I don’t normally do a preview of my podcasts guests before the podcast comes out, but in the case of George Thompson I think it’s worth doing one because not only is he a fellow Bristolian, but he has so much great media out there for you to view that it’s worth watching some of it before the next podcast drops (which will be episode 24, due in a few weeks).
George has a great YouTube channel that has lots of Tai Chi and Taoism videos. He spent time in the Wudang mountains learning in a small Tai Chi school and there are lots of great videos shot in China that just look amazing.
He also makes hour-long films and I’d recommend giving Journey to the East a go, it’s a documentary of his last trip to Wudang and his adventures getting there because he was attempting to travel by train across Europe to China just at the same time as the pandemic was breaking in 2020. Check it out!
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.
On holiday in the southwest of England for a week I managed to find some time each morning to practice Tai Chi in a lovely old wooded area.
So often we have to practice Tai Chi in our front rooms, back gardens or patios because of time pressures. Or maybe we only get to practice at a class in a village hall, gym or community centre. Either way, our surroundings are often far from natural.
Being able to practice Tai Chi in an environment where there were no other people, no human sounds and no interruptions was a blessing. It was possible to really sink into the environment for once, and not just my legs!
It’s a process one of my teachers calls “being a teabag in the ocean”. If you want to take in the good stuff from the natural world around you then you need to adopt the attitude of being like a teabag in the ocean – i.e. let nature move through you as well as around you, so that you don’t feel like something separate to it. Absorb it, soak it in. I’d say most people practice Tai Chi as if they are a teabag that’s sealed inside a plastic bag then dropped in the ocean. They can be doing great Tai Chi, but they are perfectly contained within themselves and not interacting with the environment. Often there’s not much environment to interact with, as mentioned previously, but if you get the chance to practice Tai Chi out in the woods, you should take it and take the opportunity to get out of that plastic bag.
Before you practice the form, stand for a few moments and try to let the barriers between you and your surroundings break down. Your mind should be focused on the moment and on your breathing, after all, that is as much a part of nature as anything else. Stand like that for a while before doing the form and just experience it, don’t think about experiencing it.
Then as you go through the movements of the form, you’ll start to feel like you are moving with the natural patterns around you. Don’t worry if your form takes on a subtly different quality than normal. It’s all part of the process.
I find that I don’t have as much free time for this in my normal life as I do when I’m on holiday, but I’m going to try and make an effort to get out to a secluded place now and again and practice my Tai Chi out there because the effort is well worth it.
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.
One of my poetic/literary heroes, Charles Bukowski had “Don’t try” written as an epitaph on his tombstone. To many people he was simply an alcoholic, womanising, bum who pissed way his talent, but I bet Charles Bukowski did more honest days work in his life than a lot go his critics ever did. Writing was his way out of a life of oppressive blue collar jobs that had ground him down, and he only succeeded as a writer late in life, and that gave him a unique perspective.
There’s a video that explains his seemingly paradoxical philosophy of “Don’t try”.
But if you don’t have time to watch it then Bukowski explained it himself in one of his letters:
“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
I think anybody versed in the philosophy of Tai Chi can see an instant parallel here to the Taoist ideal of Wu Wei – “not doing”. Quite often if you can wait for the mud the settle the water becomes clear all by itself, and the right action becomes obvious.
There are a number of quotes you can find in the Tao Te Ching that elucidate on this idea, right from the start of the book, where in chapter 2 Lao Tzu states: “The sage acts by doing noting”, then later in chapter 22 he says “Because he (the Sage) opposes no one, no one in the world can oppose him.” And in Chapter 48, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”
Now I wouldn’t say that Lao Tzu and Bukowski have exactly the same take on this idea, but they’re not a million miles apart.
There are obvious applications of “Don’t try” in all areas of your life – from creativity, as Bukowski found, to business and your home life, but one of the most obvious I find is in martial arts.
If I find I’m engaged in too much of a struggle during sparring, rather than go harder, I have slowly learned to back off. Rather than fight through something it’s much easier to change track and go around it.
