Sunday, February 12, 2017

Emptying Your Cup: The Way of Internal Gongfu

The "empty the cup" metaphor is typically interpreted at the level of conceptual thinking. A summary of these interpretations is, "Set aside whatever concepts you have already formed and be open to learning without judging, comparing or weighing new experience or information against previous experience or information." Obviously, emptying the cup at this level is an important first step which by the way, can take a long time in and of itself! Going deeper, this kind of interpretation unfortunately is not readily understandable in terms of an internal gongfu practice. In this post I will try to explain how this and similar metaphors describe a key component of internal gongfu practice.

In addition to the "empty the cup" metaphor, there are also other terms and phrases which point to essentially the same meaning, for example:
"You must unlearn what you have learned." Yoda (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980).

"How can you fill your cup if it's already full? How can you learn gong-fu? You already know so much. ... Empty your cup." Lu Yan (The Forbidden Kingdom, 2008).

"Frankie likes to say that boxing is an unnatural act, that everything in boxing is backwards... To make a fighter, you gotta strip 'em down to bare wood. You can't just tell them to forget everything, you know; you gotta make 'em forget in their bones... Then you gotta show 'em all over again. Over and over and over... till they think they're born that way." Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Million Dollar Baby, 2004).

Wujifa uses terms such as "relax" and "let go".

Chen Taijiquan uses the term 放松 (fàng sōng); calm down.

Let's first start with Yoda's statement by asking, "What am I supposed to unlearn?"

Using my self as an example, my earliest learning was the way my childhood self unconsciously adopted the patterns of my parents; a combination of their emotional-muscular body structure became my emotional-muscular structure. Over time, I added an injury here, an emotionally traumatic event  there, a little scar tissue here, some facial adhesions there. All these added to my structure resulting in a unique emotional-muscular pattern. This is what I "learned"; not concepts but a particular emotional-muscular bodymind pattern. This then is what I have to "unlearn".

In terms of the body unlearning what it has learned since childhood, we may also think of this kinesthetic unlearning as being a process of emptying the cup. So you see, when "the cup" is a metaphor for the totality of my emotional-muscular body structure with its unique pattern of chronic tension and flaccidity, "emptying the cup" assumes an entirely different meaning!

Like boxing, there is nothing "natural" about developing whole-body connected movement. Everything about the process of getting there is completely backwards. I used to believe that learning whole-body connected movement followed the same learning or adding-to process as everyday activities. I was totally wrong! Everything about the process is completely backwards. To get to the highest level, I have to be stripped down to bare wood. Layer after layer after layer however long it takes.

From my experience, emptying the conceptual cup is the first hurdle. Many people can't get past this stage. After this, and sometimes concurrently, engaging in unlearning, emptying, stripping down, relaxing, letting go, calming down is the second hurdle. Many people get stuck at this stage... including me. However, coming back and persevering has its rewards.

Once the body unlearns, empties, relaxes, lets go, calms down enough to get to the "state" or "condition" where internal connection shows up spontaneously and naturally (without any effort to learn or achieve it), then and only then can learning begin. But this time, the learning is along the lines of learning how to develop this nascent and unique feeling. The body has drastically changed. The frame of reference has shifted. Questions arise from this new experience. A genuine Beginner's Mind emerges; the mind of the unlearned, empty cup, bare wood.

* * *

After two decades of training and not "getting it", my frustration peaked and I lost all hope of achieving my dream which eventually led to my giving up training stance. Recently I had an insight (from "You must unlearn what you have learned") in which I realized that my childhood instilled drive to learn was counterproductive to the bodily process that needed to occur; to unlearn! Something shifted.

And so this month I began practicing stance again. Now I dedicate time to allow the process of unlearning to work as it will. I'm finding that this shift in priority, from learning to unlearning, has fostered a different underlying approach to training stance. It's as if the intense desire to get has given way to a felt sense of.... (What word best describes what I'm feeling...?)

Unlearning precedes learning. Emptying precedes empty. Stripping down precedes bare wood. Relaxing precedes relaxed. Letting go precedes let go.

Standing Wujifa zhan zhuang is the process of unlearning, the process of emptying the cup, the process of stripping down to bare wood.

