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.

My Younger Older Brothers

As you may have seen in movies, the Kungfu community here has a family and generational structure. Our master would be the father figure (Shifu), his master is the grandfather figure (Shiye), anyone who studied under our master’s master would be our aunt or uncle (Shushu), and anyone who studies under our master is our brother or sister. Brothers are further divided into older and younger, those who started studying before you (Shixiong), or those who started after (Shidi). Respect flows up this structure, as you might expect. So in my bumbling foreign way, I try to show respect to those above me and do what they say.

I am becoming more and more aware of the strange ways this structure juxtaposes with other issues in my life here, specifically in my interactions with my older kungfu brothers who are younger than me in age. I owe them respect, both because of tradition and because they are very skillful teachers. Further, they are at home in this culture and I look to them for guidance in how I conduct myself. So I frequently find myself imitating them almost unconsciously. Oh, that’s how I should do that stance. Oh, that’s what I do when Shiye visits.

Seeing them as role models in these ways sometimes blinds me as to their actual age, and I find myself imitating pretty immature behavior. Because in addition to kungfu teachers and Chinese natives, they are also 15-18 year old kids going through all the same bewildering stuff I went through not all that long ago. They are learning what professionalism means, what accountability means, learning about relationships, and learning about the world beyond the walls of the kungfu school and beyond the borders of China.

So I find myself in the strange situation of having to sometimes be a role model for my role models. It is difficult, because one frequently forgets if one should be learning or teaching at a given moment. Two people teaching each other at the same instant tends to devolve into an argument, and sometimes two learners becomes a case of the blind leading the blind. In truth, more often than not we all fall down and all behave like children, but I hope that in some ways I am having a good impact on them even as I learn from them.

Pain and Injury as Part of Training Life

It has been my observation that the practice of martial arts revolves around the question of balancing training with injury. For the most practical, combative training, one probably wants to spar a lot. One adds rules to the sparring, because otherwise people get badly hurt. Even with rules, people get hurt sooner or later, so instead of hitting one another, martial artists often hit targets. This is important because one can not progress if one’s training is constantly interrupted recovering from injury. Safer still would be hitting only air, but I can tell you even Taiji can hurt your joints pretty badly while you are learning to coordinate your movements. So it seems to me that every martial artist confronts this question every time they approach training: How am I going to do this today and still be able to do it tomorrow?

Class two students practicing body hardening

This is on my mind these days, because we have been training pretty hard and I am consequently in a bit of pain. We are expected to train if we are able, and none of my injuries are serious enough to demand that I miss training, but they are all painful and they create mental stress. This in itself is a form of training, of course; maintaining emotional calm when every movement hurts.

The conclusion people come to, I think, is that there are two kinds of pain, good pain and bad pain, and both are valuable sources of information about what is going on in your body.  Specific pains can be a wealth of information about the balance of strength in different tendons and muscles. Good pain tells you that you are going beyond your current limits and improving. Bad pain tells you that if you keep going, you will do such damage that your training will have to be interrupted by recovery. One wants to push the line that divides the two as far as one can, so that though training is difficult, it can remain continuous.

As for the injuries that do inevitably occur when training hard, I am not a doctor but my experience has shown me that rest is not the best cure. Rest is necessary, but attentive light exercise will stimulate circulation, help the metabolism deliver energy and nutrients to the damaged area, and reduce recovery time. At least that is what I hope will happen, because my ribs are really sore…:-)

Daily Life at Wudang Daoist Traditional Kungfu Academy

As I start this blog, I want to try to give you a picture of my day to day existence.

Open Class Morning Qigong

A typical day of training looks like this. We get up at 6:00 (this and all times vary by season) and do an hour or so of qigong, taiji, or other internal basics before breakfast.  At 8:15 we assemble outside the school, wearing our uniforms and carrying our weapons and other practice gear, and we walk alongside the wall of Yuxugong temple to the front gate, where we enter the temple and start stretching. After 20 minutes we begin warm-ups and basic exercises, which are usually low stances or striking combinations. After about an hour, we rest and then do some conditioning, usually sit-ups. After that, we go through our forms as a group — that is, standing in a grid pattern and practicing matching our speed and position to the students around us while trying to execute the movements clearly. Morning class ends at 11:00. We return to the school, eat lunch, and rest until around 2:45, and then we go back to Yuxugong. Afternoon practice usually includes kicking basics followed by more group form practice. At 5:00 we end class for dinner. At 7:00 we meditate for a little over an hour, and then we prepare for bed. Lots of rest is important for our training, so we go to sleep early and get ready to do it again the next day.

This pattern repeats Friday through Tuesday. On Wednesday we have a school performance where we show our master our forms and demonstrate our progress. Wednesday afternoon and Thursday we rest and clean the school.

Yihui Shixiong in front of Class Four

We students are organized into 5 classes. There is the Open class, for short term students, and there are four Traditional classes. Class One contains the coaches. They are students who have been training with our master for 5 years or more and who teach the Open and Traditional classes while Master rotates between them. Class Two is a group of teenage Chinese students who have been training at the school for roughly 2 or more years. Class Three is the traditional class for non-Chinese; my class. Class Four is the traditional class for newer students who are not yet ready for Class Two. This hierarchy also represents a structure of command to some degree, whereby this large and energetic group of people is coordinated and disciplined.

Though we have fun, I think people who have served and trained in the military or similarly rigorous programs might best understand the discipline and structure of our lives and how that feels. Living this way for a day or a week was challenging to begin with, but it is the unrelenting structure that is the most wearing and ultimately works such amazing changes in the students here. This is the backdrop I hope you will keep in mind as I write posts about the special and unusual things that happen to me.