Zen and the art of learning

The physical: that one’s obvious. The mental: that ability to know where your limit is, and actually push yourself to or over it. The emotional: knowing when to fight or argue, or talk, when not to, and why. These are the things I’m learning.
I was about to write I’m not a teacher, but that’s actually not true. I am a teacher, like it or not. I am also a role model, like it or not. But this was all by way of prefacing that I’m not sure but I suspect that teachers get a kick out of students who learn. Some coaches prefer to work with newbies so they can see progress; some prefer to work with elite athletes whose motivation, dedication, and execution will be at a high level. But ultimately, if you’re teaching and someone’s not getting it for whatever reason, that’s gotta be frustrating. Especially if they are not even trying to learn.
I was a bit stressed on Friday not only because I had stuff I wanted to get done that didn’t happen because there was too much else going on, but also because I needed to spend time with two of my interns, to guide them. And I love this time that I spend with them, but it’s very draining because I want to do a good job, and I know that they also want and expect and need me to be doing a good job. You can’t half-ass guiding someone, and you can’t be partly present, especially when the subjects are complex and you’re trying to solve problems that no one has solved for years. On the flip side, I also care A LOT, because they are working on things that I have wanted to get concrete insight into literally for YEARS. Focus, focus, focus.
But I’m excited by both of their progress, and insights, and maturity. Now that I’m a little older, I do tend to underestimate the young. Hell, when I was their age I was running a little group at Ask Jeeves, and sure as shit didn’t want people underestimating me. But I see how it happens, it’s easy to do. If you’re not paying attention. The difference between a groove and a rut is only the depth, right? Or, if you’re so convinced you’re right that you stop paying attention to new information.
So Friday after work I drove up to Bellville to do my first sprint workout, but also to get a sense of this coach. For a learner and a teacher to work well together there must be mutual respect, and it helps if you get along as people. I think Marcel and I may just get along. I am a decent enough athlete, and knowledgeable enough athlete (thank you Cape CrossFit) that I can look and sound like I know what I’m doing. From my first impression of him, there are things he can teach me. Mechanics, yes: my stride length should be a lot longer but my knee height and turnover are good. You can sort of see when someone looks at you and says essentially: “pretty good but you could be a LOT better if we make a couple adjustments” that they see some sort of potential.
We somehow got on the subject of mental strength and being able to push yourself to the edge vs leaving something on the table. This is something I struggle with, and one of the reasons I’m sort of out and about trying to learn from different masters. So I’d say we passed each other’s tests. He wants me to train five days a week, which is amusing because I had just told him what I wanted to get out of the training, which is to complement my CrossFit in some very specific ways.
So I go back to the CrossFit gym to pick up Susan and one of the other students in her class, and then my gymmates staged a somewhat tongue-in-cheek-but-not-really intervention. Like training somewhere else is stepping out on the family, you know? So yeah it’s an ego boost that they care enough to care about what I do. And another part of me thinks it’s none of their damn business how I choose to train, but that’s also a cop out and I know it. I owe this gym and these people and this community a LOT, and I am an important part of the Cape CrossFit competition armada. So actually, it is their business too, and I do owe them at least an explanation. Because, after all, I’m doing this for fun, yes, and because I can, yes, but also because I think it will make me a better CrossFit athlete for a lot of reasons that have less to do with the physical and more to do with having another coach, having more competition experience, having some variety, running more, etc., etc.
And damn, my hamstrings are sore in a way that they haven’t been in years. Constantly varied, functional movement performed at high intensity. Boom.
Speaking of training, Saturday I did my home version of the workout I’d missed on Wednesday because that was acupuncture day. The CCF armada did Lynne which is 5 rounds for reps of bench press (it’s supposed to be bodyweight for the guys and obviously some smaller percentage of that for girls), followed by max pullups. I don’t have a bench or a pullup bar at home but I do have the gymnastic rings so I did floor press (which is a more dreadful version of bench press), and ring pullups. Unfortunately I picked too light of a weight for the floor press … my first round was 27 reps. And then the pullups were as dreadful as you might think, but I got 15 on the first round, never fewer than 10, and most importantly of all even with all that kipping my injury is feeling none the worse for wear today. It was a fun workout. Any sort of strengthcon I am most likely going to love.
