In this article I hope to offer you some ideas of how your training with us can develop you as a whole person on every level and in the process, encourage you to consider, at a deeper level, who is this whole person anyway.
People begin learning Tao Te Kung Fu with us for many different reasons. For many it is a way to keep fit and healthy, for some it is primarily to develop confidence by having the ability to defend themselves in dangerous situations, for some, depression or anxiety is impacting on their life and they look to the wisdom and meditations to help them control their emotions, for others is simply to have fun. For most though, at some point, their training begins to represents so much more than these; it becomes integral to their identity, a spiritual discipline, a path of self-development and self-realisation that profoundly improves their whole way of life.
What is the self, or who is this ‘whole person’? One way to consider this question is to start with the image of concentric rings. At the centre is the conscious observer of your universe. The ‘I’ of ‘I am aware.’ If I speak of my car or my clothes or my body, it is clear that in each case two objects are being referenced; the car, clothes or body and me, the owner of them. In our everyday speech, and thus in our thinking, we habitually think of ourselves as the conscious awareness that lives inside this physical body. Now I’m not saying that there necessarily is a clear distinction, but for purposes of the thought experiment the distinction helps. Within this inner self, this core of identity, this conscious awareness, resides our hopes, dreams, beliefs, attitudes and reasoning. But although we talk as if our body is something that we own, something not quite us, something that we could lose a bit of without it diminishing the essential ‘I’, the reality is not so clear. Hence the image of concentric rings. You could picture the conscious awareness being linked through another ring that is your unconscious mind and autonomic nervous system through another ring of emotions to the rest of your body, another ring.
A huge part of who we are is of course the physical body we exist within. It enables us to interact with the rest of the world. Our emotions can be seen as a two-way bridge between our body and our nervous system. Most of our emotions’ obvious effects are manifested in the physical body. It is in the intestines that we feel fear, in the chest that we appear to feel joy and a blockage in an attempt to express our emotion is felt in the throat, etc. If fact if an emotion did not have a physical feeling, we wouldn’t call it an emotion, we’d call it a thought. It is whether we find the physical feeling pleasant or unpleasant that determines whether we consider the emotion to be a good one or not. A fearful thought, or a lustful thought, for examples, will have a fast, if not immediate, effect on our body, our heart rate, adrenaline level etc. As I said, this connection between the unconscious mind and the body is two way. A bee sting or a massage, will have an effect, through our nervous system to change our mental state or mood. We can use this interaction intentionally by engaging in physical exercises or slow deep breathing, etc to generate the desired hormonal, emotional effect to alter our state of mind. I’m assuming that we are all familiar with how exercise produces hormones that change our mood. Whether fit, flexible, strong, week, stiff or in pain, our body changes the way we feel, and with such feelings, our sense of identity.
It is equally the case that how our body looks and moves will influence, not only how we think about ourselves but also how we are perceived by others. (How we perceive, how others perceive us, will also influence how we think of ourselves.) Our body language shouts louder than our voice, even though the message may be read by others primarily unconsciously. I hardly need point out that, whether it is the image in the mirror or that seen by others, the appearance of the physical self is a huge part of who we are; for some it is the primary factor. Whether we are, or think we are, attractive, lean, fat, muscular, tall, short, old, young, what our racial background, our sex is, or appears to be, all influence our personal identity. All that is before we even start dressing it up with different clothes, accessories or even body language, verbal language or accent.
How we perceive ourselves and how we believe others perceive us, is very important in the formation of our sense of identity. Which brings us to the next of those concentric rings, our relationships with others.
