Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dr. Love's Qigong Rap

Here's a fun introductory rap video about Qigong that a friend sent to me the other day...

If you've been following my blog, you know I rant about never having developed the Tai-chi internal strength from following a Qigong mindset.

I remember Grand Master Chen Xiaowang adjusting my arm position at a silk reeling seminar to a more relaxed, extending position at which point I noticed the feeling changed and he said, "Ah, Qi flowing." He then adjusted it again, "Ah, Qi not flowing." Two different feelings. I like to keep it grounded there.

I think of "Qi" as being a Chinese cultural frame of reference with so many embedded cultural allusions that there are no intelligent cultural equivalents in "the west". Even though many people accept the common linguistic translation of "Qi" as meaning "energy", the problem arises when they apply their own cultural filters and market hype to this word. From my experience, the resultant cross-cultural ambiguity can create misunderstandings which are better to be avoided.

Experience the feeling of "Qi flowing" and then label that feeling: relaxed but not limp, or with intention but not tense, or whatever descriptors spring to mind in your local dialect. If it helps, think of "Qi" as the local dialect word used in China. Nothing more, nothing less.

If people need to do something "special" or need to feel they are "special" or like to wear "special" clothes while doing whatever it is that promotes their health, then that's a good thing.

Dancing Qigong Rap and instructions as introduction to Qigong. Dr. Love is lineage holder of Lung Qing Qigong aka Blue Dragon Immortal Qigong. He is Master of Blue Dragon Qigong since 1994. George Xavier Love is a Doctor of Oriental Medicine from Ju Shi Lin Daoist Scholars Council in Beijing under Master Li Bing Yuan aka Prof. John B.Y. Lee.

What Internal Strength Means to Me

A reader from Canada sent an email to me at internalgongfu@gmail with a comment and a couple questions. I think these are really good questions and others may have the same questions, maybe even for their own practice, so here's the email and my response...
Hello Mike,
I just wanted to drop you a line to say that I appreciate your dedication to internal arts and really enjoy your blog.

I would also like to commend you on your honesty.

It is not very often that someone will put it out there that they
haven't accomplished what they are writing about.

Candidly and from your perspective...

What measurement or accomplishment would be sufficient for YOU to declare that you have developed at least some internal power. Or put another way, what sign post are you looking for to confirm that you are NOW on the correct path.

* * * * * *

At one time, I would have answered referencing some special mystical Qi process. Now, I have a more functional understanding with radically mundane and ordinary reference points. Here's how I arrived at both perspectives and why I'm convinced I'm on the correct path now.

When I was a little kid (1960s), I got a comic book from my uncle with Disney cartoon characters but written in some other mysterious language. This sparked my interest in China and all things Chinese.

In the 1970s, I was drawn to T.V. shows such as "That's Incredible", "Kung Fu" and what were probably Shaw Brothers movies. I dreamed of wielding these mystical Chinese martial powers.

When I got into Tai Chi in the 1980s (primarily Yang style) , I was expecting to learn a very mystical martial art where I would develop special martial Qi powers. I did all kinds of weird mystical/spiritual stuff both in and out of class and had a range of "Qi experiences". All this re-enforced my beliefs that I was developing the internal Qi strength.

In 1988 I made my first trip to mainland China, to Sichuan, ostensibly to teach English, but in reality I wanted to learn Tai chi in China. While there however, I did not see any Tai chi; lots of gym class style Wushu, but no Tai-chi.

After asking around, my Chinese contacts found a student at the college who had learned Chen Taiji in his hometown. I think he was from Henan province. We arranged to practice push-hands about once a week. My push-hands style was insubstantial compared to the solidity of his style. This was my first experience with Chen style push-hands.

I returned to the U.S. with a rich cross-culture experience and disappointed that I didn't find a real Chinese Taiji master who I could boast I learned from. I continued practicing my forms on my own and sporadically played push-hands with a variety of practitioners. I pushed with another Chen stylist with the same result. I started doubting my skill and years of training.

Ultimately I got involved with a school that was more pragmatic and functionally oriented. My childhood "Qi power" beliefs were shown to be "slight of hand tricks" of proper alignment and knowing how to use the body. And again, my push-hands skills proved to be insubstantial. Now I was really having a training crisis.

I was introduced to Mike Sigman's Neijia List which discussed peng-jin and groundpath in very pragmatic, western terms. I continued learning and attending seminars. I slowly redefined what it means to have internal strength and how Tai chi functions as a martial art.

* * * * * *

"What sign post are you looking for to confirm that you are NOW on the correct path?"
  1. To be able to "sink the weight" into my legs. To be able to distinguish the feeling of carrying my weight in legs vs in my shoulders or upper torso.
  2. To be able to take an incoming push and run that through my structure and fascia system to ground and at the same time be relaxed and able to move around while maintaining that connection.
  3. To be able to express a large amount of power or force in a minimal distance - the zero-inch punch. I think many people think of this as "fa-jing".
* * * * * *

"What measurement or accomplishment would be sufficient for YOU to declare that you have developed at least some internal power?"

The short answer is: When I can feel a clearly identifiable feeling of connection throughout my entire body with a feeling of ease under load, and attain this feeling on my own without set-up adjustments from my instructor, and have my entry-level whole-body connectedness validated by a real master outside the school. This would be a sufficient measurement for me to declare I have developed at least some internal power.

As I continue relaxing and noticing toward this goal, I am discovering areas that are really tense as well areas that are really limp or flaccid. I need to relax the tense areas and charge-up the limp areas. Here are a few areas where I'm currently focusing my effort:
I can feel more weight in my legs but I'm not consistently down "in my legs" all the time. I still have to think about dropping my weight. I would like to be naturally more "in my legs" without having to think about it. That said, there is probably some residual, natural 'drop-ness' from the zhan zhuang training I've done.

