The Art of Being Better
Why do I train in the Martial Arts? - I genuinely believe that we should always strive to become better than we were yesterday. We should disassemble our minds, our identities and truly understand what it is that we fear, what it is that holds us back. What baggage are we carrying that stops us from climbing higher and higher. In my opinion, nothing does this as well as Martial Arts training.
This critical self-analysis cannot be done while in a state of comfort. If your mind and your body are not at the extremes of what you can tolerate you can not honestly see your ego for what it is, a mechanism for keeping you where you are. If you don’t force your body to continue doing those burpees when your mind is screaming “enough!” You won’t understand how much your mind lies to you. If you are not doing your 25th first form in a row, you won’t realise how much you can truly tolerate.
To truly understand who you are and why you are this way, you need to put yourself through the fire. Because it is this fire, that burns away the lies and the illusions and leaves you with the truth. Your demons have nowhere to hide when you place yourself way outside your comfort zone; and when you can see your demons, you can begin slaying them!
This is personal growth; this is refinement, this is how we reach enlightenment! I have spent 2018 putting myself outside of my comfort zone on a daily basis and have grown as a result of doing this. I have also spent 2018 putting my students outside of their comfort zones, and they have become better as a result.
In 2019 I will not relent, I will keep climbing and refining my mind and body and will take my students along this journey with me. However, I have just one requirement from them,
“Leave your excuses in 2018.”
The Kanizsa Triangle
One of my favourite optical illusions is the Kanizsa Triangle, named after Gaetano Kanizsa, the Italian psychologist who first discussed it. At first glance, the image looks like a white triangle placed on three black circles all sitting on a white background. But when observing the image closer, we see that there is no triangle there. Due to the placement of the circles, we see the imaginary lines that make the triangle, but on closer inspection, we see the triangle doesn’t have any borders or edges. But still, every time we look we see the triangle even though we now know that the triangle is an illusion, it does not exist.
I like this optical illusion because it helps illustrate a profound truth about the nature of self. Like the triangle, the unchanging self or the I that we think we are is an illusion. Even though the sense of self that we have is so deep-rooted and apparent, on closer inspection, when we go searching for this I, we see that there is nothing there. The I that we think we are is an emergent illusion of the collaboration of all the different processes going on. Just like the triangle is an emergent illusion of the collaboration of the three circles.
Why does this matter?
If we are in pursuit of truth, this matters because it is true. Most people live their lives as if there exists somewhere inside them this I, this driver of their body and thoughts. But this is not true, all we are in reality is an ever-changing process of fluctuations. The illusion of an unchanging and linear self that we think we are evolved to help us navigate better in our environment. No part of us is the same from one passing moment to the next, and no part of anything in the observable universe is still and unchanging.
This truth also matters because it can help us live a life with less suffering. When we feel a destructive emotion arise, if we identify strongly with this I, we think “I am angry!” But if we know that there is no I, anger is just arising in consciousness, but there is no I to attach to this emotion, we can watch it pass. When someone criticises us, instead of feeling offended we can acknowledge that this feeling of offence has arisen, but there is no self to be offended. When we can be mindful and observe our mind, we understand that our thoughts and our emotions don’t have to dictate who we think we are or how we think we feel. We observe the thought or the feeling the same way we watch a cloud passing in the sky.
So take time every day to sit down, and observe your mind. The most tried and tested method to do this is to breath and to observe your in-breath and out-breath. When your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath.
It's as simple as that!
Anyone who turns up to train at my Kung Fu school knows within the first 10 minutes of their first class that they will be pushed to their extremes. It doesn’t matter how fit or unfit, strong or weak they are. They will, within the first 10 minutes come face to face with their character, all lies they tell themselves about who they are every day falls away, and the reality of their true nature stands face to face with them. This metaphorical mirror usually appears around the second set of burpees.
Why do I take this teaching approach? The answer is straightforward, this is my way of creating a club of students who want to learn. Student’s who try my classes will be pushed in their first class. When they go home after class and feel body pain in the next few days, this is when they either decide, “The classes are too difficult”, and they don’t come back. Or, they decide “The classes are too difficult, this school is exactly what I need!” The first kind of person doesn’t understand that it is through the struggle, pain and hardship that character is developed. They are like the undeveloped and withered butterfly. They don’t want to change to overcome the things they are not comfortable with. They want to shield themselves from everything that challenges them. I don’t need students like this in my school, and my classes effectively weed these people out at their trial class.
People have told me in the past that this approach is not suitable for growing the school, as beginners won’t come back to train and I should make the classes less physically demanding. This slow growth may be the case in the short term, but in the long run, I know that I am developing a group of students who will become true martial artists in character and spirit.
It doesn’t matter who you are, in every one of my classes you will face struggle because without the hardship, there is no progress and without progress, life leads to nothing.
Two Steps to Mastery
We live in a society obsessed with instant gratification. People want results now; they don’t want to have to wait. How many times have you clicked on a web link and started feeling frustration arise in you if the link hasn’t loaded within 3 seconds? Or started a new diet and checked the scale the next day to see if you have lost any weight? As a society, we want things now, and we don’t want to work for it. We are bombarded daily by leaders in their fields who have the wealth we want or the skill we want or the figure we want. But we don’t see the years of struggle they have gone through to get there.
As a martial artist, I have seen many students over the years begin training, wanting to transform into better versions of themselves through Kung Fu. I have also seen most of them give up because the reality has quickly set in about the hard work that is required and the life changes they must make to meet their goals.
The secret to becoming adept at any skill is perseverance. There will be failures, there will be pain, their will be tears, and there will be obstacles. As you train the most significant obstacle you will face is yourself. Your need to feel comfortable, your need to feel in control and your need to feel skilled. The problem is, training in martial arts will continuously take you outside your comfort zone, you will feel you have no control, and you will feel you are not good enough. At this stage, you, the student have a choice, persevere and become better or give up. In my own training, I choose to persevere.
Becoming a Kung Fu Master, or an adept at any discipline can be summed up in two simple steps.
2. Don’t Give Up
Many people take the first step, but it is the second step where the vast majority of people falter. After taking the first step there will be many times when you fall on your journey, it is these falls that condition you and help you change. Just make sure when you fall, you don’t stay down. Get up and keep walking.
As the old saying goes,
“Fall seven times, stand up eight.”
2018 - The Year of no Excuses
It’s that time of year when most people are looking back on the previous 12 months and taking stock of what they did well and what they could have done better. This thought exercise naturally leads to thinking about how they will do things differently in 2018.
I became a father for the first time in January 2017 and a significant part of this year has been about learning how to be a good father and how my wife and I can best manage our relationship with this new dynamic in our lives. But at the same time, it was vital that I didn’t neglect any of the other priorities in my life.
Before my child was born, I would hear from friends and acquaintances on a daily basis the following things,
“Wait until she is born, you won’t have time to train as much as you do anymore.”
“You don’t know tired until you have a child in your home.”
“You will put on so much weight; you won’t have time to eat healthily”
“Your businesses will suffer, you won’t have the energy to focus on them.”
Anybody that knows me knows I loathe excuses and I make a conscious effort to eliminate them from my life. I always make it clear to my student’s when I feel they are making excuses and being lazy. As a Kung Fu instructor, it is essential that I lead by example. I never expect my students to do something that I haven’t done or am not doing myself. So I made a plan with my wife that I will make 2017 the year that I become the fittest and strongest I have ever been.
I will detail in a future blog post, exactly what I did to achieve this but for this blog post it is important to note the following:
Weight: 80 KG
Body Fat: 22%
Body Fat 15%
The weight and fat loss was purely from controlling my food intake and training daily. My training changed, and the exercises became more challenging as I became stronger and fitter. I trained with larger and heavier weapons and even had some custom made in China that fitted my specifications. I incorporated HIIT workouts and regularly did 10-mile runs as a warm up before Kung Fu training. This culminated in running a half - marathon on my last training session of 2017.
Due to the way I was training and the insights I was getting into what worked and what didn’t. My Kung Fu classes also changed. I incorporated what worked into my student’s training sessions and got rid of exercises that didn’t work. As a result, my students who trained regularly also lost a lot of weight and started seeing more positive changes in their health and fitness. (The above picture is of three of my regular training students, Matt, James and Lewis, after a tough first 20 minutes of the class)
For me, 2018 will be about continuing adapting and evolving my training and by extension the training my students do in my classes, making them better Kung Fu practitioners and healthier and happier people. I also look forward to the challenges and joys having a toddler in the home will bring!
My advice to you is, take stock of 2017 and decide what you will do to make 2018 about becoming a better version of yourself. Come out of your comfort zone and eliminate excuses and reasons why you can’t. As the old saying goes, "When there's a will, there's a way."
If you are interested in learning a graceful and deadly martial art while becoming fitter, stronger and healthier than you have ever been. I am offering a free trial class during January for anybody who wants to give Tiger Crane Combination Kung Fu and Suang Yang Tai Chi a go, contact me at email@example.com to book your trial class.
Let me help you find the best version of yourself in 2018.
Now that summer is over, and Autumn is on its way, many people begin suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) a type of depression believed to be caused by the reduction in natural light. The longer nights and shorter days affect the mental state of 1 in 15 people in the UK, according to the NHS. These shorter days can cause depression, anxiety and low energy. So is there anything we can do to limit the effect of SAD on our lives?
