Memories of Taiwan: Third eye blind

The sun has set behind the Kaohsiung skyline as our bus rattles along in the congested rush-hour traffic. I lie back against the head-rest, feeling the vibration on my scalp through the velour, and try to doze. Every now and again a jolt throws me back into the real world and I see flashes: flashes of the faux wood-panelled interior of our vehicle, the slumped, silent silhouettes of my fellow Chen Pan Ling practitioners, chaos passing in every direction, the smoky-red stain on the horizon and the neon glow of the pea-soup sky.

We’re travelling from the Fo Guang Shan monastery into the city centre for our respective appointments with blind masseurs/masseuses. “Go on!” James had said to me in 2009. “Do it. You’ll feel like a new man.” But for whatever reason I declined – a decision I’d come to regret deeply. In fact, the moment I saw them arriving at the Kingship Hotel (each on the back of a scooter) and being escorted in through the foyer to the elevator (aided by the directions of my good friend "Little John" Scott) I knew I'd made a mistake.

So this time when the call came for massage bookings my hand was the first to go up. “Try everything once except folk-dancing and incest,” Sir Thomas Beecham famously said.

I could hardly go back to the West without experiencing the particularly Oriental cultural phenomenon of the blind masseur/masseuse (the Western world of today seems less likely to "assign" such an occupation to people with impaired sight). In fact, I simply had to have this experience, especially given my frequent references to the Hagakure story of the Ten blind masseuses - a story that has become my favourite metaphor for how confronting your fears is often less stressful than avoiding them.

The gnawing pain in my lower back reminds me that there is a more urgent reason than this to call on the services of a therapeutic masseur/masseuse - blind or sighted. I don't know it, but little can help the bulging disc pressing on the nerves in my spinal canal. But at this point I remain hopeful of some relief. So I lie back, cocooned against the hum-drum world, and try once more to clear my mind of the million thoughts.

Try as I might, this is a task I cannot accomplish. Despite decades of chipping away at my mental indiscipline, I remain unable to bring my mind to heel. Finally, I give up. I allow it to wander freely over the tumultuous year that was 2010:

I recall the year of training and teaching martial arts: the many students, some leaving some joining; the endless frustrations of dealing with a recalcitrant body succumbing to arthritis.

I think of the hundred thousand words of this blog (and 2 others), often written in the dead of the night and the associated hours of research, photo/video shoots and editing, and animated gif construction.

I think of my fortnightly radio show "The Combat Sports Hour" on 91.3 SportFM - the many true masters and fascinating characters I interviewed (see for example my interview with John Will, Australian BJJ pioneer, here).

I recall the hundreds of pages of legislation I drafted each month in my "day job" combined with late nights in Parliament. I think of the many challenges of raising a young family.

I think of the months of sustained amateur detective work to uncover, once and for all, the whereabouts of my mother, missing for over a decade; of the hair-pulling frustration of dealing with the glacial South African bureaucracy and how I finally discovered that she had passed away somewhere in Cape Town in July 2008 from unknown causes and in unknown circumstances.

I also remember the many "obsessive" projects, completed at break-neck speed: The gargantuan revision of the Wu-Wei Dao syallbus, now accessible (to members of our Academy) on the web with images and video to illustrate each technique for each grade requirement (from white belt through to the "end"). The web design alone accounted for many hundreds of hours. I recall how I more or less completed my book "Essential Jo" in the 10 or so days preceding my trip to Taiwan. And I remember my crazy two week bid to solve Fermat's Last Theorem using only algebra and trigonometry.

It's at this point that I realise I've been thinking in my "out-loud" voice - something I rarely do, but I'm tired and less inclined to act rationally. My travelling companion is looking at me quizzically, saying: "You lost me when you started talking about quadratics".

Our bus pulls into the kerb at a jostling, sardine-crammed night market. We are dislodged onto the sidewalk, my back sharply protesting at abrupt the need for movement. Out in the open I'm greeted by the familiar mix of Kaohsiung smells: the sickly sweet sewer, chemical solvents and foul, fermenting tofu.

