Do Not Empty Your Mind When Doing Tai Chi

The Monkey Mind

Some people believe you should "empty your mind" when practicing or performing Taijiquan. Some also believe that Qigong and Zen meditation is about "emptying" your mind.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

These practices are mindful, not mindless. You don't empty your mind, you focus your attention.

If I am practicing a form and empty my mind, I'm thinking of nothing, including the movements I'm performing. That is an empty practice and your movement will reflect it.

However, if I calm my mind -- if I replace thoughts of my schedule, my bills, and other daily activities with thoughts of the movement I am performing and the body mechanics and jin that give my movements their internal strength -- that is when my practice benefits the most.

Mindfulness is simply paying attention to what you are doing in the present moment. If you are in a business meeting, that means paying attention to whoever is speaking and focusing on the item at hand. If you are talking with anyone, including your significant other, being mindful means paying attention to what they are saying, not letting your mind roam to other things. When doing Qigong, mindfulness means paying attention to your breath or to mental visualizations of energy. In Zen meditation, it means focusing on the present moment, being aware of everything around you without judgment.

Chen Xiaowang, at the beginning of a form or standing practice would say, "Calm down." Then he said, "Listen behind you." That meant that you should be aware in all directions.

This mindfulness should stay with you all day, being aware of everything around you, and the task in front of you. Someone who practices mindfulness will not be seen walking across a street absorbed in their phone. 

Most of us have a Monkey Mind. It jumps from one thing to another, in frantic motion. To become mindful in any activity, the first priority is to calm the Monkey Mind so you can focus on the task at hand.

My new book, "A Handful of Nothing," contains 88 short Zen stories. Some people mistakenly believe it is about emptying the mind. It is not. Zen is about being aware of this moment and remaining mindful.

Some people even watch TV with their phone in their hands. "I can multitask," some people will brag, but they are mistaken. Multitasking is a myth. It causes students to get lower grades. Adults who multitask perform less efficiently.

Have you ever done something, working on a project or writing something, and you get in the zone, focus on what you are doing, and suddenly you realize a lot of time passed and you didn't notice because you were focused? That's being mindful. And that is the focus you should strive for in everything you do, including any martial art.

--by Ken Gullette


A Review of My Book of Zen Stories - "A Handful of Nothing"


Dan Djurdjevic, a martial artist and author in Australia, wrote this review of my new book, "A Handful of Nothing." Here is Dan's review:

I have just read an electronic preview copy of Ken Gullette's absolutely brilliant book “A Handful of Nothing”.

This collection of 88 vignettes/stories explores the fundamental tenets of Zen (Chan) Buddhist philosophy, with particular emphasis on the concept of “nothingness” or “emptiness”. Karate practitioners will be familiar with this from the expression “mushin” (“empty mind”) or just the character for “kara” - “空” (“empty [as the sky]”).

This collection is easily the most accessible and insightful treatment of its subject matter I have ever encountered - by far.

The engaging, simple-yet-profound, soothing-yet-powerful stories flick past with the pages - just like ephemeral moments of life. However, each of these “moments” floods you with insight and inspiration.

This is a book you might pick up off a coffee table or bookshelf out of idle curiosity. It’s also a book you’ll end up reading for the next hour or more. It’s that accessible, relatable, absorbing and enlightening. All in equal measure.

I rarely buy books of wisdom/philosophy. Indeed, I have only bought half a dozen in my life. My soon-to-be-acquired physical copy (hopefully, one signed by the author) will take its rightful place on my shelf next to my copies of “The Prophet”, “Hagakure” and “The Dao of Pooh”.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough - for martial artists seeking more than just a physical “way”, and anyone else who seeks to walk the difficult path to wisdom. If anyone can help you, it would be Mr Gullette - a true master of The Way (who also happens to have a way with words!).


Check out more about "A Handful of Nothing" on Amazon through this link or by searching Amazon in your country.

You can order "A Handful of Nothing" through bookstores worldwide with this ISBN number: 979-8-218-36685-8

How to Use Zen Buddhism in Daily Life - "A Handful of Nothing" has 88 Stories Pointing the Way

Handful-Cover-webI began reading, studying, and contemplating Zen Buddhism and philosophical Taoism in the 1970s. It wasn't easy to figure out how to use Zen in my daily life, even with wonderful books such as "Zen Buddhism," by Christmas Humphreys. But I worked on it.

