That moment when you find yourself in the dark, with your eyes half closed, moving slowly, without a thought. When you know that there is a long journey ahead of you and there is no end in sight anytime soon. I’m trying to feel what’s going on in my body as my mind drifts in and out of focus to the timeless soundtrack of creaking floorboards and spinning fans. My brainwaves are still in a sleep pattern I’m sure, but I have to keep moving.
Welcome to an intensive training at the Zhong Ding Traditional Martial Arts School. Its day three, which started at the normal time of 4 AM, with 50 repetitions of the Cheng Man-ch’ing taiji form. I’m not even thinking about how long it will take us, as I am certain that knowing that would just take away from my mind’s ability to perform the task, distracting it with the future that hasn’t happened yet.
If one is wise, you don’t play the future game here with Sifu. If you ask him something about time or about how many times we need to do something, there is the danger and very good likelihood that he will decide to extend the training session or make you do more repetitions. I learned this lesson few years ago after doing that exact mistake several times. He has now dubbed the act of doing such a thing with my name.
However, I find it is easier to be in the moment when I don’t have knowledge of the time. True, that moment might feel like never ending, but you get on with it and carry on counting the repetitions. The morning hours in a sense are a blessing. It’s dark, quiet, relatively cool (below 30C), there is nothing else to focus on except the task at hand, and there are no distractions except maybe for the main one – fatigue.
Doing over ten hours of practice each day doesn’t leave much time to do anything else but eat and sleep, and it feels like I can’t get enough of the latter. So, for the first 10 or so sets I was a total zombie, still more asleep than awake. My body just wanted to do the form with minimal effort and that’s what I did. My mind’s focus was just on the movement, how it feels in my body and how it changes from one moment to another.
When all the distractions of the environment and the mind are stripped away, a curious thing happens. Having a tired but single focus on my body as I move slowly, I get very clear glimpses of what is going on inside of me, in my tai chi. These insights arise like fish in a pool – you don’t know that they are there until they come up right to the surface and you see it clearly for what it is, even for just a moment.
The glimpses then turn into longer streams of awareness, allowing me to witness a flow or a deeper understanding of what it is that I am doing. Slowly, form by form, my body wakes up and I do the movements clearer and more fully, my mind becomes more alert and energised as I ride the waves of conscious movement.
You can only really focus on one thing at a time and when you’re in the early morning zombie state, that one thing becomes even clearer than usual and is found spontaneously, without searching or trying. It’s a wonderful thing when it happens, a timeless encounter of feeling your tai chi – like an observer, a passenger in a vessel floating in the dark.
Of course, doing 50 forms takes several hours so you can’t be sleepwalking throughout the whole session. Every now and then I would do a faster set, a sloppy set, a fajin set – just something different to shuffle the energy around. Quite a few sets I also spent on stretching my body, feeling where I was sore and focusing on those points. There are tens of ways of doing the form and once out of the zombie state, these were amazing to explore. Whether it was sinking, connecting with the dantian, exploring the yin yang connections and so on, things I had been working on before became much more embodied with so many repetitions.
And that’s how we started our days of what Sifu calls Spirit Training. I get it. When the body and mind are exhausted, it’s the spirit that has to keep things going. Especially when the 50 forms first thing in the morning is actually the easy part of the day. In the post breakfast session we continue with a 1000 spear thrusts and several fajin exercises, also a 1000 repetitions each. It’s tough. We eat lunch and then sleep until the late afternoon session, which is 100 rounds of pushing hands followed by weapons training. It’s definitely an intensive. You often even dream about the stuff you are practicing.
Just when I thought that I’m getting used to this routine, Sifu announces that tomorrow we get up at 3 AM. Joy. The zombies will be up even earlier. Nevertheless, as tired as I know I will be in the early morning, things can be quite enjoyable in the no-mind zone, exploring the depths of my tai chi practice. Not to mention the sense of achievement you get from completing the forms before breakfast, or the feeling when the day is over and you have trained for 10+ hours. So day four was much like the previous day, the main difference being how the soreness in my body was intensifying throughout. I was only really sore in one place, I joked – everywhere.
When day four was over, I didn’t even want to ask what time we’re starting again, but it turns out we weren’t getting up the next morning at all! In fact, we were to start at 11 PM that evening and do an all-night training session. Sifu surprises us again. You can always trust him to find a way to keep up the intensity. We would just have to respond with focussing on the task and each moment not knowing how long the night was going to be. I hoped that I would get some decent sleep beforehand.
That night, our minds, bodies and egos drained, it was definitely our spirits that kept us going. One of the things we did was one form as slowly as we could, so what usually takes 5 to 8 minutes, we did in 80 minutes. I was pretty zombiefied. When the morning came and the training ended, I was grateful, relieved and in joy that the weekend had arrived, feeling fantastic after what we had been through. Now we have a week to rest our bodies until we come back… for another intensive.