Saturday, August 31, 2013

Churchyard anger: an early lesson about bullies

It was early morning, mid-April 1971 and I was in the back seat of my parent's brand-new, shiny-white Holden Kingswood, trying to listen to Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime" which was blasting valiantly from the tinny AM radio but losing to the road noise coming in through the open windows.

We were driving the 15 km or so down the dusty Riverina Highway from our "home town" of Finley to the "big smoke" of Berrigan.  My mother was an aspiring portrait and landscape artist, but living in the country gave her few opportunities to display her work.  The annual Berrigan Art Fair was one of these.

As I recall, back then the fair was held at a local church.  And, it being a Sunday in deeply conservative rural New South Wales, my atheist parents were naturally obliged to attend the service.

I remember quite clearly arriving at the imposing building, nestled in amongst tall trees, a paddock to one side.  As we walked in through the pipe-iron and wire gate, I nervously regarded the Anglo-Celtic country folk in their Sunday best: crisp white or checked shirts, top buttons done up, blond or ginger hair cut unfashionably short at the back and sides and neatly greased and combed.  This was a place the '50s had not forgotten.  

In turn, we "New Australians", with our dark Southern European looks and strange ways, were regarded with obvious suspicion, if not open hostility.

I found the service itself utterly perplexing: the little English I'd gleaned from television shows like "The Banana Splits", "Lost in Space" and "Dr Who"  (and practised with my new friend and next-door neighbour, Robert) helped not one iota:  The minister might as well have been speaking Latin for all I understood him (in fact, for some years afterwards that's precisely what I thought he had been speaking - until my mother told me it was an Anglican service).  

So against the background drone of the Minister's voice, I swung my legs back and forth beneath the pew, stared at the high, vaulted ceiling and breathed in the musty, aromatic mix of incense, polished wood and rising damp - trying desperately to ignore the glares from some of the older boys sitting across the isle from me.

After the service the entire congregation emptied out to the front.  The adults went off somewhere fairly abruptly - I suppose to the church hall where the art fair was being held (I didn't care).  We kids were left to our own devices; some lingering in the church yard, others running amok in the paddock.

I somehow lost my elder brother - I'm not sure where he went.  So I found myself walking out towards some liquidambar trees growing in the front church yard.

I realise now that in any potential conflict there is a point of no return - a point where you "cross the Rubicon".  Over the years I have come to realise that this was it: I saw the boys who had been giving me the eyeball in the church up in the branches of a tree, yet I walked towards them anyway.

I suppose a part of me was curious.  I was very young - only four years old.  I was also very small for my age - apart from being painfully shy and timid.  I hadn't ever tried to climb a tree.  Yet here were boys who had clambered up in the branches like monkeys.  Somehow this made me feel quite safe.  After all, they were up there, I was down here.  And how bad could it be?  Surely even unfriendly people couldn't be all that bad?

"Oi - wog boy!  What do you want?"

I can't recall the exact words (I could barely speak English, after all), but I venture this is something like what was said to me.  I stared up into the tree, probably tilting my head sideways.  The boy who spoke was much older than I - maybe 8 or 9.  He shook his head and the younger boys up in the branches grinned wickedly.  I couldn't reconcile their smiling faces and the mocking tone of the flurry of words that followed.

"Did you want to come up here then?  Bet you can't.  You're a wuss.  A wog-boy wuss.  Your lot can't climb trees."

The very last bit, I understood.  Not wanting to appear ignorant, I lied:

"Yes, I can climb trees."

"So why don't ya?  Go on then!"  The older boy smiled a crooked smile and motioned to the branch next to him.  This gesture, and my obvious discomfort, was followed by a cacophony of kookaburra-like laughter from the others.  I started to step back, realising that these boys weren't going to be "nice".  Seeing this, the older boy swung down and, in an instant, was towering over me, his face still contorted by the same cruel sneer.

"Your lot should bugger off back to where you came from.  No one asked you to come here.  Get it?"

He was still "smiling", and I didn't understand him.  The tone was clearly menacing, but I suppose I wanted to believe he was being "playful"; that he was just "kidding around".  But these wishful thoughts dissolved in the very next instant.  The boy looked up at his friends with a small nod (as if to say: "Check this out!"). Abruptly, he drove a stiff punch deep into my solar plexus.

My tiny four-year-old body doubled over, totally winded.  I'd never been winded before.  In fact, I'd never been struck by anyone other than my father or brother.

At that moment my world was thrown into utter chaos: I was in the centre - on the ground, clutching my belly, unable to breath, with everything else spinning around.  My tormentor was standing over me, head tilted back, guffawing.  The others in the tree were laughing and jeering.

