Practicing happiness 03

You can’t get ahead of where you are.

I used to be so impatient. If someone told me to take a walk each morning I’d refuse just because it didn’t sound like enough.

I’ve learned that a morning walk improves my whole day, but I arrived there so reluctantly!

I’d think “what’s the point? It might feel better, but that’s not enough. It’s pointless, it doesn’t change anything. I need something inspiring, something game-changing!

My old attitude would see me reject modest improvements because they were modest; but the dramatic changes were just too big.

It was a catch-22: I wanted something so huge that it would change my life. But something so huge was, by definition, out of reach.

Instead of walking around the block each morning, I wanted to climb mountains.

That’s what feeling better is. Just feeling better is a modest step that improves everything. It’s achievable because it’s so modest.

I wasn’t satisfied with such a modest step. I wanted to feel amazing. I wanted to feel great. And I wanted life to shore me up with circumstances that would make me feel that way.

That yearning still comes up, but I’m better at seeing through it now. It’s a false promise that anything can feel better than simply choosing to feel better. It’s just like refusing to walk the block because I’d rather do something more challenging.

The only reason I desire anything in life is because I believe it will make me feel good when I have it. But feeling better is a step-by-step path to genuinely feeling as good as I can feel in this moment, and doing so in a reliable, practiced, sustainable way.

Exercise your demons

A while ago Matthew asked if I had any thoughts on exercise in the same vein as my posts on dieting.

To be honest, I don’t really. Exercise has always been a bit of an enigma to me.

But in recent years I’ve come to realise this is not a moral failing but a physical one. My body hasn’t been moving efficiently or easily, and this makes physical activity inherently more demanding.

In the past I would say my only strength was in wearily persisting at some low-demand, monotonous exercise like walking or riding. Anything more demanding was simply beyond my capabilities.

Running? Surely you jest.

My subjective experience of exercise was like that stage you arrive at when assembling a very large tent, and you have to hold onto it carefully at several different points to prevent the whole thing collapsing in on itself. It’s the feeling of parts that want to go in different directions, but shouldn’t, like watching a group exercise descend into chaos for want of a leader.

Looking into muscle anatomy in recent weeks has helped immensely, and I only wish I’d done it sooner. Ironically, I used to pride myself on my persistence. But 17 years in a martial art with an achingly poor rate of progression should have tipped me off sooner. A less stubborn person might have caved in much sooner, realised there was something fundamentally wrong, and sought help for it.

Or maybe not…maybe they would have just given up and stuck to casual walking and other less challenging activities?

I can’t claim to have really pulled myself up by my bootstraps, but I can at least stand a little taller (literally) knowing where my shoulders are supposed to be, how my joints are supposed to work, and why every ancillary exercise I’ve tried has just seemed somehow awfully off.

So my view of exercise is changing: I used to wonder why people would, for example, run a lot. Was it so they could eat more? In that case I’d rather eat less. Was it simply in order to increase their stamina? What’s the point, if you only use that stamina to run more?

But if you don’t feel like a jumble of broken parts being thrown around inside a box, then even running has a certain pleasure to it. It actually feels good to move the body efficiently at speed. It’s hard work, true; but there’s just no comparison between working the body hard in the right way, with efficiency, and working the body in the wrong way altogether.

I’m beginning (very slowly) to use exercise more now as a diagnostic and remedial tool: stretching, strengthening, and learning better ways to move.

The Chinese version of me doesn’t do kung fu

Recently I was following a discussion about Western versus Chinese student approaches to Chinese Martial Arts (CMA).  The premise was that from the perspective of a highly respected Chen Taiji teacher:

It’s harder for Western students to grasp a concept that’s inherent in the Chinese psyche and its culture. At times it seems impossible, as Western students try to interpret the concept on the basis of their own beliefs and interpretations. In approach and practice, Chinese students do, while Western students question. Chinese students go by feeling and sensing movement, while Western students are concerned with the mechanics, or kinetics, of movement.

Speaking as a Western CMA student, I’ve noted some cultural differences between myself and my teacher’s generation that could account for the observations made by Chen ZiQiang. However, I do not think these cultural differences are on the level of interpreting technical concepts within the martial art, but rather play a role in determining the kinds of people, Western and Chinese, who are drawn to CMA, and their different motives and perspectives in learning the art.

