The Fragrance of Distance

Some ideas challenge us because they are so counter-intuitive. On the one hand, for instance, we have to visualize an absolute speed of light while simultaneously conceiving of a totally relative thing like distance. But distance should be fixed, we try to reassure ourselves: implacable, stubborn and as dependable as a lawn troll. And yet it is not. The ache resides in our conditioning. In 1890 it was indeed more difficult for any living physicist to comprehend the idea of relative distance than, say, it was for a contemporaneous Hopi Native American. Physicists were still laboring under the idea of inviolate distance; the Hopi had long before come to terms with this illusion.

But paradox aside, distance has always been relative. Any decent martial artist not only knows this but can feel and almost smell it. When you square off with someone you immediately experience a sensation as strong as jumping into an ice cold swimming pool. This comes from a cascade of internal fireworks informing you in many ways that the distance between you and your opponent is sparkling with information beyond the visual and behind the obvious.

Just the simple distance from your front hand to your opponent’s hides a challenge. The moment you engage with another person you have to ask yourself if there is a hidden fold in the space between you. Does that direct, open line to his face actually allow for an immediate attack or is he really a little turned to one side; is the visually direct route an illusion unobtainable from your position? After all a good martial artist knows how to reveal an angle and conceal it at the same time. A common method is to open the guard a little and invite the other to shoot through the centerline. When he does you jam across the line with a movement that is both a punch and a block. As in all counter actions this one requires layering the attack and the defense together. The illusion isn’t just visual. It is a carefully practiced off-balance that seems to on-balance. The “fold” in space is real. It is the target that, though tantalizingly obvious, is out of reach, and forever.

There’s another wrinkle to this. If you are sensitive to your own abilities you get this odd aspect where your actual perception of distance is reconciled—as it should be— with your abilities. In this slightly haunted feeling you can sense if the seemingly objective distance is actually yours or your opponent’s. For instance, everyone has what I call an “explosive zone”. This is the furthest distance you can travel with a single explosive action, allowing for no “adjusting” before the motion and no mincing cheat steps after it. I’ve known friends and students who have refined their explosive zones to less than an inch. Slightly outside the zone they absolutely don’t throw certain moves like a sudden replacement back knuckle because everything in their perception prevents it. Inside that zone one of these experienced fighters will hit you so rapidly you literally stand frozen in insufficient time. The very knowledge of your explosive zone has the effect of influencing your depth perception. You tend not to see what is not an opportunity or at least not to regard this measurement as having anything to do with that one. As the farmer told the urban traveller asking for directions, “You can’t get there from here.”

Explosive distance is an attack-based measurement, but you also have defense to consider. One of the clear weaknesses in beginners is their naïve and inexperienced perception of safe distance. Too often they let the opponent come close only to meet the shocking realization of being kicked or struck so rapidly they only recognize the movement on the way back out! It’s even worse when an accomplished opponent combines a stuttering, randomized feint with a follow up strike. The very act of being startled in this way often freezes the brain, tunnels the vision, and lets time itself leak out. This “blink” is a shortening of time and a shortening of time is a shaving of distance. There’s a momentary lacunae where, not only are you hit, but you have no idea how you were hit. How well do you know your reaction distance? How long is the opponent’s explosive distance? Like color and its environment, there is always an interaction going on. No color can be perceived without its setting, no distance has meaning beyond the vibrating proximity of the guy on the other side of your guard.

Just how fast can you change? All the distances above are about one way streets; you advance or he advances and you retreat. None of this talks to the problems of the subtle art of jamming and drawing. As the opponent moves forward you move back. As he moves a second time you advance and jam him. Are you fast enough to deal with this abbreviated distance and what it will offer in that instant?

I remember an interesting exercise we were taught by Joe Lewis. He would have you stand very close to your partner. Both of you stood with arms dangling. All you have to do is tap his arm before he can pull it out of reach. The idea is to start inside the reaction range so close that it is literally impossible for your partner to evade your light tap. The next step is to move outside your normal range but absolutely keep the same attitude, the same assurance you can bridge the gap with a confidence that you can tap him from here just as easily as before. We often got amazing results with this exercise. What was so intriguing and simultaneously a little puzzling was that it was almost entirely based on our own perception of the distance, your attitude toward it, if you will.

What the student of Kung Fu must understand is the relation between all those wonderful and sometimes even fanciful movements in the forms and the concentrated, intuitive subject of distance which is not something separate but requires a “translation”. A huge Ox horn punch, or a whirling crescent kick is, in simplest terms, just a training method where all the variables are tremendously exaggerated. Yes, the leg swings at some huge angle to the target while you move yourself to some new distance and angle. Eventually, when you are past the beginning stage, you will realize that the big technique can be compressed, refined, altered enough to utilize the same angles with one tenth the transparency. At that moment you will start to look at even the simplest distance from a new angle. You will fold your distances and be able to take them, like a paper map, with you anywhere you go.

One Response to “The Fragrance of Distance”

  1. Joanna Zorya says:

    Deep stuff – a delight to read 🙂

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