I could find no good Zen books that made it as easy to understand Zen Buddhism as the old Kung Fu TV series did back in the 70s. The writers of that show had the actors portray living versions of Zen koans, stories of a young monk being guided by old masters who imparted their wisdom. I started watching the show for the fight scenes (hey, I was only 19), but became fascinated by the philosophy. After growing up in the racist South in a conservative Christian church that told us we were sinners from the day we were born, the TV series introduced me to an entirely new and peaceful way to look at the world. I wanted to find a book that told me how to use Zen in daily life.

Most of the books I read on Zen Buddhism were abstract, focusing on the paradoxical statements that are designed to shock you out of linear thinking, freeing your mind to see the reality that lies between the lines of logic, statements such as, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" But that did not help me use Zen in the real world.

I waited fifty years to read a book that makes Zen Buddhism simple, accessible, understandable, and useful in daily life -- a book that is about people facing the problems and challenges of life, religion, ethics, and morality.

So I decided to write it. "A Handful of Nothing" is now available on Amazon. It includes 88 short Zen stories about a young monk in a monastery asking an old master about the questions on his mind -- questions involving Zen, religion, morality, racism, honesty, and more. Through the old master's answers, it provides instruction for all of us. I hope readers take one chapter a day and think about it, then try to adopt the message into their daily lives.

I tend to write books that I want to read. A few years ago, I wrote "Internal Body Mechanics for Taiji, Bagua and Xingyi" because nobody had written a book that explained, in plain English, the body mechanics that make Tai Chi "iron wrapped in cotton." Most books are abstract or focus on Qi instead of the how and why of internal movement.

"A Handful of Nothing" is the book I have wanted to read on Zen Buddhism. If you are interested in this way of seeing the world -- as it is, with no supernatural spin -- I believe you will find this book helpful. With Zen Buddhism, you seek a clear view of reality, with mindfulness, and you treat everyone you meet with compassion, empathy, and kindness. You seek the path to enlightenment with an understanding that our expectations and attachments lead to suffering. You can't live a full life without some suffering, but the goal of Zen is to eliminate as much suffering as possible.

Here is the link to the U.S. Amazon book page:

If you live outside of the United States, you can find it by searching "A Handful of Nothing Ken Gullette" on Amazon in your country.

If you read the book, let me know what you think.

If you are unable to find it on Amazon, you can order it through any bookstore in the world with the book's ISBN number: 979-8-218-36685-8.

--by Ken Gullette

What You Can Believe You Can Achieve in Martial Arts and Everything Else

Bruce Lee Letter2
Part of the letter Bruce Lee wrote to himself.

In 1969, Bruce Lee wrote a letter to himself, promising to be world-famous by 1970 and by 1980, he would have $10 million. He wrote that he would do this by giving "electrifying" performances.

We all know what happened. He did not live to see his greatest fame, but more than 50 years after he died, we're still talking about him and wearing his t-shirts. Okay, maybe you aren't, but all the cool kids are wearing them. :)

The great comic actor Jim Carrey must have heard this about Bruce Lee, because in 1985, Jim wrote himself a check dated 10 years in the future -- 1995 -- and he wrote the check for $10 million.

Both of these guys could SEE themselves successful. They believed it. And they took steps to achieve it.

I don't have $10 million, but I know the power of setting a goal, writing down the steps to achieve that goal, and then taking those steps, one by one, until the goal is reached.

In 2008, a week after being diagnosed with a heart condition, I was fired from a six-figure job in Tampa, Florida. For a couple of days, I was knocked back a step, wondering what to do, feeling a lot of uncertainty about my heart and the future.

Three days after being fired, I came up with the idea for an online internal gongfu school. I imagined what it would look like and the content I would create for it. I told my wife, Nancy, who was also shocked that we were in Tampa and I was suddenly unemployed, and she didn't say it, but she had no idea how I was going to do it.

This was in April, 2008. Some Taiji people I talked with said it couldn't be done. "You can't teach Taiji online," they said. On July 4th, 2008, I launched my "online school" - -- to the world. I've been working it and building on it ever since, and I have seen a lot of students improve their skills through the videos and the live classes. 

Around 2013, I decided to begin writing e-books. In the next few years, I wrote several, plus a paperback book on Internal Body Mechanics. 

