Once or twice a year, the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts holds a gashuku– a (mini) weekend or (full) week-long period of training in the wilderness. This year’s week-long gashuku was held at the Stirling Ranges, and was an incredible and memorable experience.
My first encounter with Wu-Wei Dao was mindblowing, and I learned techniques, applications and concepts that had never before occurred to me. This was my second gashuku (not including my own attempt at holding a training camp in Beth’s back yard), and I’d been training with them for over a year, so I had a good idea of what to expect. Our schedule ran something like this: every morning at 6am, we got up for some taiji, went for a half hour run, honed our basic techniques, had cold showers, ate cereal, drank tea and mused over life and the warrior way, trained, had lunch, trained somemore, practiced with weapons, did yoga, showered, had dinner, and slept before 10pm. To be perfectly honest, this gashuku seemed much less enchanting and difficult than my first one- I put this down to knowing what to expect and being familiar with the syllabus, rather than being thrown in the deep end in a whole new system like last time. And I think I’ve grown a lot, physically and spiritually- I still endured all the same bruises, sorenesses, cuts, cold, hunger, tiredness, but it bothered me less- they were just part of ordinary life, and not worth drawing attention to. I think, as a whole, I weathered the training quite well- perhaps too well. Aside from those agonising morning runs, I didn’t really push myself to my limit as much as I expected I would have had to- perhaps I knew in the back of my mind that I couldn’t go all out because I needed my energy to last for a whole day. Whatever the reasons, the afternoons seemed to be spent refining technical skills, and only the mornings really challenged my spirit.
One thing we did quite a lot of was mountain climbing. The Stirling Ranges are a mountain retreat, and in the end, I (and a handful of others who elected to do the optional climbs) scaled Mount Trio, Mount Hassel, Ellen Peak, Baker’s Knob, Pyongerup Peak, and the Third, Second and First Arrows. This was one of the major aspects of the gashuku, and we had been forewarned that we would spend a day, a night, and most of another day trekking through the mountains. In essence, we rose early with our packs bulging with water, rations and survival gear, and set out across the mountain range, climbing each summit as it came.
In the many hours we spent trudging along rocky paths, pushing our way through vegetation, scrambling up beds of scree, slipping on dewy rocks, sliding down sandy banks, squelching through mud and scaling cliff faces, I found that I was never bored. Apart from the attention required to keep a good pace, the process of being on a journey that would take hours, to reach a cave in the mountains somewhere before dusk, was quite romantic. It was like something out of Eragon or Game of Thrones, and it was very satisfying to see our destination inch closer hour by hour, through our persistent effort. I also discovered that I’m quite a good rock climber, and have no issues scaling near-vertical walls of stone with a heavy pack and uncertain footing.
The adventures of the day were more enjoyable than the night though: the “cave” we slept in was still subject to sudden and freezing wind, and as we were not allowed to bring sleeping bags (in order to make it fair for everyone- someone with a $200 sleeping bag would be more comfortable than someone with a $15 bag), it was a frigid and restless night. The survival bags we slept in very uncomfortable- they were essentially big plastic bags which trapped heat and moisture inside them. One of the (many) times I woke up during the night, I realised that the moisture trapped in the bag had soaked through my two pairs of socks to chill my feet. This triggered a sense of panic in me, because I once caught hypothermia from climbing a mountain in the rain and then going to sleep with wet clothes on. In my semi-conscious state, I leapt out of my survival bag and despaired that my only other pair of socks were damp with sweat, so I ended up sleeping in my slightly less-damp hiking boots. I also had some intense stomach pain that night, and despite my resolution to “hold it” until we got back to the retreat, I ended up going out into the darkness with my head torch and a roll of toilet paper, and digging a hole in the bush. It was nightmarish and terrifying (I prayed to God that nothing would bite me), yet I have to admit, it felt surprisingly natural- it’s an act that humans have done for millenia, and it was a peculiarly grounding experience.
The morning after was also pretty exciting. We were so high up that we were in the clouds, so all we could see was white mist all around us. Furthermore, WA had a particularly nasty cold front throughout the week, so drizzles of rain and relentless wind challenged us at every step. I could literally lean off the mountainside at a 30 or 40 degree angle and have the wind support me. It was quite thrilling to try and climb down a rock face when the wind would change directions suddenly and push you back a step when you intended to walk forwards. We made it down eventually, hunched over and lowering ourselves to sit on each rock as it came.
