Divide by zero

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before, but about a year ago someone asked why I study martial arts. It was someone I’d met through Facebook, someone I don’t know in real life, but who is herself involved in martial arts (Sunmudo, actually!).

I couldn’t answer. In fact, it left me incapable of continuing the conversation, and we’ve barely been in touch since.

“Why do you study martial arts?”.

Such a simple question! But whenever I tried to grasp the answer, it slipped away from me. It was there, but I couldn’t see it, only the shape of its absence. I’ve thought about it almost every day since, sensing how close it is. I couldn’t find the answer, though…

Ever since then, whenever someone’s asked, I’ve given the usual glib answers – but I’ve known that they’re not the real reason.

Why am I studying martial arts? I began to wonder, myself. This elusive question… It seemed to cause a mental paralysis. I could function perfectly well as long as I didn’t think about it. As soon as I did, though, my reasoning ability left me; there was a hole that I could never quite focus on…

A year….

Then today it hit me. It’s been my own personal koan. Aren’t there Zen monks who spend their lives contemplating one specific question, waiting for it to finally wear down their intellectual, rationalising mind, until they break through beyond into direct experience?

I’m studying martial arts because I want stillness and an empty mind. Clarity. A mind like a clear pool, where all the silt has settled.

Meditation does this. Regular sitting practice, in my own experience (never mind books, or what people say), has shown me this. After my first Vipassana retreat, I had a taste of it, and it lasted for almost nine months. It wore off. Right after that, I began my MBA, and that knocked my meditation practice into a cocked hat; I’ve never managed to get it back on track.

I’m working on fixing that. But even so… anyone can be calm when they’re on retreat. The hermit is untroubled… but in the city, how do we maintain stillness of mind? Of course, regular sitting practice develops mindfulness; meditators do get stronger, and can maintain their calm mind in daily life. What about when we’re faced with existential fear – like, for example, finding yourself broke and stranded in a foreign land? (Not that I’m in that situation, I hasten to add! It’s not impossible to imagine, though!)

The key to this breakthrough may have been in that visit to the Yiquan Academy. After the zhan zhuang, I was pushing hands with a bigger, stronger, opponent who was doing his best to push me backwards into a coatstand. The zhan zhuang, though, had left me calm, centred, able to observe and react impartially, without emotional engagement.

It only struck me later: that is what I’m looking for. That is why I’m studying martial arts, and the internal martial arts in particular.

The health benefits aren’t the reason, though they help.

The ability to defend myself isn’t the reason, though it will be great if I ever get that good.

I’m studying to try to reach that calm, to maintain that clear pool, even when someone is trying to knock me silly, or flatten me. When I’m faced with the really big fears. When there’s nowhere to go but through. Meditation in motion – just like it said on the tin. Baguazhang, taijiquan, and yiquan – they’re all getting me there. I just didn’t realise it till now.

Meditation training with extreme prejudice, perhaps.

Do you think I’m crazy yet? Or are you perhaps thinking, everyone knew this, what’s the big deal? Well… I could have repeated it to you before, because I’ve read it in books. Now, though, I’ve directly experienced it – and it went so deep it took me a while to realize what had happened.


Now I really can’t wait to get started with the yiquan.


  1. Heh, no not yet! I’ll try to get started once my contract’s finished, in a couple of weeks. After that, I have a month free before I fly back to Singapore in mid-August – just enough time to get the 1st level of training completed!


  2. Heh, heh… Might be a good idea to work on your legs/standing before you go… (It’s gonna be grueling, but I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of it! Besides the pain, I mean! 😀 )


  3. Hi all great information here and good thread to comment on.

    Can I ask though – how did you get this picked up and into google news?

    Very impressive that this blog is syndicated through Google and is it something that is just up to Google or you actively created?

    Obviously this is a popular blog with great data so well done on your seo success..



  4. I really haven’t bothered to do any SEO work – it’s simply because I’m using WordPress, which seems to register with Google, Yahoo, and so on when it’s installed. HTH!


  5. Emlyn–

    Another great piece. If clarity of mind under pressure (playing off of Hemingway’s definition of courage as grace under pressure) is what you seek to cultivate through internal martial arts practice–then you will most definitely enjoy exploring Ryabko Systema, breath practice aims specifically at integrating body and mind as you move through a variety of conditioning exercises, sparring, and taking and giving strikes. Strike up a correspondence with Tabbycat, who knows a lot about Vasiliev and Ryabko’s take on breathing. He may well be over in Beijing in the next few months on business, and would likely be putting in some time at Yao Chengguang’s school. You both would probably have some professional interests in common as well (user interface, information structuring, etc.).




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