What is a Langkah?

Langkah (Indonesian) - noun: literally step, move, pace, action, measure, stride, leap, foot, footstep, gesture, tread, footpace

In Indonesian martial arts, Pencak Silat, it commonly refers to geometric patterns on the floor used to train footwork and develop an understanding of the role of the lower body in maintaining balance and a base from which to generate power.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Comics for Grown Ups

No, I'm not talking about "Adult Comics." Get your mind out of the gutter. I'm talking about comics. The regular comics we all grew up with. Marvel and DC are the giants, but there are plenty of other publishers. Adults often ignore comics because they're for kids.

Tangential to this, adults often overlook anything for kids—be it comics, young adult fiction, children's fiction, animated movies, etc.

The fact people overlook is these stories are written by adults. The conflicts are as valid as those in any other fiction. Some aspects—language, violence, and sexuality—are toned down for obvious reasons, but the underlying truth of the story remains.

And fiction is truth. It's not factual, but it is truth. It's as true as any non-fiction. In fiction, the truth puts on makeup and costumes and works on a stage, but the trappings don't make it any less true.

Here I'm going to talk about a comic book. Specifically, The Amazing Spider-Man #537 (Published in March 2007).

When I was a kid, Spidey was one of my favorite heroes. One of the few titles I collected. As I got older, I stopped collecting. In part, my decision was financial. I lived alone, worked several jobs to make ends meet and to afford things I wanted to do. Comics became a very low priority. And, yes, I admit, part of the decision stemmed from my own belief that comics were for kids.

My brother, Rick, kept his interest in comics. It waned a bit for financial reasons, but he always kept his hand in. I lost count of the number of times I helped him move his large comic collection.

Back in 2006, Rick mentioned the Civil War storyline to me. In it, a group of children are killed when a super-powered villain named Nitro explodes near a school. The public outrage prompts the government to require superheroes to register. This causes a rift in the superhero community.

Iron Man and Reed Richards register. For them, it's simple. Their identities are already known. For others, like Spider-Man, who have gone to extreme lengths to keep their identities hidden for very good reasons, the decision is less clear cut.

Captain America, whose identity is public, decides not to register. He believes it runs counter to the ideals America was founded on, the ideals he vowed to uphold and protect.

After a lengthy discussion, Iron Man convinces Spidey to go public. After doing so, Spidey realizes it was a mistake when he finds out about the prison where the unregistered heroes are detained. He publicly argues against the registration and the treatment of the heroes in the prison and joins Cap.

The government tasks Iron Man, Reed Richards, and the rest of the registered heroes with hunting down and capturing the non-registered heroes who are now considered outlaws.

Stop and think about this storyline so far. It's not really about superheroes. It's about a knee jerk reaction on the part of the public prompting the government to have a knee jerk of their own. The government institutes a law to try to fix the problem, never even considering other options. The law is discriminatory and restricts the freedom of a specific segment of the population. Take out the superheroes and we could be talking about the start of the American Civil War, WWII, or gun control. Fiction is truth.

Oh, and as I understand it, Captain America 3 (movie) will be based on this storyline, too. Yay!

Ahem. I have strayed down a tangential path. Please follow me back to my original train of thought.

Comics are just for kids. Bah. I never understood the fallacy of that statement as profoundly as when I read a discussion between Spidey and Cap just after Spidey publicly argued against the registration act. After a discussion about how the media spun Spidey's presentation to turn attention away from the prison and focus on Spidey as a traitor, Spidey says to Cap, "They've got you pegged as a Benedict Arnold and a traitor to the American cause."

Spidey then asks, "When the whole country is against you ... when it's all bearing down on you like some kind of ten-ton weight, and you don't know your own heart anymore sometimes—." He breaks off, removing his mask. "How does someone like you deal with it? I mean, you practically are the country. How does the man who is the country react when the country goes a different way?"

