Thursday, May 10, 2007

Perspectives, Potential, and MA (Pencak Silat)

This is a repost of an article I wrote a while back. It is copyrighted. Some disagree with my viewpoint of what Bruce Lee wrote, but in any case, the context of this article is really written with different intent. I will likely be adding to this starting point in the next post but time will tell for sure....

Written By Sean Stark
Editor: Sean Stark
© 2005 Silat Now! e-zine

Editors Note: Originally, my intent was to edit the article on Teaching Methodologies written by Bill Dwyer, but decided to take this in a slightly different direction altogether.

Perspectives, Potential, and Martial Arts

The study of jurus-jurus is often said to be a study of movement, and on an even lower level, upper body techniques. I have stated that jurus-jurus are movement studies myself, however, as I reflect more on the subject and other issues (read: root cause for thought) I would argue that the study of a jurus-jurus is more a study of perspectives than movement.

Bruce Lee once said: "When I started martial arts, a punch was just a punch. Then a punch became more than a punch. Now a punch is just a punch." (This is a paraphrase so don't get bothered if it doesn't match his words exactly.)

In any case, Bruce Lee's statement is an example of viewing movement from a given perspective, in fact, you can also see from his statement how perspectives change – time and influence of course being the necessary factors.

That said, though perspectives change – Truth does not. Our comfort with Truth may change or even our acceptance of something as truth may change, but Truth itself does not. Therefore, this statement by Bruce Lee is either true or it’s false – it is not both (in this context, Bruce was probably not even trying to elucidate Truth from his statement as much as share a perspective or the idea of perspective).

So what’s the point? From my perspective (sorry for the pun) as someone who studies silat, a punch is more than a punch. To reduce it to nothing more than a punch is to take away its mystery and to deny it’s potential and in fact its freedom. From my perspective, Bruce Lee took away the freedom of the Punch, much as religion or government can take away from the freedom of Truth. The punch can only be more than a punch when it is believed to be – then and only then will it produce the fruit that demonstrates it.

If you have children you may already understand this in a different context. For instance, generally, we tell our children that they can be astronauts and presidents and doctors – though we may not even believe this to be True (our perspective is already twisted by culture, society, religion, education, government, money, etc.). We want there to be freedom to pursue the potential. Yet, some parents including myself, will at times, deny their freedom by telling a child what they cannot do, in terms of potential. (Please don’t shift the context to discipline because that’s not what I am talking about here – though how we discipline could be the culprit that is shifting the perspective.) Through the process of time and influence our perspectives on potentiality shift. Rightly so, I might add since not all things with potential are true. As we all have discovered, not all of us are doctors, lawyers, presidents, and astronauts. As we grow up our perspectives change and perhaps our desires change as we discover Truth, yet what we are – is not necessarily an example or the fruit of our potential.

Many times we are directly and indirectly influenced to become less than our potential. This often happens within society, government, and religion as I have already pointed out, and if it is True in this context it is also true in other contexts as well. Sometimes it is our laziness that allows others (i.e., religion, society, peers, governments) to limit our potential and other times it is our lack of understanding or even the circumstances of our life. All can be overcome if we are introduced to our potential, whether it is again, or for the first time. Another way to say it might be, that life is either a matter of “training” or of “trying.” We can learn to view situations and the whole of life as though there is something to learn or we can view it as something we just sort of muddle through and don’t have any sort of ultimate purpose for other than getting through to the end with the least amount of wounds. One is a life full of potential and the other is a life where potential has boundaries and limitations that can be very restrictive. This can also be seen in the martial arts world. Throughout the course of my training I have had various instructors tell me what should never be done and yet I have had other teachers who do those very things with great success. How then do we understand these things?

It definitely requires a teacher, but not just any teacher, a teacher who is interested in helping you to find your potential and the Truth. Sometimes they are called guru, sometimes maestro, sometimes teacher, or even friend. You must be willing to accept their teaching and have faith in it fully. It must also be said that your teacher does not need to be alive or even a person for that matter. Authors from history are perfect examples and circumstances or nature might be another. This can be seen in the quantity of martial arts and religious practices that derive from the observation and knowledge of animals. It can also be demonstrated through our observation of our interactions with nature such as in the herbal medicines that have been developed throughout the ages.

In my spiritual beliefs, God is the creator of all Truth and He prepares us to receive that Truth in various ways. One method may be through the people we meet throughout life or even through circumstances not directly involving people. It certainly has happened to me in this way throughout my entire life. The difficulty or paradox with this type of learning is being able to sort through perspectives to find the potential for Truth. This is where having a perspective that is not developed or maintained strictly by self is necessary. For me personally, it is my belief in God that provides the perspective with which to “filter” these ideas, circumstances, and happenings.

Unfortunately, once our perspective is shifted and our potential is weakened or removed, we don’t need much more prodding or outside influence to continue to destroy our own potential. We do a pretty good job at it ourselves – in most cases for the rest of our lives. What can break the cycle of self-destructive behavior is awareness and the desire to change that part of us that continues to hold ourselves back. This is ultimately how the best teachers help us.

