You Can If You Believe You Can…

I’ve been in Northern California for the last ten days and quite a trip it’s been with bears roaming through neighborhoods looking for food and a heat wave that just about destroyed our car. The purpose of the trip was to get away and take the opportunity to finish a book I’m writing. It’s about Kung Fu (no surprise) and an aspect of it which very few people have written about (maybe a surprise, we’ll see).

Among the topics I investigated was the subject of mastery which proved to be bigger and even more interesting than I had anticipated. Many observations came to  mind, ideas I’ve never thought  or read about before. They went into the book.

But my brain can’t stop thinking.

One idea which I did not write about and is not new—but is important for CMA practitioners—follows  a quote often attributed to Henry Ford, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” At first glance this sounds like the “positive thinking” stuff that always states you can be whatever you want to be. Of course this isn’t quite true. You can’t be anything you want to be; after all, American Idol has mostly runners up.

There are times, though, and subjects, too, in which believing you can do well changes drastically the possibility of that occurring. One of these special exceptions is Kung Fu. Your own belief that you can really achieve mastery in  Kung Fu means you probably can. This suggestion, that an average talented person can reach a level of mastery may seem far-fetched. And I don’t mean the strutting, over-ranked “commercial” belt wearers I see too often now. I mean a true mastery with some depth to it. How is this possible? you ask, and add that you are not even Chinese. Especially considering that Kung Fu is one of the most sophisticated martial arts in the world and, you throw in, you’re a lover not a fighter.

Let me explain it to you, it will only take a minute. And don’t’ think this is bait and switch or some sort of joke, it isn’t.

The first secret is concentration. In former days each form was considered a complete composition, not just another step toward rankhood. If you read the resumes of some great masters you would see that despite being considered major figures they often knew very few forms. Even more astonishing, they treated their knowledge with respect. Old records say things like “Meng studied Lien Bu Quan (LBQ) under Pai”. Nowadays most people think of LBQ as a beginning form to prep you for later forms but as any martial artist knows, even a beginning form can contain a pretty big batch of knowledge. It is often said in these same records that Meng studied LBQ from Pai for more than three years. A single form for three years, and not  just mindless repetitions, which implies an in-depth study. The question that interested students should ask is, “Does LBQ have three years worth of information in it?” The answer is yes, with the right instructor who uses it as a springboard for advanced information.

The second secret is knowledge base.  Unlike many other styles of martial arts, a Kung Fu student should understand that there is no need to duplicate the teacher’s entire knowledge base. You are you. The teacher has to be able to teach anyone. Take an example from the art of Monkey Boxing. Monkey style has five key forms: Stone Monkey, Wooden Monkey, Drunken Monkey, etc. The student’s body and personality dictate which branch of monkey he learns. The same is true of other styles. A Five Animals style teacher once told me that he would teach me snake… and maybe tiger. Two sets is the maximum. Only teachers are required to learn all five and, odds are, they don’t practice them equally.

The final secret is curriculum. Kung Fu has a very different curriculum than most martial arts. I touched on that in the last paragraph but should say more. In Kenpo, the 22 sets and the 250+ techniques are a requirement. In other words, each black belt knows what every other black belt knows at least to a comparable rank. That’s not necessarily true between schools but it is inside a school.

But Kung Fu is much more reliant on independent study. You could, for instance, learn LBQ then take two years to learn Wild Goose Qigong, then add Xing Yi and, voila, you have your own special field like a postgraduate. In this case you “mix” your martial arts but, wisely, and you don’t have to name the mixture because it comes from your natural growth as an individual. After all you could not  help yourself from creating a mixed style even if you tried to be the perfect clone of your teacher. It’s never worked in the last 4000 years and it won’t work now. Not to worry one way or the other.

Taking another approach: you might stick with what you’ve learned in your first system, and go off to really perfect it. After a few years you have practiced your lot of information more than your teacher ever did because he has to  maintain a host of forms, special exercises and teaching methods where you can concentrate on just a few. You add you own personal observations and discoveries. You find short cuts no one else has even conceived. In this example your marriage with the style creates a unique fusion. This approach reflects some Daoist ideas about naturalness of inherent knowledge.  You may find that while rewarding you with mastery, this method might not offer fame or universal recognition. Your mastery may be of a type few but you understand. Neither of these two approaches negate the fact that mastery is within the grasp of those people who want it.

Here’s the story that goes with all this:
An enthusiastic student is taught an important form by his teacher. However, circumstances dictate that the student must go to live with his uncle in another town. He promises to return every quarter to check in with his teacher.

The first time he returns and, after preliminaries, the teacher asks about the Big Form. Before moving, the student hangs his head and says, “Teacher, I am an idiot. I have mixed up and forgotten a lot of the form, maybe a third.”“Let’s see it,” is all the teacher says. After the performance the student looks at the teacher anxiously hoping for corrective instruction. Stone-faced, the teacher says, “Just keep practicing. Practice more.”“But teacher, I don’t want to …” The teacher raises his hand and the student leaves.Three more months pass and the student returns. Now he is so shamefaced he can’t even look the teacher in the eye. When quizzes he admits that the contagion has spread and maybe two thirds of the form has “drifted away.” After a demonstration the student says, “Is it not as I have said, two thirds of the form is now different from what you taught me?” When the student does the obvious and starts to ask for correction the teacher again stops him and sends him away.By the third quarter the student is so disturbed he can hardly think about anything but the form. When asked he throws up his hands and shows what he can. “Teacher,” he starts without even being asked, “The whole thing has altered into something completely different form what you showed. Is there anything left of the original.”

“No,” the teacher admits and then raises his face with a small smile, “From now on practice it that way. It is your form now.”

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