Monday, September 21, 2020

Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Conclusion

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 learn.

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.” Hopefully, this series of posts has provided a more thoughtful response to this question.

Brief Review
In the Introduction to this series, I mentioned how I had considered my life as a variety of compartmentalized activities and one of these compartments was internal gongfu practice. In this way of perceiving, each activity was isolated from and not influenced by any other and each activity required its own skills. Over my years of practicing Wujifa, I learned that my development is as much influenced by what happens outside of class and practice as by what happens during class and practice.

As I pondered the question “Why does it take so long to get it?”, the insight occurred to me that these outside influences either support or hinder my development and these could be distilled into a set of components. Thus, the six components of My Practice was born. As I further reflected on my years of practice, I recalled various attitudes or situations associated with these so-called components. Thus, the Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix was born. To complete this picture, I added some insights regarding instruction in Sources and Levels of Instruction. And now, here we are at the end of this series.

Considering Components
It is possible that the components of My Practice that I presented here will not hold true for everyone. I was exploring how to articulate an insight based on my years of practice. You may want to add or modify or remove a component according to how you think about the various non-curricular aspects that influence your formal training curriculum.

If these components are not readily apparent to you, give it some time. The inability to notice something at the outset is not a reason to dismiss the possibility that it exists. It may take some time for you to notice the connection regarding how various aspects of your life influence your practice and vice versa. After all, it took me over thirty years of training before this insight came to me!

You may think that the idea of components is dumb or irrelevant, that there are no components, or that I’m going off in the wrong direction, that I just need to think less and practice more. I used to think that way too. I would encourage you to at least consider the possibility. You may discover a clue to that next step.

At the very least, this series will give you an insight into how I approached my practice in the past and how I am understanding my practice these days.

My Practice as a Puzzle
We have a saying in Wujifa that “Noticing changes everything.” Notice how and where these components show up in your practice and in your life. Notice how they interact. Notice how one component connects to and influences another and another. Notice that this is a new kind of kinesthetic puzzle.

Learning Strategies
When I was learning Tai-chi forms and push-hands, I applied the same learning strategy that served me well in learning other physical activities. The result was about the same level of achievement; a kind of fluency at the level of gross motor skills and not much more.

When I began practicing Wujifa zhan zhuang, I eventually discovered that the learning strategies that worked well for me in other situations simply did not work here. I eventually learned that I needed to learn how to learn in the context of internal gongfu. I needed to develop a new learning strategy. I needed to learn how to discover connections and build congruence. I needed to literally learn how to get my compartmentalized life together. 

I now know that the conditioning or preparatory phase of training largely involves developing this new strategy which gives me crucial insights and perspective.

A Brief Word About Eating Bitter
“Eating bitter” typically refers to enduring muscle pain. In addition, the “bitter” in internal gongfu can also refer to emotional pain that may be noticed on the road to congruence.

Comparing Models
Now that I’ve come to the end of this series, let’s compare the two models side by side. I know how these two models are different for me. My question to you is, Which model illustrates how you would represent your practice? Or would you conceptualize and illustrate your practice differently?

my life compartments

my practice puzzle conclusion


In Closing
So, there you have it. The secret to mastering internal gongfu. Oh? Did you miss it? Well, let me spell it out for you; BE CONGRUENT! Stop compartmentalizing your life and your body! Notice connections! Think about it a second. If you can’t notice the connections between the "components" that I spelled out for you in this series, then how the heck are you going to notice the kinesthetic connections within your own body which can be multiple times more subtle?

Look, the preparatory or conditioning phase of training is all about discovering connections and developing congruence. Break down the conceptual walls between this part and that part of life, between mind and body, within the body, deeper and deeper into the body. Discover the congruence within your own body and between your body and mind and between your practice and your life.

When I started Wujifa training, if you told me then that I’d be writing this now, I would have said that you were full of it. “Just show me what to do!” But that’s the point. This is what to do! And I can’t show you specifically what you need to do. I can only point the way. This series is another proverbial finger pointing at the moon; the whole moon, the round moon. 

