Mindful Kung Fu: The Wisdom of Master Oogway and the Power of Living in the Present
While frequently seen as a “children’s movie,” Kung Fu Panda has many wonderful aspects and lessons that can be learned at any age. These lessons include embracing yourself for who you are, utilizing your strengths, understanding the importance of community support, and many more. But there is one lesson that can be taken from Kung Fu Panda which is incredibly important and, unlike some of the other lessons from the movie, is quite direct.
Fairly early in the film, there is a scene where Po is still new to the Jade Palace. In this scene, he is sneaking around at night when he is confronted by Master Tigress, a long-time student of the Jade Palace. She tells him very candidly, “You don’t belong here,” and implies that his mere presence is disrespectful. This, understandably, sends Po reeling. This is amplified by the fact that not only has Po been struggling with his identity, but it has always been his dream to be on the same team as his heroes, such as Master Tigress. In this scene we are able to see how Po initially handles rejection from one of his biggest heroes.
In the very next scene, we find Po coping with this situation by eating some sacred peaches and contemplating leaving the Jade Palace to return to his life as a noodle vendor. Like some of us, Po turns to food when he is upset. And like some of us, Po deflects when confronted about it. It is in this scene that we get our quote that is the basis of this whole post. As Po eats, he is approached by Master Oogway, the wise leader of the Jade Palace. After Po shares his troubles, Master Oogway responds by saying: “Quit; don’t quit. Noodles; don’t noodles. You are too concerned with what was and what will be. There is a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it’s called the present.”
This is a perfect example of why Master Oogway runs the Jade Palace: unlike his students who struggle with what was and what will be through the course of the film, he understands the power and wisdom of living in the present moment. In our modern world, we are constantly moving from one thing to the next. It can be difficult to truly be present in the moment when we are thinking about what we want to have for lunch, that paper that’s due, or what traffic is going to be like on the way home. All of these thoughts, even the good ones, can lead to high levels of stress and anxiety. This in turn contributes to burnout, dissatisfaction, distracted, and even small problems can become overwhelming.
So how do we address this stress and anxiety? One option is to follow the words of Master Oogway and bring our attention and focus to the present moment. We can cultivate this mindset through mindfulness practice. This practice is about calmly bringing a non-judgmental awareness to each present moment. It’s much easier said than done, but that’s why it’s referred to as a practice. And when we are able to bring our non-judgmental awareness to the present, it can help to diminish some of the external forces contributing to our discomfort.
For example, if you are stuck in traffic, you can sit there and stress about being late and the potential consequences of tardiness. The other option is to take a deep breath and try to be in the
moment where it is just us and our car, listening to the sounds and feeling the sensations around
us. Another way we can practice is with social media. For example, if you are in the middle of working on a project and are getting bored, we may be tempted to check out a new Facebook (or other social media) notification. So, you take a quick second to check and see. Then, forty-five minutes later, there we are still scrolling through our Facebook feed. On the other hand, you can keep yourself in the present moment and task by employing mindfulness techniques and save our Facebook scrolling for when we have a break.
So how do you go about staying in the present? As previously mentioned, one of the key elements to mindfulness is maintaining an outlook of non-judgement. From there, you find and identify different sensations to bring our attention to our immediate surroundings. This can be to certain sounds, such as bringing your attention to what someone is saying, to music, to the sounds of nature. Maybe it is sensations, such as how your body feels sitting in a seat, how your feet feel in our shoes, or the breeze on your face. We can also bring our attention to the present by focusing on the breath. Are you breathing short and shallow or long and deep? How is your body reacting to our breath? What does the breath itself feel like (cool inhale, warm exhale)?
Remember that throughout this whole process you will probably have thoughts or other sensations that sneak their way into your mind and distract you from your focus. But that is okay! The point is not to force all your thoughts away or bury them somewhere deep within. When these thoughts and sensations make their appearance, take the time to recognize them, label them, and then caringly bring the attention back to the present or task at hand. Do this again and again. Every time you find your thoughts wondering or jumping around, just kindly and lovingly bring our attention back to your focus point. Work towards not placing any judgement on how many times you have to do this and don’t beat yourself up when struggling to maintain our focus.
Another key to a successful mindfulness practice is that we give ourselves permission to take a break when we need it. We should not be exhausting ourselves with a constant struggle to maintain focus. Take some time to do something different if you find yourself getting frustrated or exhausted. Take a nap, play a game, take the dog for a walk. Whatever it is, give yourself permission to rest from your practice so that you can return to it later and do so with joy.
Eventually, you may even find that there are opportunities for quick, mindful moments throughout the day. Maybe you hit that traffic red traffic light. This could be a perfect opportunity to take some breaths and get your attention to the sensations of driving, taking time out of your day to bring a small mindful meditation into your life. Another way is to block out twenty minutes (or whatever works for you) of quiet and distraction-free focus. No matter what, take those moments to practice and practice frequently. And remember:
“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it’s called the present” -Master Oogway
Zachary Dehler Egan (Zac, He/Him) is a Licensed Master Social Worker with a focus for helping people foster emotional and social growth and healing. He is passionate about utilizing geek/pop culture based therapy for individuals 14 and older. This includes tapping into people's fandoms, utilizing board and tabletop games, and even video games to help people achieve their mental health and social skills goals. While still just a padawan therapist, Zac has received training in using Solutions Focused Brief Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Mindfulness therapy which he incorporates into his sessions and interventions. He also loves playing Tabletop Role Playing Games, Tabletop Wargames; reading Fantasy and Science Fiction books; watching movies and video gaming. Some of his fandoms include Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC Comics, Disney/Pixar and animation in general, and The Wheel of Time series.