I appeared on the Drunken Boxing podcast run by my friend Byron Jacobs yesterday where we dived into the story behind all the martial arts I practice, who my teachers are and how I discovered them.
I’m usually the one interviewing other people on my podcast (I interviewed Byron back in episode 2) so this was a bit different. To be honest it feels a bit cringe listening to yourself talk about yourself, but hopefully there’s some interesting stories here to entertain people.
Drunken Boxing #042 Graham Barlow
Here’s a few links to some of the many and varied things I talk about:
Master Lam and Sifu Raymond Rand on the cover of Fighters magazine 1983:
Sifu Raymond Rand, Tai Chi Chuan applications 2022:
Stand Still Be Fit, Day 1: Master Lam Kam Chuen’s original Channel 4 TV series.
Graham in a BJJ sub-only competition 2013, blue belt
This is a very interesting interview with scholar and practitioner Simon Cox, PhD, whose book on the history of the concept of the subtle body is available on Amazon. Simon lived and trained full time in the Wudang mountains for over five years and has lots to tell…
I’m hoping to have Simon as an upcoming guest on my podcast, so if you can think of any questions you’d like me to ask him about what it’s like training Taoist martial arts in an actual Taoist monastery then put them in the comments. Thanks.
If you’d like to learn more about Simon, see amazing photos from his time in China, and join his mailing list to hear about all the cool stuff he’s offering, check out okanaganvalleywudang.com.
What is Shamanism? And how does it relate to martial arts? In this episode I catch up with my old, friend and teacher Damon Smith to answer some of these questions.
Damon is an incredibly experienced martial artist with a background in various Japanese and Chinese arts including Karate, Kempo, Xing Yi, Baji and Choy Lee Fut. And those are just a few of the arts he’s pursued to a very high level.
But despite being a great martial artist Damon’s true love has always been Shamanism.
And while he’s no stranger to banging a drum, Damon’s shamanism is not the hippy dippy sort of practice you might associate shamans with, instead it’s a very down to earth and practical art, much like the martial arts he does.
In this episode we talk about the link between martial arts and shamanism, and where the crossovers lie.
Highland survivalist Tom Langhorne shows you how to make your own martial arts staff, from selecting and harvesting the wood sustainably to crafting and refining it. If you need a little project to work on in lockdown, then this could be it!
He’s also got a great video that shows a comparrison of different staff fighting styles, which incluides: Jogo dau pau, Scottish Quarterstaff, German Quarter Staff and Japanese Bo,
And a video on the staff in general and its Scottish history:
My last post, “Make Xing Yi Wild Again“, about how the global coronavirus pandemic is offering us a chance to reconnect with nature and change our approach to martial arts practice, inspired the latest episode of our Heretics podcast with my Xing Yi teacher Damon Smith.
In the podcast we discuss a lot of the ideas thrown up by the article including rewidling, degrowth and shamanic practice. Of course, we also delve into the martial art of Xing Yi and how it has changed over the years, what the 12 animals are really all about and we look at how we can approach rewilding Xing Yi again.
Is there a secret to Tai Chi? To martial arts? To life? If there is I think it might be encapsulated in the two words, “Don’t try”.
Famously offensive American poet and author Charles Bukowski had “Don’t try” written on his gravestone:
It makes you wonder what he meant. Did he mean just give up? I don’t think so. Underneath “don’t try” is a picture of a boxer, indicating a struggle.
Mike Watt in the San Pedro zine The Rise and the Fall of the Harbor Areainterviewed his wife Linda about, “Don’t try”:
Watt: What’s the story: “Don’t Try”? Is it from that piece he wrote?
Linda: See those big volumes of books? [Points to bookshelf] They’re called Who’s Who In America. It’s everybody, artists, scientists, whatever. So he was in there and they asked him to do a little thing about the books he’s written and duh, duh, duh. At the very end they say, ‘Is there anything you want to say?’, you know, ‘What is your philosophy of life?’, and some people would write a huge long thing. A dissertation, and some people would just go on and on. And Hank just put, “Don’t Try.”
As for what it means, it’s probably best to let Bukowski tell us:
“Somebody asked me: “What do you do? How do you write, create?” You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it.”
– Charles Bukowski
Now that’s starting to sound like Tai Chi to me…
I was working on an application of diagonal flying yesterday. The one where you get underneath their shoulder, arm across their body and lift them up and away. There’s a sweet spot as your shoulder goes under their armpit where you have leverage. Where they move easily. You go an inch or so in the wrong direction and you lose it. The technique doesn’t work.
Compared to wrestling and judo I think there are different factors to consider in making a Tai Chi throw work.
You have to think more about your posture. Say, your chest position (is it sheltered? Are the shoulders rounded?) and if you are sunk and in contact with the ground correctly. Is your butt sticking out? Are your legs bent enough?
All these factors matter more in Tai Chi than in Judo and wrestling because Tai Chi is a less physical art. (Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing is debatable, but it either way, it just is.)
With a less-physical art it’s much easier to notice when you’re having to “try” more to make a throw work. Having to “try” too much is a sign you’re muscling it, not letting posture, correct position, leverage and Jin (power from the ground) do the work. Judo and wrestling incorporate these elements too, but Tai Chi relies on them. And without them it just falls apart.
In BJJ I also really like the philosophy of “don’t try”.
For example, if I’ve got the knee on belly position on my opponent I love to go for the baseball bat choke:
The problem is that once you set your grips up on the classic baseball bat your opponent doesn’t just lie there – he defends. He grabs your arms, shifts his hips and generally does everything he can to prevent you from getting the finish.
