There are different ways to look at one's progression within the traditional Chinese martial arts. One way that I like looking at one's progression is based on our Tiger Crane Combination systems teaching on the three battles. I have discussed the three battles before but want to offer a slightly different perspective.
The three stages of development:
The first stage a student must go through is the stage of forms and shapes. A student must learn the specific shapes, movements and physical structures that the particular system they have chosen teaches. They must change the physical body so that the structures and shapes are not forced and can be settled into with ease. Taking them to a stage where the shapes and structures of the system become the intuitive way they move and stand. Thought is no longer needed to align correctly; it’s automatically correct. These shapes can be like external scaffolding that allows the student to now enter inside and do the next stage of work. - This stage can take between 5 to 10 years of training - this depends mainly on the quantity and quality of one's training.
With the body now aligned correctly and holding our structure in place correctly, we move inside and begin the long and challenging process of changing our inside. This process is not about adding anything - it is purely a process of letting go and abandoning all that is unnecessary. We build up a lifetime of bad habits, ways of thinking, emotional states and these all have a direct effect on how our body and energy move and react. The work at this stage is about letting go physically and mentally of all that offers resistance, our first 5 to 10 years of training has given us the scaffolding and structures physically and mentally so that we don't crumble during this process of abandoning the unnecessary. Most martial artists begin this stage but do not leave it. This stage can take between 20 years and a lifetime of training - Again, this depends on the quantity and more importantly here, the quality of your training. This part of training is also challenging to achieve without a good teacher who knows the path through experience, not intellectual understanding.
The third stage is about removing the scaffolding, the structures and shapes you have mastered no longer matter, you have changed your mind and your body to become Kung Fu completely so everything you do and don’t do, think and don’t think, say and don’t say is Kung Fu. Internal and external are no longer separated, and all things are united.
In essence, the journey is about learning how to to do so we can abandon doing.
Here is one of my favourite quotes from Chuang Tzu that embodies this process,
“Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.”
Why do I train in the Martial Arts? - I genuinely believe that we should always strive to become better than we were yesterday. We should disassemble our minds, our identities and truly understand what it is that we fear, what it is that holds us back. What baggage are we carrying that stops us from climbing higher and higher. In my opinion, nothing does this as well as Martial Arts training.
This critical self-analysis cannot be done while in a state of comfort. If your mind and your body are not at the extremes of what you can tolerate you can not honestly see your ego for what it is, a mechanism for keeping you where you are. If you don’t force your body to continue doing those burpees when your mind is screaming “enough!” You won’t understand how much your mind lies to you. If you are not doing your 25th first form in a row, you won’t realise how much you can truly tolerate.
To truly understand who you are and why you are this way, you need to put yourself through the fire. Because it is this fire, that burns away the lies and the illusions and leaves you with the truth. Your demons have nowhere to hide when you place yourself way outside your comfort zone; and when you can see your demons, you can begin slaying them!
This is personal growth; this is refinement, this is how we reach enlightenment! I have spent 2018 putting myself outside of my comfort zone on a daily basis and have grown as a result of doing this. I have also spent 2018 putting my students outside of their comfort zones, and they have become better as a result.
In 2019 I will not relent, I will keep climbing and refining my mind and body and will take my students along this journey with me. However, I have just one requirement from them,
“Leave your excuses in 2018.”
A man once went for a walk in a lovely garden. He came across a cocoon, it was moving, and he stopped to watch it for a moment. On closer inspection, he noticed a butterfly struggling to get out but was finding it very difficult. The man waited a little longer and started feeling sorry for the butterfly. Maybe the butterfly is stuck, he thought to himself. The man took out his keys and used it to make a hole in the cocoon. The butterfly emerged, but it could not fly, It was deformed, and its wings were withered. The man by helping pry the cocoon open had deprived the butterfly of the struggle it needed to go through to develop itself correctly and be able to fly.
Anyone who turns up to train at my Kung Fu school knows within the first 10 minutes of their first class that they will be pushed to their extremes. It doesn’t matter how fit or unfit, strong or weak they are. They will, within the first 10 minutes come face to face with their character, all lies they tell themselves about who they are every day falls away, and the reality of their true nature stands face to face with them. This metaphorical mirror usually appears around the second set of burpees.
Why do I take this teaching approach? The answer is straightforward, this is my way of creating a club of students who want to learn. Student’s who try my classes will be pushed in their first class. When they go home after class and feel body pain in the next few days, this is when they either decide, “The classes are too difficult”, and they don’t come back. Or, they decide “The classes are too difficult, this school is exactly what I need!” The first kind of person doesn’t understand that it is through the struggle, pain and hardship that character is developed. They are like the undeveloped and withered butterfly. They don’t want to change to overcome the things they are not comfortable with. They want to shield themselves from everything that challenges them. I don’t need students like this in my school, and my classes effectively weed these people out at their trial class.
