On the Useful and the Useless

I’ve often written in this space about the influence that Bruce Lee has had on me, both in my life, and on the way I approach writing. As I think about the reality of the world in which we have lived for the past year, a Bruce Lee quote is, once again, at the forefront of my mind:” Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.” I’ve written about this quote in the past, but recently I’ve been considering it in a new light.

Bruce Lee, famously, discarded much of the classical teaching he had learned about martial arts when he invented his system, Jeet Kune Do. He took concepts and techniques he found to be successful in other styles and synthesized them with his own martial knowledge to create a new system that he felt was superior to any of those from which he drew its various parts.

He also discarded many of the traditional practices associated with these older systems, which included set forms, or kata, and structured drills, which he felt restricted a martial artist’s growth and ability to express themselves fully. Pattens were prisons which shackled the mind to the styles of the old masters, and which hindered an artist’s growth. Students should do their own research, he thought, and critically evaluate the traditional approaches so that they could grow, reach their full potential, and express themselves fully.

I have long valued this critical approach, and, as I wrote in my earlier piece, I hope that my readers will follow my example and evaluate the plethora of writing advice out there—including my own—critically. Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and make something truly your own.

And yet…

As I evaluate my martial practice during this time of pandemic, I question the wisdom of the second part of that tripartite advice. During the pandemic, I have been unable to attend martial arts classes. Social distancing requirements have kept my school closed for much of the last year, and, even if it were to reopen for some form of modified, in person training, I would, most likely, hesitate longer than most before returning, as I have a number of health issues that put me at a higher risk for Covid 19. As such, I have needed to modify my training. My mook jong (wing chun wooden dummy) and vo-ball have become primary training tools for me to continue my practice, and I have begun taking online classes and participating in video lessons with a range of instructors from various styles.

One of the online classes I have been taking is in sword technique and choreography with Adrian Paul (of Highlander fame. Through his Sword Experience company, Mr. Paul has been teaching via video lesson, and has been offering personalized feedback where once-a-month, patrons can upload videos for him to critique. The instruction, thus far, has been excellent, and the critiques thorough.

One thing I did notice, however, is that Paul is teaching a kata. It is a kata he designed, but it is a kata nonetheless. My Jeet Kune Do-trained brain rebelled against the idea at first. This was an idea which I was supposed to discard. I hadn’t practice kata in many years (since I began studying JKD 10 years ago), and I struggled with learning this new one. Even when I took a martial art that focused more heavily on forms as a youth, patterns were never my strong suit. I was always much better in a “live” drill or sparring.

In the absence of a training partner, however, what other choice was there? Through sending videos of the kata, and receiving critiques about them, I improved my sword work in very real and noticeable ways. I began to feel more comfortable in the system, and, clearly, I was making progress in the art. Now, of course, to become truly proficient, I would need to do partner drills, work in a less structured way, and eventually actually spar or fence with an opponent, but that just isn’t an option right now. Given the circumstances, kata became not only useful, but necessary.

This experience has caused me to think back to the traditional forms against which Lee rebelled. Many of these forms come from styles that were outlawed throughout history, either by the Qing dynasty or by the modern Communist Chinese government. (Many of the Chinese systems use Ming symbolism in their salute/bow, and have historical connections to Ming patriots and rebels), and therefore, they had to be practiced in secret. Students may have had to practice alone for much of the time, apart from their masters, and the forms provided a catalogue of techniques in a way that was easy to remember and systematic to practice. Of course, the forms had to be supplemented by live training when possible, but I imagine that for many, it was not often possible to find a training partner.

Bruce Lee, in America, had the freedom and platform to test his system against martial artists from a variety of schools. During his life, there was no shortage of people who wished to train with him. Many of his students—and their students—have had similar luxuries. And yet, today, in the middle of the pandemic, we find ourselves isolated, training on our own, often without the guidance of a teacher or master. We need our kata. What was discarded has become useful again.

Thus, utility is not a fixed state. Our situation constantly changes as we go through life, and we must decide what is useful to us in each moment. We should be careful of what we outright discard lest we need it at some point in the future.

Rather than discard, we should store—put away for later. We never know when something we discarded might become useful again.

