I’m fixated on one question: “How do I get better at fighting in the Wing Chun way?” What is the best, quickest, safest, and most effective way to improve and learn the system?
I’ve been collecting my thoughts in the last few months after a stressful period when I didn’t have any time or energy to focus on this question, but now I’m back and going over all I’ve learned in the last 8 years and preparing to make another big effort in training.
I think a lot of people who share my goal of becoming a competent fighter these days get sidetracked by ideas trickling (or gushing) out of the MMA world, ideas that by and large are very critical of quote unquote Traditional Martial Arts. I think Bruce Lee and others like him raised some serious questions about the effectiveness of the Traditional Arts and the training methods used and the way in which many teachers exercise favoritism in who they teach what (often favoring their children or a few students). I don’t believe we should ignore these ideas. When looking for teachers and assessing schools, buyer beware. You really have to be careful and don’t just blindly follow.
But we also have to remember that all the techniques used in MMA originated in the Traditional Systems (even boxing is a traditional martial art). Every single technique and idea, outside of training methods developed in the last 20 years (which are mostly scientifically-based methods to develop more endurance and strength). All the strikes and kicks and grappling methods are either hundreds of years old or based on ideas that are hundreds of years old. MMA has not really invented anything. I think MMA is mostly useful as a testing ground for these ideas. They can be one useful gauge for usefulness, as long as we remember that street fighting is fundamentally different from ring fighting in many important ways (in street fighting there are no rules, no referees, the arrival of violence is a surprise, there is no ability to prepare for specific opponents, and so on). Also, real life violence can happen to anyone at any time, not just to people at the peak of physical capabilities aged between 18 and 30. What works in the MMA ring is not exactly what will be best to integrate into a normal life and to sustain over many decades.
Luckily for me, I’ve found a great teacher, but I can’t just go into his school and blindly do what he says and a few years later I’ll emerge a “kung fu master.” Especially in Wing Chun (but I expect everywhere), it just doesn’t work that way. You have to actively engage with the ideas of the system. The book I’m working on is called Wing Chun Mind because I believe that in order to really “get” the system and put it into your body, you have to engage it both physically and mentally. My Sifu will show me what to do physically, that much is simple. Stand this way, move your arms that way, this is how you do Siu Lum Tao, etcetera.
But you can do this for twenty years and not become a good fighter. I’ve seen it again and again. Students who “know” all the forms and who can do Chi Sao and the dummy form and so on, but they are missing something vital. They are not good fighters. Their reflexes are slow. They lack power. They lack explosiveness. But most of all, they lack that extra something you see in the best Wing Chun people which I can only describe as being “ahead of the timing.” A sort of fighting ESP.
When you are trying to become a capable “street fighter,” there is really no way to say when you are “done” or “good enough.” It’s all relative to your opponent(s) and the situation. All you can do is improve your chances by developing attributes. You can become stronger, faster, more capable of tolerating pain, more aggressive, quicker to recognize and learn how to recognize signs of aggression and respond quickly to a developing confrontation.
But I can tell you, after watching my Sifu and many of the best Wing Chun fighters in the world close up, feeling their capabilities in training, that the difference between effective Wing Chun and the run of the mill Wing Chun is like the difference between “lightening and a lightening bug.” I love that Mark Twain saying and it captures the dramatic gap here. When you roll with a Greg LeBlanc or a Gary Lam, you realize that not only do they have way more power than you (a shocking amount of power, so much so that they are basically trying to not accidentally hurt you), but that they are also ahead of you, as if they know what you are going to do before you do it. You try an attack, and they are already blocking it and hitting in the place you left open. How did they develop these capacities?
I’ve been developing theories on this and I’ll try to explain the gist of them now.
I think that there are two main routes toward developing these capabilities. They require sustained concentration and effort and it’s all too easy for life to get in the way. Results don’t appear overnight.
One, you have to train every day. Every day. I know, this is difficult to pull off. But every time I train aspects of the system every day, I feel changes start to happen. I get crisper, smoother. The movements start to get burned into my nerves. This creates a more slick, machine-like fluid action that is hard to describe, but you know it when you feel it and you know it when someone performs an action on you who has it to high degree of development. I’ve had Greg LeBlanc perform a Jutt Da on me that (accidentally) snapped my neck so hard I basically got whiplash. Greg (as I said) and other highly trained practitioners will do their best to take it easy on us, but as we get a little better they start to try and challenge us and sometimes, the power slips out and you will get a glimpse of what they can do if “unleashed.” This is the grooved fluid power that results from timing and centeredness and “sunk” (rooted, low center of gravity) power. This is partially achieved by doing the forms every day. Every single day, ideally multiple times a day.