So back to the question, "Why is it taking me so long to get it?" Do you understand now? You see, it comes down to compartments vs. connections. The longer you hold onto compartments, however subtle they may be, the longer it takes. The sooner you get to connection and congruence, the sooner you get through the first door! Now you are ready!

Bottom line, internal gongfu is about putting your whole self into practice! Learn to eat bitter and appreciate it for all that it will help you understand. And then using the learning strategy that you developed in the conditioning or preparatory phase, continue refining and discovering all you can because there is always more to learn and more doors for you to discover and open!

Previous post in this series: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Source and Level of Instruction

Happy practicing everyone!

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.

My Practice puzzle completed

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

Monday, September 7, 2020

Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? The Progress Matrix

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 the Introduction I said that I now think of training as consisting of two phases where preparing and conditioning my body is the first phase of training and then when I am ready, I can begin the second phase of training –  the practice of developing the movement principle in my body.

I then introduced six components that I consider as having an influence on my practice of preparing or conditioning my body. In each of these components I identified how my approach within that component either helped or hindered my practice. Now I'd like to extend the application of this "My Practice" puzzle by looking at these components through the framework of a hypothetical Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix.

My Practice puzzle completed

The Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix further parses these six components into three progress scenarios: Quickest, Moderate, and Slowest. The purpose for doing this is to frame the above six components in the context of situations and attitudes found in each component that influence the rate of progress.

These three scenarios have been developed from my observations and from comments that have been expressed by myself and by my school brothers and by visitors to Wujifa classes over the last fifteen years. Hopefully, this collection of observations and comments as I’ve summarized them here, can help identify where we might be getting stuck in our preparation or conditioning phase of training and where making one or more changes may help our progress.


The Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix
ComponentProgress Scenarios
Quick progress over short period of time (3-5 years)Moderate progress over a moderate period of time (5-10 years?)Slow progress over a long period of time (more than 10 years)
Activity PatternsMy daily activity pattern is congruent with practice. I can train 2-4 hours throughout the day.Some of my daily activity pattern supports practice and some hinders practice. I can train 1-2 hours a day.My daily activity pattern absolutely hinders practice. Training time is limited to 1 hour or less.
Cognitive BiasI don’t have any previous experience in these arts. This is all new to me.Sometimes my biases hinder practice, but when I notice them, then I can overcome them.I’m not going to ignore all my previous experiences. This new stuff fits in there somehow.
Body Structure-CharacterI feel free to experiment with different aspects of my body structure-character. It’s really fun!I’ve heard about body structure-character before. I’m skeptical but I’ll explore the possibility.Body structure-character has nothing to do with achieving expert performance.
Ability to ChangeI enjoy exploring changing my body and daily life.I may be open to small, incremental changes but not big changes.I came here to learn. Don’t tell me I have to change!
TalentI’ve always been able to sense and feel inside my body.I’ve never been able to sense and feel inside my body. I’ll practice but it’s difficult and uncomfortable.I can't feel anything! Feeling is overrated. Just show me what to do.
CommitmentI’ve (re)organized my life so that my practice is the focus. Maybe a 80% commitment to training.I can incorporate practice throughout my daily life. Maybe a 40% commitment to training.I’ve got other commitments that take priority over practice. Maybe a 10% commitment to training.

It is likely that many people (myself included) will not identify entirely with one column of the Progress Scenarios. It is more likely that we identify with one scenario in one component and with a different scenario in another component, or more likely we place our attitude or situation somewhere between two columns.

The point is that this matrix should provide an insight into how your situation or attitude about any one of these components may be influencing your rate of progress.

I don’t expect that every practitioner will agree with all of the Components and Progress Scenarios that make up this matrix. As I said, this matrix is based on my experience in Wujifa. If these components are not pertinent to you, then what components would you identify? How would you define or describe your components? How would you define the attitudes and situations that constitute Slowest, Moderate, and Quickest rate of progress for your components?

