Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Understanding, Revelations and Philosophy - Mick McKeen

Using No Way As Way; Using No Form As Form

Recently I've had a lot of time to think - about life, Parkour, martial arts, philosophy . . . Everything that makes up a part of me.

I wrote down some of these things I've come to understand, so that I could better get my head around them, and I figure I might as well post them up here - hopefully it'll spark some good discussion or debate. Oh, and before we get too far down the line? This is long. Very long. And very varied – there will not always be a connecting thread between sections, except that these are my thoughts. And I’ll be updating it over the next few days if it emerges that I’ve missed anything.

The gist? If you simply learn, repeat and adapt the movements you see in videos online, without developing any deeper thought or understanding, or grasping what Parkour is, you’ll only ever be playing at “Traceurs”; don’t let this be the case –constantly think, evaluate and re-evaluate. “Adopt, Adapt, Improve” as Conan Doyle wrote.

Obviously there will be people out there to whom these thoughts are basic and familiar. However, on the other hand, there are those to whom this might incite some meditation on their own thoughts.

Also, at every mention of “Traceur”, “Traceuse” may be substituted in.

On Parkour And Its Component Aspects:

The base level description of Parkour generally runs along the lines of: “A physical and mental discipline, the ultimate goal of which is to overcome all and any obstacles placed before the traceur in the most fluid and efficient way possible. This goal is implemented to cater to two main ideals – Escape and Reach, and the traceur should be entirely versatile to these ends.”

However, as the traceur blossoms, Parkour becomes more than just a discipline in which they participate – it becomes their life, bleeding into everything they think and everything they do; it affects every decision, every action, even every relationship. As such, to my mind each traceur should apply the ideals of Escape and Reach in their physical training, their mentality and their day to day life; in social situations and in every action.

To this end, the traceur must think outside of the metaphorical box formed around our mind by the media’s representation of Parkour, and by the more obvious aspects of our training. If you simply learn, repeat and adapt the movements you see in videos online, without developing any deeper thought or understanding, or grasping what Parkour is, you’ll only ever be playing at “Traceurs”.

So, overlooked aspects of our training? Off the top of my head, running – sure, you can perform a technically wonderful saut du chat, and the climb-up which follows it is flawless, but can you traverse the distance between these obstacles effectively? Or are you left breathless after the shortest of jogs? Everything stems from this ability – a traceur lacking in the ability to run is a tattoo artist unable to draw, is an author unable to formulate a coherent sentence.

How about swimming? Traceurs must be versatile and able to adapt to all situations and environments – why should this change simply because your environment had an expanse of water? If that water stands between you and your goal, you should be able to cross it in the most efficient way possible, which will often include swimming. Also, as far as Escape is concerned, I believe there are few pursuers willing to dive into freezing water to follow a seasoned traceur.

Escape. Now there’s a skill within itself. I’m going to use a reference to fiction to help establish my point, but it’ll be clear even if the reference is out with the scope of your knowledge (I’m comfortable with this reference because seeing as I’ve already mentioned classic works of fiction you’re not allowed to say I only watch trashy movies all day ). Vin Diesel’s Riddick character (go see Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick) is an escape artist – it’s what he’s infamous for. How do you think his escapes would have been possible without his ability to fight for example? Or his stealth? (I’d also like to point out that he runs. A lot. See above )

On this combat ability – Often it is other humans who stand in your way. Be it with ignorance, or an confrontational attitude, I fully believe that traceurs should be able to overcome these people like any other obstacle. To this end, the repertoire of a traceur should include combat techniques for self-defence, combat de-escalation techniques (i.e. Talking someone down) and the virtue of patience – if for no other reason, to educate the ignorant. All three can be major components of escape.

On stealth – the importance of stealth in escape should be blatantly obvious – remaining hidden and undetected is a huge advantage to a would be escapist, and therefore to a traceur.

These are of course only examples, and I hope they spur you on to further thought as to what is part of “true” Parkour – if it does, please post up what you think. This is to give birth to discussion and hopefully progression, not to die as a simple statement.

Escape. Stealth. Combat. Patience. Swimming. Running. Survivalism.

It goes on. . . . . .


Just so you know, this is the philosophical section (shocking, what with the title) - enter if you dare I like to think I earn my little title over there under my name. . .

If anyone wants some clarification on any of the points, give me a shout – to be honest I’m not used to describing this sort of ideology to anyone outside of a Zen (Chan) or martial arts background, but I’ll give it a try and attempt to display it’s applicability to Le Parkour.

Philosophy and mentality are crucial to the success of the traceur or traceuse in their art. This mental development must go hand-in-hand with the physical development of the traceur; just as a martial artist cannot conclusively say which is better, their fist or their foot, nor can any person make such a decision about their arm or their leg, so too must we coordinate these outlets of our art to produce a satisfactory result. Harmony between body and mind is crucial – a traceur cannot say which is more important, as both are amalgamated within his art.

One must remember:
Body is nothing without mind.
Mind is ineffectual without body.

Nature of Movement

The philosophy of movement in its-self has many layers, all of which obviously cannot be explored via the internet, and what with my limited ability to communicate philosophical concepts in an understandable way. However, I will attempt to convey that which I have come to comprehend.