In my teenage years, I used to suffer from very low moods during Autumn; I would get irritable, upset and would feel helpless about life. It was my early years of Kung Fu training, and the solution for me was to immerse myself in my training. I trained harder, pushed myself in class harder and this would cause my mood to pick up. The mind training that traditional Kung Fu developed in me helped me identify unskillful thoughts and thought patterns and stop them before they arose. I haven't suffered from SAD in a very long time, and I attribute this directly to my Kung Fu training.
Coming back from summer holidays and getting back to a routine at work can make us feel we are wasting our lives spending our days not doing anything of great consequence. These feelings of longing for something greater can become more apparent during this time of year, and this can cause depression and low moods. The start of Autumn is also a time when people turn to high carb foods to counter these low moods, causing weight gain and bad eating habits.
My advice, as someone who used to suffer from SAD, is to commit to investing time in yourself. Find a new hobby or a new challenge that will make you better and more importantly commit to it and don’t give up. As the owner of a Kung Fu school, I find September/October time to be the time of year that I get the largest number of new members joining my school, looking for a new challenge.
Tiger Crane Kung Fu is an excellent way to keep fit, lose weight, get strong and work on refining your body, mind and spirit. The classes that I run always start with a High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout that aids in endorphin release. Endorphins are the hormones released in our brains and nervous systems that give us that post exercise high that we feel after a challenging workout.
So what are you waiting for? Come along and try a class!
Find out more at tigercrane.co.uk or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how to get started.
As far back as I can remember in my own life, being a better version of myself has always been my primary concern. I remember as a child of 12 or 13 going into my local library and going straight to the mind body & spirit section or the psychology section looking for books that will help with my endeavour. I remember the librarians who I was very familiar with would jokingly tell me that, "those books had no pictures in them". I was always searching for that secret or that path that would lead me to become better. I began training in the Tiger Crane Combination system of Kung Fu a few years later, and the journey inwards that the training has taken me on has been wondrous.
As humans, whether we are religious or not, whether we base our world view on faith or reason, we all have a yearning deep inside of us for something greater. Some satisfy this longing through belief in gods or angels, others lose themselves in the seemingly infinite nature of our universe, and some fall into drink and drugs to satisfy this insatiable thirst for more. What I do is I look inwards because to understand the nature of self and consciousness is to understand the subjective nature of our gods, our demons and our universe.
I have always said that my training in Tiger Crane Kung Fu translates directly into anything I do in my life. This is a principle that I also try to get my students to understand. My role as a practitioner of this system is to get my body to respond, to do what I want it to do, to stretch further than it did yesterday, to hold the postures for a longer period than it did yesterday and to tolerate the pain for a while longer than it did yesterday. My success with my body is directly dependent on my ability to control my mind. My ability to not listen when it is making excuses, to ignore it when it tells me enough and to shut it down when it is not helpful.
The level of mental clarity and discernment that one gets while training in a system like Tiger Crane Kung Fu is beneficial in one’s career, relationships and in one’s attempts to be a productive member of the societies they live. As the practitioner's training develops and their Kung Fu matures so does their mind, The practitioner begins to see through the illusory nature of their mind, their emotions, their thoughts and their worldview. Giving them the ability to create better and more productive habits.
Training in a traditional martial art isn’t just about learning to kick and punch. It is about the journey one takes to create a better version of themselves every single day. So the next time you don't want to train on a training day, understand that this is your mind telling you to stagnate. When you understand this, you then have the choice to either listen or to not listen.
This choice is always yours.
Taming the Wild Ox
Pain is inevitable when training Kung Fu. I always tell my students that if they are not in pain in every class, then they are wasting their time. Kung Fu training is pointless if the stylist doesn't push themselves beyond their comfort zone because unless they do, they are not improving. Pain is the feedback we get when our muscles, joints, tendons, etc. are being pushed beyond the point that they can comfortably manage. Kung Fu stylists need to learn the difference between “Good Pain” and “Bad Pain”. "Good Pain" being the kind of pain we aim to put ourselves through to improve our strength, flexibility and character and "Bad Pain" is the kind of pain we need to avoid as this can lead to damage and injury.
I spend a lot of time telling my students to get lower in their stance, or to maintain the pace or to hold the posture for a little while longer. At the same time, the student's mind is telling them to rest, as the pain is unbearable and the suffering will only increase if they maintain the posture. Training is a constant battle between the instructor trying to get the student to push and grow and the student’s own mind telling them to seek comfort and rest.
The Shaolin Kung Fu systems originated out of the Chan Buddhist methods and practices that were prevalent in China at the time. In the Ten Oxherding pictures, Chan Buddhist's teach that the mind is like a wild ox, wild and free and shows step by step the stages a student goes through trying to control this Ox. A considerable part of a Shaolin Kung Fu stylists training should be done in a state of mindfulness, this form of practice teaches the stylist a critical truth that most people are not aware of. This truth is that pain and suffering are two different things.