I can kind of ground stronger pushes but I'm still taking way too much force into my shoulders and back. I would like to feel more ease of connection through my torso when under load. (I have felt this before but only after receiving many set-up adjustments to my posture and intention. I know the feeling. I haven't figured out how to recreate it on my own.)

I have more control of my kua but still catch myself popping out my kua. I still have to remind myself; "kua in". I would like to release more sacral tension to get more forward femur head rotation so the "kua in" occurs more naturally.
And by the way, I don't practice expressing bursts of power (fa-jing) because 1. I know I won't do it right because I still have tense and limp areas where there is no connection. and 2. I don't want to hurt myself nor develop a bad habit trying to do something before its time.

I hope this answers your questions. And thank you for asking!

Suggested reading at the Wujifa blog site: How Do You Know When You're Making Progress?

Let me leave YOU with this reader's question:

What measurement or accomplishment would be sufficient for YOU to declare that you have developed at least some internal power. Or put another way, what sign post are you looking for to confirm that you are NOW on the correct path.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Walls, Heads and Hearts: Journal Notes #36

Notes from my February and March 2006 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: Reality check. What do you think of my practice routine?
Answer: Doing an hour stance a day is O.K. but you need to do a lot more more side-to-side and and more hip-swivels. What you put in is what you get out. How much time you practice determines how soon you "get it". So one hour a day is not olympic training.

(When I was first learning Tai chi, I put in a ton(!) of time with a ton(!) of enthusiasm. However, when I got into un-learning and re-learning and actually developing some functional skill, my enthusiasm waned. Why? I think it comes down to I struggle with not wanting to let go of what I have (my habits) to get what I want (internal strength). I am slowly becoming aware of how I sabotage myself. The tiredness I often feel may be all the energy I'm expending to maintain my "walls" in the face of the energy I'm "building" through my practice.)
* Keep your internal exercises and other exercises separate, for example, don't do "internal" squats as a cardio-vascular workout. The intention of each is different.

* It's not uncommon for longer-term Wujifa students to work on releasing deeper "blockages" which may result in an "emotional release". Here is a conversation I noted from a March 2006 class. (The "Ins" means "instructor"):
Ins: How did you feel watching what Mr. A. was going through?
Me: I alternated between watching and trying not to watch to give him some privacy.
Ins: So you distanced yourself by intellectualizing and not being emotionally connected?
Me: I don't know what I was feeling.
Ins: What are you feeling now?
Me: Hmm....
Ins: Notice how his (my) face and ears are flushing? Now he's feeling the emotional response. That's just a little insight for you. Is that enough?
Me: Yes.
(I am including this rather personal experience here as an example of how someone (myself) can disconnect to an external situation as well as disconnect internally. I am slowly learning the feeling of when I'm connecting and when I'm disconnecting.

In my example here, I blocked the flow of emotional energy by "watching and trying not to watch", by "distancing" myself and the rationalization was "to give him some privacy" which was ludicrous given the physical setting. This was a valuable insight because it was a good example of how disconnected "I" am from "my body". I am coming to understand how developing internal strength is about developing a functional connectedness in all forms be it psychological, kinesthetic, emotional.)
* Focus your practice on the 20% that will give you 80% of the results, for example, sinking the weight into your legs. There are a lot of other high level practices but pursuing those 80% will only give you 20% results.

* Question: What is NLP "framing"?
Answer: A "frame" is a perspective, your thoughts about yourself or something, a belief. A frame can be a mental fabrication not based on anything yet it can rule your life. When you see the same situation from another perspective and adopt the feeling of that other perspective, both become equally real and unreal to you.

* Dead-post stance and Stance-dance stance are not extremes on a continuum with proper stance somewhere in between. No! Dead-post stance and Stance-dance stance are both wrong.

* Correct stance is feeling movement in stillness. Beginners may sway slightly front to back when breathing in and breathing out, respectively. Feel how the inside is still as movement is expressed externally with the swaying. Slowly change and adjust so the same movement occurs but is made so the outside is still and the inside moves with the breathe. This is the first step to developing correct stance and understanding "movement in stillness" of the internal martial arts.
(Previously, I understood the "movement in stillness" idea to mean imagining a white ball of Qi energy moving through my unmoving body. I like the above exercise because it is so much more functional, so kinesthetically verifiable. There is nothing to imagine about it.)
* Question: Is there a right or wrong time to practice silk reeling?
Answer: Silk reeling can be and is done at whatever level you are working at.

* Question: What is the Chen style silk reeling practice really about?
Answer: The name comes from the practice of unwinding the silk cocoon. You need to pull the thread with just the right amount of pressure and speed to get the best result. In Chen style silk reeling, you must move at just the right speed so you can feel and develop the feeling of the fascial connections moving as you move.
(I used to think that going through the mechanical motions of silk reeling would in itself "magically" do something. So now I know: Feeling + form = silk reeling. I still have not been able to distinguish the feeling of my fascia moving to be able to shift into and focus on feeling that feeling. I continue working on that.)

* It is obvious when someone is asking a thinking, "head"-based question or is asking a feeling, "body"-based question.
(I wasn't able to distinguish these two until I myself shifted from asking "head" based questions to asking "body" based questions. The words can be the same but the feeling behind the words is different. The question is coming from a different "place".)
* Feel. Become aware of a feeling. Understand the feeling. Ask what is causing that feeling. and repeat this cycle... deeper and deeper...

* Question: Why do we gaze above parallel as if looking up at a mountain range when many other standing and sitting practices say to gaze slightly downward?
Answer: Many people tend to hunch and so gazing downward only reinforces the hunching. By setting the gaze higher, contributes to straightening out the hunch.
(In addition to hunching the shoulders, many people (including some zhan zhuang teachers!) have their heads jutting forward where the ears are forward of their shoulders. After getting the head back into position (ears aligned over shoulders), the upward or even skyward gaze helps maintain alignment, helps correct muscle imbalances. Good zhan zhuang instruction points out and helps correct postural habits.)
Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Revealing Grandfather's Face: Journal Notes #35
Next article in this series: Ten Year Practice: Journal Notes #37

Friday, April 22, 2011

My Journey to Feeling: Part 6

Feeling the ever increasing subtleties of kinesthetic feeling, the internal connectedness in Wujifa zhan zhuang also requires a journey into feeling the depth and breadth of emotional feeling.

