September 10, 2020
A tree next to a bus stop, a flower poking through the sidewalk. Our guest, an Iraq War…
SUNNY You may be a Clipper, but you’re outnumbered and unarmed. [fight scene]
DANIEL WU In the first season of Into the Badlands I had the wrong approach to the role. I was thinking, ‘Ah, you know, all these American dudes when they do X-Men and all that stuff, they get really huge for the roles so I need to get huge too.’ I gained 25 pounds of muscle in three months.
I was so proud of getting that much bigger in such a short amount of time. And I walked into the training room to start doing the martial arts training. And I was like, ‘Oh, how come I can’t even do a roundhouse kick right now? And it actually kind of hurts. Why is it hurting?’
I realized it was the stiffness that the extra muscle had caused with my body and just how it wasn’t used to it. But it was that moment of not being able to move like I used to be able to move. Realizing, ‘Oh man I screwed up.’
It was really stressful ‘cause I was like, ‘We’re about the start the show, it’s very martial arts-driven. I need to perform. What can I do?’ So I spent weeks getting more supple, so bit more yoga, a little bit more stretching to try and undo what I had done to myself. Wrong mentality, it was that kind of American mentality. I was trying to go for a result, instead of going for a process that I knew would be able to get me to perform well.
DACHER KELTNER Known as the Brad Pitt of Asia, Daniel Wu gets swarmed by paparazzi whenever he sets foot in China. Now he’s making his mark in the U.S., his native country. Daniel is the star and executive producer of the AMC show Into the Badlands, going into its fourth season.
On each episode of our show, we have a Happiness Guinea Pig try a research-based practice for happiness, resilience, kindness, or connection. Today we’re excited to have Daniel join us as our Guinea Pig.
We’re lucky because if we were to try to have the show in Hong Kong I think we’d have 1500 fans outside beating down the doors. Daniel, thanks for joining us here.
DANIEL WU Thank you for having me.
DACHER KELTNER I have to ask, I mean I thought I was working hard but I think you’d been in something like sixty-five films.
DANIEL WU Something like that, yeah.
DACHER KELTNER Sounds like it’s about two, three, or four films a year. How did you end up in film?
DANIEL WU In ‘97 when I graduated I went to Hong Kong to witness the handover—Hong Kong going back to China. You know, as an American kid you don’t really get to take part in very many historical events. And so I wanted that to be sort of my graduation trip. And within a month I’d spent all my money. I was gonna head back home. And then I was in a bar having a drink and someone came up to me and asked me if I wanted to be in a TV commercial.
DACHER KELTNER Seriously?
DANIEL WU Yeah. And so I was like, ‘What?’ And I was like, ‘How much do you pay?’ They’re like, ‘Four thousand dollars.’ I’m like, ‘OK, great!’ And so I did the job a month later. A director saw the ad. He called me. He goes, ‘I want you to play lead in my film.’ And I’m like, ‘What? Uh, I don’t speak Cantonese that well. I’ve never acted before.’
So actually, I turned it down. And then every other day for a month he kept calling me trying to convince me to do it. At the end of the end of that month I go, ‘OK, look. If you really think I can do it, I’ll give it a shot. But you can’t blame me for screwing it up.’
And then the first day on set that’s when I realized like this is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life. So that’s how I got up to 60-something in 20 years.
DACHER KELTNER And a lot of them are martial arts films?
DANIEL WU No, not actually not. Not. Martial arts is my background. And I actually tried to hide it from the industry when I first started because Jackie Chan was my manager for 11 years. I saw Jackie’s body, his state of what he’d put himself through and the repercussions of that and just having to deal with the pain all the time. And I was like, ‘Ah, I don’t want to be the action star.’
DACHER KELTNER Right. Breaks down the body like any demanding sport.
DANIEL WU Yeah, I don’t want to be 60 and not be able to walk. I’m only going to do martial arts on certain choice projects.
DACHER KELTNER So you’ve had a long background in the martial arts. And it connects with your dad?
DANIEL WU Yeah. My dad did Chinese opera when he was in Shanghai as a young boy. And Chinese opera is, a lot of the stories are about war and about fighting and it’s very stylized. It’s stage fighting, basically, but it’s acrobatic. Jackie Chan and all those guys came from those schools.
DACHER KELTNER Is that right?
DANIEL WU That’s where his style kind of broke certain barriers because it was no longer just martial arts, there was a lot of acrobatics. You know, when you see him jumping through a little tiny window or between the rungs of a ladder that’s more his acrobatic skills than his martial arts skills.
But yeah, I think what really influenced me was watching movies. Because as a Chinese American kid growing up in the States you didn’t really see people like myself on the big screen at all. But on Channel 2 KTVU in the states here, in San Francisco here, they had Kung Fu Theater on the weekends.
So I’d watch that all the time, like every Saturday I’d watch that. It was a double feature. And what really did it for me was my grandfather taking me to the Great Star Theatre in Chinatown here in San Francisco to see Shaolin Temple, which was Jet Li’s first film. And he goes, ‘You know, all that kung fu movie you’ve been watching on TV is all fake. This is real. Real kung fu.’
DACHER KELTNER You know one of the really fun dimensions to this show and I mention this a lot because it’s so revealing, is you get people with these fascinating life histories like your background and experience in film and martial arts and sort of, they look at choices in the science of happiness and what they pick is always interesting. So you chose the Body Scan.
DANIEL WU Yes.
DACHER KELTNER And you had an early experience with the body scan with your dad?
DANIEL WU Well, yes. When I was seven I started doing transcendental meditation with my dad, which is weird because—I didn’t think about it being weird then, but I look back in retrospect it is kind of weird. He was having headaches. And I was having headaches as a kid. And my dad goes, ‘Why don’t you try meditating with me?’ And so I think for several years we did this together on the weekends. We would sit and meditate together. And then once I got into martial arts, meditation became part of the practice as well. A little bit different style.
DACHER KELTNER Well that’s what I wanted to ask you. So I mean, obviously there’s a lot of mindfulness meditation, body calm in martial arts.
DANIEL WU Doing it I didn’t realize it was called body scan in that way. I didn’t know what it was at first, body scan, I just chose it. ‘Body scan, that sounds interesting.’
DACHER KELTNER The body seemed attractive.
DANIEL WU Yeah, and then I go, ‘Oh, this is actually meditation.’ I think a lot of people that have taken yoga classes you know, at the end of a class you lie there and you check in with your body and yeah, shavasana.
DACHER KELTNER So John Kabat Zinn, I think, came up with the idea of body scan. He was, you know, practicing yoga and meditation in the early ‘80s. So he translated it to the secular terms like body scan. But it does come out of the yogic tradition. Walk us through what you did.
DANIEL WU Yeah. So I actually listened to the audio, the guide on there, just to have the step by step process through it. And so it’s basically, you know, you’re lying there, eyes closed, and checking in with every inch of your body.
MEDITATION Notice your hands, are your hands tense or tight. See if you can allow them to soften.
DANIEL WU It’s like you’re scanning. From your toes all the way up to the top of your head.
MEDITATION Let your face and facial muscles be soft.
DANIEL WU And you actually feel stuff. I mean, you actually feel stuff releasing and letting go.
I did it lying down. So I did sense that, you know, once I’m fully relaxed the body kind of sinks into the ground into the ground, right? It’s actually the tension releasing from your body. It feels like you’re sinking, but it’s actually just your normal tenseness letting go a little bit.
It’s just like a quarter inch or, you know, an eighth of an inch. Jomp! A little drop, you feel that and then you know you’ve gotten into that state. And that’s what I felt.
MEDITATION Be aware of your whole body as best you can.
DANIEL WU By the end of it I finished and I could feel parts dropping and sitting and settling. And finally when it was over I could feel, ah, I’m in a relaxed state now.
DACHER KELTNER And you walked through the kind of directing your attention to different, the hands.
DANIEL WU Yeah, that and feel the tingling, kind of feel some motion. And actually, sometimes I actually will move, I did move my toes a little bit, and my fingers a little bit. And my wrist, or my joints, and kind of articulate a little bit.
DACHER KELTNER I wanted to ask you, it’s always a privilege to talk to longtime practitioners of this. Both thinking about the body scan that you did for the show, but also just in general, what’s it give you on a regular basis?
DANIEL WU Definitely a sense of inner calm and peace. In fact, I now realize like I thrive in chaotic situations. Like when things are crazy around me, I’m the most calm and the most settled.
