Category Archives: Mantis

The Four Energies

One of the central concepts behind SPM is the idea of four energies – types of motion, flow, or interaction, in some sense.  They’re Sink, Float, Spit, and Swallow.  (Some of you reading this probably have your mind in the gutter, going by some of the reactions I’ve gotten talking to friends about this.  Not the idea.)

I’m sure that, as my understanding and experience develop, how I characterize each of these energies will change.  For now, though, I’d describe them – simply – like this:

  • Sink – Grounding incoming energy or dispersing it through your roots.  “Stick” to the ground and become the Immovable Object
  • Float – Throwing energy upward/forward to lift your opponent and extend or open their structure
  • Spit – Whipping, waving or snapping energy.  Imagine a bullwhip in slow motion – the energy travels in a wave down its length until it reaches the tip, which snaps hard enough to generate a sonic boom (really!)
  • Swallow – Redirecting energy with circles.  Using incoming energy to add power to your own counterattack or strength to your structure

I like the idea of martial arts as philosophies, which sometimes is part of the intent, sometimes makes for some neat ideas, and sometimes is probably mostly just intellectual masturbation.  I have been toying with looking at other aspects of Life, the Universe, and Everything through the perspective of the Four Energies, though, and I think I like some of my inferences.

Sinking –

My first thought was stubbornness, really.  Or stick-to-it-iveness, if you’d rather.  When pressure is applied to you, hunker down.  Strengthen your structure.  If you have a sound foundation, you can use what’s testing you to strengthen your resolve.

Second thought?  Something I hear over and over in so many arenas, it’s uncanny: When in doubt, fall back on your fundamentals, your foundation.  If you couldn’t get a flying kick in Karate, my Sensei would tell you to work on your cat stance or your standing, stationary kicks.  If you aren’t closing sales in business, learn how to carry on a conversation, how to ask questions to get people talking about things they like and are excited about, and how to find common interests.  Build relationships.

Floating –

If you’re faced with a knotty problem you can’t break through or sneak around, take it apart.  See what gives it its structure and separate it.  Attack the problem a piece at a time or get straight to the root once you know which bits you can disregard.  Keep your focus and your form while you assault the same in whatever you’re facing.

Spitting –

Couple of things here, too.  Use everything at your disposal in conjunction to achieve huge results.  To borrow a cliche, be like flowing water and then, just for a moment, a tsunami crashing into your objective.  I actually relate this to the mindset I try to adopt when pursuing any of a number of goals.  I aspire to applying education, experience, fundamentals, and focus consistently day to day, week to week, etc.  When I pull that off, I do feel like I get this strange whipping effect.  I make a little progress, make more and steadier progress, and suddenly everything might fall into place and I’ll almost snap from a bit of a distance away to having achieved what I was going for.

Swallowing –

I like thinking of this as sort of a rhetorical device.  It’s redirecting a question to allow myself room to ask my own.  This applies to the wargaming I like to nerd out on, too.  My opponent might ask me a question by fielding lots of hard-to-hit models.  My answer, and a question in its own right, might be the threat of skating past all those difficult to kill models and winning the game by assassination – essentially killing the opposing army’s commander.  It’s having a debate – “Yes, you say that, but on the other hand…”

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…Which reminds me of one of my Sifu’s favorite metaphors.  He likens Mantis to learning a language.  First you learn some words and grammar with simple techniques and basics.  As you progress, you string some of those words together into phrases.  Eventually, you can generate a sentence of techniques, footwork, structure, breathing, and energy.  Ultimately, you carry on a conversation, a debate, or an argument as you work with other practitioners or, if necessary, engage in a fight.

So, things I have fun toying with while I’m doing busywork or just enjoying some quiet.  If any other martial artists or people with analogous experience would like to chime in with their thoughts, I’d love to hear them!

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Clutter

I live!  It’s been a while, and it’s been a busy one.  Lots to write about, but I’m going to try to keep this one short.

On the clarity of your ideas depends the scope of your success in any endeavour – James Robertsons

A thing I’ve been wrestling with lately – more than usual, anyway – is over-commitment.  I feel like I have, or want to, priorities, attention, obligations, and work to do in every direction sometimes.  There’s my wife (recently official) and my relationship with her, martial arts (recently re-christened Iron Pagoda Fitness Club), maintaining and improving friendships new and old, my day gig, my for-now-part-time business, other business ideas that I play with now and again, gaming with friends, hobby stuff, housekeeping, focused diet and exercise outside of the gym, reading, listening, studying, learning…  This list seems to go on forever sometimes, and my tendency is to want to see some kind of improvement in all of them more or less every day.  Preferably something measurable.  Preferably something quantifiable, plannable, executable, and check-boxable.

Naturally, this produces some problems.

