, was that HE DID ICKY THINGS to his family and friends (although there may be reasons behind why he did these things - these things were, its seems, the actual source of the current problems). The guilt he carried around with him should have been seized upon by his clinicians - and that discomfort should have been a source of motivation to change his behaviour - NOT something to get rid of!!
They didn't buy my "theory" - and they continued to try to help this client with his so-called "pathological guilt". I think his time (and public health care dollars, and their efforts...) would have been better spent helping him change his future pathological behaviours and in supporting him in making amends for the things he, rightly, should be feeling guilty for...
Yes, there is such a thing as "pathological guilt" - it can be when a person has either not done anything worth feeling guilty for - yet does feel intense, debilitating guilt. Or, it could be when a person has done something relatively minor, and/or has apologized repeatedly, and/or has made amends - yet still feels a sense of debilitating guilt and shame... That is not what this man was feeling (he had done things worth feeling guilty for - and he sure wasn't putting his current [albeit limited] focus and energy into making amends or changing his future behaviour).
In my recent case of losing my cool, I am not debilitated by my having yelled at three jerks in a convertible (or at least at the one jerk who almost ran me over and then yelled at me)... I also do not feel a ton of guilt. I feel some guilt, however, and I feel my response was far from my best reaction and far from how I strive to be in the world.
That said, I am glad for the guilt and the discomfort I did feel. I got instant feedback on my behaviour (physical and mental discomfort) and it has lasted long enough (some rumination), that I am motivated to keep improving. I definitely have had to sit with it and I definitely experienced "cognitive dissonance" between the image of the person I aspire to be (calm, cool, "traditional", "a gentleman", etc.) and the image of a raving loudmouth that I very briefly let myself become [and I did nothing to make myself or the roads safer, and I certainly temporarily raised my own blood pressure, etc.!].
If you don't have any regrets, then you aren't really living and pushing yourself - and you likely aren't really trying to improve. Anyone whose motto is "no fear" or "no regrets" or "no limits" is not a real human, living and struggling in the real world. Anyone with "no regrets" whatsoever is either a saint (extremely rare) or a psychopath (more common than we'd like to think...). I like working with real people. If someone feels discomfort - they are motivated to do something about it! My goal is never to get rid of all discomfort - it is to help people do things better next time.
So, as my co-worker and I sat there comparing notes on our human foibles, particularly when compared to our higher aspirations, we laughed. We cheered each other up - and we cheered each other on - to do better and keep struggling to engage with the real world the best we can while orienting towards our ideals.
Because unless you live alone-in-a-cave-on-top-of-a-distant-mountain you are going to be tested by real world messes (and we are much more likely to be tested by work/relationships/traffic/bills/etc. every single day than by some random, violent attacker!).
And what need do you have, really, for mindfulness, or meditation, or martial arts wisdom, etc. if you are off by yourself on some distant mountain anyway?
What you need wisdom ("applied intelligence") for is exactly the sort of day-to-day problems that can gradually deplete your energy and overcome your capacity. That's what we need "train" - to have more energy and more capacity - so that we can thrive under pressure and still come home at the end of the day and still have something left over for our families and ourselves.
So, I raise a glass (of tea in this case) to positive regrets! May they be a sign you are really living, you are really self-aware, you are really striving for improvement, and you are really pushing yourself to become more and more like the sort of person you want to be.
[Addendum - July 21 - I just read a great post that a friend shared with me - it is definitely in the same spirit of what I wrote, and even more important: http://familyshare.com/the-important-thing-about-yelling]
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 29 - July 14, 2014
Seven Fists - Feet
Xinyiliuhequan is not an art concerned with flashy high kicks. Not that high kicks aren't awesome - and a childhood in Tae Kwon Do (not to mention watching martial arts movies...) certainly made me appreciate high kicks, spinning kicks, flying kicks - you name it!
In contrast, the main "kick" in Xinyi is called "wind comes up from the earth". This kick involves whipping the hip forward and brushing the bottom of the foot along the ground, ending with the heel on the ground and the ball of the foot pulled up and back - because the kick is designed to hit your opponent in (drum roll here, please...) - the shin! LOL
Yes, there are other kicking movements - as I mentioned on Day 11, there is "poison snake stepping" and these constant kicking/stepping movements will sometimes land a strike as high as - wow! - an opponent's knee!
And, for some variations of "triangle stepping" we are end up using a sort of sideways kick to do everything from throw sweeps to stomp on the side of the knee...
Finally, for a movement such as "iron bar" it is possible to drive the knee up against the opponent's stomach (or even lower chest) and this means that the foot can find its way all the way up to the opponent's groin!
So, as far as "kicks" go, we pretty much are focussed on the waist down in Xinyiliuhequan (as the hands, elbows, shoulders, and head should be more than enough to deal with the waist up!). LOL, again.
That all said, another key genuine martial arts principle is that - if you are moving, then you are hitting. Because of the Six Harmonies and the Seven Fists - all moving together - there should, ideally, basically be no point at which you are advancing without both blocking/neutralizing your opponent and also delivering an attack.
Before I was introduced to Xinyiliuhequan, I had tried out some Tai Chi and had been reading about, for instance, the famous Yang Style master, Yang Lu Chan. It was said of this master that he "drew blood with every step". I always found that intriguing - if for no other reason than back then I still (quite incorrectly) thought most Tai Chi was some sort of gentle health exercise for elderly people (which is can be - but it was originally, and still is when practiced by martial artists dedicated to its "martial" aspects, a devastating fighting art!).
I didn't really see/experience/understand what was meant by "he drew blood with every step" until I studied with some great Xinyi teachers. With them it was clear - once your practice reaches a reasonably high level then every inch of moving is application in motion. If you are moving, then you defending and striking at the same time. There are no wasted movements and there is no inch, or second, during any move that is not active and engaged and functional.
Of course, feet are used for much more than striking in any martial art (e.g. there is a heck of a lot of footwork in Western boxing!). Xinyi has various forms of unique footwork for creating stability on mobility, not to mention engage the legs to generate power.
And feet should also be used to stay out of trouble or to extricate oneself from trouble! One of my favourite martial arts stories I was told years ago was about a Bagua master notorious for his ability to fight more than one opponent at a time... One particular time he was surrounded by a group of seven or eight quite able martial artists who were quite prepared to take him out... Now, at this point in the story I was waiting for the part where he deftly weaves in and out of all of them, delivering crushing blows and turning them into a twitching mass of regrets - like in a Jackie Chan movie where he comically defeats them all!!!
How did this, apparently true, story actually end? Well, apparently he went into his stance, glanced around at each of them (while they prepared to jump him simultaneously and beat him to a pulp), and then the master charged at full speed at the smallest one -- knocking him down with a well-placed strike! This created a gap in the circle, and a split second of opportunity, during which the master then ran like hell through the opening he had created. He used his powerful legs, made strong from years of Bagua circle-walking, to flee to safety - so that he could live, and fight, and teach for many more years to come.
I'd say that's using your head and your feet at the same time.
It might not be what would look great in a movie, but using your fists and your feet in this way is a much more realistic way to survive in real life.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 28 - July 13, 2014
"'Internal martial artists should never lift weights" - and other ridiculous misunderstandings of history...
After a few years of training in Xinyiliuhequan, I was attending a seminar and ended up sitting with some younger and newer students over lunch. They started asking me a bunch of questions, and checking out a bunch of rumours they had heard, most of which, I must admit, I had either considered, or asked about, at some point myself. I was glad to see I was not the only one questioning some of these things. Here are a few examples and my thoughts on them...
"I heard that martial artists need to train before sunrise because that is when their qi is the strongest"
This is one of my favourites. I definitely fell for this one and I beat myself up over the years for not training every morning before dawn... Where did this misunderstanding come from? Well, any martial artist who does get up and gets in solid training before dawn is likely, at least, two things: 1) an extremely dedicated and diligent person who would excel at martial arts, or any pursuit she/he put her/his mind to!; and, 2) someone who is training pretty much every day - and therefore going to be getting a little bit better every day. Whether this training was in early in the morning, late morning, at lunch, in the afternoon, in the evening, or at midnight is completely secondary to their pre-existing personality traits combined with their diligent, daily practice!
Also, yes, in China many martial artists train very early in the morning - for a variety of simple reasons (!): the park is less crowded; there are less distractions; there is less air pollution; you make sure you get your training in each day as priority number one; you train before having spent all your "energy" [I'm talking about energy here - whether we are talking about "qi", or not, is a whole other kettle of fish] at work (e.g. for 99% of human history, 99% of people have lived by subsistence agriculture -- good luck training after a day of doing that!); and, it's flipping hot in the afternoon and evening in many parts of China! In Canada, in modern times, it really doesn't matter when you train - what matters is that you train.
"I heard that martial artists need to abstain from sex when they are training or before they fight"
If you want to go down an absolutely ridiculous rabbit-hole start reading about ancient Chinese (and Taoist and Buddhist) theories about sex then go for it... It is quite hilarious and quite completely unnecessary to concern oneself with. Might it have made sense to abstain before combat in the past? Maybe. If you abstain you won't waste "energy" before going to do something physically strenuous (i.e. fighting/training/etc.). If you had been having sex regularly, prior to abstaining, it sure might make you grumpy and surly and ready to fight... It might be something nice to look forward to after training/fighting... I don't know - because frankly I don't care what (or who) people are doing on their own time in their own bedrooms (!).
I have heard of martial artists, boxers, and other athletes who swear by abstaining before competition. I have heard of just as many who partake - for reasons as varied as it relaxes them, they sleep better, and it raises their testosterone levels. Does it make sense to go out and have lots of sex with a whole bunch of people the night before a boxing match or a martial arts training weekend? Would this ever make sense for a person's health (i.e. I am thinking that STDs are not the route to physical health and wellness...)??? Might the same sort of people who have self-discipline (who could abstain if they believed it was necessary) and loyalty (to a cause, to their monogamous partner, etc.) be the same sort of people who actually make good martial artists? Again, there is a huge self-selection bias here and likely centuries of placebo effect at work, too...
"Internal martial artists should not lift weights / ride bicycles / eat meat / etc."
These are some of my favourites, because they get even more enshrouded in mystery by evoking the "internal martial arts" mysticism [not that I am entirely against mysticism - but I have always loved that old saying, "Mysticism: It begins in mist and it ends in schism"....]. Should internal martial artists not ride bicycles? This seems ridiculous, as bicycles are relatively modern inventions and many, many millions of people (martial artists or not) ride them regularly as a way to keep fit and get around more easily (e.g. let's measure the health of bicycle riders vs. those who drive to work...). Should internal martial artists not eat meat? Well, if you were a Shaolin monk and had taken a vow not to eat meat, then you probably shouldn't. If you are eating salami and bologna every day and considering this something "healthy" you probably shouldn't either. In either case, we are back to confusing the behaviour of people in one domain with their performance in another. How many people do you know that have no self-control regarding eating junk food - who excel in the other aspects of their lives? Of course, there are some that do!! But, by and large, if you have the self-control and discipline (actually much harder in the modern world) to structure your life, and the principles you live by, to avoid industrialized food-like-substances (be that "meat products" or any manufactured crap...) then chances are you are also the sort of person who can excel at whatever you choose to do. And, if you are fueling whatever you choose to do with good, healthy food (a variety of foods - be that for vegans or omnivores or anyone in-between...) you are probably much more likely to end up in a virtuous cycle of efforts and results as opposed to a vicious one.
And finally, should internal martial artists not lift weights? Well, IF you are working as a subsistence peasant farmer or herder (remember - 99% of humanity for 99% of history...) - THEN, I say lifting weights may be completely ridiculous for you. By the time you have spent the day hauling water, chopping wood, tilling fields, planting rice, and a full range of other physically demanding tasks - IF you were to go to the gym and lift weights you will rapidly deplete whatever "energy" you had left! And you will, to use the modern term - over-train.
But, IF you are like most people in the modern world and you are spending the vast majority of the day sitting in a car, sitting at a computer, sitting on the couch - THEN perhaps it would be best to spend a bit of time, at least a few times a week, lifting something moderately heavy. This does not mean you have to set records doing squats and deadlifts, but it also does not mean that doing martial arts (even daily) is going to make up for our currently unhealthy, underactive existences.
I could go more into the myths above, and there are many, many more of them - not worth my time. My message is this however - whenever anyone tells you how you HAVE to do something you heard as a traditional martial arts "rumour", in modern times, please at least consider how people may have been doing things for the last ten-thousand years... Not to mention the last two-hundred thousand to three million years... At least start with evolution (prehistory) as a starting point - and early human history as an anchor for reality. This does not mean would should be slaves to the past (e.g. to such horrors as slavery!!!) and it likewise does not mean we should not celebrate the countless amazing, modern things that we truly can do as modern humans. But it does mean that we need to find some balance. We need to ask ourselves if the martial arts rumours we hear are "true" - and if they are "true" are they even relevant at all anymore.
I absolutely, unapologetically love traditional Chinese martial arts. And in these ancient traditions are stored much wisdom (applied intelligence). But we should never just check our brains at the training hall door. Question things [respectfully!]. Traditions probably exist for good reason - but the light of reason should always be used to take a good look at traditions.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 27 - July 12, 2014
Seven Fists - Hands
Xinyiliuhequan (sometimes translated as "Heart and Mind Six Harmonies Boxing" - also see Days 1 through 5 at the start of this "100 Days of Xinyi" page) is sometimes referred to using even more descriptors which can include, but are not necessarily limited to a title like: "Ten Animal, Six Harmony [Six Combinations], Seven Star [Seven Fist], Five Element, Henan Style, Heart-Mind-Intention [Will], Boxing/Fist, etc., etc..."
The "Seven Stars" or "Seven Fists" are the hands, feet, elbows, knees, shoulders, hips, and head.
Today, I want to reflect briefly on the hands. My kung fu uncle, Mark Queen, sometimes referred to the hands as like an "adjustable screwdriver" in that various "bits" or attachments or "shapes" could be made with the hands depending on the martial art and the application of the movements. This is certainly true enough in Xinyiliuhequan... There are a variety of "fists" - and these include making "a fist", but also palm strikes, "eagle claw" grips, finger gouges, "looking through the tiger's mouth" (space between the index finger and thumb), etc.
Xu Guo Ming once referred to the hands as the "bumper" (using one of his many car-related martial arts metaphors - something I will delve into more in future posts...). His main point in this particular analogy being that if you were working on building a great car - how much time would you spend on the bumper as opposed to the transmission, the steering, the engine, etc.?
