Self-defense Prerequisite

DSC04708Wow, it’s been a long time since I wrote. Life and training have been moving forward at quite a pace of late, which gives me plenty to write about but less time to digest the material and get it down in words.

I was home in the US this winter, in Maryland for December and January, in New York City February and March. I missed more training than I would have liked, but I was busily trying to lay some groundwork for my more permanent return home in September of this year, so I needed a little more time.

I have written a lot about internal self defense, and I will write a lot more. Right now I am facing some fairly big changes and decisions, and talking with a lot of people about them.  There is an essential ingredient in these discussions that I’d like to explicitly point out, an understanding without which internal self defense is crippled.

We do not experience our reality as an absolute; we interpret it. The interpretation happens very quickly, faster than the blink of an eye sometimes in the act of perception, but nonetheless we assign value to things that we experience. I won’t say we decide our emotional reactions, because it is generally not as cerebral as that, and indeed trying to intellectually change how you feel about a thing often just causes counterproductive strain. But our mental state, the health of our bodies, our habits of perception, “mood” one could say — these things can be changed, and can be used to change how the world impacts us on a fundamental level. Is the thing I am experiencing good or bad, proper or improper, fair or unfair, stressful or relaxing? The belief in our ability to change these value assessments independently of the experience that inspires them is a prerequisite to studying internal martial arts.

The antithesis of this is the belief that we see reality merely as it is, that there is a direct and unalterable sequence of cause and effect from stimulus to senses to brain to reaction. To believe this, reassuming the self-defense metaphor, is to believe that the enemy is already within the gates, and there is no possibility whatsoever for preserving ourselves from him. Most people I have met who think this way bear their lives and experience like a collection of scars that have never healed properly.

Others, however, are as perfectly content as they could wish. Acknowledging the malleability of our perception is not necessary to happiness. It would be wonderful to see the world always optimistically with no shadow of suspicion that there is any other way to see it. But for those of us who need to practice our internal self defense, there is no going forward without this basic premise.

Self-cultivation — Emphasis on Self

WuhanFilming4A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days with Shifu. This is kind of rare for me — he is a busy guy, and I don’t get to talk to him very much outside of class. For that matter, I am usually so tuckered out after class, I don’t really seek him out. But a television show, sort of a variety showcase, asked Shifu to come and bring some of his students to be a feature on the show. So I got to spend time on the train and in the waiting room at the TV station just shooting the breeze with my master.

Lately our training seems to me to have shifted focus. We still do all the same physical training, but it has become mostly a vehicle for our internal emotional practice. So I asked Shifu, “If the goal of this is self-cultivation, why do we do martial arts at all? Why not just meditate or do yoga or something?” His answer was that there is no reason. It really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you realize that the important thing is not to improve the skill but to improve yourself. Martial arts is really great, and offers lots of opportunity for this kind of development, but another pursuit might work just as well if you approach it with the right spirit. Indeed, “kungfu” in Chinese just means something you work hard at, and could really be any task at all.

It was cool that he said that, because there was a neat example of what he was talking about ready to hand. One of the other people being featured on the show was a sort of street performer/craftsman. He had a little tool box with a little stove warming a pot of molten sugar. He would blow the sugar much like a glass blower would blow glass, making a sort of balloon of it, and then shape it into any one of a menagerie of animals. He would grab up some hot sugar in his toughened hands, and calmly and peacefully pull it and shape it and chat and make jokes. Suddenly the animal would appear as if his hands had minds of their own and did not need him to guide them. More than anything one was impressed, sitting there watching him, by the atmosphere of calm and serenity that seemed to waft from him along with the fragrant smoke of his stove. It was clear watching him that this was a man who had, in the process of mastering his craft, mastered himself.

If I needed any further evidence of this man’s wisdom, we overheard a conversation between him and another performer on the TV show, a guy who rode bicycles across a tiny tightrope. The bicyclist saw me and my classmates and nudged the sugar sculptor, saying, “Foreigners are no good at Chinese kungfu, eh?” To which the sugar sculptor calmly replied, “Of course foreigners can do kungfu. Anyone can do kungfu.”WuhanFilming2  WuhanFilming5 WuhanFilming6 WuhanFilming3

Feeling like a Tree

It is definitely autumn here in Wudang now. It is getting cooler, and we just celebrated the Moon festival a little over a week ago. And here at the kungfu school, our daily schedule has shifted.

