The Wudang Swimming Hole

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?

Permutations of Kungfu

DSC_0050It is a pretty common occurrence here at the kungfu school, and at martial arts schools everywhere as far as I can tell. A teacher corrects a movement or explains a certain technique, and the student objects that the teacher is directly contradicting what the student was taught by another previous teacher. Or a student looks at two teachers demonstrating the same technique or form, and sees that they are very different. “So which on is right?” the student wants to know.

The answer is usually both. Or neither – that is, both versions may be equally valid, though they look nothing alike. There are infinite variables in martial arts, any one of which could produce seemingly contradictory instruction but which the student must strive to unravel to best grow and develop.

One variable is purpose. A given movement can be executed to a great number of different ends. Take a kick, for example. Within the realm of martial application, it could need to be a fast kick, to outrace an opponent’s reactions; a powerful kick, to do damage weather it is blocked or not and force an opponent hesitate; an unpredictable kick, so that the opponent’s reaction is doesn’t stop it; or most likely one of the infinite combinations of these criteria. But a kick could also be intended as an exercise, to improve the body’s strength and flexibility. It might not be something to use in a fight, but nonetheless valuable to practice. And each tiny variation of the kick and its mechanics could change what muscles or skills are being stretched and strengthened, so each variation could have its purpose.

Teachers might contradict themselves and each other when the purpose changes. It might change simply to try and encompass as broad a variety of movement as possible, thus making the student more versatile and flexible. Or the student’s growth could precipitate that change: first they needed to work on one part of the movement, then they need to work on a different part that is best practiced with different mechanics. Or, the technique’s purpose could and should change depending on the teacher’s growing and changing understanding of the movement. The teacher may notice that a movement he or she has practiced with sparring in mind can be altered slightly to become an excellent exercise in balance or coordination. The instructions they give, or even the look of the movement itself, could change very much depending upon the purpose to which the teacher applies it.

While there is no doubt that there is better and worse technique in martial arts, it is not as simple and clear as right or wrong. Martial arts are still an art, a living, growing thing that exists and is sustained by living, growing people. As students, we must strive to live up to the example that our teachers set for us. But that example is not just a set of physical movements. Students of martial arts must try to imitate the sincerity and engagement with the practice that our teachers model for us. And it fall to us to try to understand the “why” of our training, because ultimately we must become our own teachers.

Junk Food

Wudang Oreo Birthday Cake. Mmmmmm,
Wudang Oreo Birthday Cake. Mmmmmm.

I have spent most of the last seven years missing the foods available in America, so when I got to spend some time in New York this past visit home, I was in heaven. There is more variety and quality of food experiences in New York than anywhere I have ever been. But my time in Wudang has changed my relationship with food, and I couldn’t indulge in all that wonderful cuisine without thinking a little bit.

I have come to think of my relationship with food as having two parts: the nutrition side and the emotional side. As I have mentioned, training every day all day forces you to be more aware of the effects things have on your body – eat too much of the wrong thing, and you will feel the consequences the next time your coach is shouting, “FASTER! LOWER! STRONGER!” And since, “I ate too much cake,” is no excuse from training, if you don’t want to feel miserable you learn to control your diet. And once you learn that, you do get to feel the actual nutritional values of the foods you eat. I never understood how much my body needed fruit until I trained here – I knew intellectually that I needed the vitamins, but now I ravenously crave fruit, and I am aware of how bad I feel if I don’t get it. I feel like I am sensing the food with my whole body, feeling if it is good, not just tasting it.

The other side of food is still important to me though: the way it makes me feel to eat it emotionally, immediately. Here I am talking about flavor, but I am also talking about memories and emotional associations, like that something that makes me crave hamburgers, and makes Chinese food taste like ash after I have been eating nothing but for 10 months at a time. When I would walk down the streets of New York on my way home from work this winter, smelling pizza and hotdogs and all sorts of tempting things, it was all I could do not to stop and spoil the nice nutritious dinner I had waiting for me at the apartment.

