“Once you’re able to perceive your own complexity, you will be able to perceive the complexity of others and be less likely to stereotype”
– Chloe Valdery Founder, Theory of Enchantment
Last night I watched the final of the World’s Strongest Man competition, which I have always enjoyed. This year it was won by a Scottish man who has autism. He made a promise to his mother on her deathbed that he would one day fulfil their dream of becoming the world’s strongest man. This young man has been nurtured by his older brother, also one of the world’s strongest man competitors. I found this story compelling as “strength” has been a theme that has occupied me greatly over the time I have practised Kung Fu. I have come to feel that true strength is knowing when & how to change, and when & how to hold your position. To hold a position if you should change can lead to rigidity, brittleness and ultimately (if you’re unable to let go) catastrophic fracture and scattering. For example this could be fixating on a viewpoint and refusing to change when all evidence points to another way of thinking. To change your position if you should hold can lead to weakness & collapse. An example of this might be doing something that you don’t believe in due to peer pressure.
These are not places we wish to be. Ideally we will come to know our “centre” so well that we understand when to change and when to hold. From one perspective the foundational piece of Cambridge Kung Fu is Wing Chun, a style of Kung Fu, which aims to help us to do this by taking what is known as the “soft path”. Softness is not weakness because softness holds when it is wise to do so & softness is not rigid because softness changes, again when it is wise to do so. Wing Chun’s origins lie in a story of a great Kung Fu Master, a Nun named Ng Mui & her first student Yim Wing Chun, also a woman. The central strategy of Wing Chun is focused around using softness to find your own centre, find your opponents centre and attempt to use the most intelligent tactics available to bring your opponents centre under your control, whilst simultaneously not losing your own centre. If faced with violence, seeking to control your opponents centre whilst maintaining one’s own is a very difficult challenge! However, this means that we aim towards never having to sacrifice our honour in order to win, we are not aiming to “cheat to win”. For example if a footballer dives to win a penalty and the match, they have given up their centre in order to dominate the opponents centre, this is not the Wing Chun way, this is not what we are searching for in our practise at Cambridge Kung Fu. Sometimes seeing what we are not seeking helps us to see what we are aiming towards more clearly, for example, the shadow brings forth the light.
A basic translation of Yin & Yang is shadow & light, one of the great teachings that I have gleaned from my study of Yin Yang through Wing Chun practice is that the simplest and often best way to find the centre is to cross the centre. If you occupy a ‘Yin’ position then in order to find the centre you must orient yourself towards the ‘Yang’ & if you occupy a ‘Yang’ position you must orient yourself towards the ‘Yin’ in order to find the centre. As many martial artists will tend to be temperamentally more “Yang” the best way to find their centre is to orient themselves towards the “Yin”, if this idea is backed up with action an individual will inevitably cross the centre & so have some sort of internal reference or compass allowing them to navigate themselves in an embodied way towards centre over & over again through their lifetime.
Chloe Valdery’s quote on complexity speaks to me of our deep nature being multifaceted and that to find our centre we need to come to terms with our own internal nature that is complex and even sometimes internally contradictory. To do this we must be brave, a skill that lies at the heart of Kung Fu practice. When we practice things that are hard &/or uncomfortable it requires courage and so we practice being brave. Kung Fu seeks to teach the skills needed to face ourselves, understand ourselves and so gives us the chance of understanding and having empathy for others. This orientation towards awareness of self and others gives us the multi perspectives needed to orientate towards and hopefully find our centre.
With best wishes for 2022,