So it has come to this. I woke up one day and I am an old guy. I was always a bit of a fogey at heart. I grew up with older siblings and no first cousins, so I was socialized mostly by much older people. Family gatherings had lots of people present who were born in the 19th century. The first veterans that I knew were survivors of the trenches of the First World War. The first thing that I did in my life that was an activity that was truly of my own time was Saturday morning cartoons and Dungeons and Dragons (white box version). I muse about these things because I am starting to see something in the world of Chinese physical culture that I hate. The young masters.
Young masters are mostly people from Western cultures who have gone to China for a couple of years and learned “the real stuff ” and then come back and start marketing themselves. OK, its really Damien (Damo) Mitchell that I dislike, but to be fair he is only my poster boy. Its not that they are teaching, its not that they adopt a mystique cultivating nickname, its not the slick marketing. I see no problem with any of that. I don’t even care if they want to offer “black belt” programs or MMA clinics. What gets me is the loss of generational depth that was once so critical in Chinese culture.
Andy Dale once told me that it takes three years to get your legs, ten years to connect some internal power from the legs across the waist and to the hands, and that something else happened at 25 years. When I asked “what? what happens?” with deep curiosity, he looked as if he was searching for the words to reply and then just stopped and said “Well, its different.” That same day climbing up to the waterfall at Camp Koolaree my foot slipped off a mossy log and dipped half-way into the water. I was pretty happy to not have completely face planted in front of Andy and Mike Smith, who was also there, but Andy noticed and said, “You need to practice your footwork.” Its those off-handed lessons that always have stuck with me throughout my training and so I spent some time trying to figure out what that meant. Finally, a couple of years later I began training with Sam Masich and he was able to articulate in a very detailed way what was meant by footwork in terms of the hips and the feet. For the next three years, no matter what else I was learning, my focus was on training the legs. I didn’t say to myself “I’m going to work on my legs for three years.” I just started working on my legs and after three years my legs changed and my footwork was never vague or uncertain after that. Even today my footwork is not perfect, but when it fails I know exactly why.
The experience of leg training gave me a very interesting model or template with which I could examine other aspects of training or study within Chinese physical culture and beyond. It seeded within me a bias towards older styles of training that are often dismissed today because their use is not understood. Training legs and having them be different in three years, and feeling the change happen in a very obvious way was profound. When I teach about legs today I offer possibilities not truths because I know training legs will change legs but I do not know how it will change any particular person’s legs. If I just describe my experience of my legs it won’t bring any of my students any closer to a “leg experience.” We each need to undertake the journey. I believe that this is what stopped Andy from being able to continue the conversation about the 3, 10 and 25 year stages. One big problem is that you cannot explain the far side of the process in a meaningful way before someone goes through it. In this we start to get back towards the issue of young masters.
As I close in on the end of my third decade of martial arts I am beginning to see something about the teachers that I have had over the years. I have trained with teachers who were younger, my contemporaries, older teachers as well as elderly masters. Not only has each of them taught from the their own experience, they have also taught from their own generations. At each stage there is a quality that comes from the amount time that the practitioner has been immersed in the practice. Just as martial arts looks one way before you get your legs and another way after your waist starts to light up and so on; so does the perspective on the material change depending on the raw amount of time spent in. I’m not saying being in martial arts for a long time is enough to understand it, that is so obviously not true, but I am saying that there are some minimum times for certain perspectives to develop.
So the thing that really is starting to bug me is that I am starting to see something about Neigong that I couldn’t see before. The real internal transformative practices are not just Qigong or exercises or breathing methods or systems for developing “phenomenal cosmic power!” They are, I am starting to believe, based in the existential perspectives of age. I am starting to really see the things that Xu Gongwei and Yeung Fook were laughing about when I asked them questions so many years ago. So when I see a punk in his late 20’s teaching Neigong and putting himself out there as a real source in the world, my cranky self says “hold on Buttercup, where are YOUR grey hairs?” I believe that there are some things in Chinese physical culture that are so grounded in the harsh realities of the ageing process that they cannot be expressed from the perspective of youth. You really can be “too young to read that.”