One of the Chinese terms for self-cultivation is xiu-shen (修身) which means to strive to raise one’s own standard of virtue and morality. Another phrase for it is xiu-xin yang-xing (修心养性), it literally means rectifying one’s mind and nurturing one’s character. The term is used in ancient Chinese philosophy and if viewed in more detail takes different shapes in the schools of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, even within one school of teachings it varies slightly from author to author. As this is just an introductory article it will take a less differentiated approach and try to give you a general idea about the term and – as it is the topic of our blog – will relate to the practice of martial arts.
Just as the schools share the motive of self-cultivation they also share the idea of a sage, a figure that has become the epitome of its schools moral and wisdom. Self-cultivation is an autonomous way of raising yourself to become much like such a sage. It is a process of self-finding and self-observation that will ultimately lead to the achievement of the perfect state of mind and body. Steps this might include are familiarizing oneself with the Chinese classics to the point of understanding their deepest meaning. In order to achieve this kind of understanding, you are expected to read those classics over and over at different stages of your practice and your life. Interestingly enough, another crucial step to self-cultivation is meditation – and that is valid even within the Confucian school, which out of the three might be the least spiritual.
Just as writings of Chinese scholars show an awareness of the lack of language and words in conveying the deeper meaning behind their teachings, they are convinced that once you embark on this journey you will naturally come to see its value and necessity. The encouraging outlook on self-cultivation that Chinese scholars have given over centuries suggests that you will come to be in harmony with yourself and naturally will be able to interact with your environment in a way, that you are able to help others and bring health to the world, without harming yourself. One of the strongest arguments to encourage you to commit to self-cultivation might be how it really puts you first. Even a lost person that doesn’t understand their own unhappiness and is trapped within perpetually gasping for momentary escapes from this desperate state of self is supposed to grow to have a strong heart filled with enduring happiness, perfect emancipation, autonomy, and health. The Chinese teachings take this process of finding your middle and explain, that it goes hand in hand with becoming a cornerstone that will benefit the whole world.
As for Chinese martial arts, they are deeply integrated into the idea of self-cultivation and can be considered one of its methods. In general, a practice that is common to almost every martial art is to calm the mind and to stop thinking. What this leads to is not numbness and stupidity as one might think, but rather it gives you nimbleness and the ability to adjust to any situation with unmatched ease. Things can be seen as what they are, and fear or other emotions will not cloud one’s judgment. Depending on the detail of each martial art, there are many more crucial practices. Any martial art will give you autonomy. Strength and skills achieved in martial arts will help you overcome fear and give you confidence, that there is something no one else can ever take away from you. If we took Tai Chi for example there even is the practice of being able to achieve one’s goals without exhausting oneself using force or going directly against others, these skills can be transferred to real life situations and are actually crucial skills of the sage.
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