The most obvious distinction between Western and Chinese cultural experience of CMA is that for Westerners CMA is a foreign entity, a discipline routinely depicted in Western media and culture as mysterious, exotic, and esoteric.  In introducing and reintroducing Asian martial arts generally to the West, the media has typically sought to distinguish Asian martial arts from Western martial arts such as boxing and wrestling. The cultural context that depicts boxing and wrestling as relatively straightforward and intelligible physical endeavours seizes upon Japanese and Chinese martial arts as somehow being “more than” their Western counterparts.

Western audiences have been assisted in this interpretation by various spiritual and esoteric aspects of Asian martial arts, not to mention the mythic oral histories, performance-oriented demonstrations of skill and strength, and the absence of the kind of regulatory or competitive platform found in Western sports-oriented martial arts.

In other words, some degree of esotericism is built into Asian martial arts, yet this esotericism has in turn been exaggerated and made the raison d’etre of Asian martial arts for generations of Western audiences, and some proportion of Western students.

This is, I think, the first cultural difference between Chinese and Western students of CMA, and I have to admit it is prominent in my own relationship with the art I’ve practiced for more than half my life.

Why is it that I, and others like me, are so drawn to CMA but have no interest in Western boxing, or indeed in sports generally? For us boxing and sports feel like a known quantity, a domain where little counts beyond sheer physical skill. The domain of CMA is immediately appealing because it seems to promise at face value a blending of physical skill with other kinds of skills albeit ones that are only dimly perceived. The whole point of many demonstrations of skill in CMA is to show that there is something ‘unusual’ going on, that the demonstrator has strength or speed or power that somehow goes beyond what we would expect from a purely physical skill.

We expect a boxer to be able to hit hard, or a wrestler to be able to throw or pin people with ease. But CMA demonstrations typically hinge on a disparity between skill and appearance: the teacher who hits much harder than expected and with little apparent effort; the senior student who seems impossible to push or pull or otherwise move; the grandmaster who is able to move you around with ease, with a strength that is incommensurate with his apparent frailty.

None of these demonstrations are ‘obvious’ in their mechanics or physical logic, and they present a puzzle and then a goal that becomes irresistible for many Western students. Western students generally are drawn in and motivated by achieving these same skills or abilities for themselves, but such skills and abilities typically remain incomprehensible despite years of training.

The problem is twofold: firstly, the disparity between the ‘normal’ rigours of martial arts training that develops comprehensible physical skills, and the esoteric and intriguing skill-set of the teacher that remain beyond our understanding and our reach. It is not at all apparent how ordinary training can produce extraordinary results, and many students remain stuck, grappling with this apparent paradox.

For many students the disparity between training and the desired skill-set leaves them preoccupied with a goal they do not understand and do not know how to achieve. Assuming that the teacher is able and willing to actually teach these more advanced skills, they may nevertheless find that their students are so entranced by the idea of unusual power or superhuman skill that they fail to appreciate, understand, or properly commit to the more prosaic skills and fundamental physicality of basic training. The irony is that such students would develop much better skills if they focused on learning the art as though it had no esoteric or mysterious connotations whatsoever.

The second and perhaps more challenging aspect of this cultural problem is that a subset of these entranced Western students are the kinds of people who have no real interest in or affinity for sports and physical disciplines in the first place.  The esoteric appeal of CMA and the demonstration of skills that seem to depend on something other than sheer physical strength attract people who are implicitly poorly equipped to learn a martial art in the first place.

For me this part of the problem is personal: why is it that I have no interest in boxing, yet an overwhelming and enduring interest in CMA? Because CMA somehow promises more than boxing does.  From an early age, CMA seemed to draw upon more than raw physical talent, and so for someone quite lacking in raw physical talent CMA is an attractive proposition.  But the reality is that CMA is intensely physical, at least as much and perhaps more than boxing trained at the same level. The esotericism is a physical esotericism, built on hard training, strength, flexibility, and other fundamental physical attributes that can be developed, yet come more naturally to some of us than to others.

