Sunday, December 21, 2014

Vertical Kua Exercises: Journal Notes #128

Notes from my November 2014 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

Notes from 11/03 class

* Question: What's the difference between paying attention and being aware?
Answer: The body response is different.

* Sing the ABC song. Stop at "C". What's next? If you said "D", then you are stuck in a pattern. "D" does not have to follow "C". My beginning singing the song recalled for you a pattern. The fact that you responded to the pattern suggests your predisposition to patterns instead of spontaneity.

* To get to "When one part moves all parts move", you need to first isolate the parts to get the individual parts to move and then go back and reconnect the body in a new way.

* I match to a superficial level of awareness. I need to recognize that and figure out how to go deeper.

* The "hip swivel" exercise is a component of the "side to side" exercise.

* Question: I've been working on doing the "hip swivel" exercise. How does this look?
Answer: Show me. Terrible. You're using too many muscles.

Me: I can't feel that I'm moving. I feel like I'm standing still. Where am I moving?

Response: My instructor and school brother then held my body in place as I did the exercise and I felt a stillness in my body I had not felt doing this on my own. You're muscular neuropathways have mapped an inappropriate level of muscular engagement. You don't know how to turn off the muscles you don't need to do a simple exercise.

* Question: I've been practicing the mini-breathing squats with pressure. How am I looking?
Response: Show me. You're still being too mechanical. The mini-squat exercise is about maintaining equal pressure in the lower abdomen with different "distortions". Think of a round balloon resting on the floor. Now think of a flat surface on top the balloon pressing down on it. What happens? It distorts its shape side-to-side but the pressure remains the same. In the mini-squat exercise, there are three distortions: up, down, and bow.

Look at mini-squats another way. (He stretches and holds a theraband against his upper right chest and  left leg quad. What happens when I squat? The band relaxes. What happens when I stand upright? The band stretches. What you see the theraband doing is what you want to feel happening under your skin with the pressure of your breath initiating your movement.

* Question: What should I focus on practicing? The hip swivels or the mini-squats?
Answer: The method is not the truth. The mechanical exercise is not the point. Practice being more aware of the more subtle. Move more slowly and evenly with the breath as a driver. Use the hip swivel to relax the hip but put more time into the mini-squats. Think of the exhale as being like a pressure cooker blowing off steam as a result of the increased pressure caused by squatting.

* Use your intention to help focus your awareness on the pressure. Focus, awareness, and intention mutually develop each other.

* Start in Wuji. Stay in Wuji. Don't go to Yin Yang.

* With pressure you learn the meaning of movement in stillness. The pressure remains the same (stillness) even though the body is "distorting" into its various shapes (movement) - just like squeezing a balloon.

* Question: When I do the laying down exercise (where the legs move out with the in breath and move in with the out breath), I can feel the lower abdomen breath pressure push the legs out but I can't feel the decrease of pressure pull them in.
Response: Lay down. Show me. Then he leans over me. Breathe in. Good. And now breathe out. (As I breathed out, he pushed down on my lower abdomen.) Feel that?

Me: Yes. I feel a kind of pulling on the inner thighs.

Notes from 11/16 class

* My school brother has been working on a new exercise to develop the feeling of vertical fascial stretch from quads, across the dan-tian to lower ribs. I inquired about the feasibility of my practicing this exercise. Here's what transpired....

I knelt on my hands and knees. A short broom handle was placed along my spine. I was instructed to bring my spine in contact with the broom handle. My torso was secured (as best it could be) to this broom handle. Next, I was instructed to get up into a kneeling position being mindful of maintaining contact with the broom handle all along my spine.

With my knees and shoulders on a "plumb" vertical line and adhering to that line, I was instructed to focus on relaxing and maintaining contact with the broom handle as my pelvis was pushed forward from behind. My torso pivoted on my femur heads.

"Look!" my instructor exclaimed, "There's the vertical fascial stretch!"

"I can't feel it!" I said with frustration.

With this, my school brother took over assisting with my pelvic movement. My instructor grabbed his camera and took a photo of my three point (shoulder, pelvis, knee) vertical/relax posture and then another picture of my pelvis forward/vertical fascial stretch posture. When I looked at the photos, I was amazed! I could clearly see the stretch from my quads into my lower chest! However, I could not feel it.

With this, I was unbound from the broom handle and attempted this seemingly simple exercise on my own without any props. I immediately did it completely wrong!

