|Die Fachzeitschrift für alle Taijiquan- und Qigong-Praktizierenden|
Auf dem Weg der Aufrichtigkeit Interview mit Peter Ralston
On the path to honesty
Peter Ralston has almost 50 years of experience in various internal and external martial arts and in 1978 was the first non-Asian to win the full-contact world championships in Taiwan. Moreover he has devoted study to various forms of bodywork, to anatomy and to meditation and has developed his own martial art system, Cheng Hsin. In an interview with Almut Schmitz he explains the special quality of the “effortless power” he teaches, also contrasting this to concepts in Taijiquan, and the focus of his work: the ceaseless quest for honesty towards oneself. This includes questioning all traditional ideas about, for instance, the martial arts or Qigong in order to discover what is really true.
Your training system is called "The Art of Effortless Power". That is something probably a lot of people would call Taiji training anyhow. Is there a difference?
Yes, there’s a big difference. First of all just to be clear, “The Art of Effortless Power” is only one part – a big part – of what I do. And like I said, one of the fundamental things that I work with is what I call "Consciousness". Seeking out what’s true and being honest about it is aligned with becoming more conscious of what’s true. Now, people doing Taiji may be honest about it, or maybe they’re not, or maybe it’s a fantasy. There are all sorts of things that people do in the Taiji world. There are different ways they approach it, from just doing a set or maybe trying to relax, to using a lot of strength in Tuishou. None of that is "Effortless Power". The idea of “effortless” is very nice, and Taiji people think that effortless – relaxing and being effortless – is a nice idea.
But then there is power. And so then the idea is "internal power" – in the internal martial arts world – but nobody is clear on what that means. There are all sorts of ideas, and people largely just make stuff up about what internal power means, but nobody really knows what it is. It remains a mystery. Somebody might say, "Well, it’s this: whipping the body like this". But someone else says, "No, it’s about 'Qi' – you build up the Qi". So there are these ideas about internal power, but internal power doesn’t involve effortlessness. We think it does, but it doesn’t. There is nothing in the name and there is nothing in the ideas that people come up with that says that internal power has to be effortless.
I watched over years and years. I studied for decades, and no where was anyone using a truly effortless power. Now one might think that they could just use some kind of Qi energy to accomplish power, and that then they wouldn’t have to use muscle strength. Impossible, it doesn’t happen (laughs) You know that’s not what people do. Nobody does that. Have you ever seen anybody do that, just use "Qi power" and not use their muscles at all?
Not at all – probably not.
No, not as power. Maybe somebody has developed their Qi in some way, and they touch you and you feel something, but power doesn’t happen. In any case, when we talk about “Effortless Power”, we are talking about the possibility that we could actually have power, produce some physical result without using effort. And I mean without using effort. People don’t really think this is possible. People don’t go there, except maybe as a fantasy – it’s a nice fantasy. But as a reality, no, people don’t do that, not even in Taiji. Take a look at when people are pushing hands. Is that effortless power? No, not at all.
You know that’s not what it is. There are different approaches, different ways to go about it, and they’re all fine. Wrestling is fine. And the many different things people do could be fun things to do. But none of it is effortless power. Now, who would care about effortless power? A lazy person perhaps. It’s an intriguing idea to be able to actually accomplish something using no muscle strength to make it happen. But people in the Taiji world don’t use effortless power – that’s not what’s happening.
Now, somebody could say that they do effortless power because something they do is subtle and doesn’t have a lot of strain to it or something. Or they could say they're not using the muscles to push out, they're just using them to hold a shape and then using their body or leg strength for power. But that’s not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about not using the strength of the muscles to do the job. According to the brain, this is impossible. In the brain, the nervous system, the way we’ve been trained, it’s not possible to not use the muscles to do the job. So, we find many, many other creative ways to use the muscles – Fajing, and pushing from the legs, snapping, leverage, tricks, etc., are all different ways to use the muscles do the job. And some of them are more relaxed than others, but none of them are actually doing the job without using muscle strength.
Fajin or Fajing
Now, the muscles’ job – and I want to be clear here – is to move one's body. In effortless power, and in any power, muscles move the body. I have never seen anybody move their own body without using their muscles to do it. So, we’re not talking about effortless like you just stand there and somebody falls down. No, in Cheng Hsin we move the body. What's different is that we stay relaxed and use only what it takes to move our own body. We don't use any strength to move someone else's body. The only strength we use is what it takes to simply move our own body in a relaxed way, and that’s not a lot because when the muscles are relaxed it's easy for them to move the body – that's what they were designed to do. And then to move somebody else’s body, to throw them or hit them, we don’t use any additional strength. As a matter of fact, when we hit somebody or push somebody, the idea is to relax even more than the movement we use to get into place to do it.
