Be Chain

Here I am pondering the personality of an ox. The Ox year is starting even as I sit. This period is notoriously difficult for a Tiger-born person like myself for we must put up with the stolid Ox’s unexciting habits. Tigers want to run free, hunt and then return to their caves to rest in shadow. The Ox loves steadiness and continuity. When you drop the reins and walk away for a quick drink of water, the Ox just keeps plowing straight. When it reaches the end of the furrow it waits until it is turned.

Astrology, in the Chinese vein, is considerably different from the Western view. It’s not so much a story about meeting or evading that fatal car careening around the curb as it is a seaman’s spotting of the storm on the horizon. In the Chinese view Fate is not necessarily specific (“That falling safe just missed me by an inch!”) as global, like the present economic crisis.

There are a few key lessons from the Ox in Chinese martial arts. Even though Ox energy is not one of the dynamic five animals it is, nonetheless, a special attribute which many of us should scrutinize and possibly refresh in ourselves. For instance, there is an energy in Taiji known as “Old Ox Turning Energy”. This is the kind of energy an ox uses when it finally does turn about. Ox energy is the heavy power of an animal that is, basically, all shoulders and waist. If you are a Yang Taiji stylist you can imagine what it must have been like to be pushed into next week by Yang Chen Fu.

But the particular Ox-like idea I am contemplating is from another Taiji saying. It schools us that, “You can lift fifty pounds of iron rods but not fifty pounds of chain.” This is true, of course, because the fifty pounds of chain does not share a common center of gravity unless you tie them together (the answer to the puzzle). A totally relaxed body exhibits a “floating” center of gravity which, just through the action of equilibrium, tends to evade the lifting force, rendering the action of lifting almost impossible. This is one reason why a small woman can resist a heft by a large man as long as she remains completely loose.

bechain1This heavy strength is traditionally common in the martial arts world although it is rapidly becoming more scarce. I’ve known a number of Judoka; many of the good ones seem to be made out of dry cement with bricks for feet. In Judo weight is authority. The seemingly comatose shuffling of their weighty movements reminds me of a story my mother told me about seeing a performance of the Russian ballet in San Francisco many years ago. The ballet ended, she went backstage and watched the Russian dancers filing offstage. The performance over, they trooped, weary from dancing, with the thunderous steps of tired steveadores. I will never forget her description, “They sounded like horses.”

Like frugality, rootedness is one of those relatively unexciting disciplines which goes in and out of vogue. To my mind—and I would expect exactly no one to agree with me—the need for weightiness never leaves. That’s why our brothers in the arts have now discovered “going to the ground.” As though it had been a secret! But there is a hunger for conclusions right now in this complicated world, and it’s pretty hard to trip and fall when you are already straddling the mat. Going to the ground seems to give us at least the sensation of stability.

Being “weighty”, having some “gravity”: all these are ancient requirements of martial expertise.

They bring to our minds the fact that martial arts as not just a few movements designed to work in front of cameras, but a kind of attitude of self reflection, responsibility and independence. While people are trying to get just the right mix to their mixed martial arts (another old item, newly repacked) and thinking that a fight in a cage is the ultimate test of manhood (if it were only that simple!) they seem to be replacing gravitas with a nervous insubstantiality, more of a tic really. There is a book entitled “Serenity”: A Series of Essays About Boxers. In the introduction the author wonders at the sense of serenity he feels looking into those fighting eyes, at the rugged calm faces.

A particular method of fighting will always be a thing of martial fads. What remains, unchanged, is the grit and the shine from the long hours of polishing. Call it character building but I think it more excavational than that, more downwardly directed.

As Seamus Heany has written:

Hoard and praise the verity of gravel.
Gems for the undeluded. Milk of earth.
Its plain, champing song against the shovel
Soundtests and sandblasts words like ‘honest worth’.

It is up to us to be calm, be clear, be agile and also to be chain.

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