Classical movement, restricted as it is by both society and one’s consciousness, lives and expresses in fragmented form. The traceur should always be mindful of this, and receptive to it’s occurrence in order to understand the nature of true movement. Once such understanding has been attained, it becomes clear that one must be totally sensitive to arrive at “Total Movement” – movement in it’s purest form; unbound by any constraint and present in the “now”, without conscious thought to guide it.

Emotional Content

(The following has been paraphrased from memory – Watch “Enter The Dragon” if it’s not accurate enough for you )


“Kick me.”

The student attempts to obey his martial brother, snapping out a side-kick

“What was that? An exhibition? We need emotional content!”

The student obeys again, this time more forcefully

“I said emotional content! Not anger!”

The student pauses a second in contemplation, and repeats the kick, calmly and instinctively

“Good. How did that feel?”

Student: “Ummm…”

The instructor slaps his charge upside the head

“Don't think. FEEL. It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”


The above was the first I heard of emotional content, as opposed to simple emotional action, some 8 years ago – obviously long before it started to make sense.

There must be emotional content in the execution of your technique. Emotional expression should on occaision also be present, however the traceur should exercise great care in this matter.

This also plays a part in true Parkour, and its personalisation by the traceur. Each movement within Parkour should come from within the traceur – creative and efficient, not copied and drilled from various videos because this is the current popular depiction of the art form. Learning from videos with a closed mind to other possibilities of movement destroys creativity, one of the life-bloods of Parkour, and ties the traceur into a deadened system, or form, of movement. This is just the same as repeating the same forms over and over in the martial arts, confining and restraining the artist.

When real emotion occurs, of the type required for true instinctual movement without consciousness of self, can this reside in, or be expressed by, movements which are not from the traceur’s own spirit, or of another traceur’s design?

Obviously one can learn and adapt movements from others, but these must be absorbed into the traceur’s self, such that they become his own, called upon instinctually and in a guise of his own interpretation.

This is known within Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do as the use of “No Form As Form”.

Are you a flowing entity, as is the goal of each traceur, such as water, able to flow with external circumstances and environments whilst instinctively adapting without effort, or are you resisting your very own progression, resisting the flow of your person by use of your own set form of movement? Be open-minded to the possibilities of movement. Just like any answer, can any movement which comes from inside be incorrect in you Parkour, so long as it aids your progression?

One can function totally and freely if he is “beyond system”. The man who is really serious, with the urge to discover the truth of movement and fulfill his potential in that field, has no style at all. He lives only in “What Is” – the immediacy of his mental and physical harmony to produce a path between Here and his Destination, brought forth from creative instinct, not from imitation of others.

Holding to a style or form of movement is close-minded and in opposition to progression within Parkour, as is rote imitation of the movements of another.

On Wu-Hsin

Zen teachings, the Tao Te Ching of Lau-Tzu and the writings of Bruce Lee and Chuang-Tzu have great applicability to Parkour, and have formed the basis of part of my current contemplation – the ideas of Wu-Hsin (No-Mindedness) and the water principles in particular (which will follow).

Wu-Hsin, No-Mindedness is not a blank mind, or a mind that is devoid of all thought or emotion. Nor is it simply a quietness or solitude of mind. These are aspects present in the Zazen Meditation of several schools, however I do not feel such policies are wholly applicable to a mind which must be ready to react in a split instant, or act in a preventative manner, as in Parkour or a martial art. As such, it is the reflective mind of Wu-Hsin which is required.

In the state of Wu-Hsin, the mind is a mirror - it grasps nothing and refuses nothing; it receives but does not keep, allowing the mind to grasp each new obstacle clearly and perceive everything before it in an unbiased manner (again preventing one slipping into a rote system of movement, as all possibilities are ideally grasped and considered to be of equal importance).

One must “let the mind think what it likes without interference by the separate thinker or ego within oneself. So long as it thinks what it wants, there is absolutely no effort in letting it go; and the disappearance of the effort to let go is precisely the disappearance of the separate thinker”.

The eyes of a mind in Wu-Hsin are, as Chaung-Tzu wrote, “The eyes of a baby” – unbiased, focused on nothing in particular but entirely accepting of all before them. He merges himself with the surroundings and moves along with it, opposing nothing and accepting all, bending what he must to his will.

“He merges himself with the surroundings and moves along with it, opposing nothing and accepting all, bending what he must to his will.” This is essentially the definition of a traceur to my mind, enforcing the importance of Wu-Hsin in Parkour to me.

On Water; It’s Nature And The Principles

Water has often been used as an analogy for the ideal movement of a traceur, and none exemplified this better than the man known as Lóng – Bruce Jun Fan Lee:

“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can either flow, or it can crash! Be like water, my friend.”

Regardless of obstacles, water can flow on, unperturbed, forever. It can be subtle and silent, leaving no trace, or powerful and effectual.

Water flows over small pebbles and around great rocks, never ceasing its flow or standing still. However, during this time, the water laps at the great rock, until eventually the rock is surmountable by the flow of the water. Water is resilient and unbearable, waiting and continually applying effort to those obstacles which are currently beyond it, until eventually it is no obstacle at all.

The traceur who moves as water, unbound to any system of movement or rote imitation of others, who is primal and instinctive in their actions, and is contemplative of all aspects of their art (and trains appropriately) is a true traceur in my view.