This advice applies not only to martial arts, but to writing as well. From time to time, we should revisit older exercises and techniques, even those we had previously discarded. When we perform our critical analysis, we should consider not only whether we feel an exercise is useful to us in our present situation, but why another teacher or author might have found it useful in the first place. What was their situation, and could we envision a time when we, too, may face a parallel situation. Don’t discard, store. You never know when life will throw you a curveball and you’ll need to dig deep into the files of your mind and dust off some nearly forgotten bit of knowledge.

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In Honor Of Bruce Lee’s 80th Birthday, My Jeet Kune Do Black Sash Essay: A Finger Pointing A Way To The Moon

Today would have been Bruce Lee’s 80th birthday. In honor if that occassion, I present the essay I wrote as part of my Black Sash test in Jeet Kune Do, the martial art Lee founded. It is tradional for the candidate who is testing for a black sash or black belt to write an essay in many martial arts. I wrote this one in 2012, and present it without edits.

A Finger Pointing Away to the Moon

Like most people, I saw Bruce Lee for the first time in the movie Enter The Dragon. My Taekwondo instructor recommended the movie to the class because he wanted to show Lee’s non-telegraphic movement in the famous fight scene between Lee’s character and O’Hara. As a 12-year-old, I was (predictably) blown away by the experience. Bruce Lee’s style was more intense and realistic than anything I had previously seen on film. He looked dangerous; he looked like a fighter. That movie inspired my love for kung fu movies in general, and for Bruce Lee in particular. I would often re-enact scenes from that movie with my friends and training brothers and incorporate lines from the movie, such as “boards don’t hit back”, “you have offended me, and you have offended a Shao Lin temple” and “you’re like something out of a comic book” into my games and banter. While there are many martial benefits one can gain from watching Enter the Dragon—not the least of which is the lesson about non-telegraphic movement that my instructor pointed out—there is one scene in the movie that has influenced my development as a martial artist more than any other:

            Bruce Lee’s character is teaching a young student. During the lesson, Mr. Lee tries to get his student to understand the concept of “real emotional content”. When the student finally does the technique properly, Lee describes the feeling that is supposed to be present in the true martial artist. “It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon,” he says. “Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

            This quote has stuck with me, and, today, it is the first thing that I think about when I remember Enter the Dragon. While it is one of Bruce Lee’s most famous and often quoted sayings, I feel that it is often misinterpreted by the general public.  As a teacher, I have used the quote as an introduction to a lesson on literary elements and devices. I start the lesson by writing the quote on the board and asking students to interpret it. Most students say that Lee does not want us to get bogged down in the details-represented by the finger—but rather, he wants us to see the bigger picture, which is represented by the phrase “heavenly glory”. Many adults have given similar explanations of the quote, essentially reducing Lee’s statement to the cliché “don’t lose the forest for the trees.” I feel that this is an unfair reduction of the quote, and that those who interpret it in this way miss the more important implications of the quote.

            I have also spoken to many martial artists about this quote. Most people with a cursory knowledge of Jeet Kune Do say that the line from Enter the Dragon speaks to Bruce Lee’s wish to dispense with form and set movements. It is not the technique that’s important, they say, but rather the ability to express oneself and one’s “emotional content”. According to these people, Lee says that one must be free of tradition and system, which are represented by the finger, in order to be able to freely express themselves and achieve “heavenly glory”. I believe that these people, too, are mistaken.

            I prefer to take the quote in the context of the scene. Lee’s character is a sifu training a young apprentice. While Lee wants the student to understand the greater truth that he is pointing toward, the student would be unable to grasp that truth without his sifu’s guidance. The “finger” in this case represents the guidance that martial training provides. Without the finger, the student would be lost. The finger is “pointing a way”. Yes, one should not concentrate on the finger exclusively, thereby getting bogged down in minutia, but the finger is necessary in order for the student to find his way. The finger points specifically “to the moon”, not at the ground, which would be mundane, or the sun, which while brilliant, would be blinding. There is a specific thing that the Lee wants the student to see, and only with proper guidance can enlightenment be achieved. The need for guidance is further emphasized by the fact that in the scene, the concept needs to be articulate by Lee—and not by his student—thus emphasizing structure inherent in the pedagogical process.

