Burning the grit

When I attended my very first gashuku, it was the experience of my dreams. I had long yearned for a camp where I could train for hours every day in the martial arts, conditioning my body and practicing useful martial concepts. Yet it challenged me deeply, too. Never before had I experienced such exhaustion, had I pushed myself so hard. On that first morning run, I distinctly remember envisaging a petrol tank within myself and running completely out of petrol. In desperation, I started burning the grit at the bottom of the tank, and somehow I burnt enough of it to complete the half hour run. I had never put myself through that kind of challenge and pain before, and it scared me deeply. Doing it the second morning was equally painful, and it taught me to fear the discomfort and challenge. Not enough to deter me from training, but enough to make my stomach clench at the thought I might have to push myself so hard again in the future.

I talked to a good martial artist friend about it, and he told me that he had teachers who used to yell at him to do ridiculous physical tasks (like a thousand squats or a hundred repetitions of a sequence). He would hate them for it, but he would do their tasks anyway and it made him stronger.

That is not the advice I needed. If I could go back in time and have a conversation with my 20-year-old self, this is what I’d say:

“Xin, that sucked. That was so hard for you, and I totally get why it scares you. Don’t worry though; that’s probably the hardest you’ll ever push yourself, and it was the hardest because you’ve never done it before. Speaking from experience four years on, you’ll never get quite so empty and have to keep going for quite so long as you just did. What you’ve accomplished is remarkable, and I understand why you’d never want to do it again. It’s okay though, because you get stronger, you get fitter, you get more used to challenging yourself when you want to back down. Go little by little, and each step will take you further on your journey of ten thousand miles; you don’t have to get there on a single tank of gas. You’re perfect, just as you are, and you will continue to be perfect no matter what you do. Keep your chin up and your heart strong.”

Another self-imposed mini-gasshuku

Unfortunately, the gashuku that I was so yearning for was postponed for this year. In lieu of the much-needed training, my friend and I committed to meeting in a local park, practicing taiji and going for runs together (sometimes joined by another member of the dojo). Every morning last week we met at 6:30 or 7am and practiced the form and its applications, as well as going for a run around the lake (between 1.6-4.8km depending on how many laps we did).

 

The first morning was fantastic – my body felt fine, and I felt utterly invigorated by the early morning air and bright light. There ducks and moor hens and ibises and so many people walking their dogs, it was hard not to enjoy the atmosphere. The second morning was a bit harder – my legs (so generous the day before) had cramped up pretty badly from the running I hadn’t done in a year.  I tried not to complain about them, but it was hard for me not to share my pain with others. They continued to carry me despite their protests, and the third morning was a little easier, and by Friday they weren’t hurting at all. I realised that at some stage during the week my default setting had become “tired and sore”, and so I lost the urge to complain. It was tremendously liberating not to feel the need to draw attention to how hard things were for me, because that was just what life was like, nothing extraordinary about it. I realised that sometimes it’s good not to be too comfortable.

 

That initial week of training having passed, I’ve resolved to continue, at least for a little while. I have to say, I’m a bit addicted to that rush of endorphins when I’m flying through the park at a full sprint, the wind in my hair, the sun on my face, the air fresh in my lungs. It feels like being alive. And that is a wonderful thing. I’ve discovered it’s much more enjoyable to run with company, because running by myself allows you to focus more fully on how sore and tired I feel, and how maybe I don’t need to run that extra lap, and how annoying the bugs are in my face and so forth. Zombies, Run! certainly helps, but nothing beats company.

 

I don’t know how long I’ll keep up my schedule – I think the lack of sleep is starting to affect me a little more than I realised – but I’m enjoying it for the moment so I’ll keep at it. If you ever feel like joining me, meet me at Tomato Lake at 6:30am. Don’t be square!

Mini-gashuku at Lake Nenia: Iron Fist Retreat

EDIT: It seems I forgot to post this sooner. Whoops!

