Monday, December 27, 2010

Practical Non-Attachment: Journal Notes #19

Notes from my July 2004 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

A "theme" in this month's journal entries seems to revolve around how to practice non-attachment to feeling an idea of the feeling; why "not knowing" can lead to a step in the right direction.

* Don't think about what something will feel like based on books or hearsay. Just practice the pattern drills until the feeling reveals itself to you.

* A fellow student, after having his structure adjusted said he could feel "something weird" in his tan-tian area and that the feeling wasn't what he thought it would be. This is why we avoid saying that "the feeling" is "X,Y,Z" because then the mind starts looking for, starts imagining, starts creating X,Y,Z feeling and you wind up missing the self-discovery of the real feeling.

* Just do the exercises. Keep focused on feeling the fascial stretch and one day you'll feel your tan-tian. It all happens quite naturally. Once you get the feeling, then discard the method that brought you to the feeling. (The method is not the truth.) and then focus on amplifying the feeling.

* Another example of why we use contradictions to speak the truth. For example, if the question is: "Is the feeling subtle?" and if the answer is, "Yes", then you'd look for something subtle and you'd miss a dramatic feeling. If the answer is, "No", then you'd look for a dramatic feeling and miss the subtle feeling. Either feeling, subtle or dramatic, may be the next "a-ha" moment. So.... the feeling is both and neither. It is like.... maybe... . Speak of the feeling obliquely and in ambiguities so the mind has nothing to attach to.

(I grouped the above entries as I did because these all speak a single truth to me. I have heard many teachers and read many articles expounding just the opposite advice; focus on the tan-tian, feel a warm ball of energy or imagine hanging from a string attached at the top of your head, etc... None of these artificially produced or imagined "feelings" helped me at all. When I tried using my mind to forcefully will a feeling I got nowhere. Now I'm taking a more Zen-like approach of simply noticing what shows-up. )

* Teaching how to develop internal strength is an art in itself.

(I've discovered the truth in this statement for myself! There are a lot of teachers. There are fewer masters. There are fewer masters with some level of internal strength. There are fewer masters with some level of internal strength who teach how to develop internal strength. There are fewer masters with some level of internal strength who teach how to develop internal strength who have students who are developing internal strength. No wonder there are so few people actually "getting it". There is a difference between "having it" and being able to teach it. )
* I need to be able to roll the femur heads forward. Could practice while sitting as well. Still can't get them forward enough but getting closer as I was able to feel the "hot spot" faintly and briefly.

* Progression of practice for me:
  1. Correct stance
  2. Side to side
  3. Silk reeling
  4. Tai-chi form
* Without correct stance, you won't do side-to-side correctly. If you don't do side-to-side correctly, you won't do silk reeling correctly. If you don't do silk reeling correctly, you won't do Tai-chi correctly. Period!

* You know you are standing correctly when you get a searing burning pain in the quads, mid-upper, outer thigh.

(A question came up in class one time, "How do I self-validate if I'm doing stance correctly or not?" and one answer is, if you get that burning pain sensation in your mid-upper, outer thigh, then you are sinking your weight.

I regularly use this as one of the calibration points in and outside of practice. I play with how quickly I can "drop into my legs". And especially in practice, how intense can I get that feeling and how long can I endure it?)

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Relaxation Riddles: Journal Notes #18
Next article in this series: Chen Xiaowang Seminar 2004: Journal Notes #20

Monday, December 20, 2010

Relaxation Riddles: Journal Notes #18

Notes from my May and June 2004 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

May 2004 -
* The path of development is a path marked by various feelings. As you grow, your feeling experiences will change. An experienced guide will be able to recognize where you are in your development based on the feeling experiences you describe and the kinds of questions you ask. In this realm, book knowledge is an impediment because the mind will think it knows something when in fact the feeling (that you need to learn) cannot be learned through reading.

(It's only after having developed a feeling that I'm able to go back and read how someone else describes the feeling and say, "Yeah, it could be described that way.")