External martial artists often put a fair bit of work into "the bumper" - and for good reason - because a strong body can easily generate more power than the hands/fists can tolerate (don't spend about ten minutes hitting a boxing bag as hard as you can [with bare knuckles] unless you want to learn this lesson in a very unpleasant and potentially damaging way!).
This is part of why boxer's hands are taped and gloved during bouts (and their training) - not just to protect the opponent's face, but so that the hands will actually be able to survive the rigors of training and an even just an entire bout. And, I have considerable respect for boxers (be they Western boxers or Thai kickboxers or other types of dedicated martial artists!).
The classic/stereotyped argument of the difference between "internal" and "external" Chinese martial arts is sometimes just that - the training for "external arts" works from the outside of the body inward (e.g. building up muscles and bones and bumpers first) - and eventually becomes "internal", too. Whereas "internal martial arts" is more concerned with mental aspects and energy (e.g. "Qi"/"Chi" and "engine" aspects - but then also has to be concerned with the body and external aspects eventually, too... Others have argued that the "internal" vs. "external" division is likely somewhat blurry and arbitrary, and there is, as always, probably a lot more nuance here that, inevitably, gets lost when people like things so neatly categorized... Personally I am always more interested in high level martial arts and high level martial artists - whether they come from "internal" or "external" or "Eastern" or "Western" or whatever (!) backgrounds!
All that said, to return to the hands/fists - I always try to be mindful of my hands when practicing martial arts. The hands (and feet) are the most distal parts of the body and therefore the furthest from the heart and the mind. And yet, there is probably no part of our body that is so heavily coded for in our brains than our hands. For example, we refer to "gross motor skills" and "fine motor skills" and I find this differentiation interesting - as we have a single category for "the whole body" and a whole other important category just "for the hands".
When my hands stretch out into "tiger palm" or "bear palm", I think of them truly expanding. When they compress down into "fists" for other movements and animals, I think of them truly compressing. I think of a great seminar I attended once with a Chen Style Tai Chi master talking about qigong who said: "When you expand the hands outward think of expanding like the whole universe expanding. When you bring the hands back inward think of compressing the whole universe between your hands." And, in-between, a "whole universe" transpires in the space and change between the two...
So, when you train, be mindful of your hands. Take good care of them. And remember, hands are not just for fighting! 99.9999% of the time - hands should be for building, creating, building, writing, soothing, healing, grooming, holding, greeting, etc., etc., etc... As humans we actually need to pretend to have claws and we need to be taught how to make a proper fist for punching -- because human hands are clearly designed for so much higher purposes and for diversity and adaptability. The use of fists should never be unaccompanied by first using the mind. Because the use of the mind can often [but not always] find better alternatives to using fists.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 26 - July 11, 2014
"One thousand times; Ten thousand times; One million times"
One of the first lessons I remember Grandmaster Yu Hua Long stressing was the importance of practice and repetition. This does not mean mindless repetition and it does not mean practicing a move poorly - over and over again (a great way to permanently "hard-wire" the wrong pathways into your nervous system...). He explained the expression in the following way:
- If you practice a move one thousand times you will remember how to do it (i.e. when learning a new move it is important to put in enough good repetitions that you won't just forget it in a few weeks or months!)
- If you practice a move ten thousand times you will be able to use it (i.e. you need to do at least this many repetitions, at a minimum, before the move is ingrained enough in the mind and body to be of potential practical use)
- If you have practiced a movement one million times then you are truly "combined" with the movement and are simultaneously "free" to use it under any circumstances (i.e. the classic "you are now 'at one' with the movement - and the movement/form itself may actually no longer look exactly like it did when you first learned it, because you have truly made it your own and part of yourself)
This is not a short road or an easy road. It can seem daunting! Of course, like any journey (real or metaphorical) the ideal, as they say, is to enjoy the journey and not be overly focussed on the destination. The more hours you put into practicing anything you want to be "gong fu" at, the faster you will get there - but if you focus merely on "going fast" you will ruin the journey - and you may even crash or otherwise have to stop early! So, don't count every repetition and step. Train, eat healthy food, get fresh air, help others, love, laugh, and get good sleep. I am in no rush to get to "the end" of my journey... And although everything has to change, I do like where I am. In another ten years time (and goodness knows how many thousands more Xinyi moves) I hope I will also like wherever I am, then.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 25 - July 10, 2014
Ten Animals - Swallow
Today I practiced, and now reflect upon, the last of the "10 Animals" I have been reviewing. I must admit, "swallow" is one of my least favourite animals... Not that I don't appreciate these little birds. The Xinyi movements/forms that I know for this animal clearly emulate the way they tuck their wings when they dive and how and can turn so suddenly and maneuver with such agility. I have been able to watch swallows pretty much my whole life - as barn swallows were common where I grew up and they would often nest under the eaves of houses in my hometown. You could watch them darting through the air picking off insects like little, absurdly quick, miniature folding-wing fighter jets.
Even while out kayaking with my wife a couple of weeks ago, we came upon a bunch of ruined structures (an old dock?) sticking out of the water and there were dozens of swallow nests (and dozens of nervous, angry swallows!). We watched two or three swallows at a time chasing seagulls away from their nest and even dive-bombing a bald eagle that had flown too near!! These birds are certainly agile and they certainly are courageous far beyond their size. As Mark Twain said, "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear". This seems like it would have to be true of swallows. So small and so delicate - yet willing to chase off an eagle! Talk about turning fear into resistance!
Yet I have just never been a big fan of the Xinyiliuhequan swallow movements. That said, I practice them regularly, making sure they are in my rotation of forms to keep up. Part of what I don't like about them is they just don't really suit my body structure (some of the low stances involved demand me to show the limits of my flexibility; some of the movements get so small and compact) and my temperament (I am more into projecting my mindset in other ways - like imagining Monkey, or Snake, or Dragon, or Tiger, etc...).
But there it is - another basic reason to have the range of "Ten Animals" - because even though it does not come as naturally to me, and even though I would like to, at times, ignore those aspects of training which I find more difficult - there it is. And, therefore it forces me to force myself to address my challenges which I would rather pretend away! This does not mean I have to dedicate myself whole-heartedly to practicing this animal all time - but it means I should practice it regularly to maintain some balance.
In my professional life, working with kids, we often identify "challenges" or "limitations" or "weaknesses" when assessing their development, skills, and aptitudes. Some might argue that once we have identified these weaknesses we should put all our efforts into remediating or "fixing" these "issues"... There is another school of thought, however, (to which I also subscribe) which asks - do we really want to take the majority of hours this child has at school, at therapy, in a day, etc. and put more focus and attention on their difficulties and problems? Do we want to harp on their challenges and struggles more and more?
Being in Canada, I often use the (admittedly extreme/outlier) example of Wayne Gretzky (aka "The Great One"). If we had identified some learning disability, or other problem, for Gretzky as a child in school, would he have been better off had we cut short his hockey practices so that he could learn to do long division better? Would he have been more happy and successful had he spent less time shooting pucks and more time learning memorizing the capitals of Canadian cities? Yes, the man needed to learn enough to "get by" in paying for things at a store and otherwise knowing how to take care of himself - but I think he (and his millions of fans) were probably better served by his playing to his strengths and building on his strengths! The weaknesses I imagine he was much more willing to work on were any identified in his hockey playing - and I have not doubt he addressed those the best he could, but also realized that he should do most what he did best.
Now, I sure am no Gretzky (and neither are most of my clients). But in my practice of Xinyiliuhequan (and other things I pursue in my life), I try to stay focussed on my strengths and what I have a passion for. I have been willing, many times, to work on what I am not good at - but it is almost always in service of something I love doing - and getting better at something I am good at! [And, no, I have no aspirations to be "the great one"!]
At times I have been like the swallow, however, and I do try to emulate them in certain regards. I have always been willing to recognize that I am just "one little person", but at the same time I am more than willing to pursue my interests and passions and speak up for what I believe in. This sometimes means feeling like a little bird in a forest full of much larger, more powerful animals, but I am usually willing to face my fears and speak up - and I try to punch above my weight.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 24 - July 9, 2014
Prevention - Part 2 of 2
During the epidemiology course I took last year, I learned about three levels of prevention (in epidemiology these are regarding negative health outcomes/diseases/etc.):
1. Primary Prevention - attempting to prevent an outcome from happening at all
2. Secondary Prevention - identifying a potential outcome at its earliest possible stages when, hopefully, it can still be relatively easily prevented or treated
3. Tertiary Prevention - once an outcome has occurred attempting to prevent further complications
When applied to the health and wellness aspects of a martial arts practice these could be as basic as [these are just quick examples]:
1. Training on a fairly regular basis to get physical exercise and stress reduction - both of which can help to prevent (or delay the onset of) numerous health conditions
2. By regularly being "in tune" with your body and mind it is more easy to notice if something is amiss and then "tune it up". If you have been feeling stressed, you can be more quickly aware of it when you see the quality of your training or your energy levels changing. If you have a minor injury or imbalance you will be aware of it early and be able to take steps to address it before it becomes more serious.
3. If you were to have a more serious outcome (e.g. an injury or illness, a stressful life event, etc.) you would have your prior training, and its benefits, to use to manage the setback/situation - and to apply to efforts to survive, recover, and move forward.
And, these three levels of prevention could even be applied to violence / self-defence:
1. Living a life of balance, harmony, self-discipline, etc. in which the odds of facing violence are minimized in the first place (or, if one is a soldier, police officer, etc. - using martial arts skills right from "step one" to assess the environment and people in it for the potential for violence and, whenever possible - behaving, intervening, and reacting in such a way as to prevent violence from erupting)
2. If, in the process of scanning and screening for violence, it becomes clear that it may erupt, being certain to deal with it as quickly and appropriately as possible (e.g. call the police, get to safety as soon as possible, only apply the correct amount of force to keep yourself and others safe and no more, gather good intelligence on threats, etc., etc.)
3. If violence has happened - what can be done to mitigate it (e.g. first aid, calling an ambulance, respectfully dealing with the police, attending to injuries and post-incident stress, learning from the incident such that, hopefully, it can be prevented in the future, avoiding similar traps, etc., etc.).
There are some very good books out there for martial arts to read about real-world violence and trying to prevent it, survive it, and deal with its aftermath. Although they may not (or they may!) use a model such as the "levels of prevention" from epidemiology -- I argue that the reader should, at least, consider the epidemiological model above.
If a book, self-defence system, police or military training, or a whole martial art is only addressing one of these levels it is likely not a complete system. Either the system is flawed (or overspecialized) - or it, at least, needs to be augmented and supplemented with more approaches or by studying a parallel, complete system.
As someone so interested in public health, I have come to feel that the most suffering for the most people should be prevented by addressing issues at the primary prevention level! After working in medical rehabilitation for 13+ years (and I will be continuing to do so for the foreseeable future), I am very used to working at the "mop" / "clean-up" / "tertiary prevention" stage of things. As I continue my education and think about what I might like to do with the second half of my working years - I'm pretty sure I want a chance to influence things at the "tap" / "make less/smaller messes" / "primary prevention" stage of things.
This is not to knock those who use the mop (these people and their skills are absolutely essential - and they are the people with the skills we need when our car is hit by a van - or the s--t has otherwise hit the fan!!!
We will always need people with skills to deal with problems once they have erupted - not everything can be prevented. That said, if someone is constantly mopping up overflowing messes, it might be beneficial to ask - "Have I even tried shutting off the water before repeatedly reaching for the mop?" or "While we are furiously working this mop would someone else please also go try to turn off the damned faucet?!?"
Sometimes people spend so much time mopping they don't realize that there are other ways. There is an old expression, "If all you have is a hammer, the whole world starts to look like a nail..." Well, that applies to martial arts, too. If the only focus of your training is "hitting things", the whole world (and all its messy problems) can start to look like things to hit. But, if you are truly training martial arts from a holistic perspective - a true martial artist can discern what is a problem and what isn't a problem. And, what problems should be addressed creatively and dynamically and non-violently (the vast majority of them). And, what extreme problems might require violence applied as efficiently and effectively as possible (which should be done very, very rarely).
Because those problems that might require violence are always going to create new problems... As humans we have amazing ways of convincing ourselves we are dealing with a problem while we are actually creating others (e.g. "If I have a few more drinks I'll feel better..."; "I am smoking so I don't gain weight"; "If I walk around like a big, tough a--hole it will keep people from messing with me...", etc., etc., etc...)
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 23 - July 8, 2014
Ten Animals - Monkey
Of the Ten Animals in Xinyiliuhequan, none is closer related to us than Monkey. On some level we are as humans, after all, "talking monkeys" (or more precisely - "talking apes").
That said, we are not descended from the apes we see running around on earth today. We are a unique type of ape that does many amazing things, not the least of which includes building hospitals, launching satellites far out into the galaxy, designing the means to send information from one side of the globe to the other at the touch of a button, and writing "transporting" string quartets. We are also a unique type of ape that creates garbage that nature cannot readily recycle, commits mass genocide, and reads billions of words a year in tabloids sold at the supermarket...
As the brightest species of ape, we have put our incredible minds to much great use - and to much not-so-great use, too. I point out the self-evident not just because I have a gift for stating the obvious (as I have shown in other posts...) but because I want to reiterate that we are both the same as other animals (for good and bad) and at exactly the same time quite different from other animals (for good and bad).
And, it is when practicing the Xinyiliuhequan forms, and imagined mindset, of Monkey that I find myself most required to wrestle with the paradoxes of being both human and animal - both figuratively and literally. And, as I have also tried to argue before, it is this challenging paradoxical junction that can be a great source of energy, creativity, and dynamism.
On a very base and practical level, when I practice Monkey forms, I tend to flit - from playful, to mischievous, to intelligent, to emotional, to rational, etc. This is very different from when I practice Dragon, as then I am practicing something much more removed or "alien" to the human experience. Or, when I practice Snake, I try to think of pure, cold "instinct" and "reaction" (or calm down the thinking - and not think so much...). Or, for Tiger there is that aggressive, predatory mindset (or post-training the cat in repose and recovery...). Or, for Eagle there is "distance" and "overview"...
But Monkey? No, Monkey is something different. There is a wider range of feelings and emotions. Even in the movements there is the hidden compactness and elusiveness of making oneself small - and then revealing the expansion (surprise!) when suddenly the small becomes large, or the angles suddenly change, or the emotions suddenly change.
