Gongfu and Self-Cultivation

  • Upper Grades Program
Spencer Baron, Upper Division Chinese Teacher

At the end of the school day, I change from my work clothes into stretchy pants and a t-shirt, and make the transformation from Chinese teacher back to the fire-and-brimstone martial arts instructor I once was. Students come into my class with varied motivation; some come to become physically fit, some to learn to defend themselves and some to connect themselves to an unbroken line of an old tradition.

Gong fu

At the end of the school day, I change from my work clothes into stretchy pants and a t-shirt, and make the transformation from Chinese teacher back to the fire-and-brimstone martial arts instructor I once was. Students come into my class with varied motivation; some come to become physically fit, some to learn to defend themselves and some to connect themselves to an unbroken line of an old tradition.

As a martial arts instructor, the movement is your tool to impart certain values unto your students. The most overt one is self-discipline and self-control. Your job as a teacher is to use the tools you have to pull the students’ best selves from the depths of their subconscious. As a student, one grows through introspection and by pushing beyond the one’s limits. We always start class with a seemingly insurmountable warm-up. I’ll say, “everyone do 50 pushups!” or, “stay in this low stance” without telling them when we will stop. This puts each student into a state of deep internal pressure. They can quit at any time, but they know that they will only reap the benefits of what they sow. When it comes to physical prowess, most activity happens in the mind. It is an action meditation of self-expression that no one can do for you. Their movement is the physical embodiment of the mental battle. After warm-ups, we go right into the material, which during this term was a set of movements that mimic the tiger.

gong fu

We do our best to memorize the form and more importantly to internalize the philosophy behind the movements we learn. The tiger movement is tenacious and relentless. It is strong and uncompromising. It doesn’t stop until it reaches its destination, and then plows through it. These are traits that all have their place in our lives. They can all be carried with us like tools. We keep our tools in a box and take them with us, but they don’t always have a place in every situation. That is why we always sit and cleanse ourselves before class with meditation. We quiet our breath and our minds from all of the small trappings of the day and focus on the task at hand. We salute each other before and after class and at the beginning and end of every set of movement we do. This is our respect to our learning, and respect to ourselves to honor the task we are doing. To be fully engaged in our activity is something rarely cultivated in our current generation, but “mono-tasking” is crucial to our abilities in work and our access to joy throughout our lives. Every moment is an opportunity to grow and improve.

gong fu

After we complete the main portion of our practice, we sit down in a circle for what I call “story time.” During this time, we all sit down and I get to tell legends and folklore of the martial arts before giving the task of interpretation of stories to the students. This is the time where I captivate students not as eager to perform movements, because everyone loves stories, and martial arts is for everyone.

We then do another short session of meditation and visualization of what we learned and the application of movements we discuss during class, before we leave the sacred space we have created with our will to learn, and salute each other goodbye and give each other a big round of applause.

gong fu

Each student, I can tell, gains something different from my class. It depends on how the individual student needed to work on himself/herself. What I tried to impart with this movement was that students have an innate capacity for greatness beyond where they are necessarily willing to push themselves on their own. The movement was merely a tool, but now that the form is complete, every student has a set of movement that they can utilize to improve themselves and access that sacred space, that state of mind, that they had when they did it for the first time.

The word kung fu, or gōngfu, (功夫) means hard work for a long time. The character 功 is made up of two main components: gōng (工) — “to work” and (力) – “power.” But 力can then be broken down to dāo (刀) meaning “a knife.” One interpretation of this work is “to sharpen your blade,” which is what we do every time we practice. I hope that I have taught students that gongfu has a place everywhere; not just in the training hall. Gongfu is the mastery of the self through practice. I had a wonderful first term seeing all of my students grow, and I look forward to seeing more growth this fourth term.

gongfu

 

  • After School
  • Upper Division
  • Upper Grades Program
  • Wellness