Kodak Moments

Have you ever been at a party or other social function where there’re lots of people mingling and interacting, really thoroughly enjoying themselves, each other and the event? You get a warm and fuzzy feeling deep down inside and say to yourself, “I’ve got to get some photos to remember this event.” Maybe it’s your birthday, graduation, or promotion party and you want to get some cherished moments to mark the occasion and to have some great memories.

But when the camera comes out, people stop; the interactions become frozen and posed, the smiles cheesy and unnatural. All your family and friends have suddenly become conscious of the camera and the candid happiness and freedom you were just enjoying has now disappeared. The introduction of the camera, and your desire to ‘capture the moments’ just changed everything and the dynamic is lost.

It is our desire to ‘capture such moments’ that often most disappoints us; yet it really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Trying to hold onto a lightning bolt to see why it flashes so brilliantly is damn near impossible; so why should we try to do the same with our lives, or more to the point here, our Wing Chun training?

The fact that our brains and our bodies don’t always sync up is a large part of the reason why we try to ‘freeze’ things. Reactions and reflexes often transmit information to us long before the brain can process them. Those damned OSF’s again! They’ll kick in when spontaneity reigns supreme because we want to “know” what’s going on, instead of going with the flow and letting that show us what’s happening. We want to hold onto the experience, and yet the desire to hold onto that experience comes from its essence, its spontaneity.

There’ve been times in my life when I went on vacations, getting really excited about going to someplace new and different from my day-to-day lifestyle. In my early travels, I often landed at my holiday destination determined to get the “perfect shots” to show the folks back home just what a wonderful vacation I did have. So I fired roll after roll of Kodachrome (any of you remember that, ha, ha?), shooting this architectural marvel, that beautiful sunset along the Seine, those wonderful mountain peaks that framed that quaint antique village. On returning home and getting all that film developed and processed, I’d rush home to have a look at all those great memories of my trip, often to find just a handful of shots that I felt did capture any of the emotion and pleasure I had at the time of shooting. The disappointing feeling was sometimes too compounded by also feeling that I didn’t really have any lasting good memories of the trip itself because I was too busy just shooting away to prove to my friends back home what a ‘great trip’ I had.

Of course, some of that disappointment came from lousy composition of a shot on my part, or from incorrect settings of my apertures and f/stops and all those technical things that come with ‘good’ photography, for sure. But sometimes, even correct exposures and careful framing still don’t match up to the colours and emotions of the actual sunset you remember, or the joyous atmosphere of the cavorting performers in that street scene you witnessed in the town square festival. The problem again stems partly from trying to freeze something which should be left to flow.

From lessons learned through vacations like that, in subsequent years and trips to come, I’d deliberately leave my camera either at home to begin with, or would only take it out on occasion. The memories retained from those holidays were often stronger and more deeply ingrained in me because I just ‘let go’ and enjoyed the holiday for what it was – a chance to get away, to experience new people, places and cultures; a chance to rejuvenate and to get in touch again with myself and my relation to the world around me. I’ve spoken already about stopping to smell the roses, and that certainly makes a big difference here.

I took those disappointments and lessons from such ‘disasters’ and let them teach me how to complete the circle, so to speak. I let the Yang take me back to Yin, or vice versa, depending on what needed to occur, and my holidays now may or may not include any photos, but are certainly richer and more memorable to me for having gone through all those rolls of disappointment. It’s not to say that one should never take photos, they certain give us timelines to remember special occasions and events in our lives and the lives of those we care about. It’s the fixation on wanting and needing to have those moments ‘preserved in time for all eternity’ that can cause the balance to be lost.

Trying to freeze such moments in our kung fu training, when we caught the punch to the nose or felt the frustration of getting our arms crossed and trapped, can and often does cause us much the same disappointment. Our first reactions quite often are, “how the hell did that happen,” or “what did I do wrong that I got caught out that way,” with our minds racing back to dissect the situation, frame-by-frame. Sometimes we’ll find a solution, sometimes not; sometimes it will reveal itself in short order, other times it may take months or even years.