The second route is the development of what I can best describe as FLOW.
A few weeks ago I reviewed the book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler. Since then I’ve read his newest book, Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work, written with Jamie Wheal. In both books, the central idea is that human beings are capable of amazing feats of athleticism, concentration, and creativity when they get into a mental state Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say that three times fast) calls FLOW. Flow can happen when you are practicing something challenging that you’ve thoroughly prepared through training and practice (i.e., daily, well-planned, well-organized training).
Characteristics of a Flow Experience:
- Focused concentration on the present moment
- Merging of action and awareness
- A loss of self-consciousness
- A sense of personal control over the activity
- A distortion the experience of time
- The experience feels intrinsically rewarding
Characteristics of training that can help you reach the Flow State:
- Immediate feedback
- Feeling you have the potential to succeed
- Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that everything else fades into the background
The interesting thing about flow as depicted in these books (which examine how people get into the flow state) is that it isn’t an extra state or a higher state caused by trying harder or concentrating more. Quite the opposite, flow is the result of doing less thinking.
Kotler describes how MRIs (brain scans) of athletes and musicians reveal a shutting down of the pre-frontal cortex when the subjects self-report flow states. To perform at their best and most natural, they have to shut off that part of the brain (the part of consciousness which self-monitors actions) and let the rest of the brain act without conscious oversight.
This is basically what Zen Buddhists have been saying all along. This is why the great Japanese swordsmen of the past had such an affinity for Zen Buddhism – practicing it made them faster. The Zen master Takuan Soho said, “When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself … forgetful of all technique … ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious … When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man’s subconscious that strikes.”
This is how Greg and Gary Lam and other highly trained Wing Chun practitioners seem to be ahead of you. They seem to know before you do that you are going to strike. They seem to know ahead of time which hand you will use and what strike you will use. How can this happen? When I’ve discussed this with Greg, he has said essentially that he is not psychic so he doesn’t know what I am going to do next. He can’t see into the future. So he has to wait for me to move. What he has done is to train himself not to try to predict what I will do but to respond to what I actually do. This is way harder than it sounds. We habitually predict. This is what our brains do – they are prediction machines. This is what our constant internal dialog is usually doing. Complaining about the past and worrying about the future, rather than experiencing the present moment. Listen to any talk on meditation and this is often what is discussed. The constant self-talk. This tendency of the mind also manifests in fighting and the Chi Sao drill.
In fighting (and in the Chi Sao drill), the opponent (or training partner) is going to try and strike you. But you don’t know where, or which hand they will use, or whether they might pull you, or trip you, or what. In real fighting, there are additional complications (will they use a weapon, will someone else join them against you, etc). There are many, many unknowns. In real life, this produces tremendous fear and anxiety. Even in Chi Sao, you get a little worked up. Most of us are competitive and don’t like being “hit” or dominated physically. Your heart starts to beat faster, your eyes are trying to take it all in and to predict what the “opponent” will do next. But you can’t predict. It’s impossible.
So what Wing Chun tries to teach us to do is to wait. Patiently to wait to see what the opponent will actually do. This is excruciatingly difficult! Your fear wishes to take control of the situation by attacking. This is what Wing Chun warns us about in the “Kuen Kuit” saying not to “hit too much.” This is the root of grabbing in Chi Sao. As the speed of the opponent’s actions get ahead of your ability to see and predict and intercept, you panic and try to stop the merry-go-round! But doing this will not help you learn the skill.
Chi Sao was designed so that we move very quickly through many interactions of the basic hands of the system and, when trained well, combines these actions with particular stimuli (punches at various angles, the particular responses to the particular angle). A punch that is a little outside can be best managed by a Tan Da combination. On the inside track, a punch or palm strike on the inside is best (quickest, the line of least resistance). Over and over, we feel the punch, we feel its direction, we respond. At first, we often do the wrong or less ideal action in response. Little by little, our response is more often the ideal response for the situation. Reflexes are created that are triggered by the direction and angle of the attack detected by feelings from our arms and the way the pressure of the attacks affect our center of gravity.
To get this to work, you need to relax the part of your mind that is always conducting the inner dialog and which likes to consider itself “in charge.” This part of the mind is just one part of the overall mind. Zen Buddhism practices such as focusing on a “koan” are meant to help take this part of the brain offline (not that I know much about this!). In science, they call this “hypofrontality.” The Pre-frontal Cortex goes offline, leaving the rest of the brain to act with the reflexes which have been conditioned, without the mediation of the “directing consciousness” or maybe it can be called “Ego.” I’m not a Zen master! But as I read philosophy and science, they start to seem to complement one another and to be describing the same things. I’m going to jump around a bit for a few minutes, between philosophy and science and art, but if you can bear with me, you might find a useful idea, an idea that can provide significant direction for your Wing Chun training.
