The Empty Cup is the title of a book I published last year which provides readers with the eight keys to developing a proper mindset for success in their martial arts training. Presented in the form of parables, these life lessons are analyzed and explained in a way that is easy to understand and apply.
But beyond it’s applicability to martial arts training, these principles can be applied to learning just about anything. As one of the reviewers of my book said, “The subtitle of this book is ‘Proper Mindset for Successful Martial Arts Training’ but really it is the proper mindset for learning really anything in life. Starting with approaching any subject with an open mind and be willing to learn from the newest person in the building or the oldest person in the room; each person can offer something new to help you on your journey either in Martial Arts, biking, programming, or writing a book – any subject where you are wanting to learn.“
The book begins with and takes its title from the parable of the Empty Cup, a well-known concept in Chinese martial arts. Having an empty cup means entering a learning situation as an open vessel, fully prepared and anxious to absorb new knowledge. Only by having an open mind and a beginner’s curiosity to learn can we allow ourselves the opportunity to take in new information without prejudices or preconceived notions limiting us from giving fair consideration to the new material we are being taught.
So beginning with that, I encourage you to pick up a copy of The Empty Cup which is available in both paperback and Kindle format. This blog is meant to accompany the book, as well as my future book projects and it is my hope that readers will take something of value from The Empty Cup which they can apply to their everyday lives.
An important aspect of any culture, and the martial arts in particular, is that of respect. Respect for others, for their property, for their right to their own opinions, and also respect for oneself.
It has really surprised me how over the last 10 years, the concept of respect has become lost on many Americans and especially in the martial arts community. For me personally, what shapes my perception of a person the most is not their background, nor the color of their skin, nor their bank account, nor their ability to perform dazzling feats of athleticism; instead it is whether or not they are respectful and courteous to others.
I’ve met many talented martial artists in my 39 year career. But as I discussed in my book The Broken Rice Bowl, unfortunately some were absolutely horrible people despite having achieved a high level of physical skill. For some reason, they seemed to have forgotten the lessons they learned (or should have been taught…) when they were beginners.
Being respectful and courteous costs nothing, but counts for everything.
Well almost 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to meet another well-known Wing Chun master and by showing him the proper courtesy and respect, it reflected well upon myself and on my own Si-Fu.
Back in 2005, I began teaching seminars in Calgary, Canada and by good fortune made contact with a gentleman named Greco Wong (Wong Cheung).
Sifu Wong had trained Wing Chun in Hong Kong during the 1950’s and 60’s. While initially learning under Sifu Moy Yat, he later went on to study with Sifu Mak Po, Sifu Tsui Sheung Tin and ultimately with Grandmaster Yip Man himself. Years later, he moved to England where he co-authored the first English language book on the art in 1969.
Having owned a copy of this very rare book, I took it with me to our first meeting in hopes of him signing it. The meeting took place over coffee at a Tim Horton’s Restaurant in Calgary.
Upon meeting Sifu Wong, I thanked him for his time and offered to pay for his coffee. What followed was a thoroughly enjoyable chat with a true gentleman. Though my own Si-Fu, Grandmaster Leung Ting, had studied directly with Grandmaster Yip Man during the late 60’s; Sifu Wong had insights from a much earlier period of Wing Chun’s development in Hong Kong. For a lifelong practitioner of the art like myself, Sifu Wong’s stories, experiences, and anecdotes were a goldmine of information. The discussion was a rare educational opportunity for which I was very grateful.
Towards the end of our conversation, we exchanged business cards and did so in the traditional Chinese way:
The card is always taken from a shirt or coat pocket (never from a wallet out of one’s hip pocket).
It is presented with both hands and oriented so the receiver can read it.
The receiver takes it with both hands, reads it, and then places it in their own shirt/coat pocket.
After this, I produced the copy of Sifu Wong’s book, entitled Wing Chun Kung Fu, and asked if he would kindly autograph it for me. Clearly reminiscing, he took the book from me and smiled as he said “of course!”
When he handed the book back to me, Sifu Wong said, “I’ve heard of your Si-Fu [Leung Ting] but have never met him. What is clear however, is that he teaches his pupils proper manners, and I respect that.” Upon hearing this, I remember feeling a great sense of pride. Not just for my own actions, but that I had also brought credit to my own teacher.
