Sunday 30 October 2011

Good vs Evil Ninja

The difference between hard and soft styles :-) Courtesy of Commissioned Comic.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Controlled falling the robotic way

When teaching beginners to move in Tai chi, one of the first exercises to do is tai chi walking. This is where each step is taken by first place the foot and then transferring the weight, so that any time you can stop or reverse the action. This is different to normal walking which is called "controlled falling". This controlled falling type of motion is perfectly embodied by this new robotic walker, that can walk for up to 13 hours without any motors or active control!

The energy efficiency of controlled falling is exactly why we normally use it in daily life. However in tai chi terms, what you sacrifice is stability i.e. it would be very easy to trip this robot up. Robots are therefore evolving from a more stable "tai chi" like way of moving, into a more dynamically unstable "normal" way of moving. Ironic then that as humans we're trying to move the other way. Could it be that robots are just naturally better at tai chi*?

* Probably not :-)

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Embrace science to set the chi free

For over a decade I struggled with chi. I wanted to believe it existed, but I knew scientifically that it could not. This dilemma vexed me, as I believe it currently vexes an extremely large number of scientifically minded (i.e. most Westerners) internal art practitioners worldwide. Perhaps ignorance is bliss, so if you believe in chi I say good luck to you, but just like religion, you can not make someone believe through rational argument.

The fact that I didn't believe in chi always made me feel guilty, I worried about it and tried to believe (honestly I did) out of respect for my teachers and my teacher's teachers. Fortunately, I feel I have resolved this dichotomy and internal conflict through my musings, and writings, which is a frankly a great weight off my mind. What makes me so happy is that what I have come up with both respects the traditional teaching and at the same time embraces science. It is a definition that I think is beautiful. But more than beautiful, beautiful in the way Richard Freynman means it (video):

What really opens the door to this way of thinking is the appreciation that consciousness, intelligence and mind are but the tip of the iceberg (just as neuroscience teaches us). The human body is made up of billions of neurons and nerves, each one of which is effectively a tiny sensor acting on the environment around us and also inside us. As we go up the consciousness hierarchy these sensors are grouped together into things we ordinarily call sensations, feelings, emotions, instincts, intuition and awareness. It is impossible to be able to process every neuron at the conscious level, we have to accept the emergent nature of ourselves and try to listen to our body, our feelings and our emotions. The philosophy of Enlightenment if you will (swapping my Westerner dictionary for my Eastern one for a moment).

That bottom-up way of thinking is complemented by the top down view. How does one command the body? Just as we cannot perceive an individual neuron, neither can we consciously command it. The body does not understand logic, language or conceptualisation. We can not talk to the body using syntax and grammar. We talk to the body using visualisation and feelings. If you imagine yourself performing an action, you will get better performing it. If you imagine yourself being happy, you will become happier. This visualisation and concentration is a core part of traditional meditation and tai chi teaching and in the latter is called yi/shen (translated as "mind intent").

So back to chi

Chi is not energy. A fact that I think should be almost indisputable. [Before anyone of a traditional background objects, please note  it is not for me to prove that it doesn't, it is for you to prove that it does. After all, if I claim that pigs can fly, the onus is not on you to prove that they don't, but on me to prove that they do. In the centuries that chi as a concept has existed, no experiment has yet been devised to prove its existence, a fact which I think speaks for itself.]

Chi is not energy, but do not despair traditional reader, I am not dismissing it out of hand like some arrogant philistine. Chi is an incredibly sophisticated visualisation framework (in the top down sense). It also does indeed feel like there is an "energy" inside you if you truly listen to your body and practice hard (bottom up sense). The crucial distinction is that there is a difference between what something feels like, and what is actually there. In scientific terms, chi is not energy, but in practical terms if you actually start paying attention to your body it feels as if it is.
This is a beautiful realisation (at least to me). What it means is that the full body of literature and teachings on controlling and directing chi is valid and useful, as it directly corresponds to how things feel. It is not wrong, and I can look my teachers in the eye again, as it is just a way of describing a feeling or emotion, like any other. At the same time, although the model is entirely valid and extremely useful, it is subjective, and so there is no need for chi to actually be energy in reality, and science breaths a sign of relief. Let me draw an analogy here - consider love:

Q: Can I devise a scientific experiment to measure “love energy” directly?
A: No.
Q: Is love a way of describing an internal subjective sensation using a common language to exchange ideas and thoughts about feelings and emotions?
A: Yes.
Q: Does love actually exist?
A: No.
Q: Do I feel like it does, so it doesn’t matter anyway?
A: Yes.
So there it is, when you deal with other people, the better the interaction is, the more love you feel. Perhaps a better word for love is the Buddhist concept of metta (i.e. loving kindness), along with it's allegory, hate. The better your interaction is with yourself, the more chi you feel, and of course it's allegory is pain. Chi is not energy - it is an emotion, a feeling, a sensation - a realisation that rather than invalidating it, emancipates it. After all emotions may not exist in a pure physical sense, but they certainly have real world effects. Love is about society and relationships. Chi is about internal physiology and well-being. Love and chi are in a sense the same thing but in different contexts. It cannot be a coincidence that they both originate in the gut.