When mitts come flying at your face, there really aren’t that many options:
You can move, you can block, or you can get hit.
Last Friday, I did a lot of all three.
Two days on — more than 48 hours, almost closer to 72 — I still feel the ache. The strain in my muscles, yes, but mostly the ache of my heart.
Get under that hook! Get under! Don’t just block it, go under!
Go under, I said. Yes, go under. He’s much taller than you. Go under.
The hook came.
I threw up the block. I didn’t go under.
The hook came again.
And the block came out.
Again, and again, and again.
And then I stopped.
The people watching said it was like someone flipped a switch.
I was going hard and fast, and then I just … wasn’t. I dropped.
I realize in retrospect: by that point, I was no longer really seeing. The color spectrum had collapsed, everything was in a washed out stage of gray.
In the moment, though, I wasn’t fatigued. My muscles, my arms, my legs — it was all fine. They were firing just fine. They weren’t tired.
My brain wasn’t tired. I knew where I was, I knew what was happening, I knew what I was being asked to do, and I was present in the moment.
But my heart …
Ah, my heart — the muscles of it, the fibres of it — my heart was screaming at me to stop.
Keep going, keep going, go-go-go-go-go.
I don’t know what my pulse got up to; all I know is, it was high. Dangerously high.
I don’t know how low my blood pressure got; all I know is, J couldn’t find my pulse when I sat down.
But in that moment, I didn’t know that.
In the moment, all I knew is that I needed to stop.
And in the hours that followed …
That was all I could think about.
Did I stop too early?
Did I quit?
Could I have done more?
Why did I let myself stop?
Where was my willpower?
Am I really so weak mentally, that I couldn’t push through?
It’s the same set of questions I’ve asked after every belt test, but this time, it felt like so much more.
Could I have gone harder? Taken fewer breaks? Not had to stop so early into the warm-up, not had to stop during the get-ups? Done more monkey crawls? Held that plank longer?
And then there was the sparring …
My greatest fear, underneath it all, was that I was lying — and worse, that I had got away with it.
I feared that I am so good at toeing the line, of bringing in enough truth to be believable, that I don’t push to the level I know I can push to …
That I could do more, be better, push harder …
But because I don’t have to … I don’t.
I let myself off the hook.
I don’t push myself to the point where I could fail …
Because (the story goes) having others see me fail would be worse than letting myself down, again.
Of course, when I buy into that story, I create the very thing I fear most.
I create failure: failure, in my head, to do all I could.
Failure, in my head, to put in all the work.
Failure, in my head, to push past the discomfort.
Failure, in my head, to go until my muscles failed me.
But then, my heart is a muscle …
And it’s one that I really don’t want to fail me …
I coughed for hours, that night.
The deep bronchial cough of someone who has pushed their body too hard.
And I wrestled.
I wrestled with myself.
I Googled endlessly, to try to find the answers.
How bad was it, really? How hard had I pushed, really?
But the answers to those kinds of questions, of course, aren’t found in Google.
They can’t be.
Because when we’re talking about questions of identity — of who I am, and what I am capable up, no algorithm can give me the peace of mind …
The peace of heart …
I am looking for.
Am I a liar, who fronted that I had pushed as I could?
Or am I simply still so disconnected from my body that I didn’t read the signs.
I didn’t hear my heart telling me that I was pushing too hard until it started screaming.
And then, so disconnected that I didn’t believe the signs even having received them?
Maybe, though, is there a different answer. A different identity. A different becoming.
Am I, maybe, simply becoming a martial artist?
Gong Fu, according to our Sifu, is about the practice of mastering ourselves.
It’s a practice.
And as I meditated this morning, it occurred to me that the true heart of Gong Fu is the same as the true heart of meditation.
Because in meditation, the practice isn’t to be present. The practice is in bringing yourself back to presence, every time you realize you have not been.
And so it is in Gong Fu.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I could have pushed harder.
(And I’m coming to accept that I probably couldn’t have— that pushing harder would most likely have had very dangerous consequences)
That wasn’t the lesson of this test.
This test wasn’t about failure, or about getting back up, or about stopping too early, or about going as hard as I could.
This test was about my willingness to be a martial artist.
About my commitment to Gong Fu.
Because now, having seen my limitations and having stared them in the face, I realize I have a choice:
I can be the person who does martial arts a few times a week for exercise and for fun …
And who waits for the next belt test to push herself to the edge of risk, not knowing where the line really is; not knowing how much I am and am not capable of, and judging myself for a perceived failure to keep going …
Or I can choose to be the martial artist.
To take on the practice of looking at where I am limited, and not to judge that part of me — not to judge myself for needing to stop, not to judge my heart for being ‘weak’, not to judge myself for not pushing through …
And then to listen to all of those parts, and what they are telling me.
What they have to teach me.
And so the call, the lesson, the metaphor if you will from this experience is simple:
To make this my daily practice:
To listen to the body, and to the heart, and to work with them to create new levels of strength and ability.
To let the practice of the martial art — the practice of Gong Fu — reach outside of the dojo and outside of the training sessions, to strengthen my heart physically and emotionally and in all the other ways.
Because where heart-as-muscle meets heart-as-drive, that’s the gateway to another level of transformation. To unlocking what could yet prove to become my greatest strength.
Because that is the meaning of being a martial artist.
That is the heart of Gong Fu.