Following the workout and introducing Susan to the fun that is the Biscuit Mill, we went to the opening of the martial arts studio, followed by drinking wine in the shop with two of the instructors, followed by dinner with most of the family and instructors in Sea Point, and by dinner I really mean drinking.
Now I’m not sure for what reason but my insecurities require pretty constant validation. And I never had any sort of real interest in martial arts ever … until now. Cape Town is cliquey, yes, but everywhere in every city there are little pockets of people doing weird stuff, and amazing stuff, and stuff that will blow your mind. Like really blow your mind. Check this or this. And these are some of those people. It’s not just Shirfu Jeff Lan, either, but some of Kim’s throwaway comments when he’s not showing off indicate just what he is capable of, and what he aspires to. Stuff like that scares the living daylights out of me, because it’s a power that I don’t fully understand, and it also fascinates me …. Because I can see that it’s powerful, and I cannot understand it. And I want to.
Longwinded way of saying that these last few months, for whatever combination of reasons and I think there are several, I’m slowly being let into this community. And this is all the more flattering because I didn’t try to penetrate it, but it just slowly began enveloping me. That’s a metaphor right there, huh?
Yes, there’s stuff I’m not down with and that I find obnoxious. Even kung fu masters are human and have their own conceits and arrogances and fears and don’t always listen to what you are actually saying because they have their own pre-conception. But they are still kung fu masters and have a heck of a lot to teach you, if you are ready and willing to learn. I’m not about to start learning shaolin, or even sanda. The appeal is there …. It fascinates me, but I also know the amount of time such a study would take, and it doesn’t make sense for me. Right now, at least. I suspect when the time is right I will wind my way further and further into this cult as well, but that time is not now. Hey, you never know. Never say never.
What separates a great teacher and master from a good one is an ability also to learn. I feel like a small child in the presence of knowledge and skill for which I have a great respect … conscious incompetence. The inner power, the outer power, the agility with the weapons … whereas Kim hands me a sword or a spear and I know enough to know that I don’t have the foggiest idea how to use the thing. Then again, my snatch technique is going to be better than his. The look he gets in his eyes talking about daggers and hand-to-hand combat is the same look I get in my eyes when I talk about handstand pushups.
I suppose we respect what we have learned because we know what goes into it, and the same way that CrossFitters tend to look down on normal ‘civilians,’ I totally get how they can look down on CrossFit as an overly-physical, overly-aggressive, Western activity. I mean what do they see? They see me, broken and injured, foolish and impatient, … and did I mention foolish and impatient? And I’m not even a typical CrossFitter! But, they seem to like me anyway.
Susan and I were talking about comparisons, and the reason I never feel very elite is that I choose to compare myself to elite athletes. Same goes for Kim: he doesn’t feel elite because he compares himself to his dad, and I find his mental strength absolutely mind-blowing, which is a huge compliment, possibly the biggest I can give. But for his father, he sees Kim’s mental strength is still being very early on a spectrum, and I can understand that perspective too.
There are most definitely some big differences between what I am learning about Shirfu’s philosophy and the culture of the martial arts centre, and CrossFit, or rather CrossFit as I think it should be (because goodness knows every CrossFit gym is different but that’s a story for another time and if you’re in the cult you’ll know what I’m talking about). But there is also a LOT that’s in common, we just use different words to describe it. They are both highly technical, skilled activities. They both require physical and mental strength, stamina, flexibility, body awareness, being able to control your body while tired … there’s a reason why Kim and I get along so well: we have a lot that we share, and a lot that we learn from each other. And, he’s got that wisdom of his parents: yes, all human relationships essentially come down to sparring (he says, as the two of us are sparring). The ones that work are the ones where there is parity, mutual respect, and enjoyment. If you’re not having fun, stop. Remove that source of strain from your life, if you can.