The cup must be emptied of the old body before it can be filled with the new body.

Happy practicing everyone!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Talking with Dying Loved Ones

Over this past year I've had the experience of my last visit with an acquaintance, a long-time friend (father surrogate figure), and a close family member, all of whom were literally on their death beds. In all three cases, I noticed that I was unable to articulate my "final words" to them because I was unable to speak through the emotion. Rather than being armored against the emotion I was feeling, conversely, I felt overwhelmed and controlled by it.

Most recently, with my family member, I had a flash of insight. I noticed that I was trying to force myself to quell the feeling so I could articulate what I wanted to say. Noticing changes everything. I then thought of the Wujifa principles of relax and allow. I hoped to discover where I could allow myself to feel my sadness AND express the heartfelt words that I wanted to express. Unfortunately, I did not succeed and the best I could muster was a "Love you" and "Thank you" and then the tears poured out.

As I reflect on these experiences , I remember learning in Wujifa class years ago that I have difficulty articulating my wants and needs. I experienced this difficulty again in the emotionally charged environment of my last visit with my dying friends and family. I regret now I did not work through this problem years ago. However, what is important is that I noticed and recognized how this blockage shows up in different situations. The question now is: "What am I going to do about it?"

For those who don't understand what this has to do with internal gongfu or how my verbal-emotional block can inhibit me from developing even more physical internal connection, let me try to explain it this way. The level of subtlety to which I can feel is not bounded by artificial constructs such as emotions, body, speech, etc...  If I cannot feel where the expression of intention is blocked in one area, then I will not be able to feel where the expression of intention is blocked in another area. The level to which I can feel is the level to which I can feel. My ability to feel applies equally and indiscriminately throughout my entire person.

If this is too abstract, here's a more practical example. Let's say I have the intention to punch you. If there is tension somewhere in the path between my fist and ground, this tension acts as a kind of blockage, like a log jam in a stream. In this case, the connection is not "clean" and thus, the pure expression of my intention is diluted to the extent of the blockage in the path.

In Wujifa I work on "relaxing"; discovering blockages and releasing them. This clarifies the path between the ground and my fist and clarifies the expression of my intention which increases the power that hits you. The intention to express myself can take many forms. I can have the intention to punch you. I can have the intention to articulate heartfelt words. Intention is intention. Expression is expression. Blockage is blockage. Discovering and releasing blockage purifies the expression of intention.

This is my wake-up call. I hope in some small way, it may be for you as well.

Happy practicing everyone!

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Method Is Not The Truth

"The method is not the truth. Once you get the feeling, get rid of the method." This is one of the many Wujifa sayings that I found very difficult to grasp. I cannot remember how many times our instructor would say, "Class, repeat after me, 'The method is not the truth. Once you get the feeling, get rid of the method.'" and we would repeat, "The method is not the truth. Once you get the feeling, get rid of the method."

No matter how many times over the years I would repeat this, invariably I would turn around and ask for another method. It literally took me fifteen years to really understand what is meant by a "method" in Wujifa. Here's what I have learned.

A method is a technique, a set-up, a posture, a stance, an exercise, an “it’s like”. A method is the finger pointing at the moon. A method is a way to allow a specific kinesthetic feeling to be elicited. My job is to simply notice the feeling that is being elicited through the method.

Maybe another way to say this is: Repeating an exercise, posture, stance, or form ad-nauseum for the sake of "practice and refinement" will NOT in and of itself, lead you to discover more subtle feelings of whole-body connectedness. There is a specific kinesthetic feeling that you need to notice which a well-designed method will point you to and once you experience this feeling, then you need to focus on the feeling because this feeling is an opening (to developing the feeling of connection) that you didn't know you were looking for.

From my years of trying to force methods to yield an imagined feeling within my existing kinesthetic paradigm (I think this is what I should feel), I now understand that it is impossible to imagine a kinesthetic feeling that I never felt before especially one as complex and simple as whole-body connection. In this game, the familiar logic of 1 + 1 = 2 is upended and in its place is 1 + 1 = 3 or 5 or 42 or whatever logically does not make sense in my present kinesthetic paradigm. Why do I say this? If you have not experienced the feeling of whole-body connected movement, then you are not familiar with the so-called "logic" involved to get there. Plain and simple! Never having experienced whole-body connected movement, I simply could not anticipate my route to get there. I was not in a position to judge which feelings were pointing in the right direction and which were not. This is where a qualified instructor is invaluable!