In an unprecedented stream of new blog posts, I wanted to write briefly about the recent gashuku I attended. It was my third mini-gashuku, the first of which utterly changed my life (though I did a very poor job of saying so). I’ve been training with the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts for nearly three years now, but it feels like forever. As I’ve recently told several people, I would trade all my years of Shotokan, Shito-Ryu, ITF Taekwondo, WTF Taekwondo, Moy Lin-Shin Tai Chi and maybe even my experience in Iaido for just a few months of Wu-Wei Dao under the tutelage of Shihan Dan and Kancho Nenad.

I digress. The gashuku (or more correctly, the intensive training camp) was an excellent experience. I’m at the high end of the junior grades now and I’m not too far away from black belt, so just like in previous years I felt like I was already very familiar with the majority of the syllabus. And just like in previous years, I learned so many new things it amazes me. I refined much of my technique, smoothed out partner drills and learned a new weapon sequence. There was a grading on Sunday afternoon, and to be perfectly honest I’m a little disappointed with how I performed. I’d spent a long time (maybe forty minutes) coming up with really clever and technical applications from my kata, but I’d only practiced them once with a partner and dedicated the rest of my time to learning other drills. The result was that when I tried to perform them on the gravel, I slipped frequently, my partner reacted unpredictably and I had to change many of my beautifully planned takedowns to more generic leg sweeps. I still passed (achieving 1st kyu), which delights me, but I wish I’d practiced just a little more rather than trying to surprise everybody with my skill. Ah well, lesson learned.

I’m a little surprised to say that fear is something I experienced quite a lot of on the weekend. Fear of pain, fear of exhaustion, fear of running until I was empty and then running even more, fear of cold, fear of wet and so forth. Yes, looking back, there were many things to fear. The gashuku involved some discomfort and required me to push myself beyond what I wanted to do. But regretfully, I lost much of the magic of the present moment because I spent so much energy worrying about an uncertain future (which you might have guessed wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared it would be).

At the end of the day, I look back on the weekend and smile with fond memories of plenty of people sitting around the fireplace while they yell advice at the one guy trying to get the fire going. Of the dancing shadows cast by the trees. Of the glistening water and of the serene birdcalls. Of cat skulls and fox skins and swimming turtles and not-ducks. Of kyudo in the shade and of laughter at the table. Gashuku really is a special place where people come together, to live and train and share. It makes better people of us all, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested.

Til next time.


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Stirling Range Gashuku 2013

Gashuku this year was different to that of the previous years. Or rather, I’m told it was more-or-less the same, but I was somewhat different. Every morning started with taiga (a combination of taiji and yoga) and a morning run, kihon (basics practice like 500 kicks or repetitions of kata) and then a sprint back to camp. We took cold showers, made breakfast and earl grey tea (accompanying a discussion about budo – the way of the warrior), and then relaxed until mid-morning training. We practiced katabunkaiembu and tuide (patterns, applications, looping sparring drills and joint-locking drills) until lunch. After a break for digestion we continued with afternoon training, featuring weapons (stick, knife and jo (short staff)) and further kata practice or tensho/uke tanren (hand sensitivity/conditioning drills). Before the sun set, we would practice either yoga or taiga, and then maybe bust out a bit of conditioning (pull-ups on branches or Okinawan push-ups) before finishing training with mokuso (meditation). Showers and dinner to end the day, with a little down-time before lights out.

This pattern more-or-less continued throughout the week, breaking only for a rather sudden trip to the mountains (I had foolishly assumed it would happen at the end of gashuku like last year). We climbed Mount Toolbrenup and reached the summit in just under an hour and a half. Sempai Dave was going so hard that we were literally steaming when we got there, sweat dripping off us (or in the case of Big Dave, drenching his shirt – he wrung out perhaps over a litre of sweat). As the sun set, it got harder and harder to push through the scrub and we eventually made camp in the first space that had enough room for all of us to lie down. We got into our crinkling survival bags (I made the mistake of reusing mine from last year and it soon tore) and spent the night on the rocky ground. I got up at around 2:30am to sit by the fire with Sempai Dave and a few of the others, and together we gathered firewood, ate our rations, drank tea and shared stories. The night was cold but not bitter, and we passed the hours til dawn almost comfortably.

