One of my favorite memories of my sifu occurred on such an event. Our whole kung fu family was together on the day of our birthday, and one of my fellow students bought Sifu a giant cake. He insisted Sifu make the first cut.
My sifu waved his hands and smiled his cresent-eye way, declining the invitation modestly. My simu (his wife) immediately shuffled me forward by the backs of my elbows and said robustly, “The birthday people together! The birthday people together to cut!”
This my sifu agreed to, and we stood before the cake together. As we held the cake knife with our right hands, he quietly instructed me as though it were a lesson. “Use power. Use power.”
And as we lifted the knife and pressed it into the angel food softness, he again stated firmly, “Use power.”
I was melting inside with adoration for this man, who used every opportunity to teach me his wisdom, but the absurdity of needing to use power in order to cut a cake was too much for my sense of humor and I smiled so big I thought I might break my cheeks.
It was only later that I realized my sifu’s seemingly-silly remark was much deeper than I knew, on many levels.
The first of which I discovered while chopping vegetables, and I found that if I made each cut by using power, as in moving from my lower dantien, I was able to have much more control and ease of movement in each chop.
The lower dantien is the energy center located three finger-widths below the navel, and is where we store all of our creative qi— the energy that inspires all movement and action. When you move from the dantien, you move from a place of absolute connectedness to the source of every motion.
In other words, when you “use power” you cut that cake with the whole of your being— all parts working together because the hand that holds the knife is moving simply as an outward manifestation of the inspiration an energetic movement has caused within your reservoir of creative energy.
That might seem deep, but it’s only the first layer to my sifu’s teaching.
The broader, spiritual teaching was to be revealed to me years later, and bit by bit. I have come to use his command on myself whenever I feel any sort of lack of gusto, motivation, or magic in my life. And it goes something like this:
Feeling sorry for yourself because you’re inside doing housework instead of playing in the sun?
Having a hard time getting motivated to organize that “I’ll deal with this later” paper pile?
Have a free afternoon that you might just nap away instead of working on your tai chi/ art/ chosen personal practice?
Walking the dog?
Brushing your teeth?
Every single action we take in life, whether mundane or magnificent, can be approached from a place of inspiration— if we so choose.
What happens when you make the choice to use power?
You take the authority to decide that whatever it is you are doing will be done with a specific intention.
You will the experience into being something you created deliberately.
For instance, say you’re like me this past week, feeling some vague, deep longing you cannot pinpoint. I could have easily spent my days doing the things I had to do: the housework, the animal chores, the—ahem— article writing, all the while ignoring the drip, drip, drip, into the pitch-black well in my stomach.
I could have hammered away at my weekly duties, feeling grumbly about it, and not listening to that feeling in my gut. Instead, I decided to stop, get quiet, and be still enough to really hear what it was that my body was telling me at the pit of my belly.
My stomach said, “If you continue to resentfully do these chores believing you have better, more poetic things to do with your life, you are not exercising your ability to decide that what you’re doing is inspired, significant, and poetic, no matter what it is.”
“What?” I responded, dumbly.
“Use power,” my gut told me.
Ah yes. These were words I understood. And I took the guidance of my belly just as swiftly and trustingly as if it were my sifu himself directing me.
I threw myself into my housework, vacuuming and wiping and organizing as if it were an installation piece I would show at MoMA.
I happily went about feeding, watering, and cleaning up after the dog, cats, ducks, and chickens like I might find a mystical message in the duck pond poop-water I was bucketing out to water the garden.
And while writing this article— well, I used power. I decided it would teach me every last bit of what it was I needed to learn about this unsettling feeling in my gut that made me think I needed something more from life.
By putting my all into my chores, my chores gave it all back to me, and more.
When you put your creative energy into what you do, the action creates energy within you.
After having completed my grunt work (not counting the writing, which I really do consider to be an artistic expression rather than a chore), I felt alive. I felt ready to throw myself into actions I had previously felt too tired, too busy, or too timid to tackle before.
I put on a dress my designer-friend had fashioned for me and I went outside to make some photos like I used to before I decided I had to be a entrepreneur instead of an artist. (Who says I can’t be both?)
The next day I looked outside my kitchen window and found the most peaceful view of a mother cow and her calf resting in the shade of a piñon, picturesquely adjacent the dramatically lit mesa peak in the distance. I made a film and put it to music.
On Thursday it was the full moon. I used to hold ceremonies on full moon nights, every single month. Instead of taking the too-tired ticket, yet again, I lit some incense, and created my altar in honor of the power that is shed on us from our moon at the peak of its cycle.
I felt rejuvenated, inspired, and alive. I was lit up again. I was me. I was living the poem of my life, in all its glory and mundanity.
Think about the things you have on your plate for the day, the week, or the month. Choose the thing you have been least looking forward to.
Now, I’m not saying you have to do it. You’ll get it done if you need to, and when. However, you have a choice here, that can take this chore and transform it into a tool for creating inspiration within you.
If you don’t know what I’m going to instruct you to do here, think of birthday cake.
Channeling my sifu now, I charge you with the duty of cutting the birthday cake that is your chosen chore from above (sounds like something spiritual here, when really I’m just referring to that thing you have to do this week.)
Need to visit your friend post surgery? Ignore your aversion to hospitals and go. Use power. Decide it will bring you inspiration.
Gotta call the phone company and negotiate lowering the fee you were charged? Use power. Decide you will learn something from the experience and feel better afterward, no matter what the outcome.
Bananas about to go from super spotted to black right there before your eyes on the kitchen counter? Use power. Turn those suckers into bread, baby! Decide to infuse every part of your soul into that batter and bake it into banana bread fit for the angels (they prefer cake that is light on sugar and heavy on inspiration, you know.)
The power to decide what you get out of what you do is yours alone.
Make your life your art.
Or, at the very least, next time you cut a cake (or banana bread, you there with the brown bananas), remember my sifu’s words. Cut that cake as if it were a brick; take all that creative energy and let it transform your experience.