This past week, I became very flustered with myself. On Tuesday, it started at work, but I won’t discuss the origins. They’re not important to my story. Instead, let me talk about my experiences at Ving Tsun class.
Tuesday’s Blow to the Head
The goal of training on Tuesday was to let the junior student experience the rush of, just to take one example, receiving a blow to the side of the head, despite the aggressor being more or less in front of the target. The idea is simple, at least as I understand it: get used to the feeling, so you’ll be calm enough to render a proper, direct response. Will you get hit? Maybe! And, that’s kind of the point. If you don’t fear receiving strikes, you’ll be in more control of the situation. (Obviously, we’re not striking “for reals.” If you get hit, the most you’ll feel is someone landing knuckles or a palm on your temple. There’s no actual impact at this level of training.)
OK, so, I start the night’s practice. The problem is, I’m a horrible fighter. My attacks inevitably ended up being completely formulaic. So, my si hing comes over to give me advice. As I understood the advice, however, it seemed diametrically opposed to what I thought I should be doing as instructed at the beginning of the class. Why should I focus on my center when my goal as attacker is to attack off the line? Wait, what do you mean I should attack from the side? You just told me to focus on my center! Hold up, there; I can’t clear the center and attack to the side at the same time! Gaaahhh!!!
I didn’t want to say anything, though, because (a) he’s my senior by many years, and (b) let’s face it, it’d straight up be disrespectful. So, to the best of my ability, I tried to accomodate the instruction, but to no avail. Throughout the evening, it felt like everything I was doing was wrong, judging by how frequently my si hing offered instruction.
Clearly, Joe Rogan I am not.
I became so flustered with myself that I started to shut down. The smile on my face had dissipated to a scowl, and every si hing in the class knew not to talk to me unless it was important. Don’t worry; I was still quite cordial and respectful. But, it was very clear to all that I was not happy.
After class, I went to see my wife at work, and then home. I have to admit, unloading some tension by talking to my wife helped. Getting a reasonable night’s sleep also helped. But, by Wednesday, that frustration was still nagging me.
Wednesday’s Blow to the Ego
After work, I decided to skip Aikido out of convenience and go to Ving Tsun again. Maybe this time, class will be better, and I can forget yesterday’s woes and just focus on my forms. Because, frankly, they suck.
Remember that: focus on my forms. It’ll be important in a bit.
I get to class, and it’s a packed house. And, worse, everyone there is practicing toy ma or a related hand art. So, just as soon as I change, and step onto the floor and start my chum kiu stance, I get tagged by a fellow student, and start work on lap dah and dan chi sau. So much for moving meditation!
That was pleasant enough, but eventually, a si hing grabs me to work on toy ma. He’s pushing me all over the place. Not only that, but he’s pushing me all over the place entirely too easily. I’ve never felt toy ma that powerful before. I mentioned that it was the most aggressive toy ma I’d experienced, and he said he’s just getting back into it.
At first, it was fun. I got pushed around like a palette in the video game Sokoban, which is entirely normal. My chest received numerous blows, and is still bruised as I type this. All good stuff! The physical effort was helping me to relax from yesterday’s woes.
Only, they were bound to return. Another si hing stopped us, and offered a lot of corrections for each of us. One thing he mentioned to me was, “To the best that you can, you should hold your ground.” I knew this already, from previous training in toy ma. And that’s what set me off again: why do you keep telling me this, if I already know it?
So, again, I double-down on my efforts to not be moved by my opponent. The harder I tried, to a point, the more controllable I became. Eventually, I discovered a few body positions where I was able to hold my ground. The problem was, it ceased being ving tsun at that point. I was fighting my opponent, not relying on toy ma. But, I was too numb to the sensation to pick up on that. So, again, my si hing pulled me aside and offered corrections.
Correction after correction after correction. They just kept coming, and it seemed like nothing I could do would stop them. Since I felt more comfortable with this si hing than I did with yesterday’s si hing, I kind of broke down, and vented a bit of steam. I’m so glad he understood and took it the intended way. It was, in retrospect, unprofessional of me, and honestly, I should have just gone home.
But, I’m glad I didn’t.
My si hing and I had a good conversation that evening; not one word sank in until much later the following day (namely, today).
One of the things he mentioned, numerous times, was, “hold your ground the best you can.” That’s what I was trying to do, of course, and it ultimately culminated in gridlock with my opponent, which only made things worse when corrected. But, the whole time, I was focusing on the wrong thing: holding my ground. What I should have been focusing on instead was the part where he said the best you can. It was while watching several other si hings, also practicing toy ma and running into the exact same problem I was despite having 20+ years on me, that the seeds of reconciliation with myself had been planted. I just didn’t know it yet.