A million voices drown James' as he attempts to give directions to those who have chosen to visit the night market instead of having a massage. They depart and the rest of us follow Master Chen through narrow, darkened alleyways to the "parlour", scooters squeezing between us, mangy dogs running underfoot. Finally we stop outside an ancient grey building and file through its narrow doors.

In the foyer we are promptly greeted by smiling hosts who herd us up the rickety wooden staircase. As I get up to the first landing I'm reminded of some old Western - Rio Bravo specifically. It looks like the accommodation one might find above a saloon, with tarnished brass-handled doors to tiny rooms on both sides of the corridor. I expect Angie Dickinson and John Wayne to appear at any moment.

Once I'm settled into my own room, I gently lower myself onto the bed, wondering what clothing, if any, I need to remove. Moments later there is a knock, and the door opens. The blind masseuse enters, led at the elbow by one of the hosts. "You lie down on bed," the host says to me, beckoning and smiling. "Okay, okay?".
"Xie xie ni," I answer, nodding. Then the host is gone. I take off my shirt and trousers and lie down on the bed, face first. The masseuse, a middle-aged woman, feels her way to the edge of the bed, finds my upper back and starts to knead. "Okay?"
"Hen hao," I reply. My face burrows into the mothball-smelling sheets as her fingers start digging into my trapezius. My mind wanders back to Fermat.

I've previously mentioned how martial arts analysis needs to factor all the relevant dimensions - not only the three dimensions of space, but also the fourth dimension, time. Somewhat synchronously, it is time and its very nature that preoccupies me now.

Most of us are equipped with two functioning eyes. This allows us to see in three dimensions. If we have only one functioning eye, we see in only 2 dimensions. But what if we had three eyes? Would we see in four dimensions - ie. could we "see time"? Lester del Rey proposed just this in his 1977 science fiction short story "Natural Advantage". His alien race, the Ruum, had a third eye that was used for "time depth perception."

I suspect that an added eye would not be sufficient. We would remain four-dimensional beings who can accurately perceive only three of these. Yes, we experience time, but we don't perceive it correctly or fully. As Albert Einstein famously wrote:
    "...for us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one."
"How can this be? Carl Sagan provided an entertaining explanation by way of analogy in his television series "Cosmos". In the segment below he describes how a race of "flatlanders" (who can only perceive 2 dimensions) would react when confronted with a three-dimensional creature. The flatlanders can experience something three dimensional coming into their flat world, but they remain incapable of pointing to that third dimension. They simply don't understand "up".


Carl Sagan discusses the fourth dimension

Similarly, we humans can experience time - but we can't point to it. We can't perceive it for what it truly is - a dimension. We use our two eyes to accurately perceive three dimensions. While we experience the fourth - time - as a linear progression, it is in all likelihood anything but that.

My mind is brought back to the present when the masseuse's sharp knuckles are thrust into the base of my skull just above my cervical vertebrae. The pain is excruciating, so I shout "Ow!" as I've been instructed. She continues regardless. It is only when she starts kneading my other trapezius that I am free to drift back to my thoughts.

It occurs to me that even these thoughts have a physical existence in time and space, however emphemeral. Every thought you've ever had (and ever will have) is an electrochemical process in your brain. For a brief moment the thought has an independent "physicality". It is "something" that can be described in terms of atoms and molecules. It exists in time and space, then vanishes.

The masseuse pressing into my knotted muscles reminds me that I too have a physical existence. And, not unlike my thoughts, the existence of my body is also emphemeral; not as emphemeral as a thought, but emphemeral enough in universal terms (when compared to planet, a star a galaxy or the universe itself)!

We get used to thinking of our bodies as a piece of fixed matter - like a rock or other inanimate object. And yes, like a rock we are subject to physical change in the form of wear and tear over time. But we like to imagine that our "matter" is otherwise substantially fixed. This is clearly false.

