Archive for kung fu

Arete Vs. The Common Cold (Day 27 of 100)

Posted in Agathos, arete, Homeric, Stoicism with tags , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by Joe Callahan
Nicolas_Poussin_-_The_Plague_at_Ashdod_-_WGA18274

Nicolas Poussin -The Plague at Ashdod

Recently I took a short trip and brought back some form of viral or bacterial life as a souvenir.  I was down with an ugly cold for over a week.  Since I am in the thick of my “100 days of practice” effort it was not the best timing.  I adjusted my activities to my condition.  Some days my martial practice was limited to light internal work.  Brain fog limited my Go studies to reading commentaries of games.  Business didn’t suffer too much as I work from a home office anyway.  I could keep up a minimal appearance of productivity.  None of my practices during this week of plague really advanced my skill and knowledge all that much.  That’s alright as the main point of this hundred day exercise is to build habits.  The object is to further set these practices as natural daily occurrences.  So, at least I kept going.

But (there had to be a “but”) some things did suffer.  I found it very difficult to stay with some of the mental practices (psychological, philosophical, spiritual, whatever term you prefer).  It wasn’t that I didn’t continue with things like meditation or self-evaluative practices from Stoicism.  I simply had more difficulty believing they mattered.  In fact, I had difficulty maintaining the belief that the whole 100 days of practice exercise mattered.  I think only anticipation of a healthy dose of shame served as deterrent to tossing it all.

Being ill depresses me.  Of course, nobody enjoys being sick but something as minor as the flu doesn’t usually evoke waves of existential disgust and despair.  So what’s the problem?

The reaction is an irrational one.  It is a learned and not always conscious response.  Beginning in my mid to late twenties I went through an extended period where my health was not great.  It seemed like a perfect storm of injuries, developed allergies, fatigue, stresses and a general dark night of the soul.  A severe case of pneumonia (stupidly acquired by wandering about in freezing weather after a bit of drunken revelry) helped get the avalanche rolling downhill.  Frequent colds and bouts of bronchitis, chronic pain issues, odd neurological events and a generally depressed state were the norm for a period of more years than I care to think about.  I underwent a lot of inconclusive testing for all kinds of nasty things.

How I eventually pulled out of that mess is a whole other post (s).  The quick version is a combination of major lifestyle changes, a long reevaluation of my psychological/philosophical outlook, and lots and lots of kung fu/chi gung.  But that long stretch of feeling ill and demoralized still remains in memory.  When I get sick it begins to feel like nothing has really changed.  That in turn feels like a failure.

I know that is a perception and not reality.  But that intellectual understanding doesn’t always reach the emotional core.  It remains a struggle.

Agathos, the “good” or worthy in life, is the core concept of what I write about here.  For the ancient Greeks what was good, worthy, beautiful was demonstrable.  It was shown through arête, observable skill or excellence.  Arête can be physical (athletic feats, artistry) or intellectual (great strategist, a reputation for wisdom or fairness) but regardless it was shown directly through one’s actions.  Aristotle spoke of arête as acquired by developing habits until a given behavior, skill, virtue becomes a permanent character trait.  That is my desired outcome in committing to one hundred days of practice.  So what happens if personal baggage can so easily interfere with the demonstration of arête?  What is the antidote when our own deeply formed emotional patterns sap even the desire to be agathos?

The Stoics taught that many things in life, including health, are often outside of our control.  Our characters are the result of choices we make about what is within our control.  So, the ability to lead a worthy life was not dependent on unpredictable externals like wealth, fame, health and so on.  In the Stoic school of thought these externals were “preferred indifferents” meaning we may like them but they don’t really determine our ability to lead the “good” life.  Eudaimonia (happiness, thriving) doesn’t require externals.

