lørdag 11. august 2012

Half a year gone by

The last time I wrote an actual story about what is happening in my life up here, I was living in my masters house training my ass off. That is now more than half a year ago. The events that have transpired since then are too numerous to recount in specifics, but I will try to give you the gist of it. Also, I have some cool news at the end.

Around the beginning of December last year, my master came into my room and told me that I would have to move into the other school. The reason for this is something I had known about, but assumed would work itself out in a less drastic way, the local police’s obstinate unwillingness to let foreigners stay in the locals residencies for extended periods of time. At the time, I’d been living in my masters house for approximately two months, and I was both enjoying and having severe difficulties living with him. I think I can honestly say they were the two most challenging months of my adult life. So, my reaction to having to move out was rather mixed. First, I felt rejected as a student and disciple, I didn’t really believe that the police was the only reason he was sending me to the other school (which he has almost no relation with now). I felt like he couldn’t really be bothered to teach me, and after training like a lunatic for the two months I was there, and following all of his directions, it hurt quite a bit. Part of the hurt was also, I’m sure, coming from a bruised ego. Wasn’t I supposed to be his disciple? Was I being degraded to an average lowly foreigner? Didn’t I have sparkly eyes, and rainbows shooting out of my ass? 

Writing this now, I notice I don’t much care for the part of my ego which enjoys elevating myself above others, and attaches so much of my self-worth to my position.

After the initial surprise at the prospect of a sudden change in environment, I also felt a sense of freedom. The thought of moving away from his constant scrutinizing supervision brought with it a palpable relief. 

When I’d finished moving into my new room in the school, kindly gifted to me by Krishna, I realized how much pressure I’d been under for the past months. I was never sure, after all, when my master would barge through the unlocked door to my room and command me to walk Bagua circles for an hour, or punch out candles until I could punch no more. With the pressure lightened, the impressions started to crystallize into tangible thoughts, and I noticed that much of the enjoyment I used to get from training, now was not present like it used to be. After about a week of settling into my new environment at the school, I decided, for my mental well-being, that I needed to get away for a while. So I worked up the nerve to ask my master for some time off, went over to his house, and asked him if I could go to Thailand and meet some friends who lived there. His reply was simply, “Yes.” 

When I came back from Thailand our relationship had somehow completely changed, and everything went a lot easier. I was training on my own every day, and went to him in the afternoons every other day to get corrections and ask questions about Daoism. This arrangement wasn’t without it’s challenges, training on my own every day, kicking myself out of bed early every morning without much threat of detection if I chose to sleep in, and pushing myself to train harder really put my self-discipline to the test. I improved a lot over that time, I think due to being given space to listen to my own body, and pushing myself as hard as I felt it was capable of going without injury. 

In March this year a group of students from Vestoppland Folkehøyskole (folk high-school) came to China for their yearly study trip through the cooperation of one of the teachers there, Viviann Alexandra Knutsen, and me. I planned the whole itinerary with Viviann, and I made all the bookings of hotels and drivers, and thus it was my first experience as a tour operator and tour guide. I was with them for two weeks, translating and guiding them through China as best I could. The high point on the trip for many was an eight day stay on Wudang Mountain where they learnt the 18 postures Wudang Taijiquan from my master. Here is a video they made of the trip.

The group of students from Norway,

 and as you can see, I have a ways to go with my strict-Kungfu-master smile

Three months ago a master called Yang Qunli arrived at the school I was living in. He is a 63 year old man who has a considerable wealth of knowledge about martial arts. After seeing me practice on my own one day he said I should join the competition coming up in a months time. I was at first hesitant to join since I don’t enjoy competitions, but after about a week of relentlessly trying to convince me and waving my entry fee, I reluctantly agreed to join. When I spoke to my master about the competition, he said that this time I had to win a gold medal (he didn’t add the cliché “or else,” but it was implied), since last time I attended a competition I only managed to get bronze. 

