Thursday, 17 December 2015

Removing the mask

She started to laugh.  Displaying what appeared to be a distinct lack of empathy, she was laughing at something that, for the other person, was a very serious issue.  As the subject was explored further, she gradually edged toward the point where tears were streaming down her face, and she appeared to be hysterical.

When the laughter had subsided, and she duly apologised for her behaviour, I pointed out that it was likely to be an example of a defence mechanism: somewhere within, the subject made her deeply uncomfortable, and her outward display was an attempt to mask this inner feeling.

Later, practising my counselling skills, I managed to tap into an emotion that my partner in the practice was trying desperately to repress.  The tears rolled down their face, and I asked if they wanted me to stop going down that rabbit hole, as it were.  With the next partner, the same thing happened.  I questioned why this kept happening, and how, even outside of my work supporting those in distress, so many people had stated that they told me things they had kept hidden for a long time.

Some history

Before I started using counselling skills in the voluntary sector, or studying the subject of counselling skills and theory, I got about half way through studying for a degree in psychology with The Open University.  There are many reasons why that line of study came to an end when it did, but that's not important.  What's important is that my study, up to that point, had a clear focus on the psychodynamic perspective of psychology.  After my studies came to an end, I did further research into the psychodynamic approach, and became especially interested in the theories of Carl Jung.

Just as my early experience of Japanese martial arts has affected my study of every combat art in the time since, early exposure to the influential figures in the psychodynamic approach to psychological theory and practice have affected how I interact with those who come to me as a client, as a study partner, or as a friend.  Special attention is given to the pace of speech, the terms used and the deeper feelings which may be exposed by these things.  Add body language into the mix, when I'm able to observe the visual cues given by this non-verbal behaviour, and you have a situation where I am able to hear not only what is being said, but also what is not being said.

Maybe some people are not comfortable with me being able to see behind the mask they choose to wear.  I don't know if the empathy I feel for others has always been there, or whether it developed over time, but it's there.  Sometimes, I wish it was something I could switch off.  Spending time with people, notably where there are a lot of people present, can be extremely tiring.  Unconsciously picking up what people are feeling, even some of the feelings they are trying to hide from the world, sounds like a tremendous gift, and there are times when it can be.  A lot of the time, however, it feels like a roller coaster ride that I desperately want to stop.

The dance connection

I started learning to dance a few months ago, and it's a style of dance that requires me, as a male, to lead a female partner.  Some of the ladies have said I'm a good lead.  I'm not sure how far I can agree with that suggestion, but I guess the ladies are in a better position to judge.  What I can tell you is that I use a great deal of empathy, even when dancing.  At every point of every movement, I'm concentrating on what I do, but the focus is on how it is affecting my partner's movement, and how she is feeling.  Does it make me a good lead?  I don't know.  A considerate lead?  Yeah, I guess that's accurate.

Even when dancing, I'm removing my partner's mask, in another way.  As much as I'm supposed to lead, I also allow a lady the space to express herself.  Some respond well to this; some seem to lack the confidence, at this point, to make the most of it.  One of the things I love about dancing is that the experience of dancing with a certain partner will always be specific to them, and I have to mould the way I lead to each individual.  If I get it right, regardless of the simplicity or complexity of the routine, they seem to appreciate it, and it's a good experience for me too.

In essence, I try to let people know that it's okay to be themselves with me.  There's no need to wear a mask.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Letting it go

"SHUT UP!"  The deep voice, for which I'd been ridiculed as a teen, tore through the building in the form of a guttural roar.  The neighbours who had been irritating me for months immediately fell silent.  I sat silently too, shocked by the power in that voice - MY voice.

I'd been carrying a lot of things around with me, for a number of months.  The neighbours were just one part of the problem, helped in no small part by a landlady who had decided that soundproofing was an unnecessary expense.  Too many other things had also happened to reinforce a suspicion I'd held since childhood that I could trust no one, that people would always let me down, and that no one actually cared how I felt.

You're probably thinking my neighbours didn't deserve to get all of that stored anger but, believe me, they had been banging around, arguing and generally provoking my anger all day, and I'd been deprived of sleep by way of them banging randomly at 2, 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning for weeks.

I'm usually quietly spoken.  A voice with such a concentration of bass frequencies can sound quite forceful at even low volumes.  Ramped up to the point where it had the full power of my lungs behind it, it felt and sounded so very, very powerful, and more than a little intimidating.  Did it feel good?  Absolutely!  People had been pushing me around, treating me with no respect and generally messing with me for a long time, and I'd let them get away with it!

I thought about what I'd heard, how powerful that voice had sounded, and questioned where it had come from.  My behaviour towards others, the calm acceptance of things which I should not have to tolerate, suggested someone weak, powerless and beaten down by life.  The roar which reverberated around the building suggested something else entirely.

It felt good to let go of all that anger.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Defence, defence, defence

I knew that sparring wasn't going to go well, but in some ways, possibly unnoticed by those watching, it did.

I can make every excuse in the book about my head guard, my gloves and the old chestnut of my disability, but I was simply out-gunned and out-manoeuvred.  The instructor was correct in his observation that I needed to move more.  All I proved, by going head on, was that I can still take a punch, as I did multiple times.

So, where did it go well?  At a few points, dazed as I was, I focused on defence.  I've recently developed a way of training good defence in solo training, and it seems to be working.  When I focused on defence, I effortlessly batted each punch away - it was when I went for an attack that I came unstuck and got hit.  In this way, I seem to be different from the others: they seem to go in and blindly try to knock each other into tomorrow, with the angle changes and footwork accounting for defence.  Being less mobile, having one leg affected by illness, I rely on having a fast defence in a straight line.

So, I know my strengths; I know my weaknesses.  What I don't know is what to do with this information.  Fortunately, I know that, outside of the sparring sessions, things are different for me.

Sunday, 6 December 2015


Earlier today, I talked to my fiancée about some of the issues I'm currently having with other people.  She listened patiently, and then said I can't assume that others are as empathic as I am.  I instantly felt better.

It's always good to have such a positive quality recognised, especially by someone we love.  Importantly, she not only understood the problem, but how I was affected by it and, in turn, how an aspect of my character was involved.  She displayed, maybe without realising it, a great deal of empathy.


At the moment, for a multitude of reasons, I'm feeling hurt, confused, frustrated and disappointed.  It's important that I recognise this, because these feelings are driving a more powerful, potentially destructive emotion that I'm feeling right now.  What they add up to is a whole lot of anger.

I have a strange relationship with anger.  It's a feeling that I tend to push down, or repress.  Pushing it down only compresses it, however, and makes room for more anger to be stored.  When I reach a point where I'm unable to take any more pain or frustration, all of that stored anger comes to the surface, and the results can be devastating.

As a part of something else I was doing at the time, I once found myself on an anger management course.  The basic premise of the course can be expressed simply: anger is a valid human emotion, and it becomes appropriate or inappropriate in the way it is expressed.

It's not good to carry such a negative emotion around with us.  In an ideal world, we would tell people they have hurt or disappointed us, and they would acknowledge it.  If this option is not available to us, or it would be unwise to be so open about how we feel, as it so often is, we might try to let the feeling go, but the feeling might not let us go.

I said it's important to recognise the feelings that are at the root of our anger.  In my case, the feelings are directed towards others who I feel have let me down.  Many people fit that description right now.  Tempting as it is to generalise those feelings, to become angry at the world around me, I see that a few friends have been consistently supportive and don't deserve to be in the firing line.

Some people deserve my anger, and I refuse to keep pushing it down.  I expect that they, in turn, are about to feel hurt, confused, frustrated and possibly disappointed, if I choose to express my anger inappropriately.  Whether that happens, or I express it more appropriately, depends on how much they continue to let me down.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Thought for the day: stormy waters

I sat down on a bench, overlooking the sea.  It was a stormy day, and I was looking upon an angry sea.  I watched as the waves crashed against the sea wall, then spilled over onto the promenade, calmly rolling back to become part of the angry sea once again.  What was turbulent became calm, then became turbulent once more, before becoming calm again.  I thought of how much this resembled life.

Sometimes we feel like we have been swept along by events, like they have their own momentum and we have lost control.  As much as we resist the current of life, it pushes us back further, until we feel we are making no progress.  Then, the waters become calm once more, and it is easier for us to get to the shore.  We can focus on how far we have been pushed back, or we can concentrate on getting to where we want to be.

Recently, I've been struggling against a strong current in my own life, unaware that, given a little time and patience, the strength of the current will decrease, and I should just allow myself to be pushed back.  In essence, I was pushed even further back by struggling against it.  Now, the storm is passing.  Enough of a calm has taken hold for me to realise that I just have to let things be, take the time to repair my damaged vessel, and find my way back to shore.  The storm may rage again, but I will at least be back on dry land.

