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Small steps of progress

Perseids and stars

Take it in small steps. Don’t run before you can walk. Two steps forward, one step back. In it for the long haul. All useful phrases, especially this week.

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A little red dot ahead


Here’s a quick review of my recent thought processes.

Not so long ago, I decided that I would work one more year and then switch to spending most of my time on training in martial arts while working part-time. Key point: I decided to put my passion above job/financial security. Hmm. Well, these are uncertain times to be doing that but while I was in Wales, I talked to a number of people whom I’ve known for many, many years. I was surprised by how many people wished that they had followed my kind of life. They’d got the houses, and the pension schemes, and the money in the bank – but also the dread of paying the mortgage, hating their job, missed dreams, and infidelities… One conversation I had fell into the realm of tragedy, someone who had ‘done what was expected’ all their life and now felt that it was all for nothing. That person made me realise that following my dreams is the only way to go.

Another insight: while I was in Wales, I realised that (perhaps because I’m getting older), I treasure the sense of being ‘home’. Wales is home: it’s where I’m from. All the more so because of the effort I put into making it my home – I’m not a native speaker of Welsh, so the effort I put into learning it, and becoming a part of the Welsh-language community was real gong fu and ‘eating bitter’, believe me! Singapore is also home, as I realized over the past week. I love the smell of incense in the streets, the ethnic and cultural diversity, the greenery and birdsong. I felt at home from the moment my plane touched down. It was also a chance to re-connect with what I now see is a pretty diverse set of social networks – I know a lot of people in Singapore, particularly now that a large number of my oldest friends from Beijing have moved there! Beijing… I love Beijing, I really do, but it’s not home and never will be. There are great people here, but it’s like a university town on a vast scale; almost no-one is going to put down roots here. In addition, as I commented a short while back, I have this sense that China is starting to close down a little – political control is being stepped up, censorship is increasing, and for someone like me whose professional area is e-commerce and (especially) social media, that’s not good professional news.

One other thing about Beijing – there’s almost no spirituality here, and that lack is becoming more significant for me. In Singapore, I helped out as a volunteer in the kitchens of a Buddhist temple, and loved it. I was told last week that the Abbess and others still ask after me, and you know what – I’d really like to go back. In Singapore I was mixing with Buddhist monks and Daoist spirit mediums. Most people don’t realize just how much is going on behind the scenes in Singapore! In Beijing, there are no Dharma talks, whereas in Singapore I could go to Bright Hill for that.

The big mental breakthrough I had while I was on the flight from Beijing to Singapore was to accept that I’m not going to learn Mandarin. Like I said above, I’ve already gone from nothing to fluency in one language, so I know the time and effort involved in that – and I can’t do it again under current circumstances. I like my job, but it takes a huge amount of my energy; after the last semester ended, I was essentially a zombie for three weeks, and I know that the coming semester is going to be even tougher. Without Mandarin, there are very few alternative jobs, though. In Singapore, even though the economy’s suffering now, there are many more opportunities (including part-time).

As for the topic that most readers here will want to know about… martial arts… what then? Well, as I mentioned before, I would like to master at least one martial art to the level that I can teach. As I’ve frequently written, I’ve been willing to take my time in order to find out what’s right for me. I’ve studied some great styles, and I’m had the great fortune to learn from world-class teachers, including some legends. In the end… I keep coming back to taijiquan. I love bagua. Yiquan absolutely rocks. And yet… when I’ve had some kind of success in an encounter, it’s been because I’ve used a taiji technique. Language is also critical here – I don’t feel that I’ll ever truly master yiquan or bagua, because I can’t understand the fine points that my teachers make in class.

In Singapore, I could study taiji in English. I’ve trained in two schools there, in some depth: Master Rennie Chong teaches the Chen Man Ching style, while Sim Pern Yiau teaches the Wu Tu Nan line of Taijigong. Of the two, the Wu Tu Nan form is actually more what I’m looking for. Probably that’s for a future blog post.

That’s the basis for my decision to move back to Singapore next year. Like everyone else, of course, there are other factors in my life that affect my decisions, and some of these are not for this blog!

Commitment and the future


Robert Twigger’s book, Angry White Pyjamas, is an old favourite of mine. I read, and re-read, it many times back in the period when I was starting to feel stifled in the small mid-Wales town where I spent much of my twenties.

In the book, he relates how he was working as an English teacher in Japan, about to turn thirty, out of shape, and going nowhere fast. His response was to sign up for a year-long intensive Aikido course with the Tokyo riot police, which would get him out of his rut, get him in shape, and qualify him as an instructor. Reading that book – along with watching The Matrix – is probably what got me back into studying taijiquan. It also got me thinking about my own imminent thirtieth birthday, and what was happening in my own life.

A couple of years later, I was in Asia. A lot has happened since then, and I’m now contemplating my fortieth birthday.

Twigger, who now lives in Cairo, has his own blog, and I’ve just read his latest post: How Much Talent Do You Have?. It’s interesting enough, but he stops just when he reaches the most important point:

The main thing is: practise as if your life depends on it. The original impulse to learn is a survival instinct. You learn in order to survive better. Therefore if you can con yourself somehow that your very survival is at stake then you will learn very much faster. One way is to do it intensively, focusing to the exclusion of everything else.

