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

X-men: Paradigms of Perfect Health

Colossus_and_WolverineAny description of life for me and my class would be incomplete without some small mention of hypothetical X-men questions. If you aren’t familiar with the X-men, I’ll refer you to the movies that have come out over the last few years portraying these superhero mutants from Marvel comic books, each with distinctive super-human abilities. If you are familiar with the X-men, you may have played this game yourself with some friends. You ask, “Would you rather have Storm’s powers or Rogue’s?” Or “Would you rather be able to teleport or be able to fly?” The question on my mind today is this: which is better, Colossus’s hard invulnerability or Wolverine’s seemingly infinite healing capacity?

Now bear with me. I know this question is pointless, except in that it parallels my own shifting sense of what is healthy. When I was living and exercising in the U.S., I used to think a hard muscle was a strong muscle. I suspect many people out there think the same way. However, others may have changed their minds, like I did. I have come to believe that a happy, strong muscle is soft. A hard muscle is one that can not relax. Either through bad posture habits or chronic mental tension, the muscle is always in a state of contraction. Often this hardness is even a sign of weakness: a muscle in the body that is too weak to do its job efficiently gradually locks down into a sort of brittle death grip. Hardness is a sign of blocked circulation and imminent failure, not strength. A healthy muscle has strength ample for the tasks that will be asked of it, and is able to relax when not called upon to contract. Because it is loose, blood, fluid, and nutrients circulate freely and easily within it and through it to other parts of the body, so it recovers from injury more easily.

I have also come to think about the immune system in a similar way. I feel like in the west no one trusts their immune system very much. We go to great lengths to keep microorganisms outside our skin, because we take it for granted that once they’re in they will do us harm. This seems to me to be a brittle and ultimately futile strength. Though we must be careful not to take in too many pathogens or toxins, accepting that we are permeable to our environment seems vital to me. The body has mechanisms that filter toxins, generate cells, and repair what is broken. We must trust in these sometimes, augment and strengthen them, and they will serve us much better than gallons of hand sanitizer.

Sound familiar? Kind of like Colossus and Wolverine, right? Not so much? Oh well, that doesn’t matter. What I think is important is spreading a more accurate idea of what a healthy body really is. If, when we train, we focus on how to strengthen and augment the body’s natural resilience, we stand a much better chance of weathering the health obstacles that life throws in our path.

Why do I ponder the relative merits of comic book heroes? What can I say — my class spends an awful lot of time together, and these days, who isn’t a nerd at heart?

Economics of Qi

IMG_3588Ok, so my knowledge of qi is still fairly rudimentary, and my knowledge about money is even worse, but I’ve been thinking and observing a bit and thought this was clever.

Have you ever noticed the guy with the fancy car but no money for rent? Or the kid with $100 shoes but no lunch money? It sometimes seems like the people with the least money to spend are sometimes the most ostentatious with it. I think I understand this feeling: sometimes spending money feels like having money, and when you’ve been without long enough, that feeling is impossible to resist. Looking at people’s behavior, I think qi is very much the same. If after a hard week at work you feel drained of vitality, many people’s solution is to stay out late Friday and Saturday night, sleep little, drink too much, spend their body’s energy excessively. Because spending that energy feels like having energy — spending that life force feels like being alive. But this behavior ensures that you never actually have any energy to spare, and you end up burning up the body’s vital reserves instead. Monday morning you are worse off than Friday.

We’ve all heard, “Sometimes you have to spend money to make money.” This certainly seems true, and successful businessmen do seem to spend a lot. But obviously they spend their money on improving their ability to earn money — investing back into their business. What I do training kungfu is nothing if not a similar treatment of qi. We train day in and day out, and spend most of the week completely physically exhausted. But the energy we spend, we spend on improving our bodies and our health, so that in the end we are able to make more energy than we spent to get it. Our bodies get richer and richer — recover faster, heal faster, digest food better, sleep better. One notices that being lazy doesn’t really give you more energy — you have to spend qi to make qi.

This last point I can only speculate on from watching masters of banking and kungfu, but there seems to be a parallel here as well. Banks seem to spin money out of thin air, and Wall street investment seems to make something out of nothing. And watching my kungfu elders, this also seems to be the case: if one is adept enough, the qi seems to appear out of nowhere.

I am not sure that there is anything particularly profound to be learned by comparing these two fairly abstract concepts of value and energy, except that maybe we should be very clear about how and where we spend, so that there is always more coming in to replace it. And we must be honest with ourselves about the nature of our expenditures, and know the difference between indulgence and investment.


Kungfu Attitude

I IMG_3555missed my usual blogging goal this last couple weeks because I was very excited to have my first ever visitor from home. I was trying to be a good host and put myself in the frame of mind of a newcomer, thinking back to when I first came to China and when I first came to my master’s school. I realized how much my own attitude has changed in the years since my arrival, how it has become a kungfu attitude.

When I first arrived in China, there were a number of things I had accepted as facts about myself. I knew my stomach had problems: I knew I would get seasick before my friends or a stomach ache if I got nervous. I knew that I got colds a few times a year. I knew that I got angry about the things I encountered in China pretty often. These and other observations were a minor appendage to my self-identity. I ascribed them to genetics, or just “that’s how I am.”

Somewhere along the line in the years since my thinking has changed. Part of it is the belief that it’s not just a matter of, “that’s how I am,” but that these are weaknesses that I can improve if I set out to do so. It’s a combination of accepting responsibility and raising awareness. I know that if I am wise about my dress, diet, and exercise, I need not get sick and my stomach is happy. I know that through meditation and attention, I can avoid the anger I used to feel. These things are in my control if I take control of them.

I am reminded of this time when I was a young teenager. I was walking out of a science museum in North Carolina with my Aunt, and I obliviously let the door slam in her face behind me. She yelled at me — gave me a really hard time for being rude and inconsiderate. I thought at the time, “How can you possibly expect me to keep track of who is behind me when I go through a door? That’s like trying to see the back of my own head!” But her admonishment helped me to realize that a higher level of responsibility and care were both possible and expected. That is a kind of kungfu attitude.

The kungfu attitude is summed up, to me, in a quote I heard from another student here at the school. “Chinese medicine does not ask why you are sick, it asks why you aren’t well.” A person has the potential to be perfectly happy and healthy, and any obstacle keeping us from that well-being is able to be improved upon by long-term effort. When I grasp this completely, I believe I will really understand kungfu.