Thursday, 26 November 2015


I watched, from a distance, as nine people linked arms and danced, can can style, to Frank Sinatra's rendition of "New York, New York".  They seemed to be enjoying themselves and, for reasons I won't go into here, I couldn't be a part of it.  Not for the first time that evening, I felt alone: completely and utterly alone.

In some ways, it was a good thing.  I'm not the best when it comes to asking a lady to dance.  It just happened that the courage required to ask some of the ladies to dance was less than the courage needed to deal with feeling so alone.  It's not a feeling with which I'm unfamiliar, and it's a feeling I've had to explore this week.  Looking into that feeling was distinctly uncomfortable, and led to the revelation that my life has mostly consisted of me feeling excluded or rejected.

Earlier in the evening, I'd asked someone to dance who I hadn't asked previously.  That's a big leap for me.  I've danced with her during the lessons, of course, but I'd never danced with her outside of the lessons.  She immediately brightened up, and maintained her smile throughout.  I bowed and thanked her as the song ended, and walked away, feeling utterly alone once again.

I'd previously developed a close friendship with someone in the class: someone who, for a while, made me feel that I wasn't alone.  Through a series of errors and misunderstandings (on both sides), that friendship recently came to an end, and I suddenly felt more lonely than I had in a long, long time.  Worse, it felt like I'd been rejected again and, due to the composition of the venue and the existing friendships between those within, the loss of one friendship led to me feeling excluded, unable to spend time with other friends I'd made at the class.  I should be used to this feeling by now, but it doesn't get any better.  It never gets any better.

For a brief time, I felt that I should stop going to the class, that I shouldn't put myself through this again.  The catch is that I love to dance - something that came as a surprise to me

I have come to terms with the right of another person to either accept or reject me.  It's their choice, after all.  I can't pretend that being rejected doesn't hurt, though.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Thought for the day: breaking down a wall

Earlier this evening, I took part in some counselling skills practice.  The rules surrounding these things mean I can't tell you under what circumstances this happened, or identify those with whom I was partnered for the exercise.  What I am going to focus on is the fact that, yet again, playing the part of the client was uncomfortable for me.

There were a number of issues I could have chosen for the skills practice, and I chose what I thought was a minor issue, the one which I thought couldn't possibly trigger difficult feelings within me.  It was foolish of me to forget that fairly major issues can often hide behind those which seem to be of relatively little importance.

As the practice came to an end, I was asked how I felt.  I replied that I felt exposed, vulnerable.  When I was asked where I felt vulnerable, I deflected the question.  The truth is that I felt the shield with which I had been guarding myself had been taken away, and I'd been hit by a truck.  I was asked if I wanted to continue, and replied that I'd rather the focus was put onto someone else.

I seem to be talking in metaphors, but that is my way, and I have no better way to describe how I felt.  I would liken my feelings to those that are felt when a wall is knocked down, we see how things look without the wall in place, and wonder whether the wall should have been left standing.

During the session, I'd made mention of wearing a mask - another metaphor.  To deal with situations in which I feel uncomfortable, I take on the characteristics of someone more comfortable and confident in that situation.  Maybe it's an act, and maybe it's dishonest, because maybe it's not really me.  Or, it's an aspect of who I am, and only comes to the fore when needed.

Yeah, I'd much rather talk to other people about themselves than about me.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Today, I took away your power over me

Today, I took away your power over me.
I decided to reject the things you've said.
Your words describe the world as you see it,
and not as I see it through my own eyes.

Today, I saw the good in myself.
Admittedly, I saw the good in you too,
But you won't convince me that your truth is mine.
Your truth belongs only to you.

Today, I thought of you with kindness.
I considered how much you must be hurting,
but this is how I've thought of you all along,
and still you chose to attack.

Today, I took away your power over me,
and while our relationship has not imploded, like a dying star,
I will not accept your negativity.
Holding on to it will bring neither of us peace.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Being an introvert, and how I cope with it

Some time ago, a close friend of many years mentioned that his clearest memory of our teenage years was how I would walk into a room full of people, choose a corner, and stand there looking like I wanted to be anywhere else.

I thought about this recently, when I joined a dance class.  This is added to a counselling skills course I'm doing, and a martial arts class I've been attending for over five years now.  I'll tell you a secret: these places are full of people, and I'm still absolutely terrified when I walk into them.  I'm not sure I've become any better at hiding it.

A low point was the death of a close relative a few years ago.  I did my usual thing of appearing to calmly carry the weight of my grief but, when I arrived at the leisure centre for a martial arts class, I looked through the window in the door to the room, saw all the people in there, turned around and walked back to my car.  The massive courage it took for me to walk into that room had gone, replaced by one clear thought: "I can't do this."  I'm just thankful that I made it back to my car before the grief hit fully.

You might see me walk into a room full of people, or exit that room and, if you're particularly observant, notice that I appear to feel a little uneasy.  Wrong.  I'm absolutely terrified.  You might notice that, for a while, I'm unusually quiet.  I'm still listening to you.  Believe me, I'm listening to you.  Every one of my senses is heightened because, as silly as it may seem to you, the situation feels threatening to me.  I'm just one man.  The numbers are not in my favour.  I'm not going to tell you why that's important.  Let's just say that experiences from our early lives affect us, and leave it at that.

Again, if you're observant, you'll see the point where I visibly relax, where I might even smile and share a joke with you, and you'll notice, when I'm leaving, that I'm scared once again.  So, what's happening during the point in the middle?  What's happening is something that it took me many years to figure out.

For the time that I'm talking with you, practising kung fu with you, dancing with you, or practising counselling skills with you, you're the only person in that room with me.  If someone else grabs my attention, they temporarily become the only person in that room, and then my focus shifts back to you.  It's a trick, I guess, but it's one I've been using successfully for a while now.

I still haven't found a way of coping with entering, or exiting, a room full of people.  Anything more than three, and it's a problem.  You'll probably notice that I'm more of a listener than a talker, but I hope you don't mistake it for a lack of intelligence.  If you ever see me after I've had a few pints of beer, you might think I've had a personality transplant, if such a thing were possible.  I just want you to know that it takes a great deal of courage for me to be there with you, that you have my full attention and, if you're one of the people on the periphery, I'm not being ignorant or rude.  I'm just coping with a difficult situation in the best way I know.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

I don't have a heart of stone

My sister is going home.  She lives at the other end of the country, so we don't see her very often.  This time, there are reasons to feel conflicted about her leaving, though it is probably better not to go into them here.

I was fine until I had to say goodbye to her.  What changed things is that she decided, this time, to give me a hug, and I could see that she was trying to hold back some tears.  I maintained the composure that my family have come to expect from me, got into my car, drove, and lost that composure.

I have a number of things on my mind right now.  I must deal with them alone.  My fiancée, who I love dearly, is on the other side of the world.  In itself, that is a difficult thing for me to deal with.

I can think of one time in particular, when I was supporting someone who was dealing with difficult feelings, that it affected me.  I won't say anything more about the person or what they were going through, because I am duty bound to protect their right to confidentiality, but it was a heavy burden to carry.  That time, I drove home, looked around my flat, felt the loneliness more than ever, and my own feelings made themselves known as I sat down.  The time difference meant that the woman I love would have been asleep, and I didn't want to wake her, but what I needed was to hear was her voice, just to hear that she was okay.  Again, the person's right to expect confidentiality meant that I couldn't tell her about the burden I was carrying, but hearing her voice would have made me feel a little less alone.

Like many men of my generation, I was taught that a real man is solid, dependable, not given to displaying emotion: being tough, being able to shrug off whatever life throws at us, is what makes us men.  We've been conditioned to maintain the appearance of someone who is in control, with only a vague notion of how that looks.  Unfortunately, many of my generation saw their parents go their separate ways, often being left with little or no contact with their fathers, so the idea of how a man should conduct himself became blurred to the point of becoming indistinct and confusing.

I remember the first time I watched the Rocky films.  My brother was a big fan of these films, and is still, as far as I know, a fan of these films.  Sylvester Stallone portrays a boxer - a man who would, for a lot of men, be the pinnacle of manliness.  You would expect him to be tough, able to take on life's challenges and carry the whole world on his shoulders, so to speak.  The important thing about the Rocky films is that we see this paragon of manliness feel emotion, break down, and become otherwise weighed down by life's challenges.

Realistically, I don't have to justify how I feel.  Maybe letting it out would not have been the best thing for my sister, who seemed to be quite emotional anyway, or anyone else who is affected by what is going on.  I'm conditioned to deal with these things, present the appearance of being unaffected, and deal with my feelings in private.  That's the part that no one sees, with just one person being a notable exception.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

I'm there with you

When all around you is darkness,
and you can't find your way,
I'm there with you.

When you have lost your faith,
even if I have little faith in myself,
I'm there with you.

When you just want to lash out,
at whoever and whatever is closest to you,
I'm there with you.

When you feel all alone in this world,
even if you once abandoned me,
I'm there with you.