If you haven't read My Journey to Feeling: Part 1 you may want to start with that before continuing here.

* The body keeps score. The body remembers.

* Being able to be cognitively aware, to be both actor and observer of your emotional reaction is progress. To feel the fear response, notice your feeling and your body's responding is a good step.

* To the body, physical and psychological safety feel the same.

* To take a risk (either physically or psychologically), there must be a basic sense of safety, that everything will turn out O.K., that I will be safe doing or saying "X". Lacking this feeling sense of safety, then the chance of risk taking behavior diminishes.

* The body and the emotion form a bio-feedback loop. Fear begets a submissive (slouching) posture. Slouching, whether standing or sitting, begets a submission/fear feeling. Feeling causes posture causes feeling causes...

* Making many small changes that feel safe can result in big changes over time and often more so than a single dramatic change that is so different, so uncomfortable, so un-safe feeling, that you retreat to a safe place.
(This explains a lot of my backsliding from huge breakthroughs. Huge breakthroughs are really exciting. They give me a sense of dramatic accomplishment, however, I tend to not stay at that level. So, like the story of the hare and tortoise, "slow and steady wins the race".)
* * * * *

* So far I've laid out some general concepts. In this section, I get more specific, sharing my case as an example of a story.

* I'm a tall guy. I stood a head taller than my peers since the first day of kindergarten. The desire to fit, to be part of the group, to feel safe, I slouched and tried to hide my height and so developed a posture of the tall guy trying to appear shorter.
* I can easily recall many situations of standing up for myself and getting punched in the nose, both literally and figuratively, and my walking away. (I had never learned how to fight.) I cannot recall any situations of standing up for myself where the outcome was successful for me.

* So, early in life I learned that to be safe in the face of authority (to whomever or whatever I ascribed that power), meant to go with the flow, to go flaccid, to not "take a stand".

* The more I slouched to "fit-in", the more I embedded fear and insecurity, and the more fearful and insecure, the more this slouching posture developed.

* Ultimately, I never developed the feeling of emotional safety in standing up for myself in the face of authority. In college, I found a way to to "take a stand", to express myself through mincing words with supporting evidence. I learned to hide behind data. Note: This did not change my posture. It turned out to be an illusory safety.

* In Wujifa class, I have received adjustments to my posture where I feel as if my eyes moved from my chest into my head and I was seeing the world from a new perspective. These adjustments broke me out of the slouching postural, submissive feeling. However, this feeling was too dramatic a change for me and didn't "stick". It didn't feel safe.

* I feel like I've made huge improvements in my "external" structure - I am standing much straighter now. However, my "internal" structural holding pattern has not yet dissolved. In my own practice, I can "raise my eyes" from maybe chest height to shoulder height.

* Homework:
  • In emotional situations (where it's safe), notice the body postural response and before verbally responding, take a breath, change posture to a more open, relaxed posture, then notice how your change in posture effects your emotional feeling state and response. This is another way to address and get through the "fear wall", to break the fear cycle.
  • In zhan zhuang practice, break out of the the habitual fear feeling, internal/external slouching posture cycle. Stand taller, prouder, confident.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Top Ten Internal Martial Arts Training Mistakes

Over my nearly thirty years of training the internal martial art of Tai-chi Chuan, I have made a lot of mistakes in my pursuit of internal strength. Here are my top ten training mistakes. Some of these may sound obvious and others may sound controversial. Hopefully, any one of these will prevent you from falling into the same trap.

1. Not knowing your purpose; not knowing why and what you are training.
I've learned that purpose defines what is and is not "in scope" and helps clarify what questions get asked, like, "So how exactly does this exercise help develop the feeling of internal strength?" and my all time favorite, "How do you know?"
Tip: Know what you want and why you are training what you are training.
2. Not knowing the "connectedness" feeling of internal strength.
When I didn't know the feeling of internal strength, I didn't know what it was I wanted to develop. I believed whatever I was told it was. Some teachers teach mechanics and technique and call this "internal strength" but it is not.
Tip: Do your research. Get a sense of the feeling before committing to a training program.
3. Believing that practicing forms for years will lead to internal strength.
I discovered that forms are too complex to figure out the subtle feelings that are only revealed while standing still or while practicing simple, repetitious patterns like side-to-side.
Tip: Stop practicing forms and only practice zhan zhuang and simple, repetitious patterns like side-to-side.
4. Choosing a teacher based on a well known and respected lineage.
In my experience, the lineage of a teacher is not evidence in and of itself that that teacher actually has any internal strength skills.
Tip: Touch hands with the teacher's students and feel if anyone has skill. Sometimes the "rogue" teacher without a lineage may also have internal skills.
5. Thinking that a Tai-chi, Ba-gua, Xing-yi, Yi-chuan teacher has internal strength skills just because the teacher looks and sounds Chinese.
I've come to learn that a teacher's "Chinese-ness" is no guarantee of possessing internal skills and a teacher lacking "Chinese-ness" should not be dismissed as not having internal skills.
Tip: Don't judge a book by its cover.
6. Not validating my skill with others outside my school or training program.
I used to think that I was making progress when in fact I wasn't, and I didn't even know that I wasn't.
Tip: Find someone outside your school to validate or verify your experience.
I don't mean challenges or competitions. A minute of simple, static point-to-point "push hands" is sufficient to get valuable feedback.
7. Believing I need to train in China to get quality internal skills training.
I think this was more true thirty years ago than it is today. There are now more quality teachers available outside of China than ever before.
Tip: The grass is not always greener on the other side. Discover who is in or traveling to your area or country.
8. Believing that I need to learn Chinese language, culture and philosophy, Chinese Traditional Medicine, the Tai-chi Classics, Qi-gong or any other "energy" or "spiritual" or "Taoist" practice to develop internal strength.
I learned so much of this stuff over the years and NONE OF IT contributed to my developing internal strength.
Tip: A good teacher should be able to show you with several quick postural adjustments how to
elicit "the feeling" in your own body as well as discern "the feeling" in others. If your teacher can't guide you using your local vernacular (in "plain English" for my U.S. readers), then look for another teacher.
9. Thinking that there is only one "style" of zhan zhuang.
The more I practice Wujifa zhan zhuang and the more I view (on-line) how others teach and practice (and see their results), the more I see and understand that practicing zhan zhuang in and of itself may not necessarily lead to internal strength.
Either find a teacher who has internal skills who can guide your zhan zhuang practice and/or seek out true masters from whom you can receive guidance.
10. Believing that internal strength is a physical skill (like learning basketball) that I could add onto my existing structure or way without fundamentally changing who I am.
It's taken me a long time to experience that developing internal strength is about changing my body, body-mind, soma-psychology, neural pathways or whatever you call it, by inviting me to "let go of" and not "add on to".
Tip: Sorry, no tips on this one. I too struggle with letting go of deeper ingrained habitual holding patterns that I'm afraid to let go of.

