Flights of Fancy and Fervent Hope

            To some degree, we all engage in wishful thinking. When we buy a lottery ticket, and we imagine what we will do with the money, we are doing just that, wishful thinking.

            I have made no secret of my initiation into the martial arts through the door of mysticism. The true appeal of the martial arts to me was that aura of secret knowledge and power. And I chased these powers for a disturbingly long time. On some level, I knew they probably didn’t exist, but I wanted them to exist. I was, quite truthfully, choosing to believe in something that more than likely (to my best knowledge of the time) was not true.

            The folly of youth is to believe in nonsense. Belief is a funny thing. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon root lief (to wish) and it is a strong hope that things will turn out to be this or that particular way.

            This hope does a funny thing to many people who become interested in training in the martial arts. We seek out these extraordinary powers. We listen to tales that, were we in any setting outside of a martial arts school, would be brushed aside as children’s fairy tales without so much as a second thought. But inside the martial arts world, these tales are not merely believed in, they are held up as examples of the powers we can have for our very own, if only we put in the time and effort under the guidance of our esteemed master.

            Some of these tales are beyond absurd. I have been told by people asserting in all seriousness;

  • A master can walk on snow and leave no footprints.
  • A master can thump you on the head and produce a stream of tears from only one eye.
  • A master who had the ability to produce an electric shock in your body by stroking your armpit.
  • A master who could strike you and cause you to start bouncing. You would be unable to stop bouncing until he un-did whatever it was that he did.
  • A master who had the ability to make your nose bleed by stroking one of your buttocks. (No, I am not making this up…)
  • A master who could kill animals with a light touch to certain acupuncture points (this one is very widespread and extends to the “touch-of-death” claims which are still widely popular today).
  • A master who could shout and cause the fish in a lake or river to become unconscious and float to the surface where they could be scooped up with a net. (When I was in the Philippines, I chanced to see some kids in a river with nets, and their Father was up stream tossing lit sticks of dynamite into the river to produce much the same effect).
  • Masters who could climb a wall like a lizard.
  • Masters who could levitate.
  • Masters who were able to defeat 20 or more armed attackers, while they themselves were unarmed. (Except for the awesome powers of Chinese kung fu!).
  • A master who could be sliced open and not bleed.
  • Masters who could seal a wound with their mind, and heal broken bones in minutes through herbs and massage.
  • Masters who could extinguish a candle flame by staring at it intently (I would just blow it out…).
  • Masters who could read your mind.
  • One master I met claimed the ability to travel in another dimension. He claimed the ability shorted his life, so he refused to do it, “unless the world was in danger”. Nice way to not get tested.
  • Many masters claim the ability to knock you out without touching you in any way.

     One thing the people who make these claims are good at is in avoiding the scientific method. Would that the martial arts communities were more like the field of science. In science, when someone makes a claim, they must also provide proof, in the form of testing. When they get certain results, other scientists step in and repeat the test. Claims are examined to see if there are other possible explanations. Even claims that have been generally accepted for great lengths of time are subjected to further testing as our ability to test more accurately grows. In the martial arts, a person makes a claim, and far too many people just accept it as fact!

     In the mid 1990’s in Austin, a fellow took his Wing Chun school, which was not making any money, and claimed he had discovered the lost fighting art of the Aztecs! He began teaching Wing Chun and Filipino stick fighting, and renamed it “The Hand of War”, and he started making money! People bought memberships in his school, and bought his videos for further training. And it was all nonsense, but they kept buying, until the next fad came along.

     I have attended many seminars where the “masters” claimed they were teaching the inner esoteric martial arts. They claimed amazing powers and gave demonstration of some strange skills (always demonstrating only on their own students). Exactly why I thought I needed the ability to stand behind someone, and with intense concentration and strange hand gesticulations, cause them to slightly sway side to side is lost to me at this moment, but rest assured, at the time I really thought it was important.

     But underlying this was a simple cause – I wanted to believe. I am certain that on some level I knew it was all BS, but I wanted it to be real. I wanted to have these super powers, however useless they might have been. I wanted to be different, superior, better. I deliberately ignored the sound advice of those who were not so deluded as I. I bushed off the facts, and the overwhelming evidence that these powers are not, and never were real. I convinced myself more than they ever could have convinced me that these powers were real, and attainable. All I had to do was find the right master and train hard enough for a long enough period of time and spend enough money.

