Into this mix bag that most would associate with painting, music and literature, I would include Chinese Kung Fu. Depending on how we approach it, it can lead to a fulfilling lifelong exploration of multiple aspects of humanity in its varied history of conflict, survival and social behavior. And besides testing the limits of human fitness, it also offers opportunities for artistic expression of culture in movement and for those inclined, one of the paths to spiritual enlightenment.
It is no small coincidence that when someone mentions a Kung Fu Master, a definitive image comes to mind – often a sagely person who lead a simple, focused, disciplined lifestyle. Even the top martial art stars of our time, they are often the ones that manage to find the calm in the eye of the media storm that is their life to stay at the top of their game.
For the everyday person trying to stay the course in achieving a respectable mastery of martial arts while juggling work, family and life in general, an important first step is to properly define for ourselves our purpose and end goal in our pursuit.
Many of us start to learn kung fu because we were inspired by the latest movie or book and wanted to emulate some of the cool moves or scenes in them. Or we are misled by media depictions that there must be some deep secrets we can quickly learn that will help us exponentially improve our health, fitness, flexibility and strength.
Yes, we can one day emulate some of the cool techniques with lightning speed like we see in movies.
Yes, we can one day achieve a high level of health and fitness.
Yes, Chinese Kung Fu and its related internal training can help us unlock our hidden potential.
But not without persistent hard work and dedication. And often a general interest is not enough to keep someone on course to where they intended to be. It is the trend now for short term crash courses to master a skill. This unfortunately does not lend itself to the kind of mastery that used to be standard for doing anything, especially something like kung fu.
From my interactions with other practitioners and dedicated students, many only started to apply themselves when they became clear about their goals and purpose for doing so and it is worthwhile for those interested in kung fu to spend some time to meditate on them.
Some find their reasons in the following:
To challenge ourselves to master something rare, profound and complex.
To cultivate a physical confidence to react to real-life situations when required.
We believe in the lifelong effects on health, fitness and strength.
We believe in kung fu as a complete system for the mental, the physical and the intellectual.
We want to preserve a chinese martial arts culture before it is lost.
A martial artist has focus.
A martial artist tend to be more physically and mentally present and aware.
A martial artist 吃得了苦 (can bear hardships).
The good news is, these qualities are learnt. And, they are not solely possessed by those who may be lucky enough to have physical talents. Those who do can easily waste them away if they do not sufficiently apply themselves. A less talented person who dedicates themselves can as easily sail past others in progress.
Martial arts training is a good way to know ourselves better
How do we react to the tough training?
Do we only like to focus on the fun things and try to skip the tedious basic foundation work?
How do we mentally organise our training when we are put on the spot to act and react?
Apart from gaining new knowledge and a new mode of movement, in the process we are also trying to understand the way we think and when we perceive the need, to change the way we think in a lifelong journey of inner discovery.
For myself, this journey has led me to a preference for a life of simplicity. I have met martial artists overseas who trains in a clearing in the jungle with a small shed for storing equipment. Some trains in a snowfield in winter at below 0 degrees Celsius! In Singapore, we have nice urban parks that may be hot and humid but suits a simple man’s taste for being at one with his training in the open. I also prefer a simple and clean diet (with the occasional indulgence!)
We probably remember a time when our parents felt pressured by the perception of relatives and friends to splurge on luxury meals or items to keep up a display of ‘doing well’. With the whole environmental debate going on, it gives many of us legitimate reasons to reject a life of opulence. Frankly, I feel it sets us all free to carve our own vision of what is ‘living well’. If we sometimes feel pressured to clutch at the latest hip delicacy or gadget, do ourselves a favour and set ourselves free.
We can do it for the good for the environment or we can do it for our own good. As a martial artist, we should aim to build up our personal value over material possession. Live for experiences that would provide life-changing learning opportunities than material objects. Be interested in a sustainable lifestyle where we can direct our energy into our passion, our mission, while making good use of what we already have.
Putting ourselves at some distance away from the clutter of the majority allows us to take a better look at the big picture. It is a change of perspective. Rather than being pulled along by the flow of the crowd, and eventually thinking less and less so that one can follow better, when we take a step back we have enough space to think about what is better, what is more beneficial.
Martial arts training helps us master our own demons
Kung Fu’s most authentic objective is to become effective in combat. There are other arts related to Chinese martial arts, such as Qigong, Health Qigong, Daoyin and other forms of meditation. Meditation is often also be a part of a Kung Fu practitioner’s practice. The difference however is that we want to master conflict, rather than ignore conflict, or escape conflict. In certain modes of meditation, we can seek to browse through our consciousness and our memories for traces of fear and weaknesses. The aim is to come to acceptance of these fears and develop solutions and reassurance in our mind to overcome these concerns.
As a practitioner, we may have once crossed hands with a martial artist who has more years of experience, more physical conditioning, some very refined tricks and know we have been bested. If we are keen on surpassing him in future, we will need to get rid of the ghost of defeat that may be haunting us and affect our esteem. Spend some time with the memory and the fear. Find a solution to it and work on the solution. We will eventually grow over it and become stronger than our fear.
Besides fear, we may also be ridden with complacency and underestimate a style or martial artist. That is a problem when we presume too much. This is likely when we spend a lot of time in an echo chamber of peers. That is why we should always take a step back and give ourselves room for self-check.
Meditation is a useful tool for how we can make a paradigm shift to understand other people and evaluate ourselves from their perspective. When we are able to see beyond our own perspective, our direction, mission, identity and source of motivation can fully crystallise and empower us to do what we need to do. This is the value of meditation. It should not be about escaping, it should be empowering.
For martial artists, especially those upholding the traditional arts without a huge popular following or big enough pool of dedicated peers, much mental resolve is needed to overcome the odds.
Meditation need not be a strictly silent and non-moving mental process. Even focusing our minds on practicing our techniques or forms is a way to meditate. Few people are able to channel fine thought into one activity at a time. Reading, writing and debating are not the only way to grow intellect and mental sharpness. In fact, physical activity has been scientifically proven to enhance mental performance in people.
With the discipline of a kung fu practitioner, we should become better able to be mentally present for everything that we put our mind to including work, play, relationships and our kung fu practice. When we start to be fully present for the things we care about, what we give is measured in quality and not quantity.