I'd like to hear from you. What's on your Top Ten List of Internal Martial Arts Training Mistakes? Have you made any of these mistakes in your pursuit of internal strength? From your experience, have you reached the same conclusions or a different conclusion?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Revealing Grandfather's Face: Journal Notes #35

Notes from my January 2006 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.)

* As I begin 2006, I am doing stance for one hour a day. My mind wanders and so the quality of my practice time needs improving. My Wujifa instructor speaks of feeling "fascial stretch". I don't feel that yet.

* Question: How can I get my mind to stay focused on my body during stance?
Answer: First, before you practice, prepare. Spend a minute telling yourself that whatever there is to think about, you have either already thought about it or you will think about it later. In every case, you will probably not have an original thought that you will remember by the end of the hour. Therefore, thinking is useless and a mere distraction. Second, tell yourself that you are there to practice for that one hour and program yourself to ignore, to just let pass by, any thoughts that arise.
(Another trick I've mentioned elsewhere is to convince yourself and realize that for this period of time, there is nothing to do but relax. Another trick, if you have thoughts of stuff to do, is to do a few things before practice so then you've fulfilled that desire and can now relax...)
* The doorway stretch; an exercise to open or stretch the chest/heart area. Stand feet parallel facing a doorway threshold. Extend arms horizontally straight out from shoulders across a doorway frame and allow your torso to lean in to and through the doorway opening. Not the same as doing "flies" on the weight bench. Allow gravity to do the work. Don't pinch the back. Roll the shoulders back and down. Lift the chest and open, extend, expand.

* Squats. Do 100 a day with the intention on relaxing and opening the lower back. Feet parallel about half a foot length apart. Toes point slightly inward. Keep back straight. Drop into full squat. Relax at bottom. Let lower back stretch. When going up, push with heels. Keep back straight. No leaning. Head held as if with books on top. Squats work the kidneys. Kidneys hold fear, so as you open the lower back and the kidney area, fears will be brought up.
(When I first practiced squats this way, I identified a bunch of muscle imbalances in my body. I still can't do these as described here. I'm still working on resolving my chronic tensions and imbalances. I don't know if I'll ever get all the twist and tension out of my structure.)
* Question: How do I know if I'm doing stance right? How can I self-validate in the absence of a teacher?
Answer: If you do not feel the weight in your legs, then you're cheating. One way to check is to shift all the way back onto your heels so you are teetering on the edge of falling backward off your heels. When you are just this side of losing balance, then sink into the legs. Shift the weight forward slightly by moving the knees forward while sit back and down closing the kua.
(Don't assume that you'll get this right just from reading the above. I have been coached on this deceptively simple maneuver repeatedly throughout the years and while I need fewer course adjustments, I still need guidance with the micro-adjustments. I still can't do it right by myself.)
* Look for the "Structure of Magic" books by Bandler and Grinder:
(What does language and communication have to do with zhan zhuang? In Wujifa class we learn to listen for the more subtle levels of the emotional "charge" behind the spoken words which reveals what also shows up in the body's muscular holding patterns; everything is connected. Remember, what you haven't noticed is subtle until you notice it and then it becomes obvious.)
* We listened to a lecture about compressing and expanding time through various awareness exercises. One for example, the drumming exercise, 1,2,3,4. L,R,L,R. Listen for the space between beats. Keep the beat in your head and practice being aware of what's happening between beats. Then move into your body. Listen and feel the space between heart beats.

* We got "scolded" for relying on being spoon fed methods and we need to stop doing that.

* Do core stretches to release tensions, for example: first level: "Eight Pieces of Brocade" and second level: "Five Tibetans (Five Rites)". Be mindful of maintaining the feeling of connection, fascial stretch throughout body.

* Have an inquisitive mind. Practice. Observe. Present findings. Based on responses... Refine practice. Repeat.

* Stance is a method to unwind the body. It is a standing meditation. To "unwind" means to relax and release the muscular tensions. Like peeling an onion. As one layer is released/relaxed, a new layer of tension at a deeper level is observed. When standing, don't be a dead post. Don't be rigid. Seek movement in stillness.