That approach makes a lot of sense for a lot of things.  It does not make sense for some of the most important.  I can’t realistically check a box that says that I’ve helped my wife have a better day today.  I can’t realistically say that I have certainly accomplished things that will definitively make me a better friend to Kate or Ness or Chris or any of the mob in Madison.  I can’t say, in advance, that doing X at Y time will make me feel more spiritually fulfilled.  Some things I just need to be opportunistic about.  Some things I just need to do, and perceived quality or efficacy be damned.  I wrote a note to my best friend thanking her for being who she is and tucked it into her gift for standing with me at my wedding.  I try to do something every day that will remind the Cap’n that I’m thinking of her and that she and our life together are important to me.  It’s more important to exercise consistently and to pay attention to what I eat than it is to measure every second, every rep, every ingredient, every calorie.  It’s more important that I show up and work hard at Taijiquan and SPM than that I excel or show immediate, self-perceived “improvement” in every class or with every week that goes by.

Where I start to stumble is, I think, when I forget something that my Sifu mentioned to me the other day: Training is a refuge – a source of peace and stillness – and not a task or a job.  It applies particularly to SPM for me, but to some other things, as well.  SPM is fantastic because it hurts; bruising my body in destruction drills or having muscles so fatigued that it feels like my shoulders shouldn’t still be in their sockets or my legs keeping me standing gets me out of my head and into the moment.  It puts me in the now, where I stop worrying about what I need to do, what I haven’t done, and what’s looming over the horizon.  Painting minis does that for me when I get lost in the details of the model.  Clean brush, apply paint, clean brush, apply paint, clean brush, correct paint, clean brush, apply paint…  Even getting lost in a good novel for hours at a time.  All of them are special meditations for me.  Refuges from planning, maintaining focus, working against some of my instincts and weaknesses.  They’re places where I can flow instead of putting myself on rails.

I need to be reminded sometimes to protect those sanctuaries, and to keep the kind of order required to meet some goals from creeping into my sources of a serenity that is both a goal in itself and a source of energy for continuing to pursue the rest.

The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore. – Vincent Van Gogh

More hinging on martial arts today!

So one of the reasons that Southern Praying Mantis Kung Fu appeals to me is that it’s aggressive and decisive.  One of the changes I’d really like to see/make in myself involves fostering those qualities.  I’m naturally sort of an engineer, I guess.  I love details, planning, plotting, and drilling down into reasons and ramifications.  That’s a huge strength in many situations; I’m pretty good at financial stuff, math and science, logic (arguably), and other sorts of technically-oriented things.  The problem with it largely stems from a tendency toward analysis paralysis.  I’m prone to second-guessing myself, scrapping and rebuilding plans at the first sign of resistance, and just plain stopping at the planning stages of a given pursuit.

One of the great ways I’ve run into for characterizing personality types is the STAR system, popularized by Jim Hoyt.  The premise is that most people have one of four tendencies as a primary personality trait, usually with a pretty huge influence on their perspective on the world and interactions with people.  S is for Structure – people who like systems, processes, rules, and SOPs.  A is for Action – people who buy cars because they’re fast, who like being loud and visible and paid attention, and prefer to act from their gut rather than think a question through.  Rs are Relationship people.  They’re the kind of people who are genuinely hurt or distressed if you don’t accept two pops, a cup of coffee, dinner, and dessert when you visit their place.

Ts…  Ts are Theory or Technical people.  At the extremes, a few things might be true.  If they own a fancy car, they can take the whole thing apart and reassemble it in better shape in one afternoon.  If they have a great stereo, they know all the circuit schematics and maybe have added an “11” to the dial because of the technical challenge.  They build their own computers if they’re chipheads and they’re power users in any program they latch on to.  They don’t keep pictures of people in their houses.  Ts, I prefer to think, are not misanthropes, but really do tend to exist in a very detail-oriented, mechanical, and intellectual frame of reference.  A thing that isn’t practical or functional is hardly a thing at all.

I also like to think that I mitigate some of the social issues that arise from being a strong T.  When I’ve taken STAR assessments in the past, that aspect has always been primary for me.  Usually, though, R and A are also fairly high.  To some degree those compensate for the “weaknesses” of a pure T.  I’m not all that often inclined to be social, but it’s not for lack of love for friends and I absolutely cherish time that I spend with them.  There are times when action is required and having some A in me has saved my hide on a few occasions.  I feel like that A also plays a lot into my spirituality, incidentally, since I consider myself largely intuitive and spontaneous despite relatively rational foundations.