Other challenges we faced included Kancho’s ceaseless pranks (read: lies). On the drive down, I called him to ask where we were meeting for lunch, and he told me that everyone else was already at the retreat and I was hours behind schedule. Little did I know that this was one of the many “Kanchoisms” I would fall for. My complete trust in all people was abused again and again as I was conned into thinking that we were climbing the mountain with only 500ml of water and a muesli bar. That we were taking imported Himalayan dried apples in our ration packs. That Bruce Lee died from ingesting marijuana. That we needed to camouflage the car with leaves and branches so that the Ranger didn’t fine us for parking illegally in a firebreak. That we had a compulsory one hour nap after lunch in order to rest our bodies. Or that Basil Lupis, Pinjarra’s top DJ, would be at a local cafe for their annual bootscoot/hootenanny. And those were just the ones I fell for- he spun all kinds of crazy tales about fancy French menus, mosquito beards, gold coin donations in the cave and other such nonsense. When Kancho told me that the kitchen tent had blown away, I finally said “I don’t believe you!” As it turned out, he wasn’t lying. Having been betrayed so many times in the past week, even when I asked him if he was being serious, I’m still having some residual issues telling fact from fiction.
Also, I’m a little sad to say that I failed the 30 Day Cold Shower Challenge. Although I had committed to it on a whim (just because Rob was doing it), I finally caved and had a hot shower one night after a freezing session of yoga. And then again after we returned from the mountain, having spent the night shivering. Although the challenge is officially over, I’m still going to continue taking cold showers to remind me of the discipline I forged, and to treasure the exquisite experience of having running water.
Perhaps most importantly of all, I learned a lot about life during that week in the mountains. It took time, but eventually my mind began to quiet and my thoughts began to slow. I stopped caring so much about always doing things and keeping busy, and I started enjoying just sitting down at a table. It’s hard to imagine that mindstate now, but after the night in that cave, I was so happy to return to the two-person tent I was sharing with Rob. I had enough room to roll out a sleeping bag, and I could even keep two bags nearby. It was luxury to have so much space for me and my few possessions! Coming back to the city was overwhelming at first- I was really confused by the first traffic light that stopped me- it seemed to strange for someone to tell me when I needed to stop. I knew how to drive, I knew how to let other cars in, yet some outside system was regulating my driving for me. It seemed so unnecessary. It got even more confronting to see a McDonalds, a billboard, a shopping complex… As Rob put it, I instantly wanted chips, a new bicycle and a better tent. I didn’t need any of that stuff, but somehow being around the advertising made it normal to want it. It was as if I had been temporarily freed from a great and unnecessary illusion: the idea that “stuff will make you happy”. What a ridiculous notion! Yet it’s what our society survives on. It’s what our society thrives on. My time in the mountains taught me how little I need to survive, and more importantly, to be happy. Yeah, I missed watching Mulan or playing Resident Evil, but I wouldn’t have wanted to plug a TV into my tent to go with my fully sick muffler. Being disconnected from facebook, text, email and phone was ridiculously liberating- it gave me an enormous sense of independence. Why would anyone want to be so hyperconnected all the time? It boggles the mind.
Having spent a day back in this material world, it’s been confronting, irritating and a little unsatisfying. I just want to grab everyone I meet by the shoulders, give them a good hard shake and say “Everything you’re worried about is unimportant! Get some perspective!” I know that I can’t maintain this spiritual revelation forever and I’ll soon forget the experiences I had, but for a little while at least, I’d like to keep going to bed early and rising with the sun. I’d like to keep eating healthy snacks and in moderate amounts. (The first three things I ate when I got back to the city were Pringles, hot chips and ginger ale. I went on to have birthday cake later that evening, and after lunch the next day I felt like having chocolate to cleanse my pallet. I was a little disgusted that I could slip into old habits so easily after all I’d experienced, and perhaps more importantly, it made me physically ill to eat so much sugar.) I’d like to stop spending money on material goods that won’t change the quality of my life by one iota. Life is so, so simple: eat, sleep, and enjoy things while you still can. Yet we fill it with so much crap and wonder why we’re miserable. Just for a little while, I would like to be like the spiritual masters of old and live simply, kindly and humbly.
So that was gashuku! Some things you only learn by heading out into the wilderness and training for eight hours a day. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested. Can’t wait to get back to training tomorrow. Night everyone!