Loss: Revisted

Sometimes people remind me of the saying “Invest in loss.” For martial artists this is a pivotal idea. Even before you think much about it you also have to admit that there are times in life when it isn’t even a choice,  when loss is all we have.

It would make me uncomfortable to drag into this theme bigger losses in life such as the death of a loved one, or the sorrows of separation. But, even restricting this brief note to the losses we experience in martial arts still leaves us a lot to ponder.

This is not a mystical concept. On every practical level we are faced with the same idea though we don’t often see it. It think the problem is that modern life is all about gain and almost never about loss. The only thing most people want to lose is anything that stands in the way of their gain—sort of “losing that negative attitude” and that sort of stuff which, let’s face it, isn’t about real loss at all.

Even to increase your speed a little you have to give up something. Sometimes its tension, often it’s a search for power where the best thing you could do is to forget that home run punch long enough to let the arm be free and find its true, straight and fastest path.

On the topic of tension spots, the body is full of them all wanting to leave but unable to leave like that old Groucho song, “Hello, I must be going.”

Not all loses start out that way. One of the most painful is the letting go of a hard won skill. Its true your side kick snaps so loud that wine glasses in the same room shatter themselves, but its time to go onto a higher level of expertise now, isn’t it? This is a hard one for most people. One of the most common stories among martial artists is the guy who ups and quits a school, generally cold, because his super-special kick or throw or whatever suddenly stopped working because everyone in class got better and they were no longer suckers for his technique. At that moment some internal scale gets activated and he unconsciously weighs his precious ego against the further yielding and loss necessary to go to the next level. Often the price seems to high and the road wins out over the mat.

Standing practice, one of the most challenging aspects of Chinese martial training is a way of direct confrontation centered around loss. First you loose your movement because you have to stand there. Then things start changing inside your body and you have to ignore and even suppress a lot of mental activity to allow the inner body to speak to you.

A similar thing occurs with forms practice. It is difficult, especially for modern people, to lose themselves in the idea of conforming by gesture, position, action and attitude into a series of shapes created hundreds of years ago. Beyond these limits there are many other losses you take to refine your art. Any form, any real form has of course movements that are basic and some which allow you to feel power and precision but of the hundreds of forms I have learned I cannot think of a single one that doesn’t have some purposefully awkward move that forces me to adjust myself to something my body must learn to like. Forms are combinations of the perfectible and hauntingly unobtainable. When facing the later only loss promises to dissolve the troubles.

Loss offers us a reminder of hidden assumptions we have made. As our skills in the arts and in life increase we fill in the gaps with theories and perceptions until we no longer remember our weaknesses, our flaws, our fakes. Loss takes away the skills, at least a little, an reflects to us the hidden portrait in the attic, the one with the flaws.

Yet, somehow, the kind of loss experienced in the martial arts also cleanses us, tightens what has become slack, and resets some of our dials. And then, when we are brought into awareness of this process and even acceptance of its slow lessons something amazing happens. Out of the loss we feel unexpected, sudden and inexplicable progress. With the loss of this or that acquired skill, prideful feature, or natural ability we gain a new foothold in the mountain catching our luck in a crevice we never noticed before. And there the loss is somehow transformed into a boon that leaves us wondering.

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