Self-cultivation — Emphasis on Self

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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

Another Turn Around the Circle

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SL373145I have returned to Wudang, China, once more. I am in the agony of what I have previously dubbed “Week One Syndrome,” though it has been a light week and really not as excruciating as I was afraid it would be.

I had a wonderful time at home, though it was by far my most stressful trip home for work and family reasons I won’t get into right now. While I was home this time, I let myself relax a bit on my kungfu training and focused more on my internal training, trying to keep deep breathing and keep my emotions steady in the face of the above mentioned stress. And — and I hope you can understand what I mean — I tried to consciously unclench the fist of self-discipline I had going on and hold my emotions and will in a gentler grip.

I felt this was immensely constructive, and it got me thinking about another aspect of self cultivation. I think that, inherent in the ability to push yourself to be better is at least a grain of self-criticism. You have to be able to look at yourself and find your own weaknesses, find the things about yourself that are not satisfying to you. I spend a fair amount of time in this mode during my training, always looking for ways to improve. On the other hand, the best way to exercise the powers developed in training, and to find the satisfaction that is the goal of the training, is to accept yourself and, indeed, enjoy the fruits of your hard work.

The trouble is that we often get stuck in one or the other. Too much self-criticism makes us unhappy and stressed, too much self-acceptance makes us complacent and stagnant. This puts me in mind of something my kungfu uncle Zhou Xuan Yun said during his talk in DC in January. I paraphrase, but he said that life is what happens when Yin and Yang interact. So if self-criticism and self-acceptance are pure concepts defining the extremes of yourself, growth and life are only possible when moving naturally between the two, holding one but easily and regularly reaching for the other.

The challenge is to find real balance between the two in our subjective worlds. Our only guide is past experience, and if you have never pushed yourself hard enough or accepted yourself completely enough, moving toward balance feels so unnatural that you think you are actually losing balance. Disciplined effort seems too hard, and you think you just can’t do it. Loving yourself feels too alien, and you think it’s not real. Real hard work is required to understand the two extremes enough to accurately sense where the healthy balance really is.

I think this is a good thing to meditate on in times of transition like I am facing now. The only constant is change, after all.