Can you smoke without inhaling? Martial arts and the Orthodox Christian

A provoking article about yoga in Georgia

There was an article which discussed the Orthodox Church and yoga in Georgia. It made no mention of martial arts, but it left me thinking about how its substance would meet martial arts.

Probably the most striking part of the discussion of the Orthodox Church in Georgia giving a cautious, skeptical eye to yoga, and one of yoga’s advocates said, “With time, as practitioners realized that “[b]y chanting one ‘Om,’ they’re not going to change their religion,” the objections vanished.” This answer reminds me of how Charles Babbage was asked by members of the Parliament if his analytical engine could arrive at the correct answer even if it were given incorrect data to work with. He said, “I cannot rightly apprehend what confusion of ideas would lead to such a question.” And I cannot rightly apprehend what confusion of ideas would lead an Orthodox to accept that reply.

The term ‘yoga’ is from the Sanskrit and means a spiritual path, and in that sense with unadorned simplicity an Orthodox Christian may claim to be a devotee of the Christian yoga, much as for that matter an Orthodox Christian speaking with a follower of the Budo (Warrior’s Way) may with unadorned simplicity claim to be following Christian Do. Something close to this insight is at the heart of Christ the Eternal Tao. The question of whether chanting one ‘Om,’ or rather, ‘Aum,’ as the “Sacred Syllable” is more properly called, will change your religion is neither here nor there. Saying the Jesus Prayer once not make one Orthodox, but this exact point is neither here nor there. Meditation in yoga does not stop with one ‘Om’ any more than Orthodox hesychasm stops with saying the Jesus Prayer once. On this point I would bring in that the Jesus Prayer is so important in Orthodoxy that in nineteenth century Russia there was genuine, heartfelt resistance to teaching the Jesus Prayer to laity on the concern that access to something so great without the protecting buttress of monastic living would lead them into pride to the point of spiritual illusion. At the risk of claiming insider status in Hinduism or treating Hinduism as a copy of Orthodoxy, I might suggest that the place of the “Sacred Syllable” in Hinduism is something like the place of the Jesus Prayer in Orthodoxy, alike foundational to the depths of their spiritual trasures, alike the metronome of silence to its practitioners. The concern that the yoga that is drawn from Hinduism constitutes a spiritual path inconsistent with Orthodoxy is anything but kneejerk conservatism, especially if chanting ‘Aum’ once is the Hindu equivalent of taking the Eucharist once (a point on which I am very unsure). But it represents some fundamental confusion of ideas to speak of “the neutral syllable ‘Om,'” as one workbook endorsed a popularization of yoga in the interest of treating depression and bipolar disorder.

Thus far I have focused on the analogies and similarities of hesychasm to the meditation that is found in Hinduism and Buddhism and is part of internal martial arts. It may be described as “divorced from” its religious roots (the founding grandmaster of Kuk Sool Won), but it is a common practice in internal martial arts (I never reached a high enough rank in Aiki Ninjutsu to be expected to join them in meditation), and it may not so easily be separated from its roots as it is presented. Part of the article I read on Georgia and yoga talked about meditation as affecting mind and body and in certain contexts produces a state of extreme suggestibility, quite far from the pattern in the saint’s lives where the Lord, the Theotokos, or a saint tells someone something, and ends up doing so at least two or three times because the devout Orthodox is simply more afraid of being deceived than of failing to jump at a command they consider themselves unworthy of. The state of extreme suggestibility produced by meditation opens the door to demonic “insights”, and one of the questions raised was, “Do you want to train in a discipline where the leaders are likely under demonic influence, in postures intended to be part of a spiritual path where you, too, will be invited to the place of suggestibility where you will be open to demonic influence?” The entire discipline points to the demonic; why think we can handle it safely? St. Paul writes, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” It might be begging the question to assume immediately that yoga is one of the cups referred to in this passage, but it is also precariously close to begging the question to assume that the passage is simply irrelevant to whether it is wise for Orthodox Christians to practice.

Have I been able to smoke without inhaling?

Before talking about martial arts, which I will get to after laying some preliminaries, I would like to talk about an area where I did my best to “smoke without inhaling.” I had come to believe that how Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy literature portray magic is not acceptable: perhaps it would be appropriate to portray a character’s occult engagement as a serious sin that opens a door to the demons who hate us, but as it was argued to me, it’s merely a depiction of a world with alternate physical laws, and when I took that up seriously and asked, “Do you know to what tolerances the constants of the physical world are tuned? If I were to have aim that good, I could hit something much smaller than a proton at the furthest reaches of the universe. Having alternate physical laws that would support ordinary life as we know it and in addition pack in magic is a very tall order. Would you also read fantasy of a world where adultery was harmless due to alternate laws?”