Well then, what about feeling? Can feeling in and of itself become a method? Sure! If you develop a feeling into a patterned response recalled from the past, that is, when a feeling becomes isolated, codified, a repeatable goal of practice, then even feeling itself becomes a method and you wind up stuck in the past and not connected in the present. To be present, to notice new feelings is to continue developing. Once you get the feeling of feeling, then there is no THE feeling, then there is FEELING.

Let's for example look at the first Wujifa 1-2-3-4 alignment. Getting into the best 1-2-3-4 you are currently capable of with an little additional coaching or adjustment, can elicit a feeling of more weight dropping into your legs. Once you get that feeling, then using that set-up to elicit dropping into legs becomes a method. If you continue going back to only that feeling, then you are stuck. If you use that method to elicit further relaxing and further dropping and noticing what shows up, that is, following the feeling the method is designed to elicit, then you are making progress.

It is OK to work with a method, to get the feel of something. This can bring a new feeling. If you are willing to step away from the method and follow the path, you will notice the feeling changing.

This is essentially the core of internal martial arts work. However, many internal martial art practices tend to lure in the unsuspecting with flashy qi-gong exercises and so-called "qi feelings". Remember, qi-gong is a method! People can also get lured in by the siren's call of "advanced exercises". These too are simply methods. In fact, the most advanced method is the simplest and the simplest is the most advanced: stand and relax. Anything else should be custom tailored to you to help you to feel more or connect more. This is where a qualified instructor can notice for you, can notice what you are feeling and guide you to opening more to more feeling.

Chasing methods became a trap for me. Please avoid the mistake I made. When the method becomes more important to you than feeling, take this as a sign that you're on the wrong track. When there is no feeling or when you are stuck at one level of feeling, remind yourself, "The method is not the truth. Once you get the feeling, get rid of the method." Then you can begin practicing in earnest... again...

Happy practicing everyone!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Noticing Language's Impact on the Development of Connection

Have you ever thought about how the language you speak could inhibit your development of internal connection? As I've mentioned repeatedly throughout this blog, we have no words in the English language to describe the various kinesthetic feelings associated with developing internal connection. This linguist handicap is one factor contributing to the difficulty of teaching, learning and explaining the internal arts. And as we say in Wujifa, "Noticing changes everything!"

It is said that the Eskimos have 50 words for snow while we in the English-speaking continental U.S. have only one word; snow.  Similarly, in English we have one word "Love" and we use this one word to express feeling across a wide variety of relations. Does this mean that we have the exact same "love" feeling for a spouse, a pizza, a long-time friend? Probably not, but when a variety of subtle and nuanced feelings are constrained to be expressed through just one word, the result is the generalization and reduction of the complexity of the nuanced feelings to a single overall feeling devoid of its subtle nuances. We numb-down our ability to discern-feel subtle nuances.

This exact same phenomena occurs in the so-called field of "body-mindfulness" exercises of which yoga and Tai-chi are probably the most well-known. The term "body-mindfulness" is used much the same way as our word "love". It is used to describe in vague and ambiguous terms any kind of body-awareness regardless of how superficial or how deep and nuanced the experiences may be.

Now, let's consider the article, The Ancient Greeks’ 6 Words for Love (And Why Knowing Them Can Change Your Life) . Whether there really are six words or not, the proposition nevertheless provides an opportunity to explore nuances of our word "love". Here are the six words from this article:

1. Eros, or sexual passion.
2. Philia, or deep friendship.
3. Ludus, or playful love.
4. Agape, or love for everyone
5. Pragma, or longstanding love
6. Philautia, or love of the self

Take a moment and recall a couple different relationships that might have different nuances in feeling along the lines of the above. Can you notice something that you had not previously felt-noticed before? Even if you only notice a barely perceptible hint of a variation in the "love" feeling, this is a step to feeling a little bit deeper. What you can do in one area, you can apply in another area.