A few months ago, I thought of writing a book that I have wanted to read for 50 years but couldn't find one like it -- a book with a young Zen Buddhist monk receiving guidance on a variety of issues and ethical topics from his old Zen master. I decided if I wrote two or three small Zen stories, sometimes called koans (not the paradoxical statements) each day I could finish the book by my birthday, which is next week.

I'm going to achieve that goal. The book is almost done with 88 short Zen parables.

No matter what you have been hoping to do, whether it's achieve skill in Taiji, Xingyi or Bagua, earn a black belt in another martial art, achieve success in your career, or write a book, this works. You need to visualize your success. What does it look like? What does it feel like? 

Let's say you want a black belt in a martial art. You write it down as your goal. Then, you list the steps to take and write down a deadline for each step. Write it down by hand, not on a computer.

For example, if you want to learn Chen Taiji, you can see the steps to take on the Curriculum section of my website. Step-by-Step, I can help set your goals. But YOU are the one who has to believe it, see your success in your mind, and then take those steps one by one. Set a deadline for each step.

Don't make a general goal. See yourself achieving it and feel what that success would feel like. Then set dates -- hard deadlines. Write down the steps and set a deadline for each step. Then start taking those steps. It's a simple formula, but it's easier for people to not believe they can do something. Setting a goal and achieving it is work. But your goal is out there, ready for you.

You really can do it. If you can believe it, you can achieve it. The only question now is, do you believe it?

--by Ken Gullette

The Young Monk and the New Year's Resolutions

Zen Buddhist Young Monk 1 SmallFrom the upcoming book, "A Handful of Nothing."

The day after the young monk visited the village during the Spring Festival, he was sweeping the hallway near the monastery’s kitchen, trying to remain mindful of his chore, but his mind kept turning to the new year approaching. He knew that people looked ahead to the new year and set goals for personal achievements, but this was not something he had ever done.

The old master emerged from the kitchen with a cup of tea.

“Master,” the monk said, leaning his broom against the wall, “is it wrong to set goals for a new year?”

“What goals would you like to set?”

After thinking a moment, the young monk said, “Success. Enlightenment. Those would be my goals for the new year.”

The master took a sip of tea. “As long as the goals are set mindfully, I would encourage you to align them with your values. The goals should not be pursued with attachment or ego-driven desires.”

“Is a goal of success ego-driven?”

“I would answer your question with a question. What are your daily activities now?”

The monk said, “I meditate, eat, help maintain the monastery, and seek to develop my compassion and kindness, living in the moment, realizing my connection to all things, experiencing life as it unfolds.”

“And what will you do when you find success?”

The monk’s eyes widened. Slowly, he said, “I will meditate, eat, help maintain the monastery, and seek to develop my compassion and kindness, realizing my connection to all things and experiencing life as it unfolds.”

The old master’s face widened in a smile and the young monk was enlightened.

"And now, I am going to work on the only goal I have set," said the master.

"If I may ask, what is your goal?"

"To enjoy this cup of tea," the master said with a smile as he walked toward the garden.

--by Ken Gullette

A Parable: The Zen Master and the Tree

Monk and the Tree 3-800pxIn a serene Zen Buddhist monastery nestled among mist-covered mountains, a young monk approached the master, his heart heavy with defeat.

He had striven for years to understand the nature of the mind, yet enlightenment eluded him, and recent personal tragedies had further clouded his path.

The elderly master led the young monk to a garden where a single tree stood. This tree, once vibrant and full of life, had been struck by lightning, leaving it scarred and half-destroyed.

The master pointed to the tree and asked, "What do you see?"

"A broken tree, master, damaged by misfortune," the young monk said.

"Look closer," said the master.

The monk stepped closer to the tree and examined the trunk. He noticed new shoots emerging from the scars, reaching delicately toward the sky.

"This tree, struck by lightning, faced its own form of tragedy," said the master. "Yet, it persists, finding a way to grow anew amidst its scars. Its branches may be fewer, but each leaf now basks in the sun's embrace with greater strength."

The young monk's eyes widened. 

The master continued, "In life, every one of us encounters moments of tragedy and defeat that scar us deeply. Yet, like this tree, our true nature is not in the tragedy, but in how we rise and grow from the damage of our experiences. What we seek, young monk, is not to avoid all damage. Instead, we seek to embrace each tragedy and defeat as a chance to rise stronger."