The point of toy ma, as my si hing also repeatedly mentioned, was to help “develop my horse” (improve my structure) and to develop the sensitivity to know when I have an opening. Holding my ground doesn’t necessarily mean I stand still. In fact, he offered many examples of where you want to step back during the practice. If I get mowed over like grass, that’s because I have problems with my structure. This could be an inadequate horse posture, or it could be that my hands are in the wrong region of space for my opponent’s build, whatever. Either way, I need to adjust. And I can’t adjust if I’m fighting.
Another aspect of toy ma is that it helps you acclimate to being hit. It is at this level that your opponent will now find openings in your structure and exploit them.
Even these words may have a dual-meaning though. My si hing is fond of saying to me, “Toy ma is probably one of the hardest levels of ving tsun to get through. So many people just stop here, and never go further, because it is so hard.” I took these words for granted, because up until now, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing toy ma. Maybe those who quit just didn’t find being pushed around and slapped a lot fun. But, for some reason, last night, I felt like just packing it in and going home. I felt so thoroughly defeated, that I actually asked myself the question, “Why do I even bother?”
Today, it occurred to me, what if “acclimating yourself to being hit” doesn’t mean what it means on the surface? Sure, you’re getting yourself beaten into a wall all too frequently. But, that may not be the point. What if, instead, it really means that it’s intentionally ripping your ego to shreds, so you can pick up the pieces and put them back together again later on? If I could completely miss the fine detail behind “to the best of my ability,” why couldn’t I miss the subtlety of a Chinese teaching translated to English, and perhaps losing some of its meaning? I don’t know that this is the case. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. But, it is possible, and that’s due some consideration.
My ego was hurt. My pride was damaged. Between both nights, I learned that my Siu Nim Tau and Chum Kiu forms are basically wrong. Borderline garbage, even. So many details that I somehow missed or misinterpreted, and that after nine months (has it been that long already?) I finally realize I’ve been practicing these forms incorrectly? Of course my toy ma sucks — my entire foundation in the martial art is flawed!
And, of course, how do these forms even relate? It’s not been made clear to me how SNT and CK even come into toy ma, or a lot of other things in ving tsun. Sure, on a case by case basis, I’m shown how pieces of SNT can relate to some aspects of a technique. But, of what value is SNT and CK if (a) I have nobody to check my correctness, and (b) even if I did everything perfectly, I have no means of experiencing this “stored relaxation” thing that si hing always talks about? There’s nothing to express this “stored relaxation” against! None of this makes any sense!! More frustration! Gaaahhhh!!!
If only I’d asked someone to check my forms. If only I’d known to ask someone to check my forms.
But then, isn’t that the true value in playing toy ma? Isn’t that the true value in playing off-line fighting techniques? I have to remind myself, I’ve only been working with toy ma for a few months, and even then, not on an every-day basis. And Tuesday’s off-line fighting? That was my very first day of ever doing something like that. Ever. Not one day in all my years of Aikido experience have I ever played the role a true aggressor.
Of course my art is busted. I’m still such a newbie! I have to remember, just because I’ve been training for 9 months, I’m not Bruce Lee. I can never be Bruce Lee, and actually, don’t even want to be Bruce Lee. But, I do want the confidence to know that I can handle myself in a combative situation. If I’m never put in a combative situation, how can I possibly know what questions to ask of myself?
The point of toy ma, I’ve come to realize, at least for my kung fu, is not to hold your ground. Not at all. Don’t even try! If I’m pushed to the floor, so be it. It’s to hold your ground the best that you can. Because, if you can’t hold your ground, that’s feedback to the practitioner to ask questions.
By way of analogy, if you iron a piece of cloth that doesn’t lay flat on the ironing board, it doesn’t fight you. Instead, it gives, and it creases. If you have enough awareness about you, you can actually feel this crease as you pass the iron over the fabric. This is your cue, “What did I do wrong? Oh, haha, silly me; I forgot to flatten the fabric.” And then, you correct your course of actions by flattening the fabric, and continue ironing. The cavaet is that you must have that awareness. Without that sensitivity, you’ll never have wrinkle-free clothes.
So it is with toy ma. Without the sensitivity to detect wrinkles in your structure, how can you know a problem exists? What problems exist with my basic forms? How can I improve my horse outside of toy ma? How do I recognize when elements of SNT and CK can inform what to do and how to do it? Why am I fighting so much? How can I best relax? How can I overcome my pride and seek help, without simultaneously being a nag?
One question that should never come up is, “Am I even ready for this practice yet?” You may not be. If my si hing is right, though, nobody ever is.
There will be more frustrating days ahead, I’m sure. I just need to remind myself, it’s all OK. I’m not a bad student. It is not wasted effort. No, I am not ready for what comes next in this art. I’m just going to have to be OK with that. Because, were I truly ready for it, wouldn’t I already know enough ving tsun to not bother?
It’s 6:00PM, and time for my next ving tsun class. I hear there’s a spot on the wall I haven’t been pushed into yet.