Returning to the original point, I suspect that for people raised in a Chinese culture, the esotericism and mysterious skills of CMA are less salient than the physical discipline required. It’s not that Chinese people generally are better suited to CMA, or that their psyches are somehow more attuned to CMA principles, but rather that those who – like me – are naturally unsuited to physical disciplines and lacking in raw talent are much less likely to be entranced and attracted by CMA. CMA to a person raised in a Chinese culture is more like boxing to a Westerner.  The analogy is not perfect, but cultural familiarity strips away much of the esoteric appeal that draws in Westerners like me.

In other words, the Chinese version of me doesn’t do kung fu, and through self-selection, teachers like Chen ZiQiang will encounter more over-analytical, questioning, missing-the-point Western students than they will Chinese.

The irony is that magnifying the impression of esoteric or mysterious skills prevents us from truly developing any significant skill.  The answers could be right in front of us, yet the sense of ‘something more’ prohibits us from recognising the real nature of the skills exhibited by our teachers.

Having trained a martial art for more than half my life with fundamentally the wrong attitude, I should probably be relieved to have nonetheless made some progress, rather than being disheartened by my lack of progress.  Perhaps a better attitude for people like me is to recognise from the outset that CMA is not a physically less demanding discipline, but a more demanding one; that whatever physical problems or lack of talent we face will not be compensated for by something esoteric within CMA; that ‘understanding’ CMA without doing the physical work will be as fruitless as ‘understanding’ boxing, weight lifting, or jogging without doing the physical work.

What I really need to understand is not how my teacher ‘mysteriously’ has so much power, but why I mysteriously have so little. My goal should not be to discover the esoteric logic at the heights of CMA, but to work out the overlooked question of why I have failed to fully embrace the most basic physical form and discipline.  I need to start looking at CMA not as a way to compensate for physical impediments, but as a context in which to challenge, identify, and remedy them.






The ideal approach

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Melancholics are idealists, and in any venture or activity we seek out and adhere to the ideal.

This can be both an advantage and an obstacle. For example, I mentioned in a previous post that I always thought the ideal approach to exercise would be to incorporate it into everyday life, avoiding ‘exercise for its own sake’.

What I neglected in this approach is that such an ideal may not be attainable given the circumstances of a contemporary lifestyle, but also that people do in fact ‘exercise’ for fun and enjoyment. People run, ride, walk and play sports because it is enjoyable. But if you presume at the outset that exercise is onerous and pointless exercise is adding insult to injury, then this insight will evade you.

Growing up with numerous vague and confounding frailties of posture, coordination, physical tension, fatigue and other interrelated yet undiscovered obstacles may have contributed to this blind-spot toward exercise. On my better days it is obvious that exercise is enjoyable. But most days merely remaining upright is enough of an effort to make exercise seem implausibly demanding.

Nonetheless, since I started jogging regularly I’ve noticed a number of minor improvements, but more pertinent to this post, I found myself once again inclining toward the ideal – idealising the difficulty and purity of running or jogging as a simple and complete form of exercise.

What this shows is that ideals can be mistaken, ideals can be incomplete, but ideals can also be useful.

Perhaps it is best to consider ideals in this context: not so much as eternal and objective truths to be discovered but as a way of seeing the world, a way of understanding, communicating, teaching, and learning.

For example, I’ve been learning a particular martial art for about 16 years now, and for nearly half that time I was preoccupied – perhaps ‘obsessed’ is a better word – with finding a definitive copy of the names of the various moves in Chinese. My teacher’s generation were more focused on actually learning the art, and admittedly it seems a bit strange to feel that the name of a movement is in any way key to understanding or performing the movement. A fist by any other name will smack you just as hard around the head.

It’s only taken eight years for my enthusiasm to dim; hopefully in part as a result of improving at the art itself. But on reflection I can see that what I hoped to find in the names was not so much a better technical understanding of the movements, but a way of idealising them, of getting to their essence and encapsulating them.

It’s true that techniques are not definitive; they can be adapted, changed, put to multiple uses. But the mere fact that a technique has a name means that someone saw fit to name it in a particular way and denote from their own perspective what made this technique specific or unique.