June 2004 -
* Once you get the feeling, go straight for it every time. Program yourself for the feeling. You have to be able to drop into it at a moment's notice. It has to become intuitive, automatic, like the professional basketball player, after years of practice, it all comes naturally.

* There are different training strategies.
  1. Hold the position in stance no matter how much it hurts and eventually the tension will release.
  2. "Where the mind goes, the chi follows"
    • 2a. Focus on part of your body and keep building the chi there until it breaks out.
      2b. Focus on another part of the body than where you are focusing.

* Don't tuck. A lot of Tai-chi teachers erroneously teach their students to "tuck under". The resultant problem is that the lower back bows out losing its straightness and the intention is driven forward instead of straight down.

* Exercise to help loosen and develop feeling in a tight lower back. Sit on the edge of a hard chair with feet flat on floor. "Slide" knees forward and back (only an inch or a couple cm) by rocking on the "sits bones" - the bones of the pelvis that contact the chair seat - creating alternating arched and straight lower back. Feel into the pelvis. (This is the Buddha Dipping His Something in the River Qigong.)
(I find that with any new exercise, I tend to force it, or muscle it to "do it right" and I can feel all the muscle-ing I'm doing which is OK to begin however, a more advanced practice is to continuously discover a more relaxed way to do the same, simple exercise. Sometimes I find different muscles can be used or that I don't need to use as much muscle to get the same movement. I've had lots of "a-ha" moments with this method alone!)

* Always remember that all these exercises and analogies and set-ups are methods to elicit a particular feeling. These are all methods to draw your awareness to a particular structure which has a feeling distinct from the structure you are usually familiar with.

* Focus on remembering the structural set up only as long as and until you recognize the feeling. Once you get the feeling, then focus on that and intensify the feeling. Explore where the feeling leads you. Grow in that feeling. Develop the kinesthetic feeling sense is the core practice, the key to "getting it".

* Remember:
  • Relax is not limp
  • Relax is no tension
  • Relax is Chi-ful
  • Maintain structure and release all unnecessary tension
  • Pressure is not tension.
  • Develop the feeling of pressure.
* Because of chronic tension in the glutteal muscles (tight ass), notice your natural standing posture of how the toes point out. This is due to tight muscles on one side pulling the toes out, not balanced. Practice stance to correct that to a balanced point. For me, this means turning the knees, femur heads forward but push the knees out to the side so don't become "knock-kneed".

* Question: My natural stance is with the toes pointed out, especially the right foot. Are there exercises to loosen the muscles so the feet naturally stance straight and parallel?
Answer: Stand "pigeon toed", toes touching and heels out to get the femur heads to roll forward, knees touching and pointing toward each other, slowly roll down, dropping the head and let the arms hang until between knees and floor. Roll up and repeat.

* Question: I notice I'm continually clenching the perineum area. How do I get this area to remain relaxed? I notice that when I relax this area I get a better relax/widening in the lower back.
Answer: (I've edited the original entry to the following...) Some techniques are neither generally nor publicly discussed. A technique may be used for different purposes but "unplugging" or releasing the tension in the perineum muscles to allow the Qi to drop is the purpose here. Remember, Tension restricts Qi flow. Relaxing allows Qi flow. You also may want to find a good instructional video on hip-freeing exercises.
(One reader suggested the book "Pelvic Power" by Ivan Franklin. I've heard, 'the best place to hide a planet is out in the open where everyone can see it'. I've found this to be true in at least a few different ways.

Discovering my muscular holding patterns regardless of bodily location is an amazing part of the process. Just because I'm able to relax say my abdomen area doesn't necessarily indicate that I've relaxed another area.)

* Question: I feel a pain in the collarbone while standing. What's up with that?
Answer: If it's pain from releasing and relaxing, then that's fine. Just breath into it.
(I still experience this. It's not a bone pain, rather, when I relax the muscles in the front of my shoulder and neck I feel a 'tugging' or 'pulling' in a four fingertip width from the center end of the bone.)