Kneeling Vertical Kua Exercise rough sketch
Kneeling Vertical Kua Exercise (rough sketch)

The main problem was with my lower back arching. I was given the broom handle to hold against my back. I tried again. I struggled with figuring out the coordination.

"Don't tense your abs. See how he is using his abdominal muscles to get the back to flatten? Don't do that. Relax the back relax the front. Now push your penis forward!"

"Why do you have to make this about the penis?" I asked.

"Because it's not about the belly. Look. (He got on his knees and demonstrated the exercise.) Here's pushing the belly forward. Now here's pushing the penis forward. See the difference?"

"Ah! Huge difference! Pushing the belly forward comes from arching the back which allows the hips to stay locked. Pushing the penis (or pubic bone) forward requires mobilizing the entire lower abdomen area."

"Exactly! Now try again!"

I tried but I am so tight and I have so little control over that area that the best I could do was maybe move forward a millimeter on my own.

"Ah! That's good! Practice there!"

"But I hardly moved!" I whined.

"Do you want to do it right and make progress or do you want to do it wrong and fool yourself? Remember, you are where you are and that's where you start."

Notes from 11/31 class

* These last two weeks, I've been practicing the mini-squats and trying to get a better feel for the squatting coming from de-pressurizing rather than a coordination of breathing out and squatting. During these two weeks, the following ideas occurred to me:

* Question: What's the difference between holding and pressure?
Answer: Holding is a faux pressure. They can feel similar but are not.

* Question: When I inhale into my lower abdomen, should I focus on pushing out from the center only or should I focus on expanding all directions?
Answer: You're thinking from a yin-yang perspective. No. Don't focus on any direction. Simply allow the lower abdomen to expand on the inhale. (At this point he demonstrated by stretching a small section of theraband over his mouth and blowing into it.) What happened? It all expanded. Do that. Don't over-complicate it. Just do the exercise.

* Question: Is deflated the same as limp? If I completely "depressurize" it feels limp in comparison.
Answer: They are similar but not the same.

* Question: What's the relation (if there is any) between pressure and connection?
Answer: Pressure is just a method. (Chinese use the concept of ch'i as a way to talk about pressure.) You don't need to use breath to get fascial stretch. Fascial stretch is a type of pressure. When you use your breath, you can notice certain movements. You can notice biotensegrity distortions without muscular tension. If you get stuck on abdominal breathing or reverse breathing, then you are stuck in kindergarten. In biotensegrity/Wujifa, there is only movement. The teeter-totter is yin-yang. The fulcrum is outside the teeter-totter. When you apply martial intention to this, then you have internal martial arts.

* Question: I notice the lower abdomen pressure extending into my upper legs and creating a downward pressure like there's more weight dropping. Is this a strategy to help get the weight to sink?
Answer: You're creating an illusion with your intention.

* Question: When I'm standing in zhan zhuang, should I breathe to maintain pressure; to not deflate?
Answer: Don't worry about it. Breathing is a strategy. Just stand and relax.

* Question: Is pressure the "charge"?
Answer: When pressure and armor come in contact, then you get vibration. "Charge" is the amount of gusto for life that you have.

* Question: Is flaccid the same as no or low pressure?
Answer: Yes, in Wujifa, we would consider these similar.

* Remember, in Wujifa, the "dan-tian" is the entire area from the bottom of the ribs to the mid-thigh. This area is the most difficult to let go, to release, to stretch, to pressurize and to feel connection in and through. It is the area which holds the most challenge and demands the greatest amount of focus and work.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Remember, The Moon Is Round: Journal Notes #127
Next article in this series: Gaining Clarity on the Training Methodology: Journal Notes #129

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Where Are You on the Robot-to-Human Scale?

Here's one of those fun online surveys that fits really well with the theme of this blog and the practice of internal gongfu.

Do you have any emotions

In this forty item survey, you are instructed to check each item that "makes you feel something, anything." The listed items include a mix of situations and references to movies or other stuff you might see. Depending on the number of boxes you check, you'll fall into one of these four categories:

You are an emotionless robot. You’re barely human, and basically don’t care about anything. I’d say you should be disappointed, but you wouldn’t even feel that.

You are pretty emotionless. But some things will penetrate your cold, dead exterior and make you engage with humanity.

You are pretty emotional. Most things will penetrate your shell and you’re generally happy with the world.

So emotional. You are so emotional. You’re continually excited, or sad, or just feeling all the feelings. Literally anything you see makes you feel something. I’m not sure how you function.

