Kung Fu Masters from China

Just before gashuku, here’s a quick dose of kung fu goodness!

While I was at uni the other day, I noticed a poster for “Kung Fu Masters from China!” Now, when I was about ten years old I saw this really amazing ad on TV: Shaolin monks were doing these sweet kicks and amazing displays of internal and external strength where they would use their chests as chopping boards and cut up vegetables and stuff on their skin. I really wanted to see it, but I lacked the authority to make my parents take me and I missed out. When I saw that poster at uni, a little part of me went “Screw it. I’m an adult, and if I want to see some sweet kung fu action, so help me God I’m going to!” I bought two tickets for Beth and I, and I cherish the memory of the demonstration as one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

There were about four schools of kung fu, and they demonstrated so many different forms (as well as some audience-inclusive, heart-pounding lion dancing). Of the kung fu animal forms, there was tiger, mantis, tiger-crane and others. There were many hard styles whose names were complex and I forget (one looked pretty similar to hung gar, but what do I know of these things?). The performers were tremendously fierce, performing xing (kata) several dozen moves long at a rapid pace, moving through complex footwork and flurries of hand techniques in quick succession. I only saw a few techniques whose concepts and applications were instantly apparent to me, but they were beautiful forms which I’m really excited at the prospect of learning! Karate is awesome, but wushu has a special place in my heart (a place no doubt carved by Jackie Chan while I was growing up). Some day I’d really love to learn patterns with the big sweeping arm movements and rapid strikes and deflections in deep stances with complex, fast-paced footwork (a la Shaolin).


Their version of the Tiger Crane form.

We were treated to a demonstration of calligraphy and tea ceremony while a school performed Wu Dang and Chen style taiji. (For my references, Chen style seemed to have explosive movements and stamping, with a single whip that was aimed at 90 to the stance.) In particular there was an incredible performance of taiji fan; the “Crack!” the performer made as she opened the fan was supremely cool, and I’ve already sent them an email asking which school it was (in the hopes of going along to learn).

Speaking of cracks, there were plenty of weapon demonstrations too. There was the straight sword, the broadsword, double broadsword, long staff, spear, halberd, whip (CRACK!), and these two peculiar rope-weapons that I’ve never seen before. The performer twirled them like poi at such speed that they sounded like flags in the wind, or perhaps paper being pushed into the blades of an electric fan. Some of the performers weren’t as skilled as the others and their choreographed fights were stilted as they waited for attacks to land before responding, but the solo demonstrations were magnificent. I’m not a fan of the “wobbly demonstration blades” commonly seen in tournaments, but all in all it was a beautiful sequence of weapons worthy of any Soul Calibur exhibition.

We were also privileged to see some pretty cool demonstrations of qi gong. The practitioners leaned into bamboo spears and bent them quite spectacularly, with one young man bending four spears at once. Part of me wonders how much of it is muscle tension and how much of it is energy flow, and I’m rather tempted to give it a try. Something tells me no one’s going to let me use their spears for practice, though. There were wooden poles which were broken by kicks and across backs, and metal rods which were bent or shattered over heads. Perhaps most impressively of all, a woman lay between two chairs (with her head on one side and her feet on the other, her midsection unsupported) and had two cement slabs put on her stomach. An assistant shattered them with a sledgehammer and she barely moved under the impact of it. It was a humbling demonstration of spirit.


Impressive spear-bending, concrete breaking and metal shattering.

Perhaps what impressed me most of all was not the shattering of cement blocks or the years of honing form; it was the group photo at the end. As someone suggested a group photo was taken, the 30+ performers all tried to line up in a row but the stage wasn’t quite big enough. A few of them started bunching up at the edges, and it looked like it would be a rather messy affair. Then suddenly one of the practitioners, I assume a teacher, started ordering everyone into two rows. Within a few seconds, he had won the leadership of several different schools and several dozen people and organised them into two straight lines. To me, that was one of the most impressive feats of the day.

