Wednesday, January 6, 2016

How Much Practice is Kung Fu?

In the Netflix series "Marco Polo" there is a scene where the blind Daoshi "Hundred Eyes" explains kungfu to the series namesake. It is interesting in that it is one of the few depictions of a Daoshi that I have ever seen in the movies, but also because he explains a much more sophisticated description of the Daoist principle of kungfu than I have seen anywhere else.

I will warn readers, however, that I think that Hundred Eyes isn't entirely right. He talks about "supreme skill from hard work" and "practice, preparation, endless repetition, until your mind is weary and your bones ache---until you are too tired to sweat, too wasted to breathe", "that is the Way, the only way, one acquires kungfu". This description is very common, but I would take issue with it, because I am of the opinion that the kungfu comes from effort and sometimes extreme physical effort is a strategy for avoiding the much more important mental effort that is really key to kungfu.


Many years ago I recall coming across a quote from the taijiquan master Cheng Man-ch'ing where he said that he didn't believe in a lot of practice. He was happy to only put in about 20 minutes a day.
Cheng Man-ch'ing
This is absolute, total heresy in most martial arts circles. but I think that there is a grain of truth in it that bears emphasis.

The first thing to understand that Man-ch'ing is a bit of an odd duck in martial arts circles. He was a polymath who was considered a master in poetry, painting, calligraphy, and Chinese medicine---as well at taijiquan. This is a very high order of kungfu indeed. If his mastery was the result of the "endless repitition" and work until he forgot to sweat or breathe, he probably wouldn't have had the time to become a Master at five different arts.

How can someone be both a polymath and a master?


Of course, part of the answer comes down to how you define "master". I know that a lot of folks have an exalted vision of the wise master who can make mountains tremble with the glance of his eye. But IMHO, that is a silly trope that comes from watching too many silly movies like "Star Wars". A better definition would be to say that a "master" is someone who has assimilated a certain type of knowledge to the point where they able to have real ability in its application plus insight into it's theoretical aspects, which she can then pass on to future generations. The insight is important, as for example in the difference between a "journeyman" craftsman versus a "master".

A problem comes from the fact that there is rarely a totally unambiguous certificate of "mastery" that allows one to be universally recognized in your field. My Master's degree from the University of Guelph is considered sufficient qualifications to teach at a university level almost everywhere in the world, for example. But were the standards at the school to decline sufficiently, the degrees awarded would decline in value. And because of the glut of university Doctorates on the market, in actual fact there are no universities that I know of that would hire a Master to teach.

When you get into something that isn't as closely regulated as Canadian universities, things get much more ambiguous. In martial arts and spiritual traditions, a "master" is pretty much someone that other people choose to call a "master". Personally, I'd like to get rid of the term altogether and just use "teacher". But that isn't a discussion I want to spend much time on here. For the sake of this post, I am content to restrict the term to simply "someone who attained a certain level of proficiency in a discipline".

With that in mind, the question is "how can you develop a kungfu in five subjects at the same time if the only way to get kungfu is through brutal, hard, long-term, training?"


To answer, let me me draw reader's attention to an interesting article I came across---"Why Skills Plateau"---by way of a medical blog I follow, the "Incidental Economist".  The article is about doctors and other medical professionals, but it starts with a survey of the literature on learning, which piqued my interest enough that I chased down the original article it was based one, "The Traditional View of Skill Acquisition and Professional Development: History and Some Recent Criticisms", by  K. Anders Ericsson. (It's behind a paywall, so unless you have access to a major academic library---as I do---it will be a pain to get a copy to read. The "Incidental Economist" does a pretty good job summarizing the important points.)

The key points that I saw in this paper are as follows:

  1. Learning suffers from a plateau effect where people learn very quickly up to a certain skill level. At that point, they cease to give their practice their total, undivided attention and then start performing the task "robotically". At this point skill acquisition ceases.
  2. Individuals who go on to become "experts" in their field find some way to avoid this plateauing effect. These strategies are what separate "masters" from other practitioners. 
  3. These strategies boil down to avoiding the transition from conscious learning to robotic behaviour. They included: creating a specific feedback system to be able to accurately measure improvement, creating theoretical strategies for constant improvement, acquiring mental short cuts that allow one to accurately predict behaviour instead of just reacting, and, adapting your practice habits to make maximum use of limited mental and physical abilities.

Let's look at these three issues from the point of view of a taijiquan student.

The first part of training is learning how to do the slow form, which is where the vast majority of people end their practice. It is very difficult to learn the gross movements and remember their order. This requires a level of concentration and practice that the vast majority of people decide is beyond their interest, so they quit. The vast majority of people who do learn the form usually stop trying to learn much more and are satisfied to practice the set sporatically and robotically like a form of exercise---like doing sit-ups and push-ups. These people never become "Yang the unbeatable".