When you have lost someone you love,
and you want to talk about how much you miss them,
I'm there with you.

When you doubt yourself,
even if you have caused me to have doubts of my own,
I'm there with you.

When you can't face the day ahead,
and wonder if you will ever be able to face another,
I'm there with you.

When you feel that no one wants to listen,
even if you were not there when I needed you,
I'm there with you.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Thought for the day: everything is temporary

Every now and then, I'll catch a glimpse of something that reminds me of how things used to be.  A recent example is the demolition of an old hotel on the seafront near where I live, which has exposed the side streets beside the hotel.  On one of those side streets, which travels uphill from the promenade, there is a smaller hotel.

Something about that little hotel on the side street, its Victorian styling and its situation, brings to mind memories of childhood holidays.  I wonder if the hotel maintains a steady income, or whether it will become a thing of the past, like the larger hotel that was hiding it from view.

I visited a local club recently, and the internal and external look of the place reminded me of similar places which existed when I was a child.

It's all too easy to see the past through a filter, to romanticise the way things used to be.  I'm at an age where many of my friends and acquaintances can be heard to say that things were better in "our day".  I, on the other hand, would say that things haven't got worse, nor have they got better.  On the whole, all we can say with certainty is that things have changed.

I realise that I'm speaking only from my own point of view, but I would say some things are better now, some are not so good and it all essentially balances out.  Why can't we keep the good things, and simply change the bad?  Well, think about it.  Are we all able to agree about what was good, and what was not so good, in years gone by?  No, we're not.  What was good for one person was a terrible thing for another, and vice versa.

This is how I choose to look at the world.  There is no better or worse, because those concepts are entirely subjective.  All that is certain is change, and I try to embrace it.  I'm much happier that way.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The reality of wing chun

When it comes to fighting, most people are cowards.  Certainly, the guy with whom you were arguing earlier in the evening is a coward.  That's why he wants to make sure the right hook he's throwing at your jaw comes as a surprise.  He probably said something which diverted your attention or made you think he was walking past you.

Of course, he's close enough that he has a good chance of landing that punch, and that means he's practically in your face.  The roundhouse kick you've practised again and again - forget it.  If you duck and try to take him down, it'll just result in him hitting you on the cheek or higher on the head.  In a fraction of a second, you're down.  Just like he wanted, it's lights out before you even have a chance to respond.  He might decide to kick you in the head while you're down.  That's the nature of anger.  He'll probably think about the consequences later.

If only you'd trained to fight at this range, where the distance has already been closed and an ambush attack is on its way.  There isn't time to think at this range, so you want a collection of valid responses, you want to have trained them to the point where they are instinctive, and ideally you won't have to think about them.

Life isn't a ring or an octagon

I apologise if the opening of this piece is more aggressive in tone than usual.  It's the only language the keyboard warriors of the internet understand.  Most of them don't actually train in a martial art, but they love watching the UFC and other mixed martial arts competitions.  They also consider themselves experts in every conceivable combat system known to man, and feel qualified to say that systems whose development time can be measured in centuries are useless.

The situation I opened with is a situation for which wing chun was designed.  An ambush attack is measured in fractions of a second, and has to be dealt with in the same time frame.  If the whole cage fighting thing has taught us anything, it's that people are surprisingly reluctant to fight, if both parties know a fight is about to happen.  Not many have the courage to step into an octagon, a ring or onto a competition mat, so instead they attack through deception and at close quarters.

There's the primary difference between competitive fighting and the type of situation for which wing chun was created - knowing that a fight is going to happen would be something of a luxury in the environment within which wing chun was created.

If you train for competitive fighting or self protection, and you think that either environment has the same rules as the other, it is better that you get a wake up call right now than when you have to test your theory.

Range (I may have to get technical here)

Wing chun is known as a close quarters combat system.  If you look at videos on the internet, though, you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise.  Watch the videos where wing chun students are sparring with karate students, for example, and you'll see them maintaining a range at which the karate practitioners are happy to fire off their arsenal of kicks.  It's the same when they are faced with muay Thai, taekwondo and other kicking arts.  So, what's going on?

Remember wing chun's focus.  From the very start, the assumption is that we are facing a surprise attack, and the distance has already been closed.  If we are to use the greater part of our training, we risk walking into a kick or another longer range attack on our way in.  Notice how most competitive fights involve the fighters moving into range of each other.

Wing chun sucks at a longer range, right?  Wrong.  We have ways of getting into range.  If we use the example of a kick coming at us as an example, the prescribed response is to cover with a block and kick the supporting leg, taking the power out of the kick and disturbing the opponent's balance long enough for us to move in and use our hands.  Why isn't it used in all those sparring and cage fighting videos?  Well, one of the targets for the standard front kick is the knee.  Another one is the hip.  Or, there's a downward kick aimed at the lower leg, designed to break the ankle.  If you can't understand why the forward thrusting kick of wing chun, aimed at these targets, might be a problem in a competitive environment, then I don't think any amount of explaining wing chun will be enough for you.

Let's also consider the level of wing chun we are seeing in these fights as well.  I've seen many videos of a Steve someone-or-other fighting in an octagon or on a competition mat.  In one fight, he was introduced as one of the top wing chun fighters in the world.  Apart from the videos, I've never heard of him.  In one particular fight in an octagon, an eastern European fighter takes him to the ground, and he offers no reply.  We have ways of dealing with attempts at taking us to the ground (shuai jiao, the predecessor of Japanese jujutsu, is a Chinese art).  I'm not going to reveal what they are, but we have them.

My point is that a lot of these fighters don't seem to have much experience.  Their form is wrong.  Some of them dance about on their toes.  Kicks don't even appear in the first form, so it's fair to say that a few years of training is needed before a wing chun practitioner will become proficient at kicking, unless we change the way we practise.  Using kicks sparingly is good wing chun; not using them at all may be a sign that someone hasn't learned much wing chun yet.

A lot of wing chun schools don't spar, and students don't test themselves.  I applaud any of the videos that represent a student's first steps in sparring or testing themselves against another combat discipline, but let's not misinterpret what's going on.  If you are going to label it as martial art X versus martial art Y, at least ensure that both fighters are experienced in what they claim to represent.

Here's a short video to illustrate my point about correct range.  Notice the strike to the eye occurs at a range which suits wing chun, when he is able to close the distance.

Here's a potentially more contentious video about fighting range in wing chun...

The gloves are off

I've heard it said many times that the gloves take away a lot of wing chun's effective techniques.  That may be true, but the problem is a lot more fundamental than that.  Gloves change the nature of a fight, because they protect the hands.

I noticed a long time ago that the wing chun forms, which are our reference to how this stuff should be used, contain no punches to head height.  The punches go out roughly at chest height, maybe as high as the neck as well (not recommended, unless you want to run the risk of killing someone).  The lineage I study has removed Ip Man's palm-up punch to the abdomen, but I have restored it in the second form for my own practice, because I consider it useful.  Anyway, the point is that open hand strikes are used to the head.

How easy is it to perform a palm strike with gloves on?  Not at all easy.  Still, a lot of videos show wing chun students punching to the head, which is going against what we are shown by the forms.  Essentially, this is changing the art to suit a different environment.

As a side note, I'm disappointed to see Samuel Kwok supporting bare knuckle boxing, as shown in the video below.  Aside from the ethical issues I have with him supporting competitive fighting, it is quite a different skill set to that which is needed when dealing with an ambush attack.


There's a lot more I could say about this issue, but it's probably an exercise in futility, and it is for the good of humanity that certain people do not understand combat arts.

You'd be right to question my own knowledge of martial arts.  I'm happy to be judged on what I write here, because it's an honest representation of my thoughts.  Am I able to put my knowledge into practice?  Well, that's another question entirely, and one I feel is answered only by fools.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

An unexpected turn of events

 "Let the body and limbs work themselves out in accordance with the discipline they have undergone." ~Bruce Lee

"You don't smile much, do you?"  It was the head security guard.  I'm not the only volunteer who has issues with him.  He is a persistent practical joker, and occasionally takes out his frustrations on what he considers to be the easiest targets.  It was a moment in the day when I could have done without him being there, to be honest.

His hands came up to perform a double slap on my face, just like Eric Morecambe used to do.  He has landed one of these on me before but, this time, my hands came up in a double bil sau, stopping his hands in their tracks.  He then dropped his hands and came towards my ribcage.  Both my hands dropped into a double gaan sau.  I don't have much control over my left hand, so it hit the inner part of his arm with more force than I intended.  "That's better." he said, referring to the fact that I was now smiling.

I don't have the swiftest reactions in the world.  Recently, I haven't been training wing chun as conscientiously as I should.  I had quite a lot on my mind when the slapping attempt was made.  I asked myself how I had stopped two incoming attacks which happened in quick succession, when I had previously failed to stop a double slap from the same person.  The point is that I didn't have time to think.  I just acted.  Even now, I'm hoping he doesn't realise that I have some training in a combat art.  A consequence of my actions, according to other volunteers, is that he was in a foul mood for the rest of the day.