While we are living, we are rather more like a river than a rock. Our bodies are in a constant state of flux. I'm sure you've all heard that every single cell in your body is replaced after 7 years or so. In this respect each of us is rather like the mythical "Kelly's axe":
"Yes, this axe really did belong the famous Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly. It's just that the head has been replaced 7 times and the stock more than twice that..."

So if we are not defined merely by our physical matter, then how shall we be defined? Clearly we comprise a physical entity; we are matter. But we are much more than that. Our identity as living beings is dependent precisely on how our matter changes over time. It the very nature of this change that permits our consciousness to persist as a continuum, despite the fact that our bodies (and the electro-chemistry of our thoughts) are, in essence, emphemeral and constantly being changed.

Perhaps that is why when we see a lifeless body we no longer regard it as "human". The life has gone. What is left is stagnant matter; matter that will no longer renew. All that remains is for that matter to degrade and erode. It is no longer capable of change except in the sense of entropy - much like a rock or a dead piece of wood.

So how, if at all, does this dimensionality relate to martial arts? It seems to me that in order to understand ourselves and our complex interactions (of which physical confrontation is but one), we need to understand the nature of change. And I think it is no suprise that the internal arts (particularly baguazhang) relate to this concept. What do I mean?


Su Dong Chen illustrating "indirect fist"

I have previously noted that martial arts are not focussed on fixed postures, but on movement; the transition from posture to posture. However the internal arts go further than this. They don't just focus on techniques (which comprise a series of movements). Rather they examine how those techniques change or morph, depending on the circumstances. Consider the video above of Su Dong Chen, one of Hong Yi Xiang's students, demonstrating the "indirect fist".

You will note that a punch can be diverted or deflected. What most martial arts then seek to do is to follow up with another strike. This seems logical enough: the first one has failed, after all. Yet the internal arts of taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan all approach such a scenario differently. They focus on what happens to the deflected punch - just as much as they focus on any follow-up movement. In Su Dong Chen's example, the deflected punch doesn't just stop after it has been deflected. Like a flowing river encountering a rock, it flows around. It doesn't stop. It continues. It morphs into something else.

I have previously discussed the importance of understanding what to do when your technique fails (see my article "Really USING your kata"). The techniques of the internal arts do more than focus on "conversion upon failure". They recognise that your techniques are constantly morphing - whether they fail or succeed. For example, there is no point in the taijiquan "long form" where one technique is finished and another begins. The techniques flow one into another, seamlessly converting and changing. This is the very nature of taijiquan; to move like a cloud, endlessly forming and unforming. When forward energy/momentum is exhausted, there is a withdrawal; when a withdrawal is complete there is a forward or sideways or backward lunge. The body weight is constantly shifting, the movement evolving, changing. Like life itself.


I demonstrate the third section of the Chen Pan Ling taijiquan long form

To analyse taijiquan, one needs to start with the appreciation of what it is designed to teach. A friend of mine is fond of saying "I don't teach techniques - I teach principles." This is very much the case with taiji, bagua and xingyi. What do they teach? The principles of change: when you should change, how you should change, the different ways of changing. Changing what? Your movement, your momentum, your technique. An exhausted punch becomes a deflection, a deflection becomes a lock, a lock feeds into a throw, a throw feeds into a strike, a strike becomes a deflection... and so it goes.

Pragmatic sports fighters are inclined to look to an art like taijiquan and see "old people's dancing". It is nothing of the sort. It is an exploration of change. Correctly understood, it can be analysed and applied in a very pragmatic way.

After enduring another excruciating round of knuckle burrowing into the base of my skull, I feel a quick double-slap on my back. The massage is over. I rise (relaxed but still aching in my lower back) and dress. After that I gingerly descend the rickety staircase, back into the hum-drum world below.

I have changed. My waiting colleagues have changed. James was right. I do feel like a "new man" - and in some respects, I am.

The past, the present - these are both illusions. All that exists is the present. Live it.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic