The Paradox of Hidden Simplicity

If you look around you, if you think about the world surrounding us simplicity is where everything starts and ultimately where the main goal for most is: this is described very well in John Maeda’s “The Laws of Simplicity” that I encourage you all to read.maeda

We have today many devices that somehow make our life simpler: think for example at a GPS satellite navigator.  At first sight a small box with a colour screen where you tap your destination in and it guides you precisely where to go.  That is amazing and it could have been part of a science fiction movies until a few decades ago.  It is now an easily accessible toy, affordable to most in our so called civilized world.  If we look at other technologies we have similar examples everywhere.  Any computer using a standard GUI (Graphic User Interface, like MS-Windows , Mac-OS or KDI on Linux) allows a user to do very complex task by simply moving, dragging objects or making intricate graphs: these GUI allowed masses of users to approach computers when, until 20 years or so ago they were domain of a much fewer experts.

In both the above cases the apparent simplicity gained have required thousands of man year of work and development to achieve what looks like a simple operation.  Think about the network of satellites that have been put in orbit to allow precise tracking of object on the Earth’s surface.

Now I know some of you are asking: “what is this all about? This is a martial arts blog!”.  Well yes I know and I was initially inspired about this issue while I was watching, some time ago, a short video showing a master performing a form of Tai Chi Chuan.  It looked all so smooth, simple and effortless until I tried just to replicate a few moves when I felt clumsy and useless.  I felt in a similar way when I began learning Wing Chun years ago.  The basic concepts are aiming at simplicity; however when I tried to apply the correct alignment of limbs and body it seemed everything but simple.  This suggested me this idea of the hidden simplicity and its paradox.

Things tend to evolve to from a rough, simple and primitive beginning into more and more complex entities.  This applies to anything from life forms to man created machinery and, topic of this blog, martial arts.

Martial arts all have a simple moves, the so called basics.  These are essential to learn how to properly stand, move around, apply the correct force to techniques and how to counter them when subject to an attack.  In most cases evolution, preference of the inventor and other constraints have pushed many martial arts toward different levels of complexity.

Once you achieve true mastery of one style you start realizing that at the top simplicity is essential but what looks simple when performed by a real expert it is in reality the evolution and improvement of techniques that, just at the best of their perfection, look simple.  That’s what I call the Paradox of Hidden Simplicity.

Bruce Lee stated that the very essence of Jeet Kune Do is not to add to the style but to throw away everything that is not essential and simplify as much as possible your personal set of techniques.  Simple is easy and more immediate.  More immediate will require little or no thinking (and therefore less time) to be used.  It will simply work and apply to a number of situations.  I agree with good part of this concept but I still believe that to achieve simplicity you need first to train complexity, feel at ease with it and then work toward your own simplicity.

I see two flaws in the absolute application of that principle therefore I state that:

  • Training “controlled” complexity will create more brain connection and help you to be at ease with a much broader number of situations that otherwise might be overwhelming.  This kind of practice will also help you training the whole body and muscle groups, keeping them all fit and ready for action.
  • As an extreme definition simple might mean “train just a single punch” and make it work perfectly; this is proven to be not ideal because you might get in a situation when that single punch cannot work, for example if you injure your hand or arm and that is when trouble starts.

So my conclusion is to aim at simplicity as much as you can but incorporate complexity in your routine: the aim is simplicity, achieved from simplifying complexity, once you have fully achieved it.

At that point you will also be in a situation where what you do looks simple but novices will find it difficult and complicated, confirming the paradox of hidden simplicity.

Great free EBook from Ikigaiway blog

Matthew Absokardu the author of Ikigaiway blog has recently released a free EBook titled “Surviving a Traditional Dojo” that I suggest to all of my readers.

The EBook describes in great details what a novice should expect when entering a traditional dojo with a lot of information about etiquette, behaviour that people in the dojo will expect from you, as well as what you should expect from them and from the master running the dojo itself.

I believe this EBook will also be interesting for people that are already part of a non traditional martial arts club to understand what and how other martial artists live their training.

If you are interested, and you should really, please go to the download page of the book and simply download it: as I said it’s free but it has a great value!

Why Wing Chun Works

While a book cannot teach you a martial art it can explain concepts that sometimes could be lost or not necessarily explained in lessons.  Putting in writing certain concepts will force the author to think them through and be very specific about them: this is a typical example.

Why Wing Chun Works

Why Wing Chun Works

If you move across styles and train various styles of Kickboxing, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Tang So Do and Kung fu you will realize that, more or less, kicks are kicks, punches are punches and stances are stances.  More emphasis here or there but you can see a common line of evolution and many commonalities.  When you talk Wing Chun you hear concepts like sensitivity, touch reflexes and central line and that can be a bit disorientating.  That’s why when I found this book and read the introduction in a local book shop I bought it and read it in a short time.