It’s about finding the calm in that chaos. When we’re doing martial arts we’re constantly putting our bodies into stress and our minds into stress so that when you go out there and face real stress, you find the calmness in it. Because if you’re in a high anxiety emotional state, that’s really inhibitive. You know, if you let your emotions get over-controlling you then you can’t act correctly
DACHER KELTNER When you’re acting, you’re in this complicated scene and cameras from all angles, can you sense that, ‘Whoa, I’m in a mindful state of acting right now’?
DANIEL WU You don’t want to be in that. You like, you don’t want to be thinking about the acting. It’s just like, I don’t know, Bruce Lee always said, ‘Don’t think, feel.’ You want to get to the point where there’s no inhibitions and you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, there’s 30, 40, 100 people watching me right now perform.’ You know, you just do it, and you be the role and it comes out naturally.
Same thing when I’m practicing martial arts. It’s at a point where I’m not thinking about the moves anymore. It’s just flowing out of me. And same thing with the martial arts choreography in Into the Badlands. it’s very overwhelming because we have no time to rehearse all that stuff.
DACHER KELTNER Really?
DANIEL WU So we’re learning each section of the fight as we go along. I realized what choreography is, is taking your foundation, which is the letters you know in martial arts—a kick, a spinning kick, a punch or whatever. Those are letters, and you’re stringing them into words. And the choreographer is making those words into poetry, right? And you’re performing that poetry, right? And so if you know the letters, which I know I do because I spent 20 years of my life doing this stuff, then I should be able string all that stuff together and feel it and feel the poetry. Once that clicked, I didn’t worry about each move anymore. I was thinking about how my body flowed through everything.
And that’s kind of the ultimate level I think of any art. You know, a painter, a writer, or whatever, if you’re not constantly going back and forth in your head about and it just kind of flows out of you that’s kind of the best art that you make.
DACHER KELTNER Absolutely. And anything that we do. And how’s your body holding up?
DANIEL WU You know, surprisingly good because I did adjust my training practices through mindfulness of my body and realizing that it’s about movement, and efficiency of movement, and also moving smarter as you get older. A little thing can screw you up for a long, long time, right? And so I have to be really careful in how I train now.
And so before, in the past, I would do 500 kicks a day. You know, I realize now that that degrades my body. So I maybe do 10 kicks a day but I do them like super slow. To make sure that all the muscles are checking in and—while I’m doing a side kick, for example, I’ll take five seconds to do one single side kick. You know, push it out and come back in. Whereas before it was fast as I can!
I’ve learned a lot more about my body through that process, because I’ve now developed true like, inner strength. Before you can use speed to hide strength, to throw something out there and hide it all. But when you really concentrate on form. The reason why martial arts is so form-based. And you know, your body has to be in the position to throw this kind of kick is so you don’t get injured. And it’s been studied for thousands of years, it’s the most efficient way to use your body. And so you take heed to that.
DACHER KELTNER Cool. You know, when I talk to Russell Ahn here at UC Berkeley who leads our martial arts program, just when I talk to him about the science of happiness and gratitude and respect and humility and, you know, mindfulness and breathing and compassion. He’s like, ‘It’s embedded in the DNA.’
DANIEL WU Yeah, yeah, all of those things you just mentioned are in the foundation of martial arts. A lot of people I think nowadays, especially with the influence of UFC and MMA, think that martial arts is all about fighting, and martial arts is two words. There’s the martial and the art. You have to have a harmonious balance of both. And I think MMA is a very typical American behavior which is like, ‘Let’s take the best thing of everything and make our own thing.’
DACHER KELTNER And put it into a cage.
DANIEL WU Let’s disregard thousands of years of study and systemic like, work here and just put it and make it a sport and make lots of money. It’s great. I like it; I enjoy watching it because it shows certain techniques, what works and what doesn’t work, but it’s not all that martial arts is.
So a mixed martial artist, oftentimes you’ll see, by the time they’re 40-something they’re done. They’re really done. I mean, they can’t practice anymore. They can’t do the exercise they were able to do anymore.
Whereas if you look at it like a Chinese martial arts system, you have kung fu you can practice when you’re young. Taichi when you’re a little bit older and middle-aged. And then when you’re really old you can just sit and do Qigong meditation.
DACHER KELTNER I’m a little offended because that’s what I gravitated to right away, is Qigong meditation!
DANIEL WU But you don’t have to do it, you can take one aspect or whatever. But the point is, is there is a system there. You know, and it’s made for you to practice throughout your whole entire life.