So, the idea maybe first occurred to me from Taiji, and perhaps Taiji masters that I don’t know, or from the past did this kind of thing, had this kind of interest. But maybe not, because their interest was probably not so much in being effortless but in being powerful. So, maybe they went down the effortless road, maybe they didn’t, I don’t know. In any case, it’s a road I went down – to try to find a way to be completely effortless. It just seemed like a good thing to do. The thing about effortless power isn’t so much that it’s more powerful than other methods – you can build strength using weights to develop power or learning good mechanics and leverage – so it's not that this way is more powerful, but that it’s a more effective and efficient use of power. It takes less effort. Plus you learn far more while working on effortlessness than you do while developing any of the conventional methods of power.
In fighting, using less effort is an important idea. You don’t want to tire yourself out, which is a real issue if you’re fighting for a while. When you get tired, you can’t fight anymore and then you lose. But even more importantly, a martial interaction requires change, mobility and balance, clarity and a calm mind, and things like that in order to be effective. These things are very important to skill, and effortless power is wonderful for those things – wonderful.
Using strength, on the other hand, does not support such principles, and is even detrimental. When you use strength, you get fixed and rigid and you can’t change quickly. If you’re relaxed and effortless, you can change a hundred times faster than you can when you use strength. Also, whenever you use strength, your balance is put in jeopardy – you’re always losing your balance, always. That’s the nature of the beast, that’s what happens when you use strength. It’s not just a coincidence. When you use strength you have to expand, or push outward, and when you expand, you push your weight off your own feet, so you have to brace your legs because you’re pushing your weight off your feet. Now, since you were very young, your brain has learned to compensate for that. We compensate without knowing, without thinking. The moment we push something, we brace up to push it. As we feel the weight, we automatically brace ourselves.
We also lean, we tend to lean into it. If you were pushing something heavy and suddenly it disappeared, you would fall forward. Anybody would fall forward, even if they do Taiji. You think you wouldn’t fall forward, but you will. I know, I have experimented with this very much (laughs),and it’s immensely difficult not to lean, because the brain presses your weight against the opponent's weight. But it’s hard to test it out, since you rarely push on something that suddenly disappears. It's just hard to realize how much we're actually leaning even subtly whenever we use strength.
In any case, you will find that you’re leaning, and this is just more evidence that you’re losing the balance. But when you use strength, you have to either brace up and/or lean, and usually both. This is the same whether you’re applying a force or receiving a force. If you resist at all or use strength against a force – it's the same dynamic – your balance will immediately be in danger. And so you have to brace up your legs and your body in order to not lose your balance. You do that automatically. This isn’t something you have to train a lot, everybody does it. Maybe they do it badly, or they do it better after they have trained, but everybody does it – expand, brace up, and lean.
With effortless power you don’t do any of those things because you’re not pushing into something, you’re not expanding. You’re getting compressed. You’re allowing the weight to push you into the ground. Now, as an idea that's not uncommon, but as a practice it’s almost never done. The practice is harder than the idea. The dynamic of using effortless power has the other's weight pushing into your own feet – and so the balance is never in jeopardy whether you are applying a force or not. As I say, you’re free and you don’t have to be rigid.
The question, of course, is how do you get there? What I got from the very little that I saw is that the very consequent state of being relaxed is the main aspect. But how do you get there? Can you give some advice?
Sure I can. First of all it’s not so easy. You have to experiment, and people don’t want to experiment. You have to experiment even if there is somebody teaching you what to do and how to do it. They can only teach so far – they can’t change your nervous system for you. They can’t change your mind, they can’t change your body. You have to do it, and you can only do it through experimenting, through trying and failing, trying and failing, with some success, and a lot of failing, but always staying relaxed.
So, the thing is, nobody wants to stay relaxed that long or that much. Which is to say, nobody wants to fail that much. They don’t want to keep failing at something. Now I am not recommending that people just fail. You have to want it. In your experimenting, you’re searching for success, you must really try to do it. Keep trying to do it, but you have to do it while you’re relaxing, being relaxed, really relaxed. I mean, limp. And that’s what people don’t grasp, they really don’t. It takes quite a while for people to grasp that I really mean being limp. Being completely relaxed, not sort of relaxed, not just ‘I am a little relaxed because I had a beer’ or something. Being totally relaxed and then trying to produce results in whatever you’re doing – playing cricket or Tuishou or baseball or whatever you’re trying to accomplish – and still remaining relaxed. It's counter-intuitive.
