art_narryehead1The Viewpoint: Chinese Medicine: Proper training is a great aid to martial artists but sometimes dedication can transform into a darker pursuit …

Martial artists are a dedicated bunch. Most of us practice with discipline and commitment, constantly striving to improve. We struggle through the plateaus and rejoice at the breakthroughs. For the most part, we continue to work because of our love and fascination for the art we are honored to be learning. And, as is often the case with great love, it’s easy to miss the point where passion and commitment turn to self-defeating obsession.

The tip-off is when we become rigidly fixed on an external goal. We lose our delight in the learning process. Our training no longer fulfills us. The first hint occurs when we feel constantly disappointed, out of sorts because we aren’t getting the results we want. To compound the frustration, it is usually at this point that we relentlessly compare ourselves to the person next to us in class who kicks higher or knows more sets. This is heartbreaking in that we lose touch with our internal reference point. We miss the personal alchemy that is available to us through our training. The ironic result: we stop improving.

We find ourselves chasing the illusion of completion, dropping the treasure we already hold in our hand for an unobtainable image of the accomplishment. This shift, from present moment appreciation to future goal fixation, starts the cycle of over training and burnout.

This is not to say we should be without goals. Goals inspire us and show us the direction of growth. It’s just that getting overly attached to them is self-defeating. We thereby lose the joy in training.

Most of us can tell when we have gotten into a cycle of over training. We feel flat, bored, irritable, and physically drained. Our practice lacks vitality. We feel stuck in a rut. Worst of all, we feel apathetic where once we were passionate. At this point we either catch ourselves in the act and change our practice, relating to things in a new way, or we drop the whole thing and find another obsession.

Sports psychologists have written extensively about this syndrome. They define burnout as “a state of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion brought on by persistent devotion to a goal, the achievement of which is dramatically opposed to reality,” and staleness as “a symptom of ensuing burnout.” They give us the physical symptoms: higher resting heart rate, higher systolic blood pressure, elevated body temperature, elevated basal metabolic rate, impeded respiration, weight loss. And the psychological symptoms: sleep disturbance, loss of self-confidence, apathy, irritability, depression, anxiety, excessive prolonged weariness.

The antidote, according to sports experts, is to be observant enough to notice the signs at an early stage, and make immediate changes in the training program. The changes are aimed primarily at relieving monotony and engaging different parts of the body and mind.

Of course martial arts training, being inherently complex, offers a rich and diverse experience no matter which door we enter each day. So over training in the martial arts is not so much an issue of repetition as it is a misdirection of attention. It’s really hard to get bored with a martial arts practice as long as you stay attentive to your personal journey. You are required to listen to yourself-to keep a flexible attention on the changes going on within and without.

You may begin a practice session intent on getting one particular move right that day. It may not happen. But other things will most certainly happen. Things you weren’t trying for-perhaps an opening in the back, a settling of the shoulders, a new sensation of energy in a place you hadn’t felt it before. If you remain stuck on that one move you set out to learn, you might miss all this.

As martial artists we are interested in balance and integration. Our practice must be related to our lives. If we are not listening to ourselves in our practice (and you can’t over train if you are listening to yourself), then chances are we are not paying attention to much of anything in the rest of our lives either.

The I Ching gives us helpful imagery for all of this. The most balanced, complete hexagram of the sequence is not the final one but the second-to-the-last-hexagram 63 called Ji Ji and sometimes translated as Already Fulfilled. The image is of Water over Fire, a perfect arrangement of the elements with everything in order. This is the energetic we strive for in medicine and qi gong. Water above to keep the heart cool and fire below to keep the dan tien warm.

But the commentaries on this hexagram are filled with warnings. The ancient sages knew that perfection of form must never be the goal. The advice that goes with this hexagram is to take small steps and proceed with great caution. Be prepared for disorder. They knew that living life with poise had little to do with achieving goals and everything to do with cultivating resilience and harmonizing our actions with the ceaseless change around us.

So in your practice, if you are experiencing the early signs of staleness or over training, take a break. Have some tea, read some poetry, take time to reflect on what your practice means to you. How does it relate to the rest of your life? What was it that first captivated you about it? Can you still find the play within the discipline? Can you be open and compassionate with yourself? Can you explore the movement again with curiosity and delight, like a child playing with a puppy for the first time; or like a cat playing with a ball of string?

When we can practice with an attitude of playful fascination, without abandoning the structure and discipline required to develop skill, then we will have entered the gate of mature practice where spontaneity and will are one.

Narrye Caldwell, L.Ac.

Leave a Reply

What do you have to say?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.