JB: The common theme these last two weeks with training under you is the idea of play. Playing with different teachers, playing with students, basically exploration of principles and ideas via two person practice. Care to elaborate?
Mike: This goes back to teacher Wang’s lessons. I told him one day, “Teacher I truly wish I would have met you 20 years ago.” And his response was, “You would not have been ready for me yet.” What he meant was that I needed to experience all the things I had up to that point; good and bad, so that I could learn for myself what was good and bad. So I could take into control my training and seek out higher learning via a good teacher. You must recognize when you are bad to understand good. Take the bad experiences as a lesson, because once you find the truth you will never go back to the bad again.
Wang approaches his students as training partners. All he wants to do is practice and by practicing he gets better. So by building and growing together we foster this intense dynamic of teacher and student, where really there is no teacher or student, everyone is the teacher and the student. Wang Laoshi is the first to tell anyone that he is just a student practicing, and will be forever. I have never seen the man tell someone how to do something, he is there showing them how to do something! It is inspirational to get tossed around by an 80 year old man with this outlook on training.
JB: You are a bit unique in that you have lived, and taught on three different continents over the years; Asia, North America, and Europe. What do you see as similarities and/or differences in regards to the martial artists in these vastly different places?
Mike: People want Chinese martial arts. People want to train. But all around the board people seem to have an incorrect mentality towards their training. Not everyone, but many. They seem to train for all the wrong reasons, and I was guilty of this in the past as well. Too much ideology separation is going on though. Too much internal vs. external talk. They seem to think there is a special magic bullet, special magic form, special magic technique that will help them get the principles. There is no special technique, just the right teacher to show you, and the hard practice of a lifetime. You must understand this is a difficult question to answer.
I see people misunderstanding what martial arts are really for. Combat is merely the by-product, yet people want to be able to damage someone before learning about themselves. I always ask my students how many fights they have been in. Almost always the number is 0-3, unless of course you grew up in a bad part of town. But overall most people practicing martial arts have been in very few fights. So what are we spending all this time, money, and effort for? Just to learn to fight? Just to kick some ass? If that is the case go do sport martial arts, and fight with the best out there. Martial arts practice is truly about finding yourself, and pushing the limits of yourself. Mentally; physically; and emotionally. Sparring is so integral to practice because it is unrehearsed pressure to perform and execute your skills with an uncooperative partner. I am not saying you need to go out and get beat down, this is not productive. Push hands, sparring, wrestling, whatever methodology does not matter, but you need to test your skills in various formats.
This mentality seems pervasive throughout the martial arts regardless of culture, or country.
This segment really shows Mikes great attitude in his approach to training. Truly their is a blurred line between student and teacher, as with an open mind you will learn from any situation, any individual or group of individuals. Remember the fateful words of Napoleon, “Every failure is a blessing in disguise as long as you learn the needed lesson from it.”
This last trip Mike was so happy that I had been training diligently in BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu). “This training will make your stand up much, much better.” he told me. Mike even had me teaching certain techniques and follow ups at HIS seminar, for when we go to the ground!! That is how comfortable and humble Mike was with his level of knowledge, and his attitude of sharing. To ask some nobody like me to teach something at HIS seminar…wow… what an honor.
Mike also reveals the need for uncooperative partner practice (ie. sparring) in this segment. I cannot really remember a lesson (private, public, or otherwise) with Mike that was not hands on. Not a single one. Even when working a form Mike took the hands on approach and help the student feel the technique. Feel the stretch. Feel the power and where it came from. Again Mike would emulate his teacher by doing, not telling.
Many students would ask Mike how he attained the level he had, some fishing for a “special” answer. “Hard work. Disciplined practice.” is all he would ever say. “There are no secrets.” Mike and I had some similar experiences in the past with various teachers both Chinese and Anglo who would be living a lie by telling their students that their was some mystical, metaphysical answer to our questions of why, how, when. In the end these charltans revealed their true identities and we moved on. We learned that the true responsibility of our progression lay in our own hands. The student has to take control of his/her learning and progression. All too often the student has unrealistic expectations of the teacher, and never owns the responsibility of their own training. Let that be a lesson.