     Why would anyone do this? Why would anyone, facing the scorn and pity of their friends and family, ignore the truth and choose these flights of fancy.

     When we study the martial arts, we seldom hear reference to the scientific method. For something to be accepted in science, it has to be observable, explainable, testable, and repeatable. When a claim is made that this or that happens because of Qi, well… that just falls short. There have been studies going on for decades, and the only studies that show any promise for Qi to be real are studies conducted in China. Now, this could (I suppose) mean that Qi only exists in China. Or it could be that, with much to gain on many levels, the Chinese Government, never known for being the bastion of freedom and truth, skewed the results, or left out counter information. Studies conducted in the west have, as yet, been unable to find one shred of evidence that Qi even exists.

     In the regular world, most people when pressed will admit that psychics are frauds, they possess no real powers and are really just stealing you money by exploiting your hope that they really do have powers. There are palm readers and psychic healers. There are those who claim they can communicate with the dead. Anyone who has lost someone dear to them has a deep ache and a longing for even just one last moment with that person, to right some wrongs, to ease their conscience over some past slight, or simply to say a goodbye that was left unsaid. Because there is a desire to communicate with lost loved ones, there is a market for these people. But take a close look and you will see that the psychic is never quite specific on anything. They throw out very vague generalities until someone in the room latches onto something. “I’m getting a name from a male spirit…a male with the letter j in his name…did anyone lose a male with a j in his name.” “I did! Not really j but g…his name was Geoff!”

     This is where subjective validation starts to come into the picture. The person who lost someone overlooked the obvious in order to have that contact with their lost loved one. For a start, the guess of “male” is going to be right for someone in the room. The letter thing is easy, because the psychic never specified that the name started with that letter. The “mark” filled in the blank and the carny show continued. We overlook or dismiss all of the wrong guesses. We do this because we want to have contact.

     In the martial arts, we have our own peculiar version of psychic power. We have Qi masters! These people deliberately, willingly and knowingly steal you money by exploiting your desire that super powers are real. Some of them actually believe their own hype, but many and more know it is all a sham. In order to make money doing this, one need only learn a few parlor tricks and sacrifice all of your morals and sense of accountability. To be a victim of these charlatans, you need only believe. There are people in the martial arts who are making a lot of money by exploiting the wishes of people who like to fool themselves.

            As one who was deeply immersed in the hoax, who spent disgusting amounts of money in pursuit of Qi power, I can tell you from real clear experience, the people teaching and training it know it isn’t real, but we play along. In much the same way that the Evangelical “healers” cause people to pass out by a mere touch (Wayne Coleman tells a funny story of “passing out from a preacher’s touch and laying on the floor, when another “believer” asked how, “How long are we supposed to lay here?), the “believers” of the Qi lie play along and tell stories of how they felt the Qi, what it did to them, and how amazing it is. I’ve done this myself. This is, at least in part due to the conditioning the “masters” use, wherein they tell of how “normal” people, people of a lower level cannot always feel it, and how if you cannot direct it to various parts of your body, then you are very weak in your kung fu, or may simply not have any hope of developing it at all. So, we lie. We say we can feel it, direct it, project it at will. We do side research to find out how the parlor tricks are done so that we too can perform them and be thought of as Qi masters as well.

            Very few people have what it takes to be totally and completely honest with themselves. It takes a lot to admit we are too fat, too lazy, are less. It is not a comfortable position to know that others are better than we are.

            But others are better than us, in nearly every category we care to name. There need be no shame in this fact. No one among us is perfect, and no one ever will be. Even when you are the best, you are only the best at that moment. In the next moment, things will change. You will change. There is no real need to be perfect. Accept your imperfections, your shortcomings and your weaknesses. Work on them, but do not punish yourself over them, or worse still – feel guilty about them. Guilt and shame are what lead people to follow the charlatans and liars.

            Be better than that.

            Common sense doesn’t seem to be all that common anymore. In the world of martial arts, common sense seems all but dead. Armed with the skills of critical thinking, you can move beyond the nonsense and start to learn and earn some real skills. With practice, and education martial artists can start to rise up and reclaim some of our lost respectability.