DACHER KELTNER Interesting.
DANIEL WU And part of your lifestyle.
DACHER KELTNER. So Daniel, what did it give you over the course of your life? Like what are some of the things that it has put into your soul?
DANIEL WU I think from a very basic level, obviously, discipline, perseverance. I think those things you learn, I learned at a very young age. That if you don’t put time into something, you’re not going to get good at it. It’s just simple as that. And I think that especially applies to modern day. Now with sort of our instant gratification society, where I see this with kids, not just millennials, but even younger kids. That if they don’t get something within the first 5, 10 minutes they just give up. You don’t see the work involved in what goes into that yoga pose you see on Instagram, or that incredible move that someone’s doing.
DANIEL WU But then there’s other stuff, spiritual stuff like finding calmness and peace within yourself. Reducing stress and anxiety, like all those kind of things. Like I try to use all my practice to help with those things as well.
DACHER KELTNER Here in Berkeley, and increasingly so in the United States, it’s just one of the great privileges, our cultural identities are so multifaceted and interesting, and a lot of students have this one experience which is coming from China, or South Korea, Japan and taking in, you know, California, and Northern California and becoming this bicultural—and you’re going in the other direction, which is you grew up here—
DANIEL WU Yes I grew up here, went there and now I’m back.
DACHER KELTNER So what do you make of it all?
DANIEL WU Well, it’s been interesting. You know, for me it was—part of going to Hong Kong there was probably something in my subconscious about searching for my own identity.
I think growing up here there was a sense of like, ‘Who am I as a person? I need to find my identity.’ Now I’m very clear about who I am. It’s not necessarily rooted in either or or. It’s kind of a harmonious mixture of both. And what I like to say is I’m really, and my mom used to say this too, ‘You’re a person of this world. That’s all that matters.’ And realizing that, you find this kind of peace and, and levelness in how to move forward in the world.
DACHER KELTNER Well, Daniel Wu, I know you’re hopping a plane pretty soon and—
DANIEL WU Yeah, heading back to Asia for work.
DACHER KELTNER For more work and more filming. Congratulations on Into the Badlands, and good luck.
DANIEL WU Thank you so much.
DACHER KELTNER Thanks for being here on the Science of Happiness.
DANIEL WU Thank you for having me. This was really fun.
DACHER KELTNER We’ll be right back to talk about the science behind the body scan meditation.
One of the things that I love about the body scan is that it is an easy, practical introduction to meditation, and it’s a practice that really gets you to pay attention to what’s going on inside your body. Research suggests that the body scan can help us reduce stress, improve our well-being, and actually decrease physical pains that are part of our day.
Here to explain why the body scan carries those benefits is UC San Francisco neuroscientist Helen Weng. She’s exploring how mind-body awareness and meditation can enhance social relationships and improve mental health.
HELEN WENG So for meditation and body awareness I wanted to know, can we identify when people are paying attention to their breath, or another part of their body like the feet or mind wandering. And it turns out that the technology is developed enough where we can start to identify these different mental states within each person based on their own unique brain data.
DACHER KELTNER And what are you finding, how do you think about the brain benefits of these body scan meditations?
HELEN WENG There’s some studies that show, you know, meditation increases activity in the insular cortex, which is involved in paying attention to the body. And the way I like to think about it is each part of the body has its own form of information and wisdom. Like the feet is more about balance and movements, and the heart may tell you more about relationships, and the stomach might tell you more about digestion and anxiety and intuition.
So you’ve to go back to the raw signals of your body, and then ask yourself, ‘What messages is my body trying to tell me?’ I like to think of all these messages as benevolent messages, even if they hurt, because it’s trying to tell you there’s something in your environment, or your life that’s not aligned with your internal goals and values. And then it’s up to you to figure out, you know, ‘What do I need to shift?’
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try the body scan mediation, or other practices like it, go to our website, Greater Good in Action. That’s GGIA dot Berkeley dot edu. And then email us and let us know how it went!
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me for the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a coproduction of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI, with production assistance from Jennies Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari, our associate producer is Lee Mengistu, our executive producer is Jane Park. The editor-in-chief of the Greater Good Science Center is Jason Marsh. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. You can learn more about the Science of Happiness and find related articles, videos, quizzes—all kinds of stuff—on our website, greatergood.berkeley.edu. And shoot us an email, tell us what you think about what you heard. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.