Gong-fu

Last week I wrote some things about noticing how often I am negative, and also about how our methods of speech and thought can trip up even our best efforts toward making changes. I’m still thinking about the complexity and subtlety of our mental lives, how we are made up of so many patterns and pieces and often have such little awareness of what they are and how they affect us. When it comes to what we do and who we are, habits always win — but how conscious are we of all our habits? Sometimes the more habitual a thing is, the more invisible it becomes. We might not even realize that we have any choice about it.

There’s a Chinese word “gong-fu” that applies here. If I use the alternative spelling “kung-fu” it will give some of my readers the wrong idea — in America, kung fu has become the word commonly used for Chinese martial arts. But in Chinese there are different words for martial arts; gong-fu is a broader concept. It refers to any sort of skill or mastery that can only be obtained through practice, over a period of time. One can certainly acquire gong-fu in a martial art, because it takes a long time and a lot of hard work to master those arts. But one can also have gong-fu in many other things.

Our mental patterns develop over time and via our experiences and choices. We learn how to think and act from our infancy, amassing years and years of practice in being “ourselves.” There is gong-fu in this, whether we realize it or not. I find it a terrible irony that every time we think poorly about ourselves, every time we choose not to believe in our abilities and potential, every single time our thoughts boil down to some version of “I’m a no-good nothing and I’ll never be any better,” we are practicing being horrible to ourselves. We practice our doubts and deepen our gong-fu of negativity, deception, and sabotage. If we aim these skills primarily at ourselves rather than other people, it doesn’t make them any less awful.

If there is gong-fu in thinking negatively, then there is also a gong-fu of thinking positively. Encouraging ourselves is a skill that can be acquired through hard work, over a period of time. It involves the daily choices of what to say and what to think, rejecting the old patterns and moving in new ones, whether or not they feel comfortable or seem true. It is not a kind of change that will come all at once, and I for one have too often been discouraged when personal changes didn’t stick as fast or hard as I wanted them to. But it helps to think about this process as one of acquiring gong-fu, because gong-fu only accrues over time and with much repetition. It applies to things that require intention and commitment, to skills and strengths that grow with practice.

I have been studying taijiquan for two years, and through my practice have discovered things that I didn’t even know existed when I began — and even so I know that I am still a beginner with many things to explore. I am a beginner too at thinking positively and learning how to encourage myself. If I keep practicing the gong-fu of thinking well, in two years, five years, ten years, who knows what I will discover?

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