I woke up the other morning and looked in the mirror. I saw a 62-year-old man looking back at me. Wow. When and where did he come from? I am not 18 any more. In fact, I am not 28, 38, 48, or even 58 years old any more. I have aged. And yes, some days are harder than others. There are mornings when I can’t even remember which sock goes on which hand.
I was fishing with two friends last month when one of them asked, “If you could be anything you wanted at any time in history, who or what would you be?” This friend shared that he would like to be a general store owner in the American wild west of the 1800s (a story in itself). After very little contemplation, I shared that I am who I want to be, and where I belong.
Realizing that contentment was at first a pleasant surprise; later, it caused me to think about what it meant to my martial journey. Would I like to have the same external physical capabilities that I possessed at 18? Oh, to be able to do a jump spinning crescent today as I did then, or even at 40…! But I would not wish to be anyone other than who I am today.
When I first began my training with SiGung Lam, I noticed that I might learn a form one way, another student might learn the form another way, a video production of the form might be different yet, and when watching SiGung perform the set, he would do it differently still. I admit to being a bit confused.
When working this past week with Master Zhou Xuan Yun, a monk from the Wudang Temple, he explained that there were videos of other WuDang monks performing the same, very rare set I was learning. Though each came from the same place and performed the same Tai Yi Five Element Fist Set, each demonstration is different. In fact, Master Zhou said that he never performs the set exactly the same way. Forty-some years ago, when I first began my study of the martial arts, I would have been confused. I may have even been a bit disappointed. In my world at that time, I wanted to learn the “right way.” The perception was that there is only one way for it to be “right.”
Lao Tzu teaches us that, “The Tao which can be told is not the eternal Tao. That which can be named is not the eternal name.” Perhaps Lao Tzu did not intend to directly suggest that the form you do today will not be the one you do tomorrow… or, maybe he did. SiGung Lam told me that he does his art differently now than when he was younger. He explained that as he grows, his art grows. Like ourselves, these arts are also living. The differences reflect growth.
When first we learn to walk, we must judge each step separately, carefully. We must consider how far along the couch we need to brace ourselves as we move. We must focus our intent into each step until some sense of balance is developed. We must contemplate walking cross the floor to our mother’s waiting arms. Now, we have forgotten “how to walk.” We simply walk. We now understand walking. The same is true with martial technique. When we learn a movement, we must be very cognitive of all aspects of the technique. We must consider all of the external harmonies of posture – stance, root, linking. We must understand purpose so we can focus those external harmonies accordingly and then engage the internal harmonies of mind, breath, chi and spirit. We must engage chi, or energy, cognitively to “know” the technique. Then we must practice the technique 1,000 times. We must practice until we can forget it cognitively, and through experience “understand” the technique.
Were I to do things exactly as I did as a much younger man, I would not have grown. That would be sad. Knowing and understanding are different. The Tao tells us that we must learn something and then forget it to have it last forever. We cannot truly understand until we can forget. We must empty our cup before we can fill it. We must also empty our cup before we can understand it.
Focus not on the way others do their technique. Learn your technique as your teacher teaches you. Practice this technique a thousand times. Forget the technique… then it will be yours. Then you will understand it. Then it will last forever. And then, you will never do it the same way again.