Now, assume that "body-mindfulness" likewise has many subtle kinesthetic-emotional feelings. In the same way that you begin to feel and discern various love feelings, you can begin to feel and discern various kinesthetic-emotional feelings in your internal gong-fu practice. Feeling is feeling.

In Wujifa there is the saying, "The method is not the truth. Once you get the feeling, get rid of the method." This applies here as well. Discovering and identifying various kinesthetic-emotional feelings is a method to help you develop the ability to feel deeper and relax deeper until connection begins to show up. You may want to name the feelings you notice, but it's not necessary. The important point is to notice and build connection between your pre-conscious bodily feeling and your consciousness; I can feel ______ . This is another step along the journey.

Connection will never be discovered if you only have the ability to distinguish the lack of body-mindfulness from a rudimentary body-mindfulness. In many cases, those who speak of body-mindfulness have only peeled the first layer of the proverbial onion and have mistaken the first layer to be the entirety of the onion. Having only one word "body-mindfulness" to describe the multitude of kinesthetic-emotional experiences is like having only one word for "snow" or one word for "love". It is too vague, too generalized, too ambiguous, too numbed-down. It says something and says nothing both at the same time.

And so, rather than looking for that one special feeling that everyone says is "It", invest in noticing variety and nuance throughout your body. The more nuances you can feel is a fair indicator of how deeply you can feel. How deep you can feel is an indicator of how deep you can relax. And in this process, you may discover that our English word "relax", like "love", also has a variety of subtle and nuanced feelings.

Happy practicing everyone!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Yinyang Body vs. Wuji Body

The most profound insight I've had so far is the recent realization that as the body transforms, so too do the thinking processes and the linguistic expression of those body-based thinking processes. For many, many years I was completely clueless to this. Let's dig in...

First, let's agree to the premise which is:
Thought processes (and their projection through language) are congruent with bodily experience. 
Next, let's define our terms. "Yin" represents emotional-muscular flacidity or limpness and "Yang" represents emotional-muscular hypertonicity or rigidness. Therefore, a yin-yang body is one that is composed of a unique patterning of emotional-muscular flacidity/limpness (yin) and emotional-muscular hypertonicity/rigidness (yang). This is the typical or usual body of almost everyone (even many so-called internal-martial arts practitioners).

In terms of thought processes and the linguistic expression of these thought processes, the yinyang body-mind (person) operates from a position of duality or polarity. A body that is composed of a mix of emotional-muscular flaccidity (yin) and hypertonicity (yang) creates a perspective that is fundamentally dualistic (yinyang).

The second premise is that:
Everyone begins their Wujifa training with a yinyang body and through Wujifa training, progresses toward developing a Wuji body.

The Wuji body is one, unified body. Through years of practice, the state of flaccidity and hypertonicity (yinyang) resolves into a state of relaxed connection (Wuji). This means that emotional-muscular flacidity/limpness and emotional-muscular hypertonicity/rigidness are slowly* transformed into a unique state of relaxed connectedness. This is a different lived-experience of the body as compared to the lived-experience of the yinyang body.

( * Let me clarify "slowly". If a practitioner has a lot of resistance to changing existing emotional-muscular patterns, then working-through and getting rid of these patterns could take a long time. In fact, "getting it" happens spontaneously, instantaneously, like an on/off switch. You don't train to "get it", rather you train to get rid of that which prevents connection from showing up. This is a crucial distinction to understand!)

In terms of thought processes and the linguistic expression of these thought processes, the Wuji body-mind (person) operates from a position of connection or unity. A body that is composed of a unified structured connectedness creates a perspective that is fundamentally unified.

The student (with a yinyang body) who is able to grasp this concept will realize that it is misguided to believe that someone with a Wuji body is somehow "on the same wavelength". For example, a Wujifa student asking a question from a yinyang perspective may be answered from a Wuji perspective. Sometimes the answer makes sense and sometimes it doesn't (from a yinyang perspective).

And so now, after years of training, I am beginning to understand why my instructor thinks and talks so differently from the way many beginning students think and talk; from the way I used to think and talk. With each advancement I make, I realize that I am still just beginning to learn about the power of Wujifa internal gong-fu.

Happy practicing everyone!