Cap tells Spidey, "I was just a kid ... a million years ago, it seems sometimes. Maybe twelve. I was reading Mark Twain. And he wrote something that struck me right down to my core ... something so powerful, so true, that it changed my life. I memorized it so I could repeat it to myself, over and over across the years. He wrote—"

In a republic, who is 'the country?'
Is it the government which is for the moment in the saddle? Why? the government is merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn't. Its function is to obey the orders, not originate them.
Who, then, is 'the country?' Is it the newspaper? Is it the pulpit? Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it; they have not command, they have only their little share in the command.
In a monarchy, the king and his family are the country; in a republic, it is the common voice of the people. Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak.
It is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of the pulpit, press, government, or the empty catchphrases of politicians.
Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot shirk this and be a man.
To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country. Let men label you as they may.
If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country. Hold up your head. You have nothing to be ashamed of.

Cap ends this recitation of his memories and concludes with his own summary.

Doesn't matter what the press says. Doesn't matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn't matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.
This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences.
When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world
— "No. You move."

I won't lie. When I read this passage, looking at the panels of Captain America delivering this lecture, I was moved. A few tears found their way from my eyes. Even now, writing this, my vision is a bit blurred.

Now, obviously, there's a flaw in this mix. Just because you have conviction doesn't mean your beliefs are right. Within the context of the comic's storyline, the right and wrong were defined like the facets of a well-cut diamond. It's rare in our daily lives that things are so cut-and-dry.

This doesn't negate the essential truth of this passage. It just means we need to be apply critical thinking to all of our convictions and beliefs.

Before I go, I'll take a sojourn down another tangent. When I first read this lecture by Cap, and again as I'm writing this, it reminds me of a story from WWII.

I heard this from Lt. Col. David Grossman during his Bulletproof Mind lecture. Americans were retreating in terror through a forest, pursued by Nazi SS. Reserves and paratroopers were called in to stop the Nazi advance under very difficult conditions.

Grossman: And this is a true story. There was a photographer there, and a reporter there, and what happened was this. There's one American tank, 30 tons of death, fleeing down the road, and this one lonely paratrooper walks out in the middle of the road. And he's got hollow, sunken eyes, three days growth of beard, an M1 dangling from his hand and a bazooka on his shoulder. He walks up and stops the tank and looks at the tank commander.
He says, "Buddy, are you looking for a safe place?"
The tank commander says, "Yes."
The paratrooper says, "Then get behind me because I'm the 82nd Airborne Division and this is as far as the bastards are going to get."

The Wandering Guru

"No. You move." — Captain America, The Amazing Spider-Man #537

Monday, February 9, 2015

Meditate On This

At twenty-three, my exposure to meditation consisted of a couple of minutes at the beginning and end of martial arts classes. We sat in seiza or lotus position, closed our eyes, and were admonished to meditate on our goals for training or the lesson we'd learned in class.

These experiences left me with, at best, a superficial understanding of meditation. I didn't understand how valuable meditation could be, or how it could relate to fighting. Never mind the effect it could have on quality of life.

My Sikal instructor, Guru Ken Pannell, opened the door into deeper understandings of meditation and invited me to explore. In this article, I'm going to share what he taught me along with understandings I have attained in my own explorations. A good teacher tells you how to get somewhere and what to expect along the path. A great teacher points the way and lets you find your own truth. One of the many reasons I am glad to have had Guru Ken as my primary instructor was his ability to point the way without getting in the way.

A Beautiful Flower

Many types of meditation can be found around the world. Some have you focus on an image, some on your breath, some on nothingness, some on a mantra or invocation, many combine some of these. Personally, I also consider prayer a form of meditation which uses [insert your name for God] as the focus. All the methods I'm familiar with use some sort of focus.

Regardless of what your specific focus is, imagine it as a dot. Visualize it. As you meditate, you focus on that dot. It is your target. You try to remain focused there, but notice your mind has drifted. Sometimes it's even drifted into thoughts about focusing on the dot. You drag your focus kicking and screaming back to the dot.

Now imagine that, as your focus wanders, it draws a line. As you drag it back to center, it draws a line. See how this forms a petal type shape emanating from the central focus point.


