Daoist Physical Cultivation is a syllabus of Physical Repatterning Work that has been floating in the ether for many years, but only recently has it gained enough magnitude of its own to become manifest and begin growing in the way that things do within the circles of Physical Alchemy. It is something that has called me in some way or another since the very beginning, so some tales of how it all began for me seem like the proper place to start.
Rewind to circa 2003… Hammer (that’s me!) was a young 17 year old who had just moved out of home and across the country into the frozen (well, burning at the time actually) plains of Canberra. I was reasonably active in my youth, playing soccer first, then field hockey for many years as well as being involved in Korean Karate. I had always enjoyed a good martial arts film but had never been immersed in the legendary Bruce Lee culture that many others with interests in the Eastern arts had. Rather, my nerdy opiates of choice at the time were computers and gaming. I had moved to Canberra to study 3D animation and special effects with hopes of one day becoming a game developer.
With this addiction came many, many hours of sitting at a computer annihilating virtual enemies while downing the nectar of my people: copious amounts of soft drink and junk food. One particular binge was responsible for the first turn. I clearly remember the scene – I was at my friends place whose father had left on business for a few months. With no one monitoring us, we unleashed our full magnitude of desires. Many days (or weeks?) passed as we gamed for most of each day, pausing only momentarily to venture to the shops to pick up instant noodles or order more pizza. In our haze we viewed many of the viral videos of the time – this was pre-youtube days and so videos had to be downloaded. One such video was black and white footage of a Wushu competition.
Something stirred in the group upon it’s viewing. These people displayed incredible ability from dedication and hard work, abilities which I had previously believed were only possible in the realms of fantasy and role-playing that we were so hooked on. We had been doing quite the opposite of what was necessary to get to such places in real life. Lack of light, movement and proper food had degenerated us to pale (literally) imitations of ourselves, weak and sickly. The nerds of the early 2000s did not dare venture into a gym. Perhaps though, just maybe, we could train like the figures we saw in the video, learning to leap acrobatically through the air? One of the group had lived in China for quite a few years and recalled that training in this art, known as Wushu, was mandatory in schools there and extremely fun. We hit up the phone book and internet and found an ex-national champion of China was on our very doorsteps teaching classes. In Canberra!?
We only lasted about a month in the modern Wushu classes, for we were immediately caught by something else. The teacher of the class had suggested that more training was better and that there was another more traditional class being run on the days that she wasn’t teaching. Being keen and young we figured more training was a great idea and so we signed up there as well. It wasn’t long before the curious wisdom of this other small but incredibly talented teacher (Seriously? Another one in Canberra??!?) completely enveloped us. We quickly dropped the modern classes and sunk ourselves fully into this traditional method.
Our new teacher’s name was Dapeng Wang, and he would become my guide for the next decade. He was a lineage holder of several rare and strange looking styles of Chinese Martial Arts. Xin Yi Liu He Quan (Heart-Mind & Six Harmonies Boxing) and Cha Quan (Cha Family Boxing) were the central styles we began with, later augmented by Yang family Taiji (aka Tai Chi) that Dapeng learned from Fu Zhongwen. The Taiji was mostly to help us relax because we were too damned stiff. Both the former styles came from Dapeng’s extended family who were part of the Chinese Muslim community, known in China as 回族 Huízú. These styles were traditionally taught only to other Hui Chinese, being kept away even from the other Chinese until the mid 20th century.
Dapeng’s focus was not on the martial aspects. He was interested in self-cultivation and classes oscillated between drilling motions up and down the hall and lectures on the philosophy of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism. Some part of this spoke to me deeply. I couldn’t articulate how learning about oneself in this manner was different to any other pursuit of health like going to the gym or doing kickboxing or some such. But it was different. We were exploring deep topics. Dapeng would leave us with little sayings or poems that we were to consider and try to understand or express in our practice:
两心通 – Liǎng xīn tōng
十指连 – Shízhǐ lián
凌风击掌 – Líng fēng jīzhǎng
润心田 – Rùn xīntián
Through two hearts
Ten fingers connect
Threatening the wind with the strike of the palms
To nourish the field of our heart
What did poems like this mean? How do you nourish your heart by striking your palms against the wind? It was all very alien and all of the students struggled for many years to understand the teachings Dapeng was trying to deliver. Even in my failure to understand, still something persisted. Nihilism was not my style, neither was surrender. I was taken by a naive romanticism – there was a hidden treasure locked behind what Dapeng was conveying, a wordless taste in my mouth that I was determined to find the source of.
I never did discover what these mysterious puzzles meant in my time with Dapeng. My practice regularly being taken off the burner to go drinking and partying certainly didn’t help, and there was also a tangible communication barrier as Dapeng struggled to relate to us and his newly adopted culture. No longer could he whack us with a stick so we stayed in our stances or get our parents to chastise us for missing practice as were the Chinese ways – he had to find other ways to motivate us extra-relaxed Australians and keep us entertained. There was occasionally an air of sadness or defeat around him as he shared stories of the farm boys he taught in China whose skills far surpassed even the most dedicated students of the Australian class.
