Anthony Hopkins Plays the Guitar

art_taste1People have asked me, throughout my teaching life, about my inspirations. How did I develop my instructional technique? To surprised reactions I generally list my influences through texts not normally associated with martial pedagogy. My guides have been “The Art of Chinese Painting” by Mai Mai Sze and “Building a Character” by Constantin Stanislavski.

I should say here that, though I indulge a bit in painting, I have no interest in acting. Performance does not intrigue me personally. However energy does. And acting is about energy.

My interest in energy (which we won’t even try to define here and certainly don’t claim to speak of in physics terms) started early and has often allowed me to see acting talent when it was hardly visible to others. I remember, at age ten or so, watching an Outer Limits with an actor named Robert Duvall and expressly checking his name in the credits because “he was going to be something”. (Actually he already had done about twenty pieces, mostly TV, but it still took an eye to spot him so long before he had a “name”).

What I saw in Duvall and always search for in an actor is a sign of interior life. Of course everyone has an interior life of some kind (I hope) but some windows allow more show-through than others. More than technique or range of characterization, I find this the distinguishing factor of those faces which hold my eyes on the screen.

When watching Anthony Hopkins act I often stare at his blue-gray eyes. They rarely stay fixed for very long. Their incessant flame-like jumps reveal a mind engaged at the moment while simultaneously evaluating the moment.

A good taiji player (or really any CMA) pushes this kind of active consciousness along a ahead of themselves at all times. When they play, the air grows thick with presence. It quivers with a palpable thickness just as when a fine musician walks out on a stage, the molecules shimmer.

To achieve this, as in acting, the mundane must be re-examined, re-patterned and re-energized. To suggest how far this re-patterning extends let me tell you an exercise I show my students. I’ll only hint at the details here because we’re following another street sign. Let’s take the “Lift Hands”movement at the beginning of the Taiji form. Just raise your arms and drop them. Now hold your arms straight out about shoulder level but relaxed. Concentrate on feeling only the tops of your arms, the flesh facing heaven. Then switch and feel only the bottoms. Good, now we’ve established intent control. Return your arms to your sides. Now consider raising your arms but don’t—absolutely don’t—move them until your intent to move them is undeniable and irresistible. Now let them commence. When you’ve reached shoulder level, don’t drop them until you have consciously flipped the intent to the belly of the arms. Then guide them down with your mind leading the action. Don’t trust them to just drop. Direct them down as though you were setting a delicate statue down on a hard surface.

This is nothing like how people move. If you say to the average person, “Raise your arm,” he will just raise it.
If you say, “You didn’t use consciousness,” he will say,
“Sure, I did. My mind said raise the arm and I raised it.”
“But you didn’t say raise the arm while you were raising it.” You will have to explain, “ It’s more like you hit the garage door UP button then stood by while it hoisted.”

I’m sure you get the point but that’s just the beginning. The transformative magic of this study rests on a fundamental contradiction. The more control, the more spontaneity. I have no idea what Hopkins’ approach is to a given acting assignment, orthodox or loose. I know that Jack Nicholson is famous for his extemporaneous method. He’s been known to do a scene like standing and waiting for a door to be opened and performing fifty different actions for each of the fifty takes. Though Hopkins may seem more controlled than this, all you have to do is watch his eyes and you get the feeling, no matter how disciplined he is, that the scene might go ballistic at a breath.

Taiji, regardless of what anyone says, is a martial art and that statement implies much more than one might thnk. Admitted, its particular martial manifestation is often performed slowly with seemingly little martial content. Whether or not this or that particular student sees the martial in the practice, it is still there. If there’s a recognition of this as a form of intent, the rest is relatively easy. But the question remains, “What’s the point of the slow practice. How does it come about?” For instance, when I teach practitioners from other styles—people with martial experience—it generally takes only a few minutes to get them to slow down properly—even if they come from fast styles. The trick I use to make them understand the martial in the slowness is based not on Taiji but their own martial experience and sense. Here’s how I do it…

I step back into a bow stance in my version of a classic Shotokan stance. Then I step forward with a strong lunge punch. “This,” I say, “is prep then go. Prepare then blast.” I invite them to do the same. Next I show them a sequence like Brush Knee. I tell them that I want that same explosive power to issue all at once. Once they have learned the movement and started to slowly move through it I say that they must continue the move but only explode on my command. I encourage them to “get ready” for that command. As they move through the sequence I never give the command. Every inch until the final posture is this kind of waiting to explode. It’s sort of like saying, “Ready! Aim!…” but never “Fire!” At the end I explain that the consciousness to fire, the awareness and preparedness to execute must be constant. And, at first, slow is the only way to accomplish this. It’s like acting, I say, and not forgetting the emotion of the scene for an instant.

(Now a few technical points. First, the analogy to the earlier exercise of conscious raised arm vs. the unconscious should be obvious. They both push intent ahead of action. That does not make normal, automatic action wrong. It’s the secret of execution and of most sports skill. But all great executions, even in a sport completely without the reflective aspects of Taiji must go through some similar training at some point, at least if the player wants to reach the highest levels. Yes, you can “taiji” basketball and I’ve also been around martial arts long enough to know that high level Shotokan is using precisely the same form of consciousness. That’s why I really believe “All martial arts are one”. But you have to admit that Taiji is a particularly beautiful example of the process.)

Any act of art should show tension, consciousness, a pinch of danger, the possibility of surprise. All these have to inform the movement. But, as in Chinese medicine, there are two dangers: insufficiency and excess. Too many people who see tradition as a robotic rendition, are insufficient in their intents and their performance. On the other hand, excess movement may entail huge kicks and snapping punches inappropriately. The first example is like confusing a flat actor’s performance with subtlety. The second is like confusing a pathetic actress’ screams with an accomplished player’s emotive range. Not enough, too much: maybe that’s why the Chinese call it the Middle Way?

Watch the eyes. Feel the air. Taste the wine. Martial arts that doesn’t reveal humanity, display intention, and imply the outside and the inside in a continuous stream of possibilities is incomplete. When watching others or performing yourself, trust that moment when the hairs on the back of your neck raise. You are indeed feeling something and if you want to call it “qi”, I won’t stop you.


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