There is a tiny subsection of students, however, who stick with the practice because they find themselves with significant health problems and taijiquan turns out to be a very useful way of dealing with them. This is so common that the school I trained in had a saying "only sick people stick with taiji". Our leader, Moy Lin Shin, the story went, was deathly ill as a child and his parents were told that his only hope of survival was to be taken in by a group of Daoshis. Cheng Man-ch'ing was very sick with what might have been tuberculousis. I had migraine headaches that only went away with taijiquan and come back if I go too long without practice.  People who have illnesses that have been cured by taijiquan have a very strong inducement to stick with the practice that ordinary citizens do not.

There is a second element to sickness. If you have taijiquan and you use it to cure yourself of an illness, I would suggest that you also have a specific type of personality. I routinely try to "fix" health problems through behavioural change, with some very good results. For example, I had a period where I suffered from very bad knee pain and after experimentation found out that hamstring stretches pretty much eliminated them over night. Similarly, I found that my shoulder pain could be dealt with by switching to a split keyboard and ergonomic mouse on my computer plus some chest stretching exercises added to my workout routine. My observation of other people tells me that the overwhelming majority of people would not only never have the discipline to do such things, they lack the intellectual curiosity to investigate problems, or, even the belief that it is possible to do such things. I suspect that Moy and Cheng also had this "scientific" attitude towards their personal health issues. (Indeed, I see that attitude as being intrinsic to both "kung fu" and "Daoism" in general.)

In terms of the article by Ericsson, I would say that the people who are sick and have the attitude of trying to fix their illness through thoughtful physical experimentation are people who have two different parts of the items in the third part of my synopsis:   "creating a specific feedback system to be able to accurately measure improvement", and, "creating theoretical strategies for constant improvement". The feedback are the health benefits. (I can certainly say that getting rid of migraine headaches is a tremendous inducement to further practice!) The theoretical strategy for constant improvement, is the idea of experimentation to find ways of improving your health. A third element that will flow out of trying to find ways to fix ailments, is the generalized idea that I tell all the people I have tried to teach taijiquan---that you have to dissect your body with your consciousness and feel what is happening within it as you do the set.


One thing that caused me problems when I practiced taijiquan occurred when I went to classes and tried to keep up with other students. The teachers would often have long, long marathon training sessions where we were supposed to do set after set after set, or do warm up exercises for long periods of time. I would usually be on the verge of mental collapse very early on in these sessions and as a result felt that the taiji I was doing was absolute crap. No one else felt this way, so I assumed that I was just horribly out of shape or something. It wasn't that I couldn't keep up with others. I'm actually in excellent shape for a man my age with significant wind for hard labour. The problem was extreme mental fatique.

I used to have the same problem at university where I seemed to see huge numbers of complexities around subjects that all the other students were oblivious to. One horrific exam in a classical text course so freaked me out with the general nature of the question led to me submitting a final exam written in symbolic logic because it was the only way I could compress my answer into a form that was less than a ten thousand page essay.

I mention this because one thing that jumped out in the essay on expert learning was the idea that in some types of learning people should only practice for a period of time that is not mentally tiring.  I summarized this point above by saying "adapting your practice habits to make maximum use of limited mental and physical abilities". This is because once one becomes tired, it is no longer possible to give a sufficient level of concentration to the subject. At this time a student begins to practice robotically, and opportunities for real learning cease. This is where I take issue with the definition of kungfu that Hundred Eyes uses in "Marco Polo". If you are going to practice to the point where you "forget to breath and sweat", odds are that your ability to concentrate on what you are trying to learn are long gone and in actual fact you are just going through the motions.


One last thing that I wanted to bring from Ericsson's paper involves pattern recognition (" acquiring mental short cuts that allow one to accurately predict behaviour instead of just reacting".) He discusses chess mastery and how people acquire it. People who start off learning chess usually get to a point where they try to "work through" all the different implications of a specific move. Given the way the human brain works, this only works up to a point. To really get good at chess, a person needs
A Knight Fork
to think in generalized terms. On the most basic beginner level, for example, this involves looking for things like "forks". These are situations where a piece can threaten more than one piece at a time. This means that the opposing player loses a piece because he will only be able to protect one piece at a time when his turn comes around.

In the figure I've supplied, once the knight moves to the green square he threatens the king. This means that black king will have to move, which will allow the knight to take  the queen without loss---a significant gain.

Chess masters spend several hours every day analyzing games by other masters and in the process begin to recognize patterns in play that are beyond non-masters' ability to understand. In the process, they also gain the ability to "see" games mentally in a way that is beyond ordinary people's ability. If I read the paper correctly (please correct me in the comments section if I am wrong) the ability to play many games at a time or to play blindfolded is not a specific skill that some masters can do, it is a by-product of the process involved in becoming a master in the first place. These two skills seem exceptional to non-masters because their minds do not approach playing chess the same way that masters do.