In the 2005 doctoral dissertation of Jude Chua Soo Meng the author analyses the correlative theory of naming in the neo-Daoist philosopher wang Bi:

clearly for Wang, the names do in fact correlate to a certain actuality, a certain reality, and is not something which is random or frivolous. In his Laozi Zhilue, he presents explicitly the correlative theory of naming:

“All names arise from forms [phenomenal manifestations, (xing)]; never has a form arisen from a name. Therefore if there is this name, there must be this form, and, if there is this form, there must be its separation [fen] [from all other forms]. If “benevolence” [ren] cannot be called “sagehood” [sheng] or “intelligence” [zhi] called “benevolence,” each must have its own actuality.”

This passage clearly indicates that for Wang Bi names are not conventionally determined, but are determined depending on the shi [actuality/essence] of things, on which basis he can say that one cannot trade a name for another, since names have to accord with their actualities, and are determined by depending on these actualities, and not according to the fancy of the person. Again, names arise from xing, not the other way around, for “the name arises from how it appears to us” So in effect for Wang Bi the shi is manifested through the xing, and the names are determined according to the xing. Thus names ultimately are dependent on the shi through the xing, and the names are dependent immediately on the xing. Hence he can say that if there is this name, there must be this form (xing), since the form is the source of the name. Names come from somewhere objective, and this somewhere is the form.

What this describes is the creative process inherent in naming a thing. We look to the form, the form in turn is a reflection of the actuality or essence of the thing. Hence the name, deemed appropriate to the form yet also being mindful of the essence behind the form, is always in relation with the reality. No one names things arbitrarily, or rather, an arbitrary name is not a true name.

Chua addresses the allocation of arbitrary names in the context of conventions, drawing on Wang’s comments on ‘designation’ as opposed to true naming:

To accommodate this latter class of words which are conventional in order to distinguish it from the determination of names which follow from phenomenal manifestations (xing), Wang Bi calls it “designation” cheng:

“To name [ming] is to determine [ding] objects [bi]. To designate [cheng] is to follow what objects are conventionally called. A name arises from the object, but a designation issues from the subjective [wo].”

Now the designation is said to be subjective because when I designate something, I simply follow a convention and not the objective xing. Compared to naming, it appears that it is up to me (wo) that the designation is what it is; I am not immediately constrained by the objective form in the thing itself, as I would be in naming. After all, in choosing to adopt a conventional designation, I have implicitly chosen to follow convention even if the words fail to name or correspond to the phenomenal xing, if there is one.

In the context of martial arts, as someone who can’t speak Cantonese and doesn’t know the name of a technique, I am instead ‘designating’ a technique through the convention that has evolved in our practice. I can say to a newcomer “We call this move ‘jong’ or ‘kwan’,” but I can’t go beyond that to say that these are the techniques’ names or to explain their meaning in the context of a technique’s form (xing) or actuality (shi).

But the subjectivity of designations cannot be overstated. Subjectivity is not arbitrariness. We should be clear that designation is subjective comparatively, not absolutely. For despite its (comparative) subjectivity, designation for Wang is not divorced from objective reality simpliciter. It is only divorced from the objective reality qua form or shape. Thus he writes, “…designations do not arise without cause.”

Indeed, the designations used in our art are derived from oral repetition and aural impression of the actual names. The designations are far from arbitrary.

Nonetheless, to the original point: I realise now that my fascination with names is a function of idealism more generally. To know the name given to a technique by someone grounded in their practice and study is to have an insight into both the form (xing) and essence (shi) of the technique. It is a somewhat idiosyncratic way of making sense of the art, consolidating and encapsulating it, and translating it into the realm of ideas.

I can do things without an idealist approach, but idealism is my greatest strength, the way that makes most sense to me. While other temperaments are inspired by different aspects of life, the melancholic thrives in a world populated by ideals, and a life lived through them.


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I know a few people involved in CrossFit competitions, and having seen what they’re capable of, I have to admit I’m impressed.