This last polemic may be beside the point here, but what is more to the point is that a friend, not to say very experienced author, responded to a mailing list post suggesting that marketing-wise the first three books an author publishes establish the author’s “brand”, and suggested that my brand might be non-magical fantasy. And while I would not wish for that brand now, this was a carefully considered suggestion from someone who had read my work at length, and it makes sense. The list of works that could be called nonmagical fantasy, some written after he made the suggestion, include the short stories The Spectacles, Within the Steel Orb, and the novellas, The steel orb, Firestorm 2034, and The Sign of the Grail. And there is a reason I have not displayed any of the novellas on my Amazon author page; The Sign of the Grail in particular was a work where I realized that my greatest successes (and in a work where I made some bad decisions that jeopardized the work) let me realize that what I was attempting was impossible. I would describe it as, “I succeeded, and in succeeding realized that what I was attempting was impossible.”

Some time later, a priest or monk was speaking me and warned about the perennial temptation to escape the here and now. This temptation is hard to pin down; it can take place physically, or mentally by imagination, or by street drugs, or… When this was pointed out, after initially resisting it, I realized that a great many things I did lacked the joy of gratefully accepting the here and now: they provide escape, and one good friend praised Within the Steel Orb precisely as a way to escape that he couldn’t put down.

I would have said then that I smoked, but didn’t inhale. I would now say that I inhaled more than I thought, and taking a “smoke, but do not inhale” attitude to sin is a losing proposition. Besides the works listed I made a role-playing game, The minstrel’s song, which is free of magic but still delivers the escape of fantasy. If you will, it offers a more dilute, less forceful delivery of poison than Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, or many more of the plethora of role playing games out today, and perhaps God may use it to wean people off of that kind of recreation. I may have had a clear conscience when I wrote it, but remember Christ’s words, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit, and this is one of the things God has pruned from me.

Proverbs asks, Can a man carry fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned? This is God speaking, and the whole topic of fantasy, especially non-magical, represents an area where I tried to “smoke, but do not inhale,” and it is evident to me that I did inhale a good deal more than was good for me, and a great deal more than I realized. I had, and probably do still have, feet partly of iron and partly of clay.

Martial arts without inhaling?

When I touched base with my spiritual father years back about martial arts, he permitted it up to a point; I know that spiritual prescriptions are not to be copied from one patient to another, but he allowed me to study martial arts that were really just techniques, but not martial arts that were more of a philosophy. I had previously had about a year’s combined study between Kuk Sool Won and Karate; I thought that I would study another martial art without inhaling, and simply try to dodge certain aspects in studying Aiki Ninjutsu. (I tried to follow the spirit and intent of my spiritual father’s words, but perhaps I should have tried to ask him once I became aware of the neuro-linguistic programming and success plans.) What I really wanted was the stealth training, but God closed the door to the weekend training that would cover stealth.

After having gotten a certain point in, I emailed the instructor saying that I was coming to appreciate that Aiki Ninjutsu represents a complete spiritual tradition and does not mesh well with Christianity. I mentioned as an example the student’s Creed, which begins, not with the magnificence of “I believe in one God…”, but “I believe in myself. I am confident. I can accomplish my goals.” I said that believing in oneself represented a fundamental spiritual failing in Christianity. Had he asked questions or tried to understand me in dialogue beyond my first words, I would have referred to him to Chesterton in Orthodoxy, Chapter 2:

THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written [the asylum] “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.

I said that if he were to want to know more, I would have referred him to this passage. (The Fathers do not rebut the phrase “believing in yourself”, because it was coined and popularized after your time. When it was called “pride” or similar names, it was ripped to shreds.) Perhaps some of the more recent writing from Mount Athos may address “believing in yourself,” but I am limited in my grasp of what is current on Mount Athos.)

He responded with an authoritative statement that his art was appropriate for people of all religions or no religion, including Christian, and gave a recipe for success that began with believing in oneself. It was an Activist recipe, not a Saint’s, as I lay out two ultimate orientations in Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist, not a saint’s; I did not expect him to take the role of the saint, but he seemed to only see the Activist approach as a live option. Now the Saint and the Activist do not represent mutually exhaustive options; I would expect Japan’s history to hold at least one other model besides them; and the martial art was presented as drawing on centuries or millenia of Japanese history, but it seemed to incorporate neuro-linguistic programming.

