Many years ago, I was walking through the gym when I came upon someone I had met while visiting a local Karate school. “Hello!” I said. “How are things at your school?”
He shook his head and said, “I don’t train there anymore. I realized that all I was doing was spending a lot of time and energy preparing for a fight that’s never going to come.”
As he turned away, I stood there watching, truly surprised. This man had been a black belt, in great shape and, as I had been told, quite skilled. The fact that he had derived this perspective from his training was incredible.
First, let me say that Karate is, in its traditional form, a profound art. However, one’s approach to training is critical and effects far more than technique.
For example, beginning Kung-Fu is a very challenging personal journey. But Kung-Fu does not begin with learning to overcome others in combat or competition. Instead, the student performs the Jiben Gong; the exercises that build the fundamental physical qualities of the practitioner. In Wing Chun, it is dynamic tension in the lower body and utter relaxation in the upper; for Mantis, it is learning the postures of the style and executing those postures in motion.
This can be a difficult time for the new student; they struggle to perform basic techniques while seeing the more senior students execute them with ease. Frustration sets in and this can be the place where many leave.
Soon though, if they persevere, this time passes and the student finds that they can perform the Jiben Gong, the essential fundamentals, with relative accuracy. It is at this point that a new form of awareness often begins to manifest itself.
Now, as the student performs techniques, they become aware of the entirety of what they are doing. Relative ease of performance allows the mind to note not only physical appearance of technique but also timing, balance and body feel. Errors are noted, no longer with frustration, but with simple acknowledgment. The student notes, corrects and tries again. The craft’s reward, after learning to overcome struggle and frustration, is the beginning of the state of Zhengnian or mindfulness.
Zhengnian is the quality of being fully present in the moment; focused on what one is actually doing. It is a quality that is becoming increasingly rare as the digital world, waiting at our fingertips, constantly beckons. People can be seen daily walking, eating, or even sitting in the park while focused on the appliance in their hands. It is possible likewise be distracted from experiencing the world by one’s own thoughts. The constant internal dialogue can take one away from experiencing the present moment as effectively as our electronic devices.
Proper training in Kung-Fu technique requires that the student achieve and practice Zhengnian. As the mind focuses on training, the distracting internal dialogue melts away. As practice continues, technique improves even as the mind is strengthened to be in Zhengnian for longer periods. Eventually, the student carries this state of awareness into areas other than Kung-Fu. The taste of food, the quality of weather and other elements of life are more fully experienced. A profound moment at this stage is being fully mindful with friends or life partners. It is this discovery, and the knowledge of from where this growth has come, that keeps people practicing.
Compare this to the approach to martial arts where competition and overcoming others is the focus. Achievement alone can be an empty thing. Winning and losing competitions becomes an endless list of “W’s” and “L’s”. Like the young man I met many years ago, the rewards of devoting so much time and energy to their craft when approached on these terms are simply not worth the effort.
For the Kung-Fu practitioner, the art has intrinsic value far beyond self-defense. Kung-Fu is a resource that develops the mind and body in ways that enable a more profound experience of life itself.
Zhengnian is the first quality of awareness developed by practicing Kung-Fu. There are many others. It is this path of growth and self-discovery, crafted over centuries, that continues to draw people to make Kung-Fu a part of their lives.
First let me say that his website looks FANTASTIC. Excellent work.
I really like this essay. But it doesn’t answer my fundamental question about “why isn’t this working for me?” In the ’90s, I trained at a great school with a great sifu. Then the vagaries of life happened: new jobs, new relationships, etc. And I got old–particularly, my back hurts. Not certain what to do about that though. During the early 2010s, I trained in tai chi for a couple of years: chen pan ling style as inherited from great grandmaster, the late Wang Shu Jin. That to say, great teacher, great style, great lineage. At my best though, I could never remember more than 20% of it. Lack of mindfulness? Wrong style for what I’m trying to do (feel better)? What gives??
If this is the Daniel Friesen I recall being at my school in the 90s it’s great to hear from you!
Regardless, from my perspective, mindfulness is not necessarily recall. It is the quality of being mentally present in this moment. In fact, the act of recalling could take one out of this moment. In order to practice mindfulness one must know what one is doing so well that the task can be done without being overly in one’s head.
Recall can definitely be affected by the type of movement one is trying to duplicate. It may be that Taiji just did not click with you. This is why there are many new forms, especially of Yang Taiji that are shorter, easier to learn and ambidextrous. I use these in my school now.
Don’t let that experience put you off. Explore other kinds of Kung-Fu that might be within your physical ability. Sorry to hear about your back but it has been my experience that Kung-Fu, correctly taught and practiced, can be quite an effective healing modality.
Thank you for your comments. Please feel free to read and comment as often as you wish.
I am he: guilty as charged! The back is a relatively recent development. Need to investigate balancing my life better: too much sitting around!
I teach a different art form completely, drawing. But it also develops mindfulness – being present to the thing before you. I always tell my students: you will become good at what you enjoy practicing. What I appreciate about art forms, whether Wing Chun or drawing is that you are never done learning; the joy of discovery awaits you at every session. It is all ‘practice’, the Master is simply the one who has been practicing the longest.
Beautifully said! Thank you for your perspective.
I learned of drawing as meditation from reading Frederick Franck. He was associated as a doctor with Albert Schweitzer. He was also the only artist to record all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council, (1962-65). A whimsical writer, he communicates drawing as meditation gracefully and in fully understandable terms. Something I needed because I do not draw. But I wanted to see mindfulness through his eyes.
Again, your perspective is so appreciated. I hope you will join in conversation here again as you are inspired to do so.
I hope you find time to write more. Dialog with Sifu is always a pleasure and often enlightening. =o\=
I find that mindfulness has brought me to awareness.
Some.people.fall.in the ego trap of thinking it should die.
I’ve learned it is a child. It is a little us.
Child needs instruction love attention and understanding.
Be aware of our thoughts pains and emotions ..memories and hopes.
Do not try to control or hide them. Be a observer and reasearcher…
Feel into what we experience eliminate negative self talk.
When we are discouraged we should encourage others.
Always start with breath. Unlearn what we think we know.
And most importantly choose love patience and understanding.
Hinterkandanke in german.
Mind body soul as one. All being aware. Not fight or flight
Just aware accepting loveing and evolving