Much of the point of having a gamut of "Ten Animals" is to create a vast range of options. Having "Ten Animals" (and multiple forms/expressions for each) means that you can be Snake one second and Eagle the next. You can transform into whatever is necessary for the actual, evolving situation as it evolves!
And of all the animals, Monkey reminds me of this the most. We need to change. We need to "evolve" in terms of our thinking and behaviour. In fact, by studying monkeys and apes (our primate relatives) - it is even possible to gain a sense of hope for our own species [E.g. see the works of Robert Sapolsky - who I have recommended already - here is a link to a short piece by him: http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/can-animals-save-us/warrior-baboons-give-peace-a-chance]
And finally, I can learn a lot of simple lessons from Monkey. Like, I don't need to be so serious so much of the time. Or, the fact that I love practicing and preserving "traditional" martial arts, but I want them to continue to evolve in terms of relevance to modern life.
I remember watching Yu Hua Long demonstrating Monkey (and I was in awe of his stance and power and mobility) when all of a sudden there "the old master" was -- pretending to groom and pick lice off of himself like a silly child might! It was truly hilarious. He was very serious about emulating the monkey -- and very serious about making sure none of us took ourselves too seriously! He was demonstrably willing to balance all that sweat and seriousness and tradition - with some well-timed monkeying around.
[Afterthought (July 10, 2014): I just watched the lecture, "Are Humans Just Another Primate?" by Robert Sapolsky today and it was awesome. I was pleasantly surprised by how much his talk about how humans are like other animals/primates and how much we are also different from them (a regular theme my mind ponders). What I wrestle with from a martial arts and health care perspective - he clearly has done much more wrestling with from a primatology and neuroscience perspective, too! I found it quite informative regarding how much he has to say about dealing with violence and empathy as well (two topics often on my mind) - http://youtu.be/YWZAL64E0DI. Fascinating lecture! Well worth a watch (or two, or more)!]
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 22 - July 7, 2014
Prevention - Part 1 of 2
I remember hearing an old story about a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine who was famous throughout China for treating diseases. One day the emperor fell quite ill and sent for him to treat his ailments. When the emperor inquired if this doctor was, indeed, the best doctor in China the doctor answered that no, he was most definitely not the best! Why? He stated that he knew who the best doctor was, but that few had ever heard of this doctor because he treated disease in its earliest stages or even helped to prevent the disease in the patient in the first place! Therefore, only the very best doctors (and his grateful, but somewhat happily oblivious patients) were even familiar with his work.
My first time in China, I picked up a book called Sun Zi's Art of War and Health Care. I was fascinated by the title. As someone familiar with Sun Zi's Art of War - and as someone who works in health care - I figured this book could be relevant to my life in martial arts and in life at work [Although in rehabilitation - people see me, most of the time, long after primary prevention is no longer an option - although I do my best to help prevent things getting worse and prevent further loss of function - in the best case I am helping things get better and helping to restore function, too.]
The book talks about the potential parallels of Sun Zi's advice to generals as it could be applied to doctors. I found the book intriguing, although I did not necessarily agree with all of its premises and conclusions (how often does anyone agree with all premises and conclusions of anything they read?).
Without a doubt, however, I agree that prevention is better than cure. If you can prevent being ill in the first place, it is, of course, far better than having to take medicine or have surgery. As Ben Franklin memorably put it: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" (and this applies to many, many things in life besides health care or violence).
On at least some level, once a martial artist is resorting to violence - it is already a form of "failure". The failure may have been on a societal level, it may be a failure of the individual aggressor(s), or it could even be a failure of the person "defending him/herself". This is not to mean that people do not have a right to defend themselves (see my previous posts regarding this!!), but there are many times when I have heard people's "self-defence" stories and I end up wondering - why in the hell didn't you just get yourself / your friend / your family / etc. to safety?
The most blatant and common (and stupidly ridiculous) versions of this involve "road rage", of one sort or another (and I sadly admit that in my younger days I may have been prone to versions of this - and, it still requires "keeping my guard up" to not let these situations make me angry and stupid...).
Someone saying, for example, that they were "defending their family" by speeding up and giving the finger to someone who cut them off... If this moron (and anyone is only going to getting stupider when they get angry...) were really "defending his family" he'd be slowing down and getting away from the dangerous driver/situation!
If possible (and only if this did not interfere with maintaining safety) he might then consider getting the license plate of the other vehicle and a description of the vehicle and/or driver (but only if that did not require increasing the danger/risk!). Then, if he really gave a crap about protecting his family (and others in society) he would calmly file a complaint with the police once safely at home. [I have actually done this a couple of times (after feeling "threatened" by dangerous driving and aggressive drivers) and it can even be somewhat satisfying. I've had the police call me back and tell me they brought one person in for questioning in one case (I imagine that was a fun afternoon for that aggressive jerk who rolled through a stop sign and then started swearing at and threatening me...); and, in another, it turned out the dangerous driver had many, many complaints (and pending charges) against him and the police were glad they had more reason to convince the prosecutor to push forward with criminal charges].
True martial artists strive get the maximum results with the minimum effort [in the case of prevention this means they get 100% results by doing very, very little!]. I sometimes like to think of the 15 minutes I spent calming filling out that online police report while sipping a cup of tea -- compared to the hour+ that jerk spent being questioned by the police down at the station. No insult or strike I could have delivered could have been so effective in "protecting" myself and others - and yet so calm-inducing and safe for myself and my wife...). [Sidenote: If you ever find your "justification" or "rationalization" for escalating a situation towards violence is that you needed to "protect" yourself or others - take a quick look at yourself - are you wearing a uniform and a badge? - if not, it's not your f---ing job...]
Yes, prevention is by far the best course of action. Violence should always be an option of last resort - be that for a regular person, a police officer, a soldier, or a nation! That said, if violence proves to be necessary then a martial artist (not to mention the police, soldiers, legitimate governments...) should know how to use it legally - and effectively. But once you use violence you are always like that doctor who is now treating disease - far better to not be sick in the first place. Thank God for doctors when you need treatment for unavoidable ailments - but frankly any real martial art should be teaching people how to prevent sickness/violence as much as possible.
I train to take care of myself and so that I can be a "strong" person to have the capacity to help take care of others. Unless you work in a field where violence is a daily reality, or you are a professional fighter, then you have to ask yourself (and even in those cases training better help you manage stress and avoid burnout) - is my training at least somewhat serving the 99.999% of my life that does not involve physical violence?
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 21 - July 6, 2014
Ten Animals - Dragon
Another one of my favourite "animals"...
When I picture "dragons" - two different schemas come to mind. The first is that of a Western dragon, perhaps the one from Disney's animated classic "Sleeping Beauty" or a multi-headed hydra from a bad "Hercules" movie. The second is that of an Eastern dragon, like the ones on temple walls, or ceilings, in Beijing and Shanghai. These Eastern-style dragons have long coiling bodies with short legs.
So where did these dragons come from? Why do East and West both have dragons? Why are their dragons different? Why do they have different meanings in each culture (to stereotype and grossly oversimplify - in the West dragons are often symbols of evil that need to be overcome and in the East they are often viewed as less malevolent, perhaps even auspicious guardians or helpers [note: plenty of exceptions in both cultures, ancient and modern]).
All that said, when I want to picture a "dragon" and how it may influence how people practicing Xinyiliuhequan can move - I seek something a bit more tangible - I picture a crocodile.
Another of my favourite National Geographic documentaries is Here Be Dragons - regarding the crocodiles of the Grumeti River in Tanzania. One need look no further to get a taste of how dragons/crocodiles could have been burned into the human psyche... Even the legends of sacrifices to dragons (e.g. there are birds that have nests near the crocodiles and this affords them great protection - except for when the occasional baby bird falls from the nest) or of dragons sleeping for extended periods (e.g. after devouring a wildebeest a dragon may not have to eat again for many months) seem to have come from observing crocodiles.
And how does a crocodile take down its prey? For the most part, they are patient. They wait. They don't reveal their power, because if you could see a dragon/crocodile you would, if at all possible - avoid it! If, however, a crocodile gets a hold of prey it drags it into, and under, the water. That is, it takes away its root and it takes away any advantage it might otherwise have had on land. If you were "fighting" a crocodile it would be like fighting an alien in a whole other (inhospitable) world.
To feed, a crocodile chomps down on its prey and it rolls. It literally spins around and around to rip off chunks of flesh for it to swallow. This may have led to the image of those coiling Chinese dragons. Of course - things often change over time and sometimes things are lost, or gained, in translation. Western style dragons are often imagined to breathe fire and Eastern style dragons often have horns!
When I practice the variations of "dragon" that I have learned in Xinyiliuhequan, I like to imagine the Eastern and Western mythical creatures, but I am primarily interested in how those crocodiles move. Quite a few variants of "dragon" involve the hands or elbows being "hidden" until the last second. There is also a great deal of body "turning" and "rolling" (e.g. such as movements like "dragon rolls through the clouds"). There is also the "wrapping" and "coiling" energies captured in certain movements.
The "dragon" is also aesthetically beautiful in Xinyi. When I show people these movements they say - "Hey, that looks like "kung fu"!" And I reply - "That's because this is "kung fu"!"
In another National Geographic documentary, Last Feast of the Crocodiles, there are definitely some particularly unpleasant and bleak scenes (this doc tells the story of a watering hole in Africa as it dries up and most of the increasingly desperate animals unable to leave, die...). There was a scene, amidst this unfolding drama, however, that I found both humorous and enlightening. There was a group (a pod?) of hippos that was gradually being forced to live in closer and closer proximity to the crocodiles. I figured this would eventually, inevitably mean death to the hippos - but that was not, in fact, the case. Carnivorous crocodiles do not, apparently, mess around with herbivorous hippos! These gigantic (3000+ pound) mammals will apparently, with relative ease, kill a crocodile (itself a 1-ton killer reptile!). At one point in the doc, a baby hippo gets separated from its mother and ends up right in the middle of several crocs. The baby hippo panics - and starts scrambling wildly to get back to the safety of its pod. While watching this, I figured, "oh my, this baby hippo is done for!" But no! The baby hippo literally climbs out of the water and mud and then runs right on top of crocodile after crocodile (like lily pads with bear traps...) until it can finally get back to its mother... And the crocodiles - they do nothing!
Well, it's not entirely true they do nothing... I don't want to over-anthropomorphize, but I swear that if you look at the expressions on those crocodiles' faces you'd be certain they were thinking - "Damn, I want to eat this juicy baby hippo - that is stomping on my head - but instead I better just grin and bare this because momma hippo will tear me in half.... Keep grinning... Don't eat the baby hippo! No matter how many times it steps on my head!"
Because no matter how big and tough you might think you are. No matter how much you think you may have turned yourself into a "dragon" (or whatever your tough metaphor of choice may be - animal, machine, etc.) - there is always going to be someone bigger and tougher than you are... And, we can even learn from dragons/crocodiles that [as Shakespeare gets paraphrased] "discretion is the better part of valour". And, unless a life is on the line (in which case I hope I would even try to face down a hippo... regardless of whether I would be successful or not) - most of the time we need to just grin and bare it (e.g. the driver that just cut you off) and keep our heads down and safely out of trouble!
Even dragons demonstrate discretion. ;)
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 20 - July 5, 2014
Limits and Boundaries
I know it may not be fashionable to talk about limits and boundaries. These sorts of terms just don't grab headlines and they lack the sexiness required for salacious reading. No, I'd likely be much better off to advertise with terms like "no limits Xinyiliuhequan!", "give it 110% Xinyiliuhequan power!", and "extreme Xinyiliuhequan!!!" [terms used for everything from teeth whitening chemicals, to sports, to eating contests...].
And many in the business community do not like to hear about "limits" and "boundaries". We have a cult of banks and financial institutions that are "too big to fail" (because when they fail it's all us "little" ordinary people who have to tighten our belts and bail them out..). We have megalomaniacs for politicians who see non-renewable resource extraction as the key to "unlimited" and perpetual wealth (the concept of "non-renewable" lost upon those myopic from short-term, quarterly results and unrestrained greed...).
Now, don't get me wrong. I am have no fundamental problem with banks. When they do what they were created to do - be safe places to keep money and help said money move around in the form of investments (i.e. things that are valuable for humanity), they are great! And, I have nothing but respect for those politicians who go into politics in order to help people and help steer "the system" in the direction of evidence-based outcomes and compassionate values (sadly, these politicians are in the minority)...
Few like to hear the truth about limits and boundaries. Many people hear these as "negative" terms. They view them as "limitations" and they view boundaries and limits as "rules to be broken" or "it ain't a crime if you don't get caught"...
But the fact of the matter is, boundaries and limits are good. We have "civilization" and "culture" and "peace" (and much more) when we have boundaries and limits.
And, when we tell car companies they have to build cars that can go further with less fuel - amazingly they start getting creative and rise to the challenge! And, when we set reasonable speed limits - we will always have "speeders", but we also reduce injuries and deaths and we save fuel! And, when set some reasonable limits and boundaries around the prices and rules for cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, guns, etc., etc., we can actually maintain personal freedoms while managing the risks for the population at large. Rules and boundaries as tools for freedom - how radical!
This is always messy and it is always going to involve dynamic tension - but that's real life. Whenever you hear anyone say that something is "all good" or "all bad" they are almost always full of crap (except occasionally, because even limits sometimes have limits...).
A very concrete martial arts example of this is that it is not possible to train all the time (!). I am very glad to have had teachers and mentors who have dedicated much of their lives and many of their waking hours to acquiring more martial arts knowledge - training as much as humanly possible, and collecting as many forms, sets, moves, techniques, etc. as they feel they possibly can. Of course, even for them, there are limits (e.g. "there are only so many hours in a day").
I am grateful to these full-time martial artists (at least the ones who are willing to share) because they can be great sources of information and they are working hard to integrate everything they know.
But, is this realistic for the rest of us? I am only somewhat interested in martial arts for martial arts sake (okay, I am more than a little interested in this, but I also want to live a life in the real world, too!). I can view this with sadness and regret - "Boo, hoo, I'll never be the flying master of blah, blah, blah..." Or, I can look to the great masters (living and of the past) as great inspirations and I can focus on how to use martial arts in my day-to-day life. If I "only" have thirty minutes or an hour a day, or a couple hours a week to train - then it sure focuses me to make the very best of that time.
