Why do we train? As a martial artist, this is a question that you should be asking yourself from time to time. Not only why do we train, but why do we continue to train? Day after day, month after month, year after year. How far is far enough? How good is good enough?
At the beginning of most martial arts training, you focus on the basic skills. How to stand, how to move, how to use basic weapons like your hand and feet to generate power. These are the puzzle pieces that make up the larger picture of martial arts as you progress. But how do you see past the pieces and make sense of everything in a big picture sort of way?
In a word: GOALS
I started my Kung Fu/Tai Chi journey the same way as anyone else. I didn't come into Shaolin-Do with previous experience or any special kind of knowledge. I was just curious and dedicated, and I made it my mission to train with everything I had for as long as possible. I stayed as long as I could, went to as many classes as possible and learned everything I could get my hands on.
Now the thing about goals is they have to be attainable. Setting your goals too high to start with is a perfect way to de-motivate yourself once you realize the impossibility of your dream. Small victories are the way to go. Break apart the larger goals into bite-sized little chunks and you can work on them once piece at a time until you get to where you want to be.
The thing that keeps you motivated through the hard times is the answer to that question: Why do you train? If it's only to throw punches and kicks and sweat yourself into shape, then you might find yourself getting bored real fast. If it's some inflated goal of becoming an awesome fighter and impressing people with your prowess, then you'll soon find how hollow of a goal that is. Especially when you come up against someone who just cleans your clock and makes it look easy. Defining your goals based on external factors like other people will always end in disappointment.
You have to train for you. You have to know that all the grueling work of basic skills practice will pay off when you start to learn higher skills and can focus more on the pure art, rather than struggling to keep up and letting many of the higher lessons fly right over your head.
Kung Fu, Tai Chi, any martial art really, is so much more than just different combinations of kicks and punches, sweeps and throws. As you practice, try to see the lesson in the technique or the kata that you're learning. Find out what it is trying to tell you, above all the noise of the stances and moves. There was a reason that things were put together in the order that they appear, there's a reason why things are taught in a particular sequence. Do your best to think hard and find these reasons. Ask your teacher. Experiment on your own. Nobody ever said you can't try things out in your backyard. Feel foolish. Fail a lot. Fall on your head. All of these things will teach you what works and what doesn't. Sometimes the doesn't is the most important part.
In order to really learn a martial art, you have to be willing to see past the moves. The moves are important, yes, and you need to master them first. But there is another level to Kung Fu that often gets missed. That's the higher concept of how the moves work and why they are put together a certain way. Above all, kung fu is about training the mind.
We start by training the body, because that is easier to see progress and easier to feel as you master a certain set of moves. But the mental training is just as important. They say in blues music that knowing what notes to play is only the beginning. You also need to know why they need to be played. And so it is with martial arts. Analyze and break down the material, turn it over and backward in your head and don't just remember it, understand it.
If you can't explain it simply to someone else, you don't understand it yet. A martial artist who has learned to harness the power of his mind to understand his Kung Fu will be absolutely formidible. Don't rely on the pure physical traits, even as much as you strive to perfect them. Also seek to gain the knowledge that the masters of old were trying to impart when they created this material for you to learn here in the modern age.
Wisdom is the greatest strength available, and this is how you can stay relevant and engrossed in the martial arts lifestyle forever. Never assume you know enough, never think you know it all. Always be open to new information and new interpretations. Try to learn from all of them, and use what works best for you.
Remember, Kung Fu isn't about fighting. Not in the long run. It's about life mastery and becoming the person that you want to be. Kung Fu is just the tool that keeps imparting the lessons. It's you that has to do the work. Work hard and be curious. The work is never done.
Have courage, friends.
Sifu Michael Sandham is the owner and head instructor at Shaolin Martial Arts, LLC in Lakeway, TX. He believes Kung Fu is the secret to life. Come learn to fly at:
2009 RR 620 North Ste 740
Austin, TX 78734