* When you stand relaxed, your body will naturally sway forward as you breath in and backward as you breath out. This is an indication that you have reached one level of relaxation. The next level is to continue that movement under the skin. This means to stand still so that to an observer, you would appear to not be swaying. But in fact, in order to be still outside, there must be a lot of inner adjustments taking place to continue the natural forward and backward swaying.
(I just came back to this in my current practice. This time though, I got a really nice suggestion in class on how to play this a bit differently to take my practice to another level.)
However, before you get to this level, you must get past the beginner "stance dance" level and you must have gotten your mind to calm down to be able to devote 100% of your feeling attention without distracting thoughts to your inner body.

* To move from "stance dance" to stillness, check 1,2,3,4 then two breaths, then check 1,2,3,4 then two breaths, etc... Eventually increase from two to four breaths then to ten, twenty, etc.. up to 100 breaths. Eventually find your 100 breaths in an hour stance. Then slow your breathing and still do 100 breathes.
(Keeping the little monkey mind focused long enough to count 100 breaths is an exercise in itself. When you achieve this, what else do you notice?)
* Question: What does this Koan mean: "What is the face of your grandfather before you were born?"
Answer: After you've gone through releasing chronic muscular tension (armor), then you will know. Armoring is handed down through the generations. All armor is in place by the time you are ten years old. So all work to find these "treasures" involves finding and identifying and releasing your grandfather's face before you were born.

* The Tomato Plant Story (A Training Analogy)
  1. If you water the tomato plant everyday, the roots don't grow very deep so if you forget to water one day, then the plant withers.
  2. If you water in a circle a few inches from the plant, then the roots, searching for water, reach out to the water, growing.
  3. If you water a lot every few days, then the roots will reach deep to find water.
In case 2 and 3, you are stressing the plant and in so doing a creating a healthier plant. So, stress is good. Pain is good but you must be able to distinguish good pain from bad pain.

* Question: Can I practice the exercises that you tell others to practice?
Answer: Only take your own medicine. Eating someone else' medicine will either do nothing for you (except disillusion you to the effectiveness of the medicine) or will hurt you because you're not ready for that medicine yet. The wisdom is knowing that you don't need someone else' medicine.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Training Spirit (神;shén): Journal Notes #34
Next article in this series: Walls, Heads and Hearts: Journal Notes #36

Friday, April 15, 2011

My Journey to Feeling: Part 5

Feeling the ever increasing subtleties of kinesthetic feeling, the internal connectedness in Wujifa zhan zhuang also requires a journey into feeling the depth and breadth of emotional feeling.

If you haven't read My Journey to Feeling: Part 1 you may want to start with that before continuing here.

* Emotional communication is not a sequential, one way data-transfer (like email or e-chat), rather it is a simultaneous, two-way process where the feelings, actions, expressions of each are both the cause and effect of the others' behavior.

* Question: How does this communication play out in real life?
Answer: If an environment or person doesn't "feel" either physically or emotionally safe to you, then your emotional system may send the "danger" signal which another may sense and then display "anger" as a primal survival mechanism, which your system may sense as a threat to your survival and you respond. An instantaneous spiral.

* Getting a "feel for" and understanding of your repertoire of "emotional" kinesthetic experiences can help develop your feeling sensitivity in zhan zhuang.

* Fear has a couple flavors; physical and emotional. Some people are fearless taking physical risks yet are fearful taking emotional risks.

* Question: Can I practice overcoming physical fears as a way to overcome emotional fears?
Answer: Getting comfortable breaking the physical fear barrier will not necessarily make you comfortable breaking the emotional fear barrier. The strategy is not necessarily transferable.

* Fear and anger are widely recognized as being among our primary emotions.

* Fear trumps all other emotions. Only anger has the emotional, energetic force to break through the "fear wall".

* From our primordial roots, we are group animals. Our survival is enhanced when in a group and diminished when alone. The pre-verbal, sub-conscious, emotional-body communication functions to enhance our survival.

* Fear of ostracism from "the group" (whatever form that takes), triggers a very deep, primal question of survivability.

* Fear is not a bad thing. It is what provides for our survival. Even though civilized society has tempered physical threats, our instincts continue to function unabated.

* The body doesn't distinguish between physical danger (A tiger!) or emotional danger (someone is yelling angrily) nor between physical or emotional safety. There is only "the feeling". Hence, you can be in a physically safe place yet feel emotionally unsafe based on the emotional signals you are sensing and interpreting.

* Fear can keep you locked in a dysfunctional group or relation or kinesthetic experience which appears as a safer alternative to risking, to going through the fear to get to a more functional and satisfying "place". You may see a more functional situation over there, but are afraid to risk separating from the current group to get there.

* Sometimes influences from the past continue to carry weight in the present long after that influence is gone. The body doesn't know that influence is gone and continues to honor that influence as if it were here today.

* The most dangerous elephant is the one that thinks it is a mouse.

* Become aware of your own pre-verbal, sub-conscious, emotional-body, feeling-language.

* The below three points assume you are physically safe but feel "emotionally" unsafe:
  • Notice those instances in daily life, those conversations where you experience a fear response, and tell yourself, "I'm afraid of you...." and add, "because... " and complete the statement. Notice your body's response.
  • Recall that fear situation (you noticed earlier) and imagine other possible outcomes. Many people run an internal dialogue, (the monkey mind) imagining all kinds of conversations but typically don't apply this function in an intentional way. Rehearse other possible body-feeling responses. Really get the body involved.
  • In a future fear instance, play with responding with one of your rehearsed body-feeling responses and gauge both your own reaction and the other person's reaction.
* People want to overcome fear but are afraid to do so. Often they see an "all or nothing" task. The trick is to break the big, scary "I can't do that" task into a smaller, safe "I can do that" tasks. Baby steps are preferable to no steps. Baby steps will get you to the same place too.

* The end goal is to be able to manage the fear to get to a more functional place.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Battle for the Soul of Internal Gong Fu

The March 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine has an article titled: "Battle for the Soul of Kung Fu" by Peter Gwin; pages 95-113 of the hardcopy.