What's going on?

This wasn't an exercise in chi sau.  That's a good thing because, although I am recently getting much better, I am not, in any way, good in chi sau.  The contact reflex came into play, but the initial double bil sau effectively plucked an attack (or two, I suppose) out of the air.  When contact with the opponent's arms was lost, enough information had been given away through the contact and subsequent loss of contact that I instinctively dropped my arms into a double lower gaan sau.

The last time I had a chance to see my wing chun working was in a sparring session with an MMA type.  I was lucky.  He had all kinds of preconceived notions about wing chun, which completely misled him regarding what to expect from me.  To cut a long story short, he had been watching YouTube videos and paying too much attention to the comments.  He underestimated me.  I love it when people underestimate me.

In wing chun class, my wing chun is poor.  In circumstances where I am trying not to use it, my wing chun is good enough.  I say it is good enough for a reason.  I've always known that the forms of wing chun, or indeed any martial art where kata, taolu, hyung, jurus, anyo or other set sequences are practised, represent ideal expressions of techniques.  Anyone who understands wing chun, for example, will know that my double bil sau/double gaan sau sequence couldn't possibly have stuck to the centreline principle.  It is unlikely that we will ever perform techniques exactly as they appear in the forms.  Instead, the forms should be regarded as a method to lock certain responses into our neural pathways, to rewire our brains.  If, in the heat of battle, these responses are enough to stop us being hit, they may not be perfect, but they are good enough.

When I am practising alone, my training is basically the forms of wing chun - sil lum tao, chum kiu and, at this stage, the beginnings of biu jee.  There is no chi sau, no sparring (those things require a training partner).

I also practise the twelve zone striking drill which is common to balintawak, kombatan and modern arnis as well.  I have found this useful in improving my coordination and hand speed.  On top of those benefits, I have a better understanding of weapons than I would otherwise.

A bit of a boost

Over the weekend, an old friend took part in a cage fight.  He won the fight quickly.  If you're interested in that kind of thing, there is a video of the fight.
During a discussion about this fight, my brother said that he believes wing chun is useless.  We were in the presence of another member of the family, who further suggested that I have never been a good fighter, and they both agreed on this point.  Leaving aside the fact that they have no evidence to support or refute such a view, it's not an insult which would usually trouble me.  Coming after a dismissal of wing chun, however, knowing that in a matter of days I will have been practising the art for five years, it didn't sit well with me.

I have a compiled version of Alan Gibson's works on wing chun.  Previously, these were published as the "wing chun works" series.  In his introduction to the series, Alan explained that most practitioners reach a stage where they question whether wing chun is truly effective, and he named the series with his answer to the question.  It's a sentiment that I echo.

After the dismissal of my chosen combat art, by people close to me, seeing it work provided a welcome boost.  Again, it seems that I am at my best when I am not consciously trying to do wing chun.  The message seems to be that we must practise, practise, and practise some more, but when we have to actually use this stuff, we just allow our limbs to act as they have been trained to act.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Karate Kid

I stumbled across a blog post which briefly compares the newer version of The Karate Kid with the classic version from 1984.  I broadly agree with what is said, but it prompted me to add my own thoughts.

The original film is one of my favourites.  Ralph Macchio is more than a little irritating, and the martial arts skills on display are laughable, but the film has a great story and a good feel to it.  The 2010 Jaden Smith vehicle, by contrast, is an insult to my intelligence.

The sequels to the original film were poor, especially the one featuring Hilary Swank.  Oh, yeah, that one was bad.  However, none of them, to my mind, reach the depths of the 2010 film.  Some of my problems with it are...

Karate does not feature, so the title makes no sense.

The mystical nonsense in the film contributes to a poor view of Chinese martial arts.

Two of the producers are Jaden Smith's parents.  I smell nepotism.

The story is terrible.

As stated in the blog post I read, basic karate is replace by unnecessarily and unrealistically flashy moves.

I'd rather watch Kung Fu Panda.  At least, with those films, you know they aren't meant to be taken seriously.  The original film is a classic, and they shouldn't have touched it.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

The steady westernisation of Asian combat arts

An old friend of mine will be fighting in an octagon tomorrow, in a mixed martial arts match against someone with whom he shares a mutual hatred.  I've just found out that another old friend is currently in a medically induced coma, because he developed a brain haemorrhage whilst training in a gym.  The two things are connected by the way our culture practically worships the ability of one human being to dominate another by physical force.

I remember seeing an argument, on one of the many comment threads I see online, about whether Brazilian jiu jitsu or Japanese jujutsu is superior.  I'll leave aside the reasons for this kind of comparison being futile.  What interested me was that one participant considered Brazilian jiu jitsu to be inferior to "good old, dump 'em on their head, British jujitsu."  My initial thought was that the jujitsu which has been practised for over one hundred years in the UK is essentially Japanese, but I almost immediately changed my mind about that.

I've always said that a combat art, or any cultural import, will be shaped according to the environment in which it finds itself.  Boxing, for example, was originally a sporting competition with very little in the way of rules.  Headlocks (referred to as "head in chancery"), kicks, throws and grappling were all allowed.  We know this because accounts of some of these bouts still exist.  The Marquess of Queensbury rules removed these from the modern sport, and added boxing gloves.  Interestingly, the addition of gloves enabled fighters to hit harder without damaging their hands, and deaths in the ring increased accordingly.

The point is that we seem to have a history of associating combat methods with sporting competition, and there being a winner and a loser.  There is no philosophical pondering, no agreed code of conduct: there is only a winner and a loser.  Whether they were originally steeped in the principles of Zen, Taoism, Confucianism or other philosophies that are not native to the UK, imported Asian martial arts eventually lose that context and become "westernised".

Cage fighting contests are, perhaps, the most visible example of the westernisation of combat sports.  Muay Thai is one of the most widely used arts which make up the striking component of MMA, but the tradition of Ram Muay (a dance used to show respect for one's trainer) is rarely seen.  Brazilian jiu jitsu is often used for the grappling component, and is derived from Japanese judo, but I have yet to witness the fighters showing respect by bowing to each other.  The rather modern tradition of trash talk is the antithesis of the traditions surrounding many martial arts.

Even in competitions featuring traditional martial arts, I see those who win their categories lifting trophies and raising an index finger to reinforce the point that they are number one.  Are those who fought bravely, but did not win a trophy, being shown their due respect?  When I see such behaviour, I can't help thinking that, on their way to winning a prize which has little real meaning, these fighters have lost something far more important.

I have no wish to hurt another person, just to win a trophy or prize.  I can't condemn those who do but, to me, it's something which is ethically suspect.  The behaviour of the crowds watching these spectacles is even more worrying for me.  They actually want to see one human being beat another to a pulp, and shout loudly that one should hit the other even harder.  The spilling of blood prompts cheering, and the brutal destruction of a fighter becomes a cause for celebration.

Maybe I have picked up more of the philosophy and less of the fighting content of the Asian combat arts.  I believe that there is no victory in hurting, possibly causing permanent damage to, another human being.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The art of fighting without fighting? Let's just call it the art of not fighting

"To fight and conquer one hundred times is not the perfection of attainment, for the supreme art is to subdue the enemy without fighting." ~Sun Tzu

One of the most quoted pieces of dialogue in Enter the Dragon happens when Bruce Lee's character is asked about his style.  He replies that his style could be called the art of fighting without fighting.  The film isn't generally renowned for its dialogue, and yet this exchange stands out.

You can imagine the effect of Bruce's reply on audiences who first saw the film in 1973.  They had paid to see a kung fu spectacular, man pitted against man in a fight to the death.  By today's standards, Enter the Dragon is not a particularly violent film, but there are numerous fights and a considerable body count.  Strange then, that such a sentiment should be expressed in a film which portrays martial artists as otherwise cruel and morally corrupt.

A number of things have led to me writing this post.  During a relatively subdued wing chun class, with a smaller than usual attendance, the instructor touched on the subject of a student's motivation for learning wing chun.  If we want to become a fighter, he said, how far down that road do we want to go?  Eventually, we would become desensitised to violence and may even feel the need to hurt people, to get that rush of adrenaline.  He has seen many people, maybe even close friends, go that way.

Added to the thoughts of the instructor are my own recent thoughts about wing chun, and combat arts in general, both ancient and modern.  If we look at the law on reasonable force, at least as it stands in the United Kingdom, our response to an attack is limited, and some of the responses which are trained, especially in the older combat arts, can not be judged as reasonable under any circumstances.

