The Poomsae Series: Keumgang, or Why Do We Make the Simplicity of “Being Present” So Damned Difficult?

mount-kumgang

The Poomsae Series is BACK! This series of blog posts discusses the life lessons I’ve learned from taekwondo forms, or “poomsae” in Korean. Forms put the “art” in martial arts, and are one of the best ways to practice discipline of the body and mind. I’ve begun learning the two forms required for first dan black belt, and am just now starting to uncover what these forms are challenging me to do beyond stances and strikes.

Today’s post is about Keumgang, a form named for a beautiful mountain (“Diamond Mountain”) in the eastern portion of North Korea. Since there are many resources on the web about the history of this form and the region from where it derives its name and influence–plus this lovely song–I’m simply presenting insight gained from practicing the form.

This form is RAW. There is nothing pretty or lyrical or intellectually complex about it (one could argue against that, but we’ll save that for a different post). The movements are thick, heavy, and forceful. Other than a few palm-heel strikes and knife-hand blocks at the beginning, it’s all popping fists and stomping feet. To the untrained eye it might even appear boring and crude. If Koryo, the other first dan black belt form, were a conversation, it would be a razor-sharp battle of wits (and knee breaks), whereas this form simply says, “Shut up and get the hell out of my way.”

It’s been surprisingly difficult to learn Keumgang compared to how I learned the color belt forms and Koryo. For whatever reason I have a mental block that sets my brain into panic mode rather than letting me muddle through the learning process with ease. I still have a long way to go before I feel comfortable flowing through this supposedly “easy” form on my own without the guidance of an instructor or the visual cues from more experienced black belts.

As with my other forms, I’ve opened my mind to what Keumgang can teach me aside from the physical movements. I think I’ve figured out the lesson from this form:

Be present. Stop avoiding it and making everything so difficult. Seriously.

I’ve mentioned before how taekwondo, whether I’m free sparring or doing forms, forces me to be more focused on the present moment than any other venture, including yoga and traditional meditation. There’s a sense of mindfulness and presence with all the forms, of course, but this form, this simple flow of anger and brute force, shoves the ugly truth in my face: I, like millions of other people, am still stuck in my head more than I thought I was.

Just as the busy, chattering mind can wander during meditation or a car ride or a conversation, it’s very easy to get lost in this form if you’re even stuck in your head for just a moment. Before you know it, the repetitive, simple movements can lock you into a continuous loop, a purgatory of horseback stances and side punches. Even my instructors have gotten caught up in the hypnotic nature of it, urging us to continue after the form has actually ended, and leaving my classmates and I to glance at each other helplessly while we do yet another mountain block.

How often does your mind wander when you’re trying to be present? Focusing on the present moment can be unappealing and difficult if we don’t practice. We love to make simple things needlessly complex. We’re in our heads all the time, telling ourselves stories and worrying, and meanwhile we’re just sloppily going through the motions with whatever we’re doing at the moment. Just as I go into mental overdrive as I continue to learn Keumgang in class, my mind, if unchecked, tries to unleash hell when I’m seeking peace and quiet. I make it too complicated. I’m sure I’m not alone in this: I avoid resting in the stillness of presence even though I know it’s the best thing I could do for myself.

I’m looking forward to the day when I truly experience the quiet depth and meditative power of this unusual form both in the dojang and in daily life.

Stop.
Breathe.
Be still, and you will be strong.

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Minimalism, Nihilism, Whatever; I’m Just Gonna Hang Out for a While

still lake

Happy New Year! Now is the time to kick things into gear, to start new ventures, to try new things, to add things to your to-do list, right?

…or, maybe it’s not.

Maybe now is the time to do the opposite: slow down, simplify, prioritize. I was fortunate enough to get about a week and a half off to spend the Christmas holidays with family, close friends, and of course my brother’s sweet little dog, whom I mentioned in a post last year. That gave me a lot of time to think about how I was managing my life and where it was taking me. It reminded me of the people and things that are truly important to me.

More and more I felt the pull to disconnect—physically as well as emotionally from certain aspects of my life. A few weeks earlier I was thinking about starting two different new blogs and began an intense amount of effort to learn what I could about successful blogging and starting an online business. I quickly burned out and realized that it would be better to let things happen naturally and not approach it with any desperation (my law of attraction followers will understand that). I also started thinking about getting another degree and went on a frantic search for information, but I realized that was yet another ploy to escape my current situation, which in the grand scheme of things is very pleasant…I won’t say another degree will never happen in the future, but for now, the only school I feel like going to is the dojang.