What you end up with is a flower. I like to visualize this as a daisy with a prominent yellow center surrounded by white petals. If you mapped your meditation, it would look something like this flower.

Flawed Focus

A common mistake people make is to focus on the center.

I hear you thinking, “Wait, Guru Mike! I thought focusing on the center was the goal of the meditation."

No. It is the method of meditation, not the goal. People often make that mistake, see it as the goal, and ignore the petals. They get frustrated with themselves because they have so many petals. They get frustrated within the meditation when they realize they have drifted and formed a petal. They look at the flower formed by an hour of meditation and they see fifteen minutes of time spent in the center. Did they only meditate for fifteen minutes? Some think so.

This mindset is flawed. The petals are part of the meditation. They are part of the process. In fact, as counterintuitive as it sounds, I consider the petals the most important aspect of the meditation. If you discount them or ignore them, you turn your back on the true value of meditation. Among those petals resides the goal of meditation.

The Value Of The Petals

The center is the focus of our meditation. The goal is growth. I don't meditate to stay in the center. I meditate to grow and develop in some way.

Think of weight lifting. If you lift light weight and low reps you never challenge yourself. You never challenge your muscles. If you never challenge them, they don't develop. This is true of everything in life. We don't grow and develop by taking the easy road. We grow and develop by challenging ourselves, or facing challenges presented to us.

I'm not sure anyone ever loses the petals in their meditation. I think if you could see the flower formed by the world's most accomplished meditator, you might not be able to see any petals. If you asked him, though, he would say, "Yes. There are petals. See?” and he would point to what looks like a fuzzy line around the edge of the center. His petals are so tiny they seem negligible to you or me, but he can clearly see the petals. He knows his mind wandered in his meditation. It didn't wander far, but it did wander. This is conjecture on my part, I could be wrong. Maybe some people are able to meditate without ever wandering. I would postulate, their lack of petals indicates a lack of challenge, so they're no longer growing and developing. If such people exist, maybe they should start meditating with a two year old in the room who randomly bops them in the head with a pillow during their meditation. Add some challenge to it to find more growth and development.

A Funny Story About Challenges And Growth

Years ago, I read a story—maybe factual, maybe not—about a senior Buddhist monk, Bhante Adam, who visited a monastery as a guest instructor. The monk, elderly and frail, brought a servant with him. The young man, Todd, served with loyalty and helped Bhante Adam in every way necessary. But ... he complained constantly. His arrogance made him rude, and he frustrated and annoyed everyone around him. His rudeness even extended to Bhante Adam, but Bhante Adam seemed oblivious to all Todd's failings so the abbot of the monastery sat with Bhante Adam.

The abbot said, "Bhante, your servant Todd is rude, arrogant, and disrespectful to all around him. I've even seen him be rude to you. I know he serves you well, but his behavior is unacceptable. I don't know if you're somehow unaware of his actions, or willfully ignorant, but you need to talk to him or send him away. Any of our monks, including myself, would happily serve you in Todd's place."

Bhante Adam's eyes filled with sadness as he considered his esteemed host. "Abbot, I have never been a patient or tolerant man. Overcoming this failure in my character has served as my principal challenge for several years, but it is a stubborn habit. When you invited me here to teach, I thought, 'In a monastery filled with devout monks, I will find little chance to challenge myself in this area.' I brought Todd specifically because he does frustrate me. He is my challenge. Now I see, though, that I need not have bothered. Each day I find more and more things about your monastery to challenge my tolerance."

The Value Of Meditation In Life

Meditation provides us with a method to practice being present. Being present, in the here and now, is the only way to perceive reality, to see past the illusions of everyday life, to recognize the interconnected nature of everything. I've never had more than a glimpse of this, but even a glimpse is profound and life changing. In those few moments, I was fully awake, fully "enlightened."

To look at the morning sky and, for a single unmeasurable moment, see everything. It happens in the moment before you start labeling things. Before you start telling yourself a story about how beautiful the sky is. About the streaks of orange washing through the blue and white, coloring the horizon and the world around you. That moment can only occur in the present. By the time you realize you experienced it, it has passed. The experience happens at an unconscious level.