The young monk was enlightened. He thanked the master and walked from the garden, contemplating the root, the internal strength, that would allow him to grow anew.

Byron Jacobs' Book "Dragon Body, Tiger Spirit" is a Must for Your Xingyi Quan Library

Dragon Body Tiger SpiritI have known Byron Jacobs for several years now, and I have been a member of his Mushin Martial Culture site on Patreon. He is a truly authentic instructor of Xingyi Quan. He lives in Beijing and is a disciple of DI Guoyong. When Byron published his book this year, "Dragon Body, Tiger Spirit," I was expecting a good book because of his deep experience and clear-eyed view of Chinese martial arts. The result, however, is the best Xingyi Quan book in my martial arts library.

As Byron describes it, "Dragon Body, Tiger Spirit" is "a translation and explanation of the classic texts of Xingyi Quan." He has collected the main writings considered to be Xingyi Quan "classics." Each chapter focuses on a particular classic, including a brief overview of a section of text in traditional Chinese characters. This is followed by a translation of the text. And finally, Byron provides his own commentary on the text. A lot of very good information is obvious in the translations, but it's Byron's commentary that brings each section to life, providing context and the correct way to interpret the information in your Xingyi practice.

I have been practicing Xingyi for 36 years, and teaching for 26 of those. I have won numerous tournament competitions with Xingyi. But I am always open to information that helps in understanding the mechanics, body method and applications of the art. I approach Xingyi, just as I do Taiji and Bagua, as a fighting art. One of the concepts of Taiji as a fighting art is to "yield and overcome." I love Taiji as a fighting art, but I also love Xingyi because it doesn't yield, it simply overcomes. A Xingyi Quan fighter has the eye of the tiger, and when he pounces, he will not be defeated. It is not in his nature to be defeated. That is the mindset of the art. The Monkey form, for example, teaches techniques and movements that "surprise, shock and overwhelm an opponent," according to the book, and it's a perfect description.

The Xingyi that I was taught and have been teaching has a lot in common with the art Byron learned from Di Guoyong, but there are stylistic differences in almost all the various styles of Xingyi, Taiji and Bagua. I try not to focus on the stylistic differences but focus instead on the body mechanics, principles and body method. 

One way I judge a martial arts book is these two questions: did I walk away from the book with new information that can make me better at my art? Does it help me understand my art better? The answer for this book is yes. The writing is clear, the context is clear, and Byron's commentaries are straightforward and based in real-world experience. He illuminates the principles and methods of the art.

After reading the chapter on the Seven Fists, for example, two of my students and I had a great practice working on using the elbows in relation to the concepts of Splitting, Drilling, Crushing, Pounding and Crossing. The Seven Fists of Xingyi Quan include the head, shoulders, elbows, fists, hip, knees, and feet. 

Some of the classics translated and explained in the book, in addition to the "Seven Fists," include "The Five Element Poems," "Yue Fei's Nine Essential Requirements Treatise," "Cao Jiwu's Key Extracts of the Ten Methods," and the "Twelve Animal Poems," among others. I found each one interesting, and I wore out a yellow highlighter as I went through the book, because I didn't just read it. I studied it.

The book also includes biographies of noted Xingyi Quan instructors, starting with the semi-legendary Yue Fei and ending with Di Guoyong.  

I have read other translations of Xingyi Quan classics in the past. They all have something to offer. You can't expect to learn an art like this from a book, so this book won't teach you Xingyi Quan. But if you have or are currently studying Xingyi, "Dragon Body, Tiger Spirit" is a book that will increase your knowledge, inspire your practice, and I believe it will be a reference Xingyi practitioners like me will be consulting for a long time to come. 

Last week, I interviewed Byron about the book for the next edition of the Internal Fighting Arts podcast. I am in the process of editing and it will be online this week. I'll replace this paragraph with a link to the podcast when it is ready.

by Ken Gullette

Ken Gullette Shows You How to Be a Chi Master and Ignite Paper by Focusing Your Qi Energy

I was listening to a podcast last week when I heard a well-known Tai Chi teacher say there are chi masters in Asia who we have seen ignite paper with their Qi. Some other fantastic claims were made on the interview. 

Here is the truth: noboby can ignite paper with their Qi. 

Some charlatans pretend they can ignite paper with their Qi. But it's a trick.

