Natural Names

In tea ceremony, poetic names (called gomei) are given to some of the utensils. I have a great love of nomenclature, and dare I say a knack for clever titles, so it’s one of my favourite parts of the ceremony when the guests asks to admire the utensils and I tell them what I have named my chashaku for that ceremony.

My understanding is quite basic, but there are many things that make for a good gomei. Ideally they reference the seasons (for instance, by alluding to the time of year when hawks start to leave the nest, or when a certain flower starts to bloom), as well as evoke feelings and sensations. A sophisticated gomei might reference classical literature, such as a line from a poem or essay. A witty gomei might also be a play on words, using double-meanings to say something clever, even humorous. I think this article by Soya-sensei from Issoan Tea does a wonderful job of explaining it.

I’m quite sad that I will probably never fully appreciate the subtleties of gomei that are in Japanese. My grasp of the language is so poor I wouldn’t even be able to have a conversation with a toddler, so it’s well beyond me to understand the names without them being translated (imperfectly) for me. This is not even considering how I cannot appreciate the many readings of kanji and references to literature and philosophy that I have never read. My clumsiness with Japanese frustrates me, and I’m disheartened at the thought of the years it would take me to learn enough to start to express myself adequately. Still, I am grateful that it’s acceptable for me to use English for now.

Most of my gomei tend towards the clever side – I’ll make a reference to the state of the world, and my hope that everyone will do their best to be okay. For instance, I called one chashaku “Silver Lining”, describing not only the heavy cumulus that afternoon, but the ability to see the light in times of personal darkness. (I followed it up the following week with the name “Rainbow Gold”, which I quite enjoyed.)

Sensei has asked that our gomei reflect the current seasons, and this will lead us to a greater enrichment of the world. I can’t say I know the names of many flowers, or the months when various birds take to the skies, but since beginning my studies of tea ceremony five years ago I’ve certainly noticed some changes. I’m embarrassed to confess that I hadn’t realised until a few weeks ago that light changes angle depending on the seasons. I’ve learned that some plants are perennial (year-long) and some are seasonal (only lasting a short time). While writing this blog-post, I cracked open my window so I could better listen to the sound of rain hitting the ground, covered in fallen autumn leaves.

I have never paid much attention to the world outside of my own mind, but I have more in these past five years than ever before. As I learn more about tea ceremony, through my classes but also through the occasional reading I do, I am learning that the Zen priests of old were onto something, and appreciating the miraculous cycles of nature is a profound pleasure in this life.

The Second Best Seasoning

“Tea tastes better with company.”

It was a sudden realisation, as I sipped the matcha while looking at my laptop screen. The faces of my teacher and the other students were obscured by their own tea bowls, and I was astonished at how delicious the tea was. I’d had the same tea a few days earlier, and it had tasted completely different. Had it changed flavours because it had time to get to room temperature? Maybe. But I think more likely that there is a big difference between hurriedly whisking a bowl of matcha for the caffeine, and making time to appreciate a meditative ceremony with friends.

Gold Star

I’ve seen a few posts on social media that have been talking about “keeping busy” and “avoiding boredom”, and it puzzles me. I forget that other people’s experiences can be different to my own.

When I was 12, I realised that I was almost never bored – I had an infinite number of skills to practice, things to research, passions to explore. Even if I was strapped into an airplane seat for 10 hours with nothing to read or watch, I’d practice meditation, or run through mental exercises, or visualise kata in as much detail as I could manage. I used to arrogantly think that it was a sign of my intelligence – that I could always find stimulation, no matter the circumstances. But I think it’s just another part of my funky, perhaps broken brain.

I’m perplexed when I hear about people trying to “keep their minds busy” whilst all this is happening, because I’ve never been busier. As I have mentioned elsewhere, there aren’t enough hours in the day for all the things I want to do. And staying home has streamlined me in a way like never before – without having to visit people, or run errands outside of a weekly shopping trip, I’m getting so much done. I’ve never done more exercise, and reading, and playing, and researching, and watching, and working. And it feels wonderful. The only trouble I’m having is that, now that my workspace is in my homespace, it can sometimes be hard to tear myself away from it and do something less “productive”.

