We all gathered in the abandoned training hall two hours before dawn. Despite only needing to wake up an hour earlier than usual, we were all exhausted. This early and in such unusual conditions, we had difficulty keeping the expressions off our faces. I imagined the same reason was true for the others as for myself: I could barely calm my mind last night. Thoughts were constantly whirring through my head, intermingled with excitement and worry, though mostly the former. Special training was nearly unheard of in the temple and was usually reserved for true prodigies who reached the level of graduate years early compared to the normal students.
So, despite our exhaustion, we stood before Sifu An with a strange energy that blew away most of the cobwebs in our mind. For now.
He took us in for a moment, and then quickly nodded to himself. “Good. I had half-expected at least one of you not to show today.” He said, though his gaze does not betray who he’d expected. I’m surprised by this. Surely none of us would pass up such an opportunity? I scan my friends’ faces, but they do not betray themselves either. Nobody is quite tired enough to let thoughts like that slip.
I snap back to attention as Sifu An’s eyes bore into me. Looking hard at me, he seems to come to a decision.
“There were a few lessons I was mulling over teaching you first, but one in particular now stands out. I need to teach you children how to mask your thoughts as well as your faces. Better, preferably.”
Shield our thoughts? So I was right! Sifu An can-
“Yes, Xu, I can. All the Sifu can, and most graduates.” My gaze wanders to Ran and Thom, who blanch at this revelation but quickly recover. Chou simply stares impassively at the Sifu, her poise not in the least disturbed. I snap to attention again as Sifu An continues. “Normally we have to concentrate a bit. But your thoughts are so loud you’re practically screaming everything that crosses your mind at me. It is distracting, and tiring. Tolerable when I’m teaching brief lessons to a large group, but untenable in this more intimate setting.”
I nearly flinch at that assessment. How was I meant to know that he could hear my every thought? I’ve never desired to annoy anyone or be a nuisance.
“Perhaps it’s for the best in any case. Masking and projecting are fundamental skills which will build to some of the more complex topics I must cram into you in such a short time. As good a place to start as any, and better than most.”
He looks around to see if any of us have questions. There are clearly many, but none voiced.
“Ran, Thom, pair off. Xu and Chou, you do the same. These should be the best pairs. Sit as if you’re meditating.”
There is a brief shuffle as we all comply. We sit and look at Sifu An curiously. Where is he going with this?
“Now, listen carefully. You will initiate a session of image training, but do not fight. Simply converse, that is the first step. The easiest, truth be told. If you’d given it much thought you would have at least attempted this instead of sneaking off to your cubby hole the other night to have a chat.”
This time we all did jerk in surprise. Well, not complete surprise, we’d always suspected the Sifu knew where and when we snuck off, but to have it so blatantly stated…
Sifu An continues.
“After you are comfortable with the mechanism of speaking, seek to remove your partner from your mind. If one succeeds, the other will attempt until they get it right. Questions?”
I open my mouth, and for once barely beat Thom to the punch. We both speak over each other.
“And how are we supposed to-“
“How do we do that?”
We look at each other and quirk our lips slightly. Sifu An shakes his head slightly.
“I can’t tell you that. It’s different for everyone, more of a feeling than a technique. Think of it similar to learning to walk. You can be given the opportunity, and shown the mechanism, but you must figure it out for yourself. If any of you truly struggle I can give you an example using my own mind, but it’s better to try it yourselves first.”
I nod. The explanation makes sense, though Sifu An is unusually talkative today. Perhaps it is a mark of our status as graduate students now. Though Sifu An locking eyes with me and shaking his head seems to dispel that notion. Then why? I barely have time to formulate the thought before the Sifu’s order jogs me out of the line of questioning.
“Begin!” he shouts, as if we’re starting a sparring session. Which perhaps we are, in a way.
I throw my mind at Chou’s, and begin to plan my next move, almost out of reflex. I stop myself from throwing the claw strike and concentrate on simply standing in front of her. I’ve never stopped to look at my surroundings while image training but decide to do so now. Chou also looks around curiously. What I see is…the room we’re in. But not quite right.
The edges of the room seem fuzzy, and some things seem out of place. I believe that tree is meant to be a few paces to the left. Except…now it is. Or perhaps it always was. Curious.
I open my mouth to greet Chou. “Ar-“ I begin, before a loud booming sounds out “ARE YOU READY TO BEGIN?”
We both clutch our heads in pain. “M-“ “MY APOLOGIES.” My voice rings out again, crowding over the words my mouth is forming. After we’ve recovered from the pain this time, Chou shoots me a very nasty look and gestures for me to stop.
We both take a moment to think before Chou lightly snaps her fingers and simply looks at me.
“I believe I’ve figured it out. Can you hear me?”
I nod my head.
“You don’t need to speak out loud. I think there’s an issue because your actual body is speaking at the same time you’re forming the words. It’s doubling the sounds.”
That makes perfect sense, in a way. And yet not. I’ll have to ask Sifu An about this. In the meantime, I focus my mind on Chou, and simply think about what I want to say.
“That makes sense, thank you.” I say. I’m delighted it works.
We both smile at each other, free to do so openly in the privacy of our minds.
“So, what now? Talking seems easy enough, but how are we supposed to remove each other?” I ask.
“No idea. But we have to try something.”
We sit and think for a moment. That in itself startles me; I don’t remember seating myself again, but here we are. Ah, that gives me an idea.
“It seems our thoughts manipulate our surroundings, at least somewhat. That explains why the sparring sessions are so quick. Things happen even as we’re forming the thoughts of doing them.”
Chou nods her head. “I was thinking along similar lines. It’s what I did to Thom. I thought about what if I hit him with a paralyzing strike. Not throwing the attack, but just ‘I hit him with it’, you know? And he just froze up. All I had to do was keep repeating that thought and he couldn’t move.”
I didn’t quite understand what she meant, but the basic idea sort of made sense.
So…’Chou is gone’ I think to myself.
From the way Chou is concentrating on me, she had similar thoughts. Well, what if I-
I blink as my eyes shoot open, and I’m looking into Chou’s triumphant expression, which quickly fades to a look of muted pride as she realizes we’re outside of the…what do you call it, actually?
Sifu An answers my unspoken question. “Mindscape, Sifu Jacque called it. The landscape of your mind. Others have called it other things. The theater of the mind, the mental plane…some just ‘the training area’, if they use it mostly just for image training. It doesn’t really matter what you call it as long as you gain understanding of how to use it.”
‘Mindscape’. Makes sense.
“It’s my turn now, Chou.” Is all I say before diving back in.
Despite my bravado, I don’t have much more of an idea of how to force her out than I did before she forcibly ejected me.
Imagining her gone hadn’t worked, so what about…no. No. No.
Nothing I try works for over an hour. Chou looks impatient, as do I.
“Perhaps we should take a break?” she suggests.
It’s tempting, but no. I’m on the edge of a breakthrough, I feel. If I could just…no. I give up.
And then it happens. I feel a slight itch at the back of my brain. My perspective flips, and Chou is gone! I open my own eyes and smile, just a bit. Sifu An seems pleased as well.
“Good. You’ve all done it. Faster than most, though not the fastest I’ve seen. Remember that feeling. It’s a bit different for everyone, as I mentioned. As you practice more the sensation will become more natural. You can expel untrained invaders with ease. Trained ones are more difficult, which we’ll go over after lunch.”
Lunch? I do feel hungry, but surely we haven’t been here nearly seven hours already.
“Nearly nine hours, actually. It will be a late lunch for you, but it’s important to figure this out in one sitting if possible. Time is strange inside of a mindscape and passes like a dream. That, too, you can learn to manipulate to your advantage. But eat now, and take an hour’s rest after you do. You may feel as though you’ve just been sitting and doing nothing for all this time, but your minds will be fatigued. After you’ve rested, we’ll end the day with a…lecture, I suppose you could call it. Theory, rather than practice.”
My eyebrows nearly rise of their own accord, but I fight them down. We’ve never been given such a lengthy rest period after a single lesson before. Surely…
My own thoughts trail off as my head begins to fuzz, for lack of a better word. My vision closes to a small point and my breathing echoes in my ears. It takes several minutes to recover myself as Sifu An and my friends look at me with concern, but not surprise.
“A normal response after this kind of training; Ran and Thom had the same reaction as well. As I said, the rest is earned. And needed. Take it.”
I don’t think of arguing any further.
After we’ve all wolfed down our meals, and gone back for seconds, we look around at the dining room. It is largely empty, meals having been served a couple of hours before. The kitchen crew looked at us askance as we came in for a late meal, but there was no rule against it, necessarily. It’s simply that Most students are on a regimented schedule that outs them here much earlier. Any delays are usually for the students in their last three years of training, if a session runs long, and encompasses much larger groups.
With the place mostly empty, we feel comfortable talking -quietly- about our training. I was the last to complete the test, but not by as much as I thought. What surprises me is that Thom was the first to throw his opponent out of his head.
“It was almost instant, or at least it felt like it.” Ran says, rueful. “One second we agree to start, and the next there’s an overwhelming pressure and we’re out. It was over within an hour, is what Sifu An told me. Not quite a record, but impressive.”
Thom clearly suppresses the urge to preen a bit. “It was easy! It’s kind of like pushing someone out of a room. You just pick them up a bit and shove, and they’re out.”