Of course, if you’re relaxed you will fail, because the body and the nervous system are not trained to do it that way. It’s trained to do it another way. And so you will fail a lot, especially at first, but you’ll start to find stuff. It will start to teach you many things you would never learn if you did it the way your brain already knows how to do it – using strength. And so you have to train in this way, and of course I’d recommend studying with me. I can help and in ways that nobody else seems to be able to help. It does seem that way.
When I started I was on my own with this project of finding effortless power, so it is possible to find on your own. But you have to have a commitment to finding it. There is no simplistic, easy to follow method. There are lots of things I could say about alignment, and using your whole body, and getting compressed into the ground, staying relaxed, and so on, but it would take a long time. Most of it has to come through feeling, relaxing and feeling. It needs to be an intelligent feeling, meaning you’re not just sensing, you’re trying to feel "how could this work?" Your brain will keep saying "It can’t work!" Then you must say, "Okay, good, now, how could it work anyway?"
Like a training I call "hand up, you down," for example, in which you are draining your attention, your energy, and even your mind away from the hand (if you’re using your hand) down into the ground. To get power, your brain will want to go into the hand, into the push, but instead you drain away from it. This is contrary to what we would normally do. Relax and drain away from the object, and try your action anyway. Of course, once again, you may fail in the beginning, but if you keep being sensitive to the feeling, something will wake up. Eventually you will find these feelings that will make it work out while you stay relaxed.
Can you give an easy example which one could try to get an idea of how it could work? Something where it would be kind of easy to get some result through relaxing, just to realize that it works.
Oh, there’s the rub. To realize that it works usually you have to realize the possibility that it could work, and then hang with that for a long time before it does work. That’s the rub. People want it to work right away, they want something simple, easy, that can work right away, and then they’re happy. They want it to work today or at least this week. And sometimes it doesn’t. Now, look, I’m not a fan of spending 20, 30 years with some idea believing that maybe it’ll work out. No, no, not at all. I’m saying, try to make it work today. But, you see, it might not work today, and so you have to hang out with the possibility of effortless power – seriously staying relaxed and seriously trying to make it work, until it does. The intention is that it works today, but the commitment is that it works while being completely relaxed today. And that’s not likely, you see?
But now, for something easy to do. First, imagine what you feel like when you relax and fall on a couch and you let the couch take your weight because you’re really tired. You relax and fall on the couch late at night and let the couch take your weight, and you’re not tensing up – hopefully. Maybe you had a few beers. So, if you sort of relax onto somebody’s body like you relax onto a couch and just let them take your weight – something would happen to their body. They’d probably move. They may try to brace up to try to support you like the couch did, but it would take them a lot of effort to do that, and you should notice that. But, let's say you just relax and fall on them. Now, this isn’t the use of intrinsic strength the way I mean it, but it’s a way for the brain to start getting "Oh, okay, I could really be relaxed and still produce some result", right?
Put your hands on somebody and step into them, step into them with your body and let your arms relax so you hit your chest against their body. Okay, now if you can let your arms go so that you hit your chest, your arms can be really relaxed because you aren't using them to push with. You’re just bumping your chest into someone's body. Once you've done that for awhile, then ask: how can you keep your arms that relaxed but move your chest into your hands so that your body falls into their body through your hands rather than your chest? If you experiment with that, you can find a way to make it happen. Don't try to think about it too much, because when people start thinking about it, they get mechanical, they try to figure out how to make it work mechanically. But that is not sophisticated enough. Human thinking about mechanics isn’t sophisticated enough to make it work. It’s too limited. It's too clunky. No, it’s best just to feel and play with it and find how it works. Eventually you might find, "Oh, instead of just hitting my chest into them, my chest can push through the arms and hands and move their body”. But you need to do this without tensing your arms at all, so it requires finding a very accurate and delicate alignment in the motion of the whole body, including the arms, to do so. Later, of course, you will have to reverse that whole thing and get their body to compress you down into the ground, but that's another story. I don’t know how to easily tell you how to do that.
