Atmosphere of Change

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SL371526Today one of my favorite of my Chinese older kungfu brothers left to try to make his own way outside the kungfu school. Yuan Huailiang is a great young man, the kind of guy I look up to a lot, even though he is years younger than me and has seen less of the world. For one thing, he is an incredibly gifted athlete: his every movement exudes grace and strength that I envy. But more so than that, he is someone I have watched change into a really calm, confident, open person.

When I first came to Wudang and met Huailiang, when he was maybe 17 or 18, he seemed like kind of an angry kid. I remember sitting down at a meal across the table from him. I was already a little in awe of him, having seen his kungfu and how he moved, but as I sat there across from him he fixed me with this stare. He later told me that he had actually practiced that look in  a mirror a bit. It was the look of a predator at a watering hole, incredibly dangerous but for the moment tolerating your presence. I don’t think he wanted me to sit with him 🙂 I thought, “Wow, this is a powerful kid.” But it was also an angry, unhappy kid.

Being in awe of his kungfu and raw attitude was cool, but what is better is how he soon after grew out of that angry phase and seemed to find himself. His emotions calmed down, he became much more focused in his teaching and training, and though he to this day maintains a little of the crazy that I first glimpsed at that lunch table, it is channeled through easy laughter and playfulness. Last summer we were playing hackysack. When we kicked it to him he immediately started volleying it high in the air, letting it drop through the loop of his arms, and kicking it back up time and time again with a completely spontaneous aptitude for the game. He just laughed, a pure expression of joy, as we chased him around trying to get the hackysack back. That light heart does not keep him from his responsibilities, however, and he is one of the best, most capable and thoughtful coaches our school has had.

What I want to illustrate, through my little anecdotes about Huailiang, is the value of having a culture where people are expected to change. Shifu is always encouraging us to develop and grow at a very fundamental emotional level, and of course teaching us techniques to effect that change. That is what I had the pleasure of seeing Huailiang do – completely change his outlook, practically overnight. And I have seen many, many foreign students do the same thing. I really give a lot of credit to that atmosphere of expectation that grants the freedom for us to re-define ourselves. In other places and times of my life, I have felt as though I had to continue to be who I had been because that was what others expected of me. I do not feel that here — the expectation is that I will change, that I will become better and better.

 

Riding a Bike in Winter

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T-shirt the guys at work gave me
T-shirt the guys at work gave me

When I am home in Maryland in the winter, I use my bike to get around a lot. As much as I can, I like to get two short bike rides in every day, to and from work. This is not always possible and often when it is possible it remains impractical, but I really like it.

I like it because it is hard, and I find that it is important to make a place in my day to do something difficult, and something that is difficult in an all-absorbing way. When I am actually at work, I do many difficult tasks during the day but they never require much of my body – I am at a computer most of the time. Riding my bike demands physical, mental, and emotional attention. I am in motion, I am dodging cars, I am staying calm in the face of bad drivers. I am dealing with the elements: cold most mornings in January, but wind and rain on the bad days. These things are unpleasant but within my ability to overcome, and there is an emotional cleansing I find when I do overcome them.

I was thinking of this the other day. I had been having a grumpy day – my emotions were not as they should have been, and I couldn’t seem to straighten them out. Word came down the pipe here at the school that we needed to wear our kungfu best and be at afternoon practice half an hour early. There was no reason provided, as is often the case here in China, but the order came from our older brother who got it from the school organizer who we must assume got it from someone he couldn’t say “no” to.

Afternoon training wore on, and nothing happened. By 5:30 we had been training for three hours, we were missing dinner at the school, we were tired, hungry, and uncomfortable in our full uniforms in the hot weather. We still had no idea what was happening, but by 6:00 an important official appeared with retinue for a tour of the temple, and we demonstrated some of our kungfu.

As we were finally leaving the temple, hungry and tired, I realized that I was actually in the best mood I had been in all day – my grumpiness was gone. Somewhere in the process of dealing with actual, concrete adversity that made demands on my body, mind, and emotions, I had cleaned out the emotional grime that had built up in me.

We train kungfu constantly here, and sometimes we lose sight of it in the everyday repetition. It becomes an activity that we do with our body but not with the rest of us. But I think a main purpose of our training is to learn to put ourselves deliberately and completely into whatever task we are set, so that it in turn replenishes us and cleans out the little cares from our lives. I do it this with kungfu, and I do this on my bike in January.

Illusions of Power

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On the subject of internal arts and the effects of emotions, I’d like to talk about anger a bit. It is the emotion that I am most aware of struggling with in my own training, and I see it every day in others.

I think the allure of anger is that anger feels powerful. When the world is not as we want it to be, or we don’t like how we are treated by others, it is comforting to feel we are kings, as if our displeasure has the ability to reform things to our liking. When we are angry, we do not feel helpless, we do not feel vulnerable.

