Turning obstructions into advantages

In her final blog, Stephanie Fowler tells us how to retrain the mind-body complex

If you take any sport, you will find that a large part of the training involves repetition and drilling. Constantly repeating certain movements so that they become instinctive. For on the playing field, in the thick of the action, you don’t have time to ‘think’.

You have to act — and fast. If you think first, more often than not, you will be too late.

Martial art training is no different, with drills – both solo or with another – as well as linking together various movements to create a form, that can be practised repeatedly. This system involves a fundamental rewiring of our instincts, and also our reaction to fear.

When we are afraid, our instincts take over from our conscious mind, propelling the body into action before we have a chance to realise what we are doing. This is known as the stress response, or ‘fight-or-flight’ response.

There is one more response which is potentially even more damaging – the ‘freeze’ response, when we become like a rabbit in the headlights, and find ourselves frozen to the spot with our minds totally blank and the body unable to do anything.

So by constantly repeating certain movements, we re-train our body so that we put in place a new ‘instinctual’ way of reacting. Many people wonder why in Tai Chi Chuan we train so slowly. I am often asked if it is to fight in slow motion. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a slow-motion fight.

One of the reasons for training in this way is that the bodily requirements in Tai Chi Chuan are very subtle, so if we train quickly, we will miss many of the principles. For example, try relaxing your arms and imagine the joints opening out. Now try moving, keeping that ‘feeling’ in the body. If you find it easy, you’re in the minority.

Gradually, through training, the body starts to absorb the many principles of Tai Chi Chuan. When we can maintain them as we move slowly, we can speed up. The very rapid movements in Tai Chi Chuan are unbelievably swift, using an explosive-like power from the body.

As I explained in my previous piece, we always try and use our opponent’s force against them. It would madness if we were to then use our own force against ourselves by tensing certain muscles, as tight muscles inhibit fast and efficient movement.

While movement is best practised in a solo setting, the correct reactions are best mastered in training with another person. Typically, when we are threatened, we will tense and react ‘against’ whatever we are afraid of. This process occurs in most disagreements as our instinctual reactions work at both a physical and mental, or sub-conscious, level.

When we get fired up and angry, it is often like something else takes over, and we start saying things before actually ‘thinking’ about what we are saying. It is as if fear, even at this level, pushes us instinctively into a reactionary stance that can be ever so damaging.

But when we learn to react with an incoming force, rather than against it, we simultaneously learn how to turn an obstruction into an advantage, and how to move with events and actions around us, rather than against them. This is the wisdom that Tai Chi Chuan brings.

Stephanie Fowler first began learning martial arts in 1992 at the age of 17. Her training in Tai Chi Chuan began a year later. She has trained with many top masters from all over the world, including the current Chen-style lineage holder Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei. She has also practised Qigong and another internal martial art, Bagua Zhang.
Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left