My new book, “Zen Body-Being”, talks about developing effortless power. That's a good place to start. It’s a good book, it was well written, and not because it was well written by me. I mean I wrote the content, but my editor and wife – who is a writer – worked hard to make it so that normal people could understand. It's the first of my books that everyone can understand. When I write, it's as if to my students and so normal people usually can’t understand it. They have to reread it and reread it. Some people really like the way I write and they get into it and study it, and some people just throw their hands up and throw the book away. But with my wife cleaning up the writing you can actually read it. So Zen Body-Being talks about effortless power, and possibilities for getting there, and gives a lot of exercises to work on. This book is not just for martial artists – it's for anyone who wants to learn to use their body better – but it does have exercises to help you get into the things I’m talking about here.
So where would you say this power comes from?
The power is intrinsic, it’s already occurring, it’s the body itself. It’s the power of your body being a body already. So, that means the power is inherent in the body. When we use muscle strength, it’s not intrinsic, because it’s not something that's there already. With strength, the power's not there, and then it is, then it's not there, then it is. It’s something we "do", it’s something we have to make happen by contracting muscles and using effort. So, it’s not inherent, it’s not intrinsic.
So, the power happens when you sort of loosen the compression or …?
No, no, no, thank you for asking that question because too many Taiji people will confuse what I'm saying, since there are similar sounding things in Taiji – "loading and discharging", for example, or other ways of speaking about that. And that is not what I do. I have to retrain Taiji people out of those methods which are just other ways of using strength. They say, "I am going to compress and then discharge", or compress and then release or something. No, no, you don’t release!
Compression happens to you, you just move properly and compression happens. It’s only one thing, it’s not two things. It’s not squat and shove, which most of the time is what this idea of loading and releasing really is. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about aligning your whole body – which isn't a stagnant thing but a dynamic one – so that when you move your center in a proper relationship to the target, things get pushed into the ground and that’s it, that’s the end of the story. It’s all done. When things get pushed into the ground, boom, it’s all done. The person flies away or falls down or whatever because that’s what happens when things get pushed into the ground and you have aligned properly. You don’t release anything, you don’t do anything. Compression is not something you do, you don’t compress yourself. That would be tension, you’d try to squeeze yourself or something. No, no, compression is something that happens to you, that happens to you or through you. It happens to you and through you to the ground. That’s it. Simple, in fact it's too simple. You have to find and set up the alignment and motion, but then you do nothing. Getting at this is perhaps complicated – it's difficult to find – but doing it is quite a simple act.
The hardest thing is controlling your mind, it really is. The hardest thing is controlling your mind so that you don’t use other habits, so you don’t use strength.
I thought the most difficult thing probably is to get rid of other patterns you have already got.
Yes, getting rid of many patterns that you have developed since you were a child, a baby, that the mind has been trained to do automatically. (laughs)
You have to allow this intrinsic strength, you have to allow all of the principles that are involved in using an effortless power to act. That’s really difficult. You have to let it happen, and you have to get out of the way of your own wanting it to happen. Because your greed to make it happen screws it up. After it has happened, then maybe you can take credit for it. But during the act you really have to just sort of let something else do it. You have to be the vehicle for it to happen. It’s a real challenge to the ego. Some people say I have a lot of ego, and what I think they mean by this is that I’m arrogant and I’m full of myself. Okay, okay. But when I do these things, I have to take a back seat, and I know it. And then maybe I’ll say, look what I did (laughs). But while doing it, I have to rip myself out of myself, so to speak – control the mind and not interfere, not do me, not do my desires, not do what I’ve been trained as a normal human being to do. I know, this is starting to sound a bit strange but I’m trying to convey something that’s really hard to convey. But, yes, you've got to get out of the way and let it happen.
So, to me it sounds that it’s less the action, but the mental training probably to get it?
Yes, the mental training is by far the largest part of training effortless power. I mean, the physical training you have to do, because it has to happen physically. But it’s really what you’re doing with your mind that makes it – that allows it to occur. That's what allows you to find it for one thing, like through experimenting. Giving up habits, having the intent to do it effortlessly, and then finding this way to do it, and once you do, then letting it happen – that's all mental activity. Yes, absolutely, the mind training is by far the most work.
