The Finale

Thank you all for reading ‘The China Saga’. My original intent was to not only cover my time in China but also to present the lessons I learned along the way in a story-like manner. The end product is not what I had in mind given the lack of flow and direction, but I’m still happy with my efforts and have gathered plenty of nuggets about strength as well as the writing and editing process. It has forced me to rethink how I can combine storytelling and reality in a more cohesive fashion.

Although still in progress, I thought I would provide you with a brief summary of what I have learned so far in China. For one, the importance of mental strength shines through. If one can be strong in the mind than the body is capable of many things. Athletes of the highest calibre and achievement would attest to success being 90% mental application. Having said that, when it comes to athletic pursuits or any endeavour for that matter, how many of us dedicate 90% of our time training our minds?

It may sound counter-intuitive, but another thing I have collected thus far is the value in being holistic in your approach. While adopting a narrow focus may prove useful for some, a broad scope is likely to reap long-term success. Imagine taking the best systems from different fields and combining them into one. A simple example being field athletes like football players, who incorporate principles of weight training to create more robust physiques while adopting techniques used by sprinters to improve speed and agility.

I could go on and on with this summary though would rather you got on with your day. I’ll wrap things up by saying this – include others in your journey. If you think disconnecting from the world will fast track your progress, freeing you from distractions, you are wrong. For one, your path will be tedious and lonely. You’ll have no one to share your trials and triumphs with. No one to lean on in times of need. No one to ask questions when you don’t know where to go next. As Homo Sapiens we are social creatures. This is one of the key things that has allowed us to hold a place in history that no other animal has. If we forgo the social aspect we lose interdependency, our true strength. Don’t push people away, draw them in. Learn from them and support them.

Before I start getting to gushy, I’ll sign things off here. What’s next for The Strength Scout? I would like to give combining a narrative approach with practical applications another go and will spend the next few days planning on how to do so. If not, I’ll experiment with other avenues to impart what I learn into an easy and enjoyable read.

Oh, and if you have any feedback or suggestions, I would love to hear them.

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If The Mind Is Willing…

The young Shifu wanted to test the fortitude of the newcomers. Friday’s mountain hike surpassed the previous week’s efforts in both intensity and duration with the student’s arriving back at the academy some two hours later than usual.

Walking up the mountain, the conventional route involved hundreds of stairs. Although challenging, the path offered brief plateaus and therefore periods of respite from the incline. Today, however, wasn’t a conventional day.

The Shifu began to lead the student’s up the road the buses take to the mountaintop. A seasoned student groaned as she realised what was happening. The gradient was far more acute than the steps ranging from steep to steeper.

As they trudged up the mountain, grunts and whimpers became more common. There appeared to be no end in sight. Throughout, Andrew asked himself one simple question, “Am I capable of taking one more step?”

The answer was always “yes”. One more step wouldn’t break him.

With this thought coursing through his mind, although ‘sweating like a bush pig’, as his Dad would say, he made it to the top without a break. As the hike continued across and back down the mountain and finally to its conclusion he realised the underrated value of a strong mind. Arguably he felt stronger and more capable at the end of the walk than the start. Like a diesel engine, he could have kept chugging along.

As the famous Chinese general Sun Tzu said, “If the mind is willing, the flesh could go on and on without many things”.

You’re Allowed To Not Like Things

Andrew sat on the makeshift bench and reflected on enjoyment. He compared two days; one compromising of Chinese kickboxing, grappling and acrobatics while the other was centred on forms. Forms practice can be thought of like learning a dance. The sequence has practical applications but is practiced independently.

Andrew gravitated towards the first day. Was it because the techniques came naturally to him? Perhaps, but for the most part the movements were foreign. He struggled with grappling but loved the concept behind using leverage and sudden movements to get the opponent to the ground.

Forms practice he found tedious. He knew it would help his coordination and had his mind working on a different level, but the enjoyment simply wasn’t there. He couldn’t see the practical application of the movements.

It’s OK to not to like things, he gathered, even where it may yield a benefit. As long as you’ve trialed the activity for a period of time, not simply a one-off session, than you’re free to say, “Hey, I gave it a go and it wasn’t for me”.

Of course, Andrew wasn’t afforded this freedom at the academy. However, he could still manipulate the sessions dedicated to forms. While he would still practice the sequences, he also added in aspects of basic training.  He covered kicks, punches and combinations to fill in the time, improving competency in these areas.

Experiment. Give it time. Make a decision. Back that decision.

Forgo The Rat Race Mindset

Not all aspects of training at the academy were enjoyable. With the day broken in to sessions, Andrew found himself gravitating towards grappling, acrobatics and San da (Chinese boxing), while forms practice, sequencing a selection of movements together, felt of less value to him.