Because that’s what it’s really about. Ever since childhood, I’ve had a burning need to be “productive”. My definition of productive is pretty loose – working, cleaning, googling an idle curiosity I once had, opening (but not necessarily playing) a game that rewards me for logging in every day, watching something new rather than rewatching something I’ve already seen… As long as it’s not “wasting time”, or “unproductive”, it feels important and worthwhile. And my list of “worthwhile” things to do really is infinite – I could spend every waking hour nurturing my physical, mental, and spiritual health without ever taking a step out of the door and actually living my life.

And so I find myself caught in a spiral. Every time I have a sense of achievement, I’m flooded with pleasure. I get a little rush of dopamine that reminds me of getting a gold star sticker next to my name in childhood. And fam, I can’t get enough of that shit. I’ll chase that high all day long. And that’s a problem when it becomes more important to me than my relationships.

I’m working on it. My psychologist and I have talked about it for years, but never quite like this I’m speaking to her tonight, and I think it’ll be a good chance to hash it out and see what comes up.

A Boxer’s Review of Fitness Boxing (2019, Nintendo Switch)

Okay technically I’m not an actual boxer, but I have trained in martial arts for most of my life. I’ve been teaching self-defence, karate, and Chinese internal arts for years now, and though my technique is somewhat lacking to my friends who have studied pugilism professionally (e.g. they can tell when I’m about to jab, even though they can’t pinpoint what about my posture or body is telegraphing my intentions), it’s fair to say that I am an accomplished and efficient fighter.

Well thanks Lyn, now that you think so maybe I'll try teaching some time.

Well thanks Lyn, now that you think so maybe I’ll try teaching some time.

So during this strange time of physical distancing, I was looking for a new way of getting some exercise while my dojo is closed over the next few months. Enter Fitness Boxing.

When Wii Fit (and Wii Fit U) came out, I played them pretty obsessively. I did the fitness tests every day for years, spending hundreds of hours logging exercises and activities (not to mention the Wii Fit Meter I wore at all times). Between $300 for Ring Fit Adventure, and the free demo of Fitness Boxing, it was an easy choice. After playing for about two hours across two days, I took the leap and paid the comparatively reasonable $70 to download the full version (contrasted with the $140 price tag for the game cartridge off ebay), and I’m still figuring out how I feel about it.

In terms of technical advice, I was surprised to find the game was spot on. The trainers gave excellent instruction in terms of common mistakes and efficient ways to throw punches, and at first this was so well-timed that I thought the game was actually picking up every movement of my hands. However, the more I played, the more I realised they were just spouting advice almost randomly, regardless of what I was actually doing. While initially I appreciated the reminders to keep my guard up or to keep my elbows at 90 degrees, eventually I started getting annoyed by the instruction. Switching to the Japanese voices made this much more enjoyable (“Ichi, ni, ichi, ni, mae, ushiro, mae, ushiro!“), and I had a lot more patience for them after that.

Regarding tracking, there were a few times where the joycon didn’t register any movement at all, or worse turned itself off mid-punch, which lead to some frustrating combo breakers in an otherwise perfect level. Furthermore the game seems to only really log the fact that the joycons have made a quick movement, and doesn’t actually track things like direction or curvature. This means that as long as the timing is correct, it registers every technique as “Perfect!” no matter what kind of punch you throw, or what direction it’s in. Annoyingly, the game also instructed me to wind-up before hooks and uppercuts, and it would often register the wind-up as an early punch and then penalise me for getting the poor timing. I’ve learned to wind up a full beat in advance, or to make the wind up and punch all one short, snapping movement on the beat.

Speaking of snapping punches, one problem that I’m encountering is that, without a target to hit, I’ve gotten a little too enthusiastic and strained my elbows by locking them out repeatedly. I’m comfortable enough with boxing to keep a loose grip on the joycon while the rest of my body tenses, but in my excitement I occasionally hyperextend my arms and it can cause damage to the joints through repetition. I guess in a way it’s a testimony to how much enthusiasm the game draws out of me as I do my best to hit faster and harder.

One of the smaller problems I have with the idea of boxing for fitness is the rhythm element of the game. Not to brag, but I’m great at rhythm games – for context, I placed first at a Guitar Hero tournament, and won an iPod from a rigged game of Stacker at Timezone. So the idea of bouncing back and forth in time to the music sounded fun, but not sensible martial training. In martial arts, it’s important for a fighter to be able to establish and then break rhythm at will, and throwing every punch on the beat just feels plain wrong to me.

