Runcible Blog

forgot to be angry

I woke up early this morning to the sound of my neighbor's blaring alarm. From what I can tell, he has an iPhone connected to speakers, and he's a heavy sleeper. The alarm went on for at least 5 minutes before he hit snooze. By that time, I was already wide awake and becoming angry at my inconsiderate neighbor. I thought about writing him a note and taping it to his door: "EITHER TURN DOWN THE ALARM OR WAKE UP WHEN IT SOUNDS." First, I'd have to find paper and a marker. I don't have a lot of blank paper in my apartment, and I wouldn't want to use a scrap from a piece of mail that would have my name on it, and besides, he might be distracted by whatever was on the paper and miss my important message on the other side.

Anyway, I decided to look for the paper and write the message after I got ready for work. I showered, dressed, gathered my things for the day, made sure my door was locked, and walked out to my car. As I got to my car, I remembered that I was supposed to write that irate note!

Oh well. I guess being upset about an early wake-up just wasn't worth the energy after all.

zen in martial arts

I recently judged a book by its cover and bought Zen in the Martial Arts by Joe Hyams, thinking it might contain some insight into a particular way of thinking about fighting, and I thought it might be able to put words to the kinds of feelings I've been having in my own practice. Wrong! The book, written in 1979, oozes with a kind of superficial understanding of zen common in America at that time. The instructors quoted in the book all sound like David Carradine from Kung Fu or some caricature of a zen master. The author, a student of Bruce Lee, holds his martial arts masters in high esteem, sometimes to the point of worship. He writes about his experiences struggling to learn techniques and overcome his fear or anger, and invariably, an all-knowing master takes him aside to philosophize and show him the way to the truth. It's amazing that there are so many detailed quotes from these conversations with the masters, but I suppose they're not too hard to remember when they're mostly clichés.

I shouldn't trash the book so much. It's obvious that the author was serious and respectful of all sorts of martial arts and was a curious and dedicated student for many years. But I take issue with the sentiment that puts zen and martial arts up on an exotic pedestal, as if these concepts were precious jewels that only intense masters can ever understand. There are descriptions of almost super-human abilities — a Karate master's miraculous capacity to heal his broken hand by visualizing little construction workers fixing him, a Karate match where the master defeated a burly man only by looking at him intensely and screaming, a Tae Kwon Do man's ability to pummel a metal surface until his hand turned to pulp, Bruce Lee's magical one inch punch. The power of visualization may work wonders for some people, and imagining being somewhere else to distract the mind from pain might just do the trick, but it's not zen. Zen is about being present in this moment, not about fooling the mind or believing that one can fly if only he thinks hard enough.

Those who glorify the exotic aspects of zen and martial arts do a disservice to both because they elevate the ideas far from reality and make them seem unobtainable by us normal American slobs. But it just ain't so! There are tons of books that bolster this misconception, turning zen into an object to purchase and show off. It's all around us: buy the yoga mat and yoga pants to do yoga; buy the zazen pillow to do zazen; buy the karate uniform to do karate. And each time, put on your yoga face to do yoga, your zen face to do zen, and your karate face to do karate. When you get home, put on your T.V. face for the rest of the day. Throw them all out!

Much of the book deals with karate and kung fu, which I mostly have experience with as a viewer of "Karate Kid" and other great classics. But I wonder if the fact that there's such a focus on mastering forms and the seemingly mystical philosophy of "qi" makes it easy for people to become caught up in this delusion where they might start to believe that invisible lightning bolts can shoot out of the eyes or cause an opponent's head to explode just by focusing on it. While reading the book, I was especially skeptical because of the stuff that I've been learning recently about jiu-jitsu, particularly Gracie jiu-jitsu. The Gracie family showed up and demolished seasoned martial artists because their jiu-jitsu is so much more of a science than a ceremony. They started off in bare-knuckle fights in Rio, fighting for their lives, not for points. I think those life and death situations point closer to the truth of zen than a board breaking demonstration does.

So, what is zen in the martial arts? Well, no thanks to this damn book, I still have to figure that out. What I can say so far is that zen is a perfectly-executed roundhouse kick, following through the target and pivoting the standing leg to at least 270º. Zen is also the moment when you completely miss the target, swing around, and fall flat on your face. Zen is about getting thrown to the ground by a 14 year old, and it's about choking a girl, despite her gender, because she will definitely choke you if given the chance. Zen is being mounted by someone twice your size — nowhere and no strength to escape. Zen is breathing. Zen is letting the other guy get tired. Zen is the effortless technique that comes after countless repetitions. But zen is also the lack of progress despite effort, the natural plateau in experience. Zen is a pulled muscle. Zen is the congratulatory smile on your face after your opponent has clobbered you with a flawless arm bar.

