Alan Watts – The Principle of Not Forcing

Alan Watts – what a guy! As the public philosopher entertainer de jour he spearheaded the Eastern spirituality movement of the 60s that took America by storm and forever gave Tai Ch its hippy associations. The lectures on Eastern religions, particularly Zen, he did for a local radio station in California have provided endless motivational video fodder for advertising-packed YouTube videos, and they’re all very good. For example:

He had such a good speaking voice, and could articulate mystical ideas, particularly the idea that existence was simply consciousness playing an eternal game of hide and seek with itself, in ways that Westerners could understand. Of course, the downside of that after you die your words get used to advertise all sorts of things you may or may not have been in favour of. For example, he’s currently doing a voice over for a company selling cruises on UK TV at the moment. I’m not sure what the old guy would have thought of that, but there you go. That’s life! It’s never what you expect it to be.

I’ve heard people say that Alan Watts was a good communicator, but a poor example of the Taoist ideas he espoused. This is mainly because he was an alcoholic who died at the relatively young age of 58 due to related health complications. However, if I look at the 60’s popular philosopher entertainers like Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell, they’re so much more interesting and interested in their ideas than today’s sorry crop of pitiful, grifting, sophists like Joe Rogan, Scott Adams and Jordan Peterson. All of them are usually trying to convince you of some terrible conspiracy theory with one hand while selling you something with the other. At least Alan Watts had enough self respect to be dead before he started trying to sell me cruises!

I saw one of Alan Watts’ videos on YouTube recently, that sparked a few ideas in me. It was to do with the Taoist idea of Wu Wei. It’s called “Alan Watts – The Principle of Not Forcing”

“Not forcing” is Alan’s translation of the Taoist idea of Wu Wei, which is usually translated as “not doing”, or “doing nothing”, however Alan’s translation is much better for martial application. In martial arts, like Tai Chi, it is forcing things that is bad. Alan even mentions Judo in his explanation above. 

In English, the idea of doing nothing sounds too passive. Tai Chi isn’t passive. You can’t do a marital art by doing nothing, so I much prefer the translation of “not forcing”. It’s what we aspire to in Jiujitsu as well as Tai Chi. If you feel like you have to force techniques to work in Jiujitsu then it’s not the right way. It might be required in a time-limited competition, but the Gracie family were always famous for not wanting time limits on their matches, mainly because, with their hyper-efficient style of Jiujitsu, they knew they could survive longer than their opponent, exhausting them in the process. When you are forcing things to work you are burning energy, and wearing yourself out.

I think different styles of Tai Chi might look at this situation differently though. Yang style, and its derivatives tend to effortlessly breeze through the form. The emphasis is on efficient, continuous movement and relaxation. And while it may look effortless, you feel it in the legs, even if you are not visibly out of breath. Chen style seems to want to work a little harder. The stances are lower, there are occasional expressions of speed, power and jumping kicks. But there is still that emphasis on being like a swan moving through the water – graceful up top, but the legs doing all the hard work below the surface.

But regardless of style, all Tai Chi forms follow the same principle: Wu Wei.

Square pegs and round holes in throws

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You know those wooden toys that have cutouts of shapes and a hammer for the kids to bang the right shape into the right hole? Square, circle, star, that sort of thing.

Martial arts techniques are a lot like that. You can have the best technique in the world, but if you’re doing it at the wrong time it’s like trying to hammer the wrong shape into the wrong hole. It ‘ain’t going to work not matter how hard you try…

Throws are a really good example of this. Throws work best when you try and throw the person in the direction they are already going. For example, if a person is basing backwards (moving their weight to their heels and sinking down) then it’s going to be really tough to throw them forward with say, a hip throw. Of course, if you’re a lot heavier and bigger than your opponent then it becomes possible, but we want good technique here. Good technique would be to take them backwards with some sort of inside trip.

Video: A simple wrestling chain that exemplifies the principle.