Chou was second, which doesn’t surprise me at all, and Ran came in a distant third, not far ahead of me. This makes me feel a bit better. For a while I’d assumed I was particularly slow, but Ran and Thom assured me they hadn’t been waiting too long for us both to finish.
The more detailed accounts backed up Sifu An’s words, time was strange inside of a mindscape. And everyone apparently experienced it differently. What felt like an hour to me was three hours outside and felt even longer for Chou.
“I had to find something to occupy my time, so I started seeing how much you could change around you in there. I didn’t manage much, but I could make the trees look livelier and imagine some nice birds lived in them like outside in the main training courtyard. I was going stir crazy by the time you were done though Xu. I’m glad you finished when you did.”
The conversation soon hit a lull after that, as we all tried to relax for a bit. A nap would have been welcome, but was sadly off the table with how little time we had left, so we simply sat and enjoyed each other’s company for the remainder of the hour.
When we returned, Sifu An had us all sit. Surprisingly, he joined us. He had a small frown on his face.
“Before we continue with your lessons, I need to address something. The virtue of Control is important. You are taught that from a young age. And it is. However, it is my belief that the application of that virtue is flawed.”
I suppress surprise at Sifu An’s words-
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about.” The Sifu continues, looking directly at me.
“Somewhere along the way the message has been twisted. Being in control of your emotions and displays of them is important, but suppressing your feelings is unhealthy. And a difficult habit to un-learn. It leaves many of our graduates stiff, inflexible, and unprepared for shocks of intense emotion. I am not telling you to express every thought you have, but you are all old enough to understand when and why it is appropriate to express some emotion.”
“You will continue the practice of maintaining your masks outside of these classrooms. Sifu Ma and many of the other Traditionalists hold the opposite opinion from me, and they are the majority. And it is good to express that outward calm among those you are less familiar or comfortable with. But I chose this out of the way classroom for a reason; none will disturb us here. Don’t waste your energy on unnecessary things. We don’t have the time for that. And the mental arts require much focus and poise in themselves. Control is an inward thing more than it is an outward one, besides any petty displays meant to impress the uninitiated. Focus on that.”
We all stare at him. I almost expect some kind of trap, but Sifu An has never been that kind of teacher. And he’s never steered us wrong before, in all our over a decade of training at Gao Shansi. Ran is the first to break the silence.
“Thank you, Sifu An.” she says, giving him a small smile. It’s not much, but it’s genuine, and the Sifu returns it with his own.
“With that said, I’ll begin explaining the theory behind what you’ll be learning in the coming weeks.”
The lesson was long, Sifu An talking for nearly three hours before he deemed that enough for the day. Nevertheless, we sat, openly riveted. It felt…freeing to simply be able to express my open interest in what was being said, rather than a polite impassiveness, whether we enjoyed the lesson or not.
He spoke of the advantages of gaining mastery of the mindscape, many of which were self-evident. A conference lasting hours and covering complex topics could be started and held in a mere few minutes. Communications held in a room full of curious watchers, unable to detect or interrupt a conversation. We were perhaps more fascinated by his tangent into explaining how they could be used for entertainment of all things, creating our own little worlds to inhabit in free time or as we slept.
While no new information could be learned, he explained, it became easier to process things we’d already learned given the extra uninterrupted time to study or simply mull over that information as we rested.
We occasionally interrupted with questions, but they were few and far between, and quickly answered. The answer to my experience with learning to communicate with Chou -apparently shared by Ran and Thom- was more interesting than I’d initially thought it would be.
“While in a mindscape, you are still dimly aware of your surroundings, and connected to your body. As you advance, I will teach you how to keep moving and react to stimuli while sharing another’s mind. It is taxing, and has severe drawbacks, but is sometimes useful. In any case, forming words inside your head, expressing them aloud, which you hear, which is processed by your brain, and so on is painful. If you think words are painful, hopefully you never have to experience what happens when a person invading your mindscape strikes a blow against you in both at the same time…”
He goes on and ends with perhaps the most important thing to know about what we’ll be learning.
“As I mentioned before lunch, expelling an untrained opponent from your mind is simple. The difficult task is learning how to expel a trained opponent. A true invader will not leave simply because you will it; their own will anchors their mind in yours. It is a difficult and harrowing task, and not guaranteed to work without causing harm to one or both of you. You will learn that skill eventually, but tomorrow we will instead shore up your mental defenses and prevent unwanted visitors from getting inside your head in the first place. This will have the welcome side effect for us all of closing your minds off from casual inspection and prevent involuntary broadcasting.”
“And once you’ve learned the basics, you will attempt to weather a direct assault from myself.”