People have told me in the past that this approach is not suitable for growing the school, as beginners won’t come back to train and I should make the classes less physically demanding. This slow growth may be the case in the short term, but in the long run, I know that I am developing a group of students who will become true martial artists in character and spirit.
It doesn’t matter who you are, in every one of my classes you will face struggle because without the hardship, there is no progress and without progress, life leads to nothing.
As far back as I can remember in my own life, being a better version of myself has always been my primary concern. I remember as a child of 12 or 13 going into my local library and going straight to the mind body & spirit section or the psychology section looking for books that will help with my endeavour. I remember the librarians who I was very familiar with would jokingly tell me that, "those books had no pictures in them". I was always searching for that secret or that path that would lead me to become better. I began training in the Tiger Crane Combination system of Kung Fu a few years later, and the journey inwards that the training has taken me on has been wondrous.
As humans, whether we are religious or not, whether we base our world view on faith or reason, we all have a yearning deep inside of us for something greater. Some satisfy this longing through belief in gods or angels, others lose themselves in the seemingly infinite nature of our universe, and some fall into drink and drugs to satisfy this insatiable thirst for more. What I do is I look inwards because to understand the nature of self and consciousness is to understand the subjective nature of our gods, our demons and our universe.
I have always said that my training in Tiger Crane Kung Fu translates directly into anything I do in my life. This is a principle that I also try to get my students to understand. My role as a practitioner of this system is to get my body to respond, to do what I want it to do, to stretch further than it did yesterday, to hold the postures for a longer period than it did yesterday and to tolerate the pain for a while longer than it did yesterday. My success with my body is directly dependent on my ability to control my mind. My ability to not listen when it is making excuses, to ignore it when it tells me enough and to shut it down when it is not helpful.
The level of mental clarity and discernment that one gets while training in a system like Tiger Crane Kung Fu is beneficial in one’s career, relationships and in one’s attempts to be a productive member of the societies they live. As the practitioner's training develops and their Kung Fu matures so does their mind, The practitioner begins to see through the illusory nature of their mind, their emotions, their thoughts and their worldview. Giving them the ability to create better and more productive habits.
Training in a traditional martial art isn’t just about learning to kick and punch. It is about the journey one takes to create a better version of themselves every single day. So the next time you don't want to train on a training day, understand that this is your mind telling you to stagnate. When you understand this, you then have the choice to either listen or to not listen.
This choice is always yours.
Pain is inevitable when training Kung Fu. I always tell my students that if they are not in pain in every class, then they are wasting their time. Kung Fu training is pointless if the stylist doesn't push themselves beyond their comfort zone because unless they do, they are not improving. Pain is the feedback we get when our muscles, joints, tendons, etc. are being pushed beyond the point that they can comfortably manage. Kung Fu stylists need to learn the difference between “Good Pain” and “Bad Pain”. "Good Pain" being the kind of pain we aim to put ourselves through to improve our strength, flexibility and character and "Bad Pain" is the kind of pain we need to avoid as this can lead to damage and injury.
I spend a lot of time telling my students to get lower in their stance, or to maintain the pace or to hold the posture for a little while longer. At the same time, the student's mind is telling them to rest, as the pain is unbearable and the suffering will only increase if they maintain the posture. Training is a constant battle between the instructor trying to get the student to push and grow and the student’s own mind telling them to seek comfort and rest.
The Shaolin Kung Fu systems originated out of the Chan Buddhist methods and practices that were prevalent in China at the time. In the Ten Oxherding pictures, Chan Buddhist's teach that the mind is like a wild ox, wild and free and shows step by step the stages a student goes through trying to control this Ox. A considerable part of a Shaolin Kung Fu stylists training should be done in a state of mindfulness, this form of practice teaches the stylist a critical truth that most people are not aware of. This truth is that pain and suffering are two different things.
When we are pushing beyond our comfort zones, our body will give us feedback, this feedback that we call pain is inevitable. As mentioned above, it is our body telling us that it is being pushed beyond what is comfortable. Evolution has programmed in us to run away from pain, for this reason when pain arises in the body our mind decides we do not like this and this causes us to suffer while the pain persists. This suffering creates the need in us to do what we can to stop the pain. The reality is that suffering is not inevitable, suffering is the way we choose to interpret the feeling of pain.
So, next time when you are holding a painful posture or doing an exercise that is causing pain to arise; be still and just observe the feeling. When you notice the mind beginning to complain, stay calm and observe the mind’s complaints as an external observer. The pain will become more bearable, and you may be able to hold the posture for a little while longer than usual. Do this all the time during your training, and you will have taken the initial steps in taming the wild Ox that is your mind.
Any pursuit that will help you grow and help you better yourself physically and mentally will be tough. You will struggle, you will be in pain, you will suffer, and you will probably want to quit every lesson. The difference between those that persist and those that quit is simply a mindset. I have been teaching Traditional Chinese Kung Fu for a long time and have been training for a lot longer than that. I have experienced the suffering, the pain, the broken bones, the muscle tears and the desire to quit.