* All the exercises are done slowly and deliberately with intention of feeling the fascia stretch throughout the body. We can dispense with talk of "Qi flow" and "Tan-tian" because these things appear spontaneously after sufficient feeling of fascial connectedness is developed.

* What's the feeling of this? Find the feeling! It's difficult to use words to describe that which words are ill-made to describe.

* The old old masters and teachings speak in contradictions because if a teacher said "X" then the mind would go to "X" and get stuck there.
(Hmmm... Contradictions like riddles fry the brain creating an opening for what... Yes ! Letting go... Relaxing... Even more... Now... )
Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Bio Questions: Journal Notes #17
Next article in this series: Practical Non-Attachment: Journal Notes #19

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bio Questions: Journal Notes #17

Notes from my April 2004 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

* I don't have any particular stance-mechanics questions because I feel that my stance progress is tied to these other concerns.

* Beware of the psychodrama. Keep it simple. What do you feel? "I feel hot and sweaty. I feel my legs trembling. I feel my shoulders hurt." Leave it at that.

(I think this note is referring to one of the traps I was prone to falling into when I started. And that's the trap of focusing on a feeling in a way that would not necessarily yield functional results. For example, "What do I feel? oohhh, I feel scared because when I was little...." or "What do you feel? ohh, I feel angry because I remember..."

I myself (and I have also seen my school brothers) struggle with emotional stuff that comes up in the process of relaxing and releasing patterns of muscular tension. What helps me avoid the trap is staying focused on "What's your purpose?" My purpose is to develop a feeling of connectedness. I can notice the psychodrama as it arises. If it is troubling enough, I can seek counseling. Otherwise, I can simply acknowledge it, learn from it and stay focused on the body.)

* Take responsibility for your actions, feelings, attitudes, situation. If you want to change, then experiment. Try "x". Monitor the results. Take responsibility for the result you created.

* Don't focus on the tension. Focus on the bio-feedback the released tension is giving you.
(Wow! I read this now and think, what a huge clue to training! What does this mean? Assuming "bio-feedback" is a validate-able result that I can demonstrate, for example, when this relaxes, I notice more pressure in my quads... Questions I might ask myself: How do I experience the bio-feedback? What can I learn from this? How do I apply this to deeper and ever more "subtle" levels of feeling? )

* Question: How do I find the feeling of serenity that was evoked in the last class?
Answer: That has also happened to me before too. I don't know. That's your puzzle to figure out. But now you know it's there and you are capable of feeling it.
(This question is referencing an experience that was noted in Journal Notes #16.

This is still a big puzzle for me, "But now you know it's there and you are capable of feeling it." For all the amazing feelings I've experienced over the years including many from in-class postural adjustments, I haven't been able to replicate similar feelings during my own practice time. I suspect that I'm not hitting the same postural alignment that would elicit that overall feeling. Or.... maybe these feelings are one-time roadsigns that I should not get stuck on trying to replicate. Maybe it depends on the feeling? Maybe, yes, replicate and develop the heaviness in the quads ("sink the chi"). Maybe, no, don't try to replicate the serene feeling. Maybe some feelings are merely by-products of practice.)

* When standing, you need to keep the monkey mind busy so the stallion can run free. If you continually monitor your stance, then you are letting the monkey control the stallion; you are thinking too much.

* Introduction to pole shaking. The core is stance and side-to-side. Silk reeling. Need to have the legs and kua/inguinal crease open and close properly.

(Pole shaking is not done by the shoulders and arms even though to the untrained eye, it appears to be done this way. In fact, there is very little shoulder and arm movement. The force to shake the pole is generated in the legs and kua and transmitted out the arms to the pole tip. Similarly, the shaking end of the pole should be able to reverberate back through the relaxed arms and into the relaxed torso and you should be able to see the relaxed muscles shaking all the way down to the butt. While this exercise looks simple, it takes quite a lot of relaxation and connection to do it correctly. Though I intellectually have a better understanding and may be able to see better what is "right" and "wrong", I still can't do it "right".)

