“Matt, you look comfortable…”

Uh-oh. That can’t be good.

Those words were spoken by Mark, my friend and martial arts instructor, in the middle of a workout last night. While I’ve been studying with Mark for more than a decade, its been difficult for me to give it the time it deserves over the last few years. Since I’ve been at Cornell, I’m lucky if I get in one workout a week.

Still this wasn’t the comment I was expecting. Out of shape? Sure. Rusty? Definitely. Looking like I can’t punch my way out of wet paper bag? Harsh, but unfortunately close to the truth. But comfortable? WTF? None of what I’m doing currently feels comfortable.

“Sifu, exactly what do you mean by comfortable?” I asked.

“It’s your stance…”

“What about it?”

“It’s all wrong. Your sitting on your back leg, you hips are shifted forward… you look comfortable.”

Oh… its that bad.

Losing one’s stance is a cardinal sin in the martial arts. Instructors drill into students that even in the most dynamic of martial arts, everything starts and returns to stance. Many incorrectly interpret this to mean that a stance as a static position, or worse, a moment of respite. Instead, one’s stance needs to exemplify dynamic stillness, allowing one the freedom of movement and action, of initiation, of response. If you don’t have stance, then you’ve lost the basis of everything that you do. Put simply, if your stance is crap, chances are everything else is too.

“Sorry Sifu. Can you help me find my stance again?”

And he did. It took a little while. Part of the problem is that I was “mashing up” the stances of different arts I’ve studied over the years. But part of the problem was a misunderstanding on my part.

“Sifu, I thought part of the process of making the stance your own is to get comfortable in it.”

“Ah… no. Your stance should be familiar, but never comfortable.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that since last night. It seems like one of those lessons that goes far beyond the martial arts. In my work at Cornell, and elsewhere, I often get down on myself because it feels like I’m fighting too hard to make things work. I often ask myself why isn’t this easier? But as with my stance, I need to abandon hopes (or promises) of comfort. After all, all comfort and ease provide is a false sense of security. It seems to me that familiarity is a better ideal to pursue.

Now, familiarity isn’t necessary a panacea. And it’s clear that one can get comfortably familiar with the wrong thing, see the beginning of this. But familiarity tethered to the “now” through work, if not discomfort — that seems like a particularly productive mode of being (in the world).