I did however injure my knee quite badly at some point during the climb, and the descent was… well, difficult. I felt so guilty for holding everyone up as I limped down the mountain, every second step somewhere between a dull ache and a stabbing, cry-out-loud pain. It took us about an hour longer than expected to reach the carpark, and when we hit level, paved ground, I was so relieved I very nearly hugged the road. It was a bit hard to train after that- I couldn’t really bend my left leg (though Rob’s physiotherapeutic strapping worked wonders to relieve the pain) and I was amazed at how much it slowed me down during training. Evasions which I had taken for granted became a limping, awkward affair; kicks were lower, running excruciating. I managed to drive most of the way home, though it still hurts to press the clutch.

Overall, I had a tremendous time. I faced my fears with (mostly) courage. I practiced mindfulness frequently. I learned new forms, improved my technique, strengthened my body and deepened friendships. Yet I didn’t learn quite as much as I have the past three gashuku– I was already quite familiar with almost all the kata and their corresponding drills, so I didn’t need to spend every free moment desperately scribbling down new sequences in my journal. Because I didn’t learn so much new material, this gashuku was more about refining technique and growing the spirit. And to be honest, it scared me a little to focus so much on spirit training. I felt that at times I didn’t push myself as hard as I necessarily could have, and at other times perhaps I pushed myself harder than was wise. But that’s my continuing challenge: to grow into my role as a senior student, which is not just about technique and knowledge, but an attitude to life and courage in the face of hardship.

Finally, the return to Perth has been a bit strange. One of the first things I realised was that I was overwhelmed with “things I wanted to do”. In the mountains during the breaks, I could do one only a handful of things: read, write, train or rest. Back in the world I’m suddenly spoiled for choice: do I play Mass Effect or read City of Glass? Do I spend time with Beth or go outside and do taiji? Do I write this blog or respond to 36 emails which have arrived in the past week? Suddenly I’m overwhelmed with an unnecessary complexity in a life that is so simple. In the mountains if there was a problem, you either did something about it or you didn’t. Here, I feel the old temptations to procrastinate to avoid doing things that eventually need to be done, like the dishwasher or study. I can’t quite figure out how or why, but there seems to be both too much to do, and nothing of importance worth doing. I suppose my best shot is to do things that bring happiness to myself and others, and that make a difference in the lives of those I am fortunate enough to meet.

I’d like to end this blog with a comic, illustrated by Gavin (who is the brother of the brilliant mind behind Circus Conditioning), which perfectly encaptures how I’m feeling after returning from the mountains.

http://zenpencils.com/comic/71-oswald-chambers-mountains-and-valleys-2/
2012-08-14-dragons2

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Morning kicks before Bluff Knoll

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Two knives in a row!

Knife throwing during a break. Two in a row!

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Just before dawn

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Sunrise from Mount Toolbrenup

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Toodyay Gashuku 2013

Man, I’m getting some major deja vu. I’m pretty sure I’ve written this blog several times before. How awesome!

Anyway, last Friday (5th May) I drove up to Toodyay for the Academy of Traditional Fighting Art’s miniature gashuku (or more correctly, intensive training camp). In truth, I feel that this gashuku was even easier than the previous ones. Yet, when I think back to my first gashuku, we did almost exactly the same sort of things. Looking back, it seems that I have grown somewhat over the past two years. I still felt the tiredness, the cold, the muscle aches, the hunger, the lack of time etc., but this time ’round I didn’t feel the need to draw attention to it. I accepted it as a natural, and very good, part of training.