In Tai Chi push hands you can encounter this idea whenever you feel resistance from your opponent. How do you react? Do you push harder, knowing if you do, you can impose your will on them? Maybe you can, but you’re just engraining a bad habit that’s not going to lead to success when you try it on somebody bigger than you.
In Jiujitsu I often find guard passing is the best example of this idea of Don’t Try. If you try and force a guard pass, like a knee slide for example, when your partner is defending well then quite often you can make it work, but it’s a lot of effort and ultimately you’ve depleted your energy reserves more than you had to. And again, it won’t work on somebody bigger and stronger. That’s when the words “don’t try” tend to appear in my mind. If the knee slide pass is defended then change the angle, work something else, see if you can switch to a bull fighter pass instead. Or change to a back step. There are always ways around the problem instead of having to power straight through it.
I’d just like to draw your attention to this excellent article by SSD about Stanley Henning’s often-quoted article ‘Ignorance, Legend and Taijiquan’ on the origins of the term Taijiquan. Henning’s article is often used to discredit the idea of Taoist origins of Taijiquan. However, it’s not without its problems, as Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) writes:
“The tone and design of this work is generally dismissive and denigrating toward the subject of Chinese traditional culture, and represents, in my opinion, a continuation of the imperialist Eurocentric attitude that is essentially ‘materialistic’ in nature, and implicitly ‘intolerant’ to any other world-view. Astonishingly, this attitude that misrepresents Chinese culture is prevalent (even dominant) amongst Western martial arts media, and is found within martial arts online discussion forums, etc. One or two Taijiquan magazines in the West even partake in this attitude that demeans the Chinese cultural basis of the martial art they practice and support. Working from Chinese language source texts – which I do – I can say without a doubt that Henning’s viewpoints are not acknowledged as legitimate, and are ignored in China. The idea that certain lineal descendants of the Wu family of Taijiquan claim to have written the Yang family Taijiquan Classic texts appears to be only a Western trend – as this idea is not accepted within China. Indeed, such a claim is viewed as the Wu family trying to raise their lineage of Taijiquan above that of the Yang, but again, such a phenomenon could only happen in the West, outside of the cultural controls of Chinese culture. What is important is that the traditional Chinese cultural heritage is acknowledged and treated with respect. SDD)
A friend pointed me to this great video “A brief history of China”, by Kristofer Schipper. I really like his down to earth views on the subject and the many misconceptions about China that can arise (and have happened historically) from trying to view it through a Western lense.
He has a few more videos too, which offer great insights, like this one:
As lockdown lingers around the world martial arts classes are facing a tough time, however, there are plenty of stimulating online discussions on martial arts to listen to. Here are three discussions I’ve listened to recently that have tickled my cerebral tentacles. Maybe they’ll do the same thing for yours?
It’s very interesting to listen to the criticisms that Qays makes in the above discussion then watch this clip I found of “Viking martial arts/Glima” – (which was litterally the first clip that came up when I searched for Glima). This martial art looks exactly like No Gi Brazilian Jiujitsu to me…
Xing Yi and Yi Quan
Next is Byron Jacobs excellent Drunken Boxing Podcast in which he interviews Yi Quan practitioner James Carss. What I like about this discussion is that it’s very down to earth and real about what it’s like training martial arts in China and Hong Kong. It’s not all smiles and rainbows and it was interesting hearing about the animosity between different groups of the same martial art that naturally spring up. Plus you get to find out more about the connections between Yi Quan and Xing Yi Quan, and how they are a lot closer than a lot of people think.
Finally, here’s a bit of an older discussion, but fascinating if you are interested in the connection between Chinese theatre and martial arts. Scott Park Philips is in conversation with Daniel Mroz about all the subjects you find in his latest book. Scott never gives the same answer twice, but it’s an interesting slice into his mind. In particular he answers the question “What is the Golden Elixir?” at 41.44.