Our senses exist to guide us to good things. Properly used, they help us find the things we need for our well-being. Thus our senses are our Five Treasures. The body needs fats and salts and sugars, so foods that have those things call to us. But they are superficial things, our senses, and if we do not master them they can be mislead and become the instruments by which we lose mastery of ourselves. Thus they are the Five Thieves. So I could define junk food as food that appeals to my Five Thieves so strongly that it brings me harm, by leading me to indulge excessively in certain desirable  nutrients beyond a healthy degree, or by supplanting needed nutrients in my diet.

What the streets of New York got me thinking is that there is junk food for more than just your stomach, and the Five Thieves have been made servants of all kinds of causes other than the well-being of our bodies. What is the original purpose of the senses that draw our attention to the 50 foot tall Victoria’s Secret billboard on 34th street? Why is it so hard to turn off that radio station, that TV, unplug from the internet? Not one of these things is bad. No more so that a big greasy slice of pizza. But somehow, moderation and balance must prevail.

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.

Expectations and Uncertainty

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.

Exciting Goings On

Beijing Demo 01I’ve fallen out of my rhythm with my blog for the last month or more, on account of all the exciting goings-on here in Wudang.

The biggest holiday of the year in China and many other Asian countries it the Spring Festival, the new years celebration of the traditional lunar calendar. Much like watching the ball drop in New York City for Americans, Chinese television features one big gala TV event on the eve of Spring Festival. It is a sort of variety show, with different acts over the course of the evening, celebrity MCs, and lots of pageantry. But while Wikipedia says that 22.6 million Americans watched Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 2012, past Spring Festival galas have had a viewership of 700-800 million, while this year it is projected to reach a billion people.

When I say exciting goings-on, I mean that my classmates and I have the opportunity to compete for a place on this show. In the end of August, five of us choreographed and rehearsed a demonstration of Wudang kungfu that we traveled to Beijing to perform on a competition show called 我要上春晚 (I want to perform New Years Eve). We won, and then our entire class won a second round of competition in September. We will do one more round in early December, and if all goes well we’ll be in Beijing for a chunk of January preparing for the big event itself.

This is exciting, a great opportunity for us to help our shifu promote his school and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us. But as is frequently the case with once-in-a-lifetime experiences, it is requiring no small amount of sacrifice and determination to realize.

First, of course, we would never be considered for such an event if we had not put a great deal of effort and dedication into our training already. We are foreigners who are seeking a deep understanding of a uniquely Chinese philosophy and tradition that is even beyond the comprehension of many natives of this language and culture.

However, it is hard for some of us to adapt our outlook to an entertainment environment. I don’t think anyone would ever endure the training we have done in order to get on TV — there must be easier ways. So it is difficult for some of us to accept that the culmination of more than four years of deeply personal struggle and agonizing progress, which each of us has undergone for personal reasons verging on religious conviction, should be the seemingly trivial outlet of television performance.

Second, there have been endless challenges of planning and re-planning. The director of the show is understandably busy managing and orchestrating all the many acts vying for a place in the show, so our performance dates have been changed and changed again. And again. This would not be a problem any other time of the year, but with it being illegal for us as foreigners to stay in China for more than 12 months at a stretch without crossing the borders, and our regular yearly holiday falling in December/January, my classmates and I have been put to great effort and expense adjusting flight bookings and travel plans over and over.

I am lucky, and unlucky. Because I stay in America longer than my classmates in order to save the money I need for training each year, my 12 months in-country will not be over until March. But that means I must stay through the holidays and miss Christmas with my family and friends, and that is a bit of a downer. But even if this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is a bit of a double edged sword, I am pretty excited to be part of it.

I do not know for how long this link will be active, but here is our performance in round one of the qualifying competition. Not bad for a start, but we can and will do better.[%E6%88%91%E8%A6%81%E4%B8%8A%E6%98%A5%E6%99%9A]%E6%AD%A6%E6%9C%AF%E8%A1%A8%E6%BC%94%E3%80%8A%E6%AD%A6%E9%81%93%E6%97%A0%E7%95%8C%E3%80%8B%20%E8%A1%A8%E6%BC%94%EF%BC%9A%E6%AD%A6%E5%BD%93%E9%81%93%E5%AE%B6%E6%AD%A6%E6%9C%AF%E9%98%9F%2020131006