I had a very good friend, who I greatly respected (not least of which was for his intellect and generosity), who had an excellent job with a major resource company. He was being groomed for management when the company suddenly had some major economic restructuring to do... He had already been pulled from his old position, but he had not yet been placed in his new position. The optics of having him show up at a new office while the company was in the process of "downsizing" (i.e. ruining thousands of people's careers) would not have been good - so they told him to sit tight. They literally told him to just stay home and they would call him when it was time to come back to work. And, they kept sending him very sizable paychecks (I recall one year his "annual bonus" was more than my "annual salary"...).
My friend was in denial for a while. He figured, heck, I'll just play video games for a few weeks and then I'll be back at work... Every two weeks his (sizable) paycheck arrived, and every two weeks no phone call was forthcoming... This went on for months! It actually got to the point where my friend was afraid to call the head office, for fear that he would get in trouble for having cashed paycheck for so long without actually working (I think this bizarre situation created all sorts of temporary mental weirdness for my friend...). It went on for over a year!
As someone who was working on the "front line" in health care, and earning much, much less than my friend - I just could not relate. If I had that much money and free time (I figured) I'd be studying another language, going to the gym every day, practicing martial arts every day, taking cooking classes, plugging away at interesting university courses, etc... When I told him as much, he just kept telling me the same thing: "You don't understand, Sean, this could end any day! Every day its like I only have only one day left and I just want to spend that one day relaxing and playing video games!"
I do believe that if my friend had been told, "You are expected to stay home for six months and then we will have you in your new position on X date" that things would have been different (I hope this would have been the case!). I want to believe he would not have lived in his housecoat and played video games online 12 hours a day... I think he would have glutted out on that for a while, and then he would have registered for a class. I think he would have been able to draw out the weeks on the calendar and then taken some trips, done some volunteering, completed some projects around the house, and, yes, even have scheduled time for video games...
I know that the situation above is a more light-hearted example of the problem of "no limits" but I still think it is a good one - because how many of us who are relatively well off (i.e. not homeless or starving, etc.) keep pretending that there is no limit to what we can do? We can always "get around" to those long-term goals, right? We're all going to live forever, right?
Or, conversely, how many of us focus too much on the "end product" or "the end" and basically say some version of "screw it - its not worth it unless I can do it perfectly"? Limits are good. Boundaries are good. Deadlines are good. Goals are good. They are only "not good" when we become (or are made) slaves to them.
The other "limits" and "boundaries" that are particularly important as martial artists are those that divide "me" from "you". If someone tries to invade my space or violate my body, I have a right to defend "my" "self". This may not sound "enlightened", but I'm not sorry for that. I have a right to maintain the integrity of my body - and so do you.
And, the same goes for relationships of all sorts - from friendships, to work-relationships, to professional relationships, to marriages. There is always going to be "tension" in certain ways, but those boundaries are there to help guide us - so that we can all safely get along the best we can.
And, although there is a "bond" between teacher and student in martial arts - there need to be clear boundaries regarding that relationship (and if you ever find yourself attending martial arts classes where there are "no boundaries" - or really f---ed up boundaries - you are not in a martial arts class, but in a cult!).
Yes, in the grand scheme of things "All is one"... We are all the same "stardust" (to paraphrase the late great Carl Sagan)... The cycles of life go round and round in circles... The universe may have no beginning and no end...
But day-to-day, we need to maintain our integrity and we need to pick and choose. And anyone who says "you can have it all" is likely a bailed-out banker with a big bonus or a corrupt politician with a greasy palm.... If that's who you choose to emulate, go for it. Just stay away from me.
For me (and no one else has to believe this - we are all separate human beings who can believe and live as we choose [within limits, of course, like it not hurting others...]) a life worth living is one with a sense of integrity: working to realize our human potential to the best of our limits and abilities - and genuinely helping others to do so, too. We don't have to be perfect - and it all might end tomorrow - but most of us probably want to look back at the end of a week, a month, a year, or our lives - and know that we at least tried to add a little something good to the world and limited the bad we did. Maybe that's not "110%" and not so "sexy", but I don't find "extreme white teeth" all that sexy, either.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 19 - July 4, 2014
Ten Animals - Hawk
Hawk is one of those animals that is all about ups-and-downs (perhaps I should say "yins"-and-"yangs", but I'll get more into that another day). Of course, a bird of prey has to be able to do just that - to soar up high and be able to dive down low.
Hawk was one of the first animals that I really got that feeling of the harder I struck upward, the more my feet could actually be rooted into the ground. Instead of pushing up and off - the body expands like a spring pushing into the ground at one end and pushing against something with the other end. Coiling and uncoiling.
This might seem like a simple concept to grasp, but almost every person I have first taught a movement, such as "hawk opens the door"*, initially pushes the hands up with great gusto and their feet, or at least heels, end up popping off the floor... [*note: the "door" in this case is more of a martial arts metaphor for your opponent's center line and knocking them off balance -- although I sometimes imagine the move being used to smash open a set of those old fashioned double saloon doors seen in bad Westerns...]
It sometimes takes a bit of correction (I have had to hold a few people's heels down or put a piece of paper under their heel and insist they don't let me pull away the paper when they push up with their hands), but as soon as someone gets the feel for it, they realize this is a simple, yet radical, concept. For some movements (e.g. for mobility) you want your heels to come up (so you can pivot on the balls of the feet), but for this one, you want to drive the feet into the ground and have the upper body lifting up. You become tangibly - both yin and yang simultaneously.
Once that primary up-and-down splitting has been established, the rest of the smaller ups-and-downs tend to come a bit more naturally. One side of the body opens while the other closes. One hand (internally) drives forward and the other pulls back (internally).
Although the two hands both appear to move up and forward together there is a potential "rendering" tension (not "tension" stressed out and tense, but "tension" in that this is "energized" and "dynamic") between them (and this comes out when/if you touch an opponent - or more gently/controlled when doing two-person drills with a training partner...).
Another metaphor that I use is that the two hands are like two hawks chasing each other. Then, to mix metaphors, I tell students to imagine that the two hawk-hands are attached with rubber bands - such that even though they are flying forward together there is a feeling of them trying to stretch those rubber bands apart! I imagine that birds (or planes) flying in a formation would have to keep this balance - of working to keep their distance while striving to stay close together. That takes much of the "muscle" out of the movement and forces a more nuanced consideration of separation.
Hawks (and birds of all sorts) are remarkable creatures and they always remind me - life is full of ups-and-downs. I also think of clichés such as "What goes up, must come down" or "The bigger they are, the harder they fall"...
Hawks are survivors, too. Whenever I see a bird like a hawk, or an eagle, or a heron in real life - I can't help but think how they look like dinosaurs. And, of course, that's what they are - living progeny of the dinosaurs. Their basic design has lasted millions upon millions of years (continuing to evolve, too, of course). Something that time-tested is worth emulating.
And, remembering what happened to the dinosaurs because they were too big and slow, and they could not adapt fast enough to changing realities - that's something worth contemplating, too.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 18 - July 3, 2014
Ping Pong Lessons
Growing up I had a friend who was (and as far as I know still is) an excellent tennis player. I used to regularly go over to his house after school and on the weekends and hang out, and play Ping-Pong with him. Well, he wasn't just good at tennis - he excelled at pretty much all racquet sports.
I really liked playing Ping-Pong - but he beat me something awful. The games were never even close. He could sometimes beat me without me taking a single point off of him. He could beat me playing with his non-dominant hand. I remember him once beating me while he stood on one leg and played with his non-dominant hand. This went on for years... Anyway, one day I finally just got tired of getting trounced so completely at Ping-Pong that I stopped playing against him. I was probably around 13 when I gave up on trying to beat him - or on playing Ping-Pong with him at all. Clearly, I just "wasn't any good" at it.
We did other activities together, such as X-Country skiing, which I would say we were about equal at. He was vastly better at me in math and science and I may have had a slight edge over him in subjects like history and English. We also combined forces - and won several science fairs together - him doing the academic heavy lifting and me sometimes coming up with the original idea for our project or an innovative way to present the material. After high school we drifted apart, the way high school friends often do, although we try to catch up on the phone, or over Skype, at least once a year.
Anyway, when I was 16 or 17-years-old, I was hanging out with a different friend and we ended up going to Winnipeg to stay with his grandparents and spend some time in "the city". We had a great time with them, as well as biking around and playing video games on our own. One night after his grandparents had gone to bed we were hanging out in their basement. I wanted to play more Atari - but my friend kept pushing and pushing to unfold the Ping-Pong table and play a game. I resisted. He persisted. Finally, with a "Fine, but I am terrible at Ping-Pong" and "I haven't played in years..." I grudgingly agreed to a match.
I beat him soundly our first match. This got him a bit angry. I told him, again, I was not any good at Ping-Pong! This did not make him happier... He demanded a rematch. I beat him again. And again. And again. It was a strange feeling. It was almost like the thinking part of my brain could just sit back and watch my body play Ping-Pong. I certainly was no "Ping-Pong master" (and I definitely am not now!), but somehow after all those years of trying to play my other friend I had gotten decent at it! In fact, I was good enough to soundly, repeatedly beat someone who considered himself quite good.
This was one of my first hands-on experiences of having "trained" at something with someone so much better than myself - and thinking I was not getting anywhere - when, in fact, I had been making tremendous progress -- it's just that my progress seemed so relatively small compared to someone so good.
To this day I am still decent at Ping-Pong, although the only practice I get is at work - occasionally playing with children with severe coordination difficulties. I use every ounce of my skill acquired in my childhood Ping-Pong beatings to keep the ball on the table and serve up shots for my clients to be able to hit and experience some success. We compete and cooperate to see how many shots we can hit in a row - and we count them off the walls, the floor, the lights - anywhere as long as the game keeps going!
How funny that as a child it seemed I just once wanted to beat my friend who always beat me - and now whenever I am playing Ping-Pong I am always doing my very best to help my "opponent" feel successful. I have enough skill (and experience) to match them wherever they are at so that they can be in the "zone of proximal development" [alla Lev Vygotsky]. Just easy enough to feel some success, just hard enough to work to improve.
I feel I learned a few lessons from that Ping-Pong experience - and from reflecting on it later.
On a positive note, I learned that it really is good to learn new things - and to learn from people who have some real knowledge and talent I did not possess. [At least for a couple of years I must have enjoyed playing Ping-Pong with my tennis-playing friend, because we kept playing despite my always being slaughtered]. My childhood dream of training with a "great martial arts master in China someday", likewise, drove me for many years - and I eventually lived that dream!
On a slightly negative note, I learned from my formative Ping-Pong experience that if I never train with people that are the same as I am (or have similar skills), or I never teach others who are newer to something than I am - I never get a chance to test myself out or to share what I know with someone trying to learn. I also learned that it can be very disheartening to not see progress - and that progress should be measured in different ways than against one's teacher! One of the greatest ways I like to witness progress is in seeing the progress of my clients at work or my Xinyiluhequan students - both at Xinyi (which I love sharing) and in their lives (which I don't take credit for - I just love cheering on their progress!).
This is one thing I loved about teaching, and studying, martial arts in Winnipeg (from 1998 - 2003) with my "kung fu uncle", Mark Queen, and a great group of students / training partners there. Mark is an excellent and generous teacher and he had more years of Chinese martial arts experience than I did (and being older than me - he always will!). Learning Tai Chi and Bagua from him was an honour. At the same time, he was open to learning Xinyiliuhequan from me - which allowed me to teach classes with him twice-a-week for about five years (we would split the class as half Tai Chi and half Xinyi on our weeknight class, and half Ba Gua and half Xinyi on our Saturday morning class; eventually I also added an extra Sunday night all-Xinyi class as well).
Our students / training partners were a wonderful range of people - from those almost completely new to "martial arts" to experienced martial artists who wanted to learn a Chinese internal martial art. Some loved to do two-person drills and learn applications, others much preferred the fitness aspects, or the aesthetics of the art. Frankly, I think that at least half of the positive experience came from the camaraderie of shared sweat and a shared love of these traditional Chinese arts.
As much martial arts training as I had done prior to that, and as much as I have done since - those five years are still really special to me. I know that those days weren't perfect, and I don't want to indulge in excessive nostalgia, but I learned a lot from my student and teacher experiences during those five years. I am deeply grateful to Mark and his openness, generosity, and friendship.
And then I "ping-ponged" around a bit! I moved to China in 2003 and got to train with Grandmaster Yu Hua Long - at his invitation - and those sessions in Shanghai continue to inform my practice (back to the experience of training with someone so incredible that I am still learning things from those lessons many years later!!). He told me emphatically to go back to Canada and keep teaching and sharing! He knew that sharing would help keep his Xinyiliuhequan alive long after he would be gone and that it would force me to keep learning and practicing and improving.
I taught private Xinyi lessons in Calgary to a few truly pleasant, kind people who eventually stopped being students and became training partners. I returned to China in 2008 to revisit Yu Hua Long and my tea teacher, Zhang Laoshi. And, with more pinging-and-ponging I ended up in Victoria and I have spent the past five years establishing a stable base at my work, getting re-married, buying a home (in a limited partnership with the bank...), and getting ready to start a family!
The 25+ year journey of martial arts that I have been on, so far, has had its ups-and-downs, its zigs-and-zags, and its pings-and-pongs. It has been invaluable in my life, though. And here I am, again, just hoping to share it with others. Looking to keep learning, to keep training, and to keep sharing. I am always looking for nice people to play with. I realize now, unlike when I was a teenager, that the best games are the ones that go on and on, with a range of players of different ages, skills, backgrounds, abilities, etc. Learning martial arts should be profound, intriguing, hard work, and potentially life-changing - but it should also be fun, joyful, relaxing - and it should mean spending good time with good company.
I know now I never would have learned to play Ping-Pong years ago if it had been about trying to "master" Ping-Pong (I would have quit much sooner!). I learned something because I was having fun with a pleasant person and I was open to trying again and again.
Anyone out there up for learning to play a bit of Xinyiliuhequan?
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 17 - July 2, 2014
Ten Animals - Horse
Sometimes I have a gift for the obvious. I recall spending a few hours one afternoon, over a decade ago, just doing length after length of movements from Horse... It was a humid summer day in Manitoba and it was hot! Length after length I marched along outside on the soccer field near where, years before, I had attended elementary school. I worked on my footwork. I worked on my body turning. For a while, I imagined the frenzied energy of a horse "breaking out of a corral" (the name of one of the moves of Horse). I worked on my palm strikes and tried to visualize myself rearing up on hind legs and striking out with my front "hooves". Later, I got into different rhythms and changed up my pace, imagining various gaits of a horse at different speeds. All the while I tried to drive the energy and strength up from the ground, pushing my body upward - while also thinking of pushing/rooting my feet down. Finally, when I was exhausted, I sat down on the grass to stretch. The only thought left in my mind - "Wow. Horses are all legs!"
