Sifu Mohr once said that we needed to strive to improve all our lives. We looked at him uncomprehendingly, eventually we would age and fail. In the senior instructor’s class our goal was always to train harder, be fiercer, stronger, more powerful. Master Mohr taught us that there is the hard and the soft, the perfect positioning of the arm for a block, flawless footwork, unshakable balance, anticipation and flow. The hard skills will always wane in time, but the soft skills can be honed as long as we are willing.
It’s been a lifetime since I was a martial artist and this is a lesson which took decades to learn. Where else can I better my mind, my spirit, my body, for when we cease to grow, we start to die. While part of me diminishes, I can continue to strive for wisdom, to love better.
There are doors in life that I would have bashed down that I now knock and ask permission to enter. Is that not improvement ?
I have this tiger-fork.
Not much use in a gun fight. It requires lots of space to swing an seven foot trident about. I suppose a police report might read, both the chandelier and the burglar were rendered inoperable, but a properly trained martial artist can use a tiger fork to disarm a swordsman. Catch the sword in the down stroke, one twist sends the sword flying, the other end of the trident sweeps his feet out from under him and a quick flip of the giant spear and the downed adversary can consider the point of rising, or not.
When Sifu Mohr drilled us over and over on its use like so many martial artists I would imagine fighting a real tiger. But there are no tigers in the US. Instead I imagined fighting a mountain lion in Wyoming. I studied them and their habits. Mountain lions prefer stealth, and if my blood didn’t turn to water seven feet of spinning steel might just send one deciding on a different venue for lunch. I never saw a mountain lion near our cabin and in fact I never took the tiger fork anywhere but class and the back yard. Still I had many battles, some of which I won and others….
The tiger fork has spent many years tucked in a corner of the attic. In fact when I hefted it, I was surprised how heavy it is now. It’s really just a possession, one that I care about, but it owns me as much as I own it.
We are moving to a smaller place. One where a tiger fork would be an encumbrance. I’ll keep it to the last day then we will both be free.
Each Thursday night we would hold stances, the foundation of lower body strength and footwork in Kung Fu. With military elocution Sifu Mohr would bark out each stance, hold to the right, then hold to the left and then rotate from side to side on his count. Once we had class outside, and as we held the stances, thighs parallel to the ground, a minute per side the heat and sweat rose from us like steam into evening’s air.
Some classes he would call out hundreds of side to side rotations. Staying low, tennis shoes squawking in the pools of sweat collecting beneath us, we would rotate in place again and again until the world was merely the fire, the agony in our legs and Sifu Mohr’s voice. More than once I was among those whose legs collapsed, or cramped forcing us to stand, stretch and then drop back into the stances.
Once after a grueling session as we shared hot tea Sifu mentioned perseverance. Improvement is not incremental and steady. Plateaus are part of the learning process. We plateau when we have not fully assimilated the techniques necessary for the next level which might be footwork, or strength, or mental understanding. So we practice over and over feeling like a failure. In fact most people quit when they hit a plateau, and it is often just before a breakthrough to the next level would occur. That practice is not wasted, it is part of the assimilation of new abilities. The thought proceeds the action, but after a thousand repetitions the thought becomes the action.
May you always persevere, a thousand times if need be.