I have to say though that I recognise that everything we saw was a demonstration. The performers selected xing which would look visually spectacular, and the focus of many of these was to look impressive. Perhaps in all that flashiness there was a level of technique which was exaggerated for training or beauty. Either way, the goal was less about self-defence and more about pleasing the crowd (which they certainly did). It was a very pleasant experience, and quite inspiring. I’m looking forward to future demos and going back to training to practice feng quan 2!

Fighting: Advice from a Martial Artist

I’ve been practicing the martial arts for a long time. In over ten years of study (some of which I was training five or six days a week), I have learned many lessons, and there is one in particular that I want to share with you.

There is a persistent but unspoken assumption that being good at fighting is really cool. Since I was about thirteen years old I would choreograph fights in my head. Some guy would insult me and I would stand up to him, and he’d throw this kind of attack and I’d respond with that kind of attack, and I’d look so cool as I totally owned him. The scenarios I projected were endless, but every single day, usually several times a day for about six years, I would plot out elaborate fights that always resulted in me spectacularly dominating and defeating my challengers. I had every confidence in my level of skill, and when I started learning Taekwondo this confidence skyrocketed. I would walk around school practicing my head-high kicks, and I tried to build a reputation for myself as the guy not to mess with because he could spectacularly hurt you if you crossed him.

Picture 1

At my Taekwondo black belt grading when I was 16

But that all changed when I had to defend myself for real. Now keep in mind I’ve done a hell of a lot of training, and I’m a very competent fighter. But one day a couple that I kind of knew was having an argument, and things were getting out of hand. The guy was being really scary, grabbing his girlfriend and threatening to hurt her, so I stepped between them and told him to cut it out. The next thing I knew was that he had put a knife to my throat.

It turned out okay in the end because he wasn’t seriously trying to hurt me, he was just showing his dominance. As I stood there, I thought of how I could break his knees and stab him with his knife and “look really cool”. But let me make this very clear. There is nothing glorious about someone trying to hurt you. It is scary. It is really fucking scary. No matter how much training and experience you have, when someone is doing everything in their power to cripple you, there’s nothing cool about it. Yeah you might be able to defend yourself and hurt them in return, but it doesn’t make you feel any better about someone hating you so much they tried their hardest to cause you grievous injury.

In the end I didn’t need to resort to violence at all to escape that encounter unharmed. I practiced self defence: I did not take any unnecessary actions because I did not feel like I was at risk (despite his threats). I didn’t need to cripple him to protect myself, and I didn’t need to prove I was better than him or to punish him for daring to threaten me. And if I could restrain from using violence with weapons pointed at me, I certainly wouldn’t hit someone for insulting my mother, or shoving me in the chest.

Violence is the crudest and most destructive solution to any conflict. If a fight is forced upon you, it is not something to enjoy or brag about, but something horrible to regret because it couldn’t be avoided.

BSA_riot_FA_pathThere is no victor in any fight. Either you get hurt, or someone else gets hurt, and in my books that’s a lose-lose scenario. Nobody deserves to get beaten up so someone can say “I’m right and you’re wrong”, or “My reputation is more important than your health”. Fighting doesn’t prove you’re right about an issue, or that you’re stronger than someone else – it proves that you’re able to beat up people who are weaker than you.

To the martial artists out there, do what you do because you love it, not because you enjoy dominating others. The martial arts are arts. Any thug who goes to the gym can have a strong body, but what truly distinguishes a warrior is not their ability to win a fight, but their devoted effort to improving themselves.

My teacher, demonstrating betterment of character through meditation

My teacher, demonstrating betterment of character through meditation

A quick prayer

I don’t think I’ve ever posted a prayer on my blog before, and I don’t know how well this will be received. Religion has always been a touchy issue for people, and I don’t want to put people off reading just for having a different belief system. I care about and respect your beliefs, and I am taking this opportunity to share some of mine.

Now that that’s been said, on with the blog.

