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Monday, July 1, 2013

Kung Fu Fighting

I first got interested in martial arts, like many do, as a result of bullying in grade school, which far from being the cause célèbre it is today was, in the early 1970s, more or less just an accepted part of the academic landscape.  A brief exposure to judo (and I mean brief --one class) led to a lucky victory against another kid on the playground, but beyond that, my exposure to martial arts as a kid was virtually non-existent.

I didn't get interested in martial arts again until much later, during my late 20s, while working with a choreographer --an American --who was married to a Japanese man who held dan rank in aikido.  She told me she thought I ought to study a martial art --I'm not sure why --and I found myself in the aikido dojo, which led to studying taijiquan (tai chi) xingyiquan (shing yi) various styles of qigong (chi kung, or "exercises to build the ch'i") and eventually a license to practice acupuncture (and a crippling amount of student loan debt, but I'll save the rant on education costs for another time.)

I turned 50 not too long ago and took, as I imagine a lot of us do when we hit that milestone, a long look at where I was mentally and physically and decided I didn't care for what I saw.  Since then I 've been struggling to re-establish my practice, and have had some interesting ups and downs, but the most important thing I think I've realized so far is that there actually is something to all the things I was taught --they work, for lack of a better word.

The whole business of qi ("ch'i" or as it's usually infelicitously translated, "energy") is one that I've been thinking about quite a lot as the cultivation of this substance, or energy, or whatever it is, is supposed to be essential to the martial arts I've spent the most time practicing --mostly taijiquan, but also some aikido and some xingyiquan as well.  As a description of an objective physical phenomenon, I've more or less decided it's ludicrous, but at the same time there's no doubt that you can correlate the term with certain experiences in practice, and that these practices as a whole have a powerful effect on the degree to which you can move the body in a more organized, more integrated, and more mindful way.  The other thing that seems important to me now is to have a sense of the value of having a teacher and having people to practice with.

At one point, the school where I practiced taijiquan had over a hundred members and I must have had the opportunity --there and elsewhere --to teach taijiquan to dozens, if not hundreds, of people; I also had access, thanks to my taiji teacher's connections in the New York martial arts community, to some incredibly talented martial artists across an amazing spectrum of disciplines, ranging from Indonesian to Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and other martial arts.  The unfortunate tendency when surrounded by such an embarrassment of riches is to take them for granted, and although I was lucky enough to learn some extremely interesting and useful practices, I don't think I, nor many of the people with whom I trained, really appreciated the rarity of having a community of like-minded people to practice with.  As I've gotten older, I've seen people move away, stop practicing, lose interest for a variety of reasons, die, or simply find that other things in life take priority over making time for practicing.  A number of people with whom I used to practice have succumbed to training injuries, in a few cases brought on simply by emphasizing one aspect of their practice at the expense of another.

Still, it's good to have started again. One interesting effect has been that I need less sleep --I've been waking up, spontaneously, at around five o'clock in the morning, which is a perfect time to walk to the park and practice.  The practices haven't changed much over the last 20 years --I'm still doing the same taijiquan form, still doing the same xingyiquan exercises, still doing the same standing meditation practices; but of course, that's the whole point.  The purpose of the practices isn't to reach some goal, or maybe it would be better to say that after all these years I've finally realized, concretely, experientially, that they don't have an endpoint.  Shunryu Suzuki Roshi wrote, in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, that there's no need in meditation to have any special state of mind --that to assume the zazen meditation posture is to be in the right state of mind in itself.  I think the same is true of the practices I've been taught --they're a form of existential self-sufficiency, an assumption of personal responsibility for the state of one's mind and body, and they're also an excellent antidote to the disease of constantly evaluating the state of one's body and mind by borrowed and not necessarily healthy criteria.  The worst thing about the profession I've been in for the last seven years --consumer journalism, which has by and large treated me pretty well, if I'm honest --is that it tends to encourage certain specific bad habits.  Aside from the fact that it's a largely sedentary occupation, it tends to encourage a certain kind of strident, insecure narcissism --which is perhaps not just a problem with journalism per se, but a character flaw natural to writers; we all have a tendency to be too fond of the sound of our own voices and to react with dismay and frustration when the world doesn't find us as interesting as we think it should.  Sitting, standing, or moving practices help discourage this particular form of insanity, and it's satisfying in a way that I don't think I can adequately describe to find that even at middle age, after all these years, the practices are not only still valuable but more valuable than ever, and that far from having faded into an ungraspable memory, they're as present as ever.  It's interesting to find that doing the same thing for 20 years can be interesting --as a matter of fact, that you find out things from doing the same thing for 20 years that you can't find out any other way.

PS --Some of this is a repeat performance of observations made in an earlier post, in the context of going back to studying aikido; but that's OK.  Some of it isn't.

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