About Sticks

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One of my favorite stories in the Tao of Pooh has to do with a game called “poohsticks.” Poohsticks is now such a famous game, there are world championships (now in it’s 35th year)… but in it’s simplicity, it is “a simple sport which may be played on any bridge over running water; each player drops a stick on the upstream side of a bridge and the one whose stick first appears on the downstream side is the winner” (Wikipedia entry on Poohsticks). But Benjamin Hoff sees it as more, he sees it as the embodiment of taoist scientific exploration…

In that Poohishly humble incident, one can see all the elements of pure science as practiced by the Taoists: the chance occurrence, the observant and inquisitive mind, deduction of the principles involved, application of those principles, modification of materials, and a new practice or way of doing things. Not bad. But after all, Pooh is That sort of Bear…… If we were asked to condense Taoist teachings regarding everyday life to their irreducible essentials, we would say: Observe, Deduce, and Apply. Watch what is around you – putting aside, as best you can, previous conceptions that you or others might have about it. Ideally, look at it as though you were seeing it for the first time. Mentally reduce it to its basic elements – “See simplicity in complexity,” as Lao-tse put it. Use intuition as well as logic in order to understand what you see (a vital difference between the Whole Reasoner and the Left-Brain Technician). Look for connections between one thing and another – notice patterns and relationships. Study the natural laws you see operating through them. Then work with those laws, applying the smallest possible amount of interference and effort, in order to learn more and achieve whatever you need to – and no more.

Sometimes this is a difficulty for those of us that are more logic than intuition. But Hoff continues in this vein…

Carefully observe the natural laws in operation in the world around you, and live by them. From following them, you will learn the morality of modesty, moderation, compassion, and consideration (not just one society’s rules and regulations), the wisdom of seeing things as they are (not of merely collecting “facts” about them), and the happiness of being in harmony with the Way (which has nothing to do with self-righteous “spiritual” obsessions and fanaticism). And you will live lightly, Spontaneously, and effortlessly.

I love the idea of this, I really do–but it is a difficult thing to do, especially in the world today. And, secondarily, even I know that spontaneous is not a word anyone would use to describe me. But, you see, this idea of sticks as a learning method is not just found in reading material.


IMG_20141222_164332A little over 3 years ago I got my black belt in JKD/Gung Fu alongside my children. We had been working hard for that belt, and I was very proud of us for following something through to completion. I had studied multiple other styles, but like Goldilocks I found them all inadequate in some way: this one is too violent, this one is all kicking, this one is not useful for someone of my stature… etc. The mix of JKD and Gung Fu seemed to fit all of the various requirements I had.  I also began to study Filipino Martial Arts on the side, since I had been introduced to Escrima stick fighting and just fell in love with it.

At some point, it became clear that I wanted to continue my education more in the FMA side than JKD/Gung Fu, and I found myself studying in the Garimot Arnis Training (GAT) system. And here is where I found the difference between theory and application
aid1010132-v4-728px-block-punches-in-karate-step-8Many of the systems I studied previously focused on a 1:1 application method. Which is to say, they would teach in the following way: IF [someone does this] THEN [you counter like that]. There’s a counter for everything! If they’re standing on the right side of you, and they attack with a front punch, and you have your right hand up…. then you put your left leg at a right angle, and move the left hand in a semi circle to the east and…..

…and that’s great, there are a lot of things you can do with that.  So long as you have a mind like an encyclopedia with instant recall. That’s a great place to start. We’ve got the rules, but there’s nothing beyond rote response. And here is where my stick fighting interest led me to something entirely new… GAT may have begun with the basics, but there was no 1:1 instruction.  Yes, there was an instigating action… but rather than focusing on specific reactions, the focus was instead: “here are a whole bunch of ways you can react to someone coming at you, let’s figure out what is going to work for you.”

This becomes even more evident when stick fighting. It is a difficult thing to train yourself to react by instinct. When you start out, you want to measure, and come up with formulas or rules to make sure you’re doing what you need to do to stay out of harm’s way. You hit your opponent’s stick, and stay the heck out of their range (and yours). The thought of getting hit by a stick is scary–and since you’re practicing with your friends, the thought of hitting your friends is equally unappealing. But you have to learn to put yourself out there in order to get close enough to strike–and further, you have to learn to “feel” your opponent. If you don’t learn to move, and counter, and strike, you won’t get hurt–but you also will not strike.

In the end, it comes down to this: after you practice enough, you will be able to move in such a way that you are out of striking distance, but can still strike your opponent, and you won’t even think about it. After you practice enough, you will be able to feel (and tell if there is maliciousness) in the grasping of your wrist, or shoulder, and react before your opponent has time to complete their action. After you practice enough, you can use intuition as well as logic in order to understand what you see, and react accordingly.

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