What really throws me, and where I want to find a better balance, is in long-term action.  Like I said, I tend to be a pretty thorough planner.  I can incorporate ratios, statistics, scheduling, daily activities, etc etc.  I can understand (I think) how to get from A to B in a lot of different circumstances, especially with time to research and learn where I feel like I’m lacking.  The disconnect is in the doing.  I might stick to a long-term plan for a few days or a week, or stay on top of record-keeping for a long string of related tasks, or whatever else before getting distracted or reconsidering or second-guessing or just becoming disenchanted by whatever plan or by the labor and focus involved…

…Huh.  Maybe I’m thinking backwards about this.  Was going to get back to hoping SPM would strengthen my A streak, but that can wait for another time.  I had in mind that I’m too much of an extreme – such a T that I naturally exist in more or less constant planning and not much doing.  On the other hand, though, maybe I’m having issues not because I’m too much of a T, but because I let too much of my gut-checking, immediate gratification, easily-distracted A butt into my headspace while I’m acting on my grand and far-reaching plans.

That’s probably a thing worth paying more attention to.  As tend to have trouble with things that aren’t immediately visible or visceral.  If I have a 1, 3, 5, or 10-year plan involving amounts of money, situations, rewards, and sensations that I don’t know well-enough to feel in my gut, it makes some sense to me that the A side of me gets bored and restless when I’m acting to make progress on those long-term and lofty goals.  Trying to make the execution of said plans appeal to my T side for the sake of validation and realization might be more helpful than giving my A side such detailed parameters to work in, even if I  am trying to be proactive, aggressive, and in motion.

So maybe a lesson learned – or remembered, more properly – during my writing today:  Sometimes it’s better to be constructively unbalanced than to strive for equilibrium.

You don’t bring good to the world by suffering; you do it by getting off your ass and doing good in the world. – Me

Moving Meditation

So one of the most immediately relevant changes that I’ve made lately is to find, research, and join a new martial arts school.  I spent a good 8 or 10 weeks on that project, looking people up, trying classes here and there, considering and comparing past experiences in training, and generally doing some soul-searching about it.

I came to realize without much effort that this sort of training is really a major component of my spirituality.  The idea of Unity  – in the sense of oneness of mind and body – has resonated with me for a long time.  For me, that manifests in muscle  memory, in seeing what amazing power and intelligence my body has, and in building a rapport between mind and body such that they’re more or less indistinguishable. I know that maybe that seems banal.  Most people take for granted that they don’t have to instruct all their muscles and connectors to move with intensity x for duration y and hold at position z.  I feel like when I get to that point, though, I start to grow distant from my physicality.  I start to know myself as a mind being carted around in a sack of meat and bones that’s trouble when it’s not just doing its job.

In training, though, I come to remember how amazing it is.  I’m reminded that reaction time based on physical sensation is up to tenths of a second faster than visual cognition of an event, that quirks of physics allow us to generate phenomenal power and speed, and that there really does seem to be a certain intelligence in what my body is naturally inclined to do in a given situation.  With a little bit of training, a good dose of meditation, and regular, serious practice, my body can be taught in a way that seems analogous to my brain.  As my Sifu says, “Learning Kung Fu is like learning a new language.”  The concepts are like syntax, the techniques words.  Eventually a practitioner learns to let their body communicate in strings of words, sentences, then dialog, discussion, and to prepare for the possibility of a full-blown debate.

The style taught at the school I eventually pursued membership at is called Chuka (or Chu Gar) Tong Long Kung Fu – Chuka-style Southern Praying Mantis.  It’s a boxing style, and pretty rarely taught, from what I gather.  I’m only aware of 2 public schools in the US.  One of the things that so excites me about it is that it’s so different from my prior experience, in terms of conceptual groundwork, execution, style – the works.  The majority of my training has been in Shotokan Karate.  It’s a very hard, linear, long-range style, for the most part.  It focuses very much on long punches and kicks, deep stances, and incredible power.  The last place you’d want to be, using that, is up close and personal.  It’s difficult at best to generate strength and to perform many techniques.  SPM, by contrast, is incredibly aggressive.  Almost everything about it is about closing distance – if you don’t spend a good amount of time in steady contact with an opponent, you may well be doing it wrong.  I’m probably not well-versed in the nuance yet, but the gist is that staying close and staying in contact the right way gives one the ability to read an opponent’s movements extremely well – that physical reaction time I mentioned earlier – while strikes are launched in series, constantly, using subtle, short, full-body attacks.  The difference is like night and day for me, and every class sends my head spinning some.  There are Mantis techniques that work, but that shouldn’t, intuitively.  There are things that my body wants to do, without my input, that happen to be the right things to do.  My biggest problem is frequently that I trip myself up in trying to analyze what the crap just happened during a reasonably well-executed drill, combination, or simple movement.  It’s an amazing sensation, and moments like those are pretty often the highlights of classes for me.

Ultimately, this unity, this awareness and appreciation for my physical intelligence, is a large part of where I get my spiritual fulfillment.  The core of my belief system is that everyone is possessed of a spark of Divinity, and that it’s our responsibility to do justice to that spark – to deserve the privilege and honor its existence.  (The rest is probably for another time.)  Learning to understand the connection between physical and mental and emotional, appreciating the physical intelligence innate in me, and having a blast exploring and discovering go a long way towards fulfilling that purpose for me.