All of these distractions, wishful thinkings, desperate searches we create are attempts to “save” ourselves from our current situation, whether it’s really bad or actually quite nice. It’s easy to get sucked into a cycle of perpetual dissatisfaction: if only we had the right job/relationship/body/amount of money…THEN we’d be happy. 

Happiness is right here in this moment, and I’m tired of running around like crazy searching for it. I’m staying right here for a while. 

After I had this realization over the holiday break I decided to just relax and enjoy the present moment as much as I could. My personal life is pretty sweet and low-stress, so instead of searching for something new to add to it, I’m just going to enjoy and focus on what I have. I’m not feeling very ambitious right now, and I’m not seeking new opportunities or new people to come into my life…which is right about the time when those things manifest, am I right?

So rather than set a bunch of new goals or start new ventures or new work explorations I’d rather just focus on what I have now: the few relationships that are truly important to me, the few things I really love to do (taekwondo, exercise, yoga and meditation, taking care of my house, walking through my pretty neighborhood, reading and writing), the things I like about my current job. If I do get involved or excited over something, I want it to be something I TRULY care about, not just all the extra stressy gunk in life.

Maybe I’ll start a new blog, and maybe I won’t. Right now I have this blog, and that’s plenty. The mental, spiritual, and emotional journey that taekwondo has taken me on is far from over, so I’ll have plenty of material, plus something funny usually happens in class (like how a few days ago I got kicked so hard while holding a practice pad for someone else that I scooted back about ten feet and fell on the floor, my eyes wide open in surprise the whole time like Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff.)

I’ve also wasted a lot of time on social media and the bottomless pit of web surfing, as I’m sure many other people have. I’m tired of it. I must be so introverted that even virtual interaction became overwhelming. I’ll still be connected and spend time online, but much less than I have been lately.

As for my professional life, I’ve always been much more detached than I have been with my personal life. I don’t always have a choice in what projects I’m involved in at work, but I always have control over how emotionally attached I am to them. I put in effort and do my part and sometimes do get excited or annoyed about things going on at work, but I never lose sleep over it. If I could adopt that emotionally detached mindset in other aspects of my life…well…I’d be pretty damn blissed out.

Even in taekwondo we’re slowing down and narrowing our scope. The first week or so back is always focused on basics, and it’s a good reminder for the advanced students (especially the black belts) to work on the fundamental skills and techniques that ground us in our practice. I’m learning new things, but more importantly, I’m improving what I’ve already been taught. The advanced stuff will come. It can’t be forced. Last year I set a bunch of goals that I kind of sort of met. This year I’m just setting one taekwondo goal: to perfect my spin kick. I want to make it beautiful, efficient, and powerful. (And I’m thinking about all the picky technical details, but I won’t get into that here).
That’s it.

I do want to improve in certain areas, but more importantly, I just want to BE. If I’ve wasted hours on the internet, then I’ve wasted nearly a lifetime ruminating over the past or fretting about the future. I’ve wasted years letting my mind run around like a headless chicken instead of just being present and taking life moment by moment. It’s time to just be quiet for a while.

Sometimes in moments of silence and stillness, the most progress can be made. Stillness can be fullness if you let it.

As we were driving around the Texas hill country during the last week of December, my mom pulled a folded and faded piece of paper out of her purse. Unbeknownst to me she’d been carrying it around with her for months. On her folded paper was a quote from my November 2014 blog post about the sixth form Palgwe Yuk Jang, reminding us to be mindful and even take advantage of the quiet moments in our life. I was so touched that my words meant that much to her. (And she’s going to kill me when she reads that I’m sharing it here, so it’s been nice knowing all of you).
Here’s the quote:

“What adds complexity to this form are the pauses, the silence, the negative space that floats in the air after a staccato palm-heel strike or a dramatic leap into that rear cross-foot stance as your yell echoes into silence. My very quotable yoga teacher asked us during class one day to be mindful of the pauses in our practice and in our life. A pause can be a moment of decision and precursor to change. Those frozen moments in time, whether it’s a second or a year, allow us to examine the facts, listen to our deeper intuition, and choose the next step, whether it is continuing on the same path or foraging a new one entirely.”

That’s what I feel drawn to right now: silence and stillness. Not forcing anything, not pushing anything, not searching in vain for something to “save” me from the present moment.

I just want to hang out and be chill for a while.

Will you join me?

…And if you STILL need some motivation to throw everything to the wind, I invite you to listen to the “F*ck That” meditation. (Not while your children or boss are around of course.)
Yep, that’s how I’m feeling right now. F*ck it all….ahhhhhh…….