Monday, September 14, 2020

Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Source and Level of Instruction

The title of this series is: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are you Ready? When I was asked this question twenty years ago, I responded with an emphatic “Yes!” As the years went by and I discovered the amount of work involved in mastering this art, I slowly came to realize that, no, I was not ready. Sure, I was willing to give it a try but I was not appropriately prepared to acquire new skills.

This realization then shined a light on the question asked by many internal gongfu practitioners, “Why does it take so long to get it?” To this, the typical response is, “If getting it were that easy, then everyone would be a master.” Well, we need a better answer than that! This series of posts is an attempt to provide a more thoughtful response to this question.

In previous posts in this series I explored six components of My Practice. I then explored how attributes of these components may influence the rate of progress in the Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix. In this post, I explore the intersection of my practice and instruction. Let me begin with a training anecdote.


In 2003 I attended my first Chen Xiaowang silk reeling workshop. (I had been practicing Yang style Tai-chi forms and push-hands for almost twenty years by this time but no zhan zhuang or other stance practice.) During the workshop he adjusted my elbow and said, “Qi flowing”. He adjusted it again and said, “Qi not flowing”. He adjusted it again and said, “Qi flowing. Understand?” I nodded, not quite knowing what just happened, and thanked him and he moved on to the next person.

Following this workshop I began training with the purpose of developing the internals. Thus, I began a new adventure which led to a new understanding about the internal gongfu development process, a new understanding about teaching and learning, and a new understanding about the source and level of instruction. I’ll present the most important insights I’ve discovered and toward the end of this article I’ll reexamine this anecdote from the view of these insights.

The Internal Gongfu Paradox
My ability to discern those who demonstrate higher-level skill from those who demonstrate rudimentary or no skill depends on the degree to which I myself have conditioned my body or developed the movement principle in my body. The more I develop, the keener my discernment.

The point is that when I did not have any skill, I didn’t know what it meant to have skill. I didn’t know what to look for. I was easily duped by those who I considered as having skill when in fact they did not. When I did not have any skill, I thought I had skill but now that I have some skill, I know how little skill I actually have.

The Terminology Paradox
Some Chinese martial art terms are representations of descriptions of the author’s experience, for example, Li, Jin, and Yi which I’ll discuss in more detail below. Before I developed any skill, I misinterpreted these terms according to what I thought they meant. However, after I had developed some skill, I began to see and feel and understand the difference that these terms represent.

Qi Flowing, Qi not Flowing
"Qi flowing" has a particular meaning in the internal martial arts which is distinct from all other definitions and uses of "Qi". In the internal martial arts, "Qi flowing" means that the bones and connective tissue are correctly aligned which allows a particular body quality to show up. (In Wujifa we call this quality, "connection".) "Qi not flowing" means the opposite, that something in the alignment is wrong such as a muscular tension or fascial adhesion which is skewing the skeletal alignment. Each has its own distinct feeling.

Teachers, Instructors, Guides
Considering the components of My Practice and the Progress Scenarios in the Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix it should be obvious that each practitioner has his/her own unique path to walk. That said, there is no single cookie-cutter or template of instruction for everyone.

Granted, a system of instruction may have a general template as a guide but how the teacher guides the student within that template will be unique to that student. The teacher has to meet the student where the student is to guide the student to the next step for that student.

Given the complexity of the process, it takes two to three years for the teacher to get to know the student. Over time, the teacher develops a deep personal relation with the student; like a family relation. In this sense, attending seminars and workshops has a very limited and specific purpose since the amount of interaction between teacher and attendee is very limited.

Just as each student has different characteristics and personalities, so too does each teacher. Every teacher will have his or her own understanding of the art, style of teaching, and relationship with each student.

Muscle(Li), Connection(Jin), Intention(Yi)
There are those who contend that Li, Jin, and Yi represent levels of development. Broadly speaking there is some truth to this but even this model either ignores or is ignorant of the process. Using intention is the highest level but it is also the first thing to begin training because it takes the longest time to learn how to develop.