* Question: What other bodywork can I get into now that I've finished my first set of ten Rolfing sessions?
Answer: See Kristina at xxx. She does good deep tissue work and won't pull or hold back if you tell her that's what you want. A lot of people say they do deep tissue work but they don't really.
(I never did pursue other types of body work or deep tissue massage work.)

* Question: Why did the Rolfing ninth session which worked with my hands, arms and shoulders elicit such strong feelings?
Answer: Energetically, that session works with the feelings of 'reaching out'.

(Note: This month's journal contains a section which, when I was reviewing it, thought that it could be misleading to someone not familiar with Wujifa training and my personal situation. Therefore, I have reworded this section as seen below in an attempt to convey the spirit of this entry which I'd like to share without divulging the potentially confusing details.)

* Question: I'm feeling a new, heightened level of energy that kind of feels like a sexual energy? It's weird. I don't quite know how to describe it. What's going on? Should I... ?
Answer: One view is that all energy is sexual energy. Continue practicing. The path will become clear and probably won't be as you are imagining it now.

* Question: What should I be looking for with the towel-twisting exercise?
Answer: Look in the mirror to see where the skin is flush, where blood is flowing, and where ashen or pale, where muscular tension is restricting blood flow. Rub or move the ashen or pale area to relax the muscle to allow blood flow.

(Yes, I do notice a "splotchiness" in my face and neck (because I'm wearing a shirt) when I do this exercise. I want to say more about my experiences with this Q&A but don't know how to right now. Maybe in another post.

I have done this exercise sporadically over the years but never consistently over a period of time to notice long-term results. I've recently started doing this exercise again.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Body Changes: Journal Notes #16
Next article in this series: Relaxation Riddles: Journal Notes #18

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Mastering Internal Strength

One of my recurring questions used to be, "How long it take to 'get' internal strength?" which of course is a different question from, "How long does it take to 'master' internal strength?"

When I returned to the School of Cultivation and Practice after my three year hiatus, I noticed that one of my new and younger school brothers developed a basic level of internal strength with about three years of practicing stance and other specific mind-body exercises. (He started after I left.) I understand that he practiced more than three hours a day with attending class and private practice time!

How is it that he 'got something' with three years of practice and I didn't 'get anything' with my previous twenty years of practice?

In the 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, Part 1, Chapter 2 is titled "The 10,000 Hour Rule" in which he reframes the old "nature vs. nurture" argument into "talent vs. practice" or "talent vs. preparation". He says,
"Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities." (pg. 155)
So the question I have is: What are the "predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities" that I can access to develop and master internal strength?

Well, one aspect is time. Time spent practicing. Here are a few ways I can analyze my practice schedule regarding how long it may take me to develop or master internal strength:

1 hour/day x 7 days/week x 365 days/year = 365 hours a year.
So, 10,000/365 = 27 years.

2 hours/day x 7 days/week x 365 days/year = 730 hours a year.
So, 10,000/730 = 14 years.

3 hours/day x 7 days/week x 365 days/year = 1095 hours a year.
So, 10,000/1095 = 9 years.

Well, I've logged my 10,000 hours but apparently time alone is not a predictor of mastery. So again, what are the "circumstances and opportunities" that I missed and that maybe I can still look for?

Also in the "The 10,000 Hour Rule" chapter, Gladwell references Dr. K. Anders Ericsson's early 1990's study. So, I looked into Dr. Ericsson and found...

Dr. K. Anders Ericsson... is widely recognized as one of the world's leading theoretical and experimental researchers on expertise. Dr Ericsson's research interests and publications can be found (as of this posting) at the Florida State University, Department of Psychology.

I've never heard of expertise studies. (Maybe developing and mastering internal strength can be approached from the view of expertise studies?) So I looked around some more and found various books have referenced Dr. Ericsson's and others' expertise studies, for example:
This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin 2006. Chapter 7 is titled "What Makes a Musician? Expertise Dissected.