I think the biggest problem I had with the game was that it seemed to frequently choose unintelligible times for particular techniques. Quick boxing lesson: jabs and straights are “long-range” attacks, and hooks and uppercuts are “short-range” attacks. Sometimes the game would start a combination by using a short-range uppercut, which is a disastrously strategy for closing the gap to the melee range. Furthermore, the trainer would mix short and long-range techniques together in the same combination, but without the requisite leg movements to close/create distance. This meant that, because the game focuses on bouncing backwards and forwards on the spot, half of the strikes would be either too close or too far to land cleanly if they were actually being used against an opponent or bag. I would sometimes get around this by adding my own intentional lunges and turns, but that’s above and beyond the instructions the game provides.

Worse still, sometimes the game would require me to use the reverse hand while moving backwards. This is utter madness, but after a little while I was able to justify this timing by making it a deliberately defensive movement (e.g. I’d throw the straight as I lunged my back foot away, or perform a slip while leaning back to do an uppercut). These are more complicated interpretations of the techniques that are wholly inappropriate for beginners, and which I was only able to do thanks to decades of practicing different ways of moving. The whole game becomes a lot easier if you just stay neutral or lean forwards the whole time, but then why would they start each lesson by establishing the back-and-forth rhythm?

But Xin, why don’t you just copy the trainers?” I hear you ask. Well fam, I would, except they don’t seem to follow their own pre-established rhythms. In moments when they should be moving backwards, they seem to be bouncing on the spot. At times when they should be advancing, they’re winding up for an uppercut. Sometimes their weight changes are obvious, but I could swear that at other times it’s imperceptible and they just just lean forwards the whole time to make the combinations work.

I’m hoping that as I work my way out of the beginner lessons and into the intermediate/advanced lessons the combinations become more sensible, but watch this space.

One thing I do like about the game is that, unlike most boxing, it switches stance halfway through each exercise. Balancing out the body and becoming equally proficient with both hands is a wonderful practice for health and utility.

It’s also worth commenting that there are only 20 songs, and I while you can “randomize” which ones are used during the Daily Workout, you can’t actually select them. With the demo only giving me access to three of them, I got sick of them pretty quickly. (Me, who has had Still Alive stuck in my head for something like 200 hours in a row and *still* couldn’t get enough of it.)

So after all this criticism, why do I like the game? Because it’s still stonking great fun. I don’t need someone to teach me how to box – if I wanted to exercise, I could do a boxing routine by myself. But the thing is, I find it really hard to motivate myself when I’m exercising alone, and having something to focus on and inspire me brings out the best in me. The brillance of Fitness Boxing is that it gamifies the experience, keeping me hooked and distracting me from fatigue and discomfort by focussing on the fun. Having a cute trainer certainly helps too, though there is something distinctly creepy about the way they pose and giggle when you pick different outfits for them. (Patriarchy and the gratifaction of the male gaze is gross.)

Furthermore, it scratches that “just one more” completionist itch in me. Jumping on for a Daily Workout to tick off every day, plus the unlockable lessons and outfits brings a wonderful sense of progression to the whole sweaty ordeal. I find for the first time in many years that I look forward to exercising at home, and that is why I think it was worth the $70.

All up, an excellent way to get me moving martially, and keeping me engaged far longer than if I were training alone.

The Dregs

This week I had my first fully-booked day as a counsellor. My former-colleagues standard day was six, sometimes seven appointments, but I made the brave decision to set my own availability and max it out at five (in accordance with recommendations I once read for psychologists). I scheduled half hour breaks between appointments, and an additional hour for lunch to give me time to process, write notes, do research, and have adequate time to prepare for each appointment. And even amidst all the extra time I allowed myself, I found it utterly exhausting.

The first appointment of the day went really well. I mean, I was sleepy and not my sharpest, but I did great work being in a deep space with my clients, holding them as they confronted scary truths and recognised harm in their lives. If I started the day at 100% energy/compassion/patience, I probably went down to 70% over that hour.

During my half hour break to write notes/prepare for the next appointment, I probably started it at 80%. It was another deep and engaging session where I got right into the guts of some long-held beliefs and helped a person reflect on and relate differently to them. I probably went down to 20% at the end of the session.

I was pretty anti-social during my time for lunch. I couldn’t even really bring myself to talk to Beth as we sat at the table together, so desperate was I to recover some energy for myself and my next clients. Some food and Animal Crossing later, I went back in with about 60% energy for my next client.