This became the first of many visits with Sifu Greco Wong and each was equally enlightening. One of the last times I saw him was in 2007 when he was retiring from his day job. To celebrate, I and my Calgary-based assistant took him out for a sushi dinner where I presented him with a traditional red packet. Sifu Wong was noticeably moved and thanked me. Before departing, Sifu Wong invited both my assistant and I to meet him for Dim Sum, his treat, when I was to come back into town. Several months later, we did join him for the meal – which was also a very enjoyable event.
In closing, the lesson to be learned is that being respectful and courteous costs nothing, but counts for everything. By showing genuine respect to Sifu Wong upon our first meeting, I was granted many such meetings afterwards and developed a friendship which was both rewarding and educational to me.
In the two disciplines that I teach, martial arts and firearms, I’ve encountered both good and bad teachers over the years. When I myself became a young teacher many years ago, I tried to emulate those teachers that I had met who consistently produced skilled practitioners under their tutelage.
Early on, one thing I noticed is that these teachers possessed two particular qualities. First, they had a sincere interest in seeing each of their students excel. These teachers were like artists, genuinely desiring to produce a masterpiece from each and every student. Second, because of their own high expectations upon themselves, they held their students to a similarly high standard. They expected great results from their students and that is typically what they got.
Everyone that is a skilled practitioner today, in any field of study, was at one time a total beginner. They knew nothing of the subject matter, had no skill, no experience and were unsure of what expectations would be placed upon them.
It was the experienced instructor or coach, who knew what could be achieved, how to motivate them, and how hard to push them, that brought out their true potential. For this reason, I believe it is important to expect the best from one’s students from their very first lesson. It not only sets a high standard, it sets them up to succeed.
For the purposes of this blog post, it is easier to illustrate this principle as related to firearms than to martial arts.
At the gun range, I’ve routinely watched another instructor teaching his students who prefers not to use a bulls-eye target. Instead, he turns the target over and draws a large 8″ x 8″ square on the back of it. He then tells his students, “don’t worry about hitting the bulls-eye, just try to get your shots inside the square.”
The first time I saw this, I must admit that I thought he was joking. Coming from a military background, the phrase we most often heard when training in firearms was, “aim small, miss small.” If the expectation is that you will hit a 2″ bulls-eye you and focus on achieving that, you’ll typically come pretty close when shooting at close range. It has been my experience that most beginners who attempt to shoot a handgun at 3 yards can easily hit the bulls-eye within their first lesson. Often, most of their early shots are only 3″-5″ away from bulls-eye in the first place.
The results I have seen when the target area is 64 square inches (8″ x 8″) are dramatically different. Not only do very few shots even make it inside of the square, they are typically nowhere near the middle of the box. By setting an extremely low expectation, the students are guaranteed to perform poorly. When I see this, all I can do is cringe.
In conclusion, the human being is an incredible creation and is capable of extremely high levels of physical and intellectual achievement. Each of us can accomplish the unimaginable, but only if we surround ourselves with others who expect the best, and ultimately if we expect the best from ourselves.
Qualified: fitted (as by training or experience) for a given purpose: COMPETENT.
Outlier: a value or point that differs substantially from the rest of the data.
In the context of the martial arts a Qualified Outlier is a practitioner whose level of skill is substantially higher than the statistical norm, or more specifically, the majority of their peers. When we think of who might best fit this description one of the first names that comes up is Bruce Lee.
While he was only 5’7″ tall and weighed around 140 lbs., he was physically one of the strongest people ever to walk the Earth. Having learned Wing Chun kungfu for only about 3 years as a teenager in Hong Kong, he certainly wasn’t the most knowledgeable exponent of the art. However through his motivation, drive, and extremely intense training ethic, he grew into a man with skills far superior to most of his seniors under Grandmaster Yip Man.
What made him a Qualified Outlier in the martial arts, was the level of personal excellence he exhibited in not one, but many of the aspects required to be a great martial artist. Among these were strength, speed, reflexes, timing, and a sense of distance. Naturally, while many of us may excel in one of these areas or another, Bruce excelled at them all.
So what does it take the average martial artist to become a qualified outlier in their own school, art, organization, state or even country?