In the summer, our schedule clusters around the early morning and the late evening, with a long rest period and meditation in the middle of the day to avoid the worst of the heat. In the winter, our schedule gets very busy during the warmth of the day, but we get to rest at night when it is uncomfortably cold. This is one of the first things that I learned to love about our schedule here. One feels much more connected to nature when your daily life actually changes to fit it. Life feels good when it’s “dawn to dusk” and not “nine to five.”

Another aspect I am learning to appreciate more recently is the change in my body’s potential from season to season. In the summer, my muscles are long and limber. It is the time for swift growth and flexibility. Winter, my body gets compact and powerful. It is the time for strength and stoking the embers of the body’s vitality. This shift connects to our larger curriculum. Martial Arts is too varied and complex to practice everything you ought to practice all the time. But there is a time for everything, and so our training comes in waves. Flexibility, low stances, internal development, sparring, body conditioning, kicks, punches, cardio endurance, meditation — each wave comes in its own season. The discipline of martial arts is in maintaining each skill when you can’t focus on it, and seizing the opportunity when the time for growth arrives, like a tree in a tough climate. You can’t cut me open and count my rings, but you get the idea 🙂

Summertime stretch test: Shifu's stick should not pass under my hips in the splits postion


Why Martial Arts?

I’ve had the chance to try a few different kinds of exercise and methods for improving the body and mind. Soccer, PE classes, lacrosse, yoga, running, swimming, and other pursuits. My experience here in Wudang has helped me understand how vitally important maintaining your body is (I’ve come to think of it as rather like brushing your teeth- you feel better if you do it, and if you don’t, you won’t have much to work with a few years down the road). But so much of my training here is only tangentially martial in nature. So sometimes I wonder, “Why martial arts?” Couldn’t I be just as happy studying yoga or some other art that would keep my mind and body connected without the occasional traumatic punch to the face? Why do I instinctively feel that there is something special about martial arts?

I have quite a few answers for myself, but recently I have been thinking about a new way in which the “martial” bit of martial arts is crucial. What it does is it teaches, in very clear, black and white terms, the lessons of personal responsibility and acceptance. Under the supervision of an attentive teacher or master, the dynamics of a fight or sparring match (and the preparation for such)  strip away excuses and provide clear consequences. Getting hit stinks. You quickly learn to want to avoid that at all cost. But if you got hit, it is because you let your opponent hit you. Hitting you is your opponent’s job. There is no, “I wasn’t ready,” no,” That’s not fair,” no, “Can we do that over?” At the same time, you can’t dwell on the pain of the last hit. You have to accept it instantly and move on, or experience it again, and worse.

Under a good teacher or master, this acceptance of pain and responsibility spreads from the fighting scenario into daily training, and from there into daily life. If you got hit, you need to prepare better, train harder. If you didn’t train hard enough, it’s because you felt ill because you ate too much or didn’t sleep enough the night before. If you didn’t sleep enough, it’s because you procrastinated at work or school and had to stay up late to finish a project. You are %100 responsible for all of these things. At the same time, when once you mess up, you have to accept it and use it to get ready for next time, because next time is coming. There are other ways to learn these lessons, but the martial arts are teaching them to me in clear, non-negotiable terms.

Bully Prevention: 3 Steps for Assertive Response

Day 16 in our series talks about the 3 ways we show assertiveness.  This whole series is found on Bully Prevention Partners.  We would like for those interested in creating a culture of peace in our schools and community to join us there as we spread the awareness of bully prevention.


Life Skills: Self Reliance – Definitions

Teaching character and life skills to students


Each month we define and discuss a word of character development and life skill with all of our students.

This month the word is Self-Reliance and will be defined this way.

Young students: Self Reliance means: “I can do it by myself!”

Older students: Teamwork means: Self trust; relying on your own judgements, powers or abilities

Here are the worksheets for our students:

Self Reliance Project Tiger Tots

Self Reliance Project 5-6

Self Reliance Project 7-12

Self Reliance Project Teens & Adults

If you would like to see how we will deal with this subject with our students please follow our discussions here during the month of September or come in and TRY A CLASS.