I am a different person to each and every person who knows me. I behave differently and am perceived differently relative to how I think of them and how they think of me, given who they are, and both mine and their prejudices. As a husband I behave differently than I do as a Kung Fu Master, as a father I behave differently than I do as a brother. For each person that I relate to, there is a particular aspect of my outer shell that I present and that they perceive, they respond accordingly and I, in turn, respond to that. The dynamic between me and every other person to whom I relate is unique, though many may appear similar. In this way of thinking, a significant part of my identity exists conceptually in the spaces between me and others; an outer concentric circle that has a different colour, a different flavour in each direction. Like a spectrum of changing colour surrounding me and reaching out to every other person I relate to. The particular dynamic of each relationship will have elements of how we perceive each other physically and psychologically, including relative positions of authority and social status.
As I can’t immediately affect the prejudices of others, the only way I can impact on this outer circle of my identity is by alterations to the inner two. So how will practicing/studying Tao Te Kung Fu affect you? Let’s start with the most obvious; the body. Any exercise will affect the function and appearance of your physical body, mostly for the better, though each will have a different impact. Swimming will widen the shoulders and slim the waist. Long distance running will slim you down. Lifting heavy weights will bulk you up. Observe the bodies of athletes, it isn’t just that those with a natural physique gravitate to particular sports, though that is true, the activity itself will change the body within the limits of their genetic potential. Notice the difference between a boxer’s and a sprinter’s physique and that of a shot putter or a marathon runner. Some sports can have a high risk of injury. American footballers, rugby players and practitioners of some styles of karate commonly end their careers with particular joint problems. Tennis players and golfers have more than their fare share of elbow problems. Tao Te Kung Fu and the way we teach it through Kung Fu Living has been developed to offer significant physical benefits with the minimum of risk. You will not develop the shape of a body builder nor that of a marathon runner, but you will tone and shape every muscle. Leaner muscle, (not marbled with fat) burns more calories even at rest and without any major effort you will find fat reducing. The exercises you will be practicing will develop greater strength, coordination, flexibility and balance. You may notice your posture improving along with an increased fluidity or grace in your movements. The breathing practice in Chi Kung will increase the energy available at any time and people commonly find the meditations help them sleep better, which improves many areas of life.
How will Kung Fu Living change develop my inner self? An area often missing from many martial arts classes is the philosophy that would traditionally run alongside the physical skills. As most of our students do not come from a medieval Chinese cultural background this aspect of our training is delivered in a way that English speaking modern people will find relevant and enlightening. By understanding processes in every area of life in terms of physical relationships we often see life’s challenges with greater clarity. Seeing inertia as a problem for getting things started like relationships or diets, or businesses makes sense to most people. Recognising that traditions can have momentum, not just heavy objects helps people to understand why change is resisted. The 5 elements of eastern tradition are used to explain the nature of movement, progression and relationships within an individual and society at large. Some of the hardest ideas can be learned kinaesthetically, that is, through physical movement. It is because our bodies, our emotions and our understanding form a continuous whole that this is possible. You only learn what humility really means when you kneel, you only learn what unity really means when you dance with someone and you only learn what support really means when you are hugged. It is this connection between the physical body and the mind that is most evident in the way we have structured Kung Fu Living. Put simply, you learn an exercise; in doing so you learn an idea and that overflows into an attitude, changing the way you think about yourself or the world around you and then how you live your life. As your body changes through training you will notice several effects. You will look leaner, fitter, stronger and generally in better shape, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. This will make you more confident, knowing that what you see in the mirror will be reflected in the way others respond to you. You will feel fitter, stronger and more flexible, which will also affect your mood, the way you behave, the way you treat others and the way they respond to you. The philosophy that you learn will change the way you think of yourself, the universe and your place in it. This will change your attitude to life, the way you live your life, your behaviour and the way others perceive and respond to you. You will have the martial skills, knowledge and the confidence that goes with these. This will change the way you feel about your place in the world, the way you interact with others and the way they interact with you. Even at the very superficial level; you might now be ‘that blond in marketing’ when you are ‘that blond in marketing who knows Kung Fu’ believe me, people will think of you very differently. They will treat you differently and your sense of self will not just be projected by how you think of yourself but respond to how others think of and treat you.