Archive for martial arts

Personal Blind Spots and some Sci-fi Wisdom

Posted in arete, Martial Arts, Philosophy, Uncategorized with tags , , on September 15, 2014 by Joe Callahan


Any enclosed discipline sets its stamp, its pattern, upon its students. That pattern is susceptible to analysis and prediction.
– Frank Herbert, Dune.

I first read the novel Dune when I was 15 years old over Christmas vacation in 1978. In those young pre-internet days I hadn’t ever encountered anything quite like its curious mix of science, spirituality and politics. Whatever your preferences regarding sci-fi it is worth checking out (a brief synopsis and discussion of the novel’s enduring relevance and appeal here). Since that first reading I’ve come back to it a number of times. My appreciation of the novel has changed with time and my own shifts in perspective.

Recently I picked up Dune again and was struck by the quotation above. In the novel this passage refers to different schools of intelligence and counter intelligence operations. In a larger context I think it is an axiom that can be applied to most activities and many parts of our lives. Thinking on this started an evaluation (still in progress) of my own background, education and life experiences. I wanted to consider where this might apply to me. This seems a worthwhile exercise since predictability and being easily read are disadvantages in most of life’s more competitive situations.

The first thing that came to mind was the martial arts. Whatever arts you’ve trained in will identify what tactics and techniques you are likely to apply. Some idea of an opponent’s orientation can be guessed from different backgrounds like MMA, “traditional” arts or military combatives. If an opponent has practiced Muay Thai there is a strong likelihood that some kicks and knees will be coming your way. Deep training in an art gives strong skills such as very effective grappling for a Judoka. It also suggests potential vulnerabilities and reveals a likely mindset. The only real solutions to this problem of predictability are to train a wide range of techniques and train across different disciplines. If you are like me, there simply may not be enough available hours in a week to really do that.

I also considered how this can apply to the business world. Viewpoints and approaches can differ between someone from a big company career ladder background and someone with a more entrepreneurial, small team history. What sorts of industries have people worked in? Are they the product of a business school?

You get the idea. This axiom can be applied to all sorts of information about any individual. This certainly can give you some valuable insights if you take the time for a bit of intelligence gathering. On the other hand, the same can be done to you. A personal inventory of the “enclosed disciplines” in one’s life can show where to find new ways to expand a repertoire and act as a reminder to sometimes confound expectations.

Heavy Rain and Hagakure

Posted in Agathos, Martial Arts, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on June 10, 2014 by Joe Callahan
A little rain didn't deter the Seven Samurai....though musket fire was problematic.

A little rain didn’t deter the Seven Samurai….though musket fire was problematic.

Today we had a sudden heavy downpour in the Boston area.  I was already in my car when it began so I escaped the worst of it.  I did have to make a stop at a local establishment.  One of the shop owners offered to escort me back to my car with an umbrella.  Great customer service!  Still, I declined.  It was a short dash and, really, it’s rain not lava falling from the skies.  When I was back behind the wheel I was suddenly reminded of a passage from Hagakure (Hidden Leaves) written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a Samurai of the early 18th century.

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and
run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you
are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding
extends to everything.

It is true that the author tends to think the universal solution to all of life’s problems is drawing one’s sword and rushing forward to die well.  I prefer a more tactical approach myself.  I think here he is suggesting more that when faced with the inevitable, things beyond one’s control, that it is best to recognize them and accept that the soaking may be unavoidable but likely not fatal.  Discomfort does not equal death.  Better to simply get where you are going and let the rest take care of itself.  A drenched Samurai is still a Samurai.

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

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.

The Hazards Of Morning (Day 6 of 100)

Posted in Agathos, arete, Stoicism with tags , , , on March 9, 2013 by Joe Callahan

I’m not a morning person and never have been.  My preference would be to stay up until 1-2 am and then get up around 9-10 am.  That probably isn’t a healthy pattern.  Also, activities like school and work have always been inconsiderately scheduled at ungodly morning times.  A long-ago acquaintance who served in the Marine Corps spoke of being awoken every morning in the early hours.  I observed that he must have grown used to it.  He said no, but he learned to accept it.  There is a nice distinction there that I have always remembered.  I accept that there is value (or necessity) in not being a night owl but I’ve never embraced it.  These days I work from a home office in a consulting/contracting capacity.  As much as I like the setup it hasn’t necessarily been good for me.  There isn’t much motivation to rise with the sun. I only have to make sure I am awake and functional to answer emails and calls during business hours.  It appeals to my baser impulses.