"The ten thousand-hours theory is consistent with what we know about how the brain learns. Learning requires the assimilation and consolidation of information in the neural tissue. The more experiences we have with something, the stronger the memory/learning trace for that that experience becomes. Although people differ in how long it takes them to consolidate information neurally, it remains true that increased practice leads to greater number of neural traces, which can combine to create a stronger memory representation. ... The strength of a memory is related to how many times the original stimulus has been experienced. " (pg 193)
(Maybe mastering internal strength has to do with repeating specific experiences 10,000 hours ?) So I did a little more digging and I found what I'm guessing is "the early 1990's" Ericsson article referenced in the above books:

The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance (available as pdf)
K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer
Psychological Review
1993, Vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406
Here are a few excerpts:
We have shown that expert performance is acquired slowly over a very long time as a result of practice and that the highest levels of performance and achievement appear to require at least around 10 years of intense prior preparation.

Characteristics of Deliberate Practice
The most cited condition concerns the subjects' motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance. In addition, the design of the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

Comparison of Deliberate Practice to Other Types of Domain-Related Activities
Deliberate practice includes activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance.

The commitment to deliberate practice distinguishes the expert performer from the vast majority of children and adults who seem to have remarkable difficulty meeting the much lower demands on practice in schools, adult education, and in physical exercise programs.

After I read this, I had a little "a-ha" moment. The "Characteristics of Deliberate Practice" seems to be a very functional approach to developing mastery which in my view can be equally applied to mastering internal strength:
  • The subject's motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance.
  • the design of the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners
  • the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.
  • The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance.
  • The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

If I reword or reframe the above into what I might look for in terms of the teaching methods of someone teaching skills that can lead to internal strength, I might say the teacher would...
  • Design, teach and use simple, elemental tasks that "fit" the preexisting knowledge of the learners. (For me this means talking to me in my vernacular, in my "western" paradigm and not forcing me for example, into the Chi paradigm.)
  • Design, teach and use simple, elemental tasks that can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction. (For example, the Wujifa Alignment, 1,2,3,4 - 1,2,3,4.)
  • Design, teach and use simple, elemental tasks that provide immediate feedback. (For example: feeling the burning in the quadriceps or focus on feeling connectedness and noticing gaps in feeling.)
  • Design, teach and use simple, elemental tasks that can be performed repeatedly. (To me, this does not include forms. Forms are very complex. A simple task that can be performed repeatedly might be something like zhan zhuang, or side-to-side or one of the Wujifa warm-up exercises.)
Finding a teacher like this could provide the "circumstances and opportunities" that I missed. Also, developing a personal mind-set like the above could help me find the "circumstances and opportunities" to guide my learning and the kinds of questions I might ask. For example,
How can I break down, for example, "Fair Maiden Weaves Shuttle" into a simple, elemental "task" that I can perform repeatedly, that will deliver immediate feedback, that can be quickly and easily understood by another person, and that fits pre-existing knowledge? And I would add, that would lead to deeper levels of feeling of connectedness? Of course, all of this must be validate-able.)
According to my understanding of the little I read to write this post, I violated every characteristic of deliberate practice that would lead to expertise in my chosen field - mastering internal strength. So, from this limited perspective, it's no surprise that I wound up where I am. (I'm no expert in expertise studies. I just started connecting some dots and this is my understanding at this time.)

In conclusion, in my opinion, one of the contributions of Wujifa to the internal martial arts community is that it uses "Characteristics of Deliberate Practice". I've seen how practicing Wujifa can lead to developing internal strength in as little as three years. For myself, I've made a lot of progress in this system since returning to class seven years ago!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Body Changes: Journal Notes #16

Notes from my March 2004 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

* Question: How much can Rolfing do? Would another year have pursued the emotion?

