The young man was anxious to start martial training immediately. My instructor, let’s call him Ed, sat down for a formal interview asking the prospective student why he wanted to take lessons. After about five minutes of explaining how he wanted “centering”, “was very metaphysical” and “mind like moon, mind like water” Ed wrote four words on his info sheet under reasons: “wants to kick butt.”
Ed was probably right twenty years ago. But things have changed. People do study martial arts now to seek physical manifestation of philosophies that interest them. While no substitute for in depth spiritual exploration, the traditional styles of martial arts are indeed informed by parallels to principles profound.
Taoism is one major source particularly in the Chinese arts such as Kung Fu Fu. Taoism is an ancient belief great subtlety which the West is only recently beginning to grasp. It is a philosophy of naturalness and adaptation. And one of its key concepts, especially for martial artists, is called Wu Wei (pronounced woo way).
For a long time Wu Wei has been inaccurately translated as “non-action” giving the impression that the height of Taoism was to sit on one’s rear. But the phrase “no inappropriate action” would he more to the point.
What is “inappropriate” in the martial world of action? This question spans the field. If your hand is nine inches away from the opponent then drawing it back to twelve inches distance before striking is inappropriate. Basically any cocking action before striking is “inappropriate” because it is too much. My teacher used to say, “if you’re pushing in a thumb tack you don’t need a sledge hammer.”
Day One and the problems arise. It almost seems is though people come to martial arts schools expressly to use too much muscle, too big movements, too much grunting and groaning. Probably some of this rises from the fixation of “working out”. How can you “work out” without grunting and straining? The more sweat, the more sins of excesss will be forgiven.
Admittedly it’s hard not to act in a “do something” world. Yet martial history demonstrates again and again that excess can lead to exit. After all, we know that the highest level of skill is that which approaches “effortless”. We’re also aware that it takes practice and more practice to get there But we often forget that the best practice, the kind you pay top dollar for in coaching and personal training emphasizes “relaxed natural” motion rather than forced, awkward strength.
If you are ever lucky enough to feel this level of skill, martially or otherwise, you know the pure joy of responding to a huge movement and neutralizing it with the flick of a wrist. Really fine martial artists barely seem to move when they deflect disaster. Refined skills are almost invisible; a far cry from frlamboyant kicks and grasshopper leaps.
All this is simply an injunction to pay attention, suggesting that we act as much as is appropriate and subdue all hysterics. In a world of terrorists, pundits, opportunists and other reasons aplenty for panic this pill of Wu Wei, though one of the most difficult to swallow, can cure .
But, like the concept of Christian grace, it is an idea that reminds us that in certain cases Spring will return, children will grow and life will continue whether or not we lift a finger.
Originally appeared in The Connection: Nov.Dec./2002