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Zen And The Art of Dating

Listen in as the author of American Shaolin explains how his kung fu training paid off—in his relationships.

by Matthew Polly

hen I was young and foolish, I dropped out of college and traveled to the Shaolin Temple in China to study kung fu and Buddhism with the monks who had invented both. Most of the monks were in their late teens, and like adolescent boys from time immemorial, they were obsessed with something far more interesting than fighting with other boys—wrestling with teenage girls. Having no experience in the dating realm, they would come to me for advice, presumably because I, coming from the land that gave the world Baywatch, knew more than they did. I suppose they could have done worse in terms of a relationship counselor, though I’m not sure how. I tried to explain dating to them, and fortunately for my karma they ignored me. Looking back, older and hopefully a bit less foolish, I realize that it’s their advice that’s proved sage when it came to dating. Here, some kung fu lessons that I only wish I’d applied earlier to my love life.

Lesson 1: Practice Makes Perfect
The Shaolin monks have a saying, “I do not fear the 10,000 kicks you’ve practiced once; I
Don’t turn molehills into mountains… or mini-issues into molehills, either.
fear the one kick you’ve practiced 10,000 times.” My coach put me in the ring against far better fighters for months until one day I stopped being afraid of losing. And after that I started winning. The same holds true in dating. Before my first date ever (imagine a scrawny sixteen-year-old with braces wearing dad’s tie), I was so anxious I showed up with a note card in my pocket filled with a list of potential questions and topics of discussion to bring up in case the dinner conversation stalled.

When it comes to dating, we all feel like that gawky teenager at some point—and it can drive us to avoid opportunities. But if you put yourself out there, sure, there will be some awkward moments, but you’ll also be much more confident and polished when you do meet someone amazing. Just look at me—since that pre-rehearsed night out, I’m proud to say I no longer bring a note card on my dates. With all my years of experience, I have the topics and questions memorized.

Lesson 2: Don’t Fight Injured
The first time I hurt myself seriously at Shaolin, I showed up the next day for practice despite my injury only to be admonished by my Shaolin instructor to go back to my room and rest. Surprised, because the monks are legendary for their imperviousness to pain and I simply assumed he’d want me to tough it out, I inquired why. He replied, “You shouldn’t fight when hurt, you’ll just make the injury worse. Give yourself time to heal.”

The same can be said for relationships. The downside to constant practice is constant injury, and sometimes we all need time to regroup. Instead of trying to numb the pain of a breakup with a litany of dates — where you’ll be distracted, mopey, bitter, or worse — take some time to deal with what happened. When you do start that next
Give yourself time to heal: That goes for fighting and for love.
relationship, you’ll know yourself better and reduce your chances of repeating the heartbreak. In my case, that healing downtime usually takes several years, but then again I have a very low emotional pain threshold. Just ask the monks.

Lesson 3: Never Quit
Another phrase I learned at the temple is that, “It doesnt take real courage to fight when you still think you can win. It takes real courage to fight when all hope is gone.” While it is true that the person you’re seeing may not be that into you, you’ll never know unless you’re brave enough to try to save the relationship one last time. Too often a series of setbacks have us looking for the exit. Fighting to hold onto something that is good is an act of courage and grace. A note of caution, however: If none of your efforts are working or if the relationship itself is toxic, there does come a time to move on. Ideally, before the restraining order.

Lesson 4: Big Problems? No Problem
When a good friend of mine found himself in trouble with a member of the Chinese Triads (a group of criminals) and called me for backup, I went to my teacher for advice. Per usual, he quoted one of their sayings: “Turn big problems into small problems; turn small problems into no problems.” I approached the conflict with this no-mountains-out-of-molehills mindset and sure enough, what seemed insolvable was quickly diffused.

While this advice is certainly true in relationships, I find the reverse to be even more useful: “Don’t turn no problems into small problems; don’t turn a small problem into a big problem.” Too often it’s the petty arguments about the trash, the toilet seat, or the location of the car keys that spiral out of control, scattering unrelated relationship debris like a Kansas tornado. My last big blow-up with my girlfriend happened because she was sure she knew where we were going and I wanted to ask for directions (I know, I know: what gender role-reversal irony). What started out as simple disagreement grew so heated that we barely could look at each other for hours. But finally we reached a truce that returned us to no problems: She agreed to be more flexible about asking for directions; and I pretended to agree that we hadn’t in fact been lost. Sometimes love demands such compromises.


Matthew Polly is an award-winning travel writer for Slate and the author of mathew PollyAmerican Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch; An Odyssey in the New China.
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