Many years ago I read a book my mum had bought or otherwise acquired, called Clearing Sacred Space with Feng Shui. It was very pink and from memory, had some flower petals and a brass bell on the front cover – not exactly what you’d think a teenager obsessed with military history would find interesting. But I was already shedding my belief in Christianity and have always had a spiritual nature, so I picked it up and began reading. In a sense, what I read germinated everything I’m writing now.
The book was my first introduction to what you might call ‘New Age’ concepts, describing how to raise the energy in living environments so that they impact positively on your well-being and on the various spheres of your life. These days this concept no longer raises eyebrows, even if many people still don’t believe it, but in the late 90s when I first read this, feng shui was only just taking off – most people mispronouncing it ‘feng shoo-ee’ – and it was considered pretty out there; in the same kooky boat as Tarot cards and chakra cleansing. Yet I not only grasped the concept immediately; I knew that it was true. On a practical level, I’d always been acutely aware of the draining effect of clutter and poor organization – and, conversely, the uplifting qualities of tastefully, practically and spaciously arranged living areas.
Fast-forward a decade and we’re at New Year’s Eve, 2010. 2010 was probably the most pointless year of my life. Nothing changed, even though I really wanted it to. I wanted a more rewarding, better-paid job, but barely even got any interviews. I wanted a girlfriend, but didn’t meet any girls with that sort of potential. After writing off my first car during the one month it was uninsured, my new one turned to be a complete piece of junk, draining me of hundreds of dollars and endowing me with a powerful desire to murder car dealers. Not to speak of the pain (financial as well as physical) of tattoo removal, topped off by my general disillusionment with Melbourne’s bar scene and the same old drink/talk-shit routine of Saturday night.
So I knew when 2010 wrapped up that spiritually and psychologically I couldn’t afford a repeat of it, but at the same time I realized that the change had to come from myself – that you can’t just go through life wanting, hoping and expecting. The hard truth is that the Universe doesn’t give a shit how desperate you are and if anything, that sort of desperation only destabilizes your ability to tune in to the forces that Make Stuff Happen. In other words, to make stuff happen, you have to begin with yourself.
Though it took me a few more months, probably the most tangible fruit of this mindset is that I began attending Buddhist meditation classes and kung fu lessons – and they’re two of the best things I’ve done in a very long time. All of a sudden, the absence of a new job or partner in my life didn’t matter as much. I felt more energized and didn’t need things outside of me to happen to feel that good energy – it came from myself, from being active, from committing that one hour a day, two or three times a week, to Moving the Body and Stilling the Mind – when all too often, in the West, we’re incessantly moving the mind while the body sits stagnant. Then we wonder why we can’t sleep, why even the smallest obstacles stress us out, why we can’t focus on the smallest tasks – and why we can’t manifest. It’s interesting to realize, literally just as I’ve been writing the above, that I finally got that new, better-paid job less than a month after starting the meditation/kung fu.
Only a couple of weeks after I started, I was amazed at myself that I hadn’t done this earlier. I’d been reading about meditation for years – about five years ago I listened to Wayne Dyer’s Manifesting Your Destiny, a set of lectures that prescribed regular meditation to its listeners; a couple of years later I lapped up Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a book entirely focussed on how and why one should practice zazen. But as is so often the case, I guess, it took a crisis – hitting a level of desperation about where my life was going, or rather why it wasn’t going anywhere – that pushed me into not just reading and listening to this stuff, but actually practising it.
Similarly with martial arts. My first favourite ‘adult’ movie was Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, a biopic about the most famous and influential martial artist in history. I read Fighting Spirit, an excellent biography of Bruce Lee, several times as a teenager, relishing in particular the final section of the book, which examined Bruce Lee’s personal philosophy of life and well-being. Again though, it took the crisis for me to make that leap from cerebral absorption to physical emulation. And as with meditation, I’m very glad that I did.
