JB: Correct me if I am wrong, but at this juncture in your life is when you started to shift your priorities in your training and teaching; focusing more on mechanics, body development, sensitivity etc.?
Mike: Right at that point I was still hung up on styles and forms because that was what was educated into me. I had to break that. It took some time. Teacher Wang is certainly the single most inspirational influence in my life to date. He has not only changed my outlook on the arts, but also my training and approach to the arts.
JB: How did the progression of change go about; via the push hands training, and San Shou training under Wang, or was it something else?
Mike: He went about it in a very nice way. Wang never knocked any style or teacher. After a few months of training with him I sat down for dinner at his house, and Wang stated that I was going about learning his stuff the wrong way. He said I was trying to use his ideas with the techniques and theory of what I had trained in the past. He said everything I had learned was good, but he also asked me to open my pocket and put it away for another day. Let me re-shape you, and when you open your pocket later you will see a whole new spectrum of colors. And he was right!
I was trying to use the technology without a decent engine. Wang wanted to build me a decent engine so I could then later go back and apply all the technology I had learned. It is like putting a Ferrari engine in a Tonka truck. If you rev that engine the Tonka truck will just blow up. On the flip side of that coin if you have a body that LOOKS like it will speed away, but have a weak engine inside, then again that is a waste.
And that was me! Basically at that point I had a Ferrari frame, but no engine. That was Wang’s point, I move beautifully but I am empty, I have nothing behind it.
JB: Can you describe some of the methodology Wang used to rebuild your engine?
Mike: Well he made me start by finding my body, getting in tune, truly in tune with my body. And he used push hands as the medium in which to get me in tune with my body. He started with my hips and the theory of Zhan Zhuang (Pile or Post Standing) via the Ba Shi (eight stances) of Babu Tanglang (Eight Step Praying Mantis) because I was familiar with this already. But you must understand Wang’s Zhan Zhuang is not about standing still, but it is about cultivating energy, this is very important. I asked him about Qigong, Neigong, all that stuff and he told me to forget about it because he does not do any of those things. Wang felt these exercises were a way for people to distract their minds and gives them fodder to argue about internal versus external, and it has nothing to do with hand to hand combat. Teacher Wang’s point was that their was none of this back in the day, you either practiced martial arts or you didn’t! All martial arts are based in combat. It would be like asking a boxer if he is doing internal or external training. It just IS boxing. There is no special breathing technique to make you better. All these skills are acquired via practicing with a partner. Different partners. Constantly interplaying with each person’s energy and technique. Knowing how to deal with force. This is how teacher Wang helped me to see myself, to see my weaknesses and strengths. Teacher Wang’s calligraphy hangs in my house and one of my favorites is “To nourish ones skill’s through combat. To complete ones training through the master’s guidance”
These paragraphs shed light onto some of the most important aspects of Mikes training in my opinion. All too often we get hung up on styles, or how something looks (IE. a certain posture). I too fell into this mind trap. We must remember that styles are simply a vehicle to understanding our bodies, and how our bodies work. We are all human; two arms, two legs, a head etc. We are all subject to the physical laws of the universe such as gravity, leverage etc. At a certain point in each martial artists career a light bulb clicks on and we discover that mechanics are where its at, not styles, or forms, or lineage. None of these things matter after a certain point. Mike was instrumental in helping understand mechanics and body usage.
This became difficult when trying to organize a seminar with Mike because how does one sell these ideas to get people in the door? So many people are hung up on styles and cannot get past that trap. For instance I have had people tell me, "I do not know/like Taiji, so what is the point in coming to a Taiji workshop?" Mike would simply tell them, "...look past the form, as the form is empty without mechanics and coordinated power. Posture, structure, and intent are key to your progression in the arts." Tim Cartmell is all about this, and Mike had a huge amount of respect for Tim. I wish they could have met, as Mike really wanted to. I was actually in the middle of planning a seminar where my teachers would get together here in Seattle and offer a workshop together.
Another interesting point Mike makes here is the discernible difference between health maintenance and combat. Qi, and Qi Gong, have nothing to do with combat. There is nothing wrong with studying Qi Gong, but to do so and expect the results to be combative is foolish and dangerous! Mike knew this, and tried to teach the true way to those who had been led astray with other teachers. Mike and I share the same outlook on Qi... at a certain point in your training EVERYTHING becomes Qi Gong! Qi is in your body, otherwise you would be dead, so it is not as if you are doing Qi Gong only when you practice a certain Qi Gong set. Your awareness is actually the discernible difference in this regard. You must become aware of the energy inside of your body and then you can really start to play.
The "internal vs. external" debate is something we spoke about often. Mike and Tim both have the same view on it... by using your posture and structure properly, you are stronger and can issue force seemingly effortlessly. It has nothing to do with magic Qi balls from hell. It is simple mechanical physics. Mike cringed when he saw "no touch knockouts" type bullshit in the martial arts. It angered him because this was a false representation of the arts we hold dear, and makes the Chinese martial arts a joke to the majority of people grounded in reality.
Mike was quite candid in his conversation with me here. A true student who used himself as the example. How many teachers do you know that would say openly what Mike says above about being empty and no good!? One of the most admirable things about Mike was his brutal honesty, and though he dished it out to all, he was the first person to criticize himself and his shortcomings. "I will never make you do something I have not, or cannot, do myself Jake."
A true warrior sage!