When an adult goes to a magic show, and a magician saws a women in half, and you see the woman's body being separated, and then in a moment the body is reconnected and the woman is walking off the stage, no rational adult walks away telling everyone, "Did you know you can be sawed in half and then you can be reconnected? I saw it happen!" 

If you tell them, "Hey, man, that's just a trick," the believer will say, "You just don't understand. You have to open your mind!"

Nobody with an ounce of intelligence says that after seeing a magic show. What they actually say is, "I'd like to know that trick."

However, demonstrate a magic trick and call it "Qi powers" (or Chi Powers) and you will have millions of people believing it. 

When I heard this Tai Chi teacher talk about igniting paper with Qi as if it were true, I decided to show you how it is done. Here is my video. Enjoy and please share this with those unfortunate souls who have lost their critical thinking skills. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Let me show you how to focus your chi energy, and then I will teach you step-by-step how you, TOO can be a chi master.

Setting Ego and Tribalism Aside to Work, Play and Learn with Martial Artists of Other Styles

Ken Gullette and Chris Lorenzen ground-fighting.
I'm on the ground with Chris, getting an education.

I love it when martial artists of different styles come to my practices. I like to compare notes, concepts and body mechanics with other martial artists. It's also fun to see how Taiji, for example, handles someone from other arts.

Yesterday, my friend and former student Chris Lorenzen came to practice with me, Justin and Colin. Chris is a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and has been training the art with intensity for the past three years, including some success at BJJ tournaments. He was 16 when he was my student (around 2001 and 2022). He was a natural, and won first-place trophies in almost every competition he entered at regional tournaments. And he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet.

Before he arrived, we were working on escapes from joint locks. In a self-defense situation, you don't go in with a plan to use chin-na against an opponent, but you should be ready to apply a joint lock when the opportunity arises. 

Equally important is to become "sensitive" enough to realize when an opponent is putting you into a joint lock.

Justin Snow and Chris Lorenzen
Justin and Chris working it out on the floor.

Our philosophy is to "spiral out of that s#!t." It's one of our primary goals of self-defense. When someone is trying to lock you, spiral out of it.

We showed Chris some of this, but when a guest comes to our practices, we also want to "feel" his art.

My favorite thing against a ground-fighter is to see how Taiji concepts can keep him from taking me down. Can I apply the ground, peng and use sensitivity well enough to feel where he's applying pressure? Can I empty at the right time to put him off-balance, and can I feel where his center is moving so I can keep him from taking me down? That's a lot of fun when you try it against someone who is skilled, but who doesn't know what to expect like your own students do. And it's also fun because I don't know what to expect from him like his regular training partners do.

But we also want to experience what it's like to be on the ground with a Jiu Jitsu fighter. Chris showed us one-by-one what happens, and if you aren't a ground-fighter, it's interesting to see how he can use the feet, the legs, and roll into positions that makes his opponent vulnerable to a painful lock or a choke.

I love it. Even at 70, with one lung and a-fib, I enjoyed getting on the ground with Chris even though I don't have the lung capacity to work in that situation for more than two or three minutes. It's still a great education.

You can have a lot of fun and learn interesting things about yourself and your art if you try not to pee on trees when someone from a different

Colin Frye and Chris Lorenzen
Chris says to Colin, "This is how I do an ankle lock."

martial art is around. Put the tribalism aside and empty your cup. Some of your assumptions about the effectiveness of your own art can be wrong, or, with a minor adjustment, can be right.

It was the second time Chris has visited our practices. I invite martial artists of all styles to come by. Nothing is ever lost except self-delusion. I think a lot is gained by comparing notes and concepts with good martial artists who can also rise above one-upmanship. We all learn and improve our skills as a result.

--by Ken Gullette 



Having Kung Fu Conversations with Podcast Hosts Owen Schilling and Randel Davis

KungFu Conversations Ken 2023I was honored to be a guest on the "Kung Fu Conversations" podcast with Owen Schilling and Randel Davis. They are two very nice guys and dedicated martial artists. 

I have been interviewed on several podcasts, so I am tired of hearing my own stories, but they try to plow some new ground and I think it turned out very well.

Click this link to listen to the podcast on YouTube.

Click this link to listen to the podcast on Spotify.

Click this link to listen to the podcast on YouTube.

My thanks to Owen and Randel for having me on the program.