Going back to the Consciousness work I was talking about earlier, it helps immensely to study what the mind does. Working to develop effortless power provides a good opportunity to study what the mind does, what the brain does, and how you can work with it, whether you take it as far as we do in Cheng Hsin or not. It offers a good look into yourself, what the self does, and offers an opportunity to work with and change it. It’s great. That’s why I use this martial art in my work. Mostly, because I was good at it and I liked it and I enjoy it. It’s fun. But also because the martial discipline works so well with the Consciousness work, the spiritual work that I do, because it has a great balancing effect. As you know, most people who do martial arts, most people who do Taiji, although well meaning, good people, live in a fantasy about it. It’s a fun fantasy, but it’s a fantasy. What I mean by fantasy is a world of imagination about what one has been told and what one makes up about what it is. It’s not a reality, it’s a fantasy. Have they ever done what they fantasize about? No. Can they do it? I’ll tell you, no, they can’t. They may be able to do many skillful things, but when you look closely those skills aren't the same as the fantasy that goes along with the art.
So, I know, people don’t like hearing that. Nobody likes hearing that. What they practice in part is a fantasy. But once again, remember like I said, I’m in the consciousness and honesty business. And one aspect of honesty appears as brutal or ruthless in its nakedness and forthrightness. And that’s one of the reasons why I think people think I’m more arrogant than I actually am. It’s because there's sort of a brutal aspect to what I say. If it’s true for me that I honestly think that I am good at something, I’ll say, I am good at it. I’m not going to lie and say, "no, no, I’m terrible", and pretend to be humble. That’s a lie to me. If I’m bad at it, I’ll say, I’m bad at it. Whatever is true, I try to go with that as best I can. And the same thing applies all around, you see? If I think you’re acting out of a fantasy, I’ll tell you. But then people get irritated, they get bothered by that. Yet what do you want me to do? Lie about it? I’m telling you I know because I have also acted out of fantasies, and been involved in many, many beliefs.
I’ve studied martial arts since I was nine years old. This is almost 50 years, because I’m 58. That’s a long time! That’s much longer than any adult should be doing such things! But in any case, you see, have I had fantasies? You bet. Many different ones, and because I’ve had different ones – in Karate, Judo, Aikido, Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua, this Kung Fu and that Kung Fu, and spiritual fantasies, and studying this health system and that, various systems of body work, and different spiritual attainments, and whatever – I was able to eventually see them all for what they are. I come from Berkeley, California. We had a lot of this stuff back in the sixties and the seventies. Was it beneficial? Yes, it was, it was. I learned a lot. I am really glad that I was exposed to all these things. They really helped me change my mind, open up to a lot of stuff. It was great. I am glad that I studied Taiji as much as I did. It opened up lots of worlds. Were there fantasies going on? You bet.
When you start opening up, you also start getting more real and honest. I think everybody knows this in some way, they know that they live in a certain amount of fantasy. They have lots of beliefs, but don’t really know the truth. People don’t really know who they are. They may say, "I am this and that”. But really, who are you? That question pushes us back again into the Consciousness or Zen work that we do. Really, who are you? That insight has to be pursued by you. Nobody else can tell you. You can’t believe something about it that will be the truth. It’s not possible. You have to do it yourself. You have to experience your own true nature yourself. And having a fantasy about it or even ideas about it or beliefs about it won’t do anything.
Like in Taiji, you have fantasies about Taiji. Good, you feel better, that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with that, maybe it makes your world better, you perceive life in a better way, in a positive way, you feel better about yourself. These are all very positive. So, I’m not knocking it. I’m just saying, it’s a fantasy. It’s not reality. It takes courage to move through and to let go of our fantasies and go for the reality, what’s true. Sometimes people think reality means something negative. No, reality means something true. True is not negative, it’s not positive. It’s true.
What’s about Qi? Do you at all work with that?
That’s actually a difficult question to respond to well. Yes and no. (laughs)Yes and no. No, I don’t work with Qi the way people think of Qi, because the way people think of Qi is a fantasy. People have a belief and a fantasy coming from another culture that’s not ours, another culture that uses the word differently and thinks about the thing differently than what we think when we use that same word. In both cultures, however, it's still a belief, and usually just a fantasy.
So, I don’t believe in that. But I do recognize the usefulness when people work with Qi in Qigong or Taiji, or whatever. I think it’s a good thing for them to do. Do I think they’re doing what they think they’re doing? No, I don’t. Do I think it’s a powerful, important thing for them to do? Yes, I do. That’s the difference here. It’s hard to understand, you know? Humans have a hard time being responsible for what’s true. They much prefer to be told something to believe in and then act in relationship to what they’ve been told. So, if you’re told you have Qi flowing through your body, like some mysterious energy, and you can develop it to do these healing things or these internal martial arts things, or these whatever things, and you’re told exactly how to do it, then you’ll train it. Why? Because now you believe it’s so and that you can get something from it. And through this training you will create it. Your mind will create feelings in relation to what you've been told. You will also interpret these sensations in terms of the belief system that you have and so validate them. But what I would say is, you created them, you didn’t find them.