What happened next was entirely unprecedented in my life.  It surprised even me.  If I had been true to my "usual form", I would have simply burst into tears and laid there, helpless.  And yes - I did start crying.  But this time my tears weren't those of pain or fear.  They were tears of pure, unbridled rage - and hatred.

I picked my small body off the ground and flung it at my tormentor with all the energy I could muster, my tiny fists clenched, my arms failing wildly.  My tormentor turned and ran (albeit laughing as he did so).  I relentlessly pursued him around that courtyard through the thick veil of hot tears.  Sadly, my little legs couldn't possibly catch him.  And he purposely kept agonizingly just out of reach, squealing with delight at every blow of mine that narrowly missed.

I must have been screaming at the top of my lungs because my voice was becoming hoarse.  Abruptly one of the Aussie dads materialised out of nowhere, grabbing me by the scruff of my shirt, jerking me to a halt.

"That's enough of that, son!  Stop it!  Look, SHUT UP will ya?!"  

When I didn't stop, he shook me roughly.


I was still sobbing and couldn't speak except through hiccups.  I gestured vaguely towards the hall. He grabbed me by the ear and pulled me towards it.  I could hear the boys in the churchyard still laughing at the tops of their voices.

As we neared the hall I saw my mother and father emerge, horror-stricken.  Except they weren't horrified by my plight.  They were horrified with embarrassment.  I was crying.  Again.

"Is this one yours?  I caught him tearing into the other boys.  He's like that bloody cartoon Tasmanian Devil!  Jeez!"

The man relinquished his hold on me and I ran to my mother.  She wasn't exactly comforting.  I suppose I wasn't exactly making sense through the hiccuping sobs.  My parents said hurried goodbyes and ushered me into the Kingswood with considerable annoyance.  I was a bruka - I was shaming them in this new community.  Even my brother shook his head wryly as if to say: "It's always the same..."

I said nothing as we drove home.  There seemed little point.  After the hiccups subsided I'd tried to explain in Serbian that a boy had hit me, but no one seemed to be listening.  I don't think I've so much as mentioned it to anyone since.

But on that drive home I do recall having some important realisations - realisations that have stayed with me my whole life:
  1. Some people are just plain mean.  They don't need a reason.  They just are.  They enjoy being cruel.  You can't "make nice" with these people.
  2. When it comes to dealing with these "mean" people, you have to present a small target.  This involves some pretty simple measures.  For example, had I at least stuck with my elder brother that day, things might have been different.
  3. I wasn't who I thought I was.  Even though I was terrified to begin with, once the anger took hold the fear disappeared.  I wasn't as fearful and timid as I thought. 
  4. I had a temper - something I hadn't known up to that point.  I could be angry and wish to inflict the worst violence on those who would harm me.
  5. Anger is much more productive than fear and sadness.
  6. I felt no shame or disappointment in being "beaten" - because I had fought back, however ineffectually.  He had hurt me physically, but he hadn't beaten me in spirit.  In fact, I felt quite "pumped".  After all, he had run away from me (albeit without any sense of fear whatsoever - still, he'd run away and, more importantly, I hadn't).
  7. Even though I wanted to tear the bully to pieces, the one or two blows that landed at the beginning were completely ineffectual.  I needed to be "stronger" (that's how I thought of it in those days) if I was ever faced with the same situation again. 
  8. Getting "stronger" wasn't easy.  My friend Robert suggested eating jelly (his mother had told him that eating jelly made you strong).  I tried that for a while, hoping for Charles Atlas-style results, but nothing happened.  It wasn't until a year later when I saw my first Chinese gong fu films, including Bruce Lee's "Fists of Fury"/"Chinese Connection" that I felt I might have found the answer.
  9. Whatever happened, I never wanted to be like those mean people.  I wanted to be better than they were.  If anything, I wanted to be like my hero, The Lone Ranger, and help people against those who were mean.  I think it fair to say I've kept to my principles.  Like everyone I've said and done mean things in my life - but I've never come close to being a bully at any time, in any place and in any way.
  10. What upset me more than the physical pain of the blow was their mocking laughter.  It was the cruelest blow.  It was also the most disturbing.  I could understand someone hitting out in anger.  But hitting because it was "funny"?  This was the worst sort of person: a person without empathy.  I have little faith that such a person can "change".  It goes to core of one's nature.
More than anything, I hated the fact that the bully had had a "free shot".  This seemed most unfair to me.  To be frank, it still bothers me today.

And yet, I have to admit that I learned some important lessons that day.  In a way, I owe that bully a favour for this very reason.

