When I told people that I’m going to China to spend 2 months in a kung fu school, most people would imagine a purely physical experience. They assume that you’ll learn to fight, perhaps learn a few party tricks, overcome pain barriers and finally come back wanting to wear a kung fu suit every day.

For me, one of the important aspects of my time here, was to learn more about myself. I wasn’t quite sure how that would happen here, but a leap of faith told me that it would. The gut feeling was that the most traditional teachings of something extremely deep was the key.

Now, coming to the end of my time here at the school, I look back and feel that I’ve learned a lot about myself. It’s by no means the answer to everything, but a big step in terms of understanding. The process feels like noticing, questioning and peeling back layers in my thought process one by one, exposing important truths underneath. It’s difficult to put a price on it, certainly at this stage.

In this post, I explain how I think the time here has allowed me to do this, what I’ve learned and why I think it’s important.

How has the time here allowed me to do this?

Life here is simple and structured around non-mind activities. Waking early each morning to perform meditative breathing exercises does well to clear the mind and start from a clean slate. The philosophy here is one of patience, repetition and everything you perform is started from a calm mind. Turning up here was something of a shock to the system for me to begin with – the way of life is very basic. I’ve found that by breaking the normal habits of life the rest can become clear.

The day is structured here, so time is put a side and dedicated wholeheartedly to specific activities. Kung fu, eating, blogging. Typical “life chores” are all done at the weekend, so it feels much more like I’m in control of my time. Taking myself out of the interruptible and habitual way of life that I’m used to back home trains the mind to be less sporadic and this means it’s easier to understand and spot patterns in myself. To a scientist, you can think of it like an experiment on yourself as the control.

With dedicated down time (lunch and evenings), it means I’ve had time to consider new ideas, reflect on myself and grow to understand more. Whilst I’ve taken time in the past to read and learn such things, often I’ve found it difficult to then dedicate the time to really understand and reflect. It’s like a momentum thing, with old habits lurking in the background ready for you to fall back on and changes vanish as quickly as you understood them. Here, it’s easier for that not to happen.

Lastly, I have to say that the blogging has most certainly helped. I’m relatively new it, but after my time here, I’m a big fan. By writing a blog post, I’m learning how to recognise, reflect and structure my own thoughts. It allows me to record how I’m feeling at the time, remember how I was feeling looking back and retrospectively understanding the changes themselves. Hearing feedback from readers goes a long way too.

 

What I’ve learned?

So, down to the meaty bit – what have I learned about myself? Reading The Power of Now, helped provide some much-needed rational. Whilst I’m not completely sold on only thinking about the now as the book suggests, it has helped me pose some interesting questions to myself.

Comparison with Past or Future

My first realisation I made, is that I become most emotional and waste most energy when I have a vision of some future expectation or past event and I try to relate it to my current situation. I did this with my expectation of the lifestyle of the kung fu I would learn, the learning environment of the school and how long was the “right amount of time” to spend here. The further my view was from reality, the more frustrated I became. When reality moved closer to my view, I would feel happier. I became much more at ease when I stopped creating a “difference” in my mind. It’s not nice realising that something else is subtly in control – the else being my mind.

One might say, “well why did you have those expectations anyway?”. I think the answer is, I didn’t go out of my way to paint a picture, but most importantly, I didn’t go out of my way NOT to. In some ways, I didn’t understand the power of the mind in generating false realities and how often it can “run away” with ideas. Whilst I’ve known few special times when my mind has “run away” with negative thought loops, I noticed them and assumed those exaggerated events were few and far between. What I’ve learned is that they’re not there common and practicing the art of clearing the mind has massive benefits in happiness and focus in life. This is something I’d like to learn to do.

After questioning how past and (desired) future events can shape you, I spent some time questioning whether past events could affect me in the actions of today. Without divulging all of them, many being personal, I’ll give one example. When I was younger, I got lost on a hiking trip. It was certainly something which my mind framed as “don’t let this happen again”, wrapping up various negatives emotions with it. When I turned up at the airport in China, I was picked up from the arrivals and driven 2 hours to the school, which is in an off road in outside the nearest rural town. In short, I could have been anywhere. Although I didn’t think I would have a problem with that, the truth is, I did. I think it added to the culture shock. Until I got wifi, could throw up a GPS map on my iPhone I wasn’t comfortable. Funnily enough though, I didn’t know why I was either at the time. I couldn’t really relate the two events. When I consider how it affects me day-to-day, I believe my desire to always know where I am has manifested itself to limit some of the exploratory decisions I make. Training myself to do otherwise going forwards, will do me good. 

So, to summarise to something meaningful by saying that after questioning myself honestly and wholeheartedly, I understand how I react more strongly in current scenarios after related negative past events. Realising how the negative past does affects me, I need to learn how to think less about the past. If you want to do this yourself, I’d recommend it. Put aside some time, remove all distractions, be brutally honest with your fears and deeply question how they may have affected you now. For anyone who thinks “you are who you are based on your past experiences” and you can’t change them, I would disagree. I think you can, it’s just something that takes desire, time and practice to do so.