When we are pushing beyond our comfort zones, our body will give us feedback, this feedback that we call pain is inevitable. As mentioned above, it is our body telling us that it is being pushed beyond what is comfortable. Evolution has programmed in us to run away from pain, for this reason when pain arises in the body our mind decides we do not like this and this causes us to suffer while the pain persists. This suffering creates the need in us to do what we can to stop the pain. The reality is that suffering is not inevitable, suffering is the way we choose to interpret the feeling of pain.
So, next time when you are holding a painful posture or doing an exercise that is causing pain to arise; be still and just observe the feeling. When you notice the mind beginning to complain, stay calm and observe the mind’s complaints as an external observer. The pain will become more bearable, and you may be able to hold the posture for a little while longer than usual. Do this all the time during your training, and you will have taken the initial steps in taming the wild Ox that is your mind.
Motivation is a Lie
Nobody is born proficient at any skill. We may have a genetic disposition to be better at certain things than other people, but without developing and nurturing these skills, a person’s full potential will never be realised. Any athlete, musician, dancer, performer, etc. will tell you that improving any skill takes time, energy and perseverance. Becoming good at anything is painful and requires making sacrifices.
I started my training in Tiger Crane Combination Kung Fu over 16 years ago. At first, it was just something to do a few times a week, but I very quickly began training in every class my instructor held. I was training two to three hours a day six to seven days a week. I was 16 years old when I started training, and it was all I did. When my friends would go out, I was training. When my family would get together, I was training; I often even missed school and university events because I was training. I found very quickly that I no longer had the friends that I used to have. It was not their fault, they did try to keep me as part of the group, but I never had the time because I was always training.
I didn’t always enjoy my training; there were times when I wanted just to relax or I wanted to go out with my friends. There were times when I felt I wasn’t improving and didn’t see a way forward. I had no motivation to train. That’s what this blog post is about, motivation.
As humans, we tend towards comfort and ease, and we try to get far away from anything that takes us away from our comfort zones. It is a common occurrence for my students to talk to me about motivation. Some tell me they are not attending as many classes as before because they lack the motivation to train or that they are currently very motivated to train and that is why they are in most of my classes. It is critical to understand that having the motivation or not having the motivation to do something are both as tricky as each other and if we base our training on this fleeting feeling that may or may not be with us on any given day, we will never reach the heights that are possible.
We need to train ourselves to stop looking for something to motivate us to train or to do our work. We need to develop the discipline to do what needs to get done regardless of motivation. When we have the discipline and the ability to force ourselves to train when we don’t want to, this is what will lead us to mastery.
The First Step is the Hardest
Any pursuit that will help you grow and help you better yourself physically and mentally will be tough. You will struggle, you will be in pain, you will suffer, and you will probably want to quit every lesson. The difference between those that persist and those that quit is simply a mindset. I have been teaching Traditional Chinese Kung Fu for a long time and have been training for a lot longer than that. I have experienced the suffering, the pain, the broken bones, the muscle tears and the desire to quit.
As humans, we tend towards comfort and ease. Physically, we do not want to be in pain, and mentally, our ego does not want to be exposed to the fact it can’t do certain exercises or movements. We want to be comfortable, and training for most people, is not comfortable mentally or physically. Our mind begins to natter away creating all kinds of excuses to quit, telling us, “this isn’t for you”, “you are too old”, “you are not fit enough”. All this happens so that we decide to take ourselves out of the situation that is challenging us and taking us back into our comfort zones.
I see this all the time with beginners attending my classes. My classes are not easy, within the first 15 minutes, you will have had a tough, cardio and strength workout that my seniors struggle with. My job is not to make it easy for you; my job is to push you beyond your made up limits and help you find a stronger, fitter, more focused you that you didn’t know existed. Beginners often stop and rest many times during their first few classes, and that is fine, but those that persist find that over time, the need to rest and take a breather isn’t always a physical one, it is usually a mental one. When they understand that difference, they know that they don’t have to stop just because their mind is complaining or making excuses. They can tell their minds to “shut up”, and they continue with the exercise. To get to that stage, a beginner will need to persist through their first few classes.
Traditional Chinese martial arts isn’t a quick fix; it is designed to be difficult so that it can help shine a light on all aspects of your personality, the good and the bad. It is a journey that you take to find yourself. It is an adventure that contains the highest mountains and the darkest valleys, the densest jungles and the loneliest deserts. Like any journey, we should not dwell too long and keep moving forward.
The Daoist Sage, Lao Tzu tells us, “A journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step” So don’t give up after the first step, put one foot in front of the other and keep walking to a better you.
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!