(and other challenges in Kung Fu Practice)
by maia farrell
I attend Shaolin Kung Fu practice at the Academy of Martial Arts three or four times a week, which is about the maximum amount of time I have available right now for any extracurricular activities above and beyond the day-to-day responsibilities in my life. There are times when I wonder exactly why it is I invest energy and effort in this particular pursuit, instead of something else, and what it is about the training that I really do feel I benefit so much from.
Clearly, everyone trains in the martial arts because they hope to be able to somehow change, to improve and progress. Probably this most often means establishing or refining self-defense skills, developing the ability to respond effectively to conflict situations. Physical conditioning is undeniably an important component of martial arts practice. We are all familiar with evidence of progressing physically, feeling stronger or more flexible, having greater endurance, etc. But much more difficult to recognize, develop and assess is some degree of subtle mental consciousness, an awareness which might preclude the necessity to use sheer strength or speed to overcome an opponent, or to be involved in any confrontation at all.
Recently Shihfu told us a story about a man who had trained in Kung Fu for over 20 years with a master teacher. Despite consistent effort over this considerable length of time, this person remained basically unaffected by his training, which is to say he never really fundamentally changed beyond simply being in good shape physically. According to Shihfu, this was because the man was dedicated to Kung Fu training primarily as a system of exercise, a way to build and maintain physical conditioning. Without an accurate understanding of the meaning and potential of Kung Fu practice, Sifu commented, no real progress can occur in oneÕs personal evolution as a martial artist.
At the same time that I was amazed anyone could be so impervious to other aspects and dimensions of the training, I was also forced to reflect on and reconsider my own assumption that just training consistently, day after day, and week after week, would automatically result in attaining greater levels of skill and understanding beyond something physical. I realized I needed to consciously re-evaluate my own motivation in training, to clarify exactly the intention in practice which would be the most conducive to true change and progress in my understanding, and the development of greater awareness.
Having trained previously for seven years in another martial art, I came to Shaolin practice with specific expectations as far as how I hoped to benefit from the Shaolin training. In the two years since then, I have realized that too often in my own training I am limited by my previous experiences and ideas, what I already “know,” and that this frequently obstructs any real learning or further progress.
One of the most challenging aspects of Kung Fu training is meeting the form or practice situation, “as it is.” Learning must begin with the ability to see simply and clearly the technique or form being demonstrated by the instructor. Instead however, one generally “sees” what one already knows and is familiar with, especially what one is good at. It is not that we may necessarily be conscious in our denial or misinterpretation of the training being presented, but that our body and our mind will still move according to habit and conditioning. Sometimes, to accomplish just one simple and “familiar” movement, honestly and directly, without ineffectual embellishment and affectation, seems almost impossible.
Resistance to change also shows up in a constant desire to be “right,” or at least to “win,” which very quickly reduces the infinite potential of a practice like sticky hands down to a contest of hitting your partner more times than they can hit you. Instead of learning the sensitivity and skill necessary to understand, there is a cognitive forfeit to the extremes, either of strength/speed, which overwhelms and dominates; or else, the collapse into complete surrender, a failure of confidence and ability to negotiate or imagine other alternatives.
It seems that in order to understand the more subtle principles of the Kung Fu forms and techniques being taught, and the true potential they contain, a (certain) willingness to refrain from certainty is required, an openess to both “as-it-is” and “not-knowing”-ness. Suspending the tendency to definitively summarize or preconceive oneÕs practice becomes an essential part of an approach to effective.
Forms practice in particular requires this, despite its appearance as rote memorization of a series of techniques. Techniques within the form are not meant to be confused with and mistaken for the principle or essence their purpose is only to communicate.As martial artist and Zen Roshi, Mike Sayama, explains:
“A Way consists of principle (ri) and technique (ji). The principle is formlessness or abiding in the Tao. Techniques are forms which were once spontaneous expressions of principle by a master. By perfecting form through countess repetitions, a person attains formlessness. Then a person accords with the myriad changes naturally. Without principle, technique is mechanical; without technique, principle cannot be expressed. With both technique and principle, there is grace.”1
We do have to lend ourselves over with commitment to the training, and accomplish the seemingly tedious and often grueling work of forms practiceÑbut also with the conscious intention and understanding of this being only the means by which we begin to develop awareness.
We may come to martial arts training with the intention to achieve some particular proficiency, like effective self-defense techniques, or to attain a certain rank or status, or some realization or affirmation of self-image. But in successfully making martial arts training fit our own specific preconceptions, it could be there is a failure to realize the potentially more profound impact of the practice.
Now in my tenth year of training, being forced to abandon various assumptions about what it is I thought I was learning or needed to achieve in martial arts practiceÑeven being required to change my posture and the way I hold my body after all these years, I have often felt unsure and sometimes discouraged. But then I realize I might actually even be encouraged by this experience instead. It may be for me that my acceptance of this lack of certainty is a truer indication of progress. As inaccurate preconceptions drop away, there can be much more openess in my approach to training, and space for an emerging understanding of the importance of conscious intention in the open and ongoing process of developing an awareness that is itself open and ongoing.
Maia Farrell is a black belt in the art of Aikido and a student of Kung Fu at the Academy of Martial Arts; Santa Cruz, California. She has extensive experience with Tibetan Buddhism and meditation practice. This is her second contribution to our articles section.
1. Samadhi: Self-Development in Zen, Swordsmanship and Psychotherapy, by Mike K.Sayama. 1986. State University of New York Press.