Monthly Archives: September 2010

Fear and balance and kiai

Let’s start with a short anecdote about synchronicity. The other day I went to the Yashow Market on Gongti Beilu. This used to be one of the main places for selling fake designer clothing, although the lawyers have pretty much shut that down; these days, its focus is on cheap clothes, silks, and tailoring. I was there for the latter. I spent some time going around the various tailors, looking for materials and good prices. Eventually I found somewhere I was happy with, and started negotiating a price for a package of suits and jackets. I got offered a price that I actually thought was pretty reasonable – and yet, there’s always the suspicion that as a foreigner you’re paying over the odds. I found myself wishing that I’d brought a Chinese friend along; in fact, I was thinking of a friend and ex-colleague who now lives in Singapore, but who was always a great fixer and excellent at getting the best price.

Imagine my surprise when, as I stood there mulling over the price on offer, that same friend walked into the tailor shop! I didn’t know she was coming back to Beijing for a couple of weeks; she thought I had already left (when we last spoke, I was planning to leave mid-September on the Trans-Siberian railway, but my illness and reports of radioactive smoke changed all that). She had come to buy shirts for her husband, and apparently has used this tailor for years, though I never knew that. But what are the odds of her walking into that tailor’s, just at the moment that I was wishing she was there? (The price I’d been given turned out to be a pretty good one, although she advised me to press for a couple of shirts to be thrown in as well).

Heh. Well, on to other matters. I was cycling home last night, approaching a T-junction, where I needed to make a right turn (we drive on the right in China, if you don’t know). As I approached the corner, a car came around it – not just on my side of the road, but actually in the cycle lane. There wasn’t enough space left to swing out around it, and my brakes are fairly soft (even though it’s a brand new bike, long story). This is it, I thought, this bastard’s going to hit me straight on. I was saved because the driver stopped abruptly; not to avoid hitting me – I don’t think he’d even noticed me – but because he was parking. (Beijing drivers consider “cycle lane” to be a synonym for “free parking”). This left me enough space to get around him, though even so I scraped along the side of the car. Of course, I was terrified, which rapidly turned to anger. This morning when I woke up, I was still furious, and even now I still have a tension in my chest and jaw. I mention this because it demonstrates vividly the principle I learned from the meditation retreats I’ve been on – strong emotions have physical symptoms; these symptoms are stored in the body even after the conscious mind has moved on. They accumulate, and influence our future behaviour unconsciously. Meditation can clear them out, though… I do need to get a meditation routine settled after I get back to Wales…

Autumn is arriving in Beijing, and the last few days have brought cool weather and rain. The latter seems to have made the pedestrians even less aware of their surroundings.. I was cycling up to the university and on one trip two separate people stepped out into the cycle lane right in front of me, without looking first. Because of the weather I was wearing a rain cape, which completely muffles my bell. Instead, I had to shout, a wordless ‘hoy’ of warning. For whatever reason, these were perfect, coming directly from the dantian, and setting the whole ribcage vibrating. On both occasions, the pedestrian stopped dead, and a collision was avoided. What I found interesting was the difference between the kiai and the bell. I think I’ve mentioned previously that because this situation happens so often, I bought a very loud bell. When I ring it to alert a pedestrian that they’ve just walked in front of a fast-moving bicycle, it clearly focuses their attention; they look around rapidly and step back out of the way. The kiai, in contrast, seems to stun them – both of the guys who stepped in front of my simply froze; their eyes went out of focus, and they didn’t turn their heads as I went around them. There must be a reason for this, but I don’t know it.

(I realize that this is a lot of bicycle stories for one post! In case you are wondering, it’s not just me – I’ve compared notes with a lot of other cyclists, and each of us has a fund of horror stories about cars and pedestrians….)

Because of the weather, I wore my cowboy boots for the first time since the spring. I’ve been wearing Vibram Five Fingers shoes pretty much exclusively all summer, and I’ve gotten very used to that ‘natural’ walking posture. Putting on the boots, I really had difficulty adapting back to the posture needed to walk with heels. It’s the same when I wear ‘normal’ trainers as well. I feel really unstable and off-balance. It’s very disconcerting, and makes me conscious of how un-natural everyday shoes are….