For the most part I’m sad to say I was struggling with feeling sorry for myself. It was only during the second day that I started to really enjoy those long walks from the caravan park to Kancho’s house, pushing through the scrub and dodging spiders and falling into thorn bushes. I made a resolution on the Saturday to stop complaining, a habit which was far too easy to fall into, and I only partially kept to it. Generally though, I pushed myself pretty hard throughout the weekend, though I’m sure I could have pushed myself harder. I was strongly reminded though that while it sounds like a really romantic, adventurous idea to push yourself to the limits all day long, it’s probably a smarter idea to pace yourself so you don’t run out of energy by ten-o’clock. Just because I have energy doesn’t mean I need to burn it. This is a crucial lesson which I am only now starting to appreciate.

In terms of revelations, I had a number. Not quite as many as that first gashuku at Lake Navarino, but several worth noting. I realised the importance of learning gradually, being patient about becoming competent with individual concepts before trying to string them together or advance them. I learned about timing steps and hand techniques together, an issue which (as my email records remind me) stumped me a year ago. I learned how to use my hips much more effectively as part of staged activation in conjunction with my forward momentum, both by turning them away (gyaku kaiten) and turning them into (jun kaiten) an attack. I learned a lot about sanchin kata, both Miyagi and Higaonna variations, though I have much more to go. I honed my executions of the jo exercises, kumijo 3 and 4, as well as learned the new kumijo 6. I also learned the important lesson that teachers don’t teach you anything; rather, they help you to learn. Knowledge is most powerful when you internalise it and own it, rather than having it bestowed unto you.

Finally, we had a grading at Toodyay to conclude our gashuku. At first I felt like I could probably skip a grade, go from Brown 1 to maybe Brown 3. But then I realised that I didn’t even know all of the syllabus requirements for Brown 2, and I spent the afternoon cramming. My sanchin were shoddy, my embu unpracticed, my tuide unrefined and my kumijo unpracticed. But you know? To my great surprise, I really nailed the bunkai (applications of techniques). Kancho paid me the high compliment of saying “That was the best seiunchin bunkai we’ve seen in a long time.” I also got some compliments for my kata performance, flowing momentum, attitude and leadership throughout the weekend. Rob and Connor also performed outstandingly well at the grading, so well done to them!

And, in addition to all the training, we were also permitted to practice some knife-throwing, which filled me with terrible elation. Tania, Kancho’s wife, was amazing, and landed 8 out of the 12 knives thrown. I struggled much more, but am proud to say that on two different occasions, I got all three of my knives to stick in the board. It was exquisitely satisfying.

All in all, a really wonderful experience which I’m looking forward to repeating later this year if we have a longer one. I’m rather hoping it’ll be frosty cold so I’ll get the chance to use the gloves, hat and jackets I’ve since bought in anticipation of needing them, but sadly neglected due to unseasonably warm weather. Osu!

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I love that Tim looks like he’s reaching for a weapon in the background!

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One of my favourite parts of gashuku is sharing a meal and having a good conversation after a hard day of training.

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Shortly before I tapped him on the head with my staff!

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Videos and photos from gashuku

Here are some photos and videos from the Academy’s most recent gashuku! Really great times all round!

 

I don’t really know what anyone’s saying, but the gist of the conversation was around how there was no way we’d make it up that cliff. I find it hilarious that Rob claimed dibs on my rations if I died.

Kancho had talked to professional rock climbers who wouldn’t go near these cliffs because of how unstable they were. But sempai-Lewis grabbed his pack, two sticks and extra rope and scaled the bastards anyway. It was a very Lewis thing to do.

The wind was so strong it nearly blew us off the peak. At one point, I couldn’t help but call out “It’s Saruman! He’s trying to bring down the mountain!!”

A very shaky performance with some forgotten moves and missing techniques. I’ve yet to perform a perfect iteration of the form on a mountain top- guess I’ll have to keep climbing mountains until I get it right!

Gashuku 2012

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!