I’ve reminded myself of all that over the past several days.  It’s helpful to a degree.  Sometimes a rational understanding that we can choose how we perceive events isn’t enough to push past emotions especially very old, deep set ones.   What then?  I was reminded of an interview I heard years ago with film writer/director John Milius.  He was speaking of the difficulties in filming his desert epic “The Wind and The Lion” with Sean Connery.  They had bad weather, illness and injury on the set, lots of equipment failures, generally lousy conditions.  He said that he reminded himself and others that when they looked back years later they wouldn’t remember how they felt.  They’d only remember what they did, what they accomplished.  There is a lot of truth in that I believe.  I can think of examples in my own life.

So, where philosophy fails to rally me maybe there is only the primal human need for arête.  When I look back at life really all I will think about it is what I did or didn’t do.  It’s probably the only thing that will matter much.  The fact I felt ill or depressed on a given day won’t mean a thing.  The original agathoi, the figures that appear in the Homeric epics, often come across as obstinate and even irrational in pursuit of their own ends.  Maybe though they knew a truth I have to keep in mind.  When in doubt try to demonstrate arête.  When feeling pain or fatigue or sadness try to demonstrate arête.  Our presence in the world is defined by our actions in it.  Our effort to live as agathos is what sends out ripples in the pond.  Phantasms we experience are not what will remain.

Creative Resistance And Dragon Slaying

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on September 12, 2012 by Joe Callahan

I’m not a big fan of books that are self-help or inspirational or that promote wishful thinking about reality.  Most of the “wonder that is you” genre is at best a derivative easy-listening version of more disciplined and profound traditions.  At worst its delusional nonsense.

So I was surprised to see a book that seemed strangely self-helpish from author Steven Pressfield.  Pressfield is the author of Gates of Fire, a piece of historical fiction that recounts the oft told tale of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae.  If you aren’t familiar with the book it is an anthem to a certain ideal (Spartan) of virtue.  The book makes the most hardened and badass of grown men pretend they have something in their eye while they get all choked up.  I did.  By all accounts he’s an interesting man who, after a period in the Marine Corps  “worked as an advertising copywriter, schoolteacher, tractor-trailer driver, bartender, oilfield roustabout, attendant in a mental hospital, fruit-picker in Washington state, and screenwriter.  His struggles to make a living as an author, including the period when he was homeless and living out of the back of his car, are detailed in his book The War of Art ”  (So sayeth Wikipedia).  As a fellow former worker of random crappy jobs I have to feel a certain kinship.

So I was curious to see what Mr. Pressfield was doing writing a book about finding inspiration and overcoming internal resistant.  “Do The Work” only cost a few bucks for Kindle so why not?  I liked it even when I didn’t see eye to eye on everything.  But the most significant passage to me was this:

When you and I set out to create anything—art, commerce, science, love—or to advance in the direction of a higher, nobler version of ourselves, we uncork from the universe, ineluctably, an equal and opposite reaction. That reaction is Resistance. Resistance is an active, intelligent, protean, malign force—tireless, relentless, and inextinguishable—whose sole object is to stop us from becoming our best selves and from achieving our higher goals. The universe is not indifferent. It is actively hostile.  Every principle espoused so far in this volume is predicated upon that truth.

The aim of every axiom set forth thus far is to outwit, outflank, outmaneuver Resistance. We can never eliminate Resistance. It will never go away. But we can outsmart it, and we can enlist allies that are as powerful as it is. One thing we can never, never permit ourselves to do is to take Resistance lightly, to underestimate it or to fail to take it into account. We must respect Resistance, like Sigourney Weaver respected the Alien, or St. George respected the dragon.

Pressfield, Steven (2011-04-20). Do the Work (p. 33-34). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.

It may seem from the above passage that Pressfield is telling us the universe is nasty, brutish and has it in for you.  If you read the rest of his short book, more a long essay really, it is clear that isn’t what he’s saying.  But he IS making the point that when you are your own worst enemy, which most of us are at some point, the internal demons will combine with a fluid and uncertain environment to completely mess you up.  Figuring out how to deal with that is a personal responsibility and requires focused effort.

