I would like to preface this by saying that this post is just a bit of free form about what I have been thinking and focusing on lately in training and in life (which I think to many martial artists is largely the same thing). This is kind of a reflection of where I am at the moment and may or may not be something that you agree with or seem to apply to you. Take it for what you will. If I am onto something, perhaps it will help you as well. If I am completely out in left field, well then hopefully it is a phase that I will grow out of. In the end, the decision of how you process this is up to you. And if I babble, forgive me.
I recently moved from San Diego to Baton Rouge so that my daughter could grow up close to the rest of her family. While I am very happy to be back in my hometown and close to my birth family once again, I am already missing my Dojo Family. Such changes can have a tendency to make a person think and re-evaluate a great many things. As with most other people, having a child has made a great impact on my life and my perspective. It is a real eye opening experience to watch your child learn and grow and interact with the world around them. Trying to see things from my daughter’s point of view really gets me to thinking.
Being a martial artist, many of the things that she does really gets me to thinking about my training. I’ve learned quite a bit from two year old in the past couple of years. For one thing, people that young tend to act naturally. They haven’t developed too many habits or actions that counter or override natural movement or reactions. Sifu Giusseppe always mentions breathing as an example. Watch how babies use their breathing. They tend to breathe deeply way down towards their diaphragm and not just in their chest.
Another thing that I observe is that when kids are that young, they really enjoy the little things. My daughter is fond of stairs. At our dojo in Rancho Bernardo she would climb up and down the stairs laughing and giggling the whole time. One of the fathers there remarked how he never knew stairs could be such fun. She also really enjoys simple things that kids enjoy like spinning around or sliding down the kiddy slides. As we get older, we look for more and bigger things. Maybe an analogy would be bunjee jumping or sky diving. But that got me to thinking about a few things that have been a recurring theme lately.
Those who know me will know that I recently took a trip to New York’s China Town. It was an awesome trip! I highly recommend it for those of you who get the chance to go! The trip was for a Fu Jow Pai Seminar and the annual August Moon get together for Fu Jow Pai. For two of us, it was also a chance to train and earn recognition from our teacher’s Sifu, Master Tak. Not to get too far off topic, but I just can’t say enough how awesome and inspiring Master Tak is both as a martial artist and as person! You simply have to meet him for yourself.
Getting back to the topic at hand, during the Fu Jow Pai Seminar, Grand Master Wai Hong said a few things to try to help those in attendance take their skills to the next level. I say “a few things”, but he repeated them over and over again. They were things that the Grand Master feels is extremely important. One of the principles that he, and in fact a few of the sifus that are his direct students, stressed was not to force things. Don’t over do it! Let things come naturally. I heard variations of this theme many times over from many people during that trip to New York. It’s something that I have been trying (hopefully not OVERLY hard) to focus on in my training. It’s also something that comes to mind whenever I watch my daughter moving or playing or doing anything. As we get older, habit and conditioning have a tendency to separate us from what is natural in many ways.
My instructor, Sifu Giuseppe, has also stressed this idea quite a few times while teaching. Take sparring, for instance. When two people start sparring, even if told to keep things to a slow pace, things inevitably speed up and people start going harder. This same thing also happens to most people during forms practice. One way that Sifu explained it was that often people will go at it as hard and fast as they can. If they’re trying to break something, they will use full power. If they succeed, often they will continue to use full power. The issue then is that at that point, the learning process stops. There are a few key points here. First of all, if you know that full power works, using it again does not teach anything new, though at least it works. Another thing to keep in mind is that full speed and power gets tiring really quickly. By going all out, the person is overshooting the mark and losing efficiency.
In order to begin learning and growing again, it is necessary to start using less. It is importing to keep in mind that failure is a necessary part of the learning process. There is a balance point or tipping point between not enough speed or power to accomplish the goal and having just the right amount. Beyond that, more is excess. Learning to know how much is just enough can help you make better decisions on how much you want to actually apply.
Once again, this is something that I observe frequently while watching my daughter. She is still figuring things out. She is not afraid to keep trying and she is not afraid to fail. Of course I do my best to make sure that failure doesn’t mean anything drastic like serious injury (a lesson that martial artists should keep in mind for themselves). In the process of trying and failing/succeeding/exceeding people learn how things work.
I have been working on using that principle for myself. Trying to apply to what I know, how to minimize what I do to find the point where it is just enough. That is where control and understanding come into play. For me, I believe, it is the next step in growing as a martial artist. For those who can make the connection, understanding in the martial arts can reflect on understanding in most other aspects of life. Once again, for any of you who have not already but get the opportunity, you should meet Master Tak. He is, to my mind, a living example of that idea.
I believe that this is another reason why masters tend to have such a great focus on the basics. They have learned to focus more on the smaller details. To my mind, a basic technique is like a plain sheet of paper. You get it, you learn to work with it, then you mix it in with something else to make something more. But I believe that mastery of the art provides a sort of magnifying glass. Looking back at that plain sheet of paper once more, through the lens of experience, one can see the little ridges and textures in its surface. The more magnification or experience, the more texture one can perceive.
I find that this applies to forms as well. At first, to learn a form, you have to remember the shape of it. Your mind is forcing your body through the movements to form the muscle memory. Your energy and your effort are being pushed from inside to out. The tendency is, at least it was for me and many others that I have taught, that once you get the shape of the form down, or even beforehand, you keep on pushing and start pushing harder. Trying to add power and speed and making the form look stronger. The problem that I have found for me is that my energy is still going from inside to out. Recently I have come to realize an idea that has been slowly growing and forming for quite a while in my training. The idea is that once I have the shape of the form, and I have the muscle memory so that I can keep moving through the form without thinking to hard about the next step, then I can stop pushing my energy from inside to out. I can relax as I go through the form, kind of like I am floating downstream. I may still have to steer, but I no longer have to push like I’m going upstream. I can sit back and ride along the current and observe. I can let the energy come from outside to in. To me, this is the point where I really start learning. As I have told my instructor, I have not yet taken an entire single form to this point in my kung fu training (though I feel that I have come closest in a particular kempo form of mine that he likes). Even so, I have found sections of a few of my forms where I feel I am able to absorb and begin to understand more about them. It is a place for me to start, at least.
Once again, this is another of the goals that I strive for. Learning the smaller pieces and nuances, gaining increased understanding and sensitivity. At the moment I feel as if an apt analogy would be me trying to read braille. Difficult now (as in not even there yet), but attainable with enough practice and enough( but not TOO much) effort.
For me at this current time in my current place in training and in life is, whether it be smaller movements or smaller people, to learn from the little things.