And on this point I will notice a difference between the martial art I was taught and prior martial arts: Kuk Sool Won and Karate both spoke, relatively frequently, of emphasizing “harmony between opponents.” In Aiki Ninjutsu, the code of ethics includes dealing with others in a “harmonious” way, but I never heard advocacy of humble harmony between opponents: by contrast, one of the more advanced lessons covered with beginners is “become the center:” you dictate what is going on. The art may have been combined with Aikido, which is perhaps the most harmonious-with-opponents of martial arts, but as it was combined and presented, I never heard on the mat someone speaking of harmony with one’s opponents, and I heard and saw practice at becoming the center. The teacher seemed to be trying to “win through becoming the center” rather than “win through harmony with one’s opponent.”

For my next point, I need to say a couple of words about the ki that is central to internal martial arts. “Ki”, translated “spirit” and “energy” in the Aikido poster hanging in the dojo, is a foundational concept in so-called “internal” martial arts and appears to me to be a large part of the inspiration for the Force as dramatized in Star Wars. The two are not interchangeable (for instance, I have never heard a martial artist discuss a light side and a dark side to ki or try to levitate something), but I’m not sure of any other concept readily accessible to the Western mind that translates “ki” (the Greek “pneuma” has been suggested by a Tae Kwon Do leader, but it is an approximation while “ki”, “chi”, and “qi” in Asian languges do translate each other or rather refer the user to the same concept). Interacting with ki is at the heart of internal martial arts.

Perhaps the most basic interaction with ki that I have seen in martial arts was to “ki out”, as it was called in Kuk Sool Won and maybe Karate, or “kiai” in Aiki Ninjutsu, sometimes translated “spirit yell.” Aiki Ninjutsu, unlike the other two arts as I was exposed to them, also has a system of four vowels, wrapped with consonants into English words in most English-speaking areas, which are used in different contexts; I am not sure about this but I believe they are connected to the elements of earth, air, fire, and water as they play out. And I emailed the instructor asking if it would make sense to train given that I was not comfortable with this spiritual practice. He gave me another “become the center” answer that spoke of my confusion of terminology, and I wrongly assumed that because it was called a “spirit yell”, it was a spiritual practice. But in my earlier practices totalling to about a year, I kied out and was never comfortable with it; it felt wrong. This time through, I watched a video where his beautiful wife, also a black belt and instructor, kiaied while cutting with the sword. What I saw in this was spiritual ugliness, as watching something unclean.

Besides telling me I was confused about terminology of the “spirit yell” and called it a spiritual practice out of confusion, he said that I was spending too much time trying to see how my religion would “fit into things,” gave a sharp quote about narrow-mindedness, and said it would make sense to “discontinue training.”

The other two times I was involved in martial arts, I did not try to avoid inhaling, and these were some of the driest times spiritually that I knew. This time, I signed a contract saying, in essence, “It is your choice what things you will participate in on an entirely voluntary basis; if you choose not to do certain things, it is our choice whether or not to withhold [advances in] rank.” Now I had expected to make progress slowly; martial arts’ first training is training me on my weakest point and while I believe I might advance quickly at higher levels where I would be in a better position to use my strengths, I expected slow progress. If I wanted to be trained differently, I could at my option pay for private lessons, but I was trying to just get through the basics without asking for exceptions to how the training usually works. I had not expected that the Sensei would like my asking about practicing without the spirit yell as a spiritual practice, but I was not expecting him to say that that was reason to discontinue practice.

Now if you will ask if I was angry with him, I would say “no”, and I don’t want to hear about him being hypocritical in his words about my narrow-mindedness. It seemed, if anything, like God acting through him to say “You have had enough” and take away a bottle of wine.

There were other times I quietly opted out and got away with it: on entering or leaving a class session, we were supposed to clap twice to get rid of bad energy and then clap once to acquire good energy. But I had been told repeatedly that I needed to yell a vowel on striking a target, and my opting out was noticed and given corrections during the last session.

Before I began practice

I had practiced two other martial arts, Kuk Sool Won and Karate as mentioned, and did not attempt to “smoke without inhaling.” Both of those I did with an unclean conscience, and there was an incredible growing dryness in my spiritual life. This time I tried to avoid inhaling, and in large measure the question on my conscious was, “You deal in two forms of power that do not basically edify. Do you wish to deal in one more?” I have, for now at least, a regular paycheck coming in, and the Gospel is remarkably cool to the usefulness of money, especially when it is not used for alms for the poor. I work with computers, and I am rather skeptical about whether they are as good for the whole person as they might seem. (See the collection: The Luddite’s Guide to Techonology, $24.99 paperback, $2.99 Kindle for more details.) The moral of these things is not that the forms of power are utterly unlawful, but that they are less valuable than they seem, they require us to take command of them if we are to use them rightly, and most of the time they could use debunking. And in fact I did try to debunk them in the discussion of the Sermon on the Mount in Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist. I spoke of being “naked as Adam”, and at the risk of belaboring a metaphor underscored that what is forbidden here is not literal clothing but metaphorical armor. Now martial practice can be consistent with being “without metaphorical armor;” one martial artist made a parody ad for martial arts touting such things as, “Get beat up by people twice your age and half your size!” The further people get into martial arts, the more aware they are of their vulnerability, and it’s pure snake oil when someone advertises some super elite program that will make you the world’s greatest martial artist in two months. So I would be cautious of saying that no one in any martial art can be living the Sermon on the Mount, but I believe the teacher did me a kindness by virtually expelling me from the art, and I am in no rush to find another. Instead of trying more efforts to acquire dubiously helpful forms of power, I could turn my attention to areas where I could better use what computers I have. The Philokalia tells of people who were mired in clay and calling out to others not to become mired, found their salvation. Perhaps that describes The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, because while I may have some of the detachment that is argued, I am a great deal more enmeshed with technology than with some other things. I would not say that I am strong enough to successfully “smoke without inhaling” when dealing with technology.