The book

Why Wing Chun Works had a great influence on my martial art experience and I like to go back to it and read a few paragraphs every so often.  I was so intrigued by the reading it that at the end I decided to send an Email to the author, Alan Gibson, and invite him over for a seminar that I organized.  That was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration and friendship.  This book was entirely written by Alan and based on his personal experience and discovery of this art of which he is a prominent representative in the UK and internationally.  This was the first experience of Alan Gibson writer: he wrote and produced himself this first edition in 1998: it is spiral-bound and with hand made drawings.  The book had several editions after this one and recently Alan released “Beginning Wing Chun” that is an improved version with some extra material.


The basic style described here describes the Ip Chun lineage and it is based around the principles of pivoting around the central line.  Wing Chun is not about learning systematically and rehearsing situations like: if this happens do this, if that happens do that and so on. It’s about absorbing, at subconscious level, subtle movements that allow to react, attack and defend in a continuous action.  All “techniques” are described as “concepts”: each concept applies to various situations.  The book also describes how Wing Chun principles such as straight line attack and economy or motion can be applied to problem solving and other aspect of life, not necessarily related to martial arts or to fighting.

What I like of this book

If you are a total beginner of Wing Chun or you don’t know what it is this is a great guide to discover the art and its many principles.  If you are already practicing it can be a great help to understand the various concepts at a deeper level, having time to think about them while away from your usual practicing venue.


Why Wing Chun Works should be in every martial artist’s library: no matter whether you are a Wing Chun practitioner, a curious or simply passionate about martial arts. Don’t expect to learn Wing Chun by reading it but you can definitely improve your thinking around various techniques and, ultimately, refine them.

If you would like to buy this book, or other interesting ones, please have a look at our book store that contain a little collection of the books I read so far.

Tao of Jeet Kune Do

I have been toying with the idea of writing books’ reviews for a long time.  Have an extensive library of martial arts and eastern philosophies books that cover a broad range of subjects.  I hope that what I am going to write about each of them will be enough to inspire some readers to read them, as well as writing some comments about what they think.

When reading a martial art book it is important to have a clear idea of what the main goal for the reading the book is: in my case I never intended to learn a martial art or a style but more to understand the main concepts and philosophy behind it.

The book 

Tao of Jeet Kune Do

Tao of Jeet Kune Do

Many of us consider Bruce Lee a legend that left a great legacy and inspired entire generations to start and keep training martial arts.  For me this is a precious book that I keep handy and go back to read on a regular basis.  It is obviously not a novel with a story but more a collection of notes and ideas: small paragraphs and some time single sentenced that describe a strong and deep concept and make you think for a long time.  Although the cover sheet states “Tao of Jeet Kune Do – by Bruce Lee” the book was put together by Gilbert L. Johnson and Linda Lee (Bruce Lee’s widow) based on Lee’s original notes.


I see this book as a journal for Bruce Lee himself when he was thinking and refining the concepts behind JKD and how he felt this should have developed.  Tao has a strong meaning and multiple interpretations: it is written in Chinese with the same character that is used to write Do in Japanese and it has the same meaning: The Way.  This is to describe an approach that is not meant to teach a strict methodology to do this or that.

Each chapter describes a different aspect of the concepts behind JKD: Preliminaries, Qualities, Tools, Preparations, Mobility, Attack, Circle with Circumference and It’s Just a Name. In some parts of the book entire pages are full of hand written notes from Lee himself, in other cases there are drawing that are probably copied by other books at the time: I say this because the drawing style is consistent for some of the simple stylized pictures where an entire person or a limb is represented with a few lines.

JKD maintains and improves many aspects of Wing Chun that is the first martial art that Lee ever practiced when he was still in Hong Kong.  Bruce Lee probably wanted to improve what he considered the weak aspects of Wing Chun but, instead of simply adding the missing techniques, he saw an opportunity for a much greater picture, not limited by traditions, cultures, styles or country boundaries.  He wanted to define a new concept that many different people, with different backgrounds, could embrace and grow with it.

What I like of this book

Apart from the definitions of this and that technique Lee explores numerous details of the mental aspect of training: what you should think, the attitude you should have and how each of these should be prepared.  While he was against rehearsed techniques and combinations because fighting should spark naturally, from the martial artist experience and based on the opponents moves, he covers in details how each aspect of training should be practiced.  Considering that disciplines like coaching and motivation, the knowledge of sport science and sport psychology were hardly available at the time Lee was surely a great precursor of these concepts.  I also find fascinating the amount of wisdom contained in this book, considering that Lee was in his late twenties when he wrote most of the notes.


I would suggest reading this book to anybody that is interested in martial arts, from beginners to top ranked black belts.  Don’t expect to learn JKD by reading it but be prepared to a bit of thinking because each chapter will add some wisdom to your knowledge of martial arts.

If you are interesting in buying this book, or other interesting ones, please have a look at our book store that contain a little collection of the books I read so far.