In “Zen Body-Being” I talk about how I hold this Qi matter. I believe in "feeling”, but this whole world of feeling is different than what we conventionally think about when we discuss feeling. I'm talking about a feeling-awareness, a feeling-attention – I use these hyphenated words, because I am talking about "consciousness" and "feeling" working together, sort of a "feeling-intelligence”. Not merely thinking, but a different domain of intelligence. It’s a feeling-intelligence from which we can create many different experiences, even different domains of feeling-states or mind states. One of which is called moving your Qi around, which is really just moving your feeling around, training your feeling-attention, which we can do. And this is a good thing. I try to get my students to do that but I don’t talk about it as Qi. It is a little like Gautama Buddha responding to the question "Do you believe in God?" To which he replies, "I don’t believe in God, and I don’t believe in not-God”. I think that’s the proper answer to this question. The matter is too difficult to just say Yes or No. Our thinking is too limited for that.
About such things as Qi, it's like I was saying to Bob yesterday about an experiment I was sharing with him. I heard of an experiment that was done with acupuncture, in which they worked with lots of people with the same disease, same malady. One group of people did the normal Western medicine type of things with this disease. One group did traditional acupuncture. And the other group just had needles stuck into them randomly by somebody who acted like they knew what they were doing. And how did it turn out? Well, according to the belief system about Qi and the channels and meridians and how it has to work and all that the traditional acupuncture should have worked the best. It didn’t. The Western medicine didn’t work very well for this disease. The acupuncture group did better than the Western medicine. And the random sticking of needles did just as good as the traditional acupuncture. Just as good. They did the same.
So, there was something about either sticking needles in people, or just the act of providing human contact and care with a live person that the other medicine didn’t have, that helped these people heal. But you see, it didn’t have to be done via that particular belief system. I have experimented with these things myself in different kinds of body work and energy work in which they say it has to be done a certain way. I checked, and did it differently, even opposite, and it worked fine. Because, like I say, it’s not the way people think. We are creating a lot of this.
And how can we know or find out whether it’s just your imagination or whether we are feeling what is really there?
Well, that can be a challenge. But you see, if you are feeling something and it does something for you, then it does what it does for you. If you can accomplish a result with it, then great, you can accomplish a result with it. Whether it’s really there or not, or in your imagination, at that point doesn’t really matter, does it? You know what I’m saying? It might not really be there, you might be creating it. So, then you are not actually finding something in that case. Let’s just say that not everything is found. Some "findings" are created.
That’s quite what the Chinese say, Qi follows Yi, the imagination?
Yes, sure, yes, it does. But they also say, everybody has to follow this exact route. Maybe not.
Yes, I was just thinking of this idea that you create it or you make it more strong, that’s something that is already in the theory of Qigong anyhow.
Oh, yes, sure. I think it’s a good thing to do. It makes people healthier in their body and helps train their mind. They just believe in something I don’t think is true. That’s what is so hard for people to grasp. See, if I tell you, "Look, I want you to train these movements with Qi, I want you to concentrate your mind and do this thing, it's good for you." If you believe me you'll do it and it will likely do you good. But if I also tell you "you’re not really doing what you fantasize, you’re making it up”, then you probably won’t do it. People don’t want to do something if they think they are creating it, because then they think it isn't real. If I say, it’s your feeling-attention you are moving in your body and, if you concentrate on it, you can make it powerful and strong. People will say, "Oh yeah, but then if I’m just creating it, what good is that? I want a method that somebody else tells me is true and tells me exactly what to do, so I can train it and accomplish the results they claim will happen." Do you see what I am saying? It's much easier, the human mind for some reason likes that much better. I know, I’ve taught thousands of people for decades and decades, and witnessed over and over again, much to my dismay, that people want to be told what to do.
If we can come back to your book again – it’s also for people not doing martial arts?
Yes, it’s for anybody who wants to be more effective with their body. It’s called “Zen Body-Being”, and it's about that aspect of Cheng Hsin in which we do body-being work – being conscious of the body, the mechanics of the body, the principles of an effortlessly effective body-being. It’s about asking "What is the best way to use the body?" Even "What is the body?" The book also contains some consciousness and perception work I threw in.
