Thursday, April 24, 2008

Shaolin Crush #2

It's been a while since my first Shaolin Crush entry, but that shouldn't suggest that I haven't been feeling the love for various Shaolin brothers. Today my heart did the extra pitter-pat for one of my long standing favorites, Randy.

Now some may say this crush is borne of the fact that when Randy trains we Brooklynites get a ride home, and I can't deny that's a perk :), but for a long time I've admired him for his indestructible, positive chi. He's always encouraging, and always training hard even when he's injured and hurting, and brings a really fun energy to class. He is also a font of helpful tips for whatever move I happen to be practicing before class. Today, I was going back to square one on my ceshoufans, trying to get them straighter and faster. Today he was getting ready to go after tai chi and I asked a passing question about one handed ceshoufans while he put on his shoes. What did he say? Nothing; he immediately took his shoes back off and did some. Then he broke it down for me and showed me how to gradually build up to to doing them full out with lots of encouragement after each of my embarrassing attempts.

So hearts and flowers for Randy, who, after almost two hours of tai chi, put off going to whatever his post-training activity was to jump to my aid with such enthusiasm. Or should I say, one-handed ceshoufan to my aid. Be still, my heart...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Training In and Out of the Temple

I was cleaning my files out this morning and came across an old correspondence with a shaolin shifu. He had some great advice:

Your desire for deeper understanding is to be encouraged. However, be careful of thinking that happiness lies somewhere else or in doing something else. There are insightful masters who instruct their students to do those things they least like in order to find happiness even in that. The truth is happiness has nothing to do with what activity you are engaged in. That said, truly learning this comes after trying and trying thing after thing and discovering it is not in the thing. Happiness - or freedom from desire and illusion - is always there. It is about letting go, not about gaining. The true master is one who can live this while still engaging in everyday life. That said, it is helpful to develop skills, to practice, to engage in "hard work" (the literal translation of (k)gung fu) towards becoming better at letting go of that which we grasp.

This work can be done anywhere, and need not but can involve martial practice. Any body-centered or somatic endeavor can fit the bill to supplement your practice. The key is engaging in devoted practice towards ultimate compassion. Our recommendation is to find a good meditation instructor, and the most widely available are usually through Zen sitting groups. Begin with this and develop your meditation skills. Seek not to escape to that "better place' but to fully be wherever you are.

Buddhism is not about finding a place that is always happy. It is about realizing there will always be both pleasure and pain, and about recognizing our tendencies to be attracted to pleasure and repulsed by pain, and to find peace in the ebb and flow. And it is about helping others to this realization as well if they wish to be helped. That is the Shaolin way. Yes, martial training can be a tool in this endeavor, but not more so than anything else.

Also, be wary of those claiming to be Shaolin, even or possibly especially in China. You would do well to look closely at the history of China to determine if you think Shaolin is where you think it is today.

We wish you good practice.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Hidden Temple

At the risk of creating an unmanageable deluge of posts over the course of three days, I would like to draw our attention from the current, all consuming meditation on testing, and focus on something more important: the flag. The Shaolin flag that is.

After suffering injury in gale-force winds last month, the flag was sent away for some reconstructive surgery, but has yet to make a reappearance. Every time I am meandering to Temple either from the subway or from work, I get a little lost in thought and then realized I have no idea if I am on the right block. The Temple may be everywhere, but I need a giant red banner to show me where that is!

Ok, so this isn't really about the flag; it's a big old metaphor for training. Sometimes, I feel like without the flag showing me where I am, or where I'm going, I can't get there. This isn't just in reference to a test or certificate ceremony. It can be a part of a move that I need to appear before I feel like I am making progress towards nailing it. It is about setting up false deadlines and benchmarks for myself in an effort to make progress more tangible and more visible. But what I have realized in the last few weeks, is that, you don't need the flag to find temple. It might make the journey a little more challenging (or if you're inattentive like me, a lot more challenging) but it isn't actually important at all. The marker doesn't make the place more real, and trying to find overt markers for my training doesn't make the training I have done or will do more real either. My bawang zakui isn't perfect. I can't do it one handed; I sure can't do an aerial. And while I do aspire to those things, their absence doesn't negate the improvements that are there.

Realizing this is helping me, slowly, release that anger and frustration that comes from not performing to my desired level. Last night was a really fun class, the chi was out of control. And for me, it was because I realized, I haven't reached the level I want, but look at how much I have learned and how much I have grown. Just as climbing up the stairs in an unmarked building is like sneaking in to a secret ninja society, finding those hidden realizations and achievements in myself is equally rewarding. Maybe not as rewarding as the day I can wear a big red flag that says SHAOLIN WARRIOR HERE. I've never been subtle. But still, it's a start.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Levels of Performance

Like Qbertplaya, I keep thinking about how I felt when I expected my name to be called, and then it wasn't. I felt the floor drop out from under me, just for a split second, and then a rush of something--perspective?-- filled me back up to take the place of the usurped expectation.

I know I didn't test at full capacity. My excuse at the time was a cough I'd acquired over the weekend, and I definitely babied myself. But for some reason I thought my average effort would suffice.

How lovely to know that it can't. Not passing a form, I'm learning, means that my best effort must be GREAT because my average effort is pretty good! If I had passed XHQ having performed the way I did, then I wouldn't be roused as I am to respond to the call to be better, to do more, to TRAIN HARDER! I have more to aspire to now, and I intend to-- not just at Temple, but everywhere in my life.

I was settling for "pretty good", when I am more than that. We all are. In the company of my Shaolin compadres, I feel luminous, and as much as I know that what shines is my own inner light, it is magnified infinitely by the glow of the mirrors of light all around me. Qbertplaya: you are my hero. You embody everything required for warrior-hood. And as I'm slowly absorbing the gift of perspective I have been given, I am more thankful than ever that I get to be discovering these things with such awesome people, just like Q said. More Chi? Definitely!

You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby

(The Smiths are good for moping.)

Shifu did not call my name yesterday during the certificate ceremony, and I cried like a fuckin' baby afterwards. And then I got upset at myself for getting upset because I equated tears with showing weakness, but realized that isn't necessarily true.

I am disappointed and sad, and I'm allowed to be, dammit, but can I be really be so upset with the whole situation? (Cue in music by The Smiths.)

This testing thing, this not passing only takes on the meaning that I choose to assign it. If I let it be all-encompassing, then that's the end of this post, isn't it?

I could say to myself, Shifu thinks I suck. I think I suck. I should just give up and not go on.

Or, I could say, Jeez Louise, 'playa, you've come way too far to give up now. It's nothing but a hiccup. A sign from Shifu that you're not quite there yet. You just haven't earned it yet, baby. But you will!

And it's true...looking honestly at myself, have I completely exhausted perfecting what I know? Not at all! In fact, just the other night, Shifu sent me to kung fu kindergarden. Although I am proud of the progress I've made since injuring myself almost 7 months ago, and hell, the progress I've made since Day 1, there is still so much work. I know I can work on endurance. I know I can strengthen my legs for jumping. And stop that damn skipping. And perhaps some day I'll work up the courage to do ceshoufan on the other side.

And I can continue to train my mind....

Rather than spend time wondering what Shifu is/was thinking for me, and whether this is all part of his crazy plan for me, I choose to focus on what I am thinking for myself. What is my plan? And my plan is to TRAIN HARDER.

The point is, I don't necessarily see this as a failure from which I need to rise. It is merely an evaluation of where I am as of now, which is helpful as a reference point to see where I'll be in the future. Heng Yu reminded me of that feeling that I'm sure a lot of us had when we started at Temple -- that great sense of awe and slight intimidation, and wondering if I'd ever be as good as those guys wearing those orange uniforms, and here I am, on the cusp of being there. I might be limping a little, but I am just a wee bit behind. And I will be there soon, maybe not right now, but soon in the long future...

And once I've earned it, once I do get to Level 2, it will feel so good...

In the meanwhile, I know some things for sure -- that because of training at Temple I've met some really awesome folks. My friends who've supported me throughout this entire crazy endeavor, I know I will be able to always count on you for support regardless of whether I pass or not. And that goes the same for those non-shaolin folks, too. After leaving post-ceremony dim sum and the dorks, I went to a seder for Passover at Bestest Boy's mom's house, and had a fine meal and a fun time, and these people had no idea that I didn't pass earlier that day. They don't define me as a non-Level 2-er, and neither should I. They see me as Qbertplaya, and nothing more nor less. And so in the end, that is perhaps a most important part of my training as well -- learning to open my heart and mind in a way so I get to know and love some very fine people...including myself.

Phoenix Rising

After a really tough testing, we found out yesterday at Certificate Ceremony the results. I am one of the lucky few that made it through. Only 10 out of 18 people who tested for erluquan were able to get what Shifu calls, "an upgrade." Congratulations to all those who passed!

There is a balance here. Even though I am overjoyed for our achievement, I am saddened that I won't see a lot more of the Level 1 people I train regularly with in Level 2. I really hope that the other 8 people don't see it as a failure. To me, failure is not getting knocked down, failure is not getting back up. Like the phoenix, you shall rise from your own ashes and be even more strong and splendid than before. We will be there with open arms awaiting your rebirth in Level 2.

"But there is suffering in life, and there are defeats. No one can avoid them. But it's better to lose some of the battles in the struggles for your dreams than to be defeated without ever knowing what you're fighting for."
-Paulo Coelho

Fight on!!!! MORE CHI!!!! TRAIN HARDER!!!!