Thoughts on leaving


Well, the best-laid plans, and all that…

The cold turned into a really nasty infection of chest and ears, and laid me up in bed for week… and kept me at half-speed for another week… and even now, after three weeks and two courses of antibiotics, I still have a dry cough and persistent ‘elevator ear’ with occasional stabbing pains. I’ve now been put on a TCM course that involves some liquorice-flavoured potion, and pills that smell just like black mould. Yuk!

As a result, I haven’t been to training at all; Yao Lao Shi probably thinks I’ve already left China. I’ll try to get there this weekend for a couple of sessions.

Other than that, well, I’m down to the last things. I’m still sorting out things at work so that my leaving doesn’t leave them high and dry. Most of my things have shipped. Sadly, I can’t take curved swords back, so I’ve had to find a temporary home for my sabres and shashkas. Once I get to Wales, I need to join a martial arts club that has insurance – after which, I CAN bring them in…

What else… the usual leaving-China kind of activities: going to the Yashow market to get suits made, buying gifts, apartment-clearing, etc etc. I’ve cycled along Chang’ An Avenue a few times recently, past the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square… beautiful… it’s driven it home that it’ll be a wrench to leave – there’s not much like that in Wales! In fact, I’m going to have to watch out for that; it’ll be a major culture shock to move from Beijing (an imperial city for a thousand years) and Singapore (cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic entrepot port) to a small, rain-drenched peninsula on the far end of Europe… Looking back, though, I won’t regret anything.

In fact, I’m ready to leave. The time is right, I think. I’ve been told it by fortune-tellers, and it also feels right in my gut. Big change is coming, I am convinced. WIth the IMF warning of mass unrest, peak oil/water/food all threatening, trade wars on the horizon…. it’s time to get back to my phyles and learning green wizardry… (I’m thinking of training in blacksmithing – and maybe swordsmithing – in my spare time once I get back….)

As for martial arts, that’s going to be interesting. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few weeks, and especially about a really interesting conversation I had with Pern Yiau while I was in Singapore.

I’ll have to write about this more after I’m back and settled. I’ve been looking for something, and not quite found it; this isn’t surprising, since both I and the world have changed a great deal over the last eight years, and inevitably, that’s affected what’s ‘right’ for me.

In brief, I’ve had this lingering feeling that there must be something out there that boosts the full range of human potential – that develops health, and creativity, and fighting ability, and mental development, and community… Pretty ambitious, eh?

Thing is though, I keep coming back to look at systema… I’ve mentioned before that the first time I ever saw it, a YouTube clip of Vladimir Vasiliev, I immediately thought “Wow, that’s what I’ve always been looking for” – the movements, wave energy, group work… yeah, I want that. The breathing exercises, and mental/philosophical approach? Yeah… There’s the link with Cossack dancing, shown in the “Go Warrior” clips on YouTube, likewise the Siberian Cossack clips that show how it can be integrated with community dance and singing… There’s the clear overlap with theatre and the improvisation exercises of Stanislavski and Chekhov… There’s a range of human experience involved here that I really don’t see in other martial arts – by which I don’t mean in any way to denigrate any other art, but *this* really seems to tick the boxes of everything I’m looking for. In Wales, I can train systema – and thank you, Jiang, for the link to your school in London; I see that they run Saturday classes, and I can get there easily by train… so see you there? Plus, as Carlos mentioned, it’s cheap to fly to Moscow from the UK… All of this very much softens the leaving of Asia.

(I’ve found a lot of good material about systema on this Ukrainian site; some of the FAQs about the theory and philosophy of systema make a whole lot of sense).

Eight days from now, I’ll be back on Welsh soil. I already have a car sorted out. I’ve narrowed down my search for somewhere to live to three houses in a village by the sea. The wheel has turned full circle, and a new cycle begins…