I do feel like I have a responsibility to be a bit of a CrossFit evangelist. That sounds egotistical and in a way it is, but it’s also the reality of the situation. I am one of the top female athletes in Africa, in a sport that’s growing in popularity and is getting a huge injection of awareness thanks to Reebok’s marketing dollars. But there’s CrossFit and there’s CrossFit … aka there’s how it should be, and then everything else. I feel like I owe it because of what it has given me, which is a lot in terms of health, knowledge, confidence, power, friendships, even connections. I want people to understand CrossFit. You might say let the results speak for themselves, just like if you’re a master you don’t need to prove yourself to anyone. But … that’s also a cop out.
I make a mistake by describing the beauty of a well-executed squat clean by using words like ‘power’ and ‘explosive.’ That’s part of it, but the reason a heavy squat clean is beautiful is speed, agility, technique. It’s not because the weights are heavy that we rejoice and find it beautiful. It’s because the weights are challenging. It’s not the force, it’s the purposeful execution of force.
I dunno. I feel like a typical CrossFitter wouldn’t see what I see with these martial artists, because you have to look past the obvious to the essence. Same way they don’t see the similarities with CrossFit because they are so focused on what they see and hear, and yes it does manifest as a loud macho weight-banging yelling shouting young Western conceit. And it does have those elements. But it also has the beauty of the perfect snatch, or learning a kipping muscle up, or how when you do reach your edge whether in training or in competition, the world disappears into a tiny pinhole and you are present. No, it doesn’t have 3,000 years of history behind it. But that moment is beautiful too.
So yeah. I want someone I like and respect to like and respect me, and part of me is CrossFit. But these things take time. On the flip side, how crazy do my CrossFit friends probably think I am, going all Chinese and martial arts on them. And, I suppose, it doesn’t actually matter. You can never control what other people think. This is part of the emotional maturity that I’m working on … I want, the ego wants people to understand and agree with my rationale for my choices. But is it actually that important? Is the cost/benefit worth it? Shirfu is wise; if I spent time I could make him understand. But I can do a lot of things …. Doesn’t mean I should. In some other cases, the person involved is not so wise and honestly trying to justify myself or explain why I have or have not done certain things … essentially get them to see things from my perspective is just a waste of breath. Of energy. Of chi. Pick your battles.
I, like Susan, like to understand how things work. Women of science, not faith. But living in Cape Town has made me slightly less of a sceptic, and more of a mystic in a way. In a way I’m ok with that. As with body awareness, the more aware I become the more I become aware that I don’t know or am not good at. An unconscious incompetence turns into a conscious incompetence. I strive not to underestimate, and to understand and accept that there is a lot that I don’t see because I’m not looking, don’t understand because I don’t have the context, can’t see because it’s hidden or too obvious, and can’t anticipate because I’m not actually Cassandra (thank God).
I try not to be dismissive. You never know who you might be talking to. I had a giggle at someone recently telling me about this trendy new thing called CrossFit. 
One last thing. Laa-Laa created a monster.
  • “Good luck. It’s Marcel.” – Jaco (it was that his eyes turned into ‘you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into’ saucers that made this so amusing …. what he didn’t anticipate was that I was a CrossFitter)
  • “I make time for what’s important to me.” – Ellie (ain’t THAT the truth)
  • “It’s like trying to eat an incredibly dry cracker. Except it’s f*cking juicy!” – Susan
  • “I’m not whining. I’m just making conversation.” – Ellie
  • “You enter into the mouth of the dragon and it swallows you up.” – Amanda
  • “Does anyone have any questions? Ellie?” – Kim (he’d just finished a description of sanda that was happened also to be about the most targeted marketing I can imagine)
  • “The zombie apocalypse is in my hip.” – Susan
  • “It’s all sparring. It’s all kung fu.” – Kim
  • “I told you I’m gullible.” – Ellie
  • “You realise you’re a weapon, right?” – Craig
  • “Vegetables don’t have fat!!” – Susan (this was part of a larger conversation that went something like: “Vegetables don’t have fat!” “What??” “Susan!!!” “Vegetables don’t have fat!!”)
  • “Don’t be dismissive. You don’t know what you’re dismissing.” – Ellie
  • “Being sick is sort of like being possessed, if you think about it.” – Susan 

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