As silly as my obvious thought was, it has stuck with me every time I have practiced Horse since then (and has elicited smiles from training partners). A horse is all legs! That means that the power of the movement better come from the legs! In fact, for the vast majority of Xinyi movements I find myself telling students my take on a beginner's mantra that my teachers taught me: "The power comes up from the legs, spirals through the waist, connects through the back - and is simply delivered by the arms". Almost any move in Xinyi should be "all legs" (or 70-80% legs as a Xinyi teacher once told me - which is particularly funny to me because years later my tea teacher taught me about "70-80%" in a different way - see "Day 10" below) - at least to the extent that the legs are driving the power.
Not to stay too "muscle level" [I will get into levels of practice in future posts - muscle, bone, energy, etc.], but on a very basic level I will ask students questions like: "How much could your arm curl versus how much could you squat?" "Or, if you were moving a couch at home would you use your arms or legs to do the job?" Sometimes, I'll think back to my physical education teacher's (oh "Schram!" - you were a pretty great teacher...) yelled words of wisdom when he was first teaching us young teens how to lift weights - "LIFT WITH YOUR LEGS, NOT YOUR BACKS!!!"
Later, in medical rehabilitation school, I learned about the "kinetic chain" and how when we take a step, a whole cascade of physics and physiology starts at the foot and works up to the head. It's one reason people with foot problems can end up with difficulties/dysfunction/pain as far away as their hips, lower back, or even neck and head! It's also why those who work with horses are so obsessed with keeping a horse's hooves healthy. It all comes up from the feet - and the feet are (obvious again, I know...) the base of the legs.
I also think horses are obviously beautiful animals. I view them as symbols of both freedom and responsibility. The horse itself can be a "wild horse" or it can be linked with a person. Humans shaped horses and horses have then been a part of shaping much of human history. The horse allowed humans to be free to travel much greater distances, much faster - but, owning a horse might also have meant great responsibility in caring for the horse - or even answering to one's master or lord (e.g. think of Samurai in Japan or Knights in medieval Europe). And there are many, many stories of the bond between people and their horses (or is between horses and their people?).
If you've never read The Man Who Listens to Horses by Monty Roberts, I highly recommend it. The book is an engrossing account of how the author observed horse nature and has dedicated much of his life to finding ways to work more humanely with these creatures.
I remember sharing a flight with Xu Guo Ming one time and we got talking, of course, about Xinyi, and animals, and emulating animals, and human-animal interactions, etc. and I started telling him about the Roberts book. As it happened, I had a copy of the book with me at the time and I just handed it to him and told him to keep it. It felt good to be able to give him some small bit of knowledge in return for all the knowledge I had just soaked up (and all the knowledge I tried to soak up but was too saturated by the end to take in!!!) at the seminar with him I had just attended.
It's not true, of course, that horses are all legs. If you read about horse racing and all kinds of lore about horses, one obvious fact becomes clear. Legs are nothing without heart.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 16 - July 1, 2014
I have little doubt there are many reasons that I found myself overweight in my early thirties. The "obesity epidemic" (and the associated "global diabesity epidemic") are not simple. Oh, I have no doubt that people will continue to sell simple answers: "It's not enough exercise!"; "People are lazy!"; "It's a lack of self control!"; "It's corn!"; "It's wheat!"; "It's sugar"; "It's dairy", "It's xenoestrogens leaching out of plastics" etc., etc... [not that each of these aren't likely factors in a strange and complex dance...]
And, for people who are not real grown-ups (i.e. unable to tolerate feeling uncomfortable while sitting with their frontal lobes and inhibiting judgment for more than a few minutes...), these simplistic answers probably make them feel better (i.e. they get rid of that nagging, gnawing suspicion they don't actually have the whole universe figured out and neatly packaged for sale...).
For those willing to go beyond simple answers, I strongly encourage you to check out, for a "simple" example, a multi-layered complexity model of obesity such as this: http://www.shiftn.com/obesity/Full-Map.html
Such a model does not lend itself to easy media sound-bites and crash-diet book sales... Real life is complicated [for some more reflection on that, please see "Day 13" below].
This is not to say that eating less sugar, avoiding processed food, exercising more, addressing the many possible reasons someone might be presenting as "lazy" (calling anyone simply "lazy" is, frankly, pretty "lazy"...), getting more active, strengthening the "muscle" of willpower, avoiding toxins, etc., etc. are not good (and sometimes relatively "simple") steps on the road to better health. It's just that no single factor is the whole answer. And even in a model as fantastically descriptive as the one I admire in the link above - they are undoubtedly missing parts because, as the saying goes, "we don't know what we don't know".
And, full disclosure here, I make my living (i.e. working in mental health) because life is complicated and messy... I will not tolerate someone saying of one of my clients that they are struggling and suffering because they are "lazy" (or some other ignorant attempt to describe a complex human being's life experience and struggles using a few "lazy" words)! And, I am currently doing my Master's of Science in Public Health (with a focus on prevention) because the determinants of health (and disease) are complicated and messy and this never ceases to fascinate me. So, I have limited patience for those selling simple answers.
As a child who suffered a certain level of trauma - and then went on to overcompensate for my fears by finding such role models as a famous Austrian bodybuilder, an (about to be) incarcerated heavy-weight with an ill-fitted voice, a certain French-accented B-movie star, etc., etc.... From about age 13 years-old onward, I just wanted to be "BIG". This led to working out, a lot. And eating, A LOT. And, I eventually got pretty big. I weighed over 200 pounds (all upper body!) by the time I graduated from high school and I carried that weight around with me for the next 15 years. I chose to ignore the love handles when I looked in the mirror and instead focus on the thickness of my arms. I chose clothes that accentuated the thickness of my chest and I neglected my expanding waist circumference.
Not that I was oblivious to the weight I had put on, but I could always rationalize it: The BMI score doesn't apply to me - I am an athlete! That's not unhealthy fat, that's just like the extra layer the gladiators used to carry for additional mass and protective armour! Oh, I'll clean up my diet after New Year's/my birthday/Summer/Thanksgiving/Christmas... And I sometimes I actually lost a bit of weight for a while - and then I put it right back on...
After a few really terrible things happened in my life (both to me and, more importantly, to someone I dearly loved), I found myself in need of a change (change was actually forced upon me - welcome to real life, Sean!). So much of my supposed control over my life was ripped away from me and I found myself stripped down to some basic essentials. I can never thank my friends and family enough for their support during that time (although I still do try to thank them on a regular basis). And as I worked to recreate my life I got back to some basic (limited) truths: I have some control over the habits I establish each day. I have some control over where I put my mental focus - and what fuel I put in my body.
It was at that point that things got "simple" for me. I diligently practiced my Xinyi every day - no longer with the primary mission of being able to defend myself or fight people, but with the mission of fighting for my core values. I started going to the gym regularly again (and swimming and biking and walking and 'yoga'ing') but not with the goal of being huge - but of having fun, feeling good, and staying healthy.
And every time I picked up a piece of food I asked myself, "is this supporting my goals and consistent with my values - or not?" [I was intense about this for the first few months, carefully tracking calories and nutrients to establish a baseline - but since then I settled on a flexible, but sensible, set of healthy eating habits].
In six months, I had dropped 30 pounds. It was as if it just "fell off" of me. Over the next few years I dropped another 10. My weight stabilized and it has not been a factor in my life since. [Apparently this makes me one of the less-than-five-percent "outliers" in the medical literature who manage to lose this much weight and keep it off.]
Have I eaten less sugar? Yup. Do I avoid the vast majority of processed "food"? Yup. Do I benefit from the knowledge of the incredible complexity that is the global diabesity epidemic? I sure do! It has given me hundred of possible intervention points in the system that I can consider, tweak, and work to address, both personally and professionally. I used a lot of strategies to lose weight and I turned each new practice into a habit so that I no longer had to waste willpower on them (I use my willpower for other things like training and studying - although I work to make them aspects of those practices into habits, too).
Complexity models and "messy problems" have completely expanded my worldview such that I work every day to learn more about how to prevent problems, when they are more simple, and much more manageable, in the first place.
Simplicity and complexity go together. Anything complex is likely made up of a simple parts (think atoms for matter, or DNA for life). For me, there were some "simple" changes I needed to make (e.g. "Eat less", etc.). My life needed to change (and much of this change was forced upon me!). I needed to take a good look in the mirror (and not just at my physical shape). And, I needed to ask myself - "What is the real threat?" Because the number one killers of men and women in modern civilization are not violence - they are diseases which we could likely almost completely prevent (e.g. heart disease) or significantly decrease our risk (e.g. preventable communicable diseases, some cancers, most diabetes, etc.) or delay until much later in our lives.
I still consider myself well protected by my martial arts practice. But I definitely didn't need to carry around all that extra armour for so many years! I am sure that at least one reason I did was out of fear. As much as I had studied martial arts, there was still that scared little boy inside trying (in absolute futility) to "never be scared" or "never get hurt" again. Well, living life is going to involve being scared sometimes and getting hurt sometimes. It's all part of a life worth living.
I am somewhat hesitant to add even more factors to the already awesomely complex obesity models I have begun to study - but I wonder if "fear" needs to get on there, or get on there more prominently? Or get on there as a constant background factor - both individually and societally? How much extra adipose-armour are we all carrying around out of stress and fear?
I laugh when I think of fear. It is part of life and it is a necessary part of human existence. I laugh, not because I am never afraid, however, but because I think of the line in one of my favourite Led Zeppelin songs: "I can't quit you baby - but I can put you down for a while..."
I can at least put the armour down for a while. I can at least put a bad habit down for a while. And I feel so much lighter for it. It's like I sometimes tell my clients: "You can spend this session worrying about whatever it is you are worried about... Or, you can simply try to enjoy this activity and have a good time. I assure you, your worries will still be there for you in an hour to worry about again."
I know I have my armour when I need it. I just no longer have to drag it around with me every moment.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 15 - June 30, 2014
Ten Animals - Snake
Of all the "Ten Animals" in Xinyiliuhequan this may be my favourite (shhh! don't tell the other animals I said that! LOL).
I remember Xu Guo Ming demonstrating the difficulty in trying to "fight" a snake: [paraphrased] "You grab its head, the body wraps you and the tail hits you. You grab its tail, the head bites you and body wraps you. You grab its body, the tail hits you and head bites you!"
This can be on the scale of a single limb (e.g. you grab a hand and you end up eating elbows and shoulders); or, it can be for the whole body (e.g. you go for the head and you find yourself in a deep pit of knees and feet).
The different variants of Snake that I have learned all express very different ways of moving, defending, and attacking - but they all are inspired by different aspects of actual snakes (be that "darting out the tongue", "whipping the tail", "coming out of the hole", moving at an angle, keeping the strike hidden, coiling and uncoiling, wrapping, gouging, etc...). These metaphors help ground and focus the movements.
I also just like snakes. I'd advocate for them. If ever an animal has gotten a bad rap, it's this wonderful, prehistoric reptile... From the maligned asp in the "Garden of Eden" to Freud's phallic obsessions - the snake has not often faired well in the dark recesses of human thought. There are likely at least two reasons for this. One, is simply that a (limbless) snake is just so phenomenally "alien" to us as four-limbed creatures. The second, is that we are probably hard-wired to very easily develop phobias of snakes (and some poisonous insects such as spiders, too) [there is a fair bit of scientific evidence for this which I won't go into here].
Of course, snakes used to have legs. Millions of years ago snakes evolved from "lizards" (from one version of whatever lizards were at that time) because it turns out that there was a survival advantage and a host of exploitable ecological niches (sometimes quite literally "niches" in holes in the ground or among tree branches) which conferred a benefit to lizard-progeny that had increasingly shorter legs, among other adaptations, that increased their feeding and mating success. Try wrapping your head around those millions of years of evolution!
As for phobias/(irrational fears)... Well, in nature it is sometimes best to overgeneralize [i.e. it may make sense for an animal to avoid hundreds of non-poisonous snakes because the consequences of not avoiding one poisonous snake could be catastrophic]. Even though not all snakes are harmful or dangerous (in fact they probably generally do an incredible amount of good for their part in complex ecosystems - in terms of controlling populations of insects, rodents, etc.!!!) our evolutionary forebears were probably selected to err on the side of caution [all the more reason that we, as modern humans, should occasionally stop and think before we just do stupid, cowardly, or hurtful things out of fear... but I digress...].
In more modern times, however, we need to be a lot more nuanced in our thinking [e.g. use Reason, Science, Mindfulness, Compassion, etc.]. Although we, too, have a "reptilian" part of our brain - what makes us uniquely human is the rest of the brain that got added on to that (e.g. limbic system, neocortex, etc.). Sometimes the reptilian brain serves us well (e.g. if I were crossing the street and a car came barrelling out of nowhere it would be the reptilian brain firing the first warning signals and driving my first survival responses). But, for 99.999% of my daily life - I would be best to realize that my reptilian brain is quietly "down there" keeping me alive and I should be working hard to be using the much newer parts of my brain to determine the type of life I truly want to live... No one should let the snake (reptilian brain) run the show (interpret that as you will...).
How the metaphor of snake (examined by my neocortex) can also help me in daily life is when I run into a problem and I really stop to think about it. Do I need to charge forward like a Tiger and crush this problem and go over it? Or (much more likely) do I need to stop, be silent, listen, and really "smell" this problem out? Do I need to see if I can simply go around it or under it? Do I need to coil up and breathe for a while? Should I sleep on it? Do I need to lay low for a bit? Do I need to slow down and spend my time digesting this?
It is foolish to ignore our instincts and basic survival needs [e.g. see models such as Maslow's Hierarchy]. We certainly need to stop and listen to the foundations of what our ancient mind-body is telling us. We are animals, after all. But we would be just as foolish to follow our instincts blindly down into darkness without trying to lift ourselves up with higher level thoughts.
I also sometimes like to sit on a hillside and soak up some (but not too much) sun. There is undoubtedly some wisdom expressed in the behaviour of snakes.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 14 - June 29, 2014
"Keep your head up and your chin down"
I do love simple rules (see yesterday's post, however, to see how much I do not like those who grossly oversimplify!). The sort of simple rules that I do like, are more like "guidelines".