So if, by some remote chance, he happens to read this and happens to remember punching a four year old foreign boy in the solar plexus in the Anglican Church yard in Berrigan in April 1971, I'd like him to know all of the above.

I'd also like him to know that, even after all these years, I'd be only too happy to return the favour.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Wu-wei in action: fighting without fighting

Regular readers of this blog will know that the title “The Way of Least Resistance” is actually just one possible translation of the concept in Daoist philosophy known as wu-wei (無為).  Literally this phrase means “not doing”.

This can make the title of this essay seem rather odd: how inaction be “in action”?  Well, two recent videos I’ve seen illustrate my thinking better than any words I offer.  Consider the first video below:

In this video, Takanoyama Shuntaro (AKA: Pavel Bojar), a 200 lb Judo player from the Czech Republic, competes at the elite level in Sumo, demolishing much larger opponents.  He does so as the very epitome of "wu-wei in action".

In order to explain what I mean, let me back-track a bit: As I have previously explained, the expression wu-wei is not a literal injunction against action.  Rather it is description of an ideal state “where nothing is done, yet everything is achieved”.

One way of translating this maxim into a meaningful “instruction” is to say: “Do only that which is necessary” (or conversely: "Don't do that which is unnecessary").

Another is to say: “Follow the lines of least resistance” (the title of this blog).

But I suspect that none of this analysis is particularly helpful: words have a tendency to be quite limiting.  Images, on the other hand, "paint a thousand words".  So in explaining wu-wei, I like to use the image of swimming with a current - ie. using the force of the current to achieve your objective (which, in this example is, probably to get to the shore/bank rather than be pulled out to sea by a rip or into dangerous rapids, etc.).  You sure don’t get far trying to swim against the current.

When it comes to combat, this analysis of wu-wei has particular importance and resonance.  How?  Takanoyama provides a near-perfect illustration:

What Takanoyama demonstrates so clearly in the above video is his ability to "go with the flow" - and in so doing, use, entirely to his advantage, the superior force (in the form of his opponent's accelerating mass) being thrown at him.

More specifically, Takanoyama is able to "lead momentum" - ie. take control of his opponent's momentum in attack and redirect it so that it is used against the opponent.  There is simply no clearer manifestation of the adage: "The bigger they are, the harder they fall."

Conversely, the limitations - indeed the danger - of an "attack-centric" fighting method (which ignores the need for defensive skill) should be patently obvious: if you're dealing with anything other than a smaller, weaker, unskilled or unprepared opponent, you're going to be in trouble.  (Blocking your ears and singing "La, la, la" while you pursue some "target focused" philosophy isn't going to change this simple fact!)

The second video that synchronously came to my attention at about the same time was the video below of a high school kid dealing with a bully.  Again, the defender uses wu-wei almost perfectly.

Now I know that I'll get a fair amount of email which disparages this video as "not a real fight" and "just some kids having push and shove" etc.  And yes, I know this is true.  But the relative lack of "seriousness" in terms of comparison with some civilian attacks is completely irrelevant to the point I'm making: wu-wei (or its opposite - foolish, unnecessary action) can be seen in any level of conflict - ranging from verbal, to minor physical, to murderous.

(Moreover, if you took these kids out of the particular setting and added 10 kg and 5 years to each of them, you would have a far more serious adult encounter.  Yet, I would argue, the principles by which the encounter was resolved would remain equally relevant.)

As with Takanoyama, the defender uses his attacker's momentum, twice "throwing" the attacker to the ground.

Note that there is no "judo throw", no fancy "shooting", no "grappling": I'm not sure the defender was even trained (although I suspect he is, at least to some extent). Rather, the defender leads his attacker's momentum and directs it to the ground with a rather more "simple" pull in one case, and a pull combined with some sort of foot sweep in the other.

(Actually, these things aren't quite as "simple" to do as it might seem from this video - particularly when you want to apply them against a more skilled opponent.  These tactics comprise what is known in some traditional martial arts as "projections" and "sweeps" as opposed to "throws" and are part of the grappling method preferred in a civilian defence context as opposed to sport context.  You'll notice that the defender keeps a certain distance, remaining in the melee range as opposed to the "true grappling range" while effecting the projection and sweep.)

Another salient feature here is that once the fight has commenced, the defender doesn't "wait" for anything; he seizes the initiative as soon as possible, grabbing/sweeping the attacker as each attack is being launched, then redirecting it away and down to the ground.  If you're going to "lead momentum" in this way, early interception is always necessary - whether it be in a sumo match, a high school punch up or a more serious civilian defence scenario!

