Sifu Wing Lam

I will never forget the first time I learned that Sifu knew my name.

I had only been at the school for several months.  I hadn’t really interacted with Sifu at all – I knew who he was to be sure, and I saluted him as he passed, but to that point all my class time was with his bevy of instructors.  As it was, several instructors could not make it that evening, so Sifu was gathered with those that were there, working to ensure everyone was taken care of.  “Well, Oliver is learning Tan Tuy right now…”  Inwardly, my head whipped around.  I was, shall we say, rather high strung back then…  “He knows my name… how could he know my name?  Is that a good thing?  What’s going on? Is this bad???“

It wasn’t.  Not in the slightest.

In the years since that night, I came to know Sifu as a teacher, as a guide, and as a friend.  If I were to use one word to describe Sifu, it would be generous.  One of the most generous human beings I have ever met, in all senses of the word.  Generous with his time.  Generous with his knowledge.  Generous with his assistance.  Generous with his patience.  And generous with his understanding.  He put up with me when I was not at my best, helped me out in numerous ways over the years, explained things over and over, and led trips for us to China.

But above all, he loved to teach and was always ready to give willing of his time to share what he knew.  Once, on one of those trips to China, while we the tour participants were practicing with the local master I looked over to see Sifu chatting with a stranger.  Not five minutes later, the stranger was in a stance and Sifu was proffering explanations and suggestions.  He was that eager.  Kung fu was his passion in life, and he expressed it fully.

Of course, there are many words that can be used to describe Sifu.  Rigorous:  Sifu never rested on his laurels with “this is how things are, this is what I remember, this is how this art is done,” he was always testing, exploring, relearning, and deepening his understanding of every art he learned.  Resourceful:  Sifu managed to make a living in the Bay Area through his love of the martial arts, without having to compromise the principles of the art.  Renaissance Man:  Sifu was skilled way beyond just the martial arts, teaching himself to be a weaponsmith, a tui na and herbalist healer, author, video producer, carpenter, businessman, real estate agent, and father.  Peaceful:  Sifu lived his life with equanimity and faced things as they were.  Devilishly witty:  Sifu could break out an astute little twist or cutting yet loving phrase or instruction at unexpected moments.  Humble:  Sifu didn’t like attention or speeches, he just wanted to practice and grow.  Industrious, fastidious, inventive, curious… I could go on.

Sifu was a genuine martial artist, interested in the art side of things as much as the martial.  He studied diligently and delved deep into the heart of several styles to discover their deepest roots and concepts.  He wouldn’t recite answers from memory:  ask him a question, and it he would generate it from first principles.  Ask him in a year, and his answer may shift as he grew his understanding.  He always knew exactly what to give you that would improve your form; never more, never less.  And it was all delivered without attitude.  He never sought the limelight, he never gated his teachings, he never compared himself to others.  He was at where he was at, always walking the path.

Through his school, through his store, through his videos, through his books, and through his disciples and instructors and through their students in turn, Sifu touched the lives of thousands.  I count myself extremely lucky to have – pretty much by accident – found my way to his school eighteen years ago and gotten the chance to know him.   He has been a major part of my entire adult life.   I will cherish all the lessons he taught me, both in the martial arts and in how to be a great human being.  I will strive to honour those lessons and his memory, practicing with equal passion and sharing that passion with equal generosity.  I will carry on his legacy, in whatever ways I can.

Grandmaster Wing Lam passed away this morning.  The world has lost a treasure.  I will miss him dearly, as will we all.

Thank you Sifu, for everything.

-Salute-

Philosophy Tuesday

It was dinner time, and two fish lay in elegant plates on the table before us.  At this point in the trip – my first to China for some kung fu training – this was expected. Every dinner featured one, usually two, very whole and complete fish.  But there was one thing that I felt I didn’t quite have a grasp on yet.  Fortunately, I was seated next to Sifu that night.

“Sifu,” I asked, “What’s the secret to serving fish, so that you don’t get any bones?”

He paused, smiled, and said, “Don’t eat fish.”

It took me a moment, but I got it.

