Relationship Premises

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.

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


Internal Self-Defense Part II

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.

Adapt to Survive

Kungfu stage show by a local performance team

As I mentioned in my 5th International Wudang Taichi Tournament post, traditional martial arts are undergoing a period of change. Well, more accurately, they are constantly changing, not only from generation to generation or year to year, but from moment to moment. I will not try to define traditional martial arts, because to do so would be to limit and diminish them. But I can talk about the faces the art presents, the way it adapts to narrow niches in order to survive in the material world. Survival means that the narrow but popular and materially viable niche thrives and sustains the art so that a new generation can be trained in the deeper traditions.

From the stories our Master has told us, kungfu schools here in Wudang a few decades ago resembled nothing so much as street gangs. I speculate, but it seems the art was still reeling from a loss of relevance. Individuals were still trying to exist as they had when fighting was the daily test of the art. But in truth modern combat, in warfare and elsewhere, had no place for them. Still speculating, but I think the turf fighting between kungfu schools that our Master has spoken of was evidence of Wudang kungfu’s displacement. While a few individuals kept the spirit of the art, its true face was lost behind an outdated mask. Kungfu schools attracted few students and slowly dwindled away.  After all, why send your child to a school if the only future it offers is violence and eventual imprisonment?

More recently, traditional kungfu has adapted by taking on new appearances. It caters to entertainment, tourism, sports, and health. Each of these outlets are, as I said of the Taichi tournament, narrow but necessary expressions of kungfu. Movies and TV keep the art alive in the popular imagination, though they twist the image so as to be more attractive. Performing for tourists and teaching them for a few days at a time brings in a little much-needed money, and wins the support of political and economic leaders who also profit from the tourists. Making a sport out of the art provides an publicly acceptable competitive outlet, the same thing the old street gang kungfu schools failed to do. Kungfu also appeals to those who search for a well-rounded health practice, though this too is only a small facet of the larger practice.

But if the art only exists in these outlets, it is lost. No one of them (or even all of them together) encompasses the breadth and depth of the traditional teachings. Nonetheless, we who want to preserve the old ways must accept both the necessity of these outlets and the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of our practice. And hope that someday the world will once again value this hidden treasure.

5th International Wudang Tai Chi Tournament

Last week was an unusual week for our school. A Taichi and Kungfu forms competition was held here in Wudangshan. Our Master encouraged us to participate, on the grounds that it would be a valuable learning experience. And it was.

First, we learned what it means to prepare for competition. The week before the opening ceremony was jammed with extra practices. Master and the other coaches made time in their own schedules to go over the competitors’ forms with microscopic attention to detail. In regular training, it is okay to feel your way through a form and make mistakes. For competition practice, the bar was set far higher, and it was cool to see people rise to the challenge. Hand technique had to be precise. Stances had to be both low and stable. Body technique had to be powerful and expressive. Eye technique had to be fierce and spirited. Everybody improved a lot. We got a sense of how we might someday prepare our own students for something like this.

It was also spectacular to watch Master teach. One can see him teach basics any day of the week. However, when he is pushing a talented student toward perfection, he becomes truly stunning. He is my master and I am constantly amazed by him, but I have never been more in awe of his skill as a martial artist and a teacher than I was when he was helping my classmates hone their forms.

Second, we learned about what competition is like and how it fits into our lives as traditional martial arts practitioners. Traditional martial arts is still difficult for me to encompass in a succinct definition, but it is nothing if not broad. Forms competition like this narrows our art. Set aside are defensive applications, internal health, mental calm and focus, and all the other parts of our training. A competition like this one is about performance, about showing the art. Judging is faulty and subjective, athleticism and flashiness usurp the place of practicality and discipline, and points and competitiveness replace the humble pursuit of  personal growth. These are truths of modern martial arts competition. But as martial arts evolves to survive in the modern world, it is avenues like this that keep it alive. Those of us who want to preserve our traditions must accept this, and shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that though the outlets for our art may be narrow, our practice always reflects kungfu’s original breadth.

That said, the representatives from our school did very well in the tournament. Almost everyone got a medal, and most people got two or three. I hope that we made our Master proud. Personally I was most proud of the way our school demonstrated our brotherhood across the lines of nationality. International competitions like this one are praised by their promoters as being great meeting places for east and west, but the stark contrast of Chinese culture inevitably creates a line dividing that which is Chinese from that which is not. Nowhere in the competition did I see people cross that line so freely as did the competitors from our school. We are brothers and sisters first. Passports only count after that.

Conscious Conformity

Life here at the Kungfu Academy, by design and by nature, puts a lot of pressure on those who study here. It’s not the same as the pressure of family and a job, but it is the pressure of discipline, of high expectations. Watching myself and others metamorphose under this pressure has got me thinking lately. I feel that the pressure is moderated by our meditation practice, but different people respond to the meditation differently and thus cope with the weight of discipline differently. If you’ve read my earlier post on internal self defense, you’ve been exposed to the idea of the power our choices about our outlook have on our lives. This is another case of the power of choice.

I want you to understand why discipline is necessary here. We all have a concept of our limitations that stops our forward progress. It is very difficult to break past these limits alone. Even harder are the limits we can’t conceive of, the blind spots in our development. Only someone who has walked the path before you can push you past these limits. And the only way a Master’s pushing can have an effect is through discipline, through the willingness to conform to his standards.

The discipline we experience exists on different levels. Showing up to class on time, being accountable for our activity during practice, demanding the most of ourselves when we train: these are all instances. There are many times when one’s individual wants must be subordinated to this discipline. I think for some people, this is difficult. I sense, from their words and actions, that subordinating themselves threatens their sense of identity. They begin to feel like a robot, unthinkingly obeying commands. Their visceral response is to act out, to assert their individualism by rejecting the patterns of the group, ie, cronic tardiness or sullen reception to instruction. By acting out, they convince their teachers only that they are in need of more discipline.

Choice enters at that moment of subordination. There is no freedom in the choice to follow group expectation or not to, because the definition of the group still defines you either way. The empowering choice is the choice to be free of these terms of self-identity. One can choose not to define oneself in terms of the group at all, so following or not is irrelevant.

Once this freedom is found, there is only one worthwhile test for whether to follow expectation or not: happiness. Which choice makes you happy? If respectfully following the group enhances your training and allows peace of mind, you need not fear becoming an unthinking robot. You are following your feelings. You are no longer bound to the group by heavy chains of discipline, but are freely moving in the same direction as like-minded people. It does not matter that you are meeting external demands, because they merely coincide with the demands you make of yourself.

Many people will accuse me of performing a semantic illusion, of covering over reality with empty words. They will assert that if you follow,  you are not free and self-determining. All I can say is that, if you are striving to be free and self-determining but also suffering from anger and depression, maybe it is time to re-examine some of your assumptions about choice. For me, this is the only way forward in my training, in which the expectations of my Master and teachers help me to raise my own.