In this regard, as you probably know, a teacher can help but a teacher cannot force you to learn or understand. You must desire it – more than you believe yourself to be failed potential. This can be applied to any type of training, whether spiritual, martial, job skills, parenting, whatever! This can take place in many different ways some of which are outlined in today’s current teaching methodologies.

Unfortunately, many martial arts instructors utilize more negative methodologies for teaching. One such methodology is beating a potential student to see if they will return. Along those same lines, many instructors beat students regularly to “test” them (though I suspect that it is really more of an affirmation issue for the instructor themselves whose perspective has already been skewed). The idea being that you know you’re going to be beaten unless you defend yourself, you WILL desire to defend yourself. In that process, you can discover potential. Unfortunately, it is an unpleasant experience and you may ultimately decide that your desire to reach your potential is not high enough to withstand the negative reinforcement.

This same type of mentality or methodology can also be found within society, religion, family and friends of any background. The beatings aren’t necessarily physical in nature but emotional or psychological. It might be the attempt to use guilt to coerce, or a slanderous tongue to degrade, but it none-the-less exists outside of the martial arts. This method generally fails, because this is the very thing that has robbed all of us by changing our perspective and ultimately stealing our potential. Fortunately we have recognized this and formed institutions of various kinds to help us sort through all of it. This is one of the most basic values of most religions that I am familiar with. Christianity for example, invites you to start new by accepting your past, present, and future failures by making a concerted effort with the help of God Himself (your Teacher) to adjust your perspective and potential.

Ultimately we must be willing to accept something as True in order to adjust or align our perspective. This is true in all of life, even in simple things such as getting the wheels of your car aligned. There must first be a point of reference in which the mechanic must Trust to be true, then and only then can they adjust the wheels of the car appropriately. To varying degrees, this happens all areas of life including our spiritual and martial. The degree, to which they are True (or believed to be true) and can adjust your perspective, is the degree to which they will ultimately prove to be physically effective for you. That is if you study, but do not fully trust (rely on) the method or teacher whom you study with, you will fail more than succeed and stay trapped in your twisted perspective. Of course it is important that you have chosen a path that contains Truth to be your guidepost…


Steve Perry said...

Um, I think the punch-no punch-punch line is from the old zen mountain-no mountain-mountain saying, and as such doesn't limit at all, it expands the mind making the observation into another dimension..

As I understand it, the cycle thus runs from ignorance, to intellectual knowledge, to innate experienced knowlege. There is knowing a thing, then there is *knowing* it.

Knowing the definition of a punch, and what it looks like, what muscles drive it, are not the same as actually being able to throw an effective punch.

Lee was young and facile, and adept, but what he would have said at sixty I suspect would have been a lot different than what he said at thirty. He was cribbing an aphorism and being cute.

The zen aspect concerns direct experiential knowlege, and is thus further along the path than the first two.

As I understand it.

Of course, the whole thing about zen is that it can't be explained, nor understood by the monkey brain, no matter how you explain it, which is why the koans are utilized. What is sound of one hand clapping? just stalls out the the rational mind. To understand it, you have to get in on a level beyond simple thought.

SilatBlogger said...

That could very well be. From a zen standpoint that would make "sense." Sort of the path of knowledge as knowing, doing, and being perhaps. In which the being isn't concerned with it, just does it or just is.

Unless I'm misunderstanding you...

For me at least, it's still a great example of what not to do while training and perhaps a great example of what TO DO when applying it. Perhaps both/and rather than either/or.

From the standpoint of training, being constantly mindful and constantly examining a thing should continue to stretch its value. Being in awe of everything that goes into a punch so that the punch's value continues to grow. Becoming acutely aware of the magnificence of the movement and then exploring it, enjoying it, being fully present while doing it.

Perhaps that's a little too "fruity" for some...

Steve Perry said...


I think maybe we are heading to the same point, but with different terminology.

In silat -- or any activity in which movement needs to approach the level of a reflex to be most effective -- thought is simply too slow. So you learn how to do a move by steps -- you think about it, practice it, until you can do it without thinking. Like the idea of zanshin, the awareness, but without attaching thought to it. The sword is in the sheath, zap, it's in your hand.

Examining a move to improve it isn't the same as doing the move.
Past a certain point, a punch simply doesn't become more effective no matter how hard to try -- the mechanics of it get to that most-effective-it-can be, and you can't do better than that.

The tricks are to get there and to realize it when you do. If you have both, striving for more is a waste of time ...

SilatBlogger said...

Selamat Steve;

As for the punch itself, as a punch, I totally agree with you.

My only point, is that in silat at least, a punch just simply isn't only a punch. It can literally be a grab, a catch, a pinch, or a pull, at least and as we are training it we must not forget that. That is the point of seeing potential. If you decide to use it as a punch, pinch, a grab, a catch, or a pull, you need to train those to the point where no thought is needed and you can spontaneously apply them.

Steve Perry said...

I agree with all of that. The movement does have a world of potential, no question. But once it becomes a punch or a grab or a shove, then that's what it is in that moment. Being able to see the potential is important. But once it gets launched with intent? Then that's what it is, so ...

A punch *is* just a punch ...

SilatBlogger said...

100% golden.