As an aside, it is worth noting that this is precisely what "wrist grab defences" in traditional martial arts are all about; they aren't literal "attacks" to be "defended".  Rather, they are merely a convenient starting position for the practice of a particular technique.  In other words, the wrist grab puts you and your partner in the correct position and distance for the technique you are going to perform - whether he's grabbed you or you've grabbed him, or no one has grabbed anyone.

It is just platform for starting a sequence - nothing more, nor less.  The nature of the attack (be it a grab or a punch/strike) is irrelevant because you're going to start projecting your attacker's body at this early stage - as the attack is being launched.

Consider for a moment in the video above whether you can tell in each case what technique the attacker was going to attempt just before he was thrown: I suggest it is impossible to do so. Why?
Because the attacker's aggressive intention was being redirected before the actual attack could even crystallise.
This shows the "proactive" and "assertive" nature of wu-wei: when you take action, you do so positively and without hesitation.  You do what you need to do, when you need to do it.  Wu-wei is not a "pacifist" or a "timid" philosophy.  When wu-wei manifests as action, it is action indeed!

But isn't this the same as "pre-emption"?  Certainly not!  Here we are talking about using the attacker's force against that attacker.  By contrast, true pre-emption means there is no force from the attacker.
You become the attacker!
No, what you'll see in the high school bully video - and in Takanoyama's example - is early interception of an attack: as early as possible!

The defender is forced to deflect the first attack (punch), then counter (a fairly "late" interception by comparison to the rest of the interceptions in the fight).  But it is important to note that this is not indicative of a "failure" on the defender's part.  Rather, this is because of such physical realities as the "flinch reflex" and reaction time.  To some extent these necessarily accompany being a "defender" (as opposed to an attacker!).  That first deflection is necessary because it "saves the day" and gives the defender the chance to turn the tables.  Without it, he would have had only two options:

  • strike first and risk becoming the "attacker" - in a confrontation that might still have been avoidable (it's all very well for us to say it was unavoidable with the benefit of hindsight!); or 
  • get hit.

By contrast, once the fight is underway, you'll note that the defender seizes the initiative - in much the same way (although with very different techniques) as the Turkish boxer did in the video I analysed here.

There is no reason to "wait around" for attacks to "block"!

Speaking of different techniques, you'll notice that the defender only does one punch - and that is the punch after the initial attack he has blocked.  After that, he simply leads his attacker's momentum off balance.  Why?

Surely it would have been better to keep punching?

Here again, we come back to wu-wei: only enact such aggression as is regrettably necessary.  That the defender followed this principle is evident from the very start of the video:

The defender is clearly trying to diffuse the situation.  The bully will have none of it.  Note in particular that the defender is not playing the "monkey dance" or "chest bumping" game.

Once an attack seems inevitable, you see the defender positioning himself, slipping his backpack off his shoulders.  He intercepts the punch with a deflection and counters effectively (the landing of the counter punch is audible).

After that, his (wobbly) attacker is relatively easy to read in his aggressive intentions: the defender can intercept these - before each physical attack is even properly formed - and redirect them.  Could he have gone further and punched and kicked the attacker into submission?  It seems pretty clear that he could.  But he didn't need to.  Instead, he did what he had to do, and no more, ending with the opportunity for the bully to "walk away".

This last point is important: he gave the bully at least some room to back down.  This is a large part of wu-wei in action.

What might have happened had he "gone the extra step" of putting fist and foot into the equation?  Well, he might have seriously injured the bully.  He might have been disciplined by the school.  He might even have been charged by the police, then prosecuted and convicted of an offence.  Unsurprisingly, wu-wei goes hand-in-hand with necessary and reasonable force.

Otherwise, someone might have come to the bully's aid, creating a multiple person attack.  At the very least, the defender would have lost the "high moral ground".

Regardless, any extra aggression and/or humiliation would have been, by definition, extra.  The potential for some sort of consequence would have been inescapable - even if it manifested as a need for revenge by the bully at some later point.

All our actions have consequences.  And the "butterfly effect" of Chaos Theory ensures that these consequences are impossible to predict.  The best we can do to manage these consequences is to keep our own actions to the necessary minimum: ie. to do as little as possible - wu-wei.

I have no doubt that Bruce Lee was thinking of nothing other than wu-wei when he famously referred to “the art of fighting without fighting” in the scene below from "Enter the Dragon" (I understand Lee had direct input in this part of the script).


“Acting unnecessarily” or “inefficiently” is fraught with danger; it is the very last thing you can afford to do in the management of any conflict.  It creates and leaves openings - apart from inviting (if not encouraging) attacks to those openings.

