Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Wood Isn't Going To Chop Itself


For the past two years I have had a great gig, where every Saturday morning I go and chop wood for a couple of hours. For a long time, I had wanted to chop wood to supplement my martial arts training.

The "splitting" energy is evident in the form of a variety of Xinyi movements (and internally within them all) and it is clearly derived from exactly this sort of activity. It was a chore that I had not done regularly since periodically feeding my parents' fireplace in the winters in Manitoba. Chopping wood at -40C was likely "good training", then, too, if not only physically, but of the "character building" variety...

More recently, many people older than I am have approached me while I chop wood - and told me that seeing me brings back memories of their younger years growing up on farms or in the country... I even had one intriguing gentleman come and tell me that he used to live in a monastery, in a silent Christian order, and that chopping wood was one of his regular duties. When he showed me the scar above his eye from a piece of wood that once flew up and hit him, I would like to say that I rushed out and bought safety goggles right away... Of course, I only bought safety goggles (and now wear them "religiously"!) after I, myself, had a piece of wood fly up and almost hit me in the eye! As much as I always swear to learn from the words of my elders - sometimes there is no teacher like experience (e.g. the experience of a flying chunk of wood to the head...).

Of course, I chop wood for exercise. I get to do it a few hours a week, for pleasure and fitness. If I had to chop wood every day, all day, I have a feeling I would view it as "work", instead of as "play". I may even dread the drudgery and the exhaustion it might bring. I feel very fortunate to be able to choose this physical activity as a meaningful part of my life. What a privilege!

The same goes for my martial arts training. I "work" hard at it, but it is a choice, and, when I am at my best, it is a high form of "play" indeed. I am not compelled to train out of fear or because I constantly need to "fight". I love that I "have it if I need it", but if violence were my motivation for training I would have stopped trying to keep learning and refining my Xinyi practice long ago. "Martial" is absolutely essential to "martial arts", but in the modern world there are, sadly, much more efficient ways to go about violence. That's not the reason to dedicate one's self and one's time to a centuries old martial art...

And, while chopping wood, a few people have come and told me something similar: "You should get a hydraulic wood-splitter", I was instructed by more than one man. I just smiled and shrugged. Really? I wondered to myself - then what would become of me?? I am the wood-splitter.

So why practice a centuries old martial art like Xinyiliuhequan? For me, it has been about connecting. It has been connecting with great teachers and great training partners. It has been connecting with the past. It has been connecting across the globe, across cultures, across languages, across religions, across generations... It has been about learning history in a very hands-on way. It has been about experiencing evolution - touching what has worked and survived and endured for hundreds of years. And, it continues to be both hard work and fun.

I remember in Shanghai on one of my first visits in 2003, Grandmaster Yu Hua Long watched me do a move I had been working on for years - and his face lit up with joy as he and I both connected -- as we both truly realized -- that a young man from Canada and an old man from China were both so dedicated to this art and doing our best to keep it alive and present and relevant. He grabbed me and hugged me so hard! We hugged while hopping in a little circle, on the little floor space that there was, in his little room. And, we both wore huge smiles - and there was something timeless and all-embracing about it all.

So, for a few hours each week, I chop wood. And, for a few hours each week I keep practicing Xinyi. And, I am trying to find more people to share it with. The wood isn't going to chop itself and the Xinyi isn't going to practice itself. And, maybe neither act would be considered the most "efficient" use of my time. But I am not going to give up on either practice, "old fashioned" as they may be. I am going to keep trying to refine my Xinyi practice and use it to survive and thrive the best I can in the modern world. I am grateful I have had such opportunities. These types of practices continually add meaning to my life.

The end of one of Gary Snyder's masterworks, "Axe Handles", comes to me while I split the wood:

"My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on."

And so I keep trying to line up the wood, swing the axe, and find the balances the best I can - between old and new, effort and relaxation, soft and hard, calm and passion, etc., etc., etc...  On and on...


Back to it!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Training Is For Day-to-Day Life / Day-to-Day Life Is For Training

Training Is For Day-to-Day Life / Day-to-Day Life Is For Training

I recently bought a hybrid bike in order to be able to bike to work and for running errands. I have really been enjoying it! It feels great to be getting some exercise, reducing my carbon footprint, and feeling the wind on my face. It has also been making me think about at least two types of martial arts training:

The first type of martial arts training is simply (and importantly!) that dedicated, sole-purpose (and soul-purpose?) time spent "training". This is very important time for me, but, ultimately, in the modern world in which I live (and I am not a "full-time" martial arts teacher or student) it is but a handful of hours-per-week that I can dedicate and focus entirely on my Xinyi skills and repetitions. I try to focus as fully and deeply as I can on my martial art during that time, but it is (even on the most flexible of days) a limited amount of time. The problem seems to be, then, that the broader definition of "kung fu" is "skilled work" (earned through time and effort) - and as a husband, son, friend, professional, student, etc. there is only so much specific time I can allot towards striving to be the best I can be at each endeavour.

That said, the second type of martial arts training is (and always has been) day-to-day life. It is actually hard to imagine just how tough those ancient martial artists in China (and elsewhere in the world) would have been. If they spent their days doing farm work, hammering at an anvil, or even just living without modern transportation and labour-saving devices -- those people would have had a baseline level of strength and endurance that nowadays we associate with "fitness enthusiasts" or professional athletes. [Not to mention the fact they ate organic food, far less "junk" food, etc., etc...]

As great as dedicated "exercise" time is (be that lifting weights, cycling, swimming, etc.) someone who swings a hammer, or an axe, or a pick, or a hoe... for hours a day is going to be able to hit quite accurately, quickly, and powerfully! Someone who stands in a small boat fishing all day is going to have incredible balance. Someone who engages in the day-to-day work of a subsistence farm is going to be quite fit - and actually lack the energy, the time, or the need to lift weights and do "cardio". In fact, they are going to have to work very hard to find the energy and time to get in their martial arts training at all (which is a similarity we seem to share in modern times...). Now, don't get me wrong, in the modern world we need to get some regular "exercise", if only to try to counteract so much sitting around. But, it is hard to compare forty minutes on the elliptical with hiking sacks of rice to the nearest town.

For someone dedicated to having martial arts be a part of her/his life (then and now), there is no substitute for some regular, dedicated time invested in specifically training martial arts skills -- but there is also no need to feel guilty for not doing specific martial arts training "all the time". Living a full, productive life can also be one in which I can "train" every time I go for a bike ride, wash my car, take the stairs, adjust my posture, or even take a deep breath. The more of these supposedly non-training hours I can make truly mindful and healthy the better. They are actually going to add up a lot faster than the number of hours I can dedicate to specifically doing Xinyi. And being a good husband, son, professional, etc. is why I am so interested in doing Xinyi - and why I am so motivated to try to share it with others.

Of course, the two types of martial arts training go hand-in-hand. Martial arts training helps with living a productive, healthy life - while living a healthy, productive life feeds back into martial arts training. To me, that's the whole purpose of martial arts - not to be my life - to enhance my life and to help me to live it well.