And here's how I would interpret these categories in terms of learning internal gongfu:

C-3PO robot man
You are an emotionless robot.  You are probably also numb to any bodily kinesthetics outside of smashing your thumb with a hammer. You should probably pass on this whole internal thing because you'll never get it in this lifetime. You'd make better use of your time focusing on martial mechanics and techniques.

You are pretty emotionless. You can probably feel your muscles like when you are doing physical labor, exercise, or stretching but you are probably numb to anything past this. Developing this internal thing could take you f-o-r-e-v-e-r! You'll need to work on improving both your emotional engagement with life as well as feeling more in your body. Hope you (and your teachers) have lots of patience and perseverance!

You are pretty emotional.  To the extent that you can feel emotion as a bodily reaction, and with proper coaching, you are probably best positioned to make easy progress.

So emotional. You are about as close to being a "natural" as they come. Your biggest challenge will be refraining from giggling from the sheer enjoyment of discovering, "I didn't know I could do that!"

Happy practicing everyone!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Spirituality: In-Body or Out-of-Body Experience?

I was raised in the Roman Catholic church in the era bridging Vatican II (1962). And so from a very young age I learned that spirituality involved having an out-of-the-body focus. This is in my bones. Despite my "falling away" from the church, two decades of church teachings formed the background that I brought into my early studies of Tai-chi Chuan and qigong.

At one point in my early training, I considered out-of-body spiritual practices and the internal martial arts and qigong practices as being complimentary. I interpreted qi as a kind of spiritual quality. After a long, rough road, I now see how confused I was.

Lynne Forrest wrote eloquently about her quest for enlightenment and spiritual development and the revelation that led to her transition from pursuing out-of-body experiences to pursuing an in-body experience. My understanding is that she now considers developing a deep, clear feeling of connection within our own bodies as a "spiritual" path. She writes, "What if embod­i­ment is even nec­es­sary in order to know God?" (emphasis added). See her June 29, 2011 blog article titled, An In-Body Experience.

I like her article for two reasons:
  1. She did a nice job summarizing this generation's counter-culture spiritual values.
  2. I like how she re-frames spirituality from an out-of-body pursuit to an in-body pursuit and then hits a few key points of the experience of an in-body practice.
Her article provides a wonderful segue into considering how the pursuit of an out-of-body spirituality is completely counter-productive to developing the internal aspects of Chinese martial arts and qigong.

A focus on developing out-of-body-ness at least inhibits and at most negates the prospects for developing in-body-ness.

Except maybe for the highest levels, there is nothing about neigong that is out-of-body. My understanding is that any "out of body" experience is more appropriately understood as connecting between my body and the world outside my body. The "home base" is the body. Of course the presupposition is that I-body is first fully connected internally.

Bruce Frantzis hits on a few of these points throughout his interview with Iain McNay.

For me, the following are the key points of this interview:

8:10; It's not about being "spiritual". It's just good common sense to find out who you were. To most people, this doesn't enter their thought system. We live in a society that is utterly numb. And so much of the spiritual dimension is just blah blah blah blah blah

16:13; To mobilize qi, you have to learn how to really relax. To learn how to relax your muscles is hard enough. Then to really relax your energy, that's really harder.

37:30; What's in your head, if it doesn't translate through your body, you'll never notice it. When you're noticing something going on in your head, you're not noticing your brain, you're noticing your nervous system... how it's hitting your body in different ways.

Even though the interview goes on for over an hour and he does make some points that I understand (at my level of understanding), he also talks about some things that don't resonate with me based on my experience.

The bottom line for me is that it is worthwhile to at least entertain the notion of spirituality as being an in-body experience. This might be a way to help resolve the contention between A) my deeply ingrained religious views which devalue the "in here" in favor of the "out there" and B) my current practice which values feeling and connecting the "in here".

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Musings on the Moral Compass Impediment

When I embarked on this internal gong-fu journey, I never thought I would have my morals and beliefs challenged as being an impediment to making progress. In fact, this is exactly what I've encountered.

Truthfully, I encountered this years ago and at that time I considered the notion at least unreasonable and at most completely insane; in both cases, dismissible. Now, after many years of encountering this again and again, I am beginning to gain clarity in understanding the mechanism of how my rule-based behavior, a.k.a. my "moral code", is embedded in my physical structure. The degree to which I want to "hold onto" this behavior profoundly influences the degree to which I prevent myself from "letting go" and relaxing. In other words, what I am holding onto is preventing me from progressing further.