For an example of anger, let’s consider weapons shop vendors here in Wudang. My classmates and I are learning spear, so the other day I had to go to one of these shops. I struggle to finance my training, and I can not afford to throw money around carelessly on anything. However, it is standard practice in these shops that when a foreigner walks in the first quote rockets up above %1,000 and no amount of haggling will lower it to any realistic value (I am not exaggerating, and thank the rich, gullible tourists for that). Despite my best efforts, the best price I could get was 70 yuan, down from an original quote of 110 yuan, while my Chinese kungfu brother walked out of the store with the same spear for 20 yuan.

This makes me angry, and in my anger I feel righteous. I think, ” They’ll regret making me angry. My friends and I will never shop there again. I’ll write a blog about these jerks and ruin them internationally. I ought to go back there and throw a brick through the window of the shop, I’ll… I’ll…” But reality sets in and each of these angry thoughts is revealed as pointless and wrong. I will have to go back to that crook the next time I need a new weapon. My friends will do the same. Gouging customers is how these guys make their living, and no one blinks at it. That brick, though tempting, would be cowardly, petty, and probably make a lot of trouble for me, my master, and other foreigners in the area. Once I have left the store with my purchase, I am every bit as powerless as I feel. My anger does violence to me, and that vendor doesn’t lose any sleep at all.

Truly that vendor is part of my training, a sparring partner of sorts. I have to accept the fact that he is part of a system that is so much larger than me that I can not fight it. What can I do? I must proceed in a yielding way. I can try to learn to haggle better. I can make friends and they can shop on my behalf. I can be thankful that as a white American male, I have been given an opportunity to understand discrimination and compassion as I would never have understood it had I stayed in my own culture. But most importantly, I have to learn that though is nice to imagine myself as a king in my castle, inviolable and potent, there will always be forces in this world greater than me and lesser than me. And regardless of my actual ability to change my surroundings, I must be able to relate to them with tranquility. Thus, China itself tempers me.

I sometimes worry about how I will someday teach these lessons to Americans at home, where everyone tells you you can, “have it your way.” Anyway, more next time.

And if, in the unforeseeable future, I find myself in charge of regulating commercial tourism practices in Wudang, that salesman had better keep his head down ;-p.

The Roots of Happiness

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In the summer of 2010 12 individuals went to Kenya to a very special place, Tumaini.  The record of their trip, the sum up of all the smiles of those beautiful children is coming soon in a documentary titled:  The Roots of Happiness.  As you watch this take a look at the joy of the children with the jump ropes that were made by our students here at Balanced Life Skills.  Everytime I watch this I am rushed with emotions and love for these beautiful children.

 

Roots of Happiness Trailer from Brian Williams on Vimeo.

Anger management: #5 we need empathy

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Depending on the age of the child, understanding the feelings of others may be difficult, if only due to developmental reasons.  A five year old has one emotional ability and a 12 year old another.  One thing though that does happen is that when they are angry no matter there age or training – they will be blinded to someone else’s feelings. 

Developing this empathy will help them to understand that all of us have feelings and just as we react to how others treat us, we too can react to how others feel.  Some children though who have had painful lives, may defend themselves by shutting down their sensitivity to others.  Or they may use intimidation and fear as a part of their defense.

Teaching empathy is a two fold.  First every child needs to understand feelings and they need adults around them whom they can trust.  With our younger children, increasing their “feelings vocabulary”, is very important to them identifying both their own and others feelings.

If we find older children are having difficulty with understanding the feelings of others, encourage them to write down stories in a journal.  If they have a problem get them to write or or talk about what happened – from the other persons point a view.

Finally as a parent or teacher, describing our own experiences and the emotions that we feel can be very helpful.  They can identify that you have faced difficult situations or may still be dealing with them, and they will learn to empathize.  

Anger management: #4 One word answers

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As I speak to children about different scenarios that they could see themselves in I continually hear the same one word answers, good, bad, mad.  These are the labels that many children know and understand.  So when asked about different situations they will use these as their answers many times.  Yet we know that anger does not exist in a vacuum.  There is always another emotion at work when there is an outburst.  We recognize that in ourselves too.

With children though they may not have the words to identify the other emotions and so they are only, mad!  When the child feels only the anger, they act on the anger and the impulses of the anger.  So what can we do as parents?  If we can put a label on the feelings for them by saying, “You must be feeling…..”  this would be a good start.  Some would say that we could say, ” You must be feeling angry.”, but we must be careful not to reinforce the feelings of being mad – and careful to watch to see if recognition of feelings of anger is used to redirect the energy to solving the problem.  Our children may protest that they are not frustrated, jealous, or whatever the feeling might be that we name, but what we are trying to do is to build their vocabulary so they can start using the correct feelings words and finding ways of dealing with them.

As we make these attempts we will make mistakes and mis-characterize the emotion.  Do not give up and just keep working at building everyone’s awareness of feelings.

This is an activity that has worked for me also.  If I am feeling angry I try to stop and think, what am I really feeling?  Am I scared, intimidated, frustrated, hungry or a whole list of other emotions and feelings.  If those can be identified we many times can draw the attention to an emotion of feeling that we can control.  That is very powerful.