Undoubtedly, Bruce Lee was a phenomenal individual who was blessed genetically in many ways. But those things not withstanding, it was the intensity with which he chose to train that made him legendary.
In chapter three of my book, The Empty Cup, I discuss the concept of repetition vs. time. Take any two individuals who enroll in martial arts and continue for a full year. The one who trains consistently, never misses class, and puts in practice time at home will undoubtedly develop an appreciable level of skill. But the other student, who was enrolled for the same period of time but trained less and performed fewer repetitions, will have little to show for it.
In much the same way, if one wishes to see a demonstrable increase in skill and pull ahead of their peers, the solution is simple: put in more repetitions.
Throughout your martial arts career, you will reach plateaus; periods where skill development will level off for a while. This can be especially frustrating when it comes after a lengthy period of consistent gains and improvements. I myself have encountered a number of these over the years.
The best advice I ever got on moving past these plateaus was from my former teacher, Grandmaster Leung Ting. He said that plateaus were a normal part of the training process and not to be discouraged. Plateaus, he explained, were a good thing. It means you’re on the verge of a major jump in skill. Just be patient, keep training, and you’ll experience a break through.
His advice was 100% correct. At each time in my career where I reached a plateau, it was temporary, provided I maintained or increased my training regimen. But the opposite is also true, and I’ve seen plateaus become permanent when students decide to throw in the towel. Some scaled back their intensity and never broke through. Others sadly, figured they were at the end of the road and dropped out altogether.
As I have always said, the martial arts are a truly egalitarian endeavor. Given good instruction and coaching from a qualified teacher, the only thing stopping you from becoming a Qualified Outlier is yourself.
A few weeks ago I celebrated my 50th birthday! As a lifelong martial artist, I am still in excellent health and have managed to improve my strength, flexibility and speed over the years. Sure, there have been some physical changes, but in general I have always thought of myself as being a 30-something. I’ve never really felt “old,” or at least I never THOUGHT of myself as old.
Thankfully, I am definitely more skillful and MUCH wiser than I was in my 30’s. Since then I’ve learned, progressed, and mastered my chosen art; developing an appreciable level of skill which is commensurate for someone at my stage. I’m happy with that, yet always excited to make even greater gains.
That being said, in line with The Empty Cup mindset, I have set about planning some new goals for my life, career and training. Being fairly optimistic, I’ve been considering the next 25 years that lie ahead and what I would like to achieve in that time.
Then it suddenly dawned on me that most of my teachers, mentors and even my own parents are around 25 years older than I am right now. Where were they career-wise when they were 50? What was going on in their lives? What changes have I seen them go through in the past 25 years? What challenges did they encounter, and how did they overcome them?
I met my former teacher, Grandmaster Leung Ting, when he was just 39 years old – eleven years younger than I am now. I met my mentor, kungfu brother, and friend, Grandmaster Keith Kernspecht when he was 47; only a few years younger than my current age. Then you have the great Bruce Lee, who died when he was only 33 years old, and I’ve lived 27 years longer than that. Plus I’ve practiced Wing Chun kungfu for two years longer than Bruce Lee was even alive..!
Wow. Suddenly, turning 50 began to “feel” older psychologically than it did physically. I have to admit that cognitively, there has been a shift in my own perceptions of myself.
So where do I go from here?
Well, as I now look at those teachers and mentors who have shaped my life, I can see that each has continued to excel and succeed because they continued to embody The Empty Cup mindset.
Each has continued to improve their own knowledge, skills, and teaching ability over the years. All of them have continued to set even bigger goals, achieved them, and repeated the process. On top of that, each has contributed more to the development of their martial art in that past 25 years than they did when they were under the age of 50.
That’s inspiring to consider and it is a path I too choose to follow. While I now perceive myself differently than I did just a few months ago, it has given me greater motivation to pursue my new goals in earnest. What’s 50? It’s just a number…a big number…but just a number. 8^)
Ask any experienced martial arts instructor and they will agree: “when a student loses momentum in their training, it can be very difficult for them to regain it.”
In the shadow of Covid-19, one of the hardest hit sectors of our economy has been gyms, dance studios, and of course martial arts schools. These businesses were severely restricted from offering the very person-to-person interaction which lies at the heart of what they provide. Shifting to online lessons was only a stopgap measure, never a long-term solution. Thus, while many students adapted to online training via YouTube and Zoom, and subsequently returned to class following the re-opening, others lost momentum and fell by the wayside.