In internal martial arts we call that ability to sense where the other person’s weight and direction is going ‘sensitivity’. A lot of times people in wrestling and throwing arts don’t train sensitivity as a separate quality, you just kind of pick it up as you go through drills or live sparring against real resisting people. In martial arts like Tai Chi you can spend a lot of time specifically training sensitivity where it’s called ting jin – to listen. I’m pretty sure I used to think that the more intellectual Tai Chi approach was superior, but now I’m not so sure. If you naturally acquire sensitivity over long periods of time through resistant sparring then you kind of own it in an authentic way. It’s yours. You worked for it and its real. I’m not saying you can’t get that through the push hands approach, but the problem with shortcuts is that they’re exactly that – a shortcut. Something is always missing. You need to put in the hard physical miles in if you want to get something tangible in marital arts. I’m not sure there are really shortcut to some of these things.

My martial arts mentor Damon Smith, who I do the Heretics podcast with, often says there is no such thing as good technique, there is only appropriate technique. He’s talking about banging the right shape into the right hole at the right time.

Opinion: Judo is not dumbed-down jujutsu

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I really enjoyed watching the judo at this year’s Olympics. I thought the technical level on display was simply electrifying, which is why I find it odd that people sometimes refer to judo as dumbed-down jujutsu.

I’m a practitioner of Brazilian jiujitsu (which could be described as an offshoot of judo), and I’ve only ever dabbled in a few classes on Japanese jujutsu, so I’d hardly call myself an expert on it. However, from my experience, and what I’ve seen I’m going to make a bold and possibly controversial statement: Judo is more sophisticated than Japanese Jujutsu.

The question is what do I mean by ‘sophisticated’. I certainly don’t mean that there are a greater number or variety of techniques. There is certainly more content in the old jujutsu systems than there is in judo.

Kano created Judo by removing a lot of content from the Jujutsu systems he started learning in 1877, and changing the emphasis from performing kata and drilling applications to randori – free practice. There is also a big emphasis on competition in Judo. Strikes and weapon defence were originally part of Judo, but only in pre-arranged kata and are not included in competition and over time they have receded into the background. Most Judo clubs these days don’t even include the original kata or self defence techniques and simply train for competition.

Broadly speaking, the content Kano removed were the things that couldn’t be practiced safely in randori – throws that landed the opponent on their head, for example, or the sort of techniques that were designed for the battlefield and therefore irrelevant to civilian life. The change resulted in judo becoming the prominent style of jujutsu in Japan and internationally. The key to judo’s effectiveness was this switch in emphasis to randori. By trying to get the same moves to work over and over on resisting opponents, the technical level of the practitioner naturally rises. If you’re going to hip throw somebody in a setting where they know you’re going to try to hip throw them, then your setups for the technique have to evolve and get better. You cannot simply step in and expect your hip throw to work. You’re going to have to improve your ability to fake, shift weight, take balance and finish the techniques massively. This process produces a much more sophisticated level of technique.

Judo is therefore not “dumbed-down” jujutsu – it’s highly evolved jujitsu. To my eyes at least.

We talked a lot about Kano and the creation of Judo in our Heretics Podcast on the history of Kempo and Jiujitsu in Japan.

Give it a listen if you haven’t already!

The invention of martial arts

An excellent video by Prof. Paul Bowman to promote his new book, The Invention of Martial Arts: Popular Culture Between Asia and America.

This presentation looks at how martial arts arrived in the UK and when the concept of being a martial artist first entered into the popular consciousness. Along the way he covers Bartistu, the Avengers, James Bond, Bruce Lee, Kung Fu the TV series, Ninjas, the Wu-Tang Clan and the UFC.

The invention of the Samurai

grayscale photo of woman holding katana

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I wrote a short post for Cook Ding’s Kitchen blog the other day about our Heretics series on the history of Kempo and Jiujitsu.

If you’re interested in the history of Japanese martial arts then I would also recommend this talk by Dr Oleg Benesch on the Martial Studies podcast, which talks about a lot of the same stuff, particularly the interplay of Western and Eastern ideas after 1852, the invention of the ideal of the honorable Samurai warrior and, most importantly, castles!

Judo Jack

The title of this video is “94 Year Old Jack Has Been Practising And Teaching Judo For 67 Years”, which tells you everything you need to know.

Some humans are exceptional.