Shaolin Monk Kungfu
What I found interesting while reading this article was how the same could be said about the current state of the internal martial arts, namely, Tai-chi chuan:
"Shaolin kung fu is designed for combat, not to entertain audiences. It is hard to convince boys to spend many years learning something that won't make them wealthy or famous."
To read the full article, please see Battle for the Soul of Kung Fu at the National Geographic website. (This article was subsequently put behind a pay wall.)

It seems to me that the internal gong fu styles, Tai-chi chuan, Ba-gua chuan and Xing-yi chuan, have fallen into the same predicament. While it is true that Tai-chi has become a mainstream commercial success, that success has come with a price; Tai-chi chuan was stripped of its soul, of what made it the "Grand Ultimate" fist.

Since I began nearly thirty years ago, there has been a fairly steady increase in the amount of high level expertise made routinely available and accessible from the traveling masters' annual world tours to the various training opportunities in China. Given all this, you would think that the world would now be absolutely flush with internal gong fu practitioners demonstrating high level skills in internal strength/effortless power.

And yet, is it so? How many of those who have trained with real masters actually develop the internal strength that put the "Tai-chi" in Tai-chi chuan? 80%? 50%? 10%? 1%? (I would venture to guess the number is pretty low. But to be fair, I haven't been out much lately.)

I suspect that those who have trained with real masters are generally not seeking advice and direction regarding their individual practice of developing internal strength but rather are looking to be spoon fed morsels of their "brand".

What I am learning is that, gong fu is not something that can be given nor acquired through mimicry. You have to earn it. You have to know what you want and you have to be working on it. You have to take ownership of it. Once you are walking on this road, you begin figuring out your own body. You encounter and learn about your own internal adversaries. You begin figuring out the feeling. You begin figuring out the truly relevant questions.

Then when you get access to a real master, ask your questions as, "I want to feel how X feels. Show me in my body." Don't get stuck talking philosophy. Talk is cheap. Experiencing "the feeling" is pure gold. You may need to request (and pay for) an hour of private class to get what you want.

Ultimately, the battle for the soul of internal gong fu is a battle inside yourself. Are you going to continue being spoon fed your "kung fu" or are you really going to start walking your own gong fu path?

The expertise is available. They are giving the audience what the audience wants and is willing to pay for. What do you want?

Be really, really honest about your practice. How deeply can you feel and understand the fundamentals? What can you demonstrate?

Here's the paradox; the deeper you feel and understand the basic, boring, fundamentals, the higher the level the skill you develop. The more "higher level" skills you are taught, the lower the level skill you actually wind up with.

As we say in Wujifa, "You are where you are and that's where you start."

Get started... today!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Training Spirit (神;shén): Journal Notes #34

Notes from my December 2005 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: In Tai chi, they talk about the Three Treasures: Jing, Qi, Shen (精;jīng, 氣;qì, 神;shén). What's a functional way to interpret Shen or "spirit"? What's the relation between spirit and developing internal strength?

Answer (discussion):
* Having the right spirit or attitude is the key to making progress. It doesn't make any logical sense to ask: "What is the connection between internal strength and spirit?".
(Right. Internal strength or effortless power is a mind-body, kinesthetic quality. There is no direct relation between the attitude or spirit, the "How" that inspires my training to develop internal strength and the resultant kinesthetic quality.)
* The Taoist "De" roughly means the nature of "x" or the spirit of "x". What is the spirit of your practice? Not spirit in the mystical sense but spirit as in attitude? If the spirit is of duty, obligation, discipline, then what is the spirit behind that?

* Many soldiers don't like getting up a 5:00AM or running or doing push-ups but their spirit is to train to defend their country, their homeland.

* From the Christian tradition, what does it mean to be like Jesus? To be like that spirit, that attitude, that nature?

* You've seen the car bumper stickers, "What would Jesus do?", well, "How would Jesus stand?"

* Be curious. It is through curiosity that insights will come. What you seek you will find. When you knock, the door will be opened. Very simple.

* Practice the "Flower Blooming Ice Melting in Warm Sun" stance and breathe "Ahhhh".
(This is one of the many practices or "medicines" used in Wujifa zhan zhuang.)
* Consider growing a flower garden. Preparing the soil, planting seeds, watering and weeding are all dull, ordinary, necessary activities repeated over and over and over before any flowers come up and even after the flower blooms, you still have to do the ordinary weeding and watering. This is how it works.

* There's two ways to grow a garden; with love or with hate/resentment/anger. Both will grow a garden but the latter is not open to observe nuances that will result in allowing for more growth.

* The saying "Seeing is believing" is a lie. The truth is, "Believing is seeing." What you believe is what you see. You are not your beliefs. You make the mistake that a belief is who you are. The real you is independent of any belief.

* See the book: Yuan Dao: Tracing Dao to Its Source by Roger T. Ames and D.C. Lau (1998)

* Check into Mr. Rogers recordings.
(At school there is always music playing. Not your typical, new-age "spiritual", drive me into a mindless coma, meditation music, but rather a range of rock and blues songs as well as songs from the "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" shows. And what is most amazing is when the words of a song coincidentally summarize whatever teaching point is being made. I'm always amazed when this happens.)
* Unattaching is easy. It is not changing to another belief. It is realizing a place of joy in which there is only love which has no beliefs.

* When you focus on changing to another belief or choose to not believe a certain belief, doing so just keeps you attached to that belief.

* Question: How long to practice a particular method?
Answer: Until the feeling becomes natural so that it is there 24/7 and not only when doing the method. Once you get the feeling then you can innovate on the feeling but it must be the feeling that others in the field recognize as "the feeling" (assuming you want to develop in that field).

* For some reason, we have been taught and fiercely hold to not wanting the head, heart and pelvic areas to integrate. So we notice in class when adjusting stances, if the heart and pelvis get linked, then the energy moves to cut off the head. If the head gets integrated (with the heart and pelvis), then the energy moves to block the heart or pelvis. You see this in how the muscles tense or relax and where they tense or relax with each adjustment.