Over my years as a teacher I’ve seen people miss a class or two on occasion, which is common, and return to training with no problems whatsoever. But when they miss a couple of weeks, let alone six or more, some might never get back into the routine and may ultimately end up dropping out. Granted, this is different from person to person, but it is strongly contingent upon their mindset.
Those who have trained in martial arts longer, have typically developed a strongermindset than the average beginner. They are more self-disciplined, dedicated, focused, and mentally resilient from their martial arts training. When life events force them off track, they quickly get back on. They roll with the punches and never lose sight of the big picture.
It has been said that it takes only 30 days to change a habit or routine. This process can be challenging when you are trying to implement a new training regimen, increase your workouts, change an eating plan, or kick a bad habit. Unfortunately, it takes very little effort to lose a good habit, especially when the change only requires you to sit at home and binge watch Netflix or Hulu.
Early on during the shutdown, the mettle of many a martial arts student was tested and revealed.
Those with very little self-discipline or resolve were the first to drop out of training. You see, there are always excuses to take the easy path or to give up on a long-term goal. It can be a real struggle for some people! Sadly the ones who need self-discipline the most, are the ones who feel a sense of relief when life gives them an easy out.
Still, there are others with years of training under their belts who faced different challenges. Some might have reached plateaus in their training, or experienced turmoil in their personal lives. Already being “on the ropes,” to use boxing parlance, Covid-19 knocked them to the canvas.
In either case, the hard truth is that history always lauds those who persevere and society always admires those who don’t give up. Greatness is never achieved through surrender.
If reading that last paragraph stings, you may be at a crossroads in your life. Deep down you may have already given up, or at the very least have one foot out the door. Your choices are simple: a) Do Nothing; or b) Get Back in the Fight.
Personally, I hope you choose to get back in the fight, and to do so immediately. The longer you wait, the less likely you ever will. As I mentioned in The Empty Cup, I’ve never seen anyone who regretted sticking with their training. But I have seen many who, years later, really regretted having quit. The choice is yours…
I am happy to announce that the audiobook version of The Empty Cup is now available on Audible! Within the next few days you will also find it on iTunes and Amazon. To learn more, check out the link below:
Also, The Broken Rice Bowl, the long-awaited sequel to The Empty Cup has been completed! Written with the martial arts instructor in mind, it outlines the key mistakes that instructors make that hinder their success.
At present it has been sent to a select group of reviewers and should be available on Amazon by the beginning of July. Be sure to look for it!
In his work, The Law published in 1850, French economist Frédéric Bastiat stated, “Each of us has a natural right–from God–to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two.”
Note that he did not say that your rights come from a consensus of your peers, the Congress, or any politician. Rather he stated each of us has a “natural right” from God. In case you happen to be non-religious by the way, the implication is the same: our rights to defend ourselves are a birthright, not something granted to us by mankind.
At the present time in our country, we have seen a man killed at the hands of a rogue police officer while three of his partners essentially looked the other way; and we must now deal with the aftermath. The violation of George Floyd’s right to life is abhorrent, barbaric, and wrong; but it is not representative of the other 99% of the people in law-enforcement in our country. The vast majority of which would stand between you and a knife or gun-wielding attacker without a second thought.
With so much turmoil, rioting, looting, and burning going on, the average citizen has a right to fear for their safety and that of their family.
In some cities things have gotten so out of hand that the National Guard has been called in, and with good results. But some people have risen questions about the use of the military as a peacekeeping force on American soil. Their fears are unwarranted.
The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 limits the power of the federal government to use federal troops on American soil. It is one of the many safeguards that exist to protect our freedoms. It places limitations on another important law, The Insurrection Act of 1807. This act provides an option for the President of the United States to protect our citizens through the use of the military during times of great upheaval, when local governments are unable (or unwilling) to handle things a situation.