Most of all, zen isn't special. But it's the most important thing because it's happening right now. It is this moment. And although the truth may not make for a best selling book, zen in the martial arts is the same as zen in knitting or zen in taking a dump. Be present in the moment, and incinerate yourself in the activity. If you're taking a dump, then just take a dump. If you're escaping from someone's guard, then just escape. If you're punching straight, cross, hook, then just punch straight, cross, and hook. There's no violence or anger in this action because it is only action. Dogen compared compassion to a hand reaching back to adjust a pillow in the night. Zen in the martial arts means employing that same kind of automatic compassion whether you're punching someone in the face or being choked to submission.


That's all I've got so far.


My eyes almost rolled out of my head while watching W. last night. Oliver Stone never fails to deliver the kind of dialog that bludgeons the viewer with his point. In this case, the point is that George Bush is a well-meaning buffoon deluded by a need for fatherly validation and misguided by the idealogues surrounding him. There you go; save yourself the 2 hours.

The script includes a lot of real quotes from the characters (many cut and pasted from here, no doubt), but they're used out of the original context and jammed together in a way that makes me feel that the screenwriter was working off a checklist of items to add an air of "authenticity." Nullifying any sense of reality, however, is the way that plot elements come together so tidily. For instance, I'm not so sure that the decision to invade Iraq happened during one meeting in a dark room, with the key players sitting around a table looking at a big screen displaying a map of the middle east showing American flags surrounding Iraq and Iran. Ah, and who can forget Dick Cheney's monologue about how we'll never leave Iraq because it contains 25% of the world's oil?

One can forgive a certain amount of embellishment and corner-cutting in biopics, but Oliver Stone manages to highlight all of the cringe-worthy elements of the script while stuffing subtlety in the closet for the duration of the film. I should know better than to expect much from his films. There's a saying in Texas: "Fool me once, shame on you... If you fool me, I won't get fooled again!"

Also sprach Dave

What was the first word you spoke today? Do you ever pay attention to that initial bit of wind tickling your vocal cords? Maybe it's more significant than we consider.

After thinking about it recently, I believe my first word is usually "hello." Sometimes I sing when I wake up or during my commute, but more often than not, my mornings are silent until I arrive at work. If I buy breakfast in the cafeteria, I might talk to Mark, who works there. Usually, though, I just say "hello" or "thank you." He says "have a nice day," and I say "you too." But by then, the first words have already passed. If I don't buy food first, then I say hello to whoever is in the office at the time. Most often, it's simply "hello" to start the day.

There are days when the first word doesn't come until late in the afternoon, if at all. That's when I'm most conscious of the first word. I sometimes imagine that my words are just bottled up inside, and that when I finally get around to speaking them, it'll be some kind of epic moment. Or I think that if I don't speak for a long time, the first word will come out cracked and sound alien. I might even forget how to make the sound I intend. But of course, it never happens that way. I say, "vegetarian burrito" or "rigatoni with sauce and cheese" or something similarly mundane. I might pause slightly and think, "hey, my voice still exists! It's the same as before, and nothing impeded its articulation."

It's really quite amazing how seamlessly we are able to transmute the voice of our constantly-buzzing thoughts into a physical manifestation as pressure nodes through air. No wonder speaking becomes such a trivial, mindless effort — when the capacity to excrete thoughts into the physical world arises so naturally, what prevents us from spouting off every half-thought that dribbles through the brain?

Part of the answer is that we need to make sense of the proto-thoughts before they're even able to be communicated. If you try to snatch the typical stream of thoughts in your brain and immediately speak them, they probably sound like gibberish, or at best, tangential and fragmented. We're just so good at congealing the stew of thoughts into communicable packets that we take for granted the computation involved and just how messy the thinking realm is compared to the speaking realm. Speaking is the act of temporarily decreasing the entropy of the mind, and as such, every speech increases the entropy elsewhere: in my mind and in yours, or through the air, knocking some far-off butterfly from its path and setting a typhoon in motion.