            Moreover, the quote emphasizes the steps necessary to become a self-fulfilled martial artist. There is a multi-level progression described in the quote: Finger—then moon—then heavenly glory. At first the student needs to understand the basics, represented by the finger, before he can shoot for the moon. The student, with the help of the teacher, can see the path from the earth to the moon, and through hard work and training—which are the essence of the Chinese words gung fu—travel the path and rise toward the moon. The moon itself is not the goal either, however, rather by traveling along the “way” to the moon, one realizes the moon’s position in the cosmos; it is part of the “heavenly glory” described in the last part of the quote. The moon, then becomes a sign post along the way, a representation of the possibilities of heavenly glory. Lee, as a modern man who based his art around both science and tradition, would have know about the infinite nature of space in the universe (where the moon resides). By continuing along the path, the “way” pointed out by that original finger of the sifu, the student can achieve the limitless possibilities of self-actualization that Lee believed was primary benefit of self-expression though the martial arts.

            Thus, the quote actually refers to the Tao, the “way” in Chinese philosophy, and the “do” in Jeet Kune Do. Lee states that the finger points “a way to the moon” indicating that martial arts training involves “a way”—a path or journey. The practitioner moves from the earth toward the moon, and ultimately into the heavenly glory. The movement described here reflects Lee’s Taoist philosophy. In The Tao of Gung Fu: A Study of Chinese Martial Art (Tuttle, 1997, John Little ed.), Bruce Lee has three distinct essays relating his martial arts philosophy to Taoism, and the ideas of these essays are reflected in the simile of the quote. A central philosophy of Taoism is that the practitioner, by following the Tao, ultimately becomes one with the universe. Though the Taoist begins, like every other human bound to the earth, by becoming one with the tao, and by embracing the harmonious balance of the universe symbolized by the yin-yang, the Taoist practitioner is able to achieve enlightenment by becoming one with the universe. The “finger”, like the Taoist sage, points the way for the student, who through the development of his martial arts, moves toward heavenly glory, which represents the “harmonious way of the universe.” Each individual student’s journey is different, and many need the help of the guiding “finger” in order to find the Tao or the “way.”

            Sifu Richard Garcia has provided the finger that that has pointed me toward the way of my own journey in the martial arts. His style of teaching truly embodies the yin-yang concept about which Mr. Lee writes. Sifu Garcia’s Jeet Kune Do is traditional, yet progressive, it is both hard and soft, internal and external. It is grounded in basics, yet allows for creativity. It relies on the hard work and training that is at the heart of the definition of gung-fu, yet it develops the kind of spontaneous thought and action described by the concepts of wu wei and wu shin. In Sifu’s own words, it has “old school values and new school innovations” (www.jkdgungfu.com/curriculum.htm).

            Under Sifu’s guidance, I have developed as a martial artist. I have learned to develop my yin energy (throughout my martial journey, I have had an over-abundance of yang energy). I have become more proficient in my technique, especially at trapping and grappling range, and through my training I have become a more well-rounded fighter. I have continued to develop my strategic and tactical proficiencies and have come to a deeper understanding of the philosophy and concepts behind the art. JKD has helped me stay in shape physically and mentally, and it has improved my overall health as well. It has allowed me stay competitive when sparring students half my age, and given me a more practical, useable skillset for personal self-defense. It is an art that I enjoy practicing now, and it is adaptable enough that it will continue to be an art that I can practice as I continue to grow older.

            As I approach my black-sash test, I find myself thinking about the quote from Enter the Dragon once again. I can relate the quote to my own journey in JKD. Phase one of my training, which involved learning and practicing the basics of JKD involved being guided by Sifu’s finger. Metaphorically this phase of training involves seeing where the finger is pointing and identifying the “Tao” or the “Way”. In my mind, being asked to test for black sash is an acknowledgement that while I certainly have not reached the goal to which “the finger” is “pointing”, I have at least comprehended the direction of the path. My eyes are fixed on not only on the “moon”, but also on the “heavenly glory” which lies beyond. I am ready to embrace the “way” and to paraphrase a man who actually walked on the moon, take both “small step[s]” and hopefully “giant leaps” toward that “heavenly glory.”

