Blogging can be a bit of a balancing act: you want to give a personal insight into a particular topic, but you don’t want to over-share. Blogging is a conversation, not a confessional. Over the years, I’ve tried to get this balance right; I’ve spoken about my martial arts lessons, the people I’ve met, and how I felt about it, but I’ve stayed away from my personal life. I guess there are lots of people who’ve read and (I hope) enjoyed my blogging over the years without learning anything about what I did for a living, or about my family situation – and that’s how it should be.
Sometimes, though, the curtain has to be lifted. Well – either that, or I don’t blog about something very important. This is one of those times and so, not without some trepidation, I’ll say that I had a really rather unsettling time at today’s systema class.
Here’s the background. In 2010 I was very happy in my job, and living in Beijing: a city I adore. I was making real progress in my yiquan (the Chinese martial art I was studying), I was making good progress in meditation, and I was beginning to learn aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine. I could see a clear path forward, in which I would save enough money fairly quickly to study acupuncture before returning to the UK to set up a practice. Without being immodest, I was pretty good at what I was doing.
Life intervened, and I had to return abruptly to the UK to help care for a close relative who was seriously ill. This wasn’t a quick illness; it was a prolonged and painful decline, that took a very heavy, relentless, emotional toll on everyone involved in the caring duties. At the same time, the job I’d taken turned out to be in a seriously dysfunctional organisation. I’ll spare you the ugly details, but basically it meant that I spent three years of having crap dumped on me, often working twelve-hour days for weeks or months, getting home after a long commute only to pick up the caring role.
Stress and worry led to anger: deep, gnawing anger at the sheer unfairness of what was happening. Shitty and uncaring fate on the one hand; shitty and uncaring management on the other. Everything fell apart. When anger builds up and builds up and builds up, and can’t be released, it turns inwards. That’s what happened to me, and it took a major toll on my health. In the end, I quit my job and came to Russia because all the signs were saying that I was going to have a heart attack or a stroke if I didn’t get away.
I’ve been in Russia for three months now, and I haven’t been making the progress in systema that I’d hoped for. There are lots of reasons for this, not least the hours I work: my first class often begins at 9am with the last class finishing at 10pm, after which I have to go home and eat. There are breaks during the day, of course, but it’s difficult to do anything with them. Plus, of course, you don’t endure three years of intense stress and just leave it all in the Departures hall at Heathrow; I’m struggling with the consequences every day (and, more specifically, every night; my sleep has been terrible and I’m always tired).
Today’s class was an odd one. There were very few people there. In fact, when I arrived there was just me, a woman with her little boy, and Andrey with his wife Katya. Andrey got me working solo on dance steps, which I found difficult to get right. During this time, Fyodor and Kirill arrived, the latter bringing his three kids, plus a friend who hasn’t been before. We moved into the gym where we trained with the kids. After this, Kirill, his kids and the friend left, unusually early, leaving me training with Fyodor. We worked on a number of knife drills, which were going OK, I thought, until Andrey stopped me.
With Fyodor interpreting, he told me that I was carrying a burden of anger, which was making me nervous in training, and blocking my ability to learn anything new. He told me that I’d have to look inside and clear it out. He told me that I was afraid to let myself make mistakes, so I was doing everything too fast and too intensely. Bear in mind, I haven’t told him anything about what happened to me before I came to Russia. He went on, and identified a lot of other things about my past, which I don’t need to go into here, but there was a great deal of truth in it. Some of it was painful hearing and, if wrong in details, spot-on when it came to the important points.
Sometimes a teacher has to give painful feedback if the student is to get past a blockage. As a teacher myself, I know that. Still, this was… intense. I felt exposed; some really vulnerable and personal points put under the spotlight.
SO, I’m sitting on a bench in a park near the palace in Pushkin and, I suppose, wondering what the next step is.
Much of what Andrey said was already on my mind; some of it was stuff that I’d only recently started thinking about and coming to understand about myself. The thing is, most of what he said was spot on, and it forces me to acknowledge that I really have got a mountain to climb if I want to progress in systema. Part of me is asking whether it’s worth it any more; maybe trying to learn systema is just beyond me, and I’m fooling myself. I am feeling pretty discouraged, that’s a fact. Maybe I should bring my plans forward, and just go the Middle East to earn some serious money instead of slogging away for a pittance in St. Petersburg. Then I can go back to China, and get back to what I know I’m good at.
On the other hand, perhaps I just need to give St. Petersburg a bit more time. The initial stresses of arrival and settling in are gradually lifting. It’s a beautiful city. And Andrey’s version of systema – difficult though it is for me to follow what’s going on – is one that’s aimed at developing the whole person; spirit as well as body, community as well as individual. Today’s class was intense, but that’s what people told me to expect with the Russians: get past the initial reserve, and they’re very direct, very emotionally open. And let’s face it: plenty of teachers, the majority, would just focus on teaching the mechanics of combat; never mind the spiritual or personal development of the student. That’s what I was looking for… wasn’t it? It’s got to be worth exploring further.
Image credit: light the way by user Vincent Lock on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.