So in the conversation of breaking the rules, of playing at the boundaries of "moral behavior" I must be clear that I am not talking about breaking any laws of my domicile. What I am referring to is the degree to which I allow or "hold back" my Intention's natural, spontaneous, authentic expression. (As I mentioned in my previous post, "IMA is about clarifying and purifying the body's expression of intention.") The boundaries of the legal system of my domicile actually leave a lot of room for a wide variety of expression of human nature.

Shutting down or holding back any aspect of this expression and then attributing this to my morality as a choice has been an insight long in the making. I'm now thinking that it is not my morals dictating my behavior to me, rather, it is my decision to prevent "ch'i flowing" in, and feeling a deep connection through, a particular area of my body that is the root of particular "moral behavior". For some people this is their voice or their heart, and for others, like myself, this is the pelvic/dantian area.

A good internal gong-fu teacher must be both as compassionate as the Buddha and as impudent as the Devil.
In contemporary American slang, if your teacher isn't "yanking your chain" and "pushing your buttons", that is, if your teacher isn't aggravating you and goading you to look at areas that you would never in a million years dream of exploring from your own initiative, well, then you may never discover your deeper holding patterns.

I think that for many people, our moral compass runs pretty deep. We just know what is right and what is wrong. So obviously, having to face my feelings of doing something that completely goes against what I have always abided by is extremely difficult. It is one of the most challenging aspects of training I have ever faced.

From my own experience, I now see how behavioral patterns that may be considered moral or immoral are built into the body's structure; they are one and the same. Holding onto a moral, ethical, religious, or spiritual belief is *holding*. In a practice where relaxing and letting go are the methods to discovering the principle of connection, holding for whatever reason may be the factor inhibiting further progress.

Is the underlying premise based on holding or is it based on letting go and discovering connection?

What is "the line" that you would never cross? Maybe, that is where you are stuck.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Remember, The Moon Is Round: Journal Notes #127

Notes from my October 2014 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

* At the beginning of this month I had difficulty rolling out of bed and being appropriately attentive for  6:00 AM stance practice so I changed my schedule to stand 30-40 minutes as soon as I get home after work, then dinner, then walk, then more adjunct exercises, then reading. (The adjunct exercises are the laying down lower abdomen breathing with knee movement, mini squats, and weighted pivot on femur head.)

* Question: I've got pain in my shoulder when I let my arms hang at their side, for example, when doing the femur head pivot but they don't get sore when in stance when I have the forearms at a 90 degree angle. What's up with this?
Answer: Show me. When you do your stance, you are slightly tensing and raising the shoulder and when your arms hang, you're rolling the shoulder forward and slightly hunching.

(Me: At this point my instructor gave me structural adjustments: pinched the scapula together and told me to forcefully use my rhomboids to pull my shoulders down. He pushed down on my shoulders as a prompt.)

Notice how your hands rolled out. Keep your shoulders there and flatten your palms against your legs. Head back and up. Now, use proprioceptors to notice where your body parts are. What do you feel?

Me: I feel a stretch from the feet through the kua and a strong stretch up and down the front of my torso.

Instructor: Good. Now, roll your shoulders forward a little like you had them before. What do you notice?

Me: The feeling in the kua lessens. It's harder to feel.

Instructor: You won't get a good feeling in the kua if the structure of the shoulder is wrong.

* Many people say the internal martial arts are based on intention but they seem to not explore the depths of what this means functionally. IMA is about clarifying and purifying the body's expression of intention. IMA is about finding the true expression of who you are; the purest expression of your intention. If you lie and deceive others, e.g., you are shrewd, then you probably lie and deceive yourself. If you lie to yourself, your body gets confused about the expression of intention. You say that you want to calm the muddy water but your intention really is to continue stirring the muddy water.

* The Daoist Sage lived with integrity and connection. When you try to "game the system" or go against your natural character, then you build an armor over your natural character. Armor shows up in the body as tension. Tension is an armor against allowing free flowing natural expression. Tension protects you against experiencing "qi-flowing". Is that what you're afraid of?

* Don't judge others. It's OK to be hypocritical. Be honest with yourself. Believing you are upholding one standard and then doing something contradictory and then rationalizing that behavior is counterproductive to developing "song".

*  Hypothetically, it should take someone, with no previous experience at all, two to three years to get a feel of relaxed connection and maybe to fa-jing. The problem is that by the time people get to this level, they've got years or decades of experience that they want to make this fit into. It simply cannot be done! Therefore, most of the gong-fu  involves undoing bad habits and cutting through resistances to that which the person dedicated time and energy; the armor of pride.

