Archive for November 10th, 2015

10
Nov
15

Simple, boring, painful, time-consuming 耗

There is a Chinese expression that “Gongfu comes out of Hao (功夫是耗出来的)”.

Hao (耗): expend, consumed, dawdle, waste, exhaust, wear out.

In martial art practice Hao means holding a particular pose, and just stay there for long periods of time. Martial art is art of movement, so why do people place such emphasis on static training?

This addresses a common problem in martial art training. That people by nature find certain things more exciting, interesting to practice. Everyone loves practicing skill, technique, whereas holding a hamstring stretch for 30 minutes at a time is a lot less appealing. However, most basic training such as flexibility and post standing requires Hao type of training. Basics are important because they are the foundation. The strength of the foundation puts a limit on how high a building could be.

Hao Tui

In everyday usage, when people say hao shijian (耗时间), it means wasting time doing meaningless activity. But that’s not the case with training. Beyond basics, there are many aspects of martial art training that looks simple, boring, and repetitive, but that’s exactly where we develop our gongfu. Hence the expression “Practicing skill without practicing gongfu, in the end we have nothing (练武不练功,到头一场空).”

Another aspect of Hao that discourages people is that it’s often painful. So this is when we get questions like “can we listen to music when we practice?” Here what we’re really asking is “can I at least mentally disengage from this activity, and get some short-term gratification?” Actually pain is a teacher, it tells us a lot about the strength and weaknesses of our body. We should instead go deeper into the practice, and investigate it: where is the pain (in the muscle I want to stretch, or in the tendons and ligaments), what kind of pain is it (soreness or sharp/wrong kind of pain), is it caused by something else (if it’s in a joint, is it because weakness in muscles, so this part is overcompensating), etc.

In martial art practice as in life, results are determined by what we focus our attentions to, what we spend our time on. We naturally prefer certain types of things, and neglect, belittle the importance of things that seems easy to understand, boring, painful, and takes a very long time. But often it is those seemingly simple things that are of key importance, deserving of our full attention.

10
Nov
15

Reverence and Fear 敬畏

PBS did a good documentary on the making of Samurai swords. The program weaves together footage of craftsman making the sword in the traditional manner along with lucid scientific explanations of the process in modern language by professors of metallurgy and religious studies from a prestigious engineering school.

One of the comments that caught my teacher’s attention was how by treating the process as a sacred religious ritual, it in fact has the effect of quality control. The Japanese people really believed all things in nature are imbued with spirits. And a finely made sword was the spirit of Samurai. Therefore every step of the forging process must be taken seriously, as if it’s a religious ritual. During a ritual, every tiny detail must be attended to carefully, as you feel you are in the presence of god, and any mistake would bring severe punishment. This mentality is called Jing Wei (敬畏) – reverence and fear.

For my teacher, who teaches western students internal martial art and Qigong, this represents an everyday challenge in which tradition clashes with modernity.

The human mind has a very deeply-seated need for the world to make sense, for things to happen for a good reason. From earliest days of civilization, we have been creating explanations for phenomenons we crave to understand. In the case of Chinese culture, the early theories we came up with for how nature works involves Taiji, Wuxing, and Bagua. For disciplines like internal martial art and Qigong, many of the terminologies and explanations for various practices have these mythological/philosophical origins.

Since that time we have come to know a great deal more about how nature works, theories that makes the ancient ones seems naive and childish by comparison. The challenge then is when teaching modern day students, do we still use the old languages and terminologies? That is actually very hard. Here’s a practical example: one of the foundation building (zhu ji 筑基)exercises in Qigong is called Cai Qi – gathering of Qi. The exercises involves breathing exercises done at dawn and full moon, using arm motions that look like the practitioner is literally reaching out to gather the sun/moon with his arms, then bringing it down into the dantian – like a mythical creature swallowing the sun/moon.

Do I believe this process actually brings in yang/yin energy into my body as it is described, I am deeply skeptical. But what I am not skeptical is the actual results of Qigong exercise, of doing breathing exercises, of getting up early, regularly to exercise. But here lies the problem: if I am skeptical of the process, then I will not get the full benefit of it. Why would that be the case, because as we say in Chinese: 心理影响生理 – psychology affects physiology.

It’s common sense that one’s mental state has a huge effect not just on performance of physical tasks, but the body itself. Anyone who has been under prolonged mental distress can attest to that. So how does this affect Qigong practice? Well, if you don’t believe the power of the sun, that you think it’s just a tool to get you perform a bigger movement, you can then do that exercise in a cramped apartment, just imagine the big sun with your mind. But for a beginner at least, it is much more beneficial if he were actually at a mountain top, at crack of dawn, being able to actually gaze up at the huge sun directly without fear of eye damage, bathed in fresh morning air, and do this exercise. The feeling, and the effect, will be dramatically different. To be in the presence of something big can bring that correct feeling out directly, easily. It’s like meditating in a quiet place versus in the middle of Time Square.  Yes, ultimately we should be able to put our minds in a calm state anywhere, anytime, but to learn that skill, to experience that deep calmness in the first place, it helps if we are in a more remote, isolated setting.  If we only practice in less idea settings, we may never know what our goal (real, deep calmness) is like.

Yin Qi

So here is the dilemma: in the old days not only do people believe in these theories and explanations, but the teacher student relationship was different. When the teacher says do something, the student obeys without questioning. People believed this is the only way the teacher student relationship can work, the same way people still believe unquestioned obedience to all orders is the only way military can work. However, modern students often demand full explanation before they carry out the practice. But once you start explaining the reason you’re asking them to go out at night on the 15th, 16th, and 17th of the month is because that is when Yin Qi of the moon is at its strongest, they will most likely reject that explanation and not do the exercise the way traditionally prescribed, and risk not mastering the skill. So here’s a very interesting example of being rational and thoughtful actually impeding our training.

In traditional Chinese culture the number one criteria for success in any practice is called Cheng 诚. Cheng means honesty, sincerity, loyalty. In terms of practice, it means believing 100% in what you’re trying to achieve, and the prescribed method for reaching those goals. That you trust your teachers, who obviously reached those goals by those means, that you just need to persevere and work hard until you succeed. Much emphasis has been placed on not having “impure thoughts (杂念)”. Here impure means miscellaneous elements that keeps a thought/belief (“swallow the moon”) from being 100% pure. So these could be doubts, or other random thoughts that arise naturally that could distract from our practice.

So my own thoughts about this is the same as I have for acupuncture and other traditional medicine – it’s obviously a technology/methodology with demonstrable results. To get the result, I will follow the steps faithfully, and ignore for the time-being traditional theories that explains why it works. After I get the feeling, I can maybe make modifications (just imagine the sun and the moon, no matter what time of day and where I am) or improvements.




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