At times he found himself frustrated, disgruntled and asking himself, “What do I have to gain from this? How will this benefit me?”

The rat-race mindset, the need to achieve a future benefit from every task had plagued him for some time now, particularly when it came to personal development. Many told him, his Mother and sister in particular, to take life less seriously, to relax a little.

The need to relax even came through his athletic endeavours. During San da practice, the young Shifu reinforced this principle. He was too tense. “Let your power out”, the Shifu reiterated. Keeping the body loose is understated and allows one to unwind supreme explosiveness.

Forget “What’s in it for me?” Andrew thought,  instead see the situation for what it is. You’re in China at a Kung Fu academy and have the opportunity to train Kung Fu all day. You are one of the select few who will have such an experience. It is your imperative to squeeze as much enjoyment as possible. The Shifu’s, staff and fellow students do not dictate your personal satisfaction, it is dictated by you.

Play a little.

Direction Versus Distraction

The long weekend passed quickly having kept busy with various tasks and activities. On reflection, he hadn’t achieved anything of note. Why was this?

Communicating with his Mother through instant messaging, the two had been discussing happiness and it’s constituent parts. One of her remarks, the importance of busyness, resonated with Andrew. Being busy and focused on the task at hand helps to keep the mind in the present rather than the past or future.

This is true, Andrew thought, it helps one to feel useful and a sense of accomplishment after completing a task. Simply being busy though, will get you nowhere unless combined with direction. Direction towards the goals you hope to achieve.

Andrew began to scrawl his thoughts down. Instead of using his free time to do busy work that would distract his mind from negativity, his time was to be spent moving him ever closer to the benchmarks he hoped to achieve in the future.

Today was a landmark day.

Is Learning Selfish?

At lunchtime, Andrew could sense something monumental. They would be having dumplings for dinner. An enormous bowl of sweet potato and squash filling in the kitchen confirmed this. At the request of his Mother, who was many miles away, he returned to the kitchen in the late afternoon to help.

Despite the stiff language barrier, there was a semblance of flow. Firstly, the dough was divided into portions, each enough for one dumpling. Next, the dough was rolled around in one’s hand before being pressed into disc. By rotating the dough while simultaneously using a rolling pin, a flattened dumpling was formed. Finally, filling was placed in the centre and the edges pinched together firmly.

Andrew clumsily navigated the dough often making mistakes and being forced to start again. Not enough flour and the dough would stick to the chopping board. Too much rolling and the dumpling became flimsy.

Despite this, he enjoyed the process though was unsure how much help he was. Chef was patient and kind offering tips as best she could. Andrew wondered though, as he contemplated the dumpling he had dropped on the floor, am I being selfish?

After all, his contribution was more of a hindrance than a help, despite his good intentions. Chef would likely have finished the process and moved on to other work had he not ‘made himself useful’. Was learning a selfish endeavour?

Similarly, when he trained acrobatics with Bishal, was he not taking away precious time that could be better spent working on his own techniques? Having to explain and demonstrate the basics, like the forward roll, would surely have been tedious for the Nepalese dynamo.

After all, he reflected, this is why one pays for coaching and formal education. In the scenario at the academy, what were Chef and Bishal getting in return?

They could laugh at his incompetency, Andrew thought sarcastically. Perhaps helping in this way made them feel good about themselves. Also, teaching is a way of improving on a skill. It forces the teacher to think more deeply on the subject, approach it from many different angles and better understand the foundations.

Andrew had come to a conclusion. If the teacher and student were willing, then learning is not a selfish pursuit but a symbiosis in which both parties benefit.

That night, as he admired the bowls of steamed dumplings, he noticed a few more than usual had burst open. I need more practice, he thought sheepishly.

It Is What It Is

A disturbing notion crossed Andrew’s mind, “Why am I geared to view humanity with scepticism and negativity?” At one point during the day, Andrew found himself alone in the training room attempting to eek out more hamstring flexibility, when Bishal, a young guy from Nepal walked in.

Bilingualism has always impressed Andrew and forced him to think that he too should master a second language. Bishal spoke English quietly but with fluency. With headphones in, Andrew didn’t understand what the Nepalese man said. “Are you Arabic?” was his first impression. Given the moustache-less beard Andrew had fostered over the past few months, he could understand this misunderstanding.

After Bishal repeated himself half a dozen times, he was in fact asking, “Would you like to learn acrobatics?” Having always wanted to master the flip and aerial manouevers, Andrew answered exuberantly in the positive. According to Bishal, along with Kung Fu, acrobatics forms part of the standard school curriculum in Nepal.

Beginning with basic rolls, Bishal was patient and demonstrated a few gravity-defying stunts in the progress, serving as incentive. Throughout their session, Andrew’s mind was plagued with the thought, ‘What is his ulterior motive?’.