Tor Nørretranders in his book The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size tells a story about the Nobel prize winning physicist Niels Bohr. Bohr developed a theory which explained why the hero in cowboy movies was “quicker and manages to kill the villain despite the fact that the villain is always first on the draw … As the hero never fires first, the villain has to decide when he is going to shoot, and this hampers his movements. The hero, on the other hand, acts reflexively and snatches his revolver quite automatically the instant he sees the villain’s hand move. We disagreed on this theory, and the next day we went into a toy store and bought two revolvers in western holsters. We shot it out with Bohr, who played the hero. He ‘killed’ all his students.” The cowboy villain in this scenario (who shoots first) has to involve consciousness which is tremendously slower than the subconscious.
Another idea from The User Illusion along these lines: Scientific research shows that the events we experience as “now” actually happened about a second ago. Our brains are on a delay. This is a crazy idea to wrap your brain around but bear with me. It has a lot of meaning for why Wing Chun works the way it does.
All the information that comes in through your senses (11 million bits per second) takes time to process. It can take as long as one and a half seconds to process. The part of your brain which thinks of itself as “you” (your conscious controlling brain which engages in all the self-talk) can only handle a small amount of information at a time (about 14 bits per second). So the rest of your brain team (motor cortex, brain Stem, limbic System, cerebrum, etc) analyses the information (millions of bits of information from your skin, eyes, ears, etc) and dumps whatever is determined to be unimportant and then feeds what’s left to “you.”
But that took some time – maybe a second – but where did that second go? Your brain does something called “backward temporal referral.” From the book: “It takes a little time before we experience the outside world, but we just relocate the experience backward in time, so we experience the world at the right moment.” More like, at what seems the right moment. What we see is old news. “Our consciousness lags behind and does what it can to hide the fact – from itself.”
Interestingly, this is true for some sensory information and not for others. The information from your eyes and ears is backdated when sent to your conscious mind. But the information from your skin and other bodily sensory data, like equilibrium, is sent instantaneously to the lower parts of your brain like the Limbic System, which can respond as quickly as .03 seconds.
What does this mean for fighting?
Because your mind is compartmentalized, you can train your lower brain to do certain actions through repetition. When you first learn to drive a car, it takes all your attention. Once your lower brain has learned to drive, it can take over, like a well-trained dog. You train a new reflex. Reflexes can respond to information from the skin and take action without conscious intervention, and so without the delay. This is why contact drills such as we find in Wing Chun, Escrima, and other martial arts work so well. The drills train the body to have specific structured reflexes to particular sensations in the arms and body. A fist comes toward your head and you throw up your hands reflexively. When the fist hits the arm, the arm does a fook sao (creating an angle) and the other arm hits, as it was trained to do. Seeking a bridge makes sense when it enables you to get “real-time” information rather than one second old information. A second is a long time in a fight. This is also another good reason for the “fence.” You need to get your arms up where they can more easily intercept incoming attacks.
To sum up, highly skilled practitioners drill thousands of times to burn the ideal movements (representing the ideal angle, relationship to the opponent, structure) into their neurology. Then they learn through Chi Sao and into Gwoh Sao, how to wait for the opponent to act (giving their body the necessary information), how to get certain parts of their mind out of the way (the pre-frontal cortex), and how to relax and let the body do as trained. So this is the road to get to the point where the action “happens of itself” as Bruce Lee would say.
So this is my goal and these are the actions I will take to get further toward it.
I will practice the Siu Lum Tao and Chum Kiu drills every day. At the moment, I have a routine at work where I take two breaks and a lunch and each time I walk out to a private spot and do the drills (plus what I know of the knife drill, doing an “air knife” practice).
Also, I am actively working on some elements I know will improve my skills (such as sinking and watching out for leaning over) plus I am working hard to learn how to wait. Waiting at first involves failing – you wait too long and are “hit.” But that’s OK too. As the masters say, you have to learn how to lose in order to master the system. This means you need to try things that will at first make you slower or in other ways impair your skills. But if you integrate the new skill into your repertoire, your overall skill eventually improves. Developing martial abilities is a series of these “two steps forward, one step back” progressions.
And behind it all, I’m trying to learn to relax and let my body follow its training and stop trying to be in control all the time. In order to really get good, you have to let go and let it happen “of itself.”
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