When the group from the school turned up at the competition we sat down on the benches in the arena and waited. The competition was a little late starting off, but I was supposed to be one of the first on. After the competition began, I started to get worried I might miss my slot, and asked Pan Kedi (one of the teachers in the foreigners class), if she could check which arena I was supposed to be on, and when I should be there. We ended up running back and forth for the next half-hour or so until I decided to go outside and warm up, just in case. Three minutes later she ran outside looking rather frantic, and shouted at me, “You’re next!”. I had hardly managed to get warm at all, but I ran inside, passed shamefully along the side of the arena with hundreds of faces looking at me. I saw the guy who’s on the mat performing before me (doing an impressive spear form), and took my place at the side of the performance area with all sorts of thoughts flying through my head. After applauding the guy performing the spear form, and some last minute words of encouragement from the guys I’m with, I strode onto the mat, bowed to the judges and started the Eight Immortals Staff form. Even if I wasn’t really warm it went quite well, and I was in the flow. That was until I did one of the kicks and the athletes pass I was wearing around my neck hit me square in my face, “shit, in the rush I forgot to take it off.” Knowing that this wasn’t exactly the best of times to take it off, I refocused and forged on, trying my best to perform well without getting a second hit in the face from my unsuitable neck attire. I finished with a high, well executed kick, and bowed to the judges. I walked off to applause of the crowd, and I was happy that it’s over. By the time of my second performance the foreigners from the school had arrived, and my buddy Frode took this video from where he was seated.

Me looking very pleased with myself after the competition

At the end of the day I found out that I won a gold medal in both of the categories I competed in. Later on that evening I went out for dinner to celebrate with the guys who came to the competition to support me. During dinner my master calls me on my cell.

“Hello master,” I answered 
“How did it go?”
“I won two gold medals!” I said, quite happily.
“Good, good. See you tomorrow.” *click*

My master can be a man of few words as you see from the exchange above, and the next day I received the best direct compliment I’d ever had from him, “Two gold medals, that’s not bad!”

After the competition the master of the Chinese groups kung fu class, who also joined us to the competition and helped me correcting my posture, invited me to join his class for free, as long as I performed for them at exhibitions and such. I was really exited about the idea, as I had been training alone for a good eight months, and the prospect of training with a group of able practitioners sounded fantastic. When I asked my master about it, he said no, to my disappointment, but I would soon discover the reason for it. 

A couple of weeks after the competition, my master called me over to his house. We sat down and he made the preparations to drink tea as he normally does, washing the cups, pots, and strainer, before pouring boiling water over the Oolong tea to wash it before brewing it. “I have decided to open up a school,” he told me. “I have rented a building close to Purple Heaven Temple, and in a few weeks I will start to receive students there. I want you to move there and start working as a part time instructor and translator.” I started smiling as he was speaking, this is exactly what I had been hoping he would do, and I was honored that he was inviting me to teach there. He then went on to explain what kind of school he wanted to create, which included lessons in Daoism, Chinese massage, and medicine. He also felt that people could benefit from a stricter environment then they have at other schools, which I agreed with. Many of the schools on the mountain have been getting laxer with the discipline over the last years. He also said he wanted to make school where people are taught deeply, not just a superficial form. And last, but definitely not least, he said that the school should have proper and good food, which I of course said HELL YES to (in my head, not out loud). 

While I’m typing this I’m sitting in my masters new school on Wudang listening to 15 kids who are here on summer camp getting ready to go to bed. I’ll leave you with some photos of life here at the school.

Evening practice in the temple

Everyone gathered in my room listening to Chinese songs.
My master teaching the kids in yard

View from outside my room in the morning

Bringing water from the well when the water and power was out.

If you wish to study at Master Zhong Xueyong's new school, introductions to him happen through me. Feel free to send me an e-mail at bjarte@taiji.no to enquire about conditions and curriculum.

Writing a blog about what has been going on here has been weighing on my mind for quite some time, It feels great to have finally finished it! Thanks for reading!

From Wudang with love

tirsdag 31. juli 2012

Some reason about excuses

It's been a long time since I've written anything here. I haven't really felt like it, and if I'm going to be honest about it, one of the reasons I haven't written anything is because I've been afraid. Afraid that what I write will be of poor quality, afraid I'll be judged, and afraid of letting myself down. But it doesn't take a genius to see that these are symptoms of deeper rooted issues.
One of the facts of life (for most of us poor unenlightened saps anyway), are that we all judge one another, and usually the person we dole out the harshest judgement to is ourselves. We get trapped in an everlasting cycle of attempting to do something, and telling ourselves we're rubbish if we decide that we haven't made a satisfactory performance judged by our, or other peoples standards. It is true, sometimes we may actually have done a sub-par job, but, for me, this is often when I have been afraid of investing myself fully in it. The reason for this is usually played out on a subtle, not fully conscious level for me when I sabotage myself during a process in different ways ranging from telling myself I can't do it, to procrastinating until I don't have time left to complete the task in a proper way. The main reason I do this is so I can later tell myself that I could have done it well if it only wasn't for *insert excuse here*.
In many ways it is comfortable to live with these excuses, it enables us to live our lives without risking uncomfortable showdowns with our egos. If we fail to live up to our own or someone else’s standards, we can always brush it off by saying, “oh, I could have done better if I really tried.” Usually this comment is our own little secret, well kept in our own minds, and we turn up our noses when we hear someone voice those excuses aloud. It annoys us. When I’m teaching a class and someone I’m giving correction to drops out of the posture and says, “oh, my shoulders are aching so much from sitting on the computer all day, I can’t do it,” it irks me ever so slightly. “Yes, that’s why your standing in this posture, so you can teach your shoulders how to relax.” The reason it piques a nerve in me is because it reminds me of the excuses I tell myself when I’m struggling to maintain focus in training. Only I don’t voice these excuses to my master in the same way (If I did I would regret it).
What I’m finding about myself is that when I decide to do something, I tend to go all in, investing myself fully in the project. For this reason I have a strong aversion to taking on new responsibilities, because I either do it, and do it well, investing a considerable amount of energy in it, or I let it sit there and take up space in my mind, and slowly sap my energy by not working on it. There is also the very remote possibility that I have a lazy streak wreaking havoc on some of my projects (like this blog).
This tendency to go all into something can be a good ego practice when things don’t go as well as they should. This is especially true here in Wudang with my master who doesn’t hesitate to tell me if he thinks I’m crap at something. For example after practicing particularly hard at Baguazhang for a month, I ran through the whole form in front of his house, trying my best to perform well. After I finished he stands with his arms crossed with a look of distaste spreading across his face, lips curved down at the sides. “Very ugly!” he says while I stand there, out of breath, waiting for another comment when he repeats, “hmph, very, very ugly,” turns around and walks away, leaving me thinking, “it’s moments like this that make it worth all the hardship!” with a small tear escaping the corner of my eye. Obviously I’m joking (maybe not about the tear...), the harsh rejection felt very bad indeed. I had poured so much time and energy into making my form better, and after all the hard work I got such an overwhelmingly negative response. 
If you’ve been following my blog you’re probably not particularly surprised by the caustic retort from my master, and neither was I. But the rejection hurt nevertheless. It was hard not to take it personally when I by my own judgement had put all of my effort into it. In the end I’m happy that he tells me like it is. It allows for me to grow a thicker hide, and he’s not dithering about expressing what he really thinks. I still haven’t heard of any redeeming qualities in my Baguazhang, except for my circle walking which apparently is “not bad”. The Chinese way of encouraging takes on many forms, the most common of which is encouraging by pointing out how badly one does something. It can sometimes be a bit too much for delicate Western minds to hear the brutal truth about oneself, but at least it’s honest.
What I am currently trying to incorporate into my life, is that instead of offering myself and others excuses, I offer reasons. For example after my Baguazhang performance in front of my master, instead of blaming myself for not training hard enough, or my master for being too strict, I look for the reason I have not yet achieved the desired result, and figure out how I should train for that result to manifest. And If I’m late for an appointment, and I was just sitting around playing solitaire on my computer, instead of saying, “Yeah, traffic was bad,” I could say, “I managed my time badly, and I attached more importance to seeing all of those cards finally come bouncing out of the screen than showing up on time to see you.” Being honest about what happened opens up for a possibility to look at why that was more important. Was it just my winner instinct gone wild, or was it social angst that delayed me?
From Wudang with love