We might be better off learning to let go and to try not to freeze the action, letting the feeling and the experience itself tell us where the answers lie for our solutions. In our wanting to examine the situation, frame-by-frame, we can develop tunnel vision and look too closely for clues to solve the mystery. Of course, not looking closely at all might not reveal the answers, but by focusing in too closely, we may not see things from the proper perspectives and/or we may take way too long to get to a good solution because the problem came off the flow; it came from the interaction between you and the opponent, not just of you and what you did or didn’t do, or just of the opponent.

There is a dynamic that is ever-changing that occurs between you and an opponent, and even trying to re-create the situation that caught you out by doing the “same” technique against you won’t necessarily yield the “same” situation. Why? Firstly, you are now aware that you got caught, and so you are not the same going into the dynamic; so too, your opponent who knows now that what he/she did caught you out but also that you now will do something different to affect the outcome. So to “take a photo” here, to try to freeze what happened is usually not as productive an exercise as might be first thought because it cannot ever be the “same.” As a matter of fact, you could even venture to say that it may be leading you down some dead-end streets, and your efforts may not be well spent.

One might be better served going back to Wing Chun’s training methods and let the feelings and sensitivities play out as they may, changes however subtle they may be from then on. By letting go and just experiencing the interplay of energies and flow, you learn to stay in the moment and to get the most accurate “picture” of what is going on between you and your opponent. The best answer(s) will come from letting this dynamic continue to flow and for you to let go and allow the flow to bring the answer(s) to you. The pain incurred from the lessons learned is often damaging more so to your ego than to your nose. And the lessons learned will probably be gained sooner and will have deeper meanings to your continued progress and development.

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Musings by Sifu Dana P Wong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Smelling the Roses

How many times have you opened your Inbox and found one of those group messages, usually accompanied by a nice PowerPoint slideshow presentation, mellow music and extraordinary images forming a “frame” around words from the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, or some other famous historical figure that tells you to “remember the small things in life” and then to forward said message and contents to 10 others who are special in your life?

Has it come to such, with today’s hectic lifestyles, that we content ourselves with such opportunities to “stop and smell the roses” and then remind ourselves, that yes, we must remember to visit Aunt So-n-So, or to get around to calling Such-n-Such, whom we haven’t talked to since high school, or to make sure we remember to spent time with Junior and not take our work home with us? Yes, we must remember to take some time to remember what Life’s about.

It is a sign of the times that we usually feel it inconvenient to actually take some time to go visit Aunt So-n-So, or to call Such-n-Such, or to go to the bike trail with Junior because we are just too busy or too much in a hurry to get somewhere or do something “important”. We go on a vacation, and because there is so much to see and do, we shoot thousands and thousands of photos of everything (thank goodness for digital cameras now, eh?) to remember our trip, only to come home and have to categorise all those shots onto disks, feeling empty and wondering, “just what did we do on this vacation” because we were too busy shooting photos rather than enjoying and experiencing what we went for in the first place.

How many of you end up feeling exhausted by week’s end, and just want to crash – veg out and have a few drinks, get a pizza and watch a movie to unwind and forget on the weekends? How many go to work in a routine, mundane job that saps your enthusiasm to think and to dream and allows no excitement for a challenge? How many try to keep up with the Joneses by working extra hard to send the kids to this school and by shuttling them to this and that activity? How many of you just want to make it to the end of the week?

What I’m getting at here is something that I often say to my students in class: “once you know the start and the finish of a movement or a technique, you must go back and create as many places of awareness as you can, in-between. For it’s those places in-between that the better opponent is going to catch you out.” And the better opponent is always the one who will make you better, who will make you grow. The better opponent is the one who makes any achievement and progress taste so sweet, because you know that you’ve earned that achievement because you experienced it. You took the time and effort to work through what was needed for the growth; in other words, you took the time to stop and smell the roses.

As we rush through our weeks, trying just to get to the end of it 52 times a year, how much of life do we miss out on? Before we know it, it’s gone – just think how fast this year is whizzing by for you right now. What meaningful things have you accomplished so far as opposed to the ones that you wanted to do by now? If they don’t match up, might be time for a bit of a re-think, in my opinion.

In Wing Chun, we try to deal with combat as it happens, not how we think it’s going to happen; we want to always be in the moment. That’s part of the reason we train chi sao skills; contact reflexes are based on true and tangible experience, from which we get to know when our opponent is going to attack and very often, how. But the opponent can push just a little less this time, or a little bit longer next time and it can completely change the scenarios we have to deal with.