* WUJIFA is not the finger pointing at the moon. The methods are the finger; the guide. Wujifa is the moon that the methods are guiding you toward. Remember, the moon is ROUND. And ROUND in Chinese is kind of a cultural code word for "connected"! Methods guide you to feeling connection! The full, round moon is a symbolic reminder of what you are striving towards; striving to develop the feeling of completeness, fullness, connection.

* When people do reverse breathing they tend to hold muscles already in chronic tension. Thus, people who think they are doing an advanced breathing technique are in fact fooling themselves. You cannot do reverse breathing correctly until you get complete freedom of movement through the abdomen and kua area.

* In Wuji, it's not about yin-yang. It's about what you feel! When you get in the mindset of open-closed, front channel-back channel, tight-loose, etc., then you'll never be able to develop the speed that comes with connection; when the whole body moves as one. When you get present and get connected, then you're on a different path than the yin-yang people. Wujifa is a system to get you unstuck and out of the yin-yang rut.

* Be attentive to feeling the juiciness, the sauciness, the sensuality of your body. Mmmmm.. on inhale and recall a favorite scent or smell that takes you back to a lovely, happy time. And Ahhhhhh on exhale with the relaxed exhilaration of that wonderful memory.

* Notice those situations and moments when you shut down your natural sensuality. For example, you smell your favorite cake and you feel an urge for cake but (due to dietary restrictions) you tell yourself, "I shouldn't have cake." or "Cake is bad for me." and you fight the feeling or depending on your "will power," you kill the feeling. Or you make others wrong for eating cake so you don't feel bad about wanting cake. There are many variations of stories we tell ourselves many of which result in shutting down the very connection to feeling we want to build up.

* Question: How did you develop the ability to see into the body to the depth you are able?
Answer: I worked five years at B.W. Clinic. When a patient came in, I'd look at his/her body. I'd then ask myself, "How does that feel in my body? I'd then try to replicate their structure in my body. Then I'd ask myself, "How can this be resolved to ease?" I then followed my intuition. This is in contrast to the clinical mechanical application of techniques that many massage therapists follow which will never lead to developing this ability.

* Do you remember the exercise I described in my September notes Journal Note #126 where I talked about placing my greater trochanter against an immovable object? Well, after proudly showing my instructor this wonderful weighted hip-swivel exercise and having him point out how my body was responding, the bottom line is that such an exercise is the wrong path and I would make better progress this way:
  • Go to a hardware store and purchase a small (3" or 4") lazy susan turntable bearing plate.
  • Get into standard Wujifa zhan zhuang stance position. Put the bearing under one heal.
  • Shift your weight to the side opposite the foot on the bearing.
  • Now, use the minimum amount of muscle needed to slowly turn the knee as far inward and as far outward as possible swiveling on the bearing. Do several reps.
  • Repeat on the other side.
  • Practice to develop less and less amount of muscle needed to get movement. Really feel into the hip socket! Try to keep the rest of the body as still as possible.
* Question: How should I practice this and how long each practice session?
Answer: Based on your hour a day practice (30 minutes of stance and 30 minutes of adjunct exercises) and your every-other week class attendance, work up to adding only five ounces of weight onto the swivel after two weeks.
Why? Why so little and why so slow?
Because your tendency still is to muscle the exercises and this sets up the wrong pattern in your body. You're still using tension to notice the feeling of connection (this is the faux connection) and you want to find the feeling of connection in relax.
* At one point in the above discussion, which lasted nearly an hour, my instructor unashamedly demonstrated (through acting out) how my musculature responds to adjustments to stand with a more relaxed structure. He acted out a guy with a fearful face, with gasping breathing, ducking and dodging imaginary threats and incoming attacks. It was quite a vivid display.

I was shocked! "You know, all this is under my radar! I don't notice this at all!"

He said, "I know. You cannot notice your own armors. You need someone to notice them for you."

Because I am that, I cannot notice that my body responds this way. And yet, he and my other school brothers have all commented that when they lay hands on me and feel my structure, this is indeed an accurate portrayal of how my responding musculature feels to them. Even though I believe and I feel I am relaxed, yet they notice something else entirely.

* Some so called "internal practices" are in fact a combination internal-external. This means their power is derived from bracing (external) and White Crane (done "internally", that is, driving from the chest). Contrast this with full internal where there is no bracing and there is whole body connection driven from the kua. The internal-external practices can develop power quickly and therefore are the most popular.

* I've been experiencing an extenuated noticing of feeling in my hip joints as I walk/move.

* When people with a normal/usual level of  body awareness get their first sense of body awareness