It kept going down until I finished with about 10% at the end of the day. And when it came time to exercise, and cooking dinner, and spending time with Beth, I felt pretty close to tapped out. I was so cranky and impatient and ungenerous – it was so unfair that Beth got the dregs of my strength, and I had even less than that for myself. And when some of my friends messaged me about their struggles, I really had to consciously stop myself from snapping at them as I supported them in their experiences, gently guiding them through the murk of their feelings and struggles. I had the thought “I’m giving you free counselling right now”, and it was an unpleasant and nasty thought to have, and I wish that I hadn’t been so worn down when they spoke with me. It turns out I am not the boundless well of compassion I like to think I am, and I need to prioritise my own self-care more often if I want to be my best self with loved ones.

Just thoughts.

Flex

I once learned from those I trusted that the only way through fear was through it.
That if I always did what I’d always done, I’d always get what I’d always got. And that if nothing changes, nothing changes.

Lately I’ve been holding a lot of fear, and I’ve frequently wrestled with feeling overwhelmed. When I’m holding a lot of stress and fear, there are many things that I avoid thinking about. I don’t reply to messages, I don’t book things in advance, I don’t think about responsibilities for the future, and above all, I certainly don’t think about work.

Today I had some articles to read. A training video to watch. Maybe some clients to call or text about their appointments. Faxes to send. Research to do. Too many things, too much fear. I did what I usually do – I ran. I did a dozen chores that seemed crucial to my ongoing safety. I played a bunch of games, that seemed both urgent and important. And when the stress became unbearable, I slumped exhausted into my study chair and began working.

Nobody every talks about how tiring it is not thinking about something scary. Fear is an exhausting thing to hold.

Talking to my counsellor for a phone session tonight, I am reminded that “leaning into fear” is a muscle, and mine has become quite weak. Or maybe the fear that I am confronting is particularly strong. But I don’t want to do this dance anymore – the running, the avoidance, the procrastination, and then the explosion of stress that pushes me to act. I’ve been doing it pretty much my whole life, and it sucks.

So here’s my resolution: I am going to do the scary things. And when I want to run and avoid them, I’ll tear them apart with my teeth like a rabid dog, because fuck that shit. I am more than strong enough to handle fear of this proportion, and I will not allow myself to forget it again.

To make it more concrete, I’ll put it like this. Tomorrow whenever there is a chore or game that appeals to me, before I do it, I will ask myself if I am doing it to avoid a feeling, or to experience a feeling. And if it’s the former, I will not allow myself to do it until I’ve done the thing I’m avoiding first.

It Suits Me To A Tea

Last night I was reading “Every Day a Good Day”, an excellent book on tea ceremony and life by Noriko Morishita. In it, she talks about chajin – literally “tea person”. And that (Japanese connotations aside) was exactly who I wanted to be when I was a kid. I’ve always loved the idea of being a tea drinker.

Mature and sagacious like Sixth Uncle.
Classy and sophisticated like Giles.
A warrior and connoisseur like Tanaka.

I used to always have a cup of green tea with me while I was reading (I usually find black tea quite unpleasant), and I recall the pleasure of sitting on a balcony, looking across the lake and over the mountains as I read the Chronicles of Narnia. For a time, every morning I would make a mug of sencha mango, practice taiji or meditation, and take notes on the Tao Te Ching. But truth be told, I don’t know if I ever really liked the tea – it was more the idea of it that resonated with me. To be the tea drinker.

For many years I stopped drinking it entirely – I just never had the urge to have a hot drink. But at my workplace, wanting decorations to fill the empty shelves, I decided to display some tea utensils. Eventually I thought “Maybe I should start offering this to clients,” and started providing sencha, houjicha and matcha. After a while, it became second nature to offer it at the start of every appointment.

The result of course is that I now drink over a litre of tea every day (depending on how many clients I have), and I find that I am enjoying it again for the first time in a decade. I’m not sure if it’s about the taste so much as the experience; there is something beautifully ritualistic about preparing a pot of steeping leaves while sitting down to write or talk. There is something mindful about brewing the tea, and a distinct mental “sharpness” that comes from imbibing the bitter beverage, a practice as old as time. I feel more connected to my ancestors, and to the wisdom they held as they learned to slow down and be present.

I hope my clients enjoy it as much as I do. It’s a beautiful experience to add to the conversation.

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