Where I think he does go wrong is his statement that the universe is not indifferent but is hostile.  He refers to each of us and our “dragon”.   It is true that each of us carries our internal adversary (and allies).   But neither we nor our internal adversary are the universe.  We are in it.  Nature doesn’t really care who prevails.  It accepts all outcomes and continues on.  Things come, things go in natural progression.  The outcome only matters to us.  To the extent that we can be in harmony with that universal nature (Tao, Logos) and ride its currents we’ll likely find it easier to keep resistance, disharmony, self-sabotage at bay.  I think the universe is indifferent but that indifference is not a negative.  It is not neglect.  It’s allowing things to go their own way.

The Stoics taught that we live in a universe that works.  It’s the best possible universe simply because, well, it exists.  Why would nature order itself to its own detriment?  Since we are part of the grand schema it makes no sense that anything truly evil can happen to us.  Painful?  Disappointing? Infuriating?  Even fatal?  Sure.  These things re inevitable.  But truly bad?  Not if we retain our awareness, our reason, our character, our purpose.  Which I think brings us full circle to Pressfield’s point.  There is really nothing to lose if you just give yourself over to doing your work, get messy, persevere (the Chinese got this right with the original meaning of Gung Fu).

To carry Pressfield’s Alien analogy further, the creature isn’t going away.  So you may as well just get mean and blow it out of the airlock.  Not bad advice for a self-help book.

Are Martial Arts Necessary For Agathos? (Part 1)

Posted in Agathos, Homeric, Philosophy with tags , , , , on January 22, 2012 by Joe Callahan

When I began writing about a personal exploration of the concept of Agathos I automatically included references to the martial arts. For instance, it seemed an obvious choice to put a link to the Chinese martial arts school where I study. A number of my articles have made reference to things martial. There are some good reasons on a personal level for me to make this connection, but how relevant is it to Agathos as most people might live it today?

The earliest conceptions of Agathos come from the Homeric epics. The stories center around warriors and martial virtues. In their world it would have been difficult (if not suicidal) for Agathoi to claim their societal role without martial skill.  Someone would just do them in and take all their stuff.  Warfare and who participated in it changed and broadened through Greek and Roman history but the idea of the virtuous man remained connected to the martial. But as we find our own way to Agathos, the good and the worthy, the connection may seem less clear. American society has never been exactly pacifistic and the military-industrial complex has been in high gear this last decade. Nevertheless, its not uncommon for someone to live what is considered a “successful” life without ever learning how to throw a punch much less prepare themselves for a war. Considerable numbers of people will say that is a good thing and, agree or disagree, their arguments are not unreasonable.

The question of the martial in Agathos opens a proverbial can of worms. It’s a complicated topic. For starters it requires a definition of terms before a response can be seriously considered. What do we mean when we talk about things “martial”?

Theoretically, a group of people practicing Tai Chi in a park are engaging in a martial activity. So is someone sitting in front of a radar screen on board an aircraft carrier. In the strictest sense of the word a martial activity is that which is conducted for purposes of warfare (belonging to Mars, god of war). I’ve never found that a particularly useful definition as the nature of warfare has shifted dramatically over time. What was considered warfare in one age and/or culture would be considered something quite different by a modern professionalized nation-state military, probably banditry if not terrorism. This is addressed in part by some current thinking on warfare “generations”. Its interesting stuff but outside the scope of this discussion.

The Chinese martial art I practice still contains a few traces of pre-gunpowder military arts in the weapon forms. But most of the practice comes from monastic traditions, a very different community. Their purpose was not to be an instrument of what Clausewitz would call “the continuation of policy by other means”.  I think its fair to say that while warfare calls upon martial virtues it doesn’t automatically follow that martial virtues are only present in modern professionalized warfare.

If we allow that martial skills and virtues include non-military or non-law enforcement pursuits then what are we talking about?

The objective of any martial art is doing some degree of injury to another person. We can dress it up and talk about being a peaceful warrior and seeking enlightenment and blending with the universe and all that. If your art doesn’t teach some effective ways to punch, kick, choke, restrain, chop, stab and/or shoot an uncooperative foe then you are taking dancing lessons or an exercise class. That’s just reality. What matters to the pursuit of Agathos, a life that is noble and worthy, is knowing when it is right to do these unpleasant things. By right I mean what is just. Legality is always important for obvious reasons but the two aren’t always identical with regard to one’s philosophy. It’s wise to be self-aware about where you stand on both issues.