When I first visited the dojo, I saw a ?red? belt student wearing a black T-shirt with tattered letters, saying on one side,

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

– Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

I wasn’t able to look up what the other side said, but I remember it was a quote from the same book. And I said mentally, “I know what kind of people I’m dealing with.” Maybe I should have been afraid, confronted him, or something else; I have never seen such socially acceptable hate speech. But part of my reaction was, “Ok; I’ve been warned; this will be like my time studying theology at Fordham.

The instructor spoke of my terminological confusion in referencing the term “spirit yell”, and in fairness that was not the primary term and was not elaborated at length. The primary term, however, was “kiai”, and the philologist in me believes that the root of “kiai” (Aiki Ninjutsu) was ki. Certainly the term “ki out” (Kuk Sool Won) refers to ki. In the groundwork book that is given to newcomers, my instructor is identified as a third dan in Toshindo and also having rank in Aiki Ninjutsu. “Toshindo” is an alternate way of reading the characters to “ninpo”, which is ninjutsu considered in its spiritual aspect. In my opinion, he shouldn’t have been surprised when I said that Aiki Ninjutsu looked like a complete spiritual system to me. But however much he may have contradicted my identification of kiai as spiritually significant, either it was a sine qua non of my continued participation, or my not asking this kind of question about how it fit with my faith was such, or both. And though this was passing, the book identified which of the four elements one was most closely connected to, by astrological sign. In retrospect, I marched past too many red flags; the onus for my remaining under such conditions is primarily on me.

As a child I read of ninja who had stealth, and their stealth technique was called ninjutsu. Something of that captivated my (among many) people’s imagination; etymologically, ‘ninjutsu’ meant the technique of becoming invisible, an invisibility I assumed was metaphorical for physically skilled stealth, sixteenth century ninja suits, and the like. On my conscience’s prompting, I did not do what I very much wanted to do in going to the training weekend in a wooded area where stealth is best taught. Instead I went through a crunch at work where it would have been political suicide to be unavailable at work, although I did not expect this when I did not sign up for the training. And my imagination was enough captivated that I decided not to heed some strong red flags. The guilt for this is my own, not any of theirs.

My endeavor would have been perhaps using people had I consciously embarked on it as a philosophical experiment. Martial arts are often considered to be deeply occult (I doubt the clapping of hands was the only action with an occult intent), and while I would have to limit what I say to exclude Western arts such as fencing or boxing, and arguably some Eastern arts as well such as Brazilian Jiu-jutsu, which one Christian practitioner told me had none of the philosophical element. Certain things still appeal to me more; I would much rather pin an opponent by skill than pummel another person to the point of not being able to get up for ten seconds. To me the combat training was a secondary goal to training in stealth. But even then the lesson I would draw from this is less about martial arts, than trying to smoke without inhaling. While I ignored red flags and the sharp warnings of my conscience, I kept my conscience clean once I was in training, and peer pressure took a back seat to trying to keep my conscience clean. And perhaps I was succeeding enough at smoking without inhaling that the teacher ended my training. But the overall lesson I draw from this is that it is foolish to think, “I can smoke without inhaling.” Perhaps at Fordham the position was one where I had to try to smoke without inhaling—and did so at the Lord’s bidding. Never mind situations like that; they do happen. But it was a severe breach of wisdom for me to take on a situation where I would have to smoke without inhaling. Practicing the techniques put violence before my imagination and stained the purity of my soul. That was consistent. I do not wish to dictate to soldiers who bear the cross of St. George what they must do—but I was not a soldier following orders either.

Whether with regards to fantasy or martial arts or entirely unrelated circles of temptation, it is an error to try to smoke without inhaling. Can a man carry fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned?

Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist

The most politically incorrect sermon in history: a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount

A pet Owner’s rules

“Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution