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The Brutal Lesson of Pai Mei

The Brutal Lesson of Pai Mei

It is the wood that should fear your hand, not the other way around. No wonder you cannot do it. You acquiesce to defeat before you even begin.
— Pai Mei, Kill Bill Vol. 2

Acquiescence to defeat is commonplace in training. My clients do it.  I do it.  Probably, elite athletes do it.  That is why there are coaches and trainers.  Our job is to give clients tools to overcome acquiescence.

Kill Bill Vol. 2 has been on satellite tv for the past month.  Whenever I have seen it come up on the schedule, I feel compelled to turned to it.  To my delight, each time I do, it is to the scene of Pai Mei training The Bride.  This scene is what makes Kill Bill complete for me.  Before I indulge myself in a diatribe of why hero movies have to have a training scene for my satisfaction, let’s talk about the transformational power of Pai Mei’s training.

The Bride’s mentor, Bill, arranges for her to train with the brutal and powerful Pai Mei.  Upon meeting, Pai Mei hurls insults at her about her ethnicity and her previous training.  She becomes incensed, so when he challenges her to prove him wrong, she takes the bait.

After easily evading her strikes and blows while continuing to insult her, Pai Mei captures her arm in his fierce grip.  He could snap it with a simple twist.  The bride’s pride and anger suddenly turn into agony, fear and submission. With a single move, Pai Mei strips her of her ego. Still, there is something about her he must like because he agrees to teach her.

Along with other Kung Fu training, he has her relentlessly practice the one-inch punch (Bruce Lee often demonstrated the power of martial arts with this punch.) on a hardwood board.  It breaks her skin and rattles her bones, but she must continue or have her head rapped by Pai Mei’s cane.  To become the powerful weapon she wants to be, she must be forged by discipline and honed by will.  After a while, the practice becomes so ingrained in her body that she punches out in her sleep.

The scene ends with The Bride and Pai Mei eating rice together.  Her hand is so broken down that she cannot hold her chopsticks.  Out of desperation, she grabs the rice with her hands.  Pai Mei throws her rice on the floor and gives her the choice to acquiesce to her pain and hunger and eat the rice off the floor like a dog or overcome them and eat like a human.

Granted few people have the desire to become a highly efficient assassin or even an elite athlete but we live in a tough world.  Between our jobs, responsibilities, troubles in the world, even traffic, we face many stresses and challenges.  There is much to learn from Pai Mei.

  • Let go of ego in your training. It gets in the way of your full potential.  Ego limits you by boasting about what you think you are good at and shunning what you think you are not good at.
  • Repetition is the path to mastery, if you are fully present and focused. It is the heart of discipline. It strips away the need for outside praise and approval and creates true self-confidence.
  • Hard training rebuilds. It breaks down the body and the thinking mind.  The body adapts and grows stronger.  Thinking mind quiets.  You become aware of feeling mind.  You develop will.

One of my favorite Bruce Lee stories comes from John Little in the Art of Expressing the Human Body.  He talks about his experience of training with Bruce Lee.  They were running past their usual mileage. When Little said he would have a heart attack and die if they ran any further, Lee simply replied, “Then die.” and kept running.  Little didn’t die and finished the run.  He then asked why Lee had said that.  Lee answered:

“Because you might as well be dead. Seriously, if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life.  It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being.  There are no limits.  There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.  A man must constantly exceed his level.”

Not to say you need Pai Mei beating you over the head with a stick, but a good teacher will push you and teach you how to overcome fear and pain so that your limitations become a memory.  Whether it’s a yoga teacher, martial arts instructor, tennis coach or personal trainer, find someone who will help you quiet the ego, tap into your true potential and build your confidence as a human being. It will make a difference in how you move through the world and interact with people.  Who knows, it could very well change your life.

Originally published August 29, 2011

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Washington Post Writer Meditates with Jennifer

Washington Post Writer Meditates with Jennifer