I always held the view that I was training in skills I hoped I would never have to use.  Now, I realise that at least some of what I am training can never be used.  As Ip Man is quoted as saying, it doesn't go out the door.  The question must be asked again.  Why are we training?  If we are taking part in competitions, our reasons are clear.  If we're training to keep ourselves safe, then our reasons are clear.  In both cases, however, we find that the older arts are incompatible with the modern world.

I happen to think that the older combat arts will adapt to the modern world, to the laws of reasonable force, just as they have adapted to the environment in which they have found themselves many times before.  Again, it falls on the practitioner to be responsible.  If a situation arises where we must act out an improvised version of those trained responses, we must simply do what is necessary and nothing more.

I've been in situations where I've felt threatened, where the possibility of a violent assault was very real, and no one, ultimately, was hurt.  I honestly can't remember when I last had to fight.  I've drawn a picture in my mind of what I could do to the other person, how much damage I could inflict, and it's not something I really want to do.  Fighting is horrific, bloody, and usually senseless.  After a while, it also gets boring.

Fighting without fighting?  Let's just not fight.  Someone is bound to get hurt.  I find fighting tedious.  If you want to take away my choice in the matter, I'll try to dispose of you as a threat as quickly as possible.  That's why I train in wing chun.  Like I said, I find the whole thing tedious.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

I'm listening

Earlier in the week, I attended an interview.  I'd like to tell you that it was a job interview, but it was an interview for voluntary work with Samaritans, something I last did over two years ago.

Later in the week, I practised my counselling skills, as part of the counselling skills course I am currently attending.  I thought the other members of the class were very good, and they received some constructive feedback from the observer.  I wasn't confident about my own ability but, surprisingly, all the feedback I received was positive.  I was puzzled.  No criticism at all?  Surely there is always room for improvement?

During the interview at Samaritans, I was asked about my reasons for leaving the service two years ago, which is understandable.  I replied that, at the time, I had too many things going on outside of my volunteering with the organisation.  That's true.  It's not the whole story, though.

The problem

For as long as I can remember, I've been an introvert.  People would say I was a quiet child and, even now, might say I don't often contribute much to a conversation.  In reality, I listen.  I process what people say.  Only when I have something meaningful to say do I say it.  Mostly, though, I listen.  Any introverts who are reading this will know how tiring this interaction can be, and will be familiar with the need to be alone sometimes, to recover.  It can seem that others are throwing words and feelings at you, at a machine gun pace, and it can be overwhelming.

I'll admit to being flawed in one essential way.  I can forget that empathy is not a universal trait.  I'm only human.  It can seem that no one wants to listen to my concerns, or how I feel.  In the past, I've seen this as a fault with others.  My relationship with them, I reasoned, is one-sided.  I'm the one who listens intently and, when it is my turn to speak, no one wants to listen.  For a long time, I carried a lot of anger and resentment around with me, over this issue.  Unfortunately, this idea that no one wanted to listen led to me being even less vocal, withdrawing from opportunities to socialise with others, and going into a downward spiral that eventually resulted in a major depression.

To some extent, volunteering equipped me with skills which were necessary to deal with this.  Most importantly, I learned not to judge others, to accept that I could only ever see their behaviour, and never fully understand the forces driving their behaviour.  The pace at which those skills developed, however, was easily outpaced by the cumulative effect of dealing with other peoples' problems and not being kind to myself.  It was this concept of being kind to myself which would prove vital to my continued support of those who needed my support.

Winding down

It is acceptable for us to take some time out.  If you'll forgive my use of a metaphor, we have to press the reset button.  I've heard that some like to go fishing.  Others play golf.  At least one person I know likes to go to a coffee shop and read a book.  There are no rules.  There is something you enjoy, and you are more relaxed when you are doing it.  We must restore the balance, and ensure that we have some positive experiences in our life.  As I discovered, at great cost, a lack of these positive experiences leaves us ill-equipped to deal with the challenges we face in our daily lives.

I reconnected with mindfulness in the time since.  There are things I enjoy, of course, but mindfulness serves as my reset switch.  The simple realisation that I can support others, not having to carry their suffering with me, enables me to find the peace that I was previously unable to find.  Best of all, I don't have to find a river, a coffee shop or a golf course.

During the practice of my counselling skills, I had to take on the role of a client, so that another student could practise their skills.  It was noted that I am uneasy with talking about myself, and especially how I feel.  I need to work on this.  I have to accept my flaws, so that I may work around them or work to improve, but I also need to work on accepting that, in some ways, I am okay.  So, I'll take the lack of constructive criticism as a sign that I may actually be quite good at supporting those in distress.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Top methods of self defence

I sometimes stumble upon lists of martial arts that are supposedly the best for self defence.  Now, in theory, they are lists of martial arts, so I have no problem with them.  In a wider sense, however, they are misleading.

If you want an art that is effective for fighting when there is no other choice, then the lists are useless.  Check what is available in your area.  Go along and ask the instructors if what they teach can be used for self defence.  Their answers should tell you whether you should join their class.  If taught correctly, almost any martial art is good for fighting, and the deciding factor will be how hard you train.  If the class is too far away, if you don't like the instructor, or what you see and hear seems fake, your motivation for training will be low.

Is it available in your area?  No?  It's useless to consider it then.  Does the instructor answer a straight question with mystical nonsense?  Don't waste your time with that kind of class.  Have you found a method of combat you enjoy learning?  Stick with it, because your motivation to keep training and improve is arguably the most important thing.

With all of that in mind, I'm going to tell you what should always be in a list of effective methods of self defence, ahead of any martial art, and what any responsible instructor will also recommend before coming to blows.

Run away

Am I suggesting that, regardless of how many years you have trained, you should always take the opportunity to escape a violent encounter?  I am indeed, and the law is with me on this one.  If you have the opportunity to run, and don't take it, everything that follows your decision is something that could have been avoided.

I'm not going to soften this one for you.  The possible outcomes of a violent encounter include, but are not limited to, temporary or permanent injury or disfigurement, violent death, theft, abduction and lasting psychological trauma.  You think you can win?  Ha!  No one EVER wins!  You want to injure someone else, when it could have been avoided, and you call that winning?  You think you can explain yourself in a court of law?  You think you're ready to cope with revenge attacks?

No, forget all misguided notions of honour and check your pride.  They could have a concealed weapon.  Their friends could be around, somewhere.  If you want to talk about honour and pride, talk first about what is the right thing to do.  There are times when running away is impossible, and that is when you need the ability to fight.  Otherwise, just don't be there.

Be nice

What is self defence?  If you're thinking of launching a counter attack or throwing an attacker to the ground, you've got the basic principle wrong.  Those things serve a purpose, and that purpose, rather than a specific way of achieving the aim, is the essence of self defence.  So what is the aim?  Well, self defence is not about harming an attacker, but about avoiding harm ourselves.  If we can avoid being harmed without causing harm, that is the preferred way.  If a self defence instructor doesn't instil this wisdom in his students, then he is at best irresponsible, and at worst a charlatan.

Given that our aim is to avoid harm, it makes sense that we should be the kind of people that no one wants to harm.  This doesn't involve being a doormat, but simply being a nice person.  In reality, it's impossible to be someone who is liked by everyone, but that probably says more about the nature of others than it does about you.  We can make an attack less likely, though.

To paraphrase Wong Shun Leung, the art of invisibility would be more useful for self defence than a martial art, because a martial art is a weapon.  A weapon is designed to cause injury, not prevent it.

In aikido, Morihei Ueshiba enshrined the basic principle of self defence: subdue your attacker using the method likely to cause the least harm.  Even closer was Sun Tzu's statement that the greatest victory is one earned without bloodshed.

What?  Only two methods?

Yes, only two methods, and that is the essence of self defence.  Think defensive, not offensive.  In a martial arts class, you are learning to fight, but hopefully your instructor is also telling you that it is a last resort.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

What's important to me

I bought a new laptop this week.  My old laptop is five years old, and probably has a few years of life left in it yet, but a number of factors played a part in my decision to upgrade.  Obviously, the newer laptop is more powerful, and has fewer little problems than the old one.  Now that I have the thing I wanted, though, it's just another thing in the collection of things I have around me.

It's a reminder of the Christmas days of my childhood.  I would get presents from my parents, and other relatives, and it wasn't long before the thing I had been anticipating for months became just another thing.  It's not that I'm ungrateful.  Far from it, actually.  The thing was still valued, but the joy of owning it was short lived.  What remained was a feeling.  Someone else had bought something for me.

My fiancée recently bought a book for me, as a birthday present.  What was thoughtful about it was that she took notice of something I said in passing, knew exactly what to get and bought it for me.  Long after I've read the book, probably many times, the thought behind the giving of the book will remain.  The laptop, I bought for myself, and I'm pleased that I have a new computer, but it simply serves a purpose.  Other than the photos, music and copies of personal communications it holds, and the ability to communicate with loved ones who are far away, there is no inherent emotional value to the laptop.