            I hope to continue to follow the “way” suggested by Sifu’s guidance to eventually “unlock [my] true potential and become the very best that [I] can be.” With my Sifu who will continue to be the “pointer toward the truth” I hope to enter the next phase of my training where I can “find a path to my own freedom” (www.jkdgungfu.com/philosophy.htm).


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Tao of Writing, Part II: A Finger Pointing A Way To The Moon

I ended my last blog entry talking about Bruce Lee and finding one’s way as a writer. I would like to expand on that theme in this one. In that entry, I wrote a lot about what writing advice is not. In this one, I would like to examine what it is.

Consider, if you will, the following scene from Lee’s most famous movie, Enter The Dragon.

At the end of the scene, Lee says, “It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

This quote, in my opinion, is the single greatest statement I’ve heard about teaching and learning. I’ve written about this quote on numerous occasions, including in papers for graduate school and for my second black belt essay, and used this quote in lessons I’ve given to students ranging from young martial artists to graduate students in English education. Every time I ask my students to interpret the quote, I receive similar responses. Most people talk about missing the forest for the trees. They focus on the phrase “don’t concentrate on the finger,” interpreting the “finger” as the minutia and the “heavenly glory” as the bigger picture. This, I believe is gross misreading of the quote, as a close reading of the line will reveal.

Let’s break down the sentence: “It,” Lee says, “is like a finger.” That simile is the core of the sentence. We will return to the “it” momentarily, but whatever “it” is, is like a finger. Later on, Lee says, “don’t concentrate on the finger,” which, I is section that trips people up.

Is the finger a ruse? Is it a trick to misdirect the student, to get him to look? Does its seeming significance in the sentence only set up a straw man, which the teacher will later undermine? I do not believe so. While it is true that Bruce Lee encouraged his students to break free from classical structures and seek their own truths, he still believed in the necessity of teaching and of the teacher. Why else would he work as a kung fu instructor? Why would he continue to teach even after he became a celebrity actor who was financially secure? Clearly, he saw some great value in the pedagogical process.

Moreover, the text itself undermines the notion that the finger is a misdirection. Let us return to the “it”, the pronoun that is subject of the sentence. What is the antecedent of “it”? While it is grammatically vague, the scene’s context necessitates that the “it” refers to the feeling the student felt at the moment Lee was satisfied with his technique. The student does achieve that plane without Lee’s guidance. He does not know that he had achieved it without Lee telling him what he’s achieved, and, perhaps most importantly, he does not understand the takeaway which Lee intends him to internalize until Lee, the teacher, explains it to him. In a broader sense, “it” is the lesson and/or the teacher—or even the pedagogical process of teaching and learning—which is the true antecedent of “it”.

The “it”, however, is not important in and of itself. The teacher merely points the finger. If the student had truly learned, if he is unable to apply the lesson in situations when he finds himself without his teacher there to guide him, he will not have gained anything. If he concentrates solely on the finger, he will, indeed, miss “all that heavenly glory.”

The finger, therefore, is both essential and not to be focused on. This seeming contradiction can be resolved by examining the most often overlooked phrase in the quote: “a way”. The finger does not merely point at the moon, rather it points “a way” to the moon, a path by which one can get there, a Tao, in the sense that my last post discussed. Through the lesson, the teacher shows the student how to follow “a way.” That is the function of the finger, the teacher, and the lesson. Without the finger, the student would not know where to look. Without the teacher, the student would be groping, blindly, on his own. The teacher cannot walk the path for the student, but the student is more likely to be successful with the guidance of the teacher.

This quote also encapsulates my theory about writing advice and writing models. When we concentrate on the “finger”, when we try to emulate exactly what a famous writer or writing teacher recommends, we set ourselves up for failure. I’ve seen many writers fail because they focus too much on the specific piece of advice rather than the path—or way—that it points toward. You are not Hemmingway, or Mamet, or Morrison, or Gaiman. Your path with differ from theirs. You must find your own Tao. Only then, will you be successful. You can make that search easier, however, by looking beyond the “finger”, looking beyond the narrow piece of advice—even if it’s stated as an absolute by your chosen teacher—and try to seek the larger idea to which it points. Only then, will you achieve your “heavenly glory.”

