Striving

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DSC_0024If you have read many of my posts, you’ve maybe noticed that no matter what sort of issue I am puzzling over, I always find myself coming back to yin yang theory and balance. When I ask myself what is good or which of two things is better, I always seem to conclude that everything exists in a continuum with its opposite, and that the two are inseparable, and the healthy range of behavior or evaluation on the continuum varies very much depending on the situation.

So to continue this trend, I want to talk about striving.

Certainly in certain contexts striving seems to be critical. When you are at a kungfu school, for instance. Kungfu is exactly the outcome of long-term, continual effort. We say here at the school, “Kungfu equals time multiplied by sweat.”

But striving so often seems to mean discontent and happiness, doesn’t it? We focus on the thing we want, the thing we can’t do, the unattained goal, and the distance to that goal seems so big and we feel we’ll never reach it and it is a terrible feeling. The other day, Shifu was talking about contentedness. He pointed out that, as an organism, all a person really needs to exist is nutrients – food and water. So unhappiness that rises not from hunger or thirst is the product of the mind and the mind alone. He compared us to trees – never having a mind, they grow and flourish without worry, as tall as their environment will allow.

One of my classmates replied with a story. He said he was in Peru once and a humble cheese-maker, who spent his days in his trade but mostly on his porch surrounded by his family,  asked him, “Is it true that Americans are all very busy all the time?” My classmate agreed that was true. And the cheese-maker just started laughing as if that was the silliest thing he had ever heard. All of American wealth and prosperity and industry was a big joke to this poor Peruvian who knew he had what he needed. Shifu liked that story.

I have been stumped in trying to untangle the idea of striving into its continuum and opposite, its yin and yang. But I think this is because striving is actually the name we give the intersection of two more fundamental pairings: work and rest, and agitation and calm. Striving is the name for working agitatedly. It does not have a direct opposite of its own because it exists in a complex continuum with resting calmly, resting agitatedly, and working calmly. It is hard to see the value of working or resting in an agitated way, and indeed much of my time is spent trying to free myself from habitual agitation in any mode. But remembering the model of yin and yang, I am forced to reflect that agitation too has its time and place.

Because even balance has to be balanced with imbalance – perfectly balanced forces are static, and what is life if not dynamic?

 

The Wudang Swimming Hole

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SL371660It’s almost summertime weather here. Blessedly, we’re not there yet. In July and August it can get pretty unbearable – intense, humid heat that doesn’t even abate at night when you lie sweating under your mosquito net, the warm sluggish air from your fan the only thing moving, and moving more like flowing honey than wind at that. We adjust our training schedule so that we rest more in the middle of the day and train early in the morning and late after the sun goes down, but the weather is a real trial to the spirit nonetheless.

But summer has its perks. The mountains behind the school become almost jungle-like, lush and tropical where they were dry and brown all autumn and winter. And the little river valley (in places a canyon, really) becomes a breathtakingly beautiful place to go for a walk or, when its too hot to stand it any more, a swim. On either side of the river pool where Wudang residents most often go to swim, the hills on either side rise in rocky cliffs patched with tufts of brilliant green. For the adventurer, one can climb up rocks and rapids and find several smaller pools further up the valley, and one really wonderful place where the river flows narrow and deep and dark and cold between overarching rocks and trees high overhead. It’s beautiful in a way that makes one stop and appreciate it, even if your mind was on other things.

I suppose any popular swimming spot in the world has its share of litterers – people who selfishly use a beautiful place but mar it for later visitors. That is certainly the case at the swimming hole. As the summer wears on and more and more people go to swim, the rocks and water are littered with food and drink packaging. There is no restroom easily accessible from the swimming hole, so human waste further soils the rocks on either side of the pool. All year round people take baskets of laundry to the river to wash, and so there always seems to be some soap bubbles or an odd sock floating in the eddies among the rocks. But all of that can be left behind if you make your way upriver a little ways, and serenity returns.

I am always writing about my thoughts regarding my training, but today I offer this little picture of the natural setting of my master’s school. Shifu has made it plain that as we study Daoism and try to follow nature, we are meant to be learning about and following our own natures and not to confuse the idea with a bunch of trees and rocks. But who does not feel somehow calmer and purer when surrounded by natural beauty?

Talent and Kungfu

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DSC_0612One of my kungfu brothers and I were talking about talent the other day. We were talking about this guy my brother had seen on a TV program, who could shoot objects out of the air with a bow and arrow as easy as breathing. Apparently this man had picked up a bow some time when he was young, and on his first shot discovered he had a knack for it. He then spent his whole life honing this skill until it was practically superhuman.

Here in Wudang, I’ve seen talented people come along, who, without apparent effort, are able to do things that I only wish I could do: jump higher than their own height; kick as quick and sharp as a punch; bend their bodies into astonishing contortions; dodge punches with incredible reactions, etc. There are even people who show a natural affinity for the internal, emotional practice I’ve talked about, and seem to approach the rigors and trials of life in a kungfu school with a calm placidity I envy.

But I do not think talent is really what kungfu is about. Kungfu is not about making naturally athletic and ferocious people better at beating people up or doing incredible acrobatics. It is about finding one’s weaknesses and strengthening them, and then finding the next weaknesses and strengthening those, ad infinitum. I think, from this basic tenant flows all of kungfu’s virtue. Building up where one finds weakness makes for a balanced and healthy mind and body. And the emotional ability to look at one’s own failings day in and day out without giving up on your own self worth is an incredibly powerful skill, engendering calm and poise.

