Atmosphere of Change

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.


Work and Reward

In less than a week, I will be back in the U.S. which is excellent. My training is winding down for the year, and my classmates are all getting excited about what they are going to do for their holiday this year. For me, I am heading back to Maryland again to find some work and make some money so I can continue my training in 2013.

With the new year approaching, the time is right to try to glean some lesson from the year past and look to the future. Here’s what I’m thinking now.

I think everything — everything — we do is like pushing a rock up a hill, like the myth of Sisyphus who was punished by the gods to eternally push a great stone uphill but never reach the top. But unlike Sisyphus, our existence is not punishment, and there is respite and there is success. If we push forward hard enough for long enough, we can reach plateaus or even peaks — where we can rest, gain perspective, and enjoy the easy downhill. But if we don’t push hard enough or stop too soon, our rock rolls back to the beginning and we start again.

Here at the kungfu school, we see this a lot as the holiday approaches. Every day we struggle to put home and rest out of our minds and get to work. If we knuckle down and push with everything we have, really focus, the training becomes its own reward. But stay distracted, and the whole thing feels like a waste of time. What you get out of training is dependent on what you put in, but there is a threshold that must be passed with effort before the reward appears. Each day of training is a little hill, and if we want to reach the satisfying down-slope we have to wrestle ourselves to the top first.

It would be, of course, easier not to push at all, and there is a time and place for stillness. But if we live, we must move. Here at the kungfu school, we have our teachers and Shifu to keep us moving forward. Life outside the kungfu school has forces that goad all of us onward. But those forces can only keep us pressed to the stone; we ourselves have to take responsibility for moving it enough to succeed.

There is an element of faith in this. There is a enormous rock in front of you and you can’t see the top of the hill or what is ahead. You have to believe that success or respite will be the reward for your work, or you will never find the necessary fortitude to face the apparent futility.

Also, one can not tackle every hill. There are choices to be made. We must decide which rocks to push up which hills. But since life will not let us stop pushing altogether, we are best served by picking one rock and one hill at a time and pushing until the reward appears. Trying to juggle too many rocks, or shoving at one rock but never sustaining enough to earn satisfaction, we become mired in futility and frustration.

In my mind, Sisyphus’s task was no more than any of us face. His curse was to each time succumb to despair, to forever lack the faith and the will to persevere to an invisible goal. But the future is unknown, so all our goals are invisible. I think that in truth, the hills we climb are never as big as we imagine, and the greatest part of our time working and living is spent trying to find in ourselves the determination to push through to the end. We all have to struggle on the slope, but we don’t all have to get stuck there.

I hate it when my blogs get preachy like this, but I write for myself as much as anyone, and sometimes I need to hear this stuff 🙂

The Fruit of Three Years

As of September this year, I have been training intensively in Wudang for three years. Full time training is such a luxury in one sense and such a burden in another. The opportunity to devote myself entirely to getting stronger mentally, physically, and spiritually is very rare and precious. However, everyday training quickly becomes like anything else — commonplace. It is easy to forget how lucky I am to be here doing what I am doing, and think only about the things I have given up in my devotion to this lifestyle. There are times when it seems I have given three years of my life, lost time with my family, spent all my money, and put normal growing up on hold for so long, all in exchange for just one thing to which it is much harder to assign value.

This past week has been a blessing in that respect. My master and many of my classmates went to Huangshan to the Fifth International Traditional Wushu Competition. I could not afford to go, so I had a week of much lighter training here at the school. It was a wonderful break after the past month plus, which has been filled with other performances and competitions. These are stressful because if there is a value in studying traditional martial arts, gold medals and looking good on a stage are not it. But in addition to a rest, my quiet week has reminded me of the treasures training has brought me.

For one thing, though the progress has been excruciating, I am indeed physically stronger than I was. And I have learned the value and the nature of hard work. For many years of my martial training, I watched those better than me with envy and despair. They made things look so easy. But three years of grinding repetition has made some things easy for me now. And I understand what it will take to reach the goals still before me; more work, sweat, grinding repetition, and above all, time.

Also, for much of the three years, Master has been pushing us to take more responsibility for our health. For years this frustrated me. It seemed like common sense to me that if I was exposed to a strain of cold virus to which my body had not developed immunity, I would get sick. Nothing I could do — just science, cause, and effect. Basic microbiology. How could I take responsibility for something like that? But this week I got a cold, and I knew even before I  showed any symptom that I had slipped up and with my behavior undermined my own immune system. And I realized that for a long time now I have been using sensitivity I have learned here to monitor my body and do what I needed to do to stay strong and not get sick. And it had been a long, long time since the last time I was.

These are just what I’ve been thinking about this week, hard work and responsibility. I am sure there are other things I have also learned. S0, my three years in Wudang have not been entirely fruitless 🙂



Illusions of Power

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.

Kungfu Blog

Lately as I think about what I want to write in my blog, my ideas seem to move in a more philosophical direction. I hope that I can still provide anecdotal illustrations of life in China, but for the next few months I expect I will be writing more about what I am thinking related to my training. First, however, I feel like I need to lay some groundwork for this kind of thing.

First, I want to reiterate that what you read in this blog is distorted by the imperfect lens that is me. What you read here is not a faithful record of my master’s teachings or Daoist practice or Wudang martial technique. I am a student working through some rather difficult lessons, and you are reading the flotsam and jetsam of that learning process. I am likely to be wrong, or at least incompletely correct.

Second, the nature of my training is in essence unintellectual. By writing a blog about it, I bring it into the intellectual realm, but it can not be entirely expressed here. Language bridges the gap between your mind and mine, but this training is a thing of bone and muscle and character, not of the mind, and only a shadow of it can cross that bridge. It’s an common mistake to think once you have read and understood some piece of martial arts theory, you understand martial arts.

So if you read my blog and like what I am talking about, please remember: practice is what makes this stuff real, not comprehension. The Chinese say, “Kungfu equals time plus sweat,” and that is just as true for internal martial arts as external. Reading is fine, but training is what it’s all about. And that training should be monitored by a good teacher, not a blog.

Phew! 🙂 Now that I feel like we won’t fall into the more common pitfalls of this type of writing, I can get on with it…


Thoughts While Home

This week has been crazy and awesome.  As I sit down to write about it, I realize one of the major differences in my life here and my life training in Wudang. There, when I train my mind is either off or focused on what I am doing, and outside of that I have fairly few demands on my attention and I have plenty of time to reflect and plan. So writing a blog happens fairly naturally.

Here at home, I work at an architecture firm, I teach, and I do demonstrations and talks about Wudang. There are always demands on my attention, and reflection often has to wait. So while in Wudang, the physical side of my training seems my prime concern, being home is a training ground for my internal art. This is where the theory meets reality.

That said, I had a wild but fun week. Thursday night I attended a Chinese embassy celebration of the Chinese New Year at the Meridian Center in DC. Definitely one of the neatest evenings I have had in a while. There were a lot of diplomats there, a beautiful musical performance, and two Chinese art exhibits, one of woodblock prints and one of modern paintings on porcelain. I was there with my kungfu sister who is working hard to establish avenues for the sharing  of Wudang culture and wisdom with D.C. and the U.S.

Friday was spent at the Bullis School in Potomac. I did a collaborative demonstration with two Shaolin monks. Of course, they were masters and I am still a student, so it was quite an honor to share a stage with them. I really enjoyed meeting them and other amazing members of the kungfu community in the D.C. area. It was wonderful to meet other people who dream dreams like my own.