Push-hands with the Elements

IMG_3548There is a common two-person Tai Chi practice walled tuishou, or push-hands. It seems, from what I have seen, that it varies in its details from school to school, but I hope the core practice is the same. Two practitioners stand and push one another, trying to maintain constant contact while looking for the opening to unbalance their partner. The secret, as far as I have grasped it, is the smooth and accurate transition from pushing to yielding in perfect synchronicity with your partner’s transition: when the other person is pushing at 80% power, you are exactly 80% yielding. When they are 30% yielding, you are exactly 30% pushing. One can not be always pushing or always yielding: obviously always yielding gets you knocked over, and always pushing seems strong but against a skilled opponent gets overbalanced. Clearly this requires great skill and sensitivity. There is no single “answer” that solves the “problem” each and every time, only by reacting well to the constantly changing situation does one stay on one’s feet.

In this way, push-hands becomes one way to understand Taiji. Taiji is the Daoist philosophy of ever-shifting opposites. This is the philosophy the physical practice of Taijiquan attempts to capture. This practice has in turn become known (somewhat confusingly) as just Taiji, or Tai Chi (See what we did there? Made a nice little circle).

So I bring this up in an attempt to offer, once and for all, my solution to what is known in my class as, “THE HAT QUESTION.” Shifu has told us, “You must protect your health, and so you must keep your body warm in the winter.” He has also said, “Don’t wear hats during training.” So the question is this: do we or do we not wear hats to protect our health in training? And I think the answer is Taiji. Taiji the philosophy, not Taiji the physical practice — although I guess exercise helps stay warm too 🙂

If we imagine the weather as our push-hands partner, I think it becomes clear. When we are at rest, say, in our room, we are in a yielding, receptive state. The weather, cold and harsh, pushes against us. Bundling up is the passive response to cold weather, so we must bundle up. However, to maintain balance, we can’t be passive all the time, sometimes we must stoke the body’s internal fires and push back against the cold. When this happens, we don’t need or want a hat —  it is a crutch that limits us and a blockage to the natural path of the body heat rising from our center.

The answer is that there is no single answer for every situation, hat or no hat. We must match our head covering to the weather and our own state of yielding or surging. Right now, are you more yin or more yang? But since Shifu is Shifu, and he expects us be fired up for training, we should be pushing against the weather during training and not wearing a hat. So no hat.

It’s funny to be writing about bundling up when it is just August and I am stewing in my own sweat every moment of every day. But the principle of trying to match my body and behavior to the circumstances still applies if I am trying to figure out if I should be strolling in a blessedly cool afternoon rain shower, or running for cover.

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.


Atmosphere of Change

SL371526Today one of my favorite of my Chinese older kungfu brothers left to try to make his own way outside the kungfu school. Yuan Huailiang is a great young man, the kind of guy I look up to a lot, even though he is years younger than me and has seen less of the world. For one thing, he is an incredibly gifted athlete: his every movement exudes grace and strength that I envy. But more so than that, he is someone I have watched change into a really calm, confident, open person.

When I first came to Wudang and met Huailiang, when he was maybe 17 or 18, he seemed like kind of an angry kid. I remember sitting down at a meal across the table from him. I was already a little in awe of him, having seen his kungfu and how he moved, but as I sat there across from him he fixed me with this stare. He later told me that he had actually practiced that look in  a mirror a bit. It was the look of a predator at a watering hole, incredibly dangerous but for the moment tolerating your presence. I don’t think he wanted me to sit with him 🙂 I thought, “Wow, this is a powerful kid.” But it was also an angry, unhappy kid.

Being in awe of his kungfu and raw attitude was cool, but what is better is how he soon after grew out of that angry phase and seemed to find himself. His emotions calmed down, he became much more focused in his teaching and training, and though he to this day maintains a little of the crazy that I first glimpsed at that lunch table, it is channeled through easy laughter and playfulness. Last summer we were playing hackysack. When we kicked it to him he immediately started volleying it high in the air, letting it drop through the loop of his arms, and kicking it back up time and time again with a completely spontaneous aptitude for the game. He just laughed, a pure expression of joy, as we chased him around trying to get the hackysack back. That light heart does not keep him from his responsibilities, however, and he is one of the best, most capable and thoughtful coaches our school has had.

What I want to illustrate, through my little anecdotes about Huailiang, is the value of having a culture where people are expected to change. Shifu is always encouraging us to develop and grow at a very fundamental emotional level, and of course teaching us techniques to effect that change. That is what I had the pleasure of seeing Huailiang do – completely change his outlook, practically overnight. And I have seen many, many foreign students do the same thing. I really give a lot of credit to that atmosphere of expectation that grants the freedom for us to re-define ourselves. In other places and times of my life, I have felt as though I had to continue to be who I had been because that was what others expected of me. I do not feel that here — the expectation is that I will change, that I will become better and better.


Another Milestone

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA few weeks ago my class finished learning Dadao (literally “big knife,” dadao is a blade on the end of a staff) and crossed a small threshold in our training. Dadao was the last form in our curriculum. While checking forms off of a list is by no means a meaningful way of measuring a martial arts education, I think we all felt it was a notable accomplishment. And more than that, it is one of the first of our “lasts”. As the months tick away to our “graduation,” we will pass more of these milestones until the day comes when we have to leave this place that has become our home.

There is a quotation by everyone’s favorite kungfu practitioner, Bruce Lee. “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Thinking this way, I used to resist learning new forms. I wanted to practice the forms I knew until I felt really good at them. I will just say, Bruce Lee was absolutely right, but I was wrong.

For one thing, I drastically underestimated the number of hours of training that make up five years. Without dogmatically limiting myself, there has still been time enough to do each and every form I know many, many, many more times than is comfortable.