It is in regard to this last quality that talent can actually be a hindrance. No matter how lucky you are, eventually you reach a point where talent can’t carry you any further, and work is required and those weaknesses have to be confronted. There have been plenty of students who get as amazing at kungfu as they can on talent, and sort of plateau, get frustrated, and leave.

Talent or no, the real fruits of kungfu are found when the talent stops and the hard work keeps going. The talented people who also apply themselves and practice, like the archer mentioned above, achieve amazing things. But there is plenty that the rest of us can glean from applying the kungfu model to the things we do in our lives.

Self-defense Prerequisite

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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.

Expectations and Uncertainty

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P1090012Hoping to be able to post more often again, as it seems things are calming down a little. I’ve spent much of this month running back and forth to Beijing filming TV segments, but that might be over now.

We advanced through two rounds of 我要上春晚 (I want to perform New Years Eve) and filmed a third, but we did not advance through the third and final round. My immediate reaction was disappointment, followed by optimism. “Hey!” I thought, “at least I will get to go home for Christmas!”

However, that silver lining remains in question, even doubtful. As I have mentioned, the TV producers in Beijing have changed dates on us again and again, and time and again we were on the verge of just dropping the whole thing because keeping going was so costly and uncertain. But each time they assured us that we would certainly advance to the Spring Festival Gala, these second and third rounds were just necessary formalities, so if we could just accommodate them a little more, everything would be fine. Now, one is left wondering if those assurances had any truth or if they were just manipulations designed to keep us on the hook.

What it comes down to is that neither my master nor I feel entirely certain, after the situation has already altered so shockingly so many times, that it won’t do so once again. We are not deluding ourselves as to the nature of the TV people, nor as to the probability that we will be able to be on the spring festival show. Like Aesop’s scorpion and frog, we know the nature of our companions in this venture. And we know that we are almost certainly not going to be in the gala. But I have decided to wait patiently for the last flicker of hope to die before I hop on a plane. And I don’t know if that spark will be snuffed before Christmas.

I am sure some people will read this and think I am being naive, clinging to illusory hopes. On the contrary, I feel I am just doing what I should as a disciple. I personally think that the best thing for our Wudang culture and lineage is to carry on training good students to be good masters. But my master feels that it is the Dao that we take advantage of this high-profile opportunity if we can. Though it has been hard to do, if we can do it we will do more for Wudang kungfu’s visibility than we could do with hundreds of thousands of dollars by another means. If you think about it that way, the annoyances I am going through are very small relative to what might be achieved. And I have a good life here, training and improving myself — I am not really losing anything by being patient.

Except maybe Christmas. So here’s hoping I see you all at home for the holidays, and if not, I’ll be back in February.

Oh, and here is the link to our second round. If you look closely, you can see me miss a cue because the speakers were right in my ears 🙂 Our part starts at about 32 minutes.

http://tv.cntv.cn/video/C21299/5875d1fc495049888018cc086e21e3f9

Usefully Useless

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DSC_0003Years ago, Shifu sat my class down for a lecture on Daoism and culture, and in the true Daoist tradition of illuminating paradoxes, began by writing these words on the blackboard:

 有用无用

无用有用

Which means, “Useful is useless and useless is useful.” He explained thus. Imagine a can of paint. It is useful because you can paint a wall with it, but just sitting there in the can it’s not really serving any purpose, so it’s useless. Take the paint out of the can and spread it on a wall, it is now useful because it is serving its role as cover and color, but now that it is on the wall it can never do anything else, and is really kind of useless to you — you can’t take it off again and spread it anywhere else.

A few years ago, I came to realize that I was not being very welcoming toward short-term students passing through our school. I empathized with them, knowing that if I was a newcomer in a strange place, I would want the people already established there to be friendly and open to me. But my time was all so useful already — I trained many hours a day, and when I wasn’t training I was studying or resting up for the next training session. Every minute of the day was accounted for this way. All my time was useful to me, which made it useless for camaraderie and human generosity.

On the other hand, think of a stereotypical working family man. His time is useful to his boss, to his company, to his family, to his children — but kind of useless to him. When can he spend time on his own health and well-being? He can’t — useless

But sometimes I take some time out of my day and set it aside to be useless. After training sometimes I sit on the stoop of our dormitory and see if anyone comes and talks to me. I don’t always do this, and when I do it doesn’t always amount to much. But that time never fails to be precious in my mind. I have nice leisurely conversations, meet new people, deepen existing friendships, or have a few minutes to reflect on my day, or sometimes I just realize the weather is much nicer than I had previously noticed. My useless time ever proves useful.

There are certainly limits to this, and I think they are frequently defined by the boundaries of moderation and good sense. A useless half-hour watching TV might prove useful, provoking, and stimulating, but a useless 5 hours on the sofa thumbing the remote seems unlikely to yield any rich bounty.

We must strive to be constructive, to be helpful to others, to take care of ourselves, to cultivate our character and our connection with the people around us. But this axiom reminds us that we benefit by making room in our lives for potential that can be realized into new and real concrete good, and by accepting that when that solid usefulness fails, new possibilities are opened.