When I DO get myself to sleep earlier and get an earlier start to the day I feel quite good.  I find my day is usually more productive. There is a classic case of cognitive dissonance going on here.  I’m aware that if I push myself to be morning guy I’ll be all the better for it.  But in the moment when I decide what to do next it doesn’t sound like such a grand idea after all.  Aristotle would likely have called it Akrasia.  I don’t think I’m the only one who has ever had difficulty with this conflict.  Even so venerable a Stoic figure as Marcus Aurelius had to steel himself to face the morning (Meditations 2:1 and 5:1 for instance).

I’m especially aware of this now because of the goals I set for 100 days of practice.  If my day begins with the rest of the world already in motion I don’t have the time to focus myself with the mental practices I am trying to make a habit.  The kind of mental exercise that prepares one for the day, like Marcus’ review of attitude and what the day will bring, go out the window if I wake up to find I already need to respond to a message.  Also, exercise and my commitment to some daily practice in my martial art suffer with this pattern.  If I am going to the school then evening practice works well enough because I am with others.  Evening practice on my own is often a little lame.  Fatigue sets in, there’s dinner to be had or some other distraction beckons and the practice lacks focus and energy.  I know if I leave time and work out in the morning it’s a much higher quality practice.  But…well…cognitive dissonance tends to strike again.

This is part of the value of doing something like this 100 day program of building habitual practices.  It brings to light (or reminds me) of weaknesses in my outlook or approach to my affairs.  Obviously the goal is to build arête through the habits and skills that make up the program.  But sticking to a committed structure for daily life leaves less room for excuses and illusions.  You know when you aren’t walking the walk because it can be easily assessed at the end of the day.

The Homeric epics give us the earliest examples of individuals in pursuit of the arête ideal.  The heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey weren’t always too big on deep self-analysis.  The ideal of a more detached, logical view of one’s life didn’t come until later in the Greek world.  But the Homeric world certainly did understand the necessity of walking the walk.  Its hard to fake it when you’re on the plains before the walls of Troy.  Arete in its most basic form has always been about concrete action and the measurable results we create.  Without that there is no foundation.  If getting there means changing some sleep patterns then that’s a small price to pay.

One Hundred Days Of Practice

Posted in Agathos, arete with tags , , , on March 2, 2013 by Joe Callahan

Golden Flower Meditation Aristotle said that excellence is not an act but a habit.   It is the result of ongoing practice, a pattern of behavior rather than a single effort of will.  Just how much practice is required for something to become habitual?  How long for some excellence (arête) to become a natural part of ourselves?

Malcolm Gladwell wrote that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to truly master a complex activity.  In order to reach that rather daunting figure one would have to build some disciplined habits along the way.   There are lots of numbers offered through history and in more recent psychology.   These seek to tell us how much time and effort is required to make something a true habit.

There is a pop psychology meme that floats around offering 20-something days as sufficient to establish a habit.  I’m not sure where that originated but I find it unconvincing.  Three weeks isn’t much time to change patterns and overcome resistances.  According to the Bible, the prophets of old spent 40 days and nights out in the desert.  Similarly, the Buddha was said to have meditated beneath the bhodi tree for 49 days until he attained enlightenment.  Then again, devoted wilderness ascetics may not represent a norm in human behavior.  A UK study published in The European Journal of Social Psychology cited 66 days.  That might seem helpful until you read that the average was taken from a range of 18 to 254 days.

Some years ago in my study of Chinese martial arts and Taoist concepts I came across another number.  100 days of training comes from Taoist Chi Gung practice.  Specifically, I found it in reading Thomas Cleary’s translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower.  This text of Taoist meditation introduced me to one hundred days as a number for building a foundation of continued meditation, health and martial study.   It was a number mentioned by my Sifu as well.  Over time I have returned to one hundred day periods of practice and training when I have felt the need to give myself a swift kick in the right direction.  Some of these practice periods have met with great success.  Some……well….not so much.

I’m feeling like it is time to go once more unto the breach and commit myself to a one hundred day period.  I want to establish (or reestablish) habits that are part of my personal efforts towards arête and agathos.  I am perhaps mixing cultural metaphors in using a Chinese Taoist method to attain a Greco-Roman ideal.  I’m comfortable with being shameless that way.

I’m trying to keep it simple.  Too many goals and too many daily items in the program just add opportunity for things to break down and lose focus.

