So, “I don’t want to hear it.” I know it’s a snowy, sleety, cold Tuesday afternoon, but I don’t want to hear it. Unfortunately, this is the prevailing attitude of most martial arts students in general. Truth be told, many claim in their minds to be students, but subconsciously they view themselves as customers. We’ve probably spoken about this before, but it’s worth reiterating. There is a big difference between a martial arts customer/student and a true, dedicated student. The difference is, one says, “I don’t want to hear it,” while the other is ready, willing and able to accept what the instructor has to say. 

The customer/student doesn’t want to hear anything from the instructor other than praise, which eventually rots out the student and makes them unteachable. Because they have paid for the instruction, most of the time the customer/student feels that they are entitled to undue false praise, which I don’t really understand because I was never given praise. Two things happened. Either you got yelled at for not doing it right and Sifu walked away and you had to sit there and figure it out, or he said absolutely nothing and walked away, and you had to sit there and figure it out. That’s the way that we learned. Good or bad, it definitely whittled down the riff raff. I think unfortunately, today, because martial arts is a business, the instructor sometimes has to compromise his standards to a certain degree in order to maintain the student body and pay for all the overhead and expenses of running a martial arts school. The customer/student seems to be hyper sensitive in regards to what they perceive as being negative feedback, and the teacher/instructor almost has to kow-tow to the whims of the customer/student. Otherwise, that customer might say, “I don’t want to hear it,” and go home.

Even though in business terms, a martial art school is perceived as being part of the service industry, in my opinion, it’s not. The true teaching has nothing to do with being a service. In actuality, the student is in the service of the master. This is like when little Johnny goes to elementary school, and the teacher grades him according to his performance. The very next morning, you have the parents knocking on the principal’s door complaining about the bad grade he got, but the bad grade he got was given to him because he deserved it. A teacher who cares doesn’t give a bad grade to make a student feel bad, but to give genuine feedback. What you put in is what you get out. That’s the crucible of Kung Fu. The current position in most people’s minds – and I don’t know when this changed but it did change – is that, “I deserve, therefor you must give what I want, AND I don’t want to hear it.” Most of the time when people “don’t want to hear it,” it’s because they’re hearing the truth. By not accepting the truth, you’re reinforcing the incorrect attitude that because it makes me feel good, it is good and it’s good for me, but it’s not. It’s a bad situation when you create the expectation that someone should be rewarded for not putting in full effort with an open mind to feedback about their performance. It’s not personal; it’s the job of the instructor to keep the student on the straight and narrow.

So, let’s talk about the truth. What is the truth? The truth reminds me of what we have in Chinese medicine or Chinese tea, we call leung cha 涼茶. It’s a medicinal, herbal tea that dissipates heat in the body that may create illness. The words of your instructor or your Sifu or master is just like drinking this herbal tea. It’s dark, bitter and has a pungent yet fragrant odor that most people would not be happy with. The one that you buy in the can in the Chinese supermarket is not really the right herbal tea. It has sugar and other things inside that make it palatable. That’s what people have become accustomed to as far as accepting what is true. They want the truth to be softened with corn syrup so it becomes digestible and no longer has the medicinal qualities of the latter. I understand this, but I also feel it’s detrimental to the growth of the student and the martial arts in general. It becomes an undermining factor, and has no value whatsoever. Consuming true leung cha will help dissipate certain ailments in the body, and though it may not taste good going down, the results over time are highly beneficial. You may remember Mary Poppins saying, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” I say, “Mary, you b****, give it to them straight.” 

John said in the big book, “The truth will set you free.” This is only true if you accept it and hear it. I’m not a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” kind of guy. I’m an “empty the glass” kind of guy, if that makes any sense. That’s what the truth does. The truth cuts and it cuts deep. This is why no one wants to hear it. But you know, once you hear the truth, accept it and digest it, you consume it, it permeates you, and you begin to grow again. It’s all about that acceptance. This is what we all have to do in all aspects of our lives, but particularly in martial art training. By being incapable of accepting the truth, you only hurt yourself. We’re all guilty of it.