In Closing
This Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix is a first step toward recognizing the influences on the internal gongfu practitioner and how the practitioner’s own attitude or situation in any given component can influence the practitioner’s rate of progress.

This model may be the first of its kind to provide internal gongfu practitioners with a tool that can both provide a reasonable explanation for their rate of progress and simultaneously provide guidance on how to improve their rate of progress. It may also stand as a prototype for others to develop their own progress metrics.

A practitioner’s rate of progress does not have to be a matter of chance or fate. As I've attempted to illustrate over these last several posts, it is possible to identify the components of an internal gongfu practice and then further parse these components to identify attributes that contribute to quick, moderate, or slow progress. It is here that we ultimately find what may be hindering progress and in this, we find clues as to what we might want to explore to improve progress.

This series will continue with considering the role of the Source and Level of Instruction and then we’ll close this series with some final remarks.

Previous post in this series: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Commitment

Next post in this series: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Source and Level of Instruction

Monday, August 31, 2020

Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Commitment

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 the previous article in this series, I explored talent. In this post, I explore how Commitment and other closely related topics help or hinder my training.

My Practice puzzle Commitment

For this component I debated whether to focus on Commitment or Motivation since the two are so intimately entwined; motivation inspires commitment, the results of which can further inspire motivation. As I pondered on this, I turned to the research on these topics and discovered there are actually different kinds of commitment and motivation.

As I read and interpreted these articles through the experience of my internal gongfu practice, I knew I had to present both. So first, I’ll present the topic and my description, so you’ll know why I found this topic relevant, and then I’ll present how these are applicable in the context of an internal gongfu practice.

COMMITMENT
I discovered that there are (at least) two ways to look at commitment: rational commitment and emotional commitment.

Rational Commitment
Rational commitment is a cognitive decision. I intentionally decide to commit time to deliberate practice (training). I intentionally use my cognitive tools to monitor and regulate my practice. Here I include Deliberate Practice and Time Commitment as elements of a rational commitment.
Deliberate Practice
Deliberate practice involves formalized exercises intended to improve skill. It is here that we find the various exercises, methods, and qigongs that are used in whatever art form you practice. These exercises have been rationally and intentionally designed to help you improve your skill. Sometimes these exercises can be boring, painful, frustrating, effortful, tedious and in a word, not for the faint-hearted. But they are exactly what is required to achieve the level of performance you are aiming to achieve.

Time Commitment
The exercises of Deliberate Practice must be practiced, often repeatedly, for a certain amount of time each day. Let’s revisit a model I used in Activity Patterns to get a sense of the percentage of time each day that I devote to practice.

Begin by looking at a typical 24-hour day. To facilitate calculations, disregard the eight-hour block of time devoted to sleep and only consider the remaining sixteen hours of waking experience.

Hours training per dayHours otherPercentage of time committed to formal, deliberate practice (training)
1 hour15 hours6% of my day is committed to training
2 hours14 hours12.5% of my day is committed to training
3 hours13 hours18.5% of my day is committed to training
4 hours12 hours25% of my day is committed to training
(According to research, four hours is about the maximum time that even seasoned experts can sustain a focused, deliberate practice on a daily basis.)

Emotional Commitment
Emotional commitment occurs when the goals of practice support or enhance my goals in life, my self-image, and how I feel about myself. The amount of emotional commitment I direct toward practice is determined by the degree to which the goals of practice support or enhance my goals in life, my self-image, and how I feel about myself.

Unlike time commitment, emotional commitment is more difficult to quantify. Given that, I might suggest the following:
  • 100% Emotional Commitment might look like an entire lifestyle built around practice.
  • 50% Emotional Commitment might look like a hobbyist or a devoted enthusiast.

MOTIVATION
I discovered that there are several theories of motivation. The two that I mention here are the ones that resonate the most with my experience.
Intrinsic Motivation
A practitioner who is intrinsically motivated derives a sense of enjoyment from practice. The practice itself is personally important and highly valued.

Extrinsic Motivation
A practitioner who is extrinsically motivated engages in practice for the purpose of obtaining a reward or satisfying a demand. The reward or demand is more valued than the practice itself.

SELF-REGULATION
If rational commitment pertains to what I do, and emotional commitment and motivation pertains to why I do it, then self-regulation pertains to how I do it.

Self-regulation refers to the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral processes that the practitioner devises and strategically uses to monitor the effectiveness of the learning process. These processes include both internal and external feedback loops. Self-regulation shares nuanced similarities with self-control, self-management, self-directed behavior, and self-discipline.

_______

Application to Internal Gongfu
Now let me share how and why all this resonated with my learning experience.

When I was a kid, I marveled at the abilities portrayed on the TV show Kung Fu. When I got to college, I was single with no other commitments than school. College coursework and Tai-chi class together supported my image of myself. I had an intrinsic motivation. I practiced my forms two to three hours a day. I had both a rational and an emotional commitment. My self-regulation consisted of comparing my perception of my instructor’s form to my perception of my own form.

By the time I got to practicing Wujifa zhan zhuang, my entire life situation - priorities and values - had changed. I was married. I had a nine-to-five desk job, a mortgage, and a nearly full-time second job. Even though I could rationalize how stance practice would help me develop the abilities that I did not (and had longed to) develop in my previous practice, the most time commitment I could make was one hour a day. Zhan zhuang was so immeasurably different from any learning situation I had previously experienced, I did not know how to self-regulate and consequently I made many blunders along the way. My previous intrinsic motivation had waned and I was left with an extrinsic motivation – I practiced not for the enjoyment of it but for the want of the reward.

In Closing
To achieve expert-performance requires making a huge commitment of time and physical and emotional energy. Due to the unique nature of the practice, it may be that new self-regulation strategies will need to be developed. There may be a period of trial and error to figure out what is functional and what is not.

In hindsight, my earlier Tai-chi practice may have approached an overall 80% commitment but my Wujifa practice was probably more like an overall 20% commitment. If I were committed to my Wujifa training in the same way as I was committed to my earlier Tai-chi training, this would have helped my progress. However, with a diminished commitment and motivation, this no doubt hindered my progress.

Maybe the best time to make a commitment to practice is either as a child or young adult unencumbered by commitments of adulthood, career, and family. Maybe the next best time to make a commitment to practice is in retirement, unencumbered by commitments of career and family. Maybe the worse time to make a commitment to practice is during those years of career and family building like I tried to do.

With this puzzle now complete, this series will continue with considering how this puzzle can be interpreted in an Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix and finally we’ll look at the role of the Source and Level of Instruction.

References, Additional Reading

The role of emotions, motivation, and learning behavior in underachievement and results of an intervention. Stefanie Obergriesser* and Heidrun Stoeger. High Ability Studies. 2015, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp 167–190.

Relationships among cognition, emotion, and motivation: implications for intervention and neuroplasticity in psychopathology. Laura D. Crocker, et. al., Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. June 2013, Volume 7, Article 261, pp 1-19.

Evolving Concepts of Emotion and Motivation. Kent C. Berridge. Frontiers in Psychology. September 2018, Volume 9, Article 1647, pp 1-20.

Coach-Created Motivational Climate and Athletes’ Adaptation to Psychological Stress: Temporal Motivation-Emotion Interplay. Montse C. Ruiz, et. al. Frontiers in Psychology. March 2019, Volume 10, Article 617, pp 1-11.

When quantity is not enough: Disentangling the roles of practice time, self-regulation and deliberate practice in musical achievement. Arielle Bonneville-Roussy and Thérèse Bouffard. Psychology of Music. Vol. 43(5), 2015, pp 686–704.