The material in the book is grounded in all the martial work I've done, as well as body work and anatomy – I was an anatomy-physiology major at the University. I started studying the body further simply because I wanted to be more effective. I didn’t do it for itself. I did it because I wanted to be more effective with the body, and discovered the real value of relaxing and using the center and shifting weight in certain ways, and knowing how to use the knees, the pelvis, and so on. I worked it all out over many years. And developed the many imagination exercises like waterdrop and ball and chain and ‘hand up, you down’. These things changed how I move the feeling-attention around, to become more grounded, more relaxed, and helped change the way the body can align itself in far more sophisticated and detailed ways than the intellect can do when applied to the same task.
The body-being stuff is really important, but I enjoy skill and mastery more, which is inclusive of the body-being work, but it’s more about interaction, perception, how to interact with somebody and manage the relationship skillfully – throw them down, avoid their force, blend, stuff like that. I like that. But the main commitment is consciousness and honesty. The more conscious we get, the more honest we tend to become. I don’t mean just being honest talking to other people. Sure, that’s part of it. But being honest with yourself, and that can be even harder, because you may think you believe one thing but trying to discover what you actually believe is even harder. You know what I’m saying? This takes work in itself. Beyond that you need to ask "But what’s the truth, what’s true?" And that’s harder than just believing in something. As you dig down to uncover all that you believe and deep assumptions you don't even know you have, and then also working to discover the truth, you keep unearthing more and more. So it must become like a genuine practice, like a spiritual practice. The more honest you are willing to be, the more subtle dishonesty you can discover. You suddenly discover "Oh, I wasn’t really being honest about that, I didn’t know I wasn't being honest, I thought I was, I really thought I was being honest about that." You have a breakthrough in honesty and grasp, "Ha, no I wasn’t. Okay, now what's the truth?" You’ll be as honest about that as you can and continue to see if you can be even more honest. You just keep getting deeper and deeper into it, deeper and deeper into this very reality. And that’s a good thing.
Do you do that through meditation or do you have different methods?
There is no real method to Consciousness. It is itself and it is direct. Okay, having said that. (laughs) Yes, a lot of contemplation, a lot of questioning, questioning such as that honesty practice, now that’s a practice! That’s almost the same as contemplation in a way, because you’re deeply wondering what is true. Trying to align with what's really true is what honesty is all about. We also do very direct and powerful contemplation, asking questions such as: Who am I? What am I? What is life? What is reality? What is existence? What is the nature of existence? Or what is this moment, what is it really? I have done thousands of hours of intense contemplation. Most people aren’t that committed, most people don’t want to do that much, and I understand. But that’s what I do and that’s the most important thing to me, more than martial arts. Like I said, I just like martial arts, I have fun with it.
I have done martial arts for nearly 50 years. And you've got to learn something in 50 years (laughs). Eventually, I transcended the martial arts, because once again, I wanted to know the truth. Is the truth Judo? No. Is it Aikido? No. Is it Taiji? No. Is it Xingyi? No. Bagua? No. Karate? Certainly not. It can't be found in any one way of imagining the world, so it's none of those. At least, are their methods correct? In each their ways of approaQing martial interaction is very limited. Is Taiji like Judo? No. But, is Judo like Karate? No. Is Aikido like Taiji? No. So, they’re not the same. And the skills, you develop in one, aren’t the same as in another. An Aikido person can’t do Taiji just because they do Aikido. They can’t all of a sudden have skills in Taiji. And Taiji people don’t have skills in Aikido. They don’t know how to roll and fall, for one thing. They don’t have the same kind of energy and movement. Can Aikido people fight? No. Because they never do, they don’t fight. So, they can’t, they don’t know how to do it. Can Judo people punch? No. Because they don’t punch. You see, they’re always limited to a particular game and certain beliefs.
So, what’s real about all of it? I wanted to find that out. That’s different than doing just one art and seeing everything from that perspective. So, sometimes people think I’m criticizing Taiji or I’m criticizing Aikido or I’m criticizing something else. Well sure, it’s a critique. I’m pointing out the limitations. Did I do it? Yes. Was I good at it? Yes. I was good at Judo, I was good at Taiji, I was good at Kung Fu, I was good at Karate. I was very good. How do I know? Because I could beat up everybody else, and I understood what the art was about, sometimes, eventually, more than my teachers. I was good, I understood what was going on. So, I think, after 50 years I have a right to say that there are limitations.
