Linking Practice

I was watching an interview with a world-class Karate instructor. At one point he talked about how, when he took a walk, he would practice his kicking (not visibly; this article is about commitment, but not the kind to a mental institution.)art_handblock3

He showed how he breathed when sitting and relaxing, shoulders unfurling and folding like wings. He demonstrated opening his eyes wide and scanning, practicing the startling gaze of a springing tiger.

In short, he had internalized his practice into something always there, like the natural functioning of his own body.

Let me step outside the martial sphere for a minute to offer an example: a rare practice performed by Eastern Orthodox Christians called the Jesus Prayer.  Its devotees start simply by saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” They repeat this prayer as much as they can, every moment awake–constantly–audibly or not. Eventually, it is said, the repetition–almost robotic–transforms rhythm, faith and prayer into a single action which vibrates with the pulses of the blood, and the beats of the heart. Like martial arts, this too takes a certain courage and perseverance. 

This is an attempt to wed your practice with your nature, not just to alter the mechanics. In some ways, this is the answer to the question, “What is a martial art?”

I am most interested in that which must always remain foreign versus what is intrinsic and natural. Sometimes the mechanical, this or that algorithm, can help guarantee “success.” But it will remain an affectation, what is called a “constructed personality,” whether Cart_handblock2EO or fighter. On the other hand, sometimes the “natural” is just a wish fulfilment, not a true vision.

The search for the natural movement, the spontaneous gesture, is always with us. There are difficulties, coming as we do from a culture where the ordinary is clothed and painted in the bawdy colors of extremity. This raises the problem of transforming a fairly dull and sad reality into a daily exploration without advertisement or special effects.

The Jesus prayer exercise I just mentioned was taken as the theme of a short story by the great, J. D. Salinger. One member of his fictional fraternity of whiz kids decides to pick up the prayer, and Salinger chronicles the trepidation of even these enlighten-able beings for someone diving that deeply into his own spirituality.

Practices this inward have the strange ability to do the seemingly miraculous: to move boulders that would choke a dozer or sink ships of dreams with slivers of ice. When we try special practices this close to our own shadow, we may need to seek another language. If you are versed in the pattern of these things, rest assured that everything will be all right, but family and friends may stare at you, their curiosity tainted with worry. It’s all so new, like art_handblock1trying to convince yourself you like Chinese music. When teenagers go through such changes the whole family thinks it appropriate. But when a seasoned adult decides to investigate the sunset, sleep on the veranda, or quiet down enough to pursue his depth of inner practice, family members begin memorizing emergency phone numbers and even consider shifting these to speed-dial.

This internalization process can really scare society; at the same time, it can become so precious that those who have it cannot give it up. For the final part of this tale we go to pre-war Russia where existed a tradition of matching scientific and spiritual endeavors. For instance, there was even a famous teacher who, when awarding mathematical degrees, dressed in his priest’s robes. Other mathematicians practiced the Jesus Prayer and similar disciplines. But Russia under Stalin was not the arena for those who followed a path antagonistic to the newest political line. Of those who held their faith, some died, most endured humiliation and censure. But the facts of their practice–in this case the inward journey of mathematics, coupled with belief–eventually spawned a Moscow School that is still alive today.

art_handblock4Does it need to be spiritual? No, but there does need to be an internal refinement, an alchemy of transformation that erases the margins between inside and outside.

Can the inward path of studies like martial arts or mathematics also be equivalent to such a threatening stance for society? My own experience is that having a sense of comfort on the inside can irritate those who learn what they think by listening to talking heads and other outside phenomena. All the correct political thinking in the world cannot ultimately help your sidekick one bit. And, in a way, that suggests other benefits of activities like martial arts: writing, having an afternoon conversation with friends, memorizing a poem you love, doing a kindness to a stranger, sitting in silence. When this kind of practice reveals itself as part of you, it will feel, in some odd way, like walking down the street while practicing your “kicks” and muttering your own private prayer.


Referenced above:
Graham, Loren & Jean-Michel Kanter; “Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity”, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; Cambridge, MA; 2009

Salinger, J. D.; Franny and Zooey, Little Brown; New York; 1961

4 Responses to “Linking Practice”

  1. Tom Karls says:

    Excellent essay. Plenty to chew on and then take outside for enhanced sunset watching. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Jeff says:

    There was this guy who would jog by my workplace everyday. He always jogged backwards, looking over his shoulder.

    I think if you walked down the street practicing your kicks, people would understand you are just practicing your kicks. Either that, or you work for the ministry of silly walks. Either way, not a problem.

  3. Charlie says:

    I enjoyed this essay very much. Thank you Shirfu Ted

  4. Yaphett says:

    Once again, you have added to my game (of practice) and my life,in expressing the ‘walking,breathing and living’ of continual practice that I try to maintain in my life. At 44, it has been more than 30 years of enthusiasm and practice of the Chinese-style arts in some manner, and is an indescribably important piece of me at this point. Very much like what youve written here and I am still looking forward to meeting Master Adam Hsu one day and actually learning some Baji! I looked at the new series he put out like a new toy I’ve gotta have. So I enjoy this forum so much, and thanks again Shifu Ted.
    P.S. I believe I started my education with “Kungfu for young people “.

Leave a Reply

What do you have to say?

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