Using Wise Interventions to Motivate Deliberate Practice. Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, et. al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 111, No. 5, 2016, pp 728–744.

Creativity and talent. Chapter 28. (pp. 371–380). Winner, Ellen. In Well-being: Positive development across the life course. M. H. Bornstein, L. Davidson, C. L. Keyes, & K. A. Moore (Eds.). Mahwah, N.J. : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003.

Comparing students’ self-discipline and self-regulation measures and their prediction of academic achievement. Barry J. Zimmerman, Anastasia Kitsantas. Contemporary Educational Psychology. Vol 39, Iss 2, 2014. pp 145–155.


Previous post in this series: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Talent

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

Monday, August 24, 2020

Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Talent

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 the previous article in this series, I explored the Ability to Change. In this post, I explore how talent (or the lack thereof) helps or hinders my training.

my practice puzzle talent

What is Talent?
The word “talent” is rooted in 19th century evolutionary theory and was considered to be an innate ability to excel in a particular domain. This is how I used to think of talent. In more recent years, talent has acquired the added meaning of a learned and practiced skill. This expanded meaning has created a nature-nurture debate with some interesting insights for internal gongfu practice.

Talent: Innate or Acquired or Some of Each?
Scholars who study talent and expert-performance in domains as diverse as academics, music, athletics, and games provide a range of definitions from an innate ability to a learned and practiced skill. This model depicts where the various perspectives could be placed on a continuum from Innate Talent to Acquired Talent.

(from Talent — Innate or acquired? Theoretical considerations and their implications for talent management.  
Human Resource Management Review. Volume 23, Issue 4, December 2013, Pages 305-321)

After doing research for this article and comparing this research to my personal observations and experience, I would say that those who achieve expert-performance in the domain of internal gongfu have both an innate talent and a commitment to deliberate practice (intentionally repeating a structured activity for the purpose of improving performance). I propose my description of innate talent later in this post.

Key Points about Developing Expert Performance
I found it interesting that research in these various domains could be equally applicable to the domain of internal gongfu. Here are nine key points from the Expert Performance perspective that I believe are relevant to an internal gongfu practice.
  • Those who reach the highest levels began training in early childhood and then spent most of their lives training.
  • Early achievement is not the sole determiner of expert performance later in life.
  • Those intent on improving their performance through deliberate practice can also achieve expert-performance.
  • Even if two different individuals have access to the same training, there will be differences in performance of the acquired skill.
  • The key problem is identifying and tailoring the training tasks that will lead to the desired performance goal.
  • Simply following the assigned task is not enough. Attention is needed to identify and resolve habituated responses.
  • Duration of practice cannot predict whether expert performance can be achieved.
  • The “Ten Year Rule” is an observation that expert performance tends to emerge after ten years of deliberate practice. Even those considered “talented” only achieve expert-performance after ten years of training. For most people though, it takes much longer.
  • Many people don’t achieve expert-performance due to a lack of sustained commitment to deliberate practice for the necessary ten years or more. Obviously, motivation is a fundamental attribute.
Talent Levels
Although the following graph is speaking to the number of individuals participating in different levels of competition, I think it is a visual way to represent the community of internal gongfu practitioners; the higher the level of skill, the fewer the practitioners at that level.

The various levels defined here invite a response to the perennial internal gongfu question: How are the various “levels” defined? What performance characteristics mark one practitioner's skill as more developed or refined than another's? Can practitioners be grouped by their talent level?

(from The Road to Excellence, Chapter 1, The Acquisition of Expert Performance)

The Problem with Defining Talent for Internal Gongfu
The study of talent and expert performance in the domain of internal gongfu would face a number of challenges:
  • There are relatively few individuals worldwide who have achieved the highest levels.
  • The various styles each have their own definition of expert-performance.
  • The qualities that constitute expert performance are unnoticeable to the untrained spectator.
  • Differing words and phrases are used to describe the same movement characteristic.
  • The recognition of talent is more or less restricted to those who have achieved some degree of skill.