Throwing the punch a bit faster, shortening it up to double up with a second punch, pushing up or across, pulling down or pressing in – all these energies can, will and do change in an infinite amount of variations, directions and intensities such that to be successful in reading them accurately, a Wing Chun practitioner must always look for those nuances of experience that he/she has not yet encountered and keeps looking for the next ones that will catch him/her out, so as not to be the one with the bloody nose, fat lip or black eye.

If we anticipate the opponent’s technique, too often we will rush into a response that may or may not be the correct one. Because we wanted to get from the start of the opponent’s technique right to the end trying to finish him/her off quickly, we may have missed that little push, that extra pump that changed the timing, that slight head fake that hid the movement of the second punch’s angle – whatever, that then made it a wrong decision on our part and so we paid the price. If our concentration and focus drifts or wanes, the result is immediate and readily apparent.

Just trying to get through the week here, without taking some time to smell those damned roses, again leaves us empty, unsatisfied and unfulfilled. We’re feeling low, exhausted and drained, but not for the right reasons.

How far is your local milk bar or corner store; is it five minutes away, ten minutes away… just down the end of the street? Do you unconsciously jump into the car and drive there all the time, when you run out of bread or want the newspaper; when’s the last time you walked to that store? If it’s been awhile, I urge you to try it today.

For me, there’s nothing like that first walk in the morning, to greet the day and the wonders and new experiences it will bring me. I get a good glimpse during that walk, often noticing sky and cloud formations that I will never, ever see again (they may be similar on another day, but you will NEVER see those same ones again), hearing and seeing birds on the grass and in the branches, singing, chirping and cawing away. I feel the stiffness and aches from lying in bed the night before start to leave as my body warms and my blood starts to flow. I smell the roses sometimes, along with the scents of fertilizers from the market garden fields and the exhaust fumes from ol’ Joe’s beat-up sedan as he rumbles off to work. In warmer times, I feel the warmth of the sun on my cheeks and in cooler times, that rush of crispness that bites the morning air. All things that we take so, so very much for granted.

It was on one such day, gazing at the colours in the sky and how the clouds had formed that I realised just how different it was to taking that very same route in the car, to head up to the milk bar to grab the Sunday paper. I thought of all the sensations and experiences I was having, compared to the lack thereof, when I hopped into the car for that same journey. It struck me then, when I said to myself, it’s the same journey – same start point, same destination, same end point, and yet, they certainly were not the same!

It was from that new perspective (young idea, hint, hint) that I carried that train of thought over to my Wing Chun training and realised that many of the problems and frustrations I felt with things in my kung fu training were caused by something that also affected my “everyday” life. I wasn’t stopping, or stopping enough, to smell those roses; I wasn’t taking enough time to experience all those places in-between. Since that realisation, I have found a greater satisfaction in my Wing Chun training and development and have found a deeper appreciation for my life “outside the training hall”.

How many “black eyes”, “fat lips” and “bloody noses” have you encountered through the years – missing Johnny’s fourth-grade graduation, forgetting Mary’s 13th birthday, not making that trip to see Aunt So-n-So because you just had to finish that report, and she passed away before you got to see her again? Of course, I’m over-dramatising here, but we all can find times and experiences where we missed out when we shouldn’t have, I’m sure.

So next time you get one of “those” emails, by all means forward it onto at least 20 of your friends to ensure that your karma will take you to the next life. But then, go out AND take some time to smell those roses. Just make sure it’s not the scent of roses coming from that Ambi-Pur car air freshener in the dashboard!

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Musings by Sifu Dana P Wong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Straight Lines & Circles – Part 2

How’s the grey matter going; are there some gears turning round in there, any sparks and smoke coming out of the dome yet? I’m sure that if you’ve given some thought to my last posting – some good, serious thought – and sprinkled it with a bit of logic (which often helps in Wing Chun, as it has a great deal of logic running through its training methods), you’ll have worked out an answer for the outside arm (the fook sao)’s counter, where we left off at the last post. At least I hope you’ve given things a bit of a stir in the ol’ pot and challenged yourself to do a bit of thinking. In any case, let’s pick up where we left off.