So really we are considering a personal, rather than institutional, relationship to physical violence and the state of Agathos. Its clear why the Agathoi of old had a personal and highly enthusiastic relationship to close-up physical violence. Do I, as someone seeking to be Agathos in a modern day context, need to have that personal capacity for doing harm? If so, what meaning does it hold? If not, then what replaces it as the best way of displaying Arete, excellence and skill?

More on those questions in part two.

A Martial Arts Show Gives Me A Little Perspective Shift On Age

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 21, 2010 by Joe Callahan

The other night I caught a show on the History Channel tracing the life of Miyamoto Musashi, arguably the most well known of Samurai swordsmen.  The show was hosted by Mark Dacascos.  Dacascos is a martial artist and actor who has popped up in a number of action flicks over the years.  I recognized him primarily from the strange but entertaining film Brotherhood of the Wolf (How could a martial arts/gothic horror/romance movie set in 18th century France not be a little strange?).   This show was a film journal of his travels around present day Japan as he explored Musashi’s life.  It was interesting and worth checking out but I was really struck by Dacascos himself.  Near the opening he mentions that he was born in 1964, one year after me.  As of the filming of this show last year he was 44.  That caused me to blink a couple of times.  Dacascos is in great condition.  When he is practicing during the show he is obviously still a very talented and athletic individual.   He surely didn’t look 44.

Maybe he has some fabulously lucky genes in his Japanese/Filipino/Irish ancestry.   Maybe he has had more plastic surgery than a Beverly Hills trophy wife.  None of that would be a substitute for what is obviously a lot of physical self-discipline.  Admittedly, Dacascos came from a family of martial artists and has been at this full time since he was a young boy.  He isn’t sitting on his butt behind a desk 40-50 hours a week.  He does this for a living.  Still, he must not be out partying till dawn and living on fried foods either.  That isn’t really what mattered to me.  For me seeing his birth date was yet another in a string of occurrences forcing me to reexamine my perceptions of my age and what it means.

Recently I took part in a demonstration with my kung fu school.  The event was a yearly banquet in Chinatown for a federation of kung fu schools.  I am not a big fan of doing kung fu demonstrations especially when the audience is made up of other practitioners some of whom are masters from China.  My negative perspective on this may be a little warped because I practice mostly with notably younger men who have been training religiously from an early age.  They just plain ‘ol look better.  It doesn’t help that our uniforms are traditional red and yellow Shaolin outfits.  Young Chinese men look like dashing monks.  I look like a degenerate Ronald McDonald who’s been fired for drinking on the job (remember Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa?).  Putting aside self-consciousness and criticism (and fashion vanity) I actually did pretty well.  I demonstrated three forms from our style and received some very encouraging positive feedback.  It wasn’t half bad.  Well ….. not bad for a 46 year old guy I told myself.

We all have to watch out for playing mind games with ourselves.  We come up with rationalizations for not pushing towards certain goals or running certain risks.  There is a part of our psyches that prefers short term goals and immediate gratification.  It will come up with some excellent ways to convince us we really are better off kicking back with a pint of Guinness instead of running a mile or two.   In my case I have sold myself the story that I am getting to be a little over the hill.  Why beat myself up over accomplishing things that are no longer within reach?  It is a seductive excuse.  I can also see it at work in other areas of my life aside from physical training.

This doesn’t mean I’ll now be spouting platitudes like “You’re as young as you feel” or “Forty-five is the new Thirty-Five”.  I am at a different point in my life and my body has indeed changed from fifteen or twenty years ago.  I do not want to replace one fantasy with another.  The Stoics taught the importance and the discipline of seeing things as they are.  My reality is impacted by the passage of time and aging, of course.  But not as much as I have been telling myself.

A lot more is within my control than I may want to admit because knowing that requires action.  It is an awareness I would do well to keep in the front of my thoughts.  Putting that awareness into action however requires the development of habits and that is a subject for another post.