That’s the hard part, though. I was discussing this with S. recently: it’s very difficult to study martial arts and meditation seriously and commit yourself to your job and have a successful romantic relationship. There just isn’t enough time and energy to do them all well. Something’s got to give, and for most people it has to be the martial arts and meditation because they, we, put a very high value on having a job and being part of a couple. It’s very hard indeed to walk away from those.

I had the opportunity to do it, a few years ago. I had a lot of savings and didn’t need to work – but I opted to go back to grad school for my MBA instead.

Still, the idea has popped into my mind again. As I’ve mentioned, I have been doing a bit of research out in the Chinese countryside, looking into how mobile phones and the internet could be used to help rural development. However, though I set out to see if we geeks could help the farmers become more like us, I find myself wondering whether we shouldn’t be seeking to become more like them. After all, they can feed themselves, and if the internet vanished tomorrow, it wouldn’t hurt them: they have the skills to survive. I, on the other hand, would be screwed. I’m an e-commerce guy; what other valuable skills do I have that could be traded for food and shelter once peak oil arrives, and the internet has to compete with other essential energy needs? Fortunately, the day won’t come for a while yet, so I have time to prepare.

I’m thinking, as a result, of emulating Twigger. I could work one more year, save more money, and then switch to part-time work that would cover food and rent. Then, I could spend a year training hard, almost full-time, in yiquan, baguazhang, qigong and Chan meditation. The aim would be to be qualified to teach by the end of that year. I could also get some basic grounding in TCM. I wonder if anyone would pay me to write a book about it…

I haz teh dumb


That kind of sums up how I’ve been feeling lately. Definitely discouraged. Part of the reason I moved to Beijing was to experience the martial arts culture, and to meet great teachers… and I have – but I’ve had so little spare time to train that my practice of martial arts and meditation has gone completely down the drain. That wasn’t part of the plan! The last few weeks have been the worst – end of semester fatigue really drained my energy levels, and the rain has made training even more difficult.

Last weekend was really lousy. I went to meet Master Sun Zhijun for pan guan bi class, and really, I might as well not have gone. In fact, it would have been better if I’d cancelled. I was just so tired I couldn’t get anything right. It was very frustrating. On Sunday, I was still feeling bad, and I didn’t want to have the same experience with Master Sun Ru Xian. I cycled over to his apartment as usual, chatted for a while with him, Rene, and a friend of his who was hanging out shooting the breeze, and arranged to move the class to Tuesday, ie today.

I used the time this freed up to do some paperwork, and then headed downtown – and this time, I got stopped, and had my bag scanned…. I didn’t have the pan guan bi with me on that occasion – I wonder what would have happened if I had…

This is the last week of the semester, and things are starting to fall into place again. I’ve got no teaching, as it’s exam week. I spent much of yesterday sleeping, which has helped things a lot!

I was up at 5am this morning, and met Master Sun at 6. We trained in next to a river near his home, a really great location with lots of trees. Other people were in the vicinity, training taiji double fan, sword, and other styles. We worked on the ba da zhang; I’ve almost got it now, and by the end of the week I should be ready to start working on the details. Tomorrow, I’ll meet him again at the same time, and we’ll work on the first two sequences of the linear 64-palm set. He told me today that he’s there every day, and I’m welcome to train with him whenever I want; it’s all to be considered part of the deal. Cool. Very cool. This is going to help a lot, I think. So far I’ve only been meeting on Sunday mornings, and by it’s already very hot by the time we get started, so it’s not always very productive.

Phew. All of this leads up to a bit of decision-making. I’m about to start a month and a half of vacation, of which two weeks must be in Singapore. How do I pass the time…?

Basically, I need to spend a lot of time preparing next semester’s lessons. I had no opportunity to do this before last semester, so I was constantly in a crazy rush. Preparation now means more time to meditate and practice martial arts once the next semester begins.

In addition, if I can get some freelance work over the summer, it will bring in some cash that I can add to my buffer; that means the insecure nature of this kind of work will give me fewer sleepless nights next semester…

This all says: stay in Beijing. I would love to go to Korea…. but it’s just the wrong time to go on retreat for three weeks. My practice is still too weak to benefit from that, and the opportunity cost is too high.

This does also mean, of course, that I will be able to follow my original plan, and take the yiquan course. I’ll call Master Yao Chengguang later today.

OK, decision made…

Be careful what you wish for…


… you might get it. So the old saying goes, and wow, it’s just hit me…

Up until this morning, this post would have read as follows:

The good news: my contract’s been renewed. Even better, it will begin at the start of September, rather than October, as I’d previously thought. That’s good, because it’s a whole month that I won’t need to live off my not-so-substantial savings… I won’t have to live like a monk due to poverty 😉 I’ll be able to do the month-long yiquan course, go back to Singapore to sort my things out there, and then come back to teach…

… but on the other hand, it means that I won’t be able to live like a month through choice! I had been planning to spend September going to a couple of temples in Korea, and passing a couple of weeks on retreat.

However….this morning, I opened up my inbox to find two significant emails:

  1. One opening up the possibility of freelance work, that potentially could earn a (for me) substantial amount of USD. It would need a lot of my time over the summer.
  2. A request for help from a temple in Korea that would let me stay on retreat free of charge for several weeks, plus would establish a substantial connection with the abbot. This would take up most of my free time over the summer.

I don’t think I can do both. If I do the first, I can still do the yiquan course. If I do the second, I could perhaps still do one or two weeks of full-time yiquan training.


Do I choose money or karma?

Disclaimer: of course, it’s possible that one or both opportunities could fall through, especially if I faff about and dither…..