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!