Monday, December 29, 2008

Caterpillars and Butterflies

met·a·mor·pho·sis (mt-môrf-ss)n. pl. met·a·mor·pho·ses (-sz) A change in the form and often habits of an animal during normal development after the embryonic stage.

Over dinner the other day, this analogy emerged. In our time as martial artists and spiritual beings, we undergo various metamorphoses. This raises a subtle, but very important point which led to this analogy.

The discussion was about masters undergoing purification in order to achieve the next level of their spirituality, usually by fasting, meditiation, and other cleansing actions.

I would contend that if we transform our lifestyle or habits with a particular objective in mind, in the Zen sense, we have already failed to achieve it. That is, the very act of doing something for purposes of a desired outcome takes us away from the "Natural Law" and then causes us to have attachment, and inevitably, loss (or fear of loss).

Caterpillars become butterflies because it is the natural order of things that they do so. Being incapable of desire (as far as we can tell), they follow the natural order moment by moment, without regret and without rushing.

As martial artists and spiritual people, I believe we must learn to "let go" and give in to the natural law in order to become butterflies - wishing it would be so, or bemoaning the fact that we are caterpillars, or even worse comparing ourselves to other caterpillars who may be already in their cocoons transforming, belittles us and makes it much harder for transformation to take place. A true master will undergo purification simply because it is what must be done at that time, not with the express goal of progression. Zen tells us "When I am hungry, I eat; when tired, I sleep". This is to remind us to align ourselves with the Natural Law of things, and be accepting of ourselves in every moment, allowing things to happen when they must, not before.
This is not an excuse in favor of pre-determinism, other than to say that all human beings have an innate potential to progress and transform. it is still of critical importance that we give maximum effort to our lives in every day and every way, moment by moment.

The good news is that it is the basic nature for caterpillars to become butterflies.
The bad news is that far too many human "caterpillars" obsess over it.

Good training should help free us from these worries, and allow us to be "maximum caterpillar" until we enter our cocoons, and then "maximum butterfly" when we emerge.

Be careful we do not become moths instead.


We had a special Xmas Day training (before one of the most memorable Christmas dinners EVER). The focus task this time was to force ourselves to avoid the most common technique chains, and invent new solutions to each entry. It means forcing your body to go against what you have programmed, your "favorite" responses. A very challenging exercise.

This is critical.

We have discussed before how "intellectualizing" techniques causes limitations in speed and responsiveness, and how muscle memory is needed to fully take advantage of our body's natural ability to react. Also important is the active training to break those very links we have tried so hard to put in place. Sounds counter-productive, right?

In order to be a well-rounded fighter (and to free ourselves from limitation, in a more spiritual sense), we must break the muscle memory chains we forge. This forces us to expand our scope and range of responses, and keeps us from being limited to just those techniques and solutions we are most comfortable with. Failing to do this means that whole areas of technique will become stale and rusty, and we will never truly develop the kind of "intuitive creativity" needed to fully express ourselves. This free self-expression is at the heart of what Kali Majapahit and all good martial arts training strives to achieve - Freedom of movement (mentally and physically).

Metaphorical discussion aside, as fighters we are only as good as our least common denominator. That means that if we are good at kicking, we need to force ourselves to train our punching more. If we are good at striking, we must push ourselves harder in grappling. If we excel at physical technique, we must place emphasis on chi kung and internal energy.

Training the lowest common denominator should always be an integral part of our training, since it is that very weak spot that is our most vulnerable, and where a sensible opponent will aim their attack strategy.

The idea is counter-intuitive. It is much more fun to work the things we are best at in order to get even better at them. Training our weak areas means we must be honest about our poor technique and accept our lack of expertise. This is also an important part of overcoming our ego and finding the yin/yang balance within ourselves.

The best teachers will always push hardest on our weak areas.

Breakdown training is a real "brain-burner", but the benefits are undeniable. Work it and see for yourself.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Words have meaning. OK, you think you knew that already. I want you to think about it again.
Every word we say, especially about ourselves, becomes an integral part of our self-concept and how we perceive ourselves. This may differ greatly from the views of those around us (in both positive and negative ways).

No one can change us. Only we can choose to change ourselves. Change from who we think we are to who we want to become. The three important facets of this are: thoughts, words and actions.

We start by working on thinking positively. Taking a moment out every time we become aware of a negative thought about ourselves or our situation - and trying to "re-think it" in a positive way. Meditation helps a lot for this. We cannot change reality, but we can change our perception of reality, which is almost as good.

Our words become critical, as they are a more public and lasting communication than our thoughts. In this way, using words, we convey our thoughts to those around us, in effect "announcing" ourselves and our intentions out where others can be party to them. This strongly influences their perception of us, which in turn influences our perception of ourselves. It is important to make this a positive cycle.

Actions our the building blocks which turn our words into our reality. We must stay committed to positive change in our lives, which leads to positive change in those lives we influence. Action is the critical point when these changes manifest themselves through better habits and routines, which improve our quality of life.

The important point to remember is that this process starts with the self. It starts with us taking ownership for our lives and our circumstances. It means thinking in terms of "I ME MY MINE" and not blaming other people for what has happened. I am not suggesting giving in to the ego. That is being dishonest to yourself, and leads to a lot of other problems. What I am suggesting is avoiding the downward spiral of "negative ego", where we convince ourselves that we cannot improve or succeed.

I promise you a direct, immediate result in your work and personal life once you do.
Those results will last and increase as long as you continue to take ownership and make your thoughts, words, and actions in the first person.


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Fight Club

Yesterday we started to do sparring as part of the Intermediate class at Ni Tien ( Some people like it; some people hate it - here's my view.

Sparring is a necessary part of any legitimate fighting art.

I have written before that martial arts must be understood by the body, not just the mind. The reactions we have in a fight are based on what we have programmed in muscle memory. Like any muscle, it needs to be flexed and worked out to stay strong and develop.

The key benefits are:
  • great cardio workout
  • improving focus and concentration
  • learning to deal with stress and overcome fear
  • lessening the "panic reaction"
  • conditioning the body to take a hit
  • developing instintive responses to threat
  • widening peripheral vision
  • practicing control of the distance between yourself and opponent
  • expirimenting and trying out different ideas to see if they actually work
Like it or not, the benefits far outweigh any potential risks, provided the sparring is focused and controlled. Some examples of targeted sparring sessions can be: all kicking, all hands, high line, medium line, low line, grappling only, target specific (hit chest or abs only), two-on-one, etcetera...the permutations are truly limitless. Above all, try to be safe and controlled, using the sparring to meet specific objectives.

This is the closest we can get to a real fight, and I think it should be emphasized in every school the way we do it in Kali Majapahit.

See you on the mat!