A martial art lesson learned

I went to China in the autumn of 2007 to learn, to meet people and to see places and things. I had in mind to train in martial arts and add to the skill level I had reached after nine years of practicing taijiquan. I had been to China once before on a similar quest and I expected I would be exposed to my weak points once again. I also hoped to gain insight into my potential. As it turned out, I glimpsed what I actually already knew, what I had heard or read somewhere along the way. This time I was renewed with a feeling that I could actually put insights into practice. 

In tai chi there is a learning method we use. You progress from visualization to internalization, from initial exposure of an idea to eventual incorporation into everyday practice. The specifics vary, but I think the lesson I sought had something to do with this: What I already knew, but had yet to place into practice (internalize). 

One event represents the lesson. It’s simple and mundane; but isn’t that where so many of our lessons are—hidden in the everyday? It was the last night of a training trip that my teacher, Master George Xu, had organized. We were all going to be together as a group for the final night before returning to our respective countries and homes. There must have been 60 or more individuals in our training group. We arrived late to our hotel after an unexpected all-day bus ride from our training location. Friday rush hour in Shanghai delayed us by hours. The traffic jams challenged even the most patient person. Once we finally filed off the buses the hotel registration process was chaos. There were not enough rooms even though they knew we would be arriving. 

Many of us ended up at another hotel 10 minutes walk away. We paid extra for a luxury suite, but I never figured out what luxury meant because our room looked just like the standard double that we had stayed in all along on our journey. It seemed that names of things were sometimes more important than substance. 

I took two hours to get a room and finally move our baggage up to the 14th floor. I waited with the bags while my companion checked us in. The lobby was cluttered with luggage and people standing and milling around, lined up for room check in. There was barely enough of an aisle for individuals to negotiate among the mounds of luggage.

Across the narrow expressway where I waited stood Eldrid, an amiable woman from Norway, with whom I chatted while we waited for our partners to procure housing for the night.

After a long day some people were frustrated and short-tempered. Some were ill from intestinal disorders (I do not recommend eating the cold duck). Some, like me, contracted upper respiratory inflammation from the heavily polluted air. I felt particularly bad for two women suffering from diarrhea and who still had to wait for a room like the rest of us. They were too ill to be angry.

Right in the middle of all this, Eldrid said in broken English with a happy, smiling face, “I don’t know why anyone should be angry, they are martial artists. Isn’t this just the sort of situation that we train for?”

I stepped over to her side of the aisle to clarify what she said because of her broken English and because I could not hear well over the din. I knew what she meant, because it rang a bell in my mind and reminded me of something I had read in a book by Carlos Castaneda in which he had asked his teacher, a mysterious shaman known as Don Juan Matus, what he meant by the term “discipline.” 

Don Juan’s answer was “Discipline is simply the ability to face the unexpected with serenity within yourself.” To find a serene heart and clear mind where things don’t go as expected.

Eldrid was correct. This is exactly the kind of thing that martial artists prepare for. It was an astute observation on her part. It was also just what I had been subconsciously practicing. She woke me up to the lesson that I had been seeking. Sometimes you are practicing the principles without realizing you are. You have internalized them.

Looking back on that three-week journey I found a number of similar situations in which my patience was challenged. Some in which I reacted with patience and forbearance, other times with frustration and a fretting mind.