Beginning training uses intention to focus attention on a particular location within the body to get a sense of that location. I ask my body, “What is the feeling there? Can I feel connection between point A and point B? If not, why not? Where is the break? What is a break? How can I develop feeling into a numb area?” and then I learn how to let my body answer the question without cognitive bias.

Zhan zhuang is a practice of establishing new neural connections. The existing neural pathways are good for what they are good for. Internal gongfu requires building new neural pathways for sensing inside the body. I have to develop my intention to focus my attention which encourages these new neural pathways to develop.

Therefore, I do not graduate from the Li level to the Jin level and finally to the Yi level but rather, I begin by practicing Yi and as the neural pathways develop, my body slowly transforms from Li to Jin to Yi.

The Problem with Levels
In the world of internal gongfu the word “level” is used as a kind of relatively-speaking acknowledgment of strikingly broad differences in skill. I suggest that the highest skilled person can identify different qualities throughout the developmental process and label these as “levels”.

When I began my journey, I read and heard about these and other levels. With no experience on which to base my understanding, I created mental (compartmentalized) constructs of what I thought these terms meant. As I developed my reperetoire of forms and experience in push hands, I gave myself more credit than I was due. I falsely assumed that I was working at a higher level than I actually was.

After I began practicing zhan zhuang, I discovered that there are no levels in this initial phase of conditioning or development. Even though there are signposts of progress along the way, these “progress markers” do not constitute levels.

I wonder if instructors who use levels as part of their initial training regimen do so to present the beginner with sense of familiarity (compartmentalized thinking) and to offer a sense of direction and accomplishment.

By inferring a similarity between ordinary compartmentalized thinking and the internal gongfu development process, such an inference misrepresents the process. The beginner could also use these levels to set expectations (show me what to do to get to the next level) and thereby misinterpret the actual development process.

In these ways, level-thinking can hamper development.

Source of Instruction
In typical martial art schools (including workshops and seminars), the source of instruction is the teacher. The process flow is typically Demonstrate-and-Imitate or Listen-and-Learn. This process works well for this kind of learning. However, the internal gongfu development process is entirely different.

In internal gongfu, the source of instruction is my own body. In this environment, the teacher serves as a knowledgeable guide who can see where there is a break or block in my body and can suggest a way to improve connection. Since my body is not capable of imitating the movement quality being demonstrated, my own body must learn, with guidance, how to implement and manifest the suggestion.

The Anecdote in Hindsight
Let's take another look at the anecdote presented at the start of this post through the perspective of the topics presented above.
  • I thought silk-reeling was just another set of forms to learn. I had no idea what I was supposed to be practicing.
  • My compartmentalized thinking understood that he was at a much higher level but I had no idea what this meant.
  • I had no internal skills and I could not recognize his skill. I did not know what to look for.
  • I could find no words to describe the feeling of these adjustments and my earlier description of "Qi flowing" which was based on my cognitive-derived imaginary feeling, did not describe this feeling either.

In hindsight, even though I had a number of years' experience behind me, in fact, this experience did not result in developing the skill that he showed me in my own body; the difference between feeling Qi flowing (connection) and feeling Qi not flowing (not connection). It was a most memorable experience and a pivotal experience which shaped the course of my practice.

In Closing
The practice of internal gongfu is incredibly complex and yet it is also amazingly simple. To use a metaphor, progress is like a dam or levee being breached. First there’s a barely perceptible dampening of the soil, then a tiny rivulet, then a little stream, then more and more until the dam or levee is breached and fails.

Translating the metaphor, the intention that builds the neural pathways in the body begins slowly and imperceptibly. This fools the cognitively biased practitioner into thinking that nothing is happening. However, continued practice builds more and more feeling into the body until one day full body connection shows up and the experience of the body is totally different than before.

This series continues with one more post offering some final comments.

Previous post in this series: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? The Progress Matrix

Next post in this series: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Conclusion

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