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.