Accept, Change or Remove

I spent some time considering my emotions alongside activities I do. I now understand why I like taking part in the Tough Guy event and how I can apply the reasoning to other situations in life. We all know that life is full of situations you are dealt. Some good, some bad. How you take the bad ones, goes a long way to determining how at happy or at peace you are. With each situation, you should have the ability to accept, change or remove yourself from it. If you don’t have the ability to remove yourself from it, changing it or truthfully and wholeheartedly accepting for what it is, is key. How does this relate to Tough Guy? Well, I always thought it was good to go through the pain of the event, and come out on the other side. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a brief YouTube intro. I realise that Tough Guy is a great way to conjure up a pretty bad situation for yourself. You’re cold enough to have hyperthermia, you’ve probably been electrocuted, you’re caked in mud, probably looking up at a 20ft cargo net you need to climb and the whole time your mind is in shock – constantly questioning why you’re doing this. You can try to change the situation, by choosing different ways of doing obstacles or what to wear, but largely speaking, it doesn’t do much. The key to completing it, is to accept it. Accept every obstacle, accept anything that’s currently happening and will happen to you as you take part and you’ll be much happier. The more you think about the cold, the mud, or any pain that you’re in, the more it hurts and affects you. The way contenders help each other climbing out of ditches, picking up people who have slipped over or sing “always look on the bright side of life”, I realise are in full acceptance of what is the current situation. Doing Tough Guy each year can be seen as training in the art of acceptance, something which should be applied to many a (bad) situation in life.

Enjoying the Moment

Considering other activities and the similarities with kung fu, I made some more realisations – skiing/snowboarding and hiking. Both are some of my favourite past times. The commonality amongst them and why I like them is more clear now. Both are activities which you’re forced to think about the present moment and you’re removed from many of life’s distractions. With skiing/snowboarding, you’re concentrating on your next turn and with hiking, your next step. The more you pay attention to the feedback from the terrain, through to your body, you realise you’re concentrating on the very moment. It then very quickly disappears and is replaced with something similar without time to be distracted in between. Couple this with an environment of little or no phone reception and you have the makings of something very peaceful but physically rewarding. This, I realised, through the similarities with the kung fu I’ve learned. It’s another activity with a very similar environment and benefits.

The 7% Rule

If you haven’t heard of this before, it states that “communication is only 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal (the 93% made up of 55% body language and 38% vocal tone)”. I used to think that figure was very exaggerated and often found myself being the type of person to pay a lot of attention to the words I used when communicating with people. Relating that to my experience here, I landed in the school here and spent a large chunk of time without fellow english speakers and started from an almost non-existent command of Chinese Mandarin. I’ve realised that by relying almost exclusively on body language and vocal tone, the 7% rule has proved more true than I originally thought.

During my time here, I’ve used body language to understand what’s going on in social situations (tension between people, when someone’s being told off or congratulated and when I’m being alerted to something). I’ve learned a lot of Mandarin like a young child would learn their first language. I began to understand what words meant through repetition and association with actions, before (a) being able to say the word myself and then (b) actually looking up the specific translation.  Likewise, I’ve found people have been able to understand me and my emotions too – proving to me that it goes both ways.

The Pressure of Society

Mid-Autumn Festival in China is a night of celebration held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar. This year, it fell on September 30th, whilst I was at the school. I’m so used to commercial celebrations back home – Christmas and New Years being a classic example. The pressure of buying presents or forking out for a “good night” is usually felt. It was lovely to experience something non-commercial, in Mid-Autumn Festival. The lunch time meal was served in “sharing” dishes, but was largely similar food to what you’d expect day-to-day. Instead of buying presents for the evening, every student spent their free time leading up to the evening practicing some kind of performance, whether it be a song, dance, poem or magic trick. The mood was high because the people made it so, not because of what was spent or received. The school ran a quiz giving students with winning answers cans of Coke. I won’t forget the happiness on their face of the students when they’d get and answer correct and get to crack open a can. I couldn’t help but think how kids back home take things for granted, but largely because of the pressure society makes them feel. Naturally, leading up the event, I had asked “what should I bring to the evening?” only to be told “yourself – just being there is more than enough”.

Until you’ve lived in an environment similar to what I have these 2 months, you may not have experienced an egoless society. Here at the school, everyone dresses in the same clothes, lives in the same building and is given the same opportunities to learn. Unlike the society I’m used to, the only thing money could buy here are the small luxuries that you would use outside of “normal time”. i.e. the influence of money is minimised. Without outside media influence too, there’s little pressure to compare what you have to what you could have. Happiness with what people have got and not being bombarded with what you haven’t is a peaceful way of life. I’ve learned that I can do more to stop being affected by the pressure of society.

 

Why it’s important to learn about yourself

With better clarity of mind, my life certainly feels like it has a lot more focus. I understand why I’m doing certain unnecessary or unhelpful things and what I can do to benefit me greatly. Knowing those, I can start tending towards them now. 

The second benefit of learning more about yourself is way it opens the door to understanding more about others. The differences in how you deal with societies pressures, how you spend your free time and how you treat people all stem from your underlying belief system. Because of this, I feel like I’ve learned a little more about why I do or don’t get on with certain people and visa versa. 

Lift out of your own subconscious worries, understand more about others and these personality conflicts that existed in the past will be more harmonious. That’s because when you understand more about others, you’re more likely to forgive.