Second, each of these forms is a teacher in itself, and even if I can’t claim to have mastered even one of them, each influences me and molds me. The longfist forms teach me extension. Dragon teaches me body technique. Taiji teaches me balance and focus. Sword teaches me coordination beyond my limbs, and monk spade strengthens and stabilizes my stances. I can’t stay in Wudang forever, and these teachers are ones I can take with me when I go.

It was also ridiculous of me to think I would ever feel that I was “good” at any of these forms. We improve and progress, but each step up the ladder just lets you see how much further the ladder goes. If I waited to “master” the basic fist before doing anything else, I would still be practicing it and I would have missed out on all the richness of the other forms.

I am sure that, had I stuck with the basic fist form for five years, I would be pretty impressive at it. But I also think I would have been limited. Remember my blog about cultural blind spots? There are all kinds of blind spots. Learning a new form — learning a different type of movement — forces you to step back and return to a neutral, receptive learning space. If I had just worked on basic fist, I ‘d have worn myself deeper and deeper into a rut, so sure that I understood the bounds of kungfu, even if I had not yet reached them. Taken together, the forms became a cohesive practice that broke me free of some of my limitations.

These forms are a part of me now, I guess. And so, even if learning the last of them marks the beginning of the end of my wonderful time in Wudang, maybe with their help my class and I will be able to take our art home with us, and someday be the kind of teachers who can pass on the deepest treasures of kungfu to the next generation.

Riding a Bike in Winter

T-shirt the guys at work gave me
T-shirt the guys at work gave me

When I am home in Maryland in the winter, I use my bike to get around a lot. As much as I can, I like to get two short bike rides in every day, to and from work. This is not always possible and often when it is possible it remains impractical, but I really like it.

I like it because it is hard, and I find that it is important to make a place in my day to do something difficult, and something that is difficult in an all-absorbing way. When I am actually at work, I do many difficult tasks during the day but they never require much of my body – I am at a computer most of the time. Riding my bike demands physical, mental, and emotional attention. I am in motion, I am dodging cars, I am staying calm in the face of bad drivers. I am dealing with the elements: cold most mornings in January, but wind and rain on the bad days. These things are unpleasant but within my ability to overcome, and there is an emotional cleansing I find when I do overcome them.

I was thinking of this the other day. I had been having a grumpy day – my emotions were not as they should have been, and I couldn’t seem to straighten them out. Word came down the pipe here at the school that we needed to wear our kungfu best and be at afternoon practice half an hour early. There was no reason provided, as is often the case here in China, but the order came from our older brother who got it from the school organizer who we must assume got it from someone he couldn’t say “no” to.

Afternoon training wore on, and nothing happened. By 5:30 we had been training for three hours, we were missing dinner at the school, we were tired, hungry, and uncomfortable in our full uniforms in the hot weather. We still had no idea what was happening, but by 6:00 an important official appeared with retinue for a tour of the temple, and we demonstrated some of our kungfu.

As we were finally leaving the temple, hungry and tired, I realized that I was actually in the best mood I had been in all day – my grumpiness was gone. Somewhere in the process of dealing with actual, concrete adversity that made demands on my body, mind, and emotions, I had cleaned out the emotional grime that had built up in me.

We train kungfu constantly here, and sometimes we lose sight of it in the everyday repetition. It becomes an activity that we do with our body but not with the rest of us. But I think a main purpose of our training is to learn to put ourselves deliberately and completely into whatever task we are set, so that it in turn replenishes us and cleans out the little cares from our lives. I do it this with kungfu, and I do this on my bike in January.

Relationship Premises

dogcatI’ll tell a little story about life here at the kungfu school. Our dormitories are located in a former hospital, in two buildings with a courtyard between. But when I first came here in early 2008, the kungfu school only occupied the front-most  of the two buildings. Shifu acquired the back building shortly before I started studying here full-time.

The rooms of the former hospital had been being used for residence for a while, and there was one occupant who would not leave when the kungfu school took over. In the spirit goodwill, I imagine, no big fuss was made and that man– an older, retired herbal doctor — has continued to live at one end of the dormitory hallway. As a matter of fact, he is my next-door neighbor.

For various reasons, tensions between the kungfu students and my neighbor escalated. Not the least of these was the intrusion of pervasive Chinese culture shock into our ex-patriot stronghold, the one place in China we hoped to call our own. Also, he did not share our training schedule, so when we desperately needed rest he might be having a loud and alcoholic card game with his friends or stomping down the hallway or loudly and revoltingly clearing his throat and spitting on the floor. For a while we even shared a bathroom with the guy, and finding the remains of his having cleaned fish for dinner in your shower drain is never fun. Things bottomed out with multilingual screaming matches in the hallway and hard feelings all around.

But for me there was a significant turning point where my relationship with the guy stopped getting worse and started getting better. That was the moment when I realized he wasn’t going away. I think subconsciously my fellow students acted on the premiss that they could choose not to have this relationship, that if they antagonized him enough, he would move out. When I accepted that he was not going to move out, and that I didn’t want to be the kind of person who would drive him out, the question became not if I was going to have a relationship with this guy, but what kind of relationship ours would be.

There is a degree of satisfaction to be gained just by committing to a thing, that can’t be found while we withhold acceptance of that thing’s actuality. New people or circumstances are like a new piece of furniture that surprises you by appearing in your living room; if you can’t fit it out the door, it is better to rearrange the furniture and make a place for it than to leave it sitting in the middle of the floor.

As for my neighbor, all I really did was smile at him when I saw him in the hallway and compliment him once in a while if I liked his clothes or something. More than my external behavior, my internal behavior changed. When I started acting on the premiss that he was part of my life here in Wudang, his noise, his smelly cooking, his loud TV, it all stopped annoying me because I acknowledged his right to be there.