In Ancient Wisdom, Modern World, the Dalai Lama states that the unhappiest people he has met are those who have the most worldly riches.  His argument is the more we have, the more anxiety we feel over the possibility of losing it.  So the question has to be whether we own our possessions or whether they own us.

An attachment to things

I have quite a large collection of films and music.  There was a time when watching the films, or listening to music, was a social activity.  Now, the friends who watched films or listened to music with me have families, other responsibilities, and little time.

Similarly, I like driving at night, especially in the rain.  It took me a long time to figure out why I would like such a thing, and then I remembered being the designated driver for friends who wanted to drink on a night out.  Other times, I would be one of the passengers in a friend's car, at an age where being able to drive was a novelty, so we would spend a night being driven around, because it was now possible.  Music would be playing, and we often drove down unlit, largely deserted country roads.

Sometimes a song will play on the radio, and a memory associated with the song will come to mind for the first time in years.  I'll remember a place, an event, but mostly the people who were there.

An attachment to people

It's difficult to say how we feel about others.  I've had a few people walk out of my life or pass away, never being sure whether they ever meant anything to me, and I suppose that most of us could say something similar.  In fact, everyone with whom I have spent a great deal of time means something to me.

There's nothing I would like more than to have my friends at my home, having a chat in person, rather than through a phone or over an internet connection.  Life just isn't like that, though.  I'm as guilty as anyone of having little time to spare, and it seems that we have so many things in our lives which steal the time we would use to connect with each other in a meaningful way.

Maybe it is an effort to make time for friends, but maybe it's important that we do it.  We have so much technology devoted to communication now, and yet people arguably feel more lonely than ever.  Communication through an earpiece or screen seems to have replaced communicating in person, and it is a poor substitute.

Technology has shortened our attention span and, far from making our lives easier, as promised, we live in a world where more is expected from us, where our time has become a commodity to be bought and sold.

If someone takes the time to sit with me, tell me how their day has been and what is happening in their life right now, I'm happy.

Our lives are busy but, if we don't have time to spend with friends and loved ones, what exactly are we working for?  More things?  Will that make us happy?

Improvisation in a martial arts class

It was, on the face of it, a simple sequence.  A straight punch was to be met by a bil sau (knife hand block in some other arts) to the outer gate, which would flow into a double lap sau (arm drag).  To keep us on our toes, our training partner would occasionally throw a hook, which would be met with the standard bil sau and punch on the inner gate.  All very simple.

I stopped the straight punches with a bil sau and performed a double lap sau, repeatedly.  My training partner then threw his hook punch, and I checked this with a pak sau (slapping/pinning block) and punch.  I realised that I had strayed from the drill and we started again.  I played the role of attacker, and my punches were met with a bil sau and double lap sau.  My hook punch was checked with a bil sau and punch, as planned.  Again, it was my turn to defend and counter, and again I checked the hook with a pak sau.  I happened again, and again, and again.

I managed to do the drill correctly, intermittently, but it took a lot of conscious effort.  I questioned why I was straying from the sequence, especially as it seems to be happening on a regular basis.

Reasonable adjustments

It's a great source of pride that the other students forget I am ill, or disabled, or whatever the politically correct term is right now.  I would say a large part of that, and a reason why I sometimes struggle to pick things up, is that I have been adapting what I learn to my specific needs.  The time I spend in solo practice, and the effect that training so much with weapons has had on my spacial awareness and coordination, have helped enormously with this.

Earlier in the class, we had a sequence where punches aimed at the head were punctuated with random blows to the abdomen.  I was happy about this, because my defence against low blows is not my strongest point.  The low gaan sau which was meant to stop the low blows was soon replaced with a jum sau.  This goes a long way towards confirming my suspicions, because a gaan sau performed with my left arm is structurally much weaker than one performed with my right.  The jum sau often requires a step back, though.

Abnormal reactions

It has been said that my reactions to an attack are not what would usually be expected.  When pulled by the double lap sau, I noticed that I was going into a semi squat, as used in some more traditional styles of kung fu.  I have no idea why I was doing this, because it meant that I was essentially in a bowed position when I had to follow up.  There must be some way I can use this to my advantage.  I don't know where it came from, but that's true of the other strange things I do sometimes.

Losing momentum

In the class, there is one other student with the same grade as I am.  There were three of us, but the third seems to have developed a preference for private tuition.  Between the two of us that remain, there is a consensus that this is the time when it is difficult to remain motivated.

I understand this.  Wing chun is not a competition sport, it is a method of unarmed combat.  The first issue is that you are developing skills which you hope will never be needed.  Furthermore, something which becomes clear, especially when training the third empty hand form, is that some of what you learn could not be regarded as reasonable force under any circumstances.

Given the restrictions of the law, at least in the UK, maybe boxing is the most realistic form of self protection for a civilian.  Away from the CCTV cameras, and potential witnesses, maybe it's a different story.  In the end, it is unlikely that the modern world is going to adapt to traditional martial arts, so the traditional martial arts must adapt to the modern world.  If you add in the fact that most of these arts come from cultures which are very different to the western world, you start to see that there are added difficulties.  The basic philosophy of Filipino martial arts, for example, is that weapons should be used, if available.  Any objects within the immediate environment, and the environment itself, is to be seen as a weapon.  From a legal standpoint, this is shaky ground, to say the least.

I don't want to fight

If I'm accused of spilling someone's pint, or looking at their date or significant other, my standard response is that I don't want to fight.  It's true.  Even as I am expecting that my words will not be taken on board by the knuckle dragger who feels he has something to prove, I'm hoping that the anger will dissipate and the situation will be resolved without bloodshed.  On one occasion, I explained my stance very clearly.  Pointing out that everyone's night would be ruined by one of us leaving in a police car, and the other in an ambulance, without saying which was more likely for either of us, it appeared that the potential consequences of his actions became apparent to him, and my would be adversary shook my hand and said that I was a good man.  Yes, I found it weird too.

On another occasion, a friend and I were joined by someone we both know vaguely.  He went into great detail about all the fights, real or imagined, in which he had been involved.  If his stories were true, then many people have been injured by a fist, a boot or a head butt from him.  I listened to his stories until he asked what I thought of him, whether I considered him to be a tough guy or a hooligan.  I replied that I prefer not to make such judgements about people, but that fighting should be avoided if there is any other way of avoiding a situation.

After a few more pints of fermented hops and barley, my friend had to drain some of the fluid from his system, so he staggered off to the toilets.  Hmm.  It's funny how you don't realise that you've had a little too much to drink until you stand.  Sorry, I went off on a tangent there.  Left alone with me, the young man who had been so eager to tell tales of his fighting ability said that he'd been thinking about what I had said, and he didn't like to fight but, for him, it seemed to be unavoidable.  He said that he supposed he just had one of those faces people like to punch.

I said nothing for a moment, aware that the situation could still turn.  I said to him that, if people have learned to expect you to throw rocks at them, they too will pick up rocks whenever they catch sight of you.  He nodded.  He understood.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Mindfulness, explained as simply as possible

If you spend vast amounts of time, each day, worrying about the future or the past, you are not fully aware of the present, and it is gone before you know it.  Focus all of your attention on what you are doing right now, and there is no room for anxiety about the future of concerns about the past.  That's mindfulness.

Strange, isn't it?  You didn't read a book which ran to hundreds of pages, or pay large amounts of money for a personal course, and yet you now understand mindfulness.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Dealing with multiple attackers

Sometimes, I see a self defence video which is so misguided that it is actually dangerous.  Usually, I stumble across these, and that was the case with a video where the viewer is advised on how to deal with an attack from three men.

I didn't feel compelled to watch any more videos from the same channel.  Maybe the guy featured knows what he is talking about under other circumstances but, if he uses the displayed method against three guys like this, he's probably finished.  Making people believe that this will work is downright irresponsible.

In this situation, you are outnumbered.  The punches, and probably kicks, will come at you without warning, from multiple angles.  You are going to get hit.  In the video, there are no obvious weapons to be had in the immediate environment.  If there was a fire extinguisher, broom or any other object that could conceivably be used as a weapon, it should be used.  I'm assuming that he is wearing a belt, so that might be used as a weapon under these circumstances.

Empty handed?  All is not lost.  At this range, your ability to use your elbows will come into play.  With the adrenaline flowing, the wall of bone that is your elbow will hit like a sledgehammer.  Use it.  Hit anything that is in front of you.  If you catch a fist with your elbow, they're not punching with that hand for a while.  Also, think about immobilising at least one of your attackers by taking out their knee or kicking their leg so hard that it no longer works.  However you break through the wall of attackers, break through it and run.  That's the one thing he got right.  Run.  Run as fast as you possibly can.