As the years wore on my training turned from novel to routine. Weeks, months and years would pass in a blink. Change came in the form of minute increments of improvement of the physical skills and not much else. I planned a 6 month trip to China, hoping that I could train intensively and make the discovery I yearned for. But I returned defeated, just as stuck as when I left. A fond memory of Dapeng (correctly and justifiably) chastising me along with the class after my return lingers: “Craig has not even entered the front door yet”.
In the period that followed, I turned my gaze outward. Dapeng closed his school at the end of 2012. Classes were too small and his new family and job kept him busy. He would always have time to meet with us and answer questions but it was not the same as regular contact in class. A few of us continued to meet at an oval and train as best we could. I had began looking into various gymnastic strength training modalities, natural movement frameworks and more. Perhaps what I sought lie outside my previously constructed borders?
The first hint of what was to come occured in 2013. I had become qualified as a Personal Trainer and took up a part time position at Fitness First. I desperately wanted to teach people in a the way I had been taught, and add that intangible something else that had grabbed me in the first place. This unspeakable element which evaded all my attempts to define was obviously (to me) missing in all of the modes of practice I saw people partaking in, and I wanted to find a way to bring it out in what I taught. But the gym was not the correct place to undertake such adventures and I did not have enough of a personal charge or depth of understanding of what ‘it’ was to pull it off at any rate. I struggled to convey the exercises and information for a full year, haphazardly mixing material from Dapeng with stretching, strength work, movement things and more. Clients were few and I had made almost no inroads into understanding how to teach what I knew I had to teach during this time. While this period taught me very little of what to do, it taught me plenty about what not to do.
It was around this time that I also began teaching MovNat workshops around Australia and outdoor movement classes alongside Simon Thakur of Ancestral Movement in Canberra. I almost completely put away the material from Dapeng at this stage, perhaps occasionally showing something during a class for novelty and training myself on occasion, but I was definitely not invested in any way.
This was a fun period for me. Outdoor training and nature exposure quenched part of my thirst for a deeper connection but something was still missing. The dazzling lights of many different modalities of physical practice provided a significant distraction. I would lose myself down rabbit holes of infinite contemplation on any one of hundreds of topics. Nature, movement, rewilding, ‘change the body to change the mind’, neuro-stuff, cold-immersion, breath holds, politics (?!?), history, mythology. Complexity was my king and I served it by bringing as many things to the table as I could find (or take). And a mighty and complex collection it was indeed!
But no matter how big my pile of knowledge got, it never fanned the flames of my Heart. I knew that the ‘something else’ was still missing from all these things I was doing but I continued pretending as if that wasn’t the case. The strong yearning for something bigger and deeper than myself slowly faded till the ember was but a speck, barely perceivable but somehow remaining alight. Just.
The world works in mysterious ways and I could only remain distracted from my path for so long. A chance scouring of the web lead me to a certain blog – the Urban Daoist. I swallowed the blog in its entirety. The flame of my Being flickered. This French man was talking about the exact same topics that Dapeng had taught, but with a western cultural perspective. I emailed to inquire further. No response. How curious! I used every contact I had to try and get in touch, to no avail. Salvation soon showed itself, however – a new button appeared on the blog: ‘Distance training in English now available’. I immediately clicked and signed up, and became a student of Serge Augier and the Da Xuan Daoist tradition.
The first year of training was sketchy at best. I was still quite immersed in the whole movement scene and felt that I had somehow short-changed myself if I did not do my movement training even when I had practiced Serge’s material. And anyway, I knew it all already. It was obviously the same as what I was already doing and so I didn’t really need to train it that much. I soaked up the theoretical material from the videos Serge sent me though – more offerings to leave for the king. This would be a worthy addition to the collection.
What happened next I did not see coming. The time was approaching to renew into my second year of training with Serge. The ember deep within was heating up and it threatened to burn my whole hard-earned collection of ‘knowledge’ to the ground. It’s obvious in retrospect but this had all happened in the subconscious at the time. Instead, what happened at the surface was a recoil. An imposter took the helm of my being – “I should probably just quit the training with Serge, after all it’s pretty expensive and I know it all already” it thought to myself.
Luckily for me, my good friend Dave was observing the whole scene play out. His piercing gaze saw through the imposter’s disguise and he launched a volley of well timed words, landing something of a metaphorical slap upside the head. “What the hell man? Serge has that thing that you seek! Can’t you see?! His eyes give it away, so does his presence. He has what others lack. LOOK!”. A flame lept from within and burnt the imposter to a crisp. Legions more would appear and suffer the same fate in the times to come, however for now there was a momentary gap of clarity. I decided to renew my training with Serge and my courage was immediately rewarded with several opportunities to discover the deeper aspects of the school. I could not pretend to ‘know it all’ much longer. As I was exposed to more and more of the teachings it became obvious that more than a decade of training with some of the best teachers in the world had little carry over to the Da Xuan material and that I was nothing more than a clueless beginner.
