We were doing some boxing drills. My training partner was leading the class. He was shirtless and covered in sweat. He was a boxer, lean, cut and super fit. I felt old and beaten next to him but he was unhappy. 'Fit for what?' he said...
My mate T. had been training hours and hours every day, six days a week for the last few years. He felt his whole life was lived in the run down basement that was his boxing gym. His students came and went, he no longer fought professionally or at amateur level in the ring, ('there's only so many head shots a person can take' he said). He'd got to that point of not knowing what the point actually was anymore.
How we practise
Then there were two other colleagues. One had excelled in all types of full contact fighting, another had excelled in yoga, travelling the world demonstrating extreme, gymnastic-like postures. Both had achieved incredible levels of skill and achievement. Both now in their 50's, one suffered from early onset dementia and another from disintegrating joints throughout his body and was due a hip replacement.
It raised some interesting questions. Why do we train or practise? And, how should we practise? Does virtuosity bring deeper insight?
Our motivations for being good at something vary wildly, no matter whether boxing, yoga or another pursuit. We strive to be the best, to challenge and test ourselves. It can be for more energy, for well being, staving off the ageing process or sheer vanity. Culturally we are taught that virtuosity brings a greater level of freedom and insight.
A few years back I attended an intensive training session with my Chinese teacher, Sifu Wong. Here was my chance, a real, old Chinese Master. During a lunch break, I gathered the courage to ask a fundamental question.
'After all your years of training, (he was in his late sixties), what did he see as the ultimate purpose of practise?'
He paused in his eating and said, 'truth,' then went back to his dim sum. I looked at him quizzically and sipped at my tea.
I've thought about this response a lot over the years. I think Sifu Wong is saying, although we practise for many reasons, ultimately, it is to find connection between ourselves and the greater whole. Practise should be taken as a journey over a lifetime. By turning up everyday and doing the work we reconnect to a fundamental shared humanity.
Striving to be the most flexible, the strongest, the best fighter or have the most beautiful technique can become vanity exercises; virtuosity for virtuosity's sake. Yet paradoxically, virtuosity can free us from the struggle with ourselves and the mechanics of the body. It can enable the freedom and lightness that brings a state of connectedness, peace and grace, however fleeting.
Practise over a lifetime
Taking a 'practise over a lifetime' approach changes our focus back to a simple quest that staying healthy makes us a better human. It helps us recognise that our motivation changes over time from the simple quest of our youth to be the 'best', to a deeper contemplation.
It means having a level of acceptance, that its okay, if life sometimes gets in the way. The struggle is part of the process, however painful. acceptance is understanding that rest, recovery and time with family and friends are an equal part of practise thats sits with doing the hard, grinding stuff of daily work.
It means that we should recognise the boundary between consistent daily practise and over training. It means we set practise benchmarks. These act as thresholds and if we find ourselves slipping into a place of avoidance and stress then we know to act. It means achieving a level of awareness about our bodies to avoid long-term damage and importantly, so our practise doesn't become a vanity project. Its the eye of the paradox, strive in your practise but don't over practise.
Get back on the mat, get back in the training hall, the ring, get back to the page but with the right motivation.
Turn up every day, breath, and keep doing the work.
I think that's what Sifu Wong was saying.