Learning to be Soft

After you have been punched a few times you learn to duck. It’s not really that difficult a lesson. The martial arts has a number of other lessons as well, such as trying to make your opponent miss as much as possible.  Not every one of them is as obvious as ducking or as quick to be adopted. It’s just that we respond to clobbering so well and logic so poorly. Was it G.B. Shaw who said that, next to art, torture was the best teacher?

And what about that other teacher? One of her artistic lessons encourages the acquisition of softness.  For over 1000 years, martial arts teachers have traditionally lauded the soft path to skill. The reason for this is not a moral one as we might think of in the west. It is not a form of  “The meek shall inherit the earth.” It is more of a deep recognition that life walks along on two feet, one hard and one soft, and that using both of these feet greatly aids in perambulation. In other words, we can’t go hopping around on one foot forever.

If we are lucky we learn something about softness from the study of martial arts. We  might even learn some uses of it in daily life. Part of this process is to unload some burdensome preconceptions.

Soft does not surrender, but it does yield.  Yielding and surrendering are two different animals. Yielding allows you to bend but not break. Surrender is recognition that you are broken. We say a branch yields to weight or even to the wind but the implication is that it will naturally snap back when the pressure is released. The broken branch is surrendered to the soil.

The power of  yielding

The power of yielding

Another distinctive characteristic: softness is tenacious. It holds on. This Yin aspect is one of its most powerful attributes. In martial arts we admire the willow tree that slips it load of snow, then springs back to its original, unburdened shape. Water yields to everything but it tenaciously searches out all those cracks and crevices. It has the persistence of a newly ordained pastor and the purposeful attention of a bone-hunting dog. Tenacity and yielding keeps you on the track and keeps you coming back to the track.

Softness allows us to respond in a way unrestricted by habit. If someone grabs your wrist there are all sorts of ways to respond. But what people actually DO is to place themselves in exactly the weakest position they can find and then resist the grab with all their diminishing might. Instead, softness listens and, without tensing and struggling, finds the way out.

At my school we practice a seizing art called Chin Na. Invariably the person who has been captured for the first time runs the risk of making a common and intuitive error, namely picking the wrong direction to escape. Sometimes, even in their frustration, they realize that it is their own strength and tension that have trapped them like that frustrating toy called “Chinese handcuffs.”

I think many martial artists know this and understand the need for softness but it’s good to remind ourselves. There are many levels here. We must also remember that, like the airship of the Jules Verne character, Rubor the Conqueror, the hardness of steel made be achieved through paper piled one ply upon another. Softness should lead to strength, though possibly a different kind than we are used to in daily life. I’m reminded of the courage and strength of Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a man whose softness manifests itself not only in doing the right thing but in the right way.

Softness teaches us a better way. It pays attention and learns. It accommodates and ends up ahead of the game. Not a bad strategy at that.

Leave a Reply

What do you have to say?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.