The CrossFit principle of “constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity across broad modal and time domains” supposedly avoids the pitfalls of specialisation in more traditional forms of fitness and sport.  For example, no matter how good I am at kung fu, I might not be so good at doing chin-ups, rowing a boat, or running a moderate distance.  Fitness is very narrow, as your body quickly and efficiently adjusts to whatever specific activity you are doing.

Which is why I think we need a new discipline for parents, which I’ll call ‘DadFit’.  DadFit recognises that parenting requires a unique subset of physical fitness, a blend of endurance and strength rarely seen in more traditional forms of exercise.

Like CrossFit, DadFit will involve “constantly varied functional movements”, albeit of a very specific variety; functional movements such as:

– Carrying a 12kg toddler in both ‘squirming’ and ‘dead weight’ modes at randomly varying intervals over a distance categorised as ‘further than I realised’.

– Getting in and out of a car with 12kg toddler, nappy bag, toddler’s shoes, a ball, and three bags of groceries.

– Gently lowering a semi-somnolent toddler onto his bed without waking the child or crippling one’s back.

– Removing a screaming toddler in full tantrum from a public place while maintaining a vestige of dignity.

What truly sets DadFit apart from other exercise regimes is that DadFit is trained under very particular conditions.

Firstly, DadFit must be performed within the haze of debilitating long-term sleep deprivation.  Secondly, while DadFit exercises are timed, it is important that competitors feel they might go on forever.  Thirdly, while other exercise regimes are typically performed according to strict standards with impartial oversight, DadFit exercises take place in a condition of complete existential doubt. At no time should DadFit competitors have any confidence that they are performing the exercise correctly.

There is of course a corresponding ‘MumFit’, but it’s not for the faint of heart. I hear the warm-up alone takes a good nine months.




The melancholic exercise compromise

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I’ve always hated the idea of exercise for its own sake.  The thought of running somewhere, turning around, and running back just for the sake of burning some calories and increasing fitness seemed pointless, unsustainable, and ultimately futile – not to mention extremely tiring.

Melancholics are idealists, and the ideal for exercise is to get it by accident – in the pursuit of some other goal or purpose.  If Australian cities weren’t so spread out, we’d be walking or riding everywhere for convenience and getting exercise in the process.  If our occupations didn’t tie us to desks but required some degree of manual labour we wouldn’t need to lift weights in our spare time.  If our whole lives weren’t laid out for our total convenience we might actually benefit from stretching and pushing ourselves to overcome everyday obstacles.

The best I could do to achieve the ‘exercise by accident’ ideal was to learn a martial art, and to some extent it worked – the focus on learning and refining a skill turned the actual hard work of exercise into a by-product.

But martial arts were never designed with pure fitness in mind, and eventually I had to admit that the ‘exercise by accident’ ideal was unachievable in practice.  In resignation I decided to run.

For various reasons I’ve never been a runner.  Poor coordination, poor posture, dodgy proprioception made the pain of running even less bearable.  I avoided running as much as possible.  In my mind running was the worst possible form of exercise for its own sake.

So when I took it up a few months back in the evenings after work, I was surprised to find that it was even worse than I could have imagined.

It turns out that running really is the worst kind of exercise I’ve ever experienced.  But there’s no way I’m going to remain fit and healthy without embracing the pain and exhaustion of exercise for its own sake.  And when I finally did embrace it, I discovered that my idealism could still function, still turn the pain and exhaustion into something meaningful.

Instead of the ideal of ‘exercise by accident’, I discovered a new ideal of running as the most pure, basic, and demanding way of moving; the simple yet challenging goal of moving my body under its own power through space at speed.

It doesn’t really get easier, and I forget each time just how difficult and unpleasant it is.  But the new ideal of the absolute challenge of running keeps me motivated, and shows that the melancholic capacity for idealism is more powerful than I thought.

It’s not simply a matter of needing to act in accordance with one’s ideals, but of having the ability to locate the ideals within any meaningful activity – to see the world through idealist eyes.  It’s also a reminder that if we aren’t careful, the melancholic’s lack of courage can obscure the full potential of this idealist perspective, letting a ‘settled’ ideal keep us conveniently avoiding the hard work of a more direct and honest path to our goals.