In my "non-martial arts life" (although I strive to have martial arts / gong fu informing all aspects of my life...), I work with children. We have a room at work called the "sensory-motor room" and I have three rules/guidelines that a child must be able to repeat back to me, and acknowledge they will try to follow, before I even unlock the door to the room to go inside:
1. No shoes on the mats - because I don't want them to get dirty or ripped
2. If Sean says, "Stop" you have to stop where what you are doing so that we can talk about the activity [e.g. if they are about to jump off of a pile of mats without adequate padding below]. This rule does not mean you are in trouble. It means we need to talk about it. The same rule goes for you - if you feel unsafe for any reason you just need to say "Stop" and Sean will stop and we'll talk and figure out what's going on.
3. We clean up the room when we are done using it - because if you don't I'll be grumpy and I won't want to bring you back here next time
Pretty simple rules, right? And, by and large, these rules have served me, and my clients, very well at work. My colleagues sometimes refer to laying down simple, clear rules as setting "bright lines" (I don't know who originally coined that great term). If a child starts acting unsafely - I just remind her/him of the rules. Ninety-nine percent of the time this brings us back to a safe place. If reminding isn't enough (ahhh those 1% outliers...) - after re-establishing safety we leave the room and there needs to be some serious discussion (with the child and the treatment team) before I'd be bringing the child back there again.
I think of this when I think about one of the most simple guidelines I was ever taught in martial arts:
"Keep your head up and your chin down"
I heard this in Tae Kwon Do. I heard this in boxing. I heard it in videos and I read it in books. I heard this in my exposure to, and practice of, Chinese martials in general - and certainly in Xinyiliuhequan, in particular. [I have heard it often in other meditation/mindfulness practices, too]
When younger, I had a bad habit of looking down when practicing two-person drills (I have had the same problem taking dance lessons with my wife - you'd think I'd trust proprioception to tell me where my feet are without having to look at them, too...). This can throw off a whole move (not to mention get you into a bad spot) - both from an "intention" and "focus" perspective as well as from an "aim" and "ergonomics" perspective! [Note: "Look where you are going!" is another simple rule that applies as much to martial arts as it should to driving and walking...]
Thanks to several diligent, caring teachers (who cared enough to persistently call me out on my bad habit!) and to my own requests of training partners ("please give me crap if you see my head dropping") I have almost completely broken myself of this. The rule is simple enough, but it did take effort to stick to it and, if I "drop my guard", it could return. I don't want it to return when I might actually need the move - so I need to stay on top of it.
So simple, eh?
And then, enter the head strikes (aka "head butts") and takedowns... [Later posts will dwell on the "Seven Fists" of Xinyiliuhequan, but suffice to say we internal Six Harmony types like "using our heads" - mostly to think! - sometimes to smash into somebody (if all else fails or the opportunity presents itself...]. You cannot execute a head strike by simplistically "keeping your head up and your chin down" - it simply isn't possible in all head strike variations (although, of course, in some moves it is...).
But in martial arts practice, as in life in general, I can always strive to keep my head up and my chin down (even when my head is down...). If I am going to deliver a head strike with my head down I still need to be darned alert (i.e. have my "head up" in terms of attention) and I better have intelligently created a safe opening for the strike before I make myself temporarily vulnerable (by using my most important tool for thinking as an overeducated battering ram...).
And sometimes in life, a person simply has to let go of other things (and distractions) around her/him and simply "put his/her head down" and work on that crappy, boring task or face that overdue decision at the bottom of the inbox, or suffer through something that next time would have been better prevented in the first place (if possible).
And sometimes in life, you are going to take one on the chin. No matter how much - and how good of a thing it is to try to keep your neck clean and your chin above the muck of life - sooner-or-later we all have to wade into "it" if we are going to try to "accomplish" anything for the greater good.
And sometimes we are going to get sucker-punched. And sometimes we are simply going to get beaten. And sometimes we are going to have to offer up our chin and take one for the team.
So, always keep your head up and your chin down - except when you shouldn't.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 13 - June 28, 2014
Ten Animals - Tiger
This morning, before heading off to my Saturday morning wood chopping I worked through some variations of "Tiger". [for more on wood chopping as a prototypical traditional martial arts activity see: "The Wood Isn't Going to Chop Itself" http://www.sixharmonyconsulting.com/2013/09/the-wood-isnt-going-to-chop-itself.html].
I have always found Tiger to be one of the more "direct" animals of Xinyiliuhequan, in that there is much focus on going forward and "pouncing" at/on the opponent. [Note: there are also locks, throws, elbows, etc., etc. in the variants of Tiger, but to the outsider in glancing at it, at least, it often looks straightforward...].
The more I have trained (and lived), however, the more I have learned that few things are simple. How many hundreds of times have I heard the line from The Tragically Hip song "Courage"* run through my head (?) - for example when I hear some zealot, or extremist, or fundamentalist, or dogmatist (or even just a pathetic little internet troll) trying to ram their ideology and ignorance down my throat and the throats of others (sigh)...
*[The line I am referring to is: "There's no simple explanation for anything important any of us do."
If you don't know the song - the lyrics are well worth a read, and the song well worth a listen...]
I continue to discover nuances, meanings, movements, and applications within the variations of Tiger I have been privileged to learn and practice over the years... Then, when I have had the chance to teach students these movements - they always come up with some new way of interpreting them and applying them (some that work, which we consider and explore further; some that don't, which we discard!) and their fresh eyes and creativity always amaze me. Then, I learn some new variant of Tiger from another teacher or a related lineage, or style, and not only does the new move further amaze me, but it retroactively informs the moves I supposedly already "knew"! Such is the ongoing refinement and expansion that is the practice of "gong fu".
Not that some things aren't sometimes simple. I saw a documentary years ago (by the amazing National Geographic, I believe) about Siberian tigers. There was a scene in it that positively haunts me. The issues were not simple - i.e. trying to preserve habitat for the tigers, human pressures on the land, human interests conflicting with nature and other humans, PhD scientists studying the tigers, radio tracking collars, etc. etc. etc... At one point, these scientists are trying to find a particular tiger using a helicopter (talk about an ancient animal forged on the anvil of evolution - meeting one of the most incredible inventions of humans in the modern age!). The tiger climbed a huge tree and the helicopter hovered nearby - and you know what happened next? The tiger roared and roared and did its best to attack the helicopter!! This was simple, pure "rage against the machine" if ever I saw it!
The scene brought tears to my eyes. I could feel my heart ache in my chest.
That raw fight-flight-freeze energy of this tiger (in this case fight!) trying to defend itself against a helicopter! Amazing!! And - at exactly the same time - it was an in-your-face image of the modern mechanical-industrial age completely juxtaposed with this ancient, natural animal. A testament of what humans are capable of doing - both to, and for, the natural world.
Anyone who loves nature can appreciate the beauty of that tiger. Anyone who has ever had his/her back to the wall, faced overwhelming (impossible) odds, and somehow survived to tell the story (not necessarily because she/he won, but simply because of endurance, luck, etc.), can relate to that tiger. There is something deep within us that we find, and are left with (while hanging onto that metaphorical tree branch), when we strip away enough of the surface façade.
Do I think that humans should be exactly like tigers? How absurd. Humans should do things like create and fly helicopters to protect tigers!! Humans should use their ingenuity to protect these magnificent creatures and all they represent! Indeed, the best human animals that I know are the ones who care the most. They are integrated, full human beings who are able to sit with both their emotional/animal limbic systems and their thinking/evaluating frontal lobes - with the courage to not yield to snap judgement. They care right to their very core. They care - are kind, are patient, are life-affirming, are compassionate, and are ferociously loving - even in the face of overwhelming odds. They use their human minds for the good of all animals - humans and tigers included.
And guess what, this is always going to be complex and "messy". And there will always be a struggle - not to fall prey to simple answers. We should all be working like ferocious, treed tigers not to be simpleton extremists. Not to be so physically, emotionally, and intellectually lazy as to think we have the one right answer.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 12 - June 27, 2014
If you can't say something nice...
Near the end of my "gong fu cha" / "cha dao" (art of Chinese tea service) lessons in Shanghai in 2003, Teacher Zhang invited some students to her apartment. I felt privileged to be invited and jumped at the chance to meet some of the more experienced students. She met a couple of us, including the lady who had been translating during my lessons the past months, at our subway stop, and then guided us to her place. My translator ended up dropping behind to talk with another student and I stayed at the front walking with Teacher Zhang. My Chinese was always a challenge, even nearing the end of that time in China, and I realized I was not going to be able to carry on a meaningful conversation with Teacher Zhang after we had exchanged the basic pleasantries.
Besides which, this little lady who was considerably shorter than I am (and half my weight, if that) walked with a purpose. She moved quickly! I found myself, as was often the case, just trying to survive on the sidewalk - dodging countless other pedestrians, garbage, bicycles, scooters, motorcycles (!), street vendors, spittle, loose tiles, etc... [Walking in Shanghai was often a challenge - something I will describe further in a future post!]
As the walk got longer and longer (and hotter and hotter) I found myself getting grumpy. Why should I have to dodge motorcycles on the sidewalk? Why should I have to dodge hot grills covered in disgusting-looking (to my eyes) charred meats? Why do people have to spit on the sidewalk everywhere!? I watched my mind getting more and more wound up and I just wanted to say "something" to Teacher Zhang. I wanted to express my frustration and just say something like, "How, as a refined teacher of tea and meditation can you possible stand all this noise, stink, and annoyance!?!?"
But, thanks to the language barrier between us (and my focus on both navigating the perils of the sidewalk and trying to keep up with her...) I couldn't say a damned thing. So I just walked and watched my teacher.
And, after walking and watching (and shutting up) for a good twenty minutes or so, I started to actually see something. My teacher was not miserable. She was not annoyed. She deftly dodged the meat sellers and their hot grills. She effortlessly zig-zagged between fellow pedestrians. She along on the curb or took the straight line when it was the most sensible thing to do. She was smiling the whole time.
The second twenty minutes of the walk, I just relaxed and learned a thing or two. I was so grateful for the so-called language barrier. I had to just shut up and I am so glad I did not (lucky I could not!) say anything that first came to my mind.
Years later, when I visited her in 2008, I told her my story of that walk. She smiled.
After a few visits and some advanced tea lessons, she gave me a parting gift - a small, empty cut-open section of bamboo (it had once held some aged tea) [see photo above]. She explained its meaning for me: The thing that makes bamboo strong and useful is that it has both substance and emptiness. The thing that makes a teacup useful is that it has an empty space that can be filled with tea. The reason that Chinese people traditionally accept gifts/business cards/etc. with both hands simultaneously is to physically demonstrate that they are mentally open to accepting something you are offering.
I accepted her gift with two open hands.
To this day I still say a lot of things I probably shouldn't, but I am still learning - and I am still open to learning. And, I am definitely grateful. Whether it was a lesson from my tea teacher or my kindergarten teacher -- if I can't say something nice...
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 11 - June 26, 2014
Ten Animals - Rooster
Okay, I have to admit that of all the Ten Animals in Xinyiliuhequan, trying to explain to people in casual conversation that "Rooster" is one of them always feels a bit weird!
"Yeah, it's a martial art based on Six Harmonies, Five Elements, Seven Fists, and Ten Animals. There are movements based on Eagle, Bear, Tiger, Hawk, Horse, Monkey, Snake, Swallow, Dragon - and, er, um Chicken..." LOL
Most people can at least initially wrap their heads around the other animals and why they might have characteristics worth emulating for a martial artist (power, speed, etc.). But Rooster? Really?
In fact, "Rooster Stepping" is one of the most important foundational ways of moving in Xinyi. It is a very deliberate way of training footwork such that the bodyweight rolls steadfastly forward, turning at the waist, with the foot very deliberately landing heel first and rooting firmly - before pushing off powerfully, yet balanced, for the next step.
This is also sometimes called "Poison Snake Stepping" (One image conjured being that of stepping down on a poisonous snake and being sure to squeeze and hold it so it can't get free and bite you! The other aspect being that of your foot darting forward [like the poisonous snake itself] with each step and both hitting your opponent in the shin and then pinning their foot to floor in order to make them "double weighted" before knocking them over).
Back in my university days (although with my Master's on the go these days never seem to end...), I used to practice my Rooster Stepping on a grassy ridge/embankment overlooking Pembina Highway near my old apartment in Winnipeg. More evenings than not, I would walk the length of this ridge (maybe 40 or 50 meters long) back-and-forth, back-and-forth plodding along. Each lap (one length left side leading, other length right side leading) I would focus on one aspect of the movement...
One lap, imagine kicking opponent's shin. One lap, be sure to "clean the face" as the hand comes up. One lap, look through "the tiger's mouth" (space between the index finger and thumb). One lap, focus on the circle drawn by top hand. One lap, focus on the circle drawn by bottom hand. One lap, focus on the lower hand as driving an imaginary spear. One lap, imagine the top arm becoming a shield. One lap, pull opponent over the knee. One lap, drive the knee into the opponent's groin. One lap, think closing. One lap, think expanding. One lap, keep head upright. One lap, feet driving into the ground. One lap, heavy. One lap, light. One lap, super-slow. One lap, super-fast... And on and on and on; night after night.
Well, one time when I was teaching my regular Xinyi class in St. James - "it" just happened. I always demonstrated to students when doing applications when and how they could trip up their opponent with "Poison Snake Stepping", but "it" was always very deliberate and intentional and required effort on my part. That night, however, every time I moved, there I was - tripping them up. If I demonstrated a move, I would step on their feet (only with the ball of my foot - the heel roots into the ground). Every time I practiced a two-person drill, I was stepping on their feet. Even when my teaching time was over and I was doing push-hands with fellow Tai Chi students, there I was, stepping on their feet and tripping them up. From that class on, I was always Poison Snake Stepping. It was as if it had taken all those months and years to shape itself into my cerebellum until eventually it just clicked in to place.
It was a very cool feeling. One of those first times I really felt that something I had just diligently practiced over and over again so mindfully, and applied so diligently in training - suddenly manifested very automatically and practically. [I actually had to become more mindful of it again, because sometimes new students attended in sandals (not realizing we always train with shoes on in Xinyi - and most Chinese martial arts) and I'd be stepping on their bare toes showing them moves unless I was mindful not to (!).]
