As I’m standing here watching the torrential downpour in the Chinatown streets, I started thinking about training, and how sometimes we have the problem of our eyes being too big for our stomach 眼睛要大到胃. What I mean by that is although you may want to consume as much technical knowledge as possible, you can only digest so much at any one given point in time. What many practitioners and beginning students don’t understand is that sometimes backing off may be one of the best things you could ever do. Because no matter how hard you cram it in, it’s not going to permeate into your overall depth and understanding. It has to be given time. 

This is very much akin to having been given a beautiful plant as a gift. You love it and you cherish it, and you want to care for it so much that you start to over-water it, thereby killing it, because you never let it grow. Sometimes, you let things grow by doing nothing and letting them permeate into your understanding. To this day, when my Sifu teaches me something new or a variation on something we’ve done, it takes me time to catch up with it. Initially, you can follow along, but it’s purely just following along. You haven’t digested the material into your subconscious. It hasn’t become part of your martial understanding. You can practice it as much as you want, but it’s still going to take time. You’re not going to be able to force the issue and have it become something until you’re ready. Coming back to that beautiful plant that you have in your office or your home, you can’t pull it up by the roots and make it grow faster. It’s going to grow as its going to grow when it’s going to grow. You just have to leave it alone. 

This is hard, because human nature, for the most part, doesn’t allow us to have enough peace of mind or believe enough in the process (see previous blog on being part of the process). We end up ruining or hurting the process of learning by not allowing ourselves the given time. Coming back to training, I distinctly remember training with my Sifu and learning some wonderful techniques and movements and desperately wanting to catch them and desperately wanting to be able to utilize and apply them. In fact, I trained so hard several times that I ended up hurting myself. From this experience, you understand that you have to stop. This is like when you’re driving. If you see a yellow light, it means start to slow down. If you see a red light it means full stop. When the green light turns then you may proceed. Everyone has to follow these rules. If you exceed the speed limit or blow through red lights, you’re going to end up hurting yourself. You have to understand how to train. It’s not enough to train like a demon all day long. Kung Fu takes time. 

In that essence, Kung Fu is like bo tong 煲汤, a soup for protection of your health that the Cantonese are famous for making. Bo tong is made from pork bones that have to be cooked and boiled for a long period of time with many different ingredients. It has to sit there to distill the essence of those ingredients. You can’t microwave it. The same thing is true with your Kung Fu. It’s a slow process, and sometimes you have to make a full on stop and leave it alone to let it digest internally, mentally, physically and spiritually until you’re able to come full circle and bring it back out again. That takes a little bit of patience. You don’t really understand that in the beginning of your training. You have to go through a long period of time before you understand that you can’t have it today. 

I have a student who is learning a spear form. She’s learned the spear before and has some experience, but she’s learning this new spear form that has a lot of variations of movements and she’s encountering a lot of frustration. The frustration is not with the spear form; it’s with the approach of the individual and their learning. Sometimes, you just have to stop and let it grow. Work on one piece, one section again and again and again, and then back off and come back to it later. This is no different than the process that a writer would go through in writing a story or a painter would go through in painting a picture, or a martial artist goes through learning his technique or performing his weapon. We all have to take a step back, stop and sometimes even walk away. You think, “No, no, no, if I keep going, if I keep painting, writing, singing, dancing, whatever art form you want to do (because Kung Fu is an art) it will get better.” But it doesn’t. Instead, you’re going to end up breaking it. 

Here’s another good analogy in just stopping and letting it grow. I can remember when my Sifu was training me to do iron palm training. I would train pretty diligently, and I was consumed by it like everybody else because of the mystique of attaining this kind of a skill. At one point, I was training really hard every day, breaking bricks one after another until there was a big pile of bricks behind me. (Please don’t make the joke that bricks and boards don’t hit back.) My Sifu was watching me and he said, “Stop.” I said, “But Sifu, I have to train.” He said, “Stop, you broke one, you broke two, now you broke three. Stop.” I just looked at him, and he said, “Stop, that’s enough. You’re going to break your hand.” You can’t become so overconsumed with trying to capture something when it’s not ready. At some point you just have to stop, leave it alone, walk away, let it grow and come back to it. And you know what? I took his advice; I stopped, and I didn’t come back to it for quite some time. Now, every once in a while, I play the iron palm bag and break a few bricks. Then I walk away. I’m no longer consumed by the idea of trying to capture this mysterious power. 

The other day, I asked the class, “What’s your favorite drink?” and I got a whole bunch of answers. One guy said whiskey, and another guy said cold brew coffee, and somebody else said chocolate milk and we all laughed. They’re all great drinks, but you can overdo it. You can definitely overdo whiskey. You can also O.D. on chocolate milk to the point that you’re disgusted by it, and it’s no longer your favorite drink. So, how do you maintain that balance within your training and keep that affinity and that affection for it? You have to take a few steps back and sometimes even stop altogether. I’m not advocating quitting or not practicing. But by overdoing it, you actually destroy your ability to learn and digest, and your skill actually becomes less. There’s a fine line of how to practice. If you oversharpen the knife, you destroy the blade. That’s the real important part of stopping and letting it grow. When you’re hot on top of the subject, you can no longer see clearly. By stopping and walking away, and coming back to it two, three days or a week later, you’re able to look at it with fresh eyes. 

Another great analogy would be when you’re having an argument or a heated discussion with somebody – politics, religion, whatever. In the heat of the moment, in the heat of passion, you say and do things that maybe shouldn’t be said or done. Then, with hindsight, you look back and you wonder why you said or did that. You think, I should have just kept quiet or walked away. I could have handled it a different way. When you’re calm and cool and slightly dispassionate about the subject you can look at it more appropriately and make better judgments. This is the same type of attitude you have to have about your training. Overdoing something, even when it’s a good thing, doesn’t mean it’s going to grow any faster. You’re going to end up hurting yourself. I was watering the plant the other day and I saw that all the water was getting soaked up by the soil. I wanted to water it more, but I had to stop. I said to myself, you’ve done this before; you’ve overwatered the plant, and you came back the next day and saw the leaves were yellow. I knew this was my fault for not doing it right. 

It’s the same thing with training. I was training with my Sifu yesterday. We were going over something that I learned 20 plus years ago, and he was making refinements. I found myself saying, “Sifu, enough. I only want to do these two sections; I don’t want to do another piece.” In the past, I would never say this, but now I know when I’ve reached the max that I can digest. I need several days to internalize this before I can come back and work at it again. This is a level of maturity that the Kung Fu practitioner has to reach within himself and cannot be taught to you by someone else. You must discover this by practicing. You can practice every day, but you don’t have to max yourself out. If you take a day or two off, you don’t have to feel guilty. As long as you’re genuine in your practice, you’ll return to it. 

Sometimes, you have to back off because you’ve done it so much you can’t taste it anymore. You have to control your heart. If you say, “I want this, that and the other thing,” you’re not doing a service to yourself, to the item that you’re learning, nor to the art of Kung Fu. Just because you can get it, doesn’t mean that you should. You may not be ready yet. That’s another reason why you have to stop and let it grow because you don’t have the capacity at this point in time to appreciate the value of what you’re learning. Your mental processes need time to digest information. You’re training your brain like a muscle, how to absorb. And the mind, just like any muscle, needs a day of rest. Your mental process is inextricably tied to your physical ability. If you’re not able to adjust and grow your mental process, the physical process is not going to happen. Don’t let it go; let it grow. Let it grow by doing nothing.