(Watching other classmates receive adjustments and how they (body) respond has got to be the most amazing, educational and instructive stuff! I am even amazed sometimes at what I am able to see.)
* Question: How to treat thoughts that arise during practice?
Answer: When thoughts arise, then life is cut off. Don't attach to thoughts. Just observe them and comment, "Isn't that interesting?" and keep practicing.

* By not attaching to a thought, you don't give it energy and eventually it dies. The key to practice is to build and develop your energy. But if you keep building the energy in the observer, then what? When you meet the Buddha, kill him.

* Personal note: As I close my journal notes for 2005, I am now standing in stance for one hour each morning and find it very easy to do. The biggest hurdle was overcoming the mindset that there is something else more important to do. Once I deeply understood, "There is nothing for you to do but relax." then it became easy to just stand.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Discover Your Power: Journal Notes #33
Next article in this series: Revealing Grandfather's Face: Journal Notes #35

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Beginner's Mind: The Zen of Internal Martial Arts

Much has been written about the "Beginner's Mind" both in Zen (or in Chinese: 禅;chán) meditation practice and its interwoven history with the internal martial arts: Tai Chi, Ba-gua, and Xing-yi chuan. This article suggests one way to refresh the Beginner's Mind when it doesn't feel like a beginner anymore.

In Discover Your Power: Journal Notes #33, I mused over whether I would ever be able to develop the internal strength or effortless power that made famous Tai Chi, Ba-gua, and Xing-yi chuan. Shortly after posting that article, my elder school brother talked to me and I'd like to share our conversation.

Developing internal strength or effortless power should probably take about three years of diligent and correct practice to bring someone "through the door"; to change the mind-body sufficiently to elicit the kinesthetic experience upon which internal strength or effortless power may develop.

Yet, in my case, I've been chasing this butterfly for twenty-five years and practicing stance for over ten years and have been brought "through the door" on multiple occasions by a very dedicated teacher and friend, and yet I still cannot demonstrate the kinesthetic quality of internal strength or effortless power. Why not?

My pattern, as observed by my instructor was not apparent to me until he pointed it out to me; every time I get close, every time he takes me through the door, my response is to either literally run away (see my Three Years Away: Journal Notes #11) or to withdraw or shut down. There are a wide and probably endless variety of reasons or excuses. And even though I have noticed this pattern in others (it must be a typical pattern), I could not see it in myself. Interesting, eh?

Question: So how do I recognize what pulls me away before it pulls me away?
Answer: That is not the correct question. It is better to ask: How do I keep it going?

As I blog my Zhan Zhuang Training Journal, I notice that my notes, the data I've gathered are mostly class notes and not primarily a daily training diary or journal. Data is my strength but I'm not using my strength to my advantage in this project.

Here is a suggestion to begin a new way to practice. Write a real training journal. Begin each morning with an "Intention for the day" and how I intend to achieve it. Intention and action plan. Then practice. Immediately after practice then write down your experiences and any questions or observations that came up during practice.

Collect your own data. Analyze your own data. Reach conclusions about your own data. Pose questions to yourself based on your own data. Make training decisions based on your own data.

Set the intention. Make a choice. Act on it. See it through. Take a Project Management approach to developing internal strength.

What do you want? Internal strength. Effortless power.
How do you develop that? Practice stance; Wujifa zhan zhuang.

I'll bet that many people come to the door of internal strength/effortless power and then walk away and look for another door (Oh no! Any door but that!) or they quit altogether and in both cases, never learn the real reason why. I've done this repeatedly.

It's easy to have the Zen-like beginner's mind, the unbridled enthusiasm, passion and openness when you have not yet encountered that which must change in yourself to "get it". I have run into my "demons" and have run away from them. Sometimes it is not pleasant to have a beginner's mind.

So how will this story end? It seems there are a few options:

1. Quit. Walk away for good. Be done with it forever.
2. Continue the same old approach and never really "get it".
3. Begin again but this time, take a different approach.

Bottom line, keep practicing...

Monday, April 4, 2011

Discover Your Power: Journal Notes #33

Notes from my November 2005 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 does zhan zhuang stance work to develop internal strength?
Answer: Remember the Wujifa Triangle (Relax, Balance, Structure). Stance brings attention to bone structure. However, proper structure is not attained without relaxing the muscular tension that holds the bones in a less than favorable structure. As the muscular tension relaxes, you can begin to feel the fascial structure. Increased feeling is proportional to increased relaxation.

* Question: I've discovered that I am comfortable with being powerless. If stance is to develop internal power, then my core attitude is in contradiction to my practice, an impediment to my own progress. How to resolve this?
Answer: You've been given a wonderful gift of understanding. Keep standing.
(I continue to be surprised and amazed at what comes out from practicing Wujifa zhan zhuang.)
* Question: What's a good method to practice stance?
Answer: All beginners do the "stance dance" which is where they continuously squirm around making continuous adjustments to their structure. Try this:
  • Make an adjustment. Hold that posture for three breaths then make another adjustment Repeat.
  • Maybe work on correcting just one area in a session or over a few sessions then go to another area.
  • Over weeks and months, increase the number of breaths between self adjustments.
  • Spend more time standing still and observing and less time adjusting.
(I have the idea now that people may start zhan zhuang practice standing like a dead post; rigid and not moving. Then people may become aware of and begin correcting structural imbalances and move into a "stance dance" phase. Becoming aware of this, people may move into a less locked, less squirmy, more alive stillness of standing. In terms of "phases", this pattern strikes me as being somewhat parallel to the phases Chen Xiaowang mentions: No shaking, qi blocked. Shaking, some qi moving, some qi blocked. No shaking, qi moving. Just a thought.)
* You've heard it said that "Your strength is your weakness." and to "Invest in loss". These phrases mean to look at your weakness and develop your weakness. If you are strong in one area and continually use that, then you are missing an opportunity to develop and will continue to have that weakness.
(In my case, my strength, such as it is, is in data, thinking, analyzing. I once thought I could develop internal strength using this strength. After many years of pursuing the thinking approach, I learned the truth was in feeling, my weakness. I am now focusing on developing my weakness. Thinking is a strength but it is also a weakness. The trick is knowing when and where a strength is useful and where it is an impediment.)
* Never miss a stance session because doing so will set you back. If something is preventing you, then do stance and learn what that something is.

