Monday, September 24, 2012

How Beliefs Can Inhibit Internal Martial Art Skill Development

When I began learning Tai-chi Chuan, I developed a belief about what constitutes internal martial art skills and what is required to develop them. (This belief was a strange brew of beliefs about Tai-chi Chuan, Daoism, Qigong, and New Age precepts.) Unfortunately, this belief didn't lead me to the results I wanted. Years later when I got into Wujifa, I noticed people making good progress even though they "lacked" the experience and belief that I had. How was it that they were progressing and I wasn't?

I now realize that much of my struggle in learning Wujifa was an attempt to reconcile my earlier belief with a very down to earth, elegantly simple yet highly effective practice as I found in Wuijifa. Ironically, my belief about internal martial art skill development was counter-productive to my developing internal martial art skills.

In a recent Wujifa class, I asked my teacher about why this happens. His response was:
"In Wujifa, the first saying is 'You are where you are and that's where you start.' People have disconnects between their physical reality and mental belief systems. Certain belief systems will color the way they understand everything else. Wujifa doesn't contest that but asks people to come with an open mind or at least temporarily leave their belief system on the shelf so they can look at the functional realities of simple practices like standing (zhan zhuang). Wujifa looks first at the alignment of the feet, then the knees, then the pelvis and finally the shoulders and head. This kind of functional practice can yield a new understanding if the person is willing to temporarily set their biases aside.

In Daoism, there is a saying that goes something like, 'The best place to hide the universe is in the universe'. This means that the answers are often very practical and right in front of you but you don't see them because you complicate them too much.

Copernicus and Galileo explained that the earth revolves around the sun. But if you are walking from your home to the next town, the aid of a flat map will serve you better than the astrophysics of planetary movement. Often, people don't make this distinction. And so, the problem with belief systems is that they can get too complicated and not provide practical maps for developing a functional, kinesthetic means of understanding."
So, yeah, I had developed this really complex belief about internal martial arts over years of integrating a wide variety of ideas from many teachers, masters and scholars. I thought this was the right way to go. When I got to Wujifa, I was the guy trying to interpret the simple road map to town through using the complicated astrophysical map from the earth to the moon.

Here's what I mean. The concept of "Qi flow". I have a belief built around these two words. But when I explore this concept outside of the usual stories and my belief, I learn that the word "Qi" is quite ambiguous; its meaning is often colored by the context in which it is used. So if I am locked into accepting the typical Western translation and my belief, then I may misinterpret a learning opportunity and not learn what is being  plainly and unambiguously presented to me.

For instance, many years ago I was at a Chen Xiaowang Silk Reeling seminar. He adjusted my arm. "Qi flowing." He adjusted my arm again, "Qi not flowing". He adjusted my arm again. "Qi flowing." Understand?

He was graciously giving me the opportunity to experience, namely: This is the feeling of proper structural alignment through the arm and this is not. This is the feeling you're looking for and this is not. The words were merely pointers to help bring a feeling to my conscious awareness.

Unfortunately, I was so caught up in adding that simple experience of "Qi flow" to my belief system about "Qi flow" that I missed the simple lesson he was giving me. It took me ten years to learn this lesson.

I share this with the hope that you might learn from what I learned so you that don't make the same mistake and miss ten years of development.

Happy training everyone!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Internal Martial Arts Books: Sorting Fact From Fiction

For the newcomer to Chinese internal martial arts, sorting fact from fiction is a near impossible task. In that beginner's enthusiasm, there is a tendency to trust all published material at face value. However, doing so could "muddy the waters" of developing a functional framework for practicing the internal arts.

As you know, books are typically divided into categories by subject area. For example, the Book Industry Study Group lists "Martial Arts & Self-Defense" under "Sports & Recreation". Alternatively, Plum Publications, my favorite site for martial arts books and DVDs, categorizes martial arts books by style.

Point being, if you want to find a book on Chinese internal martial arts, you are largely restricted to using the category listings of the book seller. This system may not serve your best interest. And so while these categories are effective at the level of grouping topics or titles, they do not answer the fundamental concern, "Can I trust what the author has written?"

Hopefully, applying the categories below will help you sort fact from fiction both in your book selection process and while reading that which you've selected...

Academic Scholarship
These books and journal articles may be direct translations of primary sources (original documents in the original "source" language) with an accompanying analysis or interpretation. These can also be presentations of original field research. These works can reference prior scholastic publications and typically provide footnotes and a lengthy bibliography. Works are published by a university press and meet the rigors of the scholastic, peer-reviewed methodology.

Non-Academic Scholarship
These books and journal/magazine articles are usually well written. "Facts" may be presented but the source document where this "fact" originated may or may not be referenced; may or may not be reference-able. These works may or may not include a section on "Further Reading". Quality can vary by publisher.

Autobiographical Experience or Point of View
These books and journal/magazine articles are primarily experience-based or perspective-based and typically do not include efforts at being a work of non-academic scholarship. Some of these works may include a section on "Further Reading" and are also published by a wide variety of presses.

Evaluating Chinese Nei-Gong Books
Given these three broad ways of viewing books on Chinese internal martial arts, how can you use this information to be more selective in your reading and to get a clearer understanding of what the author really has to offer?

First, there is value in reading books and articles in each of these categories. Each has something to offer and conversely, each has a hidden danger. Here are some Pros and Cons:

Academic Scholarship
  • Pro: Peer review process maintains certain academic publishing standards. It keeps everyone in line. Scholars in academia have a different audience and criteria of success than martial arts teachers publishing and selling their own books.

    Sometimes, too, scholars will re-publish their Ph.D. dissertations in a more easily accessible format for public consumption. These re-workings may either appear as books or articles.

  • Con: What is considered acceptable academic work in contemporary, scholarly circles may exclude certain documents, translations or traditions from consideration. For example, martial artists of old were usually not literate and so there is no written documentation that scholars can reference. And where old martial family poems do exist, these are usually not translated correctly by scholars because these poems are written in a "code" whose meaning is only relevant to the practitioners of that style.

    Even within academia, scholars may not be in complete agreement over certain points. Be wary of taking one author's point of view as absolute truth without reading others in the same field.

    Scholars of today look back on scholarship of even a century ago and assign new understandings and interpretations. Just because a scholar makes a particular interpretation today does not mean that that interpretation can stand the test of time. Pay attention to publication date.

    Some popular books in China about martial arts (as well as their translations) may be problematic due to the close relation of the media and publishers to the central government. I once read a bi-lingual "History of Chinese Martial Arts" which was published by a reputable university press in China and parts of it contradicted American scholarship on this topic. Who's right? Who's wrong? What and how much is a matter of interpretation? I don't know.

Non-Academic Scholarship
  • Pro: Publishing houses have a reputation to maintain though what qualifies as "publishable" is not as narrowly defined as at a university press. A wider range of valuable material can be found here.

  • Con: When references and citations are not required, editors, and not a stringent peer review process may allow some questionable documents and interpretations to be published. It can be difficult to know which authors are telling the truth.

    Some earlier books on the internal martial arts may reference "historical facts" as they were known at that time. Since then, more recent scholarship may have updated these "facts". Some newer works reference these older works and out-dated "facts" instead of the more current historical "facts". Pay attention to publication date.

Auto-biographical and Personal Experience
  • Pro: Probably one of the best sources of good insights on internal martial arts practice! These can be particularly valuable in learning how another practitioner describes his or her internal experience or how another practitioner approaches the art. You've found a real gem if the author includes challenges and problems as well as gains and triumphs. Finding someone who shares both the good and bad is more likely to be telling the truth; reporting their true experience.

    After reading a few of these accounts, you may begin to understand how the same or similar experiences can be described in different ways. And you may also learn that you don't necessarily need to force yourself into an alien paradigm to learn and acquire nei-gong skill sets.

  • Con: When the author claims everything is great and there are no problems, or talks about extra-ordinary powers, you may wonder, "Is this for real?" Sure enough, people can imagine and fabricate all kinds of stories.

The bottom line is that it may take you as long to learn how to distinguish fact from fiction and real from fake as it takes to develop internal skill itself. And it may be the case that the two go hand-in-hand; until you start to get some skill of your own, it is difficult to sort out all that has been written on the subject.

In all my years of pursuing and later learning what's required to develop internal skills, I have to admit that all the reading I've done over the past two decades has not contributed one iota to my developing internal skills. Learning and practicing under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher is of paramount importance!

Reading and developing theoretical frameworks and memorizing lineages and history and staying current in the field all have their place. Just keep in mind that reading is no substitute for feet-on-the-floor practice if your goal is to develop physical skills!

Finally, if you have any insights that have helped you sort out and understand the wide range of writings on the internal martial arts, feel free to share.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Getting Clearer on Chinese Nei-Gong

To many westerners, Chinese nei-gong is often interpreted through a mystical lens. Growing up in a dualistic, mystical-physical cultural milieu created a filter in me which tainted and distorted my understanding of Chinese nei-gong and associated terminology.

This past July, I wanted to write a blog article with a background reference or two. Soon, scope-creep set in and I found myself reading a long list of articles and books about Chinese science, Daoism, Qigong, Daoyin, New Age Movement and even works that discuss issues with translating words and topics from "eastern" to "western" mindsets.

Curiously, two things are happening: 1. I'm scratching the surface of the academic scholarship that has been published since I received my Bachelor's degree in Religious Studies in 1987, and 2. I am discovering that I'm understanding old topics in new, clearer, more grounded ways.

I believe I am now getting a clearer understanding of Chinese nei-gong. If I were to describe this process as a "path", here's how this has unfolded for me:

Stage One: Interpret everything through the dualistic, mystical-physical filter.
When I began my practice of Tai-chi Chuan in 1983, I interpreted and understood my practice and all I read about Daoism, qigong, and nei-gong through the filters of my religious upbringing and through my later acquired New Age metaphysical perspectives. While I thought I had an "enlightened" understanding, I truly did not know that I was, nor how I was applying my biased views to my readings.

Stage Two: Practicing Wujifa
Through the course of my more recent years of practicing Wujifa, which takes a very functional, practical, and grounded view and approach to developing certain nei-gong skill sets, I've slowly come around to a more grounded understanding.

Stage Three: Seeing Water in the Glass
While reading these topics this summer, I noticed that I was understanding the presented words and concepts in a very practical, functional manner, stripped of any unconscious intention to imbue or apply or interpret any sort of mystical perspective. I only noticed this in hindsight when I reflected on the mental links I was making and the understandings I was arriving at.

And so, at this point, I've got a plethora of notes and a bibliography fitting a graduate term paper. My goal now is to slowly think all this through and develop a few different articles; practical, functional, grounded articles on topics that are typically treated with a mystical brushstroke.

You may ask, "Has this research helped your Wujifa Zhan Zhuang practice?" To this, I must answer, "No". At this point, I don't believe that having the viewpoint I now have of these topics contributes to developing the physical skill sets of Wujifa. Physical skills sets must be developed with physical practice. Conversely as I said above, it is actually the practice of and exposure to Wujifa that has contributed to the view I now have of these topics.

Stay tuned. I'm not done writing just yet...