As humans, we tend towards comfort and ease. Physically, we do not want to be in pain, and mentally, our ego does not want to be exposed to the fact it can’t do certain exercises or movements. We want to be comfortable, and training for most people, is not comfortable mentally or physically. Our mind begins to natter away creating all kinds of excuses to quit, telling us, “this isn’t for you”, “you are too old”, “you are not fit enough”. All this happens so that we decide to take ourselves out of the situation that is challenging us and taking us back into our comfort zones.
I see this all the time with beginners attending my classes. My classes are not easy, within the first 15 minutes, you will have had a tough, cardio and strength workout that my seniors struggle with. My job is not to make it easy for you; my job is to push you beyond your made up limits and help you find a stronger, fitter, more focused you that you didn’t know existed. Beginners often stop and rest many times during their first few classes, and that is fine, but those that persist find that over time, the need to rest and take a breather isn’t always a physical one, it is usually a mental one. When they understand that difference, they know that they don’t have to stop just because their mind is complaining or making excuses. They can tell their minds to “shut up”, and they continue with the exercise. To get to that stage, a beginner will need to persist through their first few classes.
Traditional Chinese martial arts isn’t a quick fix; it is designed to be difficult so that it can help shine a light on all aspects of your personality, the good and the bad. It is a journey that you take to find yourself. It is an adventure that contains the highest mountains and the darkest valleys, the densest jungles and the loneliest deserts. Like any journey, we should not dwell too long and keep moving forward.
The Daoist Sage, Lao Tzu tells us, “A journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step” So don’t give up after the first step, put one foot in front of the other and keep walking to a better you.
Most of us go to school until our late teens or early twenties, and we believe that we are done learning after this stage. We throw ourselves into our careers, and our family lives, leaving less and less time to learn and develop ourselves further. Even when at school, we learn fixed curriculums and our teachers' primary focus is how to pass exam after exam. Our educators seldom address the important questions about the nature of self and consciousness.
I have been fortunate to take a path in my life that has helped me understand the value of learning and training oneself. I have been training and learning all of my life, and I am only starting to scratch the surface. I have had some remarkable teachers who have helped me along the path of refinement and growth. Some of these teachers would be proud of the road I have taken and others less so as it can be difficult to watch your students find their path, a path that may diverge from your own. In the end, we all need to be honest with ourselves. We must ask ourselves constantly whether we are making decisions based on attachments to principles that are themselves impermanent. Are we trying hard to hold on to the character or characters we believe we are in our own internal narratives of our lives? The further we develop ourselves spiritually, the more careful and the more mindful we need to become. Our sense of self, our ego is relentlessly trying to co-opt any progression for its own gain.
My Kung Fu training has been the single biggest tool that I have used to grow and learn. The word "grow" in this context can be quite deceptive as it implies adding stuff to make something bigger or larger. Most people will agree with that usage of the word as it is related to adding knowledge and skills to make ourselves better. But real personal growth is not about adding things; real personal growth is about taking things away. Our lives burden us with mental patterns, habits and ways of thinking that do not stand up to scrutiny when dissected and examined. We hold on to ideas that make us happy and push away ideas that make us sad. We lack the training and discernment to ignore the emotional swings and look at the true nature of what happiness and sadness actually are. We get angry, envious or greedy, but we do not detach from the emotions and skilfully look at the nature of our minds during these states. Like a scientist would when observing a natural phenomenon with unbiased attention.
When a beginner trains in my classes, I can see at first the battle they have with their bodies. Why doesn’t my arm go to where I want to it to go? Why can’t my hips and my legs flex enough to get into the posture I need to get into? At first, students try to force their bodies into the positions and stances that the system requires but over time something changes in the student. They stop striving for the perfect posture or movement, and they accept “as good as I can do.” They tell themselves, "my body won’t do it; I will go to as close as possible, without causing myself too much discomfort." This line of reasoning is, of course, an illusion, this is the mind, the ego wanting to stay within its comfort zone. A lot of students plateau at this level and refuse to push themselves, and this is fine because it is where they are at that current stage. They may end up training on and off and eventually stop training altogether, giving me their reasons for leaving. Reasons that they firmly believe to be true but when probed further is another illusion rooted in staying within their comfort zone. The students that continue to train eventually start to change. They begin training in more classes, repeating movements outside of class and even start dreaming about their training. These students begin to see the difference between what they can achieve with real effort and dedication and what the false limits are that their mind creates for them. This ability to observe the mind that students acquire through training is the most important tool one needs to grow and change.
Like a great sculptor you are trying to chip away at the unneeded excess to find the masterpiece that is the real you. Real refinement of self is about stripping away who you believe you are, eliminating the limits that you have created for yourself and abandoning the excuses your mind creates when going out of your comfort zone. Real maturity begins the moment you understand that the little voice inside your head, constantly talking you out of things is your biggest adversary.