I’m not gonna deny it’s difficult to make this leap at first. As Westerners in the 21st century, we’re constantly bombarded with movies and music and billboards and crowds and alcohol. We get a genuine adrenaline rush from watching the latest Jason Bourne movie or playing the latest GTA. We get a tangible cosy feeling watching Barney playfully tease Ted in that familiar booth in that familiar bar in How I Met Your Mother. Warm evenings like we’re having now must be spent drinking schooners of Hoegaarden in some hip bar on a graffiti’d side street, with hundreds of other people who feel the same compulsion. Yet we’re not actually doing anything in any of these scenarios. We’re just sitting. And this attitude of sitting as doing – whether it’s watching, playing, drinking – extends to reading. Reading a book about meditation is actually pretty damn useless unless you end up doing some meditation. Watching martial arts films is all well and good, but if it gives you such a kick (no pun intended), why not try martial arts itself?
For so long I made the same wrong assumption most of us make: I was already tired much of the time – tired from work, from shopping, from social and family obligations, whatever – and I simply didn’t have energy to spare, certainly not on activity as intensive as push-ups and star jumps and shadow-boxing. It would only tire me out more, deplete me of my very last kilojoule reserves – right? Wrong. As all fitness junkies know (and we who wonder how they’ve got so much energy don’t) is that the opposite is true. By engaging in exercise, you get energy – or ch’i, as it’s called in Chinese – moving around the body. Just as you need to Still Your Mind to settle the blinding ink of negative emotion, so you need to Move Your Body to shake around the ink of positive energy. People are exhausted after long days sitting in the office or at uni lectures or on long flights because they’ve just been sitting there. Still water stagnates and becomes heavy; flowing water remains fresh and dynamic.
Before I was ready for the MA-rated violence of something like Dragon, one of my favourite movies was the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Watching it as an adult for the first time last year, I could still see – despite its surface silliness, revolving as it does around four human-sized, English-speaking, pizza-guzzling turtles – that the movie is quite deep and dark, with distinct Buddhist undertones. In one moving scene, Splinter says to Raphael in words whose simple beauty and depth put many adult movies to shame:
My Master Yoshi’s first rule was: Possess the right thinking – only then will you possess the gifts of strength, knowledge and peace. I have tried to channel your anger, Raphael, but more remains. Anger clouds the mind; turned inward it is an unconquerable enemy. For you are unique among your brothers because you choose to face this enemy alone. As you face it, do not forget them and do not forget me… I am here, my son.
Splinter personifies Buddhism in the movie – the wise ancient force that guides the four young, brash turtles, instilling the necessary discipline and moral intuition necessary for maturity. We all need a Splinter in our lives. It’s all too easy in such a noisy, demanding and atomized world to become miserable, frustrated and run-down. But the moment that black inks starts squirting into your mind, it’s essential to identify it, to observe what’s happening, and rather than shake it up with aggravating hateful and resentful thoughts, to let it settle until the mind is clear and calm once more. It helps, of course, to visualize a counter-force, which is why we have religion and why people call on Jesus, Krishna, Allah, the Archangel Gabriel or whatever. Me, I think of Splinter 🙂
If Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was one of my favourite childhood movies, one of my favourite teenage ones was the Street Fighter II animated movie – like TMNT, a movie that went deeper than one might credit given it’s based on a video game. Its first depiction of Ryu, the main all-round good guy of the video game, shows him meditating on top of a mountain peak in the Himalayas, gathering his ch’i, then letting it burst out in a brilliant surge of energy… only to return to his former contemplative position to patiently muster it again. Part of me feels cheesey using this as an analogy but it’s a genuinely inspiring scene, and together with flashbacks to his training at a remote Japanese dojo, encapsulates the inherently dignified, internal and peaceful nature of martial arts and its necessary fusion with meditative practice.
To wrap up: we all know that old adage of turn off your TV and go read a book. I applaud that, but I’d go one step further: put down the book and sign up for a fitness class – martial arts, tai chi, yoga, gym, whatever takes your fancy. The point is to give the mind, which is always thinking What should I say at that meeting? Who do I have to call back again? How do I look? What are all these e-mail notifications? a much-needed rest – and a great way to suspend the mind is to activate the body. It’s almost impossible to stress about your overdrawn credit card or your boss’s criticism when you’re skipping rope or kicking pads. You’re completely in the moment. When you’re kicking pads, your focus is on channeling ch’i up from your leg through your waist and down your arm into your fist, and that’s a beautiful thing – simple, pure. After that hour, you feel far more sure of yourself – your mind has ceased to question why? and when? and how? and just accepts that whatever is, is, and that your situation will evolve and resolve in due course. No point in worrying… just be and let be.