  • Daily martial/Chi Gung practice.  This doesn’t mean a killer workout every day.   Some days are hard conditioning and training while some days focus on study of technique and application.  Some days are external and some are internal.  It’s a balance but the desired habit is practice as part of daily life.
  • The game of Go.  My study of the game is erratic.  Consequently, so is my progress.  Some period of time will be found each day to play and/or study games, patterns, etc.
  • Mental exercises from Stoicism.  I’ve talked about being influenced by the Hellenistic philosophical school of Stoicism in this blog.  I want to continue with the daily practices such as those in the Stoic Week experiment I described here and here.
  • Business.  Isn’t a business a daily practice by necessity?  It is in the sense you have to show up and do the work.  That can be just a routine and not a habit that promotes arête.  The habit here is to take some time each day to refine and build through conscious knowledge building, networking, exploring new revenue opportunities, etc.

It may seem like these things don’t all really connect as a coherent program.  But there is a way that they are all unified in what I hope the practice period to accomplish.  All of these contribute to the study of strategy (and or tactics) as part of the conduct of myself in my environment.  They collectively contribute to physical and mental expressions of arete and the agathos ideal.  At least they do for me as I choose to live it.

I’ll talk about the progress (or lack thereof) as the days progress.  If nothing else, it gives me something to write about.

Cryptic Samurai Advice On Time Well Spent

Posted in Philosophy with tags , on October 12, 2012 by Joe Callahan

Miyamoto Musashi. Woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

In college I first picked up a translation of Musashi’s “Go Rin No Sho” or Book of Five Rings.  Briefly, Musashi was one of the great, if not the greatest, swordsmen of his day and is still revered as an icon of Bushido and the Samurai life.  This is all the more interesting since he didn’t always follow the social conventions of the Samurai class.  He composed this work near the end of his life when he retired to contemplate and write in a cave.  His precepts for living according to the martial way were not for the faint of heart.  There was a bit of the mad genius in Musashi.

Like many who have turned to this book over the centuries I was hoping it would offer some roadmap to becoming a great strategist or a great swordsman or both.  Generations of martial artists, soldiers, businessmen and politicians have contemplated Musashi’s words.  There may well be a map in there but it doesn’t offer a quick, clear route and parts of the map just say “here there be monsters”.  It wasn’t until many years later that I had a few “ahhh  I see” moments when rereading the book.

One very brief line struck me early on and I’ve come back to it again and again.  In the work’s  first part called The Earth Scroll (Cleary Translation) there is a short list of “rules” if one wishes to seriously study his way.  The last of these says simply:

Do not do anything useless.

I’ve seen this line translated as “Do nothing that is without use” and “Do nothing that is without purpose”.    Allowing for variations on the theme, the line seems to be telling us don’t screw around.  Get serious.  Focus.  That line could be read through a dour even Puritanical lens (idle hands do the devil’s work, etc.).  In a society where people feel pressured to give more and more to jobs, answering work emails until the wee hours I’m not sure a dictum to only do what is productive and useful is really what we need to hear.

But I don’t think that’s all he was saying.  What constitutes “useful”?  Musashi was a man who contemplated nature.  In addition to being a swordsman he was also an accomplished artist.  While he committed an astonishing amount of energy to his work as a professional martial artist he didn’t suggest that all life must be labor.  He did seem to be saying that all activities, even the pleasurable ones, should contribute to our well-being and development as humans on our path in life.

I’ve thought about this in terms of leisure.  Is leisure “useless”?  No, we all need rest and social time and things we do for the sake of enjoyment.  But Musashi’s rule might be worth considering if the choice of leisure activities is watch television reruns with a six pack at your side versus playing a game of chess or going for a hike with a friend.  Which is truly restful, sitting in quiet meditation contemplating art or nature or staring off into space and scrolling through I Am Bored?  While leisure is necessary and not useless the leisure we choose will speak volumes.  What we’re talking about is intentionality.

Intentionality tells us that our thoughts and actions are about something.  If I say “I am eating potato chips while lying on a couch” that makes a statement with regard to myself and is about my condition.  When we engage in any action whether it is for work or leisure, self-improvement or pleasure, the action will be about something.  The action will reflect on the state of our being independently of our thoughts on the matter.  In one of those odd philosophical twists of terminology this isn’t the same thing as an intention (I intend to start weightlifting tomorrow).  Intentionality is a revealed meaning or purpose of a thought or action.

I think what Musashi was suggesting was not just that we should keep busy and avoid frivolity (though being something of an ascetic he probably would say that too).  I think the point of the line “do nothing that is useless” is to live in such a way that our actions automatically contribute to continued refinement of ourselves.  If you are working then work meaningfully and well.  If you are resting then rest meaningfully and well.  Aristotle told us we are what we repeatedly do.  I think in his own gruffer way Musashi was saying something similar.