Indeed, even mildly foolish “unnecessary action” can spark aggression against you where none existed - creating battles you didn’t need to fight.  And, as my friend Zach likes to say, the only fight you’re guaranteed to win is the fight you don’t get into.

Accordingly, if your goal is civilian defence (as opposed to sport), wu-wei dictates that an act of of aggression should only ever be a last resort - a "regrettable necessity".  

And even once you are in a fight - whether it be in civilian defence or the sport arena - wu-wei still holds the key to successful tactics: intelligence - indeed wisdom - dictates that you will maximise your chances if you minimise your openings and use your opponent's force against your opponent as much as possible.   

It is for this reason that the Daoist internal arts are so focussed on avoiding over-commitment and "preserving momentum".  In future articles I hope to shine more light on exactly how the internal arts make the most of these principles to create truly advanced civilian defence systems.  

For now, I leave you with the observation that wu-wei is a necessary part of any effective fighting system - whether it be a conscious tactic taught systematically in a traditional Daoist martial art, or a tactic adopted unconsciously by someone who just intuitively "gets it".

In this regard it is worth noting that some of the greatest masters of wu-wei I've known have probably never even heard of the term.  Yet they understand wu-wei perfectly, employing it to great effect in their day-to-day lives.  They understand "inaction in action" as the ultimate source of "de" (德) - power.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A salute to Fred Ettish

This is a post for Fred Ettish: an embodiment of the fighting spirit of budo - indeed, of the character "" (nin/ren) to which I have previously referred .

I can add no more than this quote (via my friend Andy) from Theodore Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena":
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Mr Ettish, I salute you sir.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, August 5, 2013

Kicking with the heel

My brother Nenad demonstrates his typically excellent
form on the front heel kick.  Note the slight outward
angle of the foot.
Something that crops up every now and again is the debate about heel kicks vs ball of foot kicks.

I hear practitioners of some arts (particularly certain Chinese systems) insisting that the heel kick is better.  (Sometimes this is based on the persistent myth that kicking with the ball of foot requires bare feet, which of course it doesn't, but usually this simply reflects a technical preference.)

I hear other practitioners (particularly karateka) insisting that the ball of foot is better. (Sometimes this is based on the "snap kick non-issue" to which I refer below, but again, usually this reflects a mere technical preference.)

As far as I'm concerned the truth of the matter is that both are excellent weapons: their applicability depends principally on range.

The ball of foot kick is suitable for a longer range because it gives a longer reach.  The heel kick is suitable for a slightly closer range because it reduces reach relative to the ball of foot variation.

Some will argue that that the ball of foot kick is preferable because it is the only one that can be used as a front snap kick, but this is not correct.  As I demonstrate below, the use of a snap is equally applicable to both heel and ball of foot formations: the snap is totally irrelevant to one's preference for a "default".

Do I have such a preference?  Yes I do.  It is the ball of foot.  So what is my reason for this preference?  Well it has nothing to do with snapping or range.  It might have something to do with the fact that I started in karate, but I prefer to think there is a more logical reason than that.  As I discuss in the above video at 0:20 (and in my article about kicking with the ball of foot in shoes), I think it has to do with the natural shape your foot as you extend it.  To my mind, pushing the heel forward is actually quite a difficult thing to do: more difficult even than learning the ball of foot kick and its correct chamber.

Not only does the heel kick require considerable Achilles tendon flexibility, it is also subject to some important details, the most relevant being the fact that this kick ideally has the top of the foot angled slightly outward from the heel when you impact.

You'll see this detail in the above video as well as in the photo at the start of the article.

Whether low or high, the
foot should be angled
slightly outward
on a heel kick.
Why is it preferable to have this angle?  Kicking with the heel requires you to push into prominence the rear part of your foot - ie. the part that is not normally in prominence.

This requires great care to avoid the (almost inevitable) tendency of the fore part of your foot contacting with the target before, or more likely at the same time as, your heel.  The latter will result in a simple "flat foot strike" which spreads the force over too great an area.  This will reduce your impact to a "teep" style push rather than a strike.

As practitioners of wing chun and many other Chinese arts will tell you, your best chance of avoiding a "flat-footed" type of impact of this kind lies in a slight outward bias.  This puts the fore part of your foot slightly farther out of the way by pulling it to the side as well as back, enabling you to focus your blow on the small area that is your heel.

In the above video I also discuss how heel kicks come into their own in the "melee range" where you are also close enough to punch as well as kick.

In the end, I might prefer the ball of foot kick as my "default" but I will by no means discount the heel kick as a fantastic technique that has its own benefits, especially in close range fighting.  Accordingly I feel it is important to be able to perform this kick with as much competence as the ball of foot variety.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic