So one of the most immediately relevant changes that I’ve made lately is to find, research, and join a new martial arts school. I spent a good 8 or 10 weeks on that project, looking people up, trying classes here and there, considering and comparing past experiences in training, and generally doing some soul-searching about it.
I came to realize without much effort that this sort of training is really a major component of my spirituality. The idea of Unity – in the sense of oneness of mind and body – has resonated with me for a long time. For me, that manifests in muscle memory, in seeing what amazing power and intelligence my body has, and in building a rapport between mind and body such that they’re more or less indistinguishable. I know that maybe that seems banal. Most people take for granted that they don’t have to instruct all their muscles and connectors to move with intensity x for duration y and hold at position z. I feel like when I get to that point, though, I start to grow distant from my physicality. I start to know myself as a mind being carted around in a sack of meat and bones that’s trouble when it’s not just doing its job.
In training, though, I come to remember how amazing it is. I’m reminded that reaction time based on physical sensation is up to tenths of a second faster than visual cognition of an event, that quirks of physics allow us to generate phenomenal power and speed, and that there really does seem to be a certain intelligence in what my body is naturally inclined to do in a given situation. With a little bit of training, a good dose of meditation, and regular, serious practice, my body can be taught in a way that seems analogous to my brain. As my Sifu says, “Learning Kung Fu is like learning a new language.” The concepts are like syntax, the techniques words. Eventually a practitioner learns to let their body communicate in strings of words, sentences, then dialog, discussion, and to prepare for the possibility of a full-blown debate.
The style taught at the school I eventually pursued membership at is called Chuka (or Chu Gar) Tong Long Kung Fu – Chuka-style Southern Praying Mantis. It’s a boxing style, and pretty rarely taught, from what I gather. I’m only aware of 2 public schools in the US. One of the things that so excites me about it is that it’s so different from my prior experience, in terms of conceptual groundwork, execution, style – the works. The majority of my training has been in Shotokan Karate. It’s a very hard, linear, long-range style, for the most part. It focuses very much on long punches and kicks, deep stances, and incredible power. The last place you’d want to be, using that, is up close and personal. It’s difficult at best to generate strength and to perform many techniques. SPM, by contrast, is incredibly aggressive. Almost everything about it is about closing distance – if you don’t spend a good amount of time in steady contact with an opponent, you may well be doing it wrong. I’m probably not well-versed in the nuance yet, but the gist is that staying close and staying in contact the right way gives one the ability to read an opponent’s movements extremely well – that physical reaction time I mentioned earlier – while strikes are launched in series, constantly, using subtle, short, full-body attacks. The difference is like night and day for me, and every class sends my head spinning some. There are Mantis techniques that work, but that shouldn’t, intuitively. There are things that my body wants to do, without my input, that happen to be the right things to do. My biggest problem is frequently that I trip myself up in trying to analyze what the crap just happened during a reasonably well-executed drill, combination, or simple movement. It’s an amazing sensation, and moments like those are pretty often the highlights of classes for me.
Ultimately, this unity, this awareness and appreciation for my physical intelligence, is a large part of where I get my spiritual fulfillment. The core of my belief system is that everyone is possessed of a spark of Divinity, and that it’s our responsibility to do justice to that spark – to deserve the privilege and honor its existence. (The rest is probably for another time.) Learning to understand the connection between physical and mental and emotional, appreciating the physical intelligence innate in me, and having a blast exploring and discovering go a long way towards fulfilling that purpose for me.