Contrary to what most people think, Kung Fu or Gongfu, the martial arts often depicted in Chinese movies, is not just about self-defence or physical fitness. It is a philosophy and a set of specific skills honed throughout centuries in order to develop the body, the mind, and the spirit – which in traditional Asian cultures are seen as parts of the same whole. In Kung Fu, the spiritual and the physical realms are distinct but not separate, and when cultivated through mental and physical exercises, will result to a growth in our personal awareness and consciousness. This growth in turn will reflect in our health, our relationships and our interaction with the rest of the universe.
Terry Hodgkinson Sifu, long time martial arts and meditation teacher and author of a groundbreaking book “Memoirs of a Wandering Ninja – Walking the Path of Enlightenment” asserts that martial arts are some of the best ways towards self-discovery and the awareness of the true-self.
An essential element of Kung Fu is self-control which enables you to control not just your movement, but your mental and emotional states. This is achieved through grounding yourself in your “power center” or the life force, which in Chinese philosophy is called tan t’ien, or the sea of chi. Chi is the energy that Kung-fu masters draw from the tan t’ien to places inside and outside the body. And that is how they can achieve some amazing feats like breaking a pile of bricks. However, breaking bricks is only for demonstration; the real benefit of this inter connectedness is when it is applied to enhancing the quality of our life journey.
Kung Fu exercises help you locate and ground yourself in this centre or tan tíen area, using specific breathing techniques and movements. The effect is liberation from your mind’s restless thinking known in Zen Buddhism as the “monkey mind” and delivers you into the awareness of the present moment where your true power resides. It is here that you are in full control of your personal responses no matter how stressful, pressured, or intimidating your external circumstances are. It is about controlling your feelings and your ego so that you respond from your true centre rather than from rapid thoughts or from fleeting emotions.
A black belt, for example, will remain calm and detached in the presence of an opponent. He does not allow his ego to get in the way of his movements. Beginners can be dangerous as they respond with emotions and can unintentionally hurt you or themselves unnecessarily, which is contrary to the spirit of martial arts training. In Kung Fu, we see each other as partners, catalysts towards improvement, not opponents. You work with each other, not against each other; true competition is where you are focusing on yourself to become better in all that you do. After all, the original meaning of Kung Fu refers to one’s expertise in any skill achieved through hard work and practice, not only martial.
And that is why success in martial arts is not just the colour of the belt but the improvement of lives. By being able to manage energies and feelings, being able to detach from the ego, and being able to let go of the need to be right, students become masters over their own feelings and their actions – they cease to react to situations but rather, they act from their core. They have learned to be grounded, to be centered. That is why you notice real Kung Fu adepts remain calm and serene in the most adverse situations.
Harmony within and without is what Kung Fu is all about. This is the harmony that seeks higher common good, the Way. Part of the training in martial arts is learning how to fall and to trust that you won’t get hurt, yet even if you do get hurt you have the inner strength to continue on. As the ancient Oriental proverb says, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” This experience frees us from any fear, which is a very liberating moment for all martial arts students.
So while it is true that Kung Fu and other martial arts equip you with the necessary skills to defend yourself against external attacks, but deeper than that, the discipline provides you with the skills to defend yourself against internal attacks – your ego, your fears, your feelings, and your reactions. This is a path to enlightenment, peace and happiness.