Are Martial Arts Necessary For Agathos? (Part 2)

Posted in Agathos with tags , , on February 16, 2012 by Joe Callahan

As I discussed in my previous post, if things “martial” include the personal as well as the institutional (military, law enforcement, etc) then is the personal capacity for self-defense a requirement for Agathos, a good and worthy state of being? I don’t live in the world of Bronze Age warrior-aristocrats. I haven’t been challenged to single combat for possession of my Toyota. Most of us reading this aren’t confronted with violent threats in our daily lives. For many of us the last exposure was a schoolyard scuffle or some youthful chest puffing in a bar. If something bad happens we generally pick up the phone expecting some professional responder to deal with it. Usually that is the correct course.

But what about that one moment out of a long, largely uneventful life when things gets ugly and the cavalry won’t be arriving in time?

The problem with discussing physical violence, even in a philosophical context, is that our culture is deeply weird about it. It evokes strong emotions and lots and lots of fantasy. Even the most well-meaning discussions usually end up in either dismissive, righteous shudders of distaste or dubious proclamations of bad-assery. Some of us tell ourselves we are too “evolved” for such brutishness. Some of us tell ourselves that we are Conan incarnate. Neither illusion is very useful.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time discussing the nature of interpersonal violence. Its a complex topic. Other people write about it at length who have far greater expertise and experience. The dynamics and the psychological and biological impact have been well covered. I’d strongly recommend having a look at the work of Rory Miller, a martial artist and law enforcement officer. I evaluated my own training in a very different light after considering what he had to say. For my purposes here there is a key point to consider. You will only respond to that rare, perhaps singular, violent incident to the degree and manner in which you have prepared for it.

Considering the life-altering impact that one event might have on your survival, your physical and emotional sense of dignity, your ability to be a self-reliant individual, it must have relevance to the state of Agathos.

A couple of arguments could be made against this. One, the likelihood of such an event is very small. Despite the possible impact, the low risk doesn’t justify the time and effort to practice sets of martial skills. Also, the Greek tradition that brought us Agathos later embraced the idea that externals may injure the body but cannot truly harm our character. When Socrates was tried and condemned to death he didn’t reveal hidden kung fu master skills and kick his way out of Athens. He drank the hemlock because the loss of life was less important then demonstrating commitment to his principles. Stoics like Epictetus repeated this message. Consequently some may argue that martial skill is a contradiction to a rational and detached philosophical life.

Maybe I find the time and energy worth it because I just enjoy martial practice? I was reading Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. I was struck by his observation that as skill proficiency develops, less mental focus and energy is required to perform. There may be an initial time and energy investment but once those skills are acquired it would seem that maintenance is not quite the energy sink one might assume. In the case of martial skills there is a base level of practice and physical conditioning required but that same level of conditioning is needed for health and vitality regardless. As I’ve written previously, a worthy life includes the physical to the degree our bodies permit.

Its worth remembering that the same Socrates who submitted to execution also fought in the phalanx. During the retreat from the defeat at Delium he gained a reputation for a cool head in battle. He may have believed that externals could not truly do him harm while his character remained intact but he was not a pacifist either. Miller, whose work I mentioned, uses the term “monkey dance” which I see as describing the effect of pathe, the passions, in escalating violent encounters. Its a good descriptive term. Ego, rage, fear, the desire for recognition and status all play a part in driving confrontational behaviors that often seem outside of our control. The behaviors that fuel conflict can often be instinctive, even unconscious. That’s a very different matter than a considered personal policy regarding defense of oneself, family, home, community. It is wisdom to realize you and your character can’t really be harmed by externals. That realization does not require meekly succumbing to abuse or being utterly passive. When we read the Homeric epics we see the earliest Agathoi driven very much by the passions. The whole Trojan War is arguably one big “monkey dance”. The proto-ethics at the root of western culture grew out of powerful primal drives. I think it is valuable to recognize this and refine such impulses but there is little value in denying their existence within ourselves. Martial training has the potential to help in this effort of refinement. It can be a powerful tool for perceiving things as they really are, including oneself.

So, allowing for subjective personal preference, my conclusion is that martial training is at least valuable for the cultivation of Agathos if not a necessity.

What should the current day Agathos learn? Most of us only have so many hours in the day to devote to such things. Some thoughts on that next time.