Edit: I forgot to mention the most important point.  No one can guarantee that you will escape a confrontation with one opponent.  No one.  With multiple opponents, a guarantee that you will escape is even more useless.  Avoid getting into such a situation, if it is at all possible.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Stress, how to deal with it, and what I learned about it through martial arts

Divorce, moving house and the death of a loved one, not necessarily in that order, are thought to be the most stressful things that can happen to us.  What about smaller stresses, though?  The confrontation with the driver of the other car, the argument with your loved one and problems at work, make up just a part of your day.  Surely their effect on our stress levels will be minimal?

The small stresses can be much worse, in a way.  We may be unaware of the cumulative effect of the many minor issues which face us each day, and yet we find ourselves irritable or easily upset by things which, in the grand scheme of things, shouldn't matter.  These are the emotional indicators of accumulated stress.

Anyone who has a career or hobby that requires an awareness of their body - a dancer, for example - will develop that awareness.  I have no doubt that those who attend yoga or pilates classes will be similarly attuned to external and internal physiological cues.  I hesitate to mention martial arts, but let's accept that martial artists are similarly concerned with movement, and will necessarily be in tune with their physiology to some extent.

Every Thursday, I would attend the jujitsu class.  The twenty five mile journey to the leisure centre, mostly on unlit country roads, had a meditative quality.  Nevertheless, the stresses of the day, or indeed the week, were still there when I arrived at the class.  I was dimly aware of the effects of the stress, though I didn't pay it much attention.  The nature of the jujitsu class made it possible for me, if I was wound tightly enough, to become an immovable object or simply overpower a training partner.  I was using stress to my advantage.  At the end of the class, I was wound considerably less tight, but the process of accumulating emotional tension, until I could get back to the class the following week, would start all over again.

Eventually, the strain told.  I started to realise that the way I felt after each jujitsu class should be my default mode, rather than feeling constantly uptight.  I started to learn methods of stress relief, and came to the conclusion that slowing down, meditating and practising mindfulness were particularly effective.

Through jujitsu, I learned that physical exertion is also key to reducing stress.  The fight or flight response, often mentioned in connection with heightened anxiety, is not always appropriate.  Trouble at work, for example, must not be resolved by attacking a colleague or running from the building.  The stress hormones - adrenaline, cortisol, homocysteine and others - prepare us for those reactions, and regular exercise is a more acceptable way to reduce their effects.

I sometimes don't spend as much time managing my stress levels as I should, or I've had a particularly difficult day or week.  Wing chun is somewhat different from jujitsu, and is made much more difficult by the presence of tension.  By the time I recognise the signs, however, I am already taking part in the class.  The first sign is that even novices are able to take pot shots at me.  As the class draws on, I realise that my thinking has become clouded, and I'm not really able to take in much of anything that is said.  In the worst cases, as happened this week, my difficulty with being in a room with more than about three other people makes an unwelcome return.

Apologies if I sound too much like a psychology student, but I have, unfortunately, attained a programmed conditioned response to martial arts classes, especially when being tested in that environment, and that response is muscular tension.

Given that I usually arrive early at the class, it is possible for me to do some chi kung, yoga or even meditation before the class begins.  I remember that one of the older students in the class used to do tai chi before the class began, and I understand that now.  Hopefully, I can be more effective, and more consistent, in the future.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015


Few things puzzle me more than humankind's talent for making things complicated which should be simple.  So it is with mindfulness.  If you have young children, it is likely that you are observing masters of mindfulness at play on a daily basis.  Strange then, that something children are able to achieve without conscious effort should require so many pages to be written, so many courses to run, and so many fortunes to be made.

So, let me simplify mindfulness for you with a definition.  Mindfulness is a focus on the present moment.  That's it.  Whenever we feel anxious about the future, or let concerns about past mistakes cloud our mind, we are not being mindful of the present.  Ask someone who drove, or was driven, to an important meeting, for example, to recount their journey to the meeting.  Beyond telling you the route they took, they will probably be unable to tell you any more details.  Why?  Well, the likelihood is they were too focused on the upcoming meeting.  It would be nice to think they were focused on their driving, on where they were going, but it is likely that some of their focus was diverted to other matters.

In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh uses the example of washing the dishes.  Are we washing the dishes to have clean dishes, he asks, or washing the dishes to wash the dishes?  Paul Wilson, in Instant Calm, refers to this as "the total effort".  The basic idea is a total focus on what we are doing in any given moment.  This principle, in both cases, is explained within a few pages, surrounded by numerous other pages which contain useful exercises.

Modern life teaches us bad habits.  In our work, in our lives away from work, we seem to have so little time that we are tempted to attempt multitasking.  As a result, our focus is pulled in different directions.  Ideally, we need to prioritise and give our focus to one thing at a time.  Few of us have this choice, so the exercises in those guides to mindfulness become necessary.  We should set aside some time each day, the guides say, to sit quietly, focus on where we are, what is happening right now, and concentrate on our breath as a method of grounding us in the present.  They sell this to us as "mindfulness meditation".  Wrong.  It is simply meditation, and it has retained the same basic form for thousands of years.  Mindfulness is not the process of meditation; it is the result.

I've heard it said that, as we age, time seems to pass more quickly.  "Where did the time go?", I have heard people ask.  It should be clear, from what I have said here, that life continues to pile distraction upon distraction on us, so it is increasingly difficult to be mindful, to be completely in the present moment.  Once these moments are gone, they are gone forever.  If we are not mindful of their passing, they are lost to us.

You may have heard yoga, tai chi, chi kung and similar disciplines referred to as "moving meditation".  If done correctly, it is an accurate description.  A focus on these movements is more effective, for some, than a simple seated meditation.  The day's problems, and concerns about the future, fade away as we are absorbed in having correct posture, performing movements correctly and being aware of how our bodies respond.

If you are eating, actually taste your food.  Savour every bite, rather than greedily shovelling it into your mouth and swallowing, barely registering its presence.  Notice your surroundings.  If you are taking a walk, take time to think about how the sun, rain, wind or snow feels on your skin.  What do you see?  What do you hear?  What do you smell?  What do you feel?

This present moment is all you have right now.  Make the most of it.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Letting go of a friendship again, and why this keeps happening

Yesterday, I turned my back on someone I've known for many years.  As I haven't seen them for a long time, and am unlikely to meet with them again, it was as simple as removing them from my social media accounts.  Unfortunately, this met with the assumption that I'm intimidated by strong women, because this person chose to identify herself as being a strong woman.

I learned, a long time ago, that there are times when the best reaction is no reaction.  It's simple enough to say, but difficult in practice.  If we take this most recent example, it is said that I am unable to hold my ground against a strong woman, implying that I am, therefore, a weak man.  What actually happened is that I was exercising a right that is rarely given much thought.

A disturbing trend I have noticed in modern times is the tendency to ignore, deliberately misunderstand or misrepresent a point that has been made, in order to "win" an argument.  In their eagerness to avoid being wrong, some will just pretend that anything which contradicts their views does not exist, no matter how reasonably it is presented.  As a result, there is an inability to understand, and empathise with, the views of others.

The right to free speech is often quoted.  Yes, in theory, you can be as outspoken, and even downright offensive as you choose to be.  In these days of political correctness, it is unlikely that any of us will not, at some point, say something which offends someone.  I will not take away anyone's right to express themselves as they see fit, but I would urge those exercising their right to free speech to consider the rights of others, and that is where most seem to go wrong.  You have the right to cause offence, but that goes hand in hand with the right of others to be offended and to respond in an appropriate manner.

There was a time when I had to deal with a large amount of abuse.  The stated purpose of my role was to support those in distress, by phone, face to face contact and email.  The anonymity, and confidential nature, of the service provided a means for individuals to talk about their problems and, unfortunately, for those who wished to verbally abuse and hurt someone to do so with the protection of anonymity.  For a time, I reasoned that something had led to these people needing to be abusive, and they were in need of help too, so I chose to be patient.  Sometimes, it paid off, and I discovered that, as I thought, the behaviour was fuelled by a deep despair.  There was always a cut off point, however, a point where I had to accept that a caller would just continue with the abuse, and the call must be ended.  Put simply, there was a point where I had to stop listening.

It makes sense for me to apply the same rules to friendship.  If we accept one of the principles of Zen, that it is better to avoid contention, and add in my own interpretation that sometimes the best reaction is not to react, then it stands to reason that there is a point where a friendship may come to an end.  One of the many unfortunate things about social media is that we can't just walk away.  When we reach the point where our attempts to resolve an issue, or issues, are continuously being ignored, when what we say is wilfully misunderstood, what do we do?  Do we reason that we have nothing productive to say?  Do we start thinking that maybe we don't deserve a listening ear?  Does it cross our minds that we might be fundamentally flawed in how we deal with others, and ultimately it is our fault that we are misunderstood?  Believe me, I've been through all of that.

If we seek to limit our suffering, to preserve our inner peace, there is a point where we must stop listening.  To my mind, continuing a conversation where one party is no longer listening is an exercise in futility.  It's upsetting that someone who knew me for a number of years chose to label me as weak, but it's a further sign that walking away was the correct thing to do.

