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.

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.


Squat Virtue

I’ll start this one off by saying that I hope no one minds a little frank discussion of bathrooms and their function. I am only writing this because in my own transition to Chinese plumbing, a little frankness might have saved me some trouble, and taboos aside, it is interesting contrasting two solutions to this most basic of human problems.

Many people in the US and elsewhere have probably never even seen a plumbing fixture like the squat toilet that is the standard in China. It is essentially a porcelain hole in the floor, rigged to flush (hopefully). I think most westerners, when they first come to China, are a little shocked by this and try to avoid using one as much as possible. Admittedly, China’s sub-par standards for plumbing installation further aggravate the issue, because the squat toilet room is frequently badly built and quickly becomes filthy as a result. But I believe that many if not all of us eventually come to accept the squat toilet for its virtues, and may even prefer them to western seat toilets. As the saying goes, “You know you’ve been in China too long when the footprints on the toilet seat are your own.”

Learning to use Chinese toilets is further complicated by social taboo. When we are children, adults teach us to use the facilities provided. When the available facilities change, however,  a little instruction would be valuable. But as adults the subject is not easily broached. I know I could have used the following hints: First, bring your own toilet paper with you, everywhere. In the West, if you need tissue, you can count on finding something in a public restroom. In China, only the fanciest hotels provide this service, and you don’t want to get caught out. Second, gathering your garments around your ankles gets in the way; gather your garments around your knees. Third, if a toilet brush is visible nearby, it is very good manners to clean up after yourself a bit, especially if you are someone’s guest (squat toilet design is a little inefficient in the flushing department).

As for the virtues of squatting, there are several, of which here are two. For one thing, regardless of the hygienic standards of the bathroom you are using, squatting means you won’t really be touching anything objectionable. You may find yourself in a closet that is a far cry from an interior designer’s dream of an airy, sunlit commode, but you are not actually risking infection if you squat.

Second, the daily repetition of the act of squatting is fantastic for the health, flexibility, and strength of the ankles, knees, and hips. The squatted sitting position is iconic of China; you can see people relaxing in this position on door steps, on the street, and in the park– just about anywhere. Think about the West, however. When if ever do we support our weight with our hips below the level of our knees? This kind of strength is crucial for standing up from sitting or lying on the ground, say, after falling down. But in our culture of chairs, we never exercise our legs past the range of motion defined by 90° angles at the knees and hips. So we reach, say, age 40, and getting up from the ground has become an exhausting 12 step process, prohibitively difficult. We chalk it up to getting old, but that’s just not right. Elderly people here get up and down pretty easily. And I think it all starts with reps in the bathroom.

Illusions of Power

On the subject of internal arts and the effects of emotions, I’d like to talk about anger a bit. It is the emotion that I am most aware of struggling with in my own training, and I see it every day in others.

I think the allure of anger is that anger feels powerful. When the world is not as we want it to be, or we don’t like how we are treated by others, it is comforting to feel we are kings, as if our displeasure has the ability to reform things to our liking. When we are angry, we do not feel helpless, we do not feel vulnerable.

For an example of anger, let’s consider weapons shop vendors here in Wudang. My classmates and I are learning spear, so the other day I had to go to one of these shops. I struggle to finance my training, and I can not afford to throw money around carelessly on anything. However, it is standard practice in these shops that when a foreigner walks in the first quote rockets up above %1,000 and no amount of haggling will lower it to any realistic value (I am not exaggerating, and thank the rich, gullible tourists for that). Despite my best efforts, the best price I could get was 70 yuan, down from an original quote of 110 yuan, while my Chinese kungfu brother walked out of the store with the same spear for 20 yuan.

This makes me angry, and in my anger I feel righteous. I think, ” They’ll regret making me angry. My friends and I will never shop there again. I’ll write a blog about these jerks and ruin them internationally. I ought to go back there and throw a brick through the window of the shop, I’ll… I’ll…” But reality sets in and each of these angry thoughts is revealed as pointless and wrong. I will have to go back to that crook the next time I need a new weapon. My friends will do the same. Gouging customers is how these guys make their living, and no one blinks at it. That brick, though tempting, would be cowardly, petty, and probably make a lot of trouble for me, my master, and other foreigners in the area. Once I have left the store with my purchase, I am every bit as powerless as I feel. My anger does violence to me, and that vendor doesn’t lose any sleep at all.

Truly that vendor is part of my training, a sparring partner of sorts. I have to accept the fact that he is part of a system that is so much larger than me that I can not fight it. What can I do? I must proceed in a yielding way. I can try to learn to haggle better. I can make friends and they can shop on my behalf. I can be thankful that as a white American male, I have been given an opportunity to understand discrimination and compassion as I would never have understood it had I stayed in my own culture. But most importantly, I have to learn that though is nice to imagine myself as a king in my castle, inviolable and potent, there will always be forces in this world greater than me and lesser than me. And regardless of my actual ability to change my surroundings, I must be able to relate to them with tranquility. Thus, China itself tempers me.

I sometimes worry about how I will someday teach these lessons to Americans at home, where everyone tells you you can, “have it your way.” Anyway, more next time.

And if, in the unforeseeable future, I find myself in charge of regulating commercial tourism practices in Wudang, that salesman had better keep his head down ;-p.

Tai Chi class begins Nov. 15th

Just want to introduce you to our newest program at Balanced Life Skills.  On Sunday mornings at 10 AM we will have a Tai Chi class.  If you ever wanted to look into this form of art, this is your chance. 

I encourage you come out and try your first class for FREE.   To see the instructor perform and find information about the class please go to our Tai Chi web page.  Tai Chi  

We look forward to seeing you on Sunday’s.   The first class will be held on November 15th at 10 AM