And like many things fish related, it went well beyond the realm of fish.

To eat fish is to get bones.  If you’ve made the choice to eat fish, to go down that route, then bones should be, if not expected at least predicted.  As the expression goes, it comes with the territory.

So too in many of our lifelong activities.  Down certain paths, especially many worthwhile paths, there are things that will come up, things we will encounter, things we need to deal with, that, while not inevitable, there is a chance (and perhaps likely) that they will arise.

To get caught up in frustration or upset or “shouldn’ts” is, in some ways, kinda weird.  We made the choice.  We said we wanted fish.  And lo, here are the bones of that fish.

It needn’t, of course, descend into fatalism or cynicism – that is as much an illusion as imagining boneless fish forever.  Possibility doesn’t live at the extremes.

Inside possibility, we swim and dance down those worthwhile paths, seeking what we desire, dealing with and putting aside the bones that arise with clarity, peace and grace.

And sometimes, in the most literal way, we serve ourselves and eat some very delicious fish.

Philosophy Tuesday

There are two types of “learning” in the world.*

The first is the kind that things like mathematics fall into.  There is a definite set of processes, rules, procedures, and methods that produce a solid and individual answer.  2 + 2 = 4.  Physics is like this.  Chemistry is like this.  And, in many ways, most of our schooling is like this.  Even the bits that aren’t, the bits that would fall into the second type, are generally taught in the same manner.  Spelling, history/dates, geography/lines on a map, algebra:  all quantifiable and capable of a right/wrong ranking.  You either know it, or you don’t.  You either have it, or you don’t.  And to learn it means memorizing, logicizing, and proper reproducing.**

Which is all fine and good.  Informational learning is important, vital, and can help us do a lot of things.  We want the engineer designing and airplane to know their equations and figure things through.  The brain surgeon should know the structures of the brain and how to diagnose problems, and what remedies to apply.  Statisticians can help us make sense of large sets of data through rigorous procedures.  It’s all great.

At the same time, this early instruction can create a strong context, feeling, and view (read: reality) that this is how learning happens, and that everything in the world can, and/or should, be known in this way.  Outside->In, knowledge based, right/wrong result type learning.  A context which then limits our access to, and comfort with, the second type of learning.

This second type is the kind of learning that is intuitive, fluid, and arises mostly from immediate, visceral, self-discovery.  It is gotten, but it is not fixed; it lives in the present.  It often bypasses the traditional take on what “knowledge” is.  This is the domain of the arts, of all kinds, the broadest casting of arts, the arts beyond that of just aesthetic pursuits.  It is the art of relating to others, the art of living, the art of movement, the art of the cosmos, the art of “emotional intelligence”, the art of mindfulness, the art of expression.   They are the arts that form our experience of life.

These are very important arts.

They also cannot be “learned” like math;  knowledge and examples and techniques can only be lighthouses to guide us towards the moment of personal discovery that makes it ours.  Trying to stick to the rote routines gained by knowledge only leads to stilted outcomes. ***

It can be hard to do the second learning when you’ve walled it off, forgotten and unknown, and haven’t used it for a long time.  Or maybe not.  Maybe all it takes getting and transforming the contextual trap we’ve been in, opening up to the ability we’ve had all along.*****   Let it out, let it exercise, play, explore, and get stronger.

Opening us up to new abilities, greater wisdom, and a plethora of new possibilities for our lives.

 

* Of course, we could probably create many more than two categories, or possibly there’s even a third or fourth category equally large to these two , but for the moment and for this exploration, let’s keep it at two…

** In later schooling, this tends to break open a bit more, such as with essay questions in English class, where a good teacher will allow for many modes of answers to be graded well.  In the flipside, though, even the most open, such as art, drama, music, etc, can get bogged down under the need to rank things.  The technique gets graded – something that feels as though it can be “learned” and demonstrated in a very right/wrong, have it/don’t have it kind of way (and which has much less to do with actual artistic expression).  This further creates the context that can limit being able to be in and play around in the second kind of learning.