In class, if I make a statement, everybody thinks, he’s not talking about me, he’s talking about somebody else. However, the guy that feels he is the most correct is probably the guy that’s the most incorrect. I think we as adults are not as willing to accept the truth about ourselves. Often times, the little kids and the teenagers learn so much quicker than adults because they are more accepting of direction and guidance than adults. It’s the character of the person that needs to be refined in order for their Kung Fu and everything else that they touch to improve. Even though the truth may sting initially, if we’re open to it, then we are able to grow and change. If not, you throw up the hand or you put your fingers in your ears and go, “La la la, I don’t hear you.” That only impedes if not completely retards growth and learning. Accept the teaching; don’t say, “I don’t want to hear it.” I know the truth is hard sometimes, but wouldn’t you rather know where you stand and be able to make inroads towards becoming better as opposed to just having a momentary satisfaction and living in the clouds? You would think, but that’s often not the case. 

Your local take-out place may sell you something that tastes good and makes you happy but isn’t necessarily good for you. That shouldn’t be done for martial arts. You’re not a restaurant, are you? What’s the difference between a massage parlor and a massage therapist? (You know, and if you don’t I can’t help you.) This is not to say that you can’t obtain a happy or good experience in training Kung Fu and martial arts in general, but there’s going to be a side of it that’s not all fun and games. This is where the maturity level comes in. You may say, what do you mean maturity level? I’m X age, I can drive, I can vote. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re mature. Maturity means being able to handle the truth. It doesn’t really have anything to do with our chronological physiology, but our state of mind and character. In the end, Kung Fu is really about that. You can take either road. You can train just for momentary gratification, or for long term personal growth, but one of those roads is a dead end. The other is a mirror into the mind and soul of the individual. It’s a much harder path but ultimately that’s where the growth comes. People go, Wow, I didn’t know I was like that. They don’t like the way they look on the inside. Physical growth, mental growth and spiritual growth can be stimulated externally, but happen internally. You need to have that combination of the internal and external to make yourself grow. The truth being told to you is an external stimuli that if absorbed properly by the right individual can stimulate intellectual and spiritual growth. This can then spill over onto the physical movement. 

So in actually the truth is that leung cha. It’s that vitamin pill, it’s that supplement that you need every once in a while to set you right again. You may have started off right. I always tell the students that their training is a straight line. When you start out, you walk on the line and then you have a deviation, and Sifu says XYZ. Then you try to right it, and then you deviate a little to the left. In the beginning the deviations are great, but then you spend a lot of time with your teacher and the deviations become smaller. This morning my teacher called me and said, it’s snowing; if you have time, why don’t you come over and we’ll train and talk. We had a visit from a Buddhist and fung shui master, and we had a long conversation about this kind of stuff. I’m hearing the same lesson from two different masters of two different ancient Chinese disciplines, both telling me the same thing. I’m hearing the truth in their words and I’m trying my best to take it all in and hold onto it so I can pass it along to my team. 

Through your training, you have to understand how to strike that balance, how to physically, mentally and spiritually lessen the deviations from left to right until you’re walking on the center and you have that balance. That’s something that the individual has to do, but most of the time the student throws up the hand and says, “I don’t want to hear it,” because it’s about turning yourself in on yourself to see yourself and maybe not liking what you see. I may not be super intelligent or the most mature guy in the world, but I’ve learned how to try to accept and try to learn again which is the most difficult thing. Try to learn what? Learning about yourself allows you to learn whatever item you want to learn. Otherwise, you’re so caught up with the knowing that you actually lose the opportunity for learning. You throw up the hand and say, “I don’t want to hear it. You’re popping my bubble.” 

Your state of mind allows you to understand or not understand. That’s what we’re talking about. The state of mind of the individual allows them to accept the truth or not accept the truth. Once you do accept the truth, then you’ll be released and you’ll be able to grow. That’s dictated by the individual. When you put up the hand and say, “I don’t want to hear it,” then all progress grinds to a halt. You have to learn how to be. When the two masters were talking to me about the situations that we were talking about, they were teaching me how to be. This is what we call in Chinese, 式做人sik jo yan. Which literally means, “Be a man.” Know how to conduct yourself, or, in simple terms, grow up! You can’t know how to deal with other people or situations if you don’t know how to deal with yourself. Accepting what your instructor or Sifu has to tell you hopefully will open up different channels in your mind and let you grow so you know how to be as a person, how to treat people and how to treat yourself. So don’t sing the “la la” song. Don’t throw your hands up and stop the learning. Accept what comes to you. We learn and grow every moment of every day.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