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Adam Hsu Kung Fu

Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

Adam Hsu
Author (3rd from left) faces the mental challenges.


by Debi Hilton

I've always been interested in the mental/emotional aspects of athletics. You know, peak experiences, mental blocks to progress, that sort of thing. So I decided to get Sifu Adam Hsu's thoughts on how mental blocks affect kung fu practitioners and how they can be prevented. From the outset of our conversation, it became apparent to me that these problems, as they relate to kung fu, are of a much more general nature. It's not so much that Western practitioners reach a point of stagnation or "hit the wall"--although that happens sometimes--as it is that many of us never really comprehend the totality of what we're doing. Kung fu is both physical and mental training. It's also a balanced, harmonized, whole body health practice. Everyone knows that the East and the West are 180 degrees apart philosophically. This shouldn't be a problem, since philosophy and athletics are different animals, right? Wrong.

Talking with Sifu Hsu made me realize how differently Eastern and Western cultures affect the various institutions contained within them. Western culture separates people from the environment much more than does Chinese culture. In the West, we tend to view the environment as something outside of ourselves, something to be controlled and conquered. The analogy he made of the Western perspective is that it's as though the person is sitting at the foot of a mountain, gazing up at its monolithic size. He or she sees himself or herself as separate and distinct from the surrounding environment.

As an outgrowth of this alienation from nature, we tend to separate our minds from our bodies and to look to end results to measure the success of a given endeavor. Sports are viewed as games with rules to ensure fairness and equality. The physical emphasis is on building up strength and skill in the large muscles, and the mental emphasis is on a single point, usually in front of the participant.

The Chinese perspective, of course, is quite different. It looks all around--as though the person were sitting at the foot of a mountain, seeing it as a manifestation of all of nature, including the individual. The person sees himself or herself as part of the environment. For this person, while there is a pair of eyes that looks outward to the world, there is another pair that looks inward. This attitude applies to all of the senses. Ears listen ahead, to the side and behind. Because of this all-encompassing approach, Chinese martial arts include both cultural and philosophical concepts. Unlike modern Western athletics, which in most cases were designed to be and are merely games, the origins of the martial arts are in self-defense and war. Kung fu must develop both the body and the mind, and the training must focus on both areas. Practitioners have to be aware of what is going on in all directions around them, because an attack can come from anywhere. There are no rules and the rules that do exist often are broken to gain an element of surprise. Hence, the practitioner must be able to separate the mind into at least two-dimensional focus, usually more-ahead, behind, inside and outside of the practitioner's own body, for instance. Many times new students come to kung fu thinking that it will be like joining a gym-that, after a long day at work, they can come to class, work their bodies, and relax their minds. This is totally and completely wrong-kung fu demands and deserves the practitioner's complete participation.

For many years, Sifu Hsu noticed that his students looked somehow "out of focus." Then he realized the problem. A lot of the students, even after practicing and teaching for many years, did not even realize they had a mental block. What causes the mental blocks is the difference between Eastern and Western philosophy and culture. Do Chinese students have this same mental block? Yes, but since some Chinese philosophy has been preserved in diet and lifestyle and because the presence of other Chinese arts, such as the tea ceremony, support the philosophy, Chinese students raised in more traditional homes have less of a mental block.

During the 19th to 21st centuries, Asian countries have been trying to westernize, to become more democratic and to emphasize science. Most countries, such as Japan and Thailand, nominally still are empires but function as democracies. This as a good thing, but much also has been lost. The lifestyle, clothing, transportation, food all have changed. The school system has been affected. In the past, education was based on literature and philosophy. Science is now included, which requires a change in thinking. Eastern society has changed a lot because of the influence of movies, TV, fashion magazines and music. As a result of this Westernization, the thinking of many children is very much Americanized, so blocks happen for them also.

In order to overcome the mental blocks, students must first realize that a block exists. Instructors must talk about and point out the differences between Eastern and Western culture and philosophy and how these differences affect the practice of kung fu. They need to educate students that they're entering a different world and tell them why it's different. Chinese masters should work harder to promote their arts and to develop systematic training programs that include the basics but also emphasize fun and mind expansion.

Sifu said that students need to expose themselves to Chinese culture through its art, opera, and cuisine in order to open their minds to the Chinese perspective. Unfortunately, and he is right in this, many Westerners feel no need to look Eastward--they think their system is the best system. For many things and in many ways, it is; but this attitude delays the cultural exchange that would bring east and west into contact.