*** This post arose from something I’ve been noticing in my kung fu practice recently, which has blossomed into a meditation on the nature of the art part of the phrase “Martial Arts”.  Especially as you delve deeper and deeper into the art(s), and, for me, as I teach others.  Some of my students are caught in an, for lack of a better term, “engineer’s mindset”, a very strong adherence to the first type of learning.  They learn the outlines of the forms quickly, but their progress hits a wall as the detail work comes along.  Trying to do kung fu from the outside->in, coming from memory and reproducing all the correct angles and tensions and body linkages and movements and etc doesn’t work.  The brain isn’t wired to do so, there’s too much there to keep track of and try to figure out or reproduce in the moment.  That first way of learning doesn’t work here. ****

**** This is also starting to intrigue me and make me wonder about those who are “not good at sports” – could this “not good” be caused by the context of what learning is (ie, caught in the context of the first kind of learning)?  It would be a barrier to  being in their body and learning intrinsically… *****

***** Interestingly, it’s the way we all did when we learned to walk.  We didn’t have language then, and thus no contexts and thus no idea of what “learning” is supposed to be… so we had to learn intrinsically.

****** For all of this, BTW, I had to break out of my own type-1 learning context (that, of course, I didn’t even realize I had) (And I still need to practice my type-2 more and more).  My kung fu training accelerated by leaps and bounds once I started my journey into transformation, as that type-2 learning suddenly became available to me.

Sun Decade

It struck me the other day in class that it has been just over ten years since we finished “learning” the Sun Tai Chi set  (we started in January of 2017  and likely it took 5 or 6 months for us to be taught all of the movements).  By “learning” I mean “know all the movements” for that is the remarkable fun and truth… I have been practicing this form, now, for 10 years.  Week in, week out, practice and more practice.  There’s been nothing added, no new moves, no “advanced” form to play with, no other set to move on to.  Same set.  Over, and over, and over again.  And after those 10 years, I know I haven’t fully “learned” it yet.  I am still discovering things about the set, about my body, about myself, and I know there is a myriad of things to still discover.  Still many ways to suddenly epiphany on how much more the body can be linked, how I can embody the core concepts, how I can move and flow and energize and balance and connect and sink and transfer and be.  And I frikken love that.  I totally love this never ending path.  Every time I get something – even if I re-discover it, and even if it feels, for a moment, that I’ve been doing it wrong until now – it’s a moment of excitement and joy.  Pure delight.  I know I will be 99, on the day that I die, and I’ll be practicing my tai chi, that same form, that same one that by then I will have been doing for 66 years, having done it thousands of time, and I will move and my face will light up and I will say “Ohhhh… that’s what they mean by sinking!  I’ve been doing it “wrong” all these years!”  And as I sit down and pass on, I will do so with a smile, delighted as ever to have discovered something new and grown.

Philosophy Tuesday

This is a philosophical statement.  It is intended to spark thinking and examining.

There’s a distinction that Sifu has brought up a few times in our training I call the “Olympic Distinction”.

Which is to say that at the Olympics, things are decided by the 1/1000 of a second.  That little extra oomph of training and effort often makes all the difference.

In that way it’s not an unfamiliar distinction, and one propagated on countless motivational posters. BUT!  In a very Niels Bohr-ian way, there’s an even more powerful distinction here, especially for those, like me, who can or readily do fall prey to streaks of perfectionism:

“1/1000 only applies at the Olympics.” *

There are many times in life when we can get caught in our own mental traps that drive us to over polished—and ultimately unproductive—excess. We push and prod and try to make perfect and fret and expend time and effort and sweat and oomph and get nervous and distraught and stressed and all riled up and lose sleep and then… either…

never finish the darn thing,

have to cut it short to finish on time thus parts are left ironically underdone,

have to make changes and the extra effort is lost,

or all that extra effort didn’t make a difference in the final result or even in quality.

It’s hard thing to grasp sometimes.  It’s even hard for me to type it out.  It sounds so much like “be sloppy” or “don’t try your hardest” or “everyone else is a fool they won’t notice anyway”, or “cut corners”  or “never improve” or…

But it’s not really that.  It’s a reminder that good enough is still pretty frikken good.  That perfection can be an illusion.  That not everything we participate in is the Olympics.  And above all to be simply present to the cost that comes with perfectionism.