A (tan sao) had initiated a palm strike to B from the inside, aiming toward B’s face in a linear attack. B (fook sao) launched an attack to counter the strike, adding a bit more oomph to it by ‘squeezing’ the elbow in and down toward the centreline, forcing A’s strike to be deflected away from the centre. Sensing the energy of the redirection, A used a circle to borrow B’s linear energy, to rotate its shape into a bong sao, continuing forward and applying pressure to neutralise B’s attack. All the while, A remained true to the core principles of going forward with the force and applying pressure to defend by attacking. So where now, does this leave B?

Just as A had to feel B’s energy and ‘accept’ it in order to work out the path of least resistance and find the place where the change in the flow had to come, so too must B do the same. If B persists in trying to “win” and continues to try to force his bent-arm punch through, he/she is likely to stiffen up, allowing his/her structure to be disrupted by A. B ends up fighting force with force and locking up, or usually tries to extend the arm in a last ditch effort to hit A. If the latter happens, B’s made a huge mistake, giving away good structure for a bad one, trying to sneak the punch through despite all the signals to the contrary. By providing a long lever to A, B also provides a great opening for A to exploit on the inside line, which A can do by extending the bong sao arm into a thrust to B’s face, while also taking B’s centre of gravity. From there, A can pretty much have his/her way.

B must therefore find the ‘point of no return’, that place of change that will occur through the interactive flow between the arms and then must make a change that is appropriate to deal with the change of A’s intention from a palm strike to a bong sao. Instead to trying to force a round peg through the square hole as we’ve just discussed in the last paragraph, B must realise that A’s rotation to a bong sao has created a new line from which A can now pressure B. That line too, gets neutralised by a circle as B also learns to put a cog onto the arm.

As B starts to feel A’s arm rotating to the bong sao, B should then rotate his/her arm from a punch into a tan sao. That rotation now puts a different energy onto A’s structure, neutralising the bong sao and applying a downward-feeling pressure onto A’s arm, although B is continuing to apply a forward and threatening pressure without pushing A’s arm downward. B remains true to the basic concept of applying forward force to defend A’s counter with an attacking energy from proper use of his/her structure and understanding of core principles of the system. The counter is thus countered, and this is only one of an infinite number of changes that can/will occur through Wing Chun’s unique chi sao training; it is what gives us an edge because we learn through constant repetitions, to deal reflexively and unconsciously with changes in combat. OSF gets dramatically reduced and we learn to take obstructions and changes as just part of our training.

If you think of the single-arm chi sao drill, in the greater scheme of life, like the beginnings of your childhood education, carry the parallels through on your own.

Further variations that come from the single-arm drill are learned as you discover the pluses and minuses of being on the inside or the outside, of using your left arm instead of your right, of changing the drill here instead of there, and of general and infinite experimentation that will come from pressure changes, direction changes, timing changes, combination changes, etc, etc. You are limited only by your imagination and enthusiasm to expand your horizons. Think of these as your primary school days, mostly having fun and learning good and proper habits that will take you into adolescence.

Move on to double-arm drills, or seung chi sao, where everything gets a bit more complicated. We’re moving into high school now, where one supposedly is trying to narrow down options as to what to do with one’s life. Puberty, hormones, first loves and broken hearts, applying for and getting your first job, learning to drive, drinking to excess and all the ups and downs which come with such experiences. Parallel that with learning luk sao (rolling hands) and random gor sao (free fighting), coupled with all the variations that doing different things with two arms simultaneously will bring. We may as well add footwork in, and kicking, and anything else you want to toss in, and we’ve moved on to university studies and life careers, and even marriage if it’s in your cards.

Don’t forget too, that all the while, your repeated and consistent training of such drills not only forms good physical reflexes, coordination and skills but it also lessens the effects of the OSF‘s that come with changes in the routines and drills. The progressive and modular design of Wing Chun’s training methods allows for a gradual progression of stress inoculation to occur in the mind as well. This aids immensely in one’s abilities to remain calm and in control mentally and emotionally when change disrupts one’s routines, be they physical or emotional ones. Handling changes and the stresses that come with them becomes easier to accept and to deal with in all facets of your life.

In Wing Chun, we really do have an ideal system of martial arts and self-defence, but scratch it a little deeper and you can also find, through its thorough and logical training methods, an excellent framework from which one can live and enjoy a full and enriched life as well. 

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Musings by Sifu Dana P Wong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.