Often, the part of my brain that speaks lags behind the rest. I struggle to vocalize the stew of proto-thoughts. Either they seem incapable of ordering correctly, or too many thoughts appear at once. This can be very frustrating, especially when someone else is counting on my ability to communicate. If somebody asks why a program misbehaved, I might understand immediately and intuitively why, but putting the understanding to words takes much more effort. It's like preparing an airplane for landing — you can't just flip all of the switches and cut the engines at once; you've got to be meticulous to transition from the flying world to the ground world. Someone who doesn't practice landing enough is going to have a tough time putting the plane down smoothly, just as someone who speaks infrequently may have trouble expressing his stew of thoughts.

It's important to try not to be frivolous in thought or speech, and even though one's first daily utterance doesn't need to be something profound, I think that being aware of one word can help carry an awareness throughout the day. At the very least, recalling the first word could be an intriguing experiment of self-discovery. Do you wake up and swear at your alarm clock? Do you turn over and greet a lover? What is the intention behind the word? How present are you in that moment the word leaves your lips? That's the key: by being completely present in this one, first word, you might make a difference in someone's life. Then, be present during the next word, and during the next thought. Finally, treat every moment with the same respectful awareness until the effort falls away and the clarity of your speech matches the clarity of your thoughts.

Hey, I might try that!

a whole new world (of hurt)

In my fourth week since starting kickboxing, I decided to experience a new set of aches and pains by learning Jiu-jitsu and grappling. I've been going to the gym almost every day and have gotten used to the ebb and flow of different specific injuries (tendonitis in my foot, blisters and cuts on my feet, strained groin or hip), but wrestling is showing me an exciting and unpredictable level of hurt. Today, my lower back feels like one big bruise, and I'm walking around like I've got a peg-leg.

The range of skills I've been learning outweighs the immediate discomfort, though. In the general grappling class, we do falls, throws, takedowns, and free sparring, while the Jiu-jitsu classes teach specific submissions and footwork. The free sparring is the most exciting and frustrating part for me. As a beginner, I'm usually in a defensive mode where I have to squirm around to prevent the other guy from getting into a dominant position. I've found that I'm reasonably good at defending against people more knowledgeable or slightly bigger than I am, but when it comes time to capitalize on all of that squirming, I don't yet know what to do and end up losing any brief advantage I had. Jiu-jitsu emphasizes using your opponent's force against him, whether that force comes from a strike or from his own joints (most submissions are simply achieved by pulling a limb in an unnatural direction; by aligning it correctly, one needs hardly any force to do serious damage). Similarly, every position or attempted submission has a corresponding escape. Even if someone is sitting on top of you with his weight on your torso — probably the worst place for you to be — there are ways to turn the situation around and end up in a more neutral position. Or if you're being choked and the choker doesn't have quite the right position, he can struggle forever without succeeding because you can move your body to alleviate the pressure. That's why the mantra is "position before submission": Jiu-jitsu is like a chess game, in that if you put all of the pieces into the right places, the outcome plays itself out effortlessly. What makes Jiu-jitsu more complicated is that the entire time you're thinking about the body mechanics and trying to find the right opening for a submission, your opponent can be punching you in the face, pushing on your liver, or generally being very distracting.

The grappling classes seem to have more serious students than the level 1 kickboxing classes. You can take kickboxing only for the cardio workout or be content to work on technique by kicking a bag thousands of times, but grappling requires a bit more of an investment. The folks I've met in the grappling classes seem to know each other's names and are willing to help each other improve, while many people in the kickboxing classes might as well have headphones and blinders on. I'm sure that the fact that Jiu-jitsu involves close physical contact (like this [which is a good example of a "rear naked choke with hooks". she'll have a tough time getting out of that one...]) compels people to get to know one another, but it's an interesting social difference to note. Also, there are no women in the grappling classes and only a couple in the Jiu-jitsu classes (which are slightly more geared toward self-defense). From a self-defense perspective, that's a little disappointing because I would think that women, in particular, would want to know what to do if they're pinned by someone stronger. Kickboxing is pretty much useless when someone is sitting on top of you.

I'm still working on finding a good training schedule with a mixture of kickboxing technique, conditioning, and grappling. The classes complement each other well — kickboxers without ground fighting skills are likely to lose in a real fight because most fights end up on the ground, while Jiu-jitsu fighters who focus on wrestling have sloppy or weak punches and kicks. Of course, I still don't know whether or if I'll ever use these interesting skills in real life (it's funny that Jiu-jitsu instructors seem to have found themselves in lots of street fights over the years, while I've never been in such a situation and don't intend on looking for any bar brawls. go figure.), but my curiosity and fascination haven't waned yet. Plus, there are still parts of me that remain to be injured.