Unlike the studied domains of academics, music, athletics, and games where spectators and experts alike are able to distinguish the talented from the talentless, in the domain of internal gongfu we are presented with a classic Catch 22; the circumstance denies a solution.

How then do we recognize talent in internal gongfu? What qualities are possessed by practitioners who progress quickly and achieve expert-performance and what qualities are possessed by those who do not?

Application to Internal Gongfu
From my experience and observations, I would propose that in the context of internal gongfu “innate talent” is a natural ability to perceive kinesthetic sensations and the experience of these sensations evokes an emotion of joy or pleasure. When applied to an internal gongfu practice, this “innate talent” is the foundational skill and the associated emotion of that experience enhances motivation.

Depending on your theoretical position as to why this natural ability remained in some and was partially diminished or totally disabled in others, from the perspective of someone who does not have this ability, it seems fair to frame this ability as an “innate talent”.

Deliberate practice (zhan zhuang and other qigongs) provides a context in which this innate talent can be applied. Deliberate practice mobilizes this innate talent for a specific purpose.

Someone who experiences deliberate practice as a pleasurable and fun activity will want to “practice” as much as possible for the pure enjoyment of it. Someone with a similar innate talent but who does not experience deliberate practice as fun or pleasurable may not be motivated by the fun of it but by some other motivation. Both of these practitioners are likely to achieve expert-performance.

On the other hand, for practitioners like myself who do not have this innate talent, the initial focus of practice (which may span a decade or more) is to develop this “innate” talent. In this case, deliberate practice may or may not be fun and may be perceived simply as a requirement to achieve expert-performance.

Without the experience of the joy of practicing, motivation is likely rooted in other personal factors. Whether these personal factors are strong enough and enduring enough to carry the practitioner (myself included) through years or decades of practice to expert-performance, is an open question.

In Closing
Before writing this article, I had never considered the ideas I explored here. I had thought that practicing zhan zhuang and other qigongs would allow me to demonstrate expert-performance within a few short years. I never considered the possibility that I did not have the innate talent to achieve this goal in this timeframe.

Looking back, I’d have to say that my previous lack of this perspective neither helped nor hindered my practice. That said, I do think that I was misleading myself by thinking that I was “almost there” when in fact I wasn’t. To use an analogy, I thought that I was ready to learn how to drive a car when in fact, I first had to build the car.

It was only through my experience and observation of some school brothers that achieved results within a few years and some, like myself who did not, that I began to wonder how people with the same training had such different rates of progress. It had to be something innate to the individual.

And so from a semi-theoretical point of view, I’d say that those without this innate talent will discover that this hinders their practice and those with this innate talent will discover that this supports their practice.

This series will continue with each article filling in one of the puzzle pieces until the entire puzzle is complete. We’ll wrap up by considering how this puzzle can be interpreted in an Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix and finally we’ll look at the role of the Source and Level of Instruction.

References, Additional Reading
The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer. Psychological Review, Vol 100, No. 3, 1993, pp. 363-406.

Giftedness Viewed from the Expert-Performance Perspective. K. Anders Ericsson, Kiruthiga Nandagopal, Roy W. Roring. Journal for the Education of the Gifted. Vol. 28, No. 3/4, 2005, pp. 287–311.

Talent — Innate or acquired? Theoretical considerations and their implications for talent management. M. Christina Meyers a,⁎, Marianne van Woerkom a, Nicky Dries b. Human Resource Management Review, Volume 23, Issue 4, December 2013, Pages 305-321

The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games. Edited by K. Anders Ericsson. Psychology Press, Taylor and Francis Group. New York and London. 1996, 2014

Routledge Handbook of Talent Identification and Development in Sport. Edited by Joseph Baker, Stephen Cobley, Jörg Schorer, Nick Wattie. London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2017.


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