Edit: I question the use of the term "strong woman".  There are women all over the world who face sexual abuse, violence and other abuses of their human rights on a daily basis, in countries where gender equality is but a distant hope.  They carry on, and some have the courage to fight against the way of things.  These are strong women.  Elsewhere, I look at the way the word "bitch" has been appropriated as a badge of honour, even though it essentially means the same thing it has always meant - a spiteful or unpleasant woman - and I have to say that maybe we took a wrong turn somewhere.  Since when has being unpleasant and spiteful been seen as a desirable trait?  Is "winning" at all costs, no matter who may be hurt, what it takes to be a strong woman?  I question the value of such a victory.  Sun Tzu states, in The Art of War, that it is better to achieve victory without bloodshed or, to translate it into more general terms, it is better to bring someone around to our point of view without causing lasting damage to our relationship with them.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Feeling alone

During my first visit to Manila, a young Filipino woman was walking past the bench where I was sitting, waiting for my girlfriend to finish her work.  She broke from the conversation she was having with her two friends, approached and asked "Why you look so alone?"  I let her know that I was okay, so she joined her friends again and the three of them walked away, going back to speaking in Tagalog and giggling.

I often ask myself why the incident affected me.  My focus at the time was how my visit to Manila and, more importantly, the relationship with my new girlfriend were going.  From an objective point of view, the young woman wasn't unattractive.  She appeared to be in her mid to late twenties, just over five feet tall, dressed in a loose fitting tee shirt, denim shorts and a pair of sandals.  Her natural black hair had been coloured with ginger streaks here and there.  I've probably got some of the details wrong, but that is how I remember her.  More to the point, why do I remember her?

My impressions of Manila, up to that point, were not favourable.  The security guard at the airport had suggested that I use another man's phone to see why my girlfriend was not waiting for me, a privilege which cost me most of my wallet's contents.  Taxi drivers had also tried to trick me into paying more for a journey than I should.  I regretted not learning more about the food, because I made too many visits to the local branches of US fast food chains.

Sitting on that bench within the grounds of a mall in Makati, I had far too much time to think about the situation.  I was in a strange country, far from my family, friends and all that I know.  I'd like to think that the young woman had no ulterior motive because, for a brief moment, her expression showed genuine concern for another human being.

As she walked away with her friends, I thought about her question.  Why did I look so alone?  Maybe she was asking why I looked so lonely?  If she really looked at me and felt genuine concern for how I was feeling, then it was correct to ask why I looked so alone.  The irony is that, on a later visit, some children took to referring to me, in Tagalog, as a ghost.  I know that I was thought to be a ghost because of my pale complexion but, on that first visit, I spent a lot of time feeling like a ghost.  Going into a shop led to some interaction with the shop assistants, though this was clearly in the hope that I would make a purchase.

It's difficult to explain how the sight of my girlfriend (now my fiancée, I might add) made me feel.  As I saw her emerge from the approaching crowd, I suddenly felt less alone, and then not alone at all.  I was happy that the bar girls would no longer be walking past me several times, each trying to gauge my level of interest in their presence.  I was also glad that I could stop looking so alone, spending my evening in the company of a truly beautiful woman instead.

It's unusual for people to see loneliness in us.  A good friend of mine is known to say that we only see the edited highlights of the lives of others.  I should mention that my friend is a personal counsellor, and his website is well worth a visit.  I would add that a lot of people feel more lonely than we know.  When a member of my fiancée's family enquired about people in a country as relatively rich as the UK seeking the support of a counsellor, she asked if the issues were mainly linked to loneliness.

It's funny that we have so many ways of communicating with each other, and yet so many of us feel isolated.  Maybe technology is not the answer.  Maybe we buy into the whole communication technology thing in the mistaken belief that, some day, it will make us feel less isolated, less alone.  We seem to be spending less time in the company of other people, genuinely feeling a connection with them, and too much time staring at screens.  No wonder we feel lonely.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Surviving a knife attack

Assume nothing.  It's a pretty blunt way to start a treatise on dealing with sharp weapons, but it's also a concise way of summing up.  The hand coming towards you may be empty but, in the fractions of a second by which a violent encounter turns, you may realise that the hand wasn't empty when it is already too late.  Bearing this in mind, it would be a good idea to look at how we might survive an attack with a bladed weapon, or at least give ourselves a better chance.

I'm not going to go into great detail about my experience with knives, but I suppose this reassures some people that I know what I'm talking about.  Growing up in Manchester, I witnessed a knife attack from a distance.  When I had to face a blade myself, I was relatively lucky.  My attacker was drunk, and seemingly unsure about whether they really wanted to cut me or put a hole in me.  In that situation, the judo I had learned up to that point, combined with some necessary improvisation, was enough for me to gain control of the situation.  I escaped unharmed.  This is unusual.

I apologise for any offence I may cause here, but the eskrima class I attended was a disappointment.  I can tell you that Filipino martial arts have excellent knife survival techniques but, like with everything else, this can be undone by poor teaching methods.  Many of the "knife defence" techniques I have seen are useful, but I see them being poorly implemented.  At worst, I see things which give a false sense of security, and may just get someone killed.

I will give credit to the instructors who say that the preferred option is always to run.  The only exception to that rule is where escape is not possible.  If an instructor neglects to mention this most important point, you should question whether they can reasonably be regarded as an expert on surviving a knife attack.

Rather than give you some set defences, which would be of limited use, I'm going to give you some principles.  The same principles are useful for an attack by any weapon, bladed or otherwise, including empty hands and feet.

1.  Don't be there

As previously stated, escape is always the preferred option.  The outcome of any encounter is always unknown, but a blade certainly stacks the odds in favour of the person holding the blade.  If escape is not possible, or the knife-wielding fiend is already close enough to make the attack, mobility is the key.  Your first priority must always, always be to get out of the weapon's way.  Those footwork drills that everyone neglects, because they want to get to the "fun" stuff - think of them as your best friend.  Whether you run, side step, move out of range or use a redirection technique, the principle is still the same: get out of the way.

2.  Defence

If you have managed to get out of the weapon's path, and especially if you haven't, controlling the path of the weapon is your next priority.  The two ways of doing this are to stop the weapon or to redirect the weapon.  Redirection is always the better option, because stopping the weapon's motion relies on the momentum of your block being greater than that of the weapon, whereas redirection makes use of the weapon's momentum.  If you are at all unsure of your ability to deliver a block with speed and power, then you must concentrate on learning to redirect an oncoming attack.

In the absence of anything else, the 360 degree defence from krav maga is pretty easy to learn.

3.  Hit

You may have heard stories of boxers surviving knife attacks.  Strange then, that knife defence videos seem to concentrate on applying locks.  It's all the more strange when you consider the fine motor skills that are needed to apply a joint lock.  All those pin sharp techniques you developed suddenly fly out of the window when a good dose of adrenaline hits your system.  Boxers are no stranger to adrenaline, and know that their best chance is to use those powerful punches they have trained time and time again.  Sure, it doesn't have the finesse of a perfectly executed joint lock, but that's the whole point.  We are dealing with simple, brutal and effective here.

More to the point, simultaneous attack and defence is the key.  If you're applying a block or redirection, it is advisable that it is accompanied with a strike of some kind.  What about kicking them as they approach?  You'll be lucky to get so much of a warning: the knife will usually be drawn when the attacker thinks you have the least chance of reacting.  If your attacker is stupid enough to make it obvious that he is drawing a knife at such a long range, I would still caution against kicking.  Half expect that your leg will be cut, affecting your mobility and, therefore, your chance of escape.

So, you've hit your attacker, possibly a few times.  Should you apply a lock?  Well, in the eyes of the law, if your opponent is stunned enough that you can apply a lock or throw, why did you not take advantage of this and escape?  If you are skilled enough, and immune enough to the effects of adrenaline, to disarm him or her, fair enough.  Otherwise, remaining with someone who is holding a blade and wants to use it is foolhardy in the extreme.

Summing up

Control, manoeuvre and hit, control, manoeuvre and hit, control, manoeuvre and hit.  As soon as a means of escape is available, take it.  If you hit your opponent hard enough to dump them on the ground, then run.  Never follow them to the ground: it puts you in a shaky position legally and you have lost the ability to easily escape.  If they have an accomplice, and you go to the ground, you're probably dead.

Filipino martial artists say that any improvised weapons that are available should be used.  I'll leave the legalities of this to one side and say that, from a practical standpoint, they're correct.

Always expect that you will get cut by a knife, and try to minimise the damage.  As I said, not getting cut is unusual.  Avoid being on the wrong end of a blade, if at all possible.  Of all the rules I could possibly pass to you regarding knife attack survival, that one is by far the most important.


I came across a discussion about ground fighting against a knife, which broadly supports what I'm saying.  I took heed of the advice about the video, and decided not to watch it.