Rolling and falling may not save our planet, but they may contribute to the deeper knowledge of self and nature that will

For several centuries Western civilization has had . . . drive for material accumulation, continual extensions of political and economic power, termed “progress.”. . .

The longing for growth is not wrong. The nub of the problem is how to flip over, as in jujitsu, the magnificent growth energy of modern civilization into a non-acquisitive search for deeper knowledge of self and nature.
— Gary Snyder, “Energy is Eternal Delight” in Turtle Island (1974)

Recently I came across the above quote in passing and was struck by how it seems to connect with the nature of White Crane Silat practice. These words were written by Gary Snyder, a renowned poet, environmentalist and activist who has spent a lifetime (now 88) trying to bridge traditions of Eastern and Western thought in the name of the sacred ecology of the planet. In the dispositions of global economies and organized power, he sees a direct link to the body suggesting that the ability to ‘flip over’ is in fact, the key to circulating the energy of acquisition into understanding.

As a long time student of Asian cultures, he mentions jiujitsu, but he might have just as aptly used Silat had he been familiar with this martial art, since as we know, White Crane Silat offers a rich and extensive movement vocabulary of ‘flipping’: pivoting, spinning, falling and rolling — from multiple conditions and in various directions. Sometimes energy in martial arts is addressed in an esoteric way, but in rolling we can see the direct conversion and recycling of energy: from potential to kinetic energy from upright position to prone to upright once more. So even as we of the White Crane Silat clan, who find our inspiration in an elegant bird with elongated legs that lift its body above the muddy stream beds, and though this white winged creature can effortlessly take to the air with grace and power, we still learn to be grounded. The earth is still the base of all energies. The crane is at home in the sky, but always returns to earth where it rests, nests and fishes.

Snyder indicates that there is no need for fear of progress or the impulse towards growth, but that without the reflexive ability to “flip over” this intent is unchecked and can lead to our undoing as a civilization. So too in Silat bodies in motion, leaping, shifting, and even in throwing are not cause for fear when a solid practice of falling and rolling is in place: there is harmony of energies. Snyder’s warning directs itself to the uncontained movement of economies—but might just as easily apply to Silat movements. Without a balanced awareness of the body in motion in space, eventually, there can be injury. In global economies, the corresponding fear is that the steady drive toward progress and growth, “the magnificent growth energy” without the expanded awareness can lead to environmental destruction and social disaster.

This piece of writing comes from a collection of poetry and essays written in the seventies in which the author envisions how western civilization might learn from other societies. Along the way, Snyder suggests that, Western civilizations were less mature—driven to grow, develop and use vs. older cultures which sought to conserve and sustain. Unfortunately in the intervening years, most developing countries have sought rapid industrialization and similarly face the serious consequences of depleted resources and contaminated environments.

As the awareness of these imbalances in contemporary society — ecological, economic and social — grows, so do the efforts of individuals, communities and nations to take greater action to lead more sustainable and socially just lives. In these choices, we may see renewed commitments to the practice of rolling and perhaps the basic recognition identified in the Mukadimah Guru Besar of the need for the “return of science to nature”.

In finding a Silat resonance with Snyder’s quote, it would be naïve to conclude that every time we roll, we are somehow contributing to improved environmental management or social equity, but it does confirm for me that there is a fundamental and profound balance inherent in White Crane Silat. Like all practices, a martial art is both a goal and the vehicle. It is not important which you start with. Some seek to establish skills of self-defense, but in the training arrive at a “deeper knowledge of self and nature”. Or one may seek mainly to develop greater awareness, but to achieve this end must still learn skills of protect and defend, give and take, isi and kosong, throw and fall. As Snyder’s quote suggests, in gaining bodily awareness, there is direct knowledge gained which applies to other phenomena at many levels in our relationships, communities and societies. Nearly fifty years ago, the poet Snyder recognized the need for our civilization to get better at flipping and rolling — turning material progress into deeper knowledge. So let’s enjoy our practice, hone our skills on the floor in all the ways that Silat teaches us, and in the process we will foster our awareness.

Rolling and falling may not save our planet, but they may contribute to the deeper knowledge of self and nature that will.