Relationship Premises

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dogcatI’ll tell a little story about life here at the kungfu school. Our dormitories are located in a former hospital, in two buildings with a courtyard between. But when I first came here in early 2008, the kungfu school only occupied the front-most  of the two buildings. Shifu acquired the back building shortly before I started studying here full-time.

The rooms of the former hospital had been being used for residence for a while, and there was one occupant who would not leave when the kungfu school took over. In the spirit goodwill, I imagine, no big fuss was made and that man– an older, retired herbal doctor — has continued to live at one end of the dormitory hallway. As a matter of fact, he is my next-door neighbor.

For various reasons, tensions between the kungfu students and my neighbor escalated. Not the least of these was the intrusion of pervasive Chinese culture shock into our ex-patriot stronghold, the one place in China we hoped to call our own. Also, he did not share our training schedule, so when we desperately needed rest he might be having a loud and alcoholic card game with his friends or stomping down the hallway or loudly and revoltingly clearing his throat and spitting on the floor. For a while we even shared a bathroom with the guy, and finding the remains of his having cleaned fish for dinner in your shower drain is never fun. Things bottomed out with multilingual screaming matches in the hallway and hard feelings all around.

But for me there was a significant turning point where my relationship with the guy stopped getting worse and started getting better. That was the moment when I realized he wasn’t going away. I think subconsciously my fellow students acted on the premiss that they could choose not to have this relationship, that if they antagonized him enough, he would move out. When I accepted that he was not going to move out, and that I didn’t want to be the kind of person who would drive him out, the question became not if I was going to have a relationship with this guy, but what kind of relationship ours would be.

There is a degree of satisfaction to be gained just by committing to a thing, that can’t be found while we withhold acceptance of that thing’s actuality. New people or circumstances are like a new piece of furniture that surprises you by appearing in your living room; if you can’t fit it out the door, it is better to rearrange the furniture and make a place for it than to leave it sitting in the middle of the floor.

As for my neighbor, all I really did was smile at him when I saw him in the hallway and compliment him once in a while if I liked his clothes or something. More than my external behavior, my internal behavior changed. When I started acting on the premiss that he was part of my life here in Wudang, his noise, his smelly cooking, his loud TV, it all stopped annoying me because I acknowledged his right to be there.

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.

Internal Self-Defense Part II

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Last year I wrote in this blog about internal self defense, what it means and its importance. I focused on the power of emotion and the need to learn to protect oneself from negative feelings. This is a major thrust of my training here in Wudang, and I thought a little more discussion was in order.

Remember that in Daoist theory, a person is like a bottle filled with water. We are a container of vital energy. When we are born, that container is full. We spend that energy in our everyday activities, sometimes intentionally and more often through habitual leaks. When the bottle is empty, we die.

To continue the water bottle metaphor, this is a bottle that takes a lifetime to empty, so from day to day the change is so minute we might overlook it. Indeed, a person can go for years thinking they are as vital as ever, only to wake up one day to notice that an important reference point has been passed. It’s a quarter empty! It’s HALF EMPTY! But the perception that the water suddenly vanished is wrong: every action of every day effects the level.

I am learning that a big part of my training is sensitizing myself to the effects my actions have on my vitality. The exertion of full-time training, plus my master’s insights about replenishing our energy, means that the level in my bottle drops and rises more noticeably, which with practice is helping me learn to monitor it and make good decisions that fill up the bottle.

I explained that so that I could explain this: I am starting to understand that the vital cost of my actions themselves is not as significant as the vital cost of the emotions engendered by those actions. A training day when I allow myself to be grouchy and negative is many times more draining than an identical day when I stay calm and positive.

This puts me in mind of some of the elderly individuals I have had the honor to know. Many of those who reach a great age and still seem vital and energetic are those whose characters are calm and optimistic. These individuals do not avoid effort in order to spare themselves the expenditure of vitality. But in their industry, they face each task quietly and purposefully. When the task is over, they do not bemoan the effort or overly celebrate it’s completion. They seem calm and gratified.

Other people I have known, of all different ages, seem prematurely dissipated. They seem to have a greater emotional reaction to every new task. If they are working already, they complain of the additional work. If they are resting, they resent the end to their rest. When a task is finished, a celebration is in order, and in this celebratory play they are as excessive as they are in their work. Each action carries an unnecessarily heavy toll on the water in the bottle.

The key here is that the vitality in the bottle is not just sand in an hourglass, measuring out a lifespan. It is the essence that determines the quality of a life as well. Without the toll of negative emotion, there is more energy to spare each day on the things we do and the things we love, without diminishing ourselves.

Internal Self Defense

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A small shrine near Five Dragon Temple

What does it mean to practice Martial Arts in your daily interactions? The uninitiated might imagine this as fearsome, like a businessman using The Art of War to overwhelm rivals. Myself — years ago when I had only been training long enough to develop some arrogance and little else — I had to give a speech in front of a large group of people. I was nervous, so I drew confidence from my imagined superiority. They might not like my speech, but I could beat them up. Ha.

Aikido was my first experience of how martial arts could be applied positively when dealing with strangers, friends, and loved ones. Aikido’s philosophy separates the intent to do harm from the art of defending oneself. The goal is to use sensitivity to neutralize the conflict without harming either attacker or defender. While the principles of block and counter-attack would only do harm if manifested verbally in an argument with a loved one, Aikido’s methodology provides a healthier model for conflict resolution.

I found myself reflecting on these things this week after listening to an impromptu lecture from my master. I paraphrase, but he was discussing external self-defense versus internal self-defense. Imagine a punch to your nose. You block — you break the attacker’s arm. An effective defense, no? But what if the attack is verbal? Words that wound, that make you sad, or angry. Words that keep bubbling up in you, and each time make you sadder and angrier. That same attacker has now given you a festering wound that will take longer to heal than a bloody nose.

To take this seriously, you must accept that emotions have power. Negative emotions do violence to the heart and mind. Chinese medicine also links emotion to the health of the major organs. So an unusual mood might be a symptom of a developing illness, or conversely, learning to calm the emotions might bring better health. But I think what makes negative emotions so dangerous is the way they influence behavior. If they lead to self destruction, no one else can help you, and you yourself are already out of control and not well prepared to protect yourself. Internal self-defense means keeping calm and choosing happiness in every event. The more I train, the more important this seems.