Thursday, September 29, 2011

Non-violence, 武道, laughter, and hypocrisy

Once again, a post on Nathan's blog and my recent experience with Wing Chun has provided grist for the blog.  That post points to this post at the "Interdependence project" by one J. Brown.  I quote:

I have only been in one fight. It was in the third grade. I don’t recall what the impetus was but it ended up in a war of words between me and another boy on the basketball court. I remember deciding to hit him but when I went to strike my arm went slack. It was as if my body overrode my minds directive and I was incapable of trying to harm him.
The other boy did not have the same issue and I was quickly pinned and squirming to be free. The only black girl in our class, Latisha, came to my aid and pushed him off of me before he got any punches in. We were friends and no one messed with Latisha.
I can trace my inclination for yoga back to that day. I learned something important about myself. I am not naturally inclined towards violence. Even as a boy, I recognized that this was not true of everyone. As an adult, it makes sense that I embrace a life philosophy that puts a premium on nonviolence.

 Well, my history was different. My siblings and I were subject to bullying as a young kids, and I don't know about J. Brown's history otherwise, but the point where a kid fights back is where the bullying generally stops. Like J. Brown, I too don't think of violence as the first  thing when in an altercation, and in the intervening years between the time I fought back against a bully and now I have learned very much about the proper applicatoin of power.

Power, authority, and responsibility are a three-legged stool of a metaphorical sort; you can't have any two legitimately  without the third, and to abjure any one of them, as Rollo May pointed out, is inherently unhealthy for people.  Understanding this and embracing it is an important key to healthy relationships, organizations, and societies.

And at some point the proper application of power may need to be the application of violence to eliminate the possibility of greater harm. That is the principle of budō (武道), and why for a very long time I've understood that there was an undercurrent of unrecognized hypocrisy or at least ignorance in the dogmatic pacifist.  I too was a dogmatic pacifist once, one who thought he was "unlucky" to have been bullied as a young kid, perhaps as a means of rationalizing or forgetting the fact that real abuse had been done to me.

Somewhere along the line I realized that there were entire strains of human experience unknown to me in the manner that Henry Miller noted that where he came from,  Brooklyn, the notion of temperate climates was unknown.  Long Island, my home region, borders Queens which borders Brooklyn.  The notion that you can walk down any street, and firearms notwithstanding, nobody will mess with you and you have no need to mess with them is a very temperate climate indeed.

J. Brown, and Nathan later in his post  get to the point that there is aspects of harm to one's self that arise from a yoga practice from time to time.  I had to really chuckle at this bit from Brown:

I remember a particular occasion when I was teaching one of my trademark power vinyasa classes. I was barking out my well prepared sequence and, instead of my usual attention to everyone’s alignment, I happened to be noticing the facial expressions of the people in my class.

They looked miserable. They were filled with struggle and strain, just doing their best to get through and not enjoying themselves much in the process. There was a distinct lack of joy.

Afterwards, several students came up to thank me and tell me how great the class was. It made me feel uncomfortable. Walking home, I kept thinking: “What am I doing?”

 One of the most temperate aspects of the martial arts training I've been receiving is just how very very different it is from the "regimented" types of martial arts practice (forms, uniforms, etc.)  that's so common in other schools.  But the thing that really hooked me on this way was not just that (though at 54, with my own Zen teacher, and with the forms of Zen, I don't need more excuses for forms).  It was the attitude of teacher and participants.

There was frequent from-the-belly laughter. There's laughter because the old sifu can take somebody twice his size and three times his weight and throw him across the room, everyone knows it, the guy is as gentle as a kitten, but in the course of showing one how and why a particular move should be done exactly a certain way there's this weird mechanical magic that is just astounding.  There's laughter because we're so much younger than he, and we're so incompetent at this (and I am among the most incompetent).  And there's laughter because we incompetents occasionally see that we've had this power all along; we just didn't know how to use it, and when we get a glimpse of it, a glimpse of being able to practice this magic, it's knee-slapping funny because it makes a mockery of all the preconceptions we've had about ourselves all our lives, at least those regarding how we were physically present in the world.

In short, I have fun doing this. And I don't know about yoga, but I do know that the only way to get better at what I'm doing is practicing, but practicing without expecting perfection in each attempt, just attempting an iota of improvement.   I feel sorry for those Marine boot-camp yoga and martial arts ways.  They have too much extra baggage, I think.  But I do also think embedded into their harm situation may be a condition of a distorted notion of power, authority and responsibility.

I don't know, maybe I'm lucky; (see "unlucky" above); I think I am to have at least once in my life, found a teacher who can do this, and fellow students who are patient with my incompetence.

It's also interesting to read Brad Warner's piece on juggling and Ken Wilber and prowess on the "Suicide Girls" site (which I got from his regular blog).  I share his displeasure towards someone "like Ken Wilber who does tricks — ones that nobody can ever even verify he’s accomplished, by the way — [and makes]  tons more money than that street juggler down on Venice Beach who does something far cooler."  But I would part ways a bit with Warner based on what my Zen teacher's my the Wing Chun teacher's attitude towards the student, and heck, any good teacher (which, I think Warner may think he is). That is, the whole point of Rinzai teaching practice - and Wing Chun teaching, (that is, what the teachers do in teaching) as I've experienced it is, physical and mental disabilities notwithstanding in the latter case, you can do it too!  That's why it's often very funny - because I never really thought it might be possible  to heave a big linebacker across a room with my hand. But today I realize it might not entirely be out of the question someday, given the right confluence of circumstances. And that's funny.

The juggler and Ken Wilber, and the yoga marine drill sergeant  - imply what they do is way, way beyond your skill.

But it isn't.  It's just likely that you never studied juggling, Wing Chun, or fancy electronic brain tricks.

You know, it's like magicians' magic. You don't have to kill yourself or make tons of money to do something, but you can have fun, become more mindful, and more psychologically whole.  And you can laugh, too.


Nathan said...

This is a really interesting post to me. I have long been committed to living non-violently, but I see it as a direction I've aimed myself in, and a practice I steep myself in. At the same time, though, like Dogen's instructions to the cook says, that aiming and practice must be let go of again and again. In other words, I know that there may occur in my life situations where some use of force could be the most appropriate response.

Also, where there's a lack of laughter and joy - something usually is off. I have worked with enough yoga teachers to have experienced a wide range of approaches, but I always find that those who exhibit some joy and lightness (not to be confused with sugary, superficial happy) have the most powerful classes.

Mumon said...

Thanks Nathan.

Yeah, the attitude -the collegiality of this teacher is something I deeply admired from the beginning. It is evidently a major aspect of his lineage because there are other teachers who are similar in that there's "no ranks, no uniforms" in their teachings either, and everyone is teaching each other.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pretaville said...

Henry Miller? Zut

A bit cerebral --even beatnik like-- for mumu-san. Somewhat impressive--at least more so than BradWarner's Walmart zen