Answer: No. You're getting your money's worth with that alone. By analogy, you're buying a factory built car. If you want a stock car, you've got to work on it yourself.

(From January through April 2004, I went through the first series of ten Rolfing sessions. (See my Rolfing Notes.) This question refers to this experience. In Journal Notes #15, I had asked about Rolfing and was told that Rolfers generally don't get into the emotional release / counseling aspect. I was looking for a short-cut; to have someone else do "the work" for me. This question is a continuation of that conversation.)

* Question: I'm seeing people's structures and sometimes I'll feel their structure and it hurts me. How do I stay open to feeling but not get influenced?

Answer: You have what is called an "easy-going" or "flaccid" personality. Your boundaries are weak. To strengthen boundaries, do the towel exercise three times a day. See what comes up.

(There were a few experiences that I'm referring to in the question which occurred after having gone through several Rolfing sessions. In one case, I had gone to a workshop where we had to "take on" a physical characteristic of another person in the room. I was able to do that but then couldn't shake it. Also walking around on the street and noticing that I could now notice people's structures in a feeling kind of way, not just visually notice. A really new and different experience.

In my case, the personality observation is accurate. What's interesting to me is how this easy-going, "Taoist" Tai-chi yielding, going-with-the-flow personality also manifests in the musculature. In my Wujifa zhan zhuang practice, "taking a stand" or "setting boundaries" on different levels was and is one of my long-standing internal gong-fu practices. For me,
developing internal strength is about a lot more than "just standing".)

* While standing in class, I received an adjustment such that my legs felt heavy and my top felt light and I felt a peaceful serenity I can't recall ever feeling before - or at least not in a very long time. But I wouldn't allow myself to enjoy that feeling for long and slowly shifted back to the pain, back to constant scanning of my structure.
(Ah, yes, the internal gong fu. Part of what "holds me back" is not wanting to or being afraid to let go of the old, ingrained habits. One habit is "look for a problem and fix it". Interesting how that showed up in my zhan zhuang practice, eh? )

* "The method is not the truth. Once you get the feeling, get rid of the method."

* You're getting caught up in the method. Try this, while standing, adjust on one breath. Relax and be with that for three breaths. Check and adjust with one breath. Repeat.

(I think this is referring to "Stance Dance" which is where I would continuously scan and adjust the alignment of each part of my body and I wound up not standing still and feeling the whole but continually "dancing" based on mechanistic perceptions. Wujifa alignment (1,2,3,4 and 1,2,3,4) is a method in which a feeling can be discovered. I wasn't looking for a feeling. I was stuck on mechanistically following the rule of "proper alignment". So, another method was suggested to help me overcome my being stuck on a method. And yes, this method did help me to c-a-l-m - d-o-w-n... )

* Learned about the inguinal crease (kua). Side to side and circling the hip is a "kua" exercise.
(Wow! I learned about inguinal crease stuff six years ago? I still can't do it right. I'm still learning and refining...)

* The key is to feel the elasticity of the fascia.

* Wow! What an enriching hour of class that was!

* During the week (the last week of March 2004), I felt the inside of my musculature of my vertebra from shoulders down. I felt my thickness and could differentiate front and back.

* While my body is going through these fantastic changes, I still feel lackluster.

* One day, I woke up feeling vibrating and tingling especially in the lower belly area.

* I've felt how I keep my lower back contracted and pulled in almost always. I'm now paying attention to allowing it to open out and sideways. Relaxing there brings up a fear of falling even while sitting in a chair as if the chair will break and not be able to withstand the outward pressure so I have to hold it in.
(This is another of the many "that's interesting" feelings, one of the roadsigns along the way that the body is slowly changing. I continue to work on relaxing my lower back outwards/sideways. I still feel a little fear that I'm going to "push it" too far when I reach "the edge". I haven't broken any chairs yet. Stay tuned!)

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: An Early Lesson in Learning: Journal Notes #15
Next article in this series: Bio Questions: Journal Notes #17