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Are you Insane?

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

Do you practice the same form the same way day after day?

Do you repeat the same punch, kick, block or throw with endless repetition?

Do you stand there, sit there or lie there for hour after hour waiting for something to happen?

I have, and it was driving me insane.

Don’t get me wrong, building any new skill is going to take time and effort. What I’m talking about is when we plane out. Our time and attention is still being spent but our skill barely seems to improve. It’s the daily grind, the same old same old, Groundhog Day.

A smart guy once said, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

If I apply that standard to much of my training I am indeed insane. How about you?

First and foremost, I think we confuse conceptual and experiential learning. Often times it's not even our fault. We are taught to apply a conceptual learning approach to what should be an experiential process. In other words, learning Kung Fu skills should be more like learning to ride a bike and less like memorizing our multiplication tables.

Do we think about riding our bike? No, we just get on it and go. We thought about it at first, what to do with our hands, our feet, where to look, etc. If not for Mom and Dad’s encouragement and effort in running alongside we may have given up after that 5th or 6th crash. While useful, the conceptual aspect of the learning process was not the key to success, it was getting the feeling right, having the experience of riding a bike that opened up a whole new world for us wee explorers.

Repetition works for times tables but not for developing Kung Fu skills. Repeating something we don’t have right is not going to make it right. The effort is in always seeking to perfect the practice, getting into the experience, striving for insight, a revelation, a change in perspective. The skill must be cultivated, drawn out and nurtured.

My Teacher likes to say that,” The training method is not the art”. One day, while we were practicing at a public park in San Francisco I asked him what he meant. He said, “Look at those ladies over there.”, to which I replied, “The ones practicing Tai Chi?”. He said, “Yes, now tell me what are they practicing?” I then said, “That’s easy, their form.” Sifu then replied, “Correct! Now tell me, do they have Tai Chi?”

I looked over and observed them for a few moments as I pondered the question. Then it dawned on me and I blurted out, “No! There is no skill there.” He said, “Ahhhh, you learned something today. You know, not even their teacher’s teacher has Tai Chi, I know him, he just has the form.”

Putting our conceptual understanding in charge of our experience is the tail wagging the dog, or as Bruce Lee put it, “It's like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

To quit the insanity, we must let our conceptual grasp of reality loosen, let it change as our experience shows us where we are wrong, helps us see what we are missing. We must be able to say, “I don’t know”, to empty our cup. We must be brutally honest with ourselves and let go of the wrong ideas and misconceptions we hold so dear, literally toss our precious into the fires of Mount Doom, slay our Buddha, smash our magic mirror on the wall.

This is much easier to say than to actually do. We are all masters at covering up a sense of lacking. The words of my Teacher again echo in my mind. When speaking about his own struggles in developing his skill he often says, “I used to use my fighting ability to cover my shame”.

Our egos get in the way. We would rather win than learn.

But we can change. We can change how we learn, change what we value and get off that endless cycle of repetition and regain a bit of our sanity in the process.

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