I don’t usually pray, but I cannot deny that I have had powerful spiritual experiences in the past, and that in some shape or form, I believe in God. In one very powerful moment, I was kneeling in the chapel at school, desperately appealing to God to help me because I felt so hurt and alone. As I knelt there in all my sobbing vulnerability, I felt an indescribable pressure settle about my shoulders, like a shroud had been laid over me, and it filled with me with a sense of resolute calm. It may or may not be irrational, but I knew without a doubt that someone heard me, and cared about me, and was there for me. And for that reason, reluctant as I am to talk about something controversial, I wanted to share a prayer that I created.

I’ve written recently on how hard I’ve found placement lately. And it has been hard. I have known fear, terror and failure. But somehow, through it all, I have survived. And one day when I wasn’t feeling too overwhelmed, and things were going pretty well at work,  I ducked in to the prayer room to say “Thanks God”. And it went something like this.

 

Dear God,

Thank you for letting me borrow your strength through this hard time in my life.
Thank you for the support and help you’ve given me. I am so grateful to know that there is something bigger than me in the world, and that I can draw upon it when I at my weakest and it will sustain me.
Help me to be a greater person, so that I can share that same support and help with others;
For You, for others, and for me.

Amen.

A tree in the wind

Just a quick draft I found from June 2013. I’m guessing the reason I didn’t post it is because I didn’t feel I, or anyone, would benefit from it being made public. But I still think it’s true, and I think it’s worth sharing.

 

The idea for this blog post has been mulling around in my head for a few days now. I’m not quite sure how to say it, so I’ll just start writing and see what happens.

Slowly but surely I’m learning that I’m not the most important person in the world. This is a lesson that has been hard to unlearn, but I’ve really been giving of myself, from my heart to yours, really trying to listen to people when they speak and love everyone in every interaction. And truly, it has made things more wonderful. Connecting with people and caring about someone other than myself is wonderfully refreshing, inspiring and invigorating. It’s really wonderful to genuinely connect with another human being and care. And not to get caught up in whatever is going on for them, because I love them enough to not lose my own feet.

Roger once described me as a leaf in the wind. It was absolutely true. If anyone didn’t like me for any reason, I would go to extraordinary and self-destructive lengths to try and change their minds. Now, for some reason, I can hear what people are saying, feel what people are feeling, yet not let it affect who I am and how I feel. To a greater extent, anyway. When once it might have crushed me into a tiny ball, now I hurt, let go, and allow myself to be happy again and care about others. Not always of course, but I’m getting there.

Creating the day

You know, for a long time I claimed that going to sleep was a perfect way of “hitting the reset button“. That is to say, no matter how stressed or depressed or awful you were feeling, if you went to sleep you’d wake up feeling better (at least for a little while). For those few minutes before you opened your eyes and got up, you’d be feeling neutral and have the capacity to choose to be happy rather than being stuck in your cycle of unhappiness.

 

I rescind that belief. The past two weeks or so I’ve woken up feeling anxious even before my eyes have opened. Almost every morning I have felt a surge of mild panic wash over me as I consider going to work. And every morning I have made myself get up and have taken pleasure in little things. I will smile at the thought of having delicious cereal for breakfast. I will be comforted by the thought of hot coffee or tea while I write lines. I will feel a flush of joy at the thought of feeding Lyota the floating pellets he once rejected and watching him attack them ferociously and chewing them audibly. I will grin at the thought of having Hamish and Andy for companions on the drive to work (I downloaded their app and bought a year’s subscription so that I have unlimited access to every podcast they’ve ever uploaded. I’ve been working my way from 2007 to the present, because pre-2007 was a bit rubbish). And slowly, bit by bit, I let go of my anxiety and choose to appreciate the little things in the day.

 

It’s not easy. It’s so convenient, even tempting, to just curl up into a big ball and give up on the day. But we make choices at every moment to either enjoy what we have, or to not enjoy what we don’t have, you know? I’ve also started saying “I create my day” when I wake up, and in saying so, it gives me a very distinct choice: I can choose to do be happy, or I can choose not to be. And that’s a very empowering, and terrifying realisation to come to.

 

Peace and joy everyone, and all those good things.

 

PS: Gashuku!Image