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Kung Fu and the Art of Living in Systems


By Jeremy Mathieu

I have been training in Kung Fu and Tai Chi for 10 years now. That makes me a beginner in that field, as the traditional Chinese martial arts are pathways of cultivation that take a lifetime to learn and grow into.

A student would traditionally follow the master for years to learn the style, by repeating set movements and absorbing the way the master lives, thinks and talks. Complete devotion would be expected of the student, for by taking on the responsibility of learning a style, he or she becomes part of a lineage -- an unbreakable chain connecting the past teachers to the future generations. The student holds the responsibility to learn well so that he or she can one day pass the style correctly onwards.

This traditional concept of filial piety is central to the practice of martial arts, giving the student a place within a wider system. It can be difficult for modern westerners to grasp and to accept. Seeing ourselves as independent individuals is so closely linked to our ideal of unrestricted personal freedom.

Through our current social and environmental crises, we are starting to see the limits of this mindset of separation and unrestricted individuality. Many in the sustainability movement have started to realize how interdependent we truly are, with human systems connecting us all economically, politically and culturally, while being fully embedded into natural systems.

We are part of those systems, those physical and social webs of life. While they could be thought of as a stifling limitation to our ideal of freedom, being mindful of our interconnections allows us to take our place within those systems more responsibly. I would argue that we can learn from martial arts to realize ourselves even more completely as individuals, by becoming more mindful of our participation within all these systems. Their connecting chains can help us go higher and further together, rather than keeping us prisoners.

Chinese martial arts are grounded in Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. All of which are disciplines of practice, geared towards self-transformation rather than the search for an objective explanation of a world beyond our experience. They bring the body and the mind together as an unbreakable whole. No glorifying of the mind and seeing the body as an aesthetic bystander that can be upgraded by going to the gym and buying fancy new clothes. Nor is the body somehow dragging us down to unholy and imperfect material realms. The practice of martial arts brings the body to the front. It becomes alive! Through the hardship of training, the students develop a renewed awareness of their bodies. It is experienced as the seat of our senses and perceptions, as well as our first point of contact with the natural world.

This process of cultivation does not come smoothly or easily. The changes we experience can be quite deep, varied and challenging. We encounter conflict at every turn and staying on this path takes discipline, dedication and a lot of patience.

The internal turmoil comes from the need to take responsibility for all the outcomes in our lives. No more excuses or blaming others. The students have to learn to be mindful of how they prioritize their time, giving training and their overall progress in life the right amount of care, and not letting escapism or activities that do not enrich their lives proliferate beyond measure.

We also learn to reconnect to the various parts of our lives to build more integrity, more ‘wholeness.' When training seriously, it becomes harder and harder to leave parts of ourselves at reception when arriving at work. We seek integration and not dispersion. All of these teach us the hardest of all types of honesty, the one in which we have to be honest with ourselves. Letting go of our illusions and acting in full congruence with ourselves.

Then we start sparring and experiencing a more obvious form of conflict. By interacting with another person in a controlled, semi-contact fighting environment, we learn a whole new level of humility. Mind and body learn to work ever more closely together, to sense the environment and react accordingly. I know of no better incentive to learn and grow than knowing life or death depends on how skilled you are, as at the origins of martial arts. We learn strategies and techniques, giving us the tools to deal with any opponent, any situation.

This is the most visible part of the art of warfare, the direct confrontation between two people or two systems. But another level underlies it: The conflict between our inner ideals and what is actually happening in our world. We test our character and our ability to realize our potential. Our quest for ‘silver bullet’ routes to victory soon shatters under the recognition of the constantly evolving and changing nature of the opposition. We are now on a never-ending road to self-improvement, constantly testing ourselves against a live and organic environment.

As we become more awake to our environment, we encounter yet another level of conflict – the result of forces that are beyond our immediate ability to solve. Global warming, economic crises, the rise of nationalism: These are all examples of conflicts that are bigger than any of us. Their violence can shatter lives and break communities apart. Their scale is a reminder that our wellbeing depends on the quality of care with which we maintain our various social webs – whether in our work, community or family. What we can’t resolve alone, we can improve by working with others. Through mindful and responsible participation, we can increase the resilience of the system as a whole.

So much for the ‘martial’ side; what about the arts?

Being mindful of these different levels of conflicts and how we respond to them allows us to constantly expand our awareness and to recognize patterns in our inner landscape as well as our environment. The highest forms of fighting arts work with those patterns and flows of energy rather than against them. We use the skills and strategies embedded in the style to manipulate those subtle forces with ever more elegance and efficiency. Dealing with conflict becomes a creative expression – a real art form. And since conflict can be found everywhere in our lives, the realm of the ‘artist’ in the ‘martial arts’ is only limited by our imagination and our ability to learn and to refine our skills.

Kung Fu instructor, scholar and author Danil Mikhailov defines the martial arts as “the achievement of physical, mental and spiritual self-transformation through the practice of a skill." At its very roots, he says, it is much more than the art of fighting: “It is the art of living” – meaning any activity, dare I say any job, has the potential to bring us onto this path.

How many of us feel that our jobs help us do that? How could we learn to build this process of self-transformation into our professional lives and economies? These are questions not just for the next generation of martial artists, but for all of us. We can all choose to see our lives as works of art in progress, to learn from the Kung Fu method and to grow from all the conflicts we encounter. It might just help us develop the leadership we need to face the complex and ever changing challenges on the journey to a sustainable future.

Image credit: Flickr/aigle_dore

Jeremy Mathieu is a sustainability advisor, coach and facilitator, working with individuals to build awareness and skills for a more systemic approach to life and work. He is a Kung Fu and Tai Chi student at Fujian White Crane Kung Fu.


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