I mention this because many folks have the assumption that a taiji master is able to neutralize attacks because he is faster than any other attacker. I once saw a video of a capoeira master who was playing a training game with his students. It involved a small purse of money being placed in a way that the two people sparring had to grab it while keeping their opponent from doing it first. This guy always got the purse, even though he was old and looked quite frail. He did it by being able to strategically block his opponent even though both of them were in constant motion. (I tried to find it on YouTube, but unfortunately I couldn't.)

Another example of this comes from hockey. Wayne Gretzky is famous for saying that a good player goes where the puck is, a great player goes where it's going to be.  It isn't about how fast you skate, it's about where you skate towards.

In my own case, I can remember an example from having to arrest someone at work. Since I am not a police officer, my legal options are very limited. I did three things. I saw this guy pan-handling. (Which I usually don't mind much and just tell the person to leave. But in this case he was very aggressive and a female student told me she felt very threatened.) So I told him that he had to come down to the entrance with me and talk to the police. At that point, he bolted and ran for the entrance. (If he was arrested by the police, he would get a warning plus banishment from the building. That means if he gets caught again, he would get charged with trespassing---which involves a fine and possible jail sentence. But if he could get out of the building without meeting the police, he would be free to come back another day without any risk.)

When he bolted for the door, I ran after him and yelled loudly at the person manning the desk to call the police. This meant that everyone who was present realized that something was going on, and I quickly had 100 witnesses to whatever transpired. This effectively tied the hands of the person. (This fellow was a "jail bird" and knows what his rights are better than a lawyer.) If he hit me in front of witnesses, he would be in big trouble. If he said I hit him, I had witnesses to counter act his story. I cannot grab or hit anyone I arrest, so I just made sure that I stood in front of the guy and blocked his exit. He tried to get up close to me, which is dangerous, because that would allow him to "sucker punch" me. So I held my arm outstretched at full length and used just two fingers to keep him at arm's length. This allowed me to say that I didn't grab him, while protecting me from him hitting me.

He was stymied, looked around at all the witnesses, and ended up staying put until the police arrived. There was no sort of "force" or crazy "Buddha Palm" powers involved, but I used the patterns of the event to maneuver him into a place where he was neutralized. I am not a master of taijiquan, but I have done enough push hands to instinctively understand the dynamics of distance and the importance of never "leaving the front door open". IMHO, this is a tiny bit of what it means to be a taijiquan "master". And it isn't fantastic powers, but rather more like "skating where the puck will be" instead of just chasing it.

This pattern recognition is something that comes from repetition, so Hundred Eyes is right about the need to do hard work. But it is also comes from concentrated thinking about issues (what the chess master does), so endless hours of robot forms practice is probably not going to help. Push hands and open sparring are probably very useful. But I also suspect that doing the form using intense concentration thinking about how to use the moves in actual situations is very important too. And you cannot do that for more than short periods of time (less than an hour) without suffering too much mental fatigue and becoming robotic.


All of this comes back to how someone, like Cheng Man-ch'ing, can be both a polymath and a master. I would suggest that if a person develops a Dao of learning that allows them to focus deeply and efficiently on the key elements of learning identified in Ericsson's article, that they would be able to apply this to whatever interests they pursue. So, in effect, one's kung fu bleeds across your spectrum of activities. Moreover, I would suggest that the everyday type of meditation that the Celestial Master recommends---"holding onto the One"---helps one learn to focus that undivided attention that is necessary to learn complex skills and extend the learning process beyond the point where the natural tendency is to plateau and become robotic. In effect, I am suggesting that it is possible to learn a "kung fu of kung fu". Once someone has achieved this skill, then everything else would become that much easier to learn.


Vincent Tran said...

Only by doing the grind will you meet your max. Sure, a naturally talented person that puts in minimum effort may easily beat a less talented person that devotes his life to the practice, but that is besides the point. Becoming a master is about a mentality, of devotion to the point of breaking, and the wisdom that subsequently comes from such effort.

Cheers :)

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


It might be more enlightening for readers of this blog if you explained why it is that you believe the argument in this post is wrong, rather than just asserting that it is. I have argued from evidence using examples from my own life and the example of a taijiquan teacher that at least some people have called a "master". I have also brought in some scientific research that appears to support my hypothesis. What sort of evidence do you bring to bear on your assertion?

Everything I write is provisional and I am happy to change my opinions if I can see what appears to me to be a substantive refutation of my arguments. But you must understand that a conversation that begins and ends with "I disagree" is pretty thin gruel to sup upon.