Through the practice of meditation, we get better and better at being present. Better and better at experiencing the present. Meditation offers a concrete method to practice an abstract experience. I can't explain the experience I've had in a meaningful way because as soon as I begin explaining, I am labeling and objectifying the experience. I'm not telling you about the experience, I'm telling you what I think or feel about the experience.

If you have experienced it then you have your own experience as a reference point. If you haven't experienced it then the analogy about that moment before you label the image as "dawn" is the closest I can get to an explanation. The second-closest would be to say, "Om." and leave it up to you to find.

The Value Of Meditation In Martial Arts

In our daily life, we tend to focus on either the future or the past. We rarely focus on the present. When you're in the shower, you think about what you're going to have for breakfast. When you're eating breakfast, you think about what your work day looks like. When you're driving to work, you think about what you're doing after work. These are examples of future focus.

While sitting at your desk at work, you think about the argument you had with your friend yesterday or the football game you saw on TV last night. These are examples of past focus.

In our day-to-day life, things tend to happen at a slow enough pace that there's little detriment to not being present. Sometimes we get yanked into the present, maybe when the car in front of you on the interstate slams on their brakes, or you twist your ankle and fall while walking into a gas station. Suddenly, life is rushing headlong at you, and you have to respond now. In general, though, being non-present doesn't pose major problems as we move through the average day.

Martial arts, at least in part, is about dealing with high level stress. Most of you thought I was going to say it's about fighting, right? Few things are more stressful than a fight, especially a life-threatening fight. But martial arts helps prepare us for high stress situations, including fighting. I'll use fighting as my point of reference, but keep in mind this is as relevant to those brake lights in front of you as it is to fighting.

A fight is pure chaos, completely dynamic. The nature of a fight can change in a fraction of a blink of an eye. One moment you're dominating, the next you're struggling not to get knocked out. The fight doesn't happen in the future or in the past. It happens right here, right now. If you're focused on looking good in front of your friends then you're not here in the fight. If you're focused on whatever started the fight then you're in the past. If you're focused on what you'll do if the police get involved then you're in the future. None of that matters, none of it is helpful in this moment in the fight. On the plus side, your opponent is probably doing something similar and isn't present either.

However, I don't train in martial arts to put myself on equal footing with my opponent. Any advantage I can get, I'll take, and being present is a huge advantage.

Meditation, then, is the mental equivalent of sparring. Sparring teaches our body what to do, what to expect, how to cope with the stress of fighting. Meditation is a way to train our mind to its part under stress.

Sitting Is Boring

Most people hear the word "meditation" and picture someone, or themselves, seated on the floor with legs crossed, hands in lap, and eyes closed. Seated meditation is, of course, a form of meditation. Some people with more understanding realize that practices like Tai Chi can be done as a form of moving meditation. Few people, in my experience, realize that meditation can be done almost anytime, almost anywhere.

I don't think I can do any better service to this part of the topic than to offer a quote from one of my sources of inspiration and understanding. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist. He lives in the Plum Village Monastery in the Dordogne region in the South of France, travelling internationally to give retreats and talks. I have had the immense honor to attend one of his talks. His writings have helped me find a much deeper understanding of ... living.

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, he wrote:

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not "washing the dishes to wash the dishes." What's more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can't wash the dishes, the chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

After much consideration, I recognized an implied truth in Thich Nhat Hanh's statement. If you're present with the dishes then nothing exists but you and the dishes. That cup of tea doesn't exist in this moment. Imagine being locked in a room with no windows, no way out, no distractions, nothing but you and the dirty dishes. You might spend some time wishing you weren't locked up, but eventually you realize it's just you and the dishes. You can choose to not wash the dishes, but they will still be sitting there. Or you can choose to wash the dishes. If you choose to wash the dishes then you can choose to enjoy the activity or not. Often, people choose not to enjoy it because they would rather be doing something else. If there is nothing else then you're left with the simple choice of enjoying it or not. With that simple choice, it makes no sense to choose to dislike the task.