Maybe he did have an underlying reason, Andrew pondered at the end of the day. Why must one assume it is sinister though? Bishal, having been at the academy for only a few days, came across as a good-natured individual; perhaps he was simply trying to make a friend to make his stay at the academy a more enjoyable experience.

Andrew had much to learn about allowing his perceptions of scenarios and people dictate real-life situations. Although a degree of scepticism is healthy and necessary, allowing past events and thoughts to direct the present and future is dangerously limiting to one’s growth potential. Perceptions, after all, are not reality, but the emotions and beliefs we attach to it. Recognising this and being more objective, taking a situation for what it is, was another lesson Andrew hoped learn over the course of his stay.

For now though, flipping was on his mind. “Two weeks and you should have a front flip, my friend” Bishal said with a smile and a nod. Andrew hoped this to be true and that night dreamed of executing masterful aerial manoeuvres at will.

Human Encylopaedia’s

Martian’s time at the academy was coming to a close; he would be leaving in a few days time. Four months at the academy and it was time to move on, though the future remained unclear.

Being somewhat of a recluse and outcast of the group, Martian kept to himself at meal times and rarely trained with the rest of the students. In spite of this, he would happily talk with Andrew when away from the group. Perhaps it was because Andrew showed genuine interest in what Martian had to say while sarcastic undertones filtered through the dialogue of the remaining students.

The man is a wealth of knowledge, Andrew reflected before bed one night. He could speak competently on a wide array of topics from medicine to spirituality, and had opened Andrew’s eyes to some fascinating ideas and offered suggestions for further reading.

Andrew loved to read though consistently underestimated the unique knowledge locked within each individual. One’s experiences coupled with their interest’s produces an inimitable cocktail of data, which can be accessed with nothing more than the right attitude.

In future, Andrew planned to read more deeply into the walking human encyclopaedia’s that surrounded him each and every day. It was not a matter of prying, he thought, simply getting people to speak about things they are passionate about. He had to discard the notion that he was wasting his time which sometimes plagued his thoughts when caught up in conversation. You can always read a book, but you have only a limited window to access another person’s knowledge.

Lead The Way

Training during the second week was subdued. Whether due to the poor weather or the impending national holiday, Andrew did not know. While still valuable, intensity and quality were not at the standard of the previous week. Noticing this, the Shifu, brought it to the attention of the student’s.

Upon receiving the dressing down, Andrew reflected. It is the imperative of a leader to dictate how he wants things to run. His behaviour, actions and control over a group play a fundamental role in how they respond. Over the course of the past week a couple of red flags jumped out. For one, during forms practice, where expert critique is required to fine-tune the subtleties of a sequence of movements, the older Shifu was often distant and aloof. On occasion he used the time to rehearse his own forms.

Another instance that stood out was the banter, which had developed between the young Shifu and Forde. The young Shifu repeatedly made immature jokes during class and then expected the impressionable American to act respectfully and responsibly as soon as the jokes were over.

Cycling through the week, there were a couple of lessons in all of this, Andrew pondered. For one, as a leader, lead by example and set the standard with which you would like your chargers to follow. If the group or individual is out of line, an appropriate reprimand needs to be dished out immediately, not days later. This is why punishing a dog well after an event has occurred is an ineffective means to change her behaviour.

Secondly, Andrew contemplated, have your own standards and don’t let them be dragged down by others. There is always a choice in how you act and behave. As an individual, you must ultimately decide whether you want to lower your standards to fit in with the group.

Spend Your Energy Wisely

Self-pity. We’re all guilty of it from time to time. What does it accomplish? Does it help to justify the way we feel, or perhaps it validates our actions and efforts?

Andrew detected this sensation on a couple of occasions today. At first during basic training, where the student’s practice the fundamentals of Kung Fu such as kicks, punches and blocks. In his opinion he demonstrated good intent throughout, but the group was regularly lambasted and dolled out the penicillin of physical punishment – push-ups.

Later in the day, during a time dedicated to forms practice – the linking of a sequence of movements with flow and speed, Andrew felt he received less guidance and feedback than the other students.

A cocktail of self-pity and resent began to brew before Andrew recognised the learning opportunity at hand and asked himself a series of questions. For one, was he capable of giving more as in the first session? The answer was a reluctant ‘yes’. Secondly, did the second situation provide him with a chance to demonstrate independence? Once again the answer was ‘yes’. Finally, had he asked for feedback and guidance or did he expect the Shifu to read his mind (knowing the experience of the Shifu, he probably possessed this ability)? Damn, Andrew smiled. There is always more that one can do, he thought reflectively.

Andrew realised he must do away with thoughts and emotions that don’t serve him and instead direct this energy in to more constructive avenues.