I just point it out like saying the emperor has no clothes. I just pay attention. This art is limited in this way, and it doesn’t have to be. That’s one of the reasons why I created Cheng Hsin. All of these arts don’t have to be limited like that. Everything created and taught like a system is going to be limited, even Cheng Hsin as a system. Still, there are many stupid assumptions that don't need to exist, many methods or dogma that were not properly thought through, many games or specializations that shouldn't be a whole art. There is no need to restrict an art to such things, even though you do have to decide where to draw the line as to what to study and what you are going to do. Beyond that, what I try to point out is that Cheng Hsin itself is not the system, it is a commitment to the truth. We try to open up our arts to be more inclusive so that we’re not limited by many of the limitations that other arts have. And we have a lot of fun. For me, it’s the most fun art I’ve ever done – maybe because I put it together. No, it’s just a lot of fun.
But there are others like my friend Robert Nadeau, who is a top Aikido teacher, who doesn’t talk about Aikido as a martial art. No, he makes a distinction – there is martial art and then there is Aikido. Okay. He knows the limitations of Aikido. It’s just not a martial, fighting art. It’s used for something else, another kind of development. It’s martial-like, it uses martial movements and techniques and there is a lot of fun stuff in Aikido, I love Aikido, but it’s not a fighting art. I could love dance or yoga and they’re not martial arts. You get benefit from yoga and benefit from dance. But whatever you are doing, call it what it is.
Most people don't do these things for real fighting reasons anyhow.
Oh, heavens, no. Very few people do it for real fighting. There’s a larger number of people who think they do it for real fighting but they’re just wrong, because they’re not. They would be rudely awakened if they found out. But it doesn’t matter why people do it, just that they are honest about what they are up to. People do it for recreation, for fun. People do it to be more healthy, for entertainment, maybe they do it for body development or physical exercise, all sorts of reasons. And they’re all fine. Just tell the truth about it.
That’s the thing that irritates me, because once again, I learned so much – I’ve thrown away more martial knowledge than most people ever learn, perhaps that’s the way it has to go – but it kind of bothered me that I would be taught so many things that turned out not to be true. And all that really had to happen was for the teacher to say "I don’t know”. They could just say "I don’t know. This is what I’ve been told." But people don’t do that. They don’t say "this is what I’ve been told”, they say "this is what is true”. They say "you have to do this like this, you have to do this like that, you can’t do this, you have to do it this way and you have to do it that way”. And then you get a system of beliefs and dogma. That’s what they do, but it doesn’t make it true.
So, I had to work through all that stuff. I probably couldn’t have done it any faster if they had understood that they weren’t being very honest, if they had understood the difference between belief and experience, if they had understood the limitations of their own art and their beliefs in their system. If they understood those things and taught in that way, it may have saved me some time and grief. Or maybe not, because people have to go through what they have to go through. You have to learn what not to do as much as learn what to do.
But obviously you also learned some important things too. Not just things you had to drop off … I find it very interesting what you wrote in your book about not to be afraid anymore about winning or losing. I think, that’s a very important point.
Yes, I learned a lot from my main teachers. I love them very much and they did the best they could. What you are referring to was a particular incident that I was talking about when I was in an empty storefront in Berkeley, California, playing with some friends in the early 70's. Even back then I wanted to be the best and I was always afraid of losing, even a little. How can you be the best if you lose? One day in one moment I gave up the fear of losing. I didn’t care if I won or lost. Then things got really clear, and I didn’t lose, because I was calm and clear. It was obvious what needed to happen. Without fear or ambition clouding my mind, I could simply do it. I was just interacting skillfully. It wasn’t like that winning and losing business. That was really nice, I remember that. Very freeing.
I like to say the main thing is for people to do what they love, and things that are healthy for them. Me, I’m going to stick with the truth. But I think that kind of truth is as rare as real fighting. Most people aren’t going to do it, it’s too hard, just like real fighting is too hard. And most people should not be fighters. It's a stupid thing to do, it really is. It’s a brutal thing. But if you want to use it for honesty, if you want to use it for feedback, if you want to use it for personal training, nothing beats it. Because it’s one of the most challenging, raw, and demanding things you can do. I say, nothing beats it for feedback, for showing who you are, where you are, how your mind works, and allowing you to seriously work on being able to control your mind and transcend your self. Or you could just be an animal, but be honest that’s what you’re doing, and know that you haven’t really gained anything. If you’re trying to transcend yourself or understand yourself, it can be used for that, but it’s a hard road. It really teaches you. It’s humbling, it’s very humbling. I mean, even if you win, it’s humbling. The main thing is that everyone can benefit from honesty, and you don't need to fight to do it. Honesty itself is a brutal teacher and transcends the self.
Thank you so much for this interview.