Sometimes that cost is that we don’t even start.  We see the amount of work it would take to reach that level of perfection and we think, “I’m never going to be able to get to an Olympic level to do that, so why bother, it’s not worth even starting.”  And so we abandon all the joy we’d have in the learning, the doing, and losing ourselves deeply in that activity.

We can get trapped on both ends, never starting or never finishing.  We can hinder our enjoyment of the task, and we can hinder our time to enjoy other things as we burn it all into this moment of perfectionism.  And, in the most counterintuitive way possible, it can even hinder the work.

Finding that middle path, and walking it, is where we, and our work, can shine.  We can play full out and avoid the Perils of Perfect(ion).**

And turn out some quite frikken good stuff.

 

* In many ways, this sentiment is also captured in the more common phrase “Perfect is the enemy of good” (or the more original phrase by Voltaire, “Le  mieux est l’ennemi du bien” – “The best is the enemy of good.”)

** Hmmm… Beware the PoP?

Winter Fu

There’s only one thing I don’t like about practicing in the cooler months:  when I begin to sweat.

Not because of the sweat per se, rather, it’s that, given the cool temperatures, my body hasn’t sweat all day.

So when I warm up enough that I need to begin to sweat, every pore on my body opens at once…

… and it feels like a million cockroaches are crawling all over me.

A whole body tingly itching sensation.  That comes on nearly instantaneously.  While I’m doing some drill or exercise.

Urgle…

It is a great test of my mindfulness and ability to be with things!  Still not comfortable at all though.

Philosophy Tuesday

I was practicing Kung Fu with my friend Evan one day, working on one of the opening moves in our Xing Yi form.  He was testing my structure, and I was just not getting it.

He’d push, I’d collapse.

I’d reset, adjust my hips, and he’d push, I’d collapse.

Reset yet again, tweak the position of the arms, he’d push, no dice.

And so it went, over and over, for several minutes.

I was mostly calm about it, remaining present to the moment and letting go of frustration when it arose.  Yet that was not helping my structure at all.  No matter what I tried to correct, the same result would occur:  push, collapse.

Evan took a step back and looked at me as I held the pose once again.  After a moment, he said, “Your thumb is out of place.”

My left thumb, tucked under my right hand, was splayed outward by about an inch.

I chuckled, folded my thumb back into position, and said “Heh, so it was.  But it can’t be the thumb….”

Mid sentence, he pushed.  I held.

“It’s the thumb.  It’s the !@#$% thumb. I can’t believe it.  It’s the !@#$%  &*(@  *&@#$%) thumb!”

To which I proceeded to repeat “It’s the !@#$% thumb!” off and on for the next half hour as we continued to test and as my solidity continued to hold.

Sometimes, the smallest of fine-tuning can have the greatest of impacts.

In ways that are rarely or readily obvious.

We may ignore the little things in our lives, thinking they aren’t worth our attention or time.

We may avoid dealing with something that’s been hanging in our mental or spiritual space, thinking there are greater things we should deal with or work on first.

We may discount certain conversations or getting clarification or apologizing for something or seeking apology for something, thinking they are petty and minor.

We may distain from our little pleasures, or passions, or interests, thinking they are of secondary importance compared to the real, serious, bits of our lives like our jobs or our bank account.*

We may pass over assisting others and lending support, or participating in something, because what could we do, really?  Especially compared to others who have more time, money, knowledge, connections, education, etc…

We pass on, overlook, pooh-pooh, and pay attention to the big bits.

Yet – and this is a big yet – even that smallest bit can cause a profound shift in our lives and the lives of others, profound shifts that open up whole new realms of freedom, performance, and possibility.

Shifts we wouldn’t have seen or guessed before we took the seemingly small action.