Once I internalized this lesson, I was able to find enjoyment in any task or chore I chose to do. From dishes, to cleaning the house, to commuting to work.

Now I'm going to extend this lesson in two directions.

First, to seated meditation. If you think seated meditation is boring, it's probably because you'd rather be doing something else. If you apply the lesson above then you're left with two choices. Choose to meditate or not. If you choose to meditate then choose to enjoy it and revel in it, or choose to find it boring.

Second, if you're able to be present before sitting down to meditate then you're already meditating before you sit down. You're already present. When you internalize this understanding, you might as well go do dishes because, if you're present, that's as much a form of meditation as sitting and focusing on the center of your flower.


Throw out your preconceived notions about meditation. See it as the powerful tool it is. Recognize the choices you have about it. Choose to do it or not. If you do, you might as well choose to enjoy it. If you enjoy it, then you might as well choose to do it. Nice bit of circular logic, I know, but circles and cycles are vital to life.

The Wandering Guru

"In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality." — Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Striking Difference

Recently, I had a discussion about the training of striking in my Silat background.

In Sikal, the rule of thumb was, "Strike three to five times before attempting a technical essence." A technical essence could be a sweep, takedown, throw, disarm, choke, or joint lock. The technical essence was defined by the finish for the move. If we were trying to get to a sapu dalam, for instance, we called sapu dalam our technical essence.

The curriculum focused on the balance disruptions, sweeps, takedowns, and throws before focusing on strikes. The logic was that the technical essences were much more nuanced and required much more training than the strikes.

Striking in general wasn't neglected. We started working with Filipino boxing on day one. Early in the training of technical essences, though, we isolated the technical essences and left the strikes out, and once the student had developed a solid understanding of the balance disruption and technical essences, we added the striking back into the mix.

I have continued this to some extent in my AGPS curriculum. This decision may change in the future, but for now I teach general striking early, but tie it into the technical essences later. When we start tying the striking into the transitions to get to technical essences, we introduce a different striking methodology. It works in conjunction with the boxing framework, but is different.

One of my students got curious about it, and we had a discussion on it. I've never put this into writing before, but here is my take on the difference between these two striking methods.

Striking, in Silat circles, is called pukulan or pukul.

Pukulan, at least in my understanding, differs from the more common boxing structure people think of when they think of striking. For the remainder of this article, I will use the term pukulan to refer to this method and boxing to refer to the more common method. Technically, though, the term pukulan can refer to either method since it is a generic word for “striking."

Pukulan looks quite a bit different than boxing. It's striking with the very specific purpose of disrupting the opponent's structure and balance. The strikes are an extension of the structure. We don't hit the opponent. We move and the opponent gets hit. This distinction is subtle.

In the core of the Silat I've learned, structure is vital. We set up a structure then move from the core, moving the whole structure. Pukulan is an extension of this principle. If I want to punch my opponent, for instance, I don't reach to where my opponent is. I move my structure so my fist strikes the opponent while I maintain my structure. The same is true for elbows, knees, and kicks.

I have seen the same principle at work in my exposure to Tai Chi Chuan. The expression is very different, but the principle is the same.

A good visual for this principle is a tank moving through a town. The tank fires its gun and does damage. I'm going to say that's analogous to the type of striking most people think of, the boxing method. Now, picture that tank rounding a corner and sideswiping a building. It does damage to the building because of its mass and structure in motion. I see this as analogous to pukulan.

As I consider what I've just written, I think it might be a case of recursion. In order to understand recursion, you must first understand recursion. I have a feeling this post won't mean much to people who aren't already familiar with pukulan, and people already familiar with it don't need my explanation.

If that's the case, so be it. If you're already familiar with the principle, then my perspective might still be of use. If you're not familiar with it, maybe my explanation will get you thinking about it.

The Wandering Guru

"Don't hit at all if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting; but never hit soft." — Theodore Roosevelt