A lone student stands in the middle of the room. His fellow students stand along the walls of the practice floor. Around the student is a man in a martial pose, another armed with a knife and still a third has a padded bat. On command, they begin circling the student in the middle. Without warning, the one with the knife attacks. The student in the middle avoids the slash, captures the attacker’s arm and executes an arm break which is pulled before it can injure. Immediately after, the empty-handed student attacks; his blows are dealt with and countered swiftly. Finally, the man with the bat takes a swing at the knees of the defender. This is avoided and delt with in one swift movement as the attacker is disarmed. Moving to a different place in the room, (in order to present a different tactical situation for his attackers), the defender stops, takes a deep breath and sets himself for their next attempt.
What one has witnessed is not only a demonstration of martial technique, many martial artists of different styles have similar skills. What is different is the mind-set of the practitioner in the midst of the onslaught. His mind was clear, neither anticipating which opponent would attack nor what that attack would be. It is only in this mental state that he could successfully engage the opponents, allow his skills to manifest of their own and, in so doing, overcome. Otherwise, the mind tries to anticipate attacks, or struggles with fear of failure. Either of these responses prevent skills from effectively manifesting themselves. Of course, the technical training done during class is essential for this level of skill. However, of equal or greater importance is the training of the mind that occurs both in the school and in daily life. Without the mental training, the physical skills are only of limited usefulness. It is this mental training we would like to discuss today.
When one begins in Kung-Fu the unfamiliar physical discipline completely occupies class time. Practice at home, guided by online material, helps between classes but it is, for the new student, an exercise in observation, analysis and correction.
At the same time, the new student is eventually taught exercises such as Qigong, where one holds an image in one’s mind in the midst of physical action in order to experience the mind’s effect on the body. For many students, unless one has practiced arts such as Yoga, this is an unfamiliar realm.
Finally, the decision was recently made to begin teaching how the body can have an effect on the mind, the literal opposite of Qigong process, at least in its beginning stages. It is called Chu Xin 初心 or “Beginners Mind”, (often seen as Shoshin in Japanese). It is very literally a silencing of mental discourse. In it, one ceases to think in terms of words or concepts and focuses on a chosen object. It is natural and most people have some success with it on their first attempt. This is encouraging for beginners for whom the Kung-Fu school is itself a very foreign environment.
When one engages in Chu Xin it eventually becomes evident that the sense of self disappears. Looking at a candle with a quiet mind enables the practitioner to experience “only the candle”. One “becomes one with the candle” and the feeling of a separate self dissolves. Quiet and peaceful, one finds an appreciation of the object under consideration. Students report that colors appear more brilliant or that the thing under observation somehow seems more vivid. This is not an illusion. Rather it shows how much extraneous thoughts take away from our fully engaging the world around us.
Initially the student is encouraged to practice at home, in quiet settings. However, as one progresses, this state can be practiced while walking, thus combining the quiet mental state with engaging in simple physical activity.
Students are encouraged to practice Chu Xin while observing the instruction of seniors. I remember seeing students at the Shaolin Temple. They stood, unmoving, while the master demonstrated what they were to practice that day. I encourage the same thing among our students as they progress.
Later, if a technique is well-practiced and within the ability of a student, I will suggest they assume Chu Xin before doing it. To begin physical action from a place of stillness is the first step in gaining the essential mental qualities of the Kung-Fu practitioner.
Some students tell of how they quiet the mind before eating or listening to music. Still others talk about entering Chu Xin before beginning work or before school. It encourages me to see that they find value in this humble practice.
Over time, this place of stillness is far more than a quiet mind. But these concepts are far beyond this simple introduction. It is the journey of the Kung-Fu
practitioner in the traditional school, where centuries-old art informs modern-day experience.