One of my favorite examples of looking where the finger is pointing is from the introduction to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. Rushdie writes of his debt to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens:

I have written and spoken elsewhere about my debt to the oral narrative traditions of India, and also to those great Indian novelists Jane Austen and Charles Dickens – Austen for her portraits of brilliant women caged by the social convention of their time, women whose Indian counterparts I knew well; Dickens for his great, rotting, Bombay-like city, and his ability to root his larger-than-life characters and surrealist imagery in a sharply observed, almost hyperrealistic background, out of which the comic and fantastic elements of his work seem to grow organically, becoming intensifications of, and not escapes from, the real world.
 – Salman Rushdie

[From the Introduction to Midnight’s Children
Rushdie, Salman. Introduction. Midnight’s Children. By Rushdie. New York: Random House, 2006. eBook.
]

Rushdie’s writing does not resemble these authors in style or structure, but he saw certain things in their writing—Dickens’ description of a city and ability to incorporate surrealist imagery in a realist setting, and Austen’s portrayal of women caged by society—which were instructive to him in his own writing. He used their writing—their lessons—as fingers, pointing a way at something significant. He used their examples to find his own path toward success. I hope that you and I am can free our minds from the literal, narrow view of following writing advice and find out own Tao’s of writing. And, if the way that I—or any other writer—point toward is not your way, that is ok. Remember that the finger points “a way”, not necessarily “the way” to the moon. There are many paths to glory.

The Tao of Writing

The Tao of Writing: Seeking Your Path

If this blog is successful, you will blatantly disregard most of the advice I will provide in this space. No, this is not a sophomoric attempt at reverse psychology, nor is it a sad attempt to hook you, the reader, with a provocative statement. This is actually my sincere hope for you as a writer. So why read the rest of this post, (never mind future ones)? Read on, to find out.

There is a ton of writing advice out there. Most of it sounds roughly the same. If one reads it, as your humble author certainly has, one may think there was only one way to write successfully. This could not be further from the truth. Groupthink, by its nature is reductive. “Kill all your darlings” may have been bold and provocative when Faulkner said it. Now, it has become cliché. Moreover, If you write just like everyone else, your writing will read like everyone else’s.

There are as many different ways to write successfully as there are successful writers. Each writer must find her or his own path to success. Process is deeply personal, and what works for one writer probably won’t work for another.

Of course, there are certain basics one must master to become a successful writer. There are elements of the toolbox which every author must have, such as a working knowledge of grammar and usage and a basic understanding of literary elements such as story structure, characterization, setting, etc, but beyond these foundational skills, writing is an art, not a science.

It is my goal to model my path for you, to show you what allows me to be successful as a writer, as well as the things with which I struggle. I will, of course share specific advice that has worked for me (and credit the source when applicable). Hopefully, some of my tips will help you as well. I will break down passages from authors I admire to pull back the curtain and show the machinery that makes their writing work. I will draw connections with other aspects of my life from which I learned lessons I eventually applied to my writing. Perhaps these anecdotes will expand the way you think about writing. As you might imagine from this post so far, I will challenge the conventional wisdom about writing and the writing process. In will also endeavor to use my experiences as a teacher of reading and writing—and my history of working with a variety of young writer whose talent and dedication has varied wildly—to present my advice as clearly and cogently as possible.

Now, the techniques that work for me may not work for you. The authors I read and admire may not be your favorites. My outside interests from which I derive much of my beliefs about writing may not be your own. That’s ok. Hopefully the way I analyze language and experience, the way I make connections with other areas of my life, and the way I read the authors I love, will help you make similar connections, find strategies that work for you, and analyze the writers whom you most admire. If I blog about something specific that works for you, that’s wonderful. Please make take it as your own. If not, hopefully my process, my journey, can help you find your own.

My hope for you, dear reader, is not to provide a template, but help guide you on your search for your “way” of writing. In his essays about his journey, the great martial artist and philosopher, Bruce Lee, said, “Absorb what is useful. Discard what is useless. Add what is uniquely your own.” That is great advice, not just for writing, but for life in general. It is my goal to help you through that process as you seek and find your own path, your own Tao as a writer.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.