The decision to continue with Serge marked the beginning of a huge shift in my perception of things. A curious change occurred that was so tangible I could have almost grabbed it. It was as if a switch was flipped. Almost overnight my feelings of what constituted worthwhile, important, practices dramatically changed. 5 hours of stretching, strength, acrobatics and more could be trained in a day and I would still feel like I had done nothing. It had the same charge to me as sitting around binge watching TV. “Stop distracting yourself, attend to your practices!” And so I did. The scattered practices from here and there were discarded so I could focus on and immerse myself in a tried and tested tradition.
My investment into training the methods of Da Xuan and my work with Dave on self-remembering and pattern transmutation over the next few years revealed to me something that I had missed. Certain qualities arose in me which were not present before that allowed me to know first-hand: everything Dapeng had tried to teach me was true. Lessons from a decade ago reappeared and begun to reveal their essence. No amount of thinking and analysis could have found this, even with hard training supporting it. I had been trying to do it all from a perspective which made it impossible to do and could have easily continued on for decades in this way without so much as a pile of ash to show for it.
A particular approach was needed. Seemingly arbitrary, off-hand comments with no logic behind them contained dramatically important lessons. Nothing could be taken on face value. Everything is so simple that it is missed. My mind had made it too complicated. Intention matters. Trust and faith is critical! Stop trying to be such a clever asshole Craig. Intention matters!!!!! The world *is* as magical and poetic as Dapeng had made it out to be, even more so, but I was too stuck in my own mind to see it. Right there, right in front of me the whole time. Plain as day.
And so a task appeared to me. As well as my continued personal practice with Serge, I had to go back into the material Dapeng had shared with me over 10 years. Find every exercise that I had not given the time of day to. The simple stuff, the warm ups, the basics, not the fancy forms (although I suspect they will need to be investigated at the proper time too). I had to pull out everything I had packed away and rejuvenate it with this new perspective. The qualities and teachings from Serge, the *seeing* from Dave, the exercises from Dapeng, with a sprinkling of my personal gifts. Like the alchemists of old, I am mixing these base-metals to create something more than the sum of its parts.
Which brings us to now. The Daoist Physical Cultivation syllabus has begun to take shape and is growing at a pleasant rate. This is what Physical Alchemy is about, bringing that which was thought dead-and-dry to life in a new way by breathing fresh air into it with keen perception. It must account for the times, the people who will engage with it, and the habits that they are bound by. The old must meet the new, the traditional with the modern – but done in a way that doesn’t serve our own cleverness.
It is early days still and there is certainly room for improvement. Some of the material I have only just unleashed on my students and peers to trial its suspected effectiveness. Other materials I have been working with for a year or more now and their place and purposes are clear. The results are really exceptional so far, going well beyond any ideas of what I thought could have happened. Every week I am surprised by the feedback from the students of the Wednesday Night Experimental class and the online group. They are regularly achieving in a few weeks or months what took me years and years to accomplish. Many other interesting things are arising too – awareness of deep structures, freeing of physical and other inhibitions, casting out of false-tiredness and much more! I have no idea how it will turn out in the long run, and don’t want to know – it’s not important. What’s important is that I keep the flames alight, keep it cooking away slowly and wait patiently to see what (if anything) is revealed.
The undertaking of such a project is a really essential part of the inner workings of Physical Alchemy. They are the craft pieces that we, the crafters, create. Dave has done so with his stretching syllabuses, and now his Reenchantment Work. A mini-project of Body Awakening was the first foray into such things for me, and now the Daoist Physical Cultivation syllabus presents a much larger body of work still to be refined. Others in the group have their own projects either well underway or still bubbling to the surface and will be revealed and created at the proper time.
What I hope the reader takes away from this story is that the possibilities are really much greater than anything that can be thought up or imagined, however care must be taken and great courage is crucial to open to such things. What I have discovered and continue to discover comes about not through my own ingenuity. On the contrary, I had to put this down to stop it blocking what was waiting to patiently to begin growing. I am not the cause of this creation, and I cannot take credit for its happening. I am, however, the vector through which the creative currents flow and my task is to keep the paths clear. It cannot be forced to appear where or when *I* want it to appear, it must be allowed to mature of its own accord. It is sacrosanctus – I must not interfere. My responsibility is to keep my own bullshit out of the way of it so that it manifests without distortion. I was lucky to have Teachers of the capital-T kind present themselves at the right time to stop me becoming caught in self-serving traps and dead ends of my own making. Many guides pointed the way for me. So much patience was needed and much more will be necessary to see it through. It took 15 years for me to get started with what I knew I had to do at some level way back in the first few years. At the same time I could have easily spent 15 more and still had the foot of my mind smothering the seedling to death.
Every mistake played its part and was a critical contribution. I ventured into the open waters and got smashed apart by the ocean before I was pointed towards new lands in the distance. The first encounters have been fruitful. Some things are as they were described in the stories, others are completely new. I will go forth and see if what lies beyond is a vibrant forest or a barren desert. Either will be fine by me.
~Craig Mallett aka Hammer (July 2018)