The other aspect of "Rooster", more generally, that I have always respected is their ferocity. This little bird will protect its territory and its family at all costs. Although I have no desire to ever see a real cock-fight, I have read about them and I have no doubt that the reason people have attended them is because Roosters are, perhaps surprisingly, really able to fight if they have to [or unfortunately, if they are forced to]. There is a real courage to animal like that. Nothing "chicken" about that. :)
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 10 - June 25, 2014
"Seventy to eighty percent"
After a very busy, intense start to my work week (including helping to de-escalate a fairly high stress situation yesterday), I find myself feeling somewhat tired mid-week and I have some sore muscles today. I have also been plugging away at my "100 Days" early morning training diligently - not to mention other training and life as usual. It all adds up.
Of course, "stress" is what helps us to grow. We have to stress our muscles to make them stronger. We have to be willing to tolerate some mental discomfort to learn new things. We have to learn to manage our feelings to be functional, self-regulated human beings. And, we sometimes have to sit/stay with/tolerate unresolved conflicts and disparate/conflicting/paradoxical concepts in order to truly be adults (no, just being of legal drinking age does not make someone a real adult...).
Stress is only a problem when it is either so acute and overpowering that our ability to cope in-the-moment is overwhelmed - or, when it is unrelenting and chronic and it gradually wears us down.
I highly recommend the National Geographic special, Stress: Portrait of a Killer. It outlines the findings of several researchers exploring links between stress and health. Of particular note, the film describes some of the work of Professor Robert Sapolsky, who has done extensive field research regarding stress in animals in nature. I also highly recommend Sapolsky's books such as Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and Monkeyluv (he has written other books, too, but these are the two I have read so far).
How do I incorporate my knowledge of stress into my Xinyi practice (and much of what I have done for a living for the past 13 years is try to help people manage their stress, too)?
Well, for one I acknowledge it! When I was younger I used to train at 100% (or as close to that as I could muster) every time I attended a class or trained on my own. I figured it was the only way to keep getting better... Turns out it is also a great way to get hurt or burn out! I was lucky that my passion for martial arts never got extinguished and I escaped too many serious injuries. But a lot of that was luck (and youth!).
Then, I had the opportunity to add a second "gong fu" practice to my life. This was learning the Chinese tea way of tea (i.e. "gong fu cha" / "cha dao"). At one of my first lessons Zhang Laoshi (Teacher Zhang) asked me to tell her a about my Xinyi practice and why I love doing Xinyi. I explained a little bit and then she used it to try to explain to me how to serve tea. Her lesson that day was simple - every tea service has a start, a middle, and an end.
The start is about "warming up" (e.g. the tea, the teapot, the guests, etc.), the middle is about serving and drinking the tea (and the many ways this can be appreciated). And, the end is about winding down the process and providing closure.
"You wouldn't train without warming up first and then closing at the end, would you?"
Then, Teacher Zhang put a teacup in front of me and filled it right to the very top so that it was overflowing.
"How useful is a tea cup filled right to the top?" she asked.
I thought about it for a minute and then realized that it was useless, as I wouldn't even be able to pick it up without spilling it.
She looked at me very seriously and then said, "When you serve tea, fill the teacup between seventy to eighty percent full... Everything in your life -- seventy to eighty percent!"
Now, I wish I could say I have never overdone things since that lesson (I certainly have), but that makes her lesson no less true.
If I drive my car at 120 km/hour it feels like I will get "there" a lot faster (wherever the hell it is we are all in a rush to go...). And, if I drive it at 100 km/hour is seems a lot slower (especially when I lived on the prairies...). But, the fact is, driving at 100 km/hour means a lot less stress! I still get "there" [unlike in gong fu where there really is no end goal!], but I do it with significantly less wear-and-tear on my car, better fuel efficiency, better chances of being able to avoid and accident, less stress to my passengers and other drivers, and with no risk of a speeding ticket!
We live in a world which seems to worship at the alter of speed and power. These are not inherently bad things, but we can still get "there" by simply doing a little bit each day to add to our capacity and holding a little bit in reserve for emergencies. "Everything in life seventy to eighty percent" does not mean a life without stress - it means striving towards our goals in a much more healthy way.
So, tonight while training I will lean towards "seventy percent" so that I can maintain my current training, add a little bit to my training, and tomorrow go on training day after day for a lifetime - for as long as I am lucky enough to be able to do so.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 9 - June 24, 2014
Ten Animals - Bear
Bear and Eagle are, in some ways, the "Yin" and "Yang" of the Ten Animals. Eagle is sometimes referred to as the "mother" of the five "small" animals, and Bear as the "mother" of the five "large" animals.
While Eagle is all about expanding into something light and huge and then compressing down into something small and sharp - Bear is all about heaviness. The legs push the feet down into the earth to generate power, the waist turns to channel the power, the lats close and the triceps extend to direct that power forward and downward - and the hand (i.e. "bear palm") is there simply to deliver the power.
Even in the "bear palm" (the hand itself) part of the move there are (at least) three distinct parts: closing into a "Yin" fist that protects the face; transitioning through a Yin-Yang spear hand that can chase forwards; and, then opening up into a fully "Yang" palm strike that closes the whole front of the body as it hits (heaviness of the feet ideally fully connected to the heaviness in the hands - alla "Six Harmony" hand-foot combination arriving at the same time).
I remember the first time I saw Master Xu Guo Ming (aka Master George Xu) demonstrate the "bear palm" strike and it left an impression seared into my memory. We were milling around waiting for him to start the seminar when suddenly he just said, "Okay, time to start" and then "Thwap!!" he unleashed one variant of it (where the palm hits the web of the back of the other hand). We pretty much all snapped to attention and I realized - if that I had been used to hit me, I would not have gotten up!
I have always loved bears (early exposure to Winnie-the-Pooh, perhaps?) and I remember running into them a few times in my youth. Once, while on a family hike (I must have been about 7, or so), it was me that looked back on the diversion damn we were walking along and then I said to my parents - "There is a mother bear with three cubs behind us". In the distance, there they were, trundling along. We got out of there pretty quickly!
Another time, as a teenager, I was out for an evening bike ride on the edge of my hometown when out from the woods came an adolescent-sized bear directly perpendicular to my path. As we converged - I slammed on my brakes which squealed loudly. The sound that also sticks with me to this day, however, was the claws of the bear clattering on the pavement as it tried to avert the collison, too. The frightened bear was so desperately trying to stop it looked almost like a cartoon of a bear running on the spot... We both froze for a split second - looking directly at each other from no more than six feet apart. And then, as time sped up again, the next thing I knew I was pedalling off at ninety degrees from while I had finished my skid and the bear was doing the same in the opposite ninety!
As I have argued before - no one ever has to use martial arts to hurt someone. Not ever. That said, we all have the right to defend ourselves (or our family, or country, etc.) if we choose to do so in a time of need. In those extremely rare (for most of us) circumstances that is the time to access our inner "momma bears". That is the time when we should be able to access our animal nature (and lots of people can learn to do that even without necessarily having formal martial arts training - see such works as Gavin de Becker's, Protecting the Gift). And, in the name of real world self-defence, that may mean using violence, but it may also (or more likely!) mean accessing our adolescent bear instincts, too, and that means picking the right angle and running like hell until we are safe!
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 8 - June 23, 2014
I had originally planned to write about the next of the "Ten Animals" of Xinyiliuhequan tonight... I realize, however, that I want to briefly mark my birthday - so I will return to the animals in tomorrow's post.
I did my birthday celebrating on the weekend (as today I had to go to work all then and then also attend a prenatal class with my wife tonight - she took me out for dinner in-between at least!). After a busy weekend, I must admit - I was feeling older than usual this Monday morning... I did drag myself out of bed in time to do my morning training, though...
I remember during one of my lessons with Yu Hua Long in 2003, when he was showing me a particularly challenging, and low, posture. I could literally hear his joints creaking as he went down into a posture (at 70+ years old!) much lower than I could go (and I was in my late 20's at the time!).
It was just incredible to see what he could still do and what he so wanted to show me to the best of his ability. Incredible... I told him it was incredible. And then, I remember he came up out of the posture and said through my friend, Sam, who was translating the session - "This is nothing. You should have seen me back when I was 50!"
I also remembered one of the first times I got to train with Yu Hua Long years earlier and he told those of us assembled (paraphrased): "Your love of Xinyi and your desire to learn this art and carry it on has added at least an decade to my life!"
I will always remember those wonderful moments - and many others. I always knew that Xinyi could be a life-long pursuit, but it was then that I really got a taste and feel for what that actually meant. This man was no longer fighting, no longer motivated by being the toughest or the fastest or whatever motivates us as young martial artists (for better or for worse...). He was still practicing out of love for his practice and a love of sharing it.
Inspiring. And even now that he is "gone" - he is definitely not forgotten and the memories of him and the Xinyiliuhequan he practiced and taught will continue to inspire into the future. Someday, hopefully, my own child will even want to learn some Xinyi from "the old man" (and that old man will be me...).
So, I hope I have many years to go on practicing and trying to share. And, I hope that I am still practicing Xinyi one way or another into my 70's - creaking joints and all!
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 7 - June 22, 2014
Ten Animals - Eagle
I love that, at its heart, Xinyiliuhequan is about emulating animals. I think there is so much to this idea... Historically (prehistorically?), the most ancient of martial arts must have been at least partial derived from someone watching another (nonhuman) animal catch its prey, or evade a predator and then thinking something as simple as: "Whoa! That was incredible. I wish I could do that!"
Humans have certainly done a lot of damage to the natural world (and unfortunately continue to do so...), but there is a part within the human psyche, I think, that feels deeply troubled by this and is trying to do better. At our core, we are, of course - animals (!). We must have some sort of innate understanding of that (as much as we may sometimes willingly ignore it in the name of profit...) and some "natural" affiliation and affinity for the natural world.
Even as we enter the post-post-(post?)-modern age there are some who believe our only viable way forward is to return to looking to nature for inspiration. This doesn't mean looking back and going backwards! It means looking at nature and trying to copy the way nature has solved problems (only make products out of materials that nature can recycle, for example...) - using human ingenuity to piggyback upon millions upon millions of years of evolutionary problem-solving... [I do recommend that people interested in learning more about these ideas consider reading something like Janine Benyus`s excellent book, Biomimicry]
And Xinyiliuhequan practitioners have been exploring this emulation of nature for hundreds of years. They have been passing down their interpretations of nature and animals. The movements that worked evolved and lasted. Combat selected out the movements that did not work...
When I practice any of the several variations of "Eagle" forms that I know, I am not completely trying to be an eagle (that's the eagle's job, not mine - I am best at being an adaptable human, thank you very much!). What I am trying to do, however, is copy and apply, to the very best of my ability, the "naturalness" by which an eagle does its "eagleness". So, when I practice a movement like "eagle claw" I imagine my fingers like talons seizing prey. When I practice "heavy chop" I imagine the sides of my body opening and closing to drive my arms (instead of trying to use the relatively less powerful muscles in my shoulders and arms) - and I allow my weight to "drop" down the way an eagle falls from the sky (because getting hit by a hand driven by the entire momentum of human's falling mass is much more devastating than getting hit by a hand thrown by an arm alone) ...
An eagle does not see its prey and then flap its wings repeatedly to get to the ground. An eagle is open and expanded and light - and then closes and contracts and becomes heavy - diving for its prey by changing shape and then letting gravity do the hard work.
I still remember the first I really felt this in my training after having watched some birds of prey while out canoeing. "Don't flap towards the ground" I kept telling myself. "Just let the weight drop and aim to have everything (i.e. the Six Harmonies) all arrive at once. It completely changed the move. My feet were rooted into the ground and all of the mass collapsed in on one point under the knife edge of my hand. I don't necessarily have those moments all the time when I train - but I certainly have them much more consistently when I keep doing my best to keep the movements informed by their original inspiration - nature itself. I even might try to imagine the pin-point focus of an eagle when doing the movement. I even might imagine what it would be like to temporarily soar above the mundane world below.
And, outside of my formal Xinyi "practice time" - I want the benefit of imagining an eagle when I am approaching other problems besides martial ones. When I am sitting in my office grappling with a messy human dilemma, I know I need to "get some distance from the problem", "try to get above it", "look at it from a different angle", etc., etc... All of this "wisdom" I can aspire to learn (borrow?) by allowing my imagination to wonder - "How could I approach this situation in a more eagle-like manner?" Often, the "more-eagle-like-manner" provides a needed counterpoint to the very-frustrated-human-manner in which I may be stuck and grounded!
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 6 - June 21, 2014
So, I have spent the previous five days putting forward a grand vision for the next ninety-five... I have tried to share some of my thoughts and reflections on the basics of the name of the traditional martial art of "Xinyiliuhequan". I have tossed in a bit of Chinese language and alluded to concepts like "Chi/Qi".
I love doing Xinyi - and therefore I am the sort of person who is often happy to immerse myself in the unending details of such a practice. That is part of "gong fu" - continuing to push-and-push on a practice from all directions. To pack and unpack the various treasure within it. To try to look at it from various angles with various lenses. This sort of obsessive intensity is something I would recommend to all people towards something they find important in their lives - be that martial arts or their profession, parenthood, volunteering, a hobby, activism, etc...
What I have also been learning over the years is that this is absolutely unnecessary for the vast majority of tasks day-to-day! The same obsessiveness and perfectionism that helps someone hone one area of their life can completely dull and hamper them in other areas. It can literally stop them from even trying new things!
Doing a few things really well is like developing a straight keel to stay upright and balanced in stormy seas. Letting those practices you have developed to that depth keep you stable as you steer through all kinds of other activities and adventures - means that you still have your hands, however, on the rudder. Trying to only do things one is striving to master - or trying to master everything - however, is like trying to sail with a dropped anchor!
While I have chosen to give up a good deal of my time, energy, and resources to pursue practicing Xinyi - other people do not have to do this to benefit from practicing it. For example, I do not understand everything about my car - but I still love driving it and I know enough about taking care of it to realize that I shouldn't even try to master this!! I can drive to work and for groceries. I can drive as safely as I can. And, I can take my car to mechanics who are experts at maintaining and fixing it! Just because I am not "striving for mastery" of cars does not mean I cannot use my car to get places.
