Deep Practices

art_deeppract3Learning Kung Fu can be a unique experience or, if you are not paying attention, it can be just another subject with the same tired educational template thrown over it. By a “unique experience” I do not mean the kind advertised on vacation posters. I mean an experience that shoots through your veins and hovers over your skin. I mean unique, not in the sense of “really good,” but “one of a kind.” I mean deep.

Kung Fu is not the only tree that bears this luscious fruit. But I believe that to satisfy the idea of ‘deep,’ a practice, discipline, study or exploration must be somehow firmly rooted in our basic humanity, and probably supported by hundreds or even thousands of years of thinking and tinkering. These pursuits often loop back into life with their lessons, then loop back out to inform further participation.

art_deeppract1As examples, I see Kung Fu, dance, storytelling (especially in the bardic tradition,) acting (because it has transformative powers,) visual arts, music and physics this way. I don’t see basketball this way. It’s not that basketball cannot deliver radically life-bending experiences, but that the game itself is most powerful as a neutral mid-ground for individual breakthroughs. There just are no koans in basketball and there don’t need to be; it’s fine just the way it is.

Deep learning practices are largely untranslatable. What the teacher brings is a series of problems and questions, not necessarily answers. Every bit of knowledge, even from the first, has an inner and outer component. Like Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, your very participation in the game alters the rules. The classical is not to be merely repeated, not to descend to a poem, phonetically memorized. Learning must be participatory. The idea of measured, progressive steps for knowledge is the first paradox. It is like trying to identify the cheater between two men, one who always lies and the other who always tells the truth. And you have only one question.

art_deeppract4In a traditional school, when you raised your hand in a Kung Fu group, whatever the teacher answered he would suggest you practice for at least 100 days. This did two things (are you getting the idea that everything worth learning comes in pairs?) First, it lets you learn from experience, not an Aristotelian definition. In this world, the definition of friction is that you rub your hands together. Second, you have to “pay” for every experience with an investment of your own experimentation. Teachers are not vending machines coughing out candy bars.

Deep practice does not expect quick answers. Ever. I remember one movement from the Praying Mantis which my teacher told me, “…will be the movement you are practicing when everyone calls you ‘Grandmaster’ and then on your death bed.”

art_deeppract6The longitude of a deep practice is immense. It connects you with the savant of the future and the cave ancestor who stands watching the sun rise, sniffing the air, and wondering at the indescribable images forming in his brain.

A deep practice takes you past psychology. Psychology solves the problems of the individual, mostly centered on functioning in society. Deep practice challenges both of these designations, questioning if the individual is really that isolated from others, and suggesting that social bonding is important, but so is bonding to the endless line of life that connects unnamable experiences back to that magical dawn.art_deeppract2

Deep practice is not so much about therapy as revelation. But of course revelations that are spiritual–but not necessarily religious–can leave the individual with a dissatisfied sense of communication. Each person ultimately practices on his or her own. It is, as Idries Shah tells it, “To say that all this superb material contains something which its self-styled greatest supporters do not perceive, is asking for their outraged condemnation. But, as this happens to be true, we are obliged to say it.”

Why do teachers not talk about this alternate opportunity?

One reason is commercial, but not in the simple money sense. True, I get at least one mailer a month proclaiming “If your studio is not making $50,000 a month, you must contact us today!” The problem is much subtler. The teacher, which everyone bows to, is actually afraid to introduce any ideas that are significantly outside the belief structure of his members and their parents. Most martial students in art_deeppract7this country are under 18 and learn simple social skills, such as politeness to elders. In present society, this is quite enough for many parents. Often a teacher who cares nothing about ranks and less about competitions, is inched toward that which the parents understand best, such as soccer. The dedicated frog-teacher is right in his thinking that the water seems to be getting warmer.

It’s also true that some teachers know about this ancient aspect of the arts but couldn’t care less. I have a friend who is a top notch self defense teacher. He has said to me, “People think I don’t feel these things. I feel them, but frankly, I don’t care.”

Then there are the wing nuts in the martial arts and–worse yet–the wing nuts who have gone off their threads and fly around without tether. These become pontiffs and pastors of their own type of captive church, connecting conspiracy with coincidence in a most unsavory manner.

But maybe the simplest answer is that much of this is indescribable. The quaint storytelling of many martial arts teachers is really a art_deeppract5metaphoric disguise for a metaphysical subject. Sometimes you can hint with a parable, and that may be the limit of what can be disclosed without companion experiences.

Deep practice is not restricted to age or condition. It has the freedom of thought. If you feel this might be something of interest I only suggest two things. First, put aside a small portion of your practice time to rearrange and manipulate, rather than repeat. And, second, bring a notebook: there might be something worthy of a sketch on the journey.

It’s something to consider. And remember: even the word “consider” has reference to the stars buried in it.






3 Responses to “Deep Practices”

  1. Patrice Lepage says:

    Hi Ted,

    Thank you for sharing some of your reflexions on martial arts and life, for this one on depth of practice, and especially for that last bit on considering buried stars and things in the words we often carelessly use.


  2. Gordon Cooper says:

    Dear Sifu Ted, Debbie et al:

    I assume that most folks who’ve read this post own at least one translation of Zeami’s works on Noh Drama. His father, Konami essentially turned “Hee Haw” into Opera in 30 years. Another book, very deep on the use and meanings of masks in Noh and Balinese drama (which may be historically connected) is “Trance And Transformation Of The Actor In Japanese Noh And Balinese Masked Dance-drama”by Margaret Coldiron. This book walks into really deep waters, but always hands the reader a snorkel along the way.

  3. Daniel Mroz says:

    Dear Shifu Ted, dear Debbie,

    Thanks as always for sharing your insights!

    Dear Gordon Cooper,

    Thank you for recommending such an excellent and interesting book!

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