* Regarding the "rotating the dan-tian" exercise,
  • First level: move hand as an aid to move the dan-tian
  • Second level: Move the dan-tian and then the hand in sync with the dan-tian
  • Third level: Connect the hand and dan-tian so the movement of the dan-tian moves the hand.
* The types of questions asked in class are typically "Fix me" requests. There's a dependence on the teacher to do something. But the only way to really get it is to try something and when you get together with a teacher, then have the attitude of show-and-tell. Have the attitude of, "Here's what I'm doing. What are you doing?" Try to get away from the dependence mentality and follow your own path.

* Chen Xiaowang laid out the whole program in four short phrases:
  1. Calm down.
  2. Listen behind.
  3. Relax.
  4. Sink.
* "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." Albert Einstein
(Who knew Albert Einstein was a great internal martial arts teacher? And yet, even in the most recent Wujifa class I attended, I persist in relying on and calling upon habitual patterns that fail miserably at moving my body using effortlessness. I continue to try, to want "to do". Experiences like this make me wonder if I'll ever get it. And experiences like this point out the distinction between efforted and effortless moving which is very valuable insight indeed, yet continues to confuse and confound the thinking that created the problem... I wonder how many times I need this insight before I un-figure it out...

And the phrase "effortless power" springs to mind, and though I consider it cliche' , I can understand how this word has been used to describe this particular kinesthetic experience. When I "got it" in class (granted, a small taste of it), the "it" feels like nothing special, like nothing at all, like I'm not doing anything, but I am feeling something very different. Yet if I do nothing in my habitual pattern, this does not create the same experience. Doing nothing is not the same as doing nothing. So, do something different but don't do. That's the trick as I understand it now.)
* A story: A student was sick. The teacher said, "You're looking better." The next day, the student was better. The teacher said, "You're not looking well." The next day, the student was not well. And again for two days. Then the student thought the teacher had some magic power to make the student sick and well and inquired about this. The teacher said, "No. I have no power over you. You believed what I said and through your belief you made yourself sick or well. You alone have the power." Discover your power. Keep practicing.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Zhan Zhuang Practice Time: Journal Notes #32
Next article in this series: Training Spirit (神;shén): Journal Notes #34

Friday, April 1, 2011

My Journey to Feeling: Part 4

Feeling the ever increasing subtleties of kinesthetic feeling, the internal connectedness in Wujifa zhan zhuang also requires a journey into feeling the depth and breadth of emotional feeling.

If you haven't read My Journey to Feeling: Part 1 you may want to start with that before continuing here.

* The word "emotion" includes the word "emote" which (per Merriam-Webster online) means "to give expression to emotion especially in acting". We can say that emotion implies action. For example, the action associated with fear is fight or flight.

* In the same way that your feelings interpret your environment, you also send out 'vibes' or emotional signals to others.

* We humans don't have claws, beaks, fangs, venomous stingers, horns or antlers. We're pretty helpless when we're alone. However, in a group we "kick butt". Emotion sense-feeling is the pre-verbal group language.

* If you dampen a feeling, you also dampen the outbound signal to others. If others don't respond to you emotionally it could be because you're not giving them anything to respond to.

* If you have trouble identify feelings, a good friend or therapist who is attuned to hearing verbal cues or "emotional words" can help you identify your core feelings. In these examples, the base emotion is fear. Although the person may not explicitly report feeling afraid, the underlying emotion may be verbally revealed, for example:
  • I'm afraid what she'll say if I...
  • I'm scared of what will happen if I...
  • I'm afraid of you because...
  • etc...
(Sometimes in Wujifa Zhan Zhuang class, I'll be receiving an adjustment to my structure/posture and this will take me to the edge of an emotional reaction and I'll choke back and not express that emotion. Just too scary to let it go... I wonder how zhan zhuang would feel to me if I weren't holding so much... ? )
* Imagine living in a state of constant vigilance to keep the damper on. It must be like being on guard duty 24x7 without ever getting some R&R. Must be very tiring.

* How much of your posture is an embodiment of emotional cowering? How would your posture, your structure change if you were to allow the free expression of all emotions, not damper emotions, not holding?

* If you feel free, relaxed, and emotionally open in one situation but not another, it may be that the perceived threat is removed. However, the internal pattern persists. It is that emotional neuro-muscular patterning that is the focus of changing. What is the threat level? Is it even real? Is it a "ghost" from the past irrelevant to the present?

* Every time you get into a situation where you feel yourself dampening the feeling, simply tell yourself, "I am afraid." Doing so "puts it on the radar", so to speak. It elevates the pre-conscious, pre-verbal feeling into verbal consciousness. It helps makes the feeling noticeable and so it becomes track-able over time.

* A book I'm currently reading and which is giving me some background information is Emotions and Life: Perspectives From Psychology, Biology and Evolution by Robert Plutchik (2002). This reads as a college textbook summarizing many theories and perspectives and research. I like the cover:

Emotions and Life book cover
* Another source I've found useful in helping me identify the breadth of my emotional feelings is the List of Emotions at Wikipedia specifically, the "Emotions by Groups" section ("... tree structured list of emotions as described in Parrot (2001)" ) . Notice that "tension" is the tertiary feeling of "fear".