In life we have many choices of where to aim ourselves and what to spend our precious time on, and it can become all too easy to become fixated on the large, shining, glamorous, prestigious, important, proper, worthy, momentous…

But there’s an opportunity in letting go of these rigid assessments to engage with all areas of our lives and the lives of those around us.  Within there we may find fourteen things that we can do, that we can take on, that we can transform, or that we can contribute towards, that will quickly lead us towards joy, relatedness, and peace of mind.  Little tweaks that will align our lives and give all of  us what we want.

It really pays to remember the thumb.

 

* Or worse, we pretend they are beneath us to fit in with everyone else…

Philosophy Tuesday

This is a philosophical statement.  It is intended to spark thinking and examining.

There’s a Chinese idiom I learned through my Kung Fu practice that translates to “Eating Bitter.”  Or, more fully, the willingness to eat that bitter.

In order to train and learn and gain skill and ability and accomplishments in the martial arts, you have to be willing to go through all manner of unpleasant periods.

Not every part of training will be fun.

Not every part of training will feel great.

Not every part of training will lead to immediate growth.

No, there is a lot of training that can/will be downright frustrating, boring, repetitive, difficult, painful*, challenging, embarrassing, weird, confusing, upsetting, and grueling.  Physically and mentally and even bits that will directly confront your identity and disrupt your view of yourself and lift up the mask of awesomeness that we all like to hide behind to expose who we are and what we’re capable of.

It doesn’t have to suck – that’s up to us whether we want to turn it into suck – but we aren’t going to be smiling and laughing all the time.  (And if we are, we ought to consider we’re not pushing ourselves enough…)  No, in those moments, they can seem downright ugly.

Yet, after all the training and after we’ve gotten through those sour times, those moments will recede in the background.

Instead, we are left with a sense of excitement and accomplishment, and only experience the newfound energy and freedom that comes from our training.

Most oddly, those blah moments may even become some of our fondest memories.

Kung fu is, of course, not all that different from other areas of our lives.

There are many things we can, want to, or are forced to take on.  Things as equally complex and deep and integral as Kung Fu, things that are physical, or mental, or spiritual, or interpersonal.

Most certainly, when we practice any field of self-cultivation, we are practicing Kung Fu.**

There will be times that are unpleasant, there will be things that confront us in ways we don’t want to be confronted, there will be times (many, MANY times, in my experience) where we will not look good and will be shocked by ourselves, there will be times where we seem to wallow in question and muddlement and sadness and uncertainty and will beg for the insights to come so it will be over.

We don’t have to suffer through that – that’s up to us whether we want to turn it into suffering – but we aren’t going to be smiling and laughing all the time.

And that’s normal.  To be expected.  And totally worth it.

For what’s on the other side is just like all that training in Kung Fu.

Once we’ve gone deep into it and worked through the muck, we emerge with unbridled joy and peacefulness and connection and relatedness and generosity and ease and grace and peace of mind.  There is freedom to be, no matter what the circumstances.

Self cultivation, of course, is also not divorced from the living of our everyday lives.  There’s a parallel here as well.

Live has a tendency to life all over us.  Things go awry.  Plans go sour.  Surprises happen.  Obstacles emerge.  Challenges drop from the sky.

Not everything or every day will be a picnic on the beach.

But if we develop, practice, our ability to eat bitter, and eat our way through all those life situations while bringing to bear all our self cultivation skills, we can ride the unpleasantness and emerge on the other side quickly, with our spirit strong and our experience of life still mighty fine.

And mighty fine is a pretty darn good life to have.

 

* As a martial artist we learn to distinguish between soreness and general ache versus sharp pain.  A good workout will leave you sore, learning something knew might make your shoulder ache, and that’s OK.  But a sharp localized pain equals something bad.  And overdoing it on things that render you sore will lead definitively lead to that sharp pain of injury.***

** Quite literally.  Kung Fu translates roughly to  “skill acquired through effort and time.”  So it doesn’t actually mean martial art or anything similar, and thus you can have kung fu in all sorts of places, such as good kung fu in cooking, in calligraphy, in speaking, and absolutely you can have good kung fu in the art of living peacefully, freely, generously…

***  Similarly, there’s a difference between eating bitter, and situations in life that are unhealthy, destructive, abusive, wounding, etc.