I would encourage anyone who is considering approaching any learning opportunity to keep this in mind. The spring or well of a practice such as Xinyiliuhequan is very, very deep. But you don't have to even consider the bottom of it to drink from it and find it refreshing and sustaining! In my own practice, day-to-day, I don't worry about "internal energy" or "spiritual level practice" or any other things of the sort. I think it is great these concepts exist (and I can reflect upon them when I am looking for inspiration), but I am really much more concerned with my personal energy level, keeping fit, maintaining my mental wellness and physical strength - and having fun!
So, I try following the advice of a rehabilitation assistant I worked with years ago - when he looked at me (the so-called rehabilitation professional) and then brought me back down to earth with a smile and these words: "Keep it simple, Sean". ;)
Will do. Train. Eat, work, love, sleep - and live life as kindly as you can.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 5 - June 20, 2014
"Quan" - Hand/Fist/Boxing
While I practice Xinyiliuhequan for a variety of reasons (99% of which have nothing to do with actual physical combat) - I never forget that this is "martial" arts. Never.
Back in 1996, I attended a Tai Chi class (I shall not name the style of Tai Chi or the location of the class) where all the martial aspects of the art had been stripped from it. Actually, "stripped" does not do justice to the problem - as the metaphor makes it sound like they took off the martial arts from the surface, and something great still resided within. This was not the case. [note: I am referring to one specific Tai Chi group - I have since practiced some excellent Tai Chi that was/is very in tune with its martial essentials].
It would be more accurate to say this particular group had "deboned" the Tai Chi they were practicing... They literally ripped out its internal structure - to the point that although to the untrained eye it appeared that people were practicing "Tai Chi" - they were, in fact, just doing some sort of "waving of their arms" with their skin and meat, while they actually abused their tendons and bones. They were doing a huge disservice (if not actually risking injury) to their students by teaching them such rubbish.
When you practice a martial art - and you are constantly aware you are practicing a martial art - then you are rooted in strength. You should then know that every movement you make has a purpose and that at any given moment in your practice if you were to be struck you would be trying to be in a position to remain as aligned and safe as possible. It is this body awareness (not to mention mental awareness) which comes from the "martial" part of "martial arts" - which then leads to a healthy practice.
When the "martial" is discarded - then form, posture, awareness, structure, intention, etc. - all become meaningless... Why not bend a little more forward at the waist? Why not let your knees go way past your toes? Why not just hyperextend that punch? Why not close your eyes while you practice and just go with the flow? In fact, it no longer really matters where your body is at all anymore, or what it is doing - because reality no longer really matters... Perhaps gravity no longer has an effect on you as you magically float through meaningless forms, in completely unnatural positions, with horrible ergonomics...
I don't want to knock other martial arts or martial artists, but there are two extremes (and their extremist adherents) for which I have little time or patience. The first are those who say that "martial arts" is all about, and only about, "fighting". These people have no knowledge of history, no respect for tradition and culture, and no understanding of the deeper value of martial arts (besides that fact that even "fighting", "combat", "self defence", etc. are actually all different things...).
Unfortunately, the opposite extreme is also a disaster waiting to happen (although these people are, for the most part, somewhat less aggressive and dangerous towards others). This second group claims that "martial arts" can still be martial arts without "martial"!? Saying that martial arts have nothing to do with fighting means that forms and traditions can just be thrown in the garbage - and one just does "whatever one feels like"...
No one ever has to use a martial art to hurt anyone - ever. That said, if you don't know where the moves you are practicing came from, what they can be used for, and why they need to be practiced within certain natural physical parameters - then you are not practicing a martial art. Whatever you might then be practicing is your right to do so - but don't call it martial arts. There is a reason that Hand/Fist/Boxing is part of the name of arts like Xinyiliuhequan - and that is because they are about practicing, working hard, and trying to "wrestle with" and "grasp" the traditional teachings. Martial arts is an awesome ride - but you have to "hold on" to some applications - not to mention the realities from which these practices were derived!
Now, the fact that so much learning slips through my fingers, and is beyond my grasp, are other issues entirely...
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 4 - June 19, 2014
"He" - Harmony
As discussed in yesterday's post, the "Six Harmonies" refers to ways of combining "internal" and "external" in Xinyiliuhequan. More generally, I have just come to love the word "harmony" over the years, likely from referring to "Xinyiliuhequan" as "Six Harmony" (a form of verbal short-hand) when I talk about the martial art I practice. Something about hearing the word "harmony" over and over again has made me love the sound of it.
I also aspire to living a life "in harmony" - within myself, with those around me, and with the world at large. Lofty ideals - seldom realized - but worth striving towards regardless!
The idea of "Harmony" in connecting disparate aspects of humanity and nature is a long-standing one in Chinese philosophy (see: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/3913-chinese-character-for-harmony-he-%E5%92%8C/)
As it turns out, I am also far from alone in my love of these concepts and the Chinese character "He". As this article describes (http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2010/10/15/the-most-chinese-chinese-character/) it is apparently, perhaps, "The Most 'Chinese" Chinese Character" (!).
One of the harmonies that I am most interested in is that between "East" and "West". I do not agree with Kipling (who said that East and West would not meet...) and I think that at least striving to find and build positive, genuine, human connections between East and West (and North and South, etc., etc...) is exactly what we need to be doing more of in the world.
To bring this all back to my own life - I have been enjoying my training each morning. I am blessed to live in modern Canada and practice an ancient Chinese art. I don't claim to have the answers - but something just "feels right" within me when I train.
I put on Mozart and trained this morning (I have been listening to his masterpiece "Haydn Quartets" as the soundtrack for my first six days of morning "Six Harmony"). There is something extraordinary for me about listening to one great master while remembering (both mentally and physically), and trying to honour the legacy of, my own great master. I feel connected and I feel "in harmony" with the past, focused in-the-moment, and optimistic for the future. Am I connecting and harmonizing the world with my morning practice? No. Am I starting with strengthening the connections and sense of harmony within myself? Yes. Am I always happy to find others with whom to share and connect, too? Indeed.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 3 - June 18, 2014
"Liu" - Six
Six is one of several numbers which Xinyiliuhequan practitioners consider important. There are others such as the "Seven Fists", "Five Elements", "Ten Animals", etc. (which I will touch upon in future posts), but as "Six" is right in the name of the martial art - it would be logical to say it has some importance!
The six is referring to the "Six Harmonies" or "Six Combinations" (Liu He). These are sometimes broken down into the "Three Internal Harmonies" and the "Three External Harmonies"
The three internal harmonies are: Courage combined with Intention; Intention combined with Energy (i.e. "Qi" ["Chi"] - which I also plan to discuss in a future post...); and Energy combined with Strength (i.e. "Li" referring to "strength" or, more generally, to the "physical" body).
While this may sound excessively esoteric, I have always referred to it simply as such: "Your heart and mind and body are directed towards your target or goal" (this is the essence, it seems to me, of any "mind-body-spirit practice - be that martial arts or otherwise).
The Three Internal Harmonies can be further examined and discussed in other, more complex, ways (for better or for worse), but that is my best description of one of the most basic things that makes Xinyiliuhequan an "Internal" martial art (akin to, for example, Taiji [Tai Chi] or Ba Gua or Liu He Ba Fa).
The three external harmonies are, in brief: Hands combine with Feet; Elbows combine with Knees; Shoulders combine with Hips.
Of course, this too can (and does) get further complicated and expounded upon, both from a theoretical perspective and in the execution and application of actual movements/forms... That all said, I will, again, try to distill this down to what I tell students when we first start training together: "If your hand is moving, your foot is moving. If your elbow is moving, your knee is moving, if your shoulder is moving, your hip is moving. Not only are they moving together, but the intention is that they are arriving (or striking) together. Not only are all these individual parts moving and striking together - but they are all combined as one so that the whole body moves as one and arrives as one connected strike."
Learning any martial art is about learning to think, move, behave and react in new ways and new combinations. Although Xinyiliuhequan has many esoteric and complex lenses to look at (and methods with which to train and focus) courage, intention, energy, and the body - when these are operating "in harmony" it becomes, again, very simple.
To return to this simplicity - although there may be six harmonies (three internal, three external) the goal is to combine them as one.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 2 - June 17, 2014
"Yi" - Intention/Will
Master Xu Guo Ming (aka Master George Xu) once told a great story at a seminar I attended years ago (actually he told lots of great stories!). He described training with one of his own masters and being repeatedly humbled. Even after years of training, Master Xu was being uprooted seemingly at will by his own master (!). Finally, quite frustrated, he demanded to know how he was being moved about so easily by the older, smaller martial artist.
His master's answer was simple [my paraphrasing]: "You have trained for many years and your energy (chi/qi) is big and strong. You are like a giant tractor tire and most people bounce off of you, or you can run them over... But over the years since, I have further taken all my energy and honed it and concentrated it. Now, it is like a needle. That is how I can still overcome you."
Although the heart and courage provide the raw energy and material of a martial artist, this is useless (i.e. "not being used") unless channelled in a specific direction. That is part of why I am trying to refocus my efforts and intentions during this 100 Days. In Xinyi there are many movements, techniques, and forms. What matters most, however, is setting your mind to the grindstone (and your nose - and your whole body!) and practicing over and over again. Some of the most famous Xinyi masters in history didn't even know too many moves - but they practiced them countless times until they had the heart and will to fully apply them when necessary.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 1 - June 16, 2014
"Xin" - Heart-Mind
The study of Xinyiliuhequan (or the study of anything worth studying for that matter) starts with heart. It starts with courage. Grandmaster Yu Hua Long once told us that we are, first and foremost, training our courage. We need courage to accomplish anything as martial artists, let alone as fully realized human beings. We need courage to start something. We need courage to stick with it and see it through...
As Napoleon is supposed to have once said [translated]: "Courage isn't having the strength to go on, it is going on when you don't have the strength."
In my fairly comfortable life (most days at least!) I don't require a great deal of strength to "go on"... I have a good job where I get to help people. I have a lovely wife and a baby on the way. I am generally a fairly happy person.
There are times I have been sorely tested, however. In 2007, my life (and more importantly the life of someone I loved dearly) underwent terrifying, exhausting, prolonged, and somewhat devastating stress. Over the course of that year I felt myself pushed to my limits - to the very edge of what I thought I could witness, experience, and survive. And then, repeatedly, when I thought I could tolerate no more shocks and no more horror - that edge would get moved and I would get pushed again and again and again.... By the end of that year I felt I had been scraped right against the farthest edge of my edge.
I am not entirely sure how I recovered from that year - but a big part of it was getting up each morning and doing my Xinyi practice every day in 2008. I was not training for fitness or self-defence that year - I was training simply to keep myself going and to rebuild myself. I had been doing Xinyi for about a decade at the point - and never had I needed it more. Never had I been so grateful, deep down in my heart, for such a sustaining practice.
So today, (like most days of my life) when life seems good and (relatively) easy, I still train. Because there will always be challenges to overcome. Practicing "gong fu" is like putting money in a rainy day fund - with the advantage that training itself pays dividends each day.
So today, as I light-heartedly started on a fresh "100 Day" Xinyi journey, it was almost not surprising that the plumbing in my home sprung a leak tonight - and I had to spend several hours cleaning up the mess and dealing with some stress! It is like the old expression - "If you prey for strength, God will send you challenges to strengthen you."
Hunched over in my crawlspace, soaking up water for several hours to protect my home, trying to be helpful and strong for my pregnant wife - I was reminded of at least a few reasons why I do Xinyi in the first place... What comes first is courage and the strength to go on - even for relatively banal tasks such as the cleaning-up-messes variety.
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting
Day 0 - June 15, 2014
Putting my boots on...
This is not to say that one is an "expert" after 100 days, but simply to say that with reasonably good instruction combined with regular, daily practice - enough of the art can be "internalized" to actually really start playing with it! [Note: Xinyi is, of course, a form of "gong fu" and therefore it can be a truly lifelong practice for improvement and an ongoing source of inspiration.]
What I personally like about the "100 Days" idea is simply setting some goals and going after them for a manageable chunk of time. I have always enjoyed the idea of personal experimentation (alla AJ Jacobs My Life as an Experiment). For me, this probably dates back to the first time I saw The Karate Kid (yes, the Karate Kid...) and was spellbound by the simple idea that mindfully "painting the fence" every day could result in gradually getting better and better at something... This is what led me to martial arts -- and to gong fu (in terms of both wushu and cha dao) as a way of approaching the art of life (both its joys and struggles).
I also like the container of 100 days because in my professional life people often talk about "SMART" goals (Simple, Manageable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Limited - there are different variants of this acronym). If someone says, "I am going to practice every day forever" it is simply too much for the teeth of true/messy human nature to actually bite off and chew. But, if someone says, "I am going to do 'X' [insert personally meaningful activity here] for the next 100 days - that is a challenge that is difficult enough to be a intriguing, yet possible enough to still get moving on.
I visualize the next 100 days as an opportunity to focus some extra effort on my personal growth, my Xinyi training, and trying to find students with whom to share and practice this beautiful art.
I just finished a couple of exams and I don't have any school commitments this summer. My wife and I have our first baby due in October. The next 100 days are going to be busy, no doubt, with work and all the regular commitments of life, but I see a window of time before becoming a father when I can set aside a bit of extra time each day to dedicate to my training and personal reflection through this blog.
My goals are pretty simple (I believe in the "KISS" principle - Keep It Simple, Sean" ;) ), yet I believe ambitious enough, for the next 100 Days:
- Practice Xinyi for a minimum of 30 minutes every single day for the next 100 Days (this is aside from other Xinyi training and other general exercise I already do). This will be a challenge as I have never been much of a morning person and it's when I will have to squeeze in much of the extra training...
- Write at least one post (i.e. preferably more succinct than this current one!) on this page every day regarding some reflection on my training and thoughts about Xinyi. These will focus on what I love about Xinyi, what I try to get out of my practice, and how I try to incorporate my Xinyi practice into my daily life.
- Recruit students by telling someone about Xinyi every day. The point of this not to evangelize, but to better establish the habit of "putting myself out there" in terms of letting people know that I am "open for business". I am 39-years-old (next week) and I have been practicing and teaching martial arts for some time now. I don't claim to be any type of "master" - but I do realize that I have something worth sharing. I am looking for people to teach so that I can share what I have been fortunate enough to learn and experience. I want to cultivate training partners with whom to keep learning and developing. I want to have enough students that we always have a core group of members showing up to train. I want a group who can train effectively with each other - as well as regularly welcome new members to a safe, positive learning environment.
All good things to all,
Sean Boulet - Six Harmony Consulting