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.

Usefully Useless

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:



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.

Another Turn Around the Circle

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.



Martial Realism

This past week my class had a sparring session. These sessions take their toll– we spend the rest of the week dealing with the damage we’ve inflicted on each other. Personally, I had a bit of a headache from all the blows I didn’t quite block or dodge, and I sprained something in my hand in a bad punch, and a few other minor complaints. But the week of training reaffirmed my belief about the nature of martial arts in today’s world.

I personally fought two three minute rounds. I spent three and a half hours in a more-violent-than-usual environment, watching my classmate spar each other. That is a tiny fraction of my week, and an infinitely tinier fraction of my life. Someone who doesn’t train as I do might have an even smaller fraction of violence in their life. I think this ratio, violent life versus the rest of life, shows where our training priorities as martial artists should lie.

There are many martial artists that I have met who allow their training to interfere with their perspective on life. They spend so much time thinking about what happens in that tiny violent fraction that, first in their perception and then sometimes in their reality, that violent fraction swells. Violence fills their subjective reality, even if their objective reality is peaceful.

The day after we sparred, we got called away from the school to work on a silly performance thing (talk about a distasteful fraction of my life ;-p). But in the performance we were working with little 8-10 year olds. These kids were high-energy, full of curiosity about foreigners and eager to show off their elementary English and kungfu. Really, they were awesome. But with my head aching and my hand tender, and my annoyance at having to do the performance at all, I was immensely impatient with the little boys and girls. I couldn’t enjoy their exuberance at all.

But those kids represent reality. The 99.99% of my time that is not violent is about carrying on, connecting with people and together enjoying and celebrating life. So the most important part of my martial training is the discipline, emotional control, and inner balance that lets me put pain behind me and live a full life. And these skills apply to all kinds of situations– emotional pain, accidents, sickness, death–things that real life is full of far more than real life is full of violent physical confrontation.

Of course, some people face real violence on a day-to-day basis, something I truly know nothing about. But for those who, like me, train ourselves despite having been blessed with a peaceful life, we need to remember where the real treasure of the rich practice of martial arts truly lies.

Reconciling Opposites

Trying to lower my stance with a straight back at May competition

It’s been well over a month since my last post. Our training schedule has been in chaos for the last month, and it just seems like every time I might sit down and write, there is a competition,  or a performance, or a meditation period, or a bad internet connection, or something else to get in the way. A change is as good as a holiday, though, and I feel refreshed and ready to go now that training in Wudangshan is settling back into normal routine.

The month of May and the beginning of June were fairly stressful, because it seemed like we were never going to get a real day off to recover from all the events mentioned above. Everyone in our class, I think, felt this tension building under the calm we are trying to maintain. The harder we tried to keep a lid on stress, the more rigid our emotions became, and that rigidity fanned the embers of the stress inside. The calm produced was not really calm at all, but a facade over inner turmoil. One has to somehow face stress while staying light and happy. This seems impossible; the two seem mutually exclusive. One feels one must either escape the stress or embrace unhappiness. But we can’t do either.

This balancing of seemingly mutually exclusive elements is a reoccurring theme in my training. From day one, coaches yell at us to sink our stances lower, but keep our backs straighter. This seems impossible. To keep balance, you feel that you have to stick out your butt and lean your head forward if you want to get your stance lower. Or the coach tells you to do the movements faster and clearer, but you are already going as fast as you can and you feel the only way to go any faster is to fudge the movements. But though you ask the coach again and again to choose one of the opposing criteria for you to focus on, he keeps you on both horns of the dilemma. And then one day, through long, hard work, low and straight becomes possible, and fast and clear becomes fierce.

Often in our decision making, and particularly in the processes by which we find our emotional response to stimuli, we are too lazy to seek an ideal answer. Instead, we try to determine which extreme reaction will give the best result most of the time. Psychology calls this heuristics, and it is a very real part of how the human brain works. These shortcuts save time and reduce the amount of thinking we really have to do, but they also oversimplify  our inherently subtle world and thus make our path through it clumsy and misguided.

I think this is one reason meditation is so important: meditation changes the way one values time and helps prioritize balanced thinking instead of headlong speed. By slowing down and observing with greater sensitivity, we can hope to face each challenge with the right calm-happy, lazy-driven, optimistic-pessimistic, black-white, free-disciplined, push-pull, fast-clear, low-straight, give-take, yin-yang response.