Now the video shows you three ways to do this – they’re clever little counters to his counters. (I really like the last one actually – I’m going to try that).
But I tend to prefer a slightly different approach. Rather than think of each technique in isolation I like to think of them as being paired. Quite often when I go for a baseball bat choke I set up my grips and immediately my partner has cast iron grips on both my hands. Now sure, I could fight through this – ie. “try” to make the choke work – or I could just go, “you know what? The way he’s defending this means he’s lifting his far elbow – I’ll use that instead”. I give up the baseball choke entirely, but before you know it I’ve spun around and I’ve got a successful kimura grip. He defends the kimura and guess what? It leaves his neck open, and I go back to the baseball choke, so on.
I’m not trying to make anything work, I’m just going with what he gives me. And eventually all the pieces fit together like a jigsaw and it’s done.
I don’t always get it right. More often than not I get it wrong, but that’s what I’m aiming for. If you’re going to adopt this attitude you have to have a really flexible mind. You can’t get fixated on one thing. In fact, you can’t think too much. Just go with what you feel is available.
What I’m talking about is getting off the baseline and onto the middle and top lines. For a full explanation of what this means you’d need to listen to the Woven Energy podcast, but in a nutshell, it means you stop using the thinking, rational part of your brain and just use direct feedback from nature (your partner in this case, who is as much a part of nature as you are) and that gives you access to the midline (body) and topline (spirit).
In Chinese culture the topline, midline and baseline form a trigram, which can have broken or unbroken lines, as so:
And since we’ve returned to China we should note that the Taoists were all about this “Don’t try” philosophy. They called it Wu Wei – to do by not doing.
From the Tao Te Ching chapter 2:
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
Or as Yoda put it, “Do or do not, there is no try”.
And to return to the topic of Tai Chi, it is also exemplified in the short but concise classic on push hands:
Song of Push Hands (by unknown)
Be conscientious in Peng, Lu, Chi, and An.
Upper and lower coordinate,
and the opponent finds it difficult to penetrate.
Let the opponent attack with great force;
use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds.
Attract to emptiness and discharge; Zhan, Lian, Nian, Sui,
no resisting no letting go.
And to finally return to Bukowski, he might be a strange role model, but I kind of like the old guy. His poems aren’t beautiful, but at least they are honest. He was always, exactly himself. He didn’t need to try.
I really enjoyed listening to this podcast interview with Bill Porter, who goes under the author name of Red Pine. (There’s a transcription as well so you can read it too).
Bill has had an interesting life, as you’ll discover from the podcast, most notably going to China to interview hermits living in near isolation on mountains in search of The Way. His most famous book is about this: Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits.
I particularly enjoyed his description of translation work as being like trying to dance with a skilled dancer when you can’t hear the music.
In his translation work he’s perhaps most famous for his work translating the Buddhist poet Cold Mountain.
I found a collection of Cold Mountain translations here. They’re not by Bill, but by A. S. Kline. I like them all the same:
I’ve written a guest blog post about my Heretics podcast and our history of Japanese martial arts series for Holistic Budo, a blog run by my friend Robert Van Valkenburgh.
Here’s a quote:
After the Tokugawa-era ended with the bloody Boshin war followed by the Meiji Restoration (1868), Japan slowly opened up to the outside world. In fact, it was forced open by the British and Americans using violent gunboat diplomacy, but eventually the new era was embraced by the new rulers and also reflected in a new spirit of openness within the martial arts. Aliveness was back in fashion and innovators like Jigoro Kano breathed new life into the martial arts they inherited using the practice of randori (free sparring). His approach was so effective that Kano went from never having trained martial arts at all, to founding his own style in less than 6 years. Ultimately Kano’s Judo would outshine all the other styles of Jiujitsu and change the course of martial arts in Japan entirely, not to mention the rest of the world.
This time he tackles an interesting subject – Buddhism. I imagine this will upset a lot of Buddhists (if that’s possible!) because he classifies Buddhism as an exoteric religion, basically designed to help control the populace under the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD). In fact, to get them to self-regulate. You can agree with this view, or not, but there are some interesting facts in here about the rise of Buddhism in China that I didn’t know.
For instance, China used to be the main country for Buddhism during the Han Dynasty – it is where it got its foothold, and in fact, was the main reason for the expansion of the Chinese empire (as they sought out Buddhist teachers, inadvertently creating the Silk Route and facilitating trade). This was particularly unusual since China has traditionally been a very inward-looking country. That a foreign religion could become so widespread is really worth noting and looking into.
It’s hard to believe that now, since people associate Buddhism more with Japan or Tibet, but it makes sense – the ‘old masters’ quoted in Japanese Buddhist writing, like the Blue Cliff Record, were often Chinese.
There’s also a lot of stuff about Chinese history, and the Warring States period in the podcast. Fascinating stuff.
After finally making some headway in my friend’s Woven Energy podcast on Shamanism, I find this episode of Tribes, Predators & Me fascinating. Firstly, you get to see a lot of what is being talked about in terms of Mongolian culture and animism. Secondly, there’s the timing of the release of the bird. If you’ve been following some of the exercises for Amsgar in the podcast then this element will be familiar to you, even if it’s not been picked up on by the programme producers, or the guy in it 🙂
Even if you’ve got no interest in Shamanism, it’s a great episode to watch – utterly fascinating. You can watch it on the BBC iPlayer.