However, neither the police nor the US military can be our personal bodyguards. For this reason the US Constitution includes another valuable guarantee for Americans – the Second Amendment. The right to bear arms is the most fundamental and important part of the Constitution with regards to one’s personal safety. It assures every American citizen that they can defend themselves legally and justifiably if the need arises. Furthermore, the use of firearms is a great equalizer. If an American finds themselves and their family home in the path of a mob of rioters who are burning things to the ground, a firearm goes a long way towards deterrence as well as protection.
In conclusion, we need to look at this whole situation with the proper mindset. When our politicians protect our natural right to defend our life, our liberty, and our property, they deserve our trust and support.
When they do not, it’s time to elect those who will.
Is freedom in America a birthright or is it in our blood?
Over the past two weeks, as our country continues to struggle with Covid-19, there have been multiple news reports of government officials taking liberties with the constitutional rights of Americans living in their jurisdictions.
In Los Angeles, the mayor threatened owners of “non-essential” small businesses with shutting off their power and water if they didn’t close. “This behavior is irresponsible and selfish,” he said.¹ Here in my home state of Texas, a judge in Dallas sentenced a mother and small business owner to jail for 7 days. This was not because her beauty salon was open for business, rather it was because she defied a subsequent order from the judge to close her business, hence she was charged with contempt of court. The judge chastised her saying, “Your actions were selfish, putting your own interests ahead of the community in which you live.”² Fortunately, the Governor, the Lt. Governor, the state Attorney General and the Texas Supreme Court stepped in and this law-abiding citizen was ultimately freed from jail.
In both cases I find it laughable when government officials characterize Americans as being “selfish” for engaging in legal commerce so they can provide for themselves, their employees, and their families. It is the epitome of hubris when government officials and even the media elite make character judgments on people who are struggling financially while they themselves enjoy a financial security which is totally unaffected by Covid-19. As Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake..?”
Whether you agree with these small business owners or not, there are some serious civil rights issues at play here.
Firstly all Americans, these small business owners included, have very specific civil and constitutional rights. Municipalities tasked with providing water and power utilities, cannot arbitrarily turn off that service. There are policies and regulations in place which require them to have valid, legal reasons for doing so, and most states require that a minimum of ten or more days notice be given, as well as an appeals process. Legally, no government official can just say “flip the switch” and cut off your utilities without following state-mandated protocols. To do so violates state laws which are in place for your protection.
Secondly, the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution provides our citizens with certain inalienable rights which cannot be simply be ignored for political expediency. The First Amendment provides for Freedom of Assembly. If a small business owner wants to provide personal services (as in the Texas case, hair salon services) in their own place of business to a handful of clients, that is their constitutional right. The First Amendment also ensures that the government cannot prohibit the Free Exercise of Religion. The closing of houses of worship and the collecting of license plate numbers of those who met to worship in defiance of these government orders (Easter Day in Hillview, KY), is blatantly unconstitutional and moreover, frightening.
So back to my opening question: “is freedom a birthright or is it in our blood?”
Contrary to popular belief, freedom in America is not a birthright. There are no guarantees in life. As Americans, we have no guarantee that government officials will not attempt to overstep their authority, or that unscrupulous individuals won’t abuse their positions of power.
No, freedom is not a birthright and freedom certainly isn’t free.
But as Americans, freedom is definitely in our blood. We are born with it, we can feel it, and “we the people” get a strange twinge in the pit of our stomachs when we sense it being infringed upon.
When anyone attempts to take away, that which others are accustomed to having, there will inevitably be conflict.
Recently, many Americans have taken to the streets in protest and this is a good thing. We should and must stand up for our constitutional freedoms. History is replete with examples of governments curtailing freedoms, ostensibly for the good of the people – and the people have always lived to regret it.
We must each do our part and stand up for what is right. Whether you are liberal or conservative, left or right – it doesn’t matter. No political party stays in power indefinitely, and both sides are equally prone to abusing newly-acquired powers.
Remember, as our founding fathers would tell us, it is much easier to protect our freedoms than it is to try and get them back…
Like many other instructors coping with the challenges of social distancing during the Covid-19 quarantine, I’ve been filming instructional video lessons for distribution to my students.
Being somewhat of a perfectionist I do numerous “takes” of each video, not only because I want to provide a quality product for my students, but also because it will be captured for posterity (or more accurately – an eternity…) once it is posted on the Internet. In reviewing my own performance, I am doing so with the critical eye of a master, carefully assessing what I see and looking for areas which need correction. Doing so reminds me of something my former teacher, Grandmaster Leung Ting, once said which was, “the instructor is always wrong.”
What did he mean by that you might ask? Well for starters it acknowledges that while we instructors may know how to perform and teach a technique perfectly, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we will do so 100% of the time. For another it deals with the fact that as an instructor, you must be responsible to correct yourself. After all, how many of your own students will point out that you performed a technique incorrectly? Without policing our own technique and performance, who in our school will? Thus is it your job as an instructor to always critique your own techniques and movements to assure they are correct.
In my case as I watched some of my video over the past few weeks, I spotted a basic technique of mine that wasn’t as accurate as it should have been. What’s funny is that I have a photograph of myself as a beginner from 1986 in which I am doing the SAME exact technique in exactly the SAME not-so-perfect fashion. On realizing this, I kicked myself and have since made successful efforts to improve it. When filming today’s lessons, I was aware of making that mistake once again and in reviewing the video, can clearly see that I caught myself and corrected it by the next repetition.
The big challenge for us as martial artists, particularly instructors and masters, is that we may have done tens or hundreds of thousands of repetitions of a given technique and it is now hard-wired into our physiology. While re-wiring these things may take some effort, it is certainly doable if we put in the time.
Honestly, I never liked the saying, “practice makes perfect,” because it is not entirely true. Why? Because the truth is that “practice makes permanent, not perfect.” As an aside, I much prefer the German version of the saying which goes “übung macht den Meister” (“practice makes the master”) because achieving mastery necessarily entails repetitive practice. Proof I suppose that a certain degree of resolution can be lost when trying to express the same phrase in a different language.
As I discussed in my post, “The Best is the Enemy of the Good,” even a master is not perfect at all times, they just make fewer mistakes than a novice and the ones they do make are often imperceptible to their lower and middle ranked students. However, the more advanced (experienced) the practitioner, the more easily these errors can be spotted.
So as we start another week on quarantine, I challenge each of you to put in some perfect practice on a drill, skill, exercise or technique that you know deep down could use some work. Each of us has something we can improve upon or else we’d all be…perfect. So start today, work it daily, and expect to see a positive change by Friday. Good luck!
Presently our nation faces one of the largest challenges it has seen in the past 100 years. COVID-19 has not only affected the health of a substantial number of people, it has also hit everyone of us directly through the government mandated social distancing and quarantines.
Make no mistake, it is normal to become anxious and fearful of what lies ahead during such troubling times. Many of us Americans are sequestered in our homes, not working, and with too much time on our hands. Based on one’s own mindset, time can be either an enemy or a friend. For example, when someone is waiting to hear back from the doctor about whether they tested positive for cancer, every second can be a brutal eternity. On the other hand, when we spend time doing something that we really enjoy or in the company of someone we truly love, seconds can be blissfully fleeting.
In both cases time is still time. It is what we fill it with and how we perceive it that allows time to effect us either positively or negatively.
So how can we take the over abundance of time we now have on our hands and turn it into a positive?
Take advantage of it and use it wisely!
By using our time wisely, we can change a challenge into an opportunity. In other words we take time and use it to our advantage, for our benefit and use it to serve our purposes. How can we do this you may ask? Here are a few examples:
Finish that home project you’ve been continually putting off
Dive into that book you’ve been meaning to read
If you normally spend a lot of time at work, now you have the opportunity to spend time with your family
Improve yourself physically (set goals, recommit to your diet, and exercise daily)
For those of us who are martial artists, setting and achieving goals incrementally should be a normal part of our lives. How would you respond if all of a sudden you were given one to three weeks to focus on your martial arts training with very few distractions? Would you make a plan to improve your strength, speed, and flexibility? Would you pick one of your forms or techniques which [you know] you are weak at, and put in some solid repetitions each day? Would you practice to improve your footwork?
Or would you look at the amount of time you have on your hands and set up a solid personal training plan to accomplish all of the above? That would definitely be a wise use of your time!
Not to mention that the best way to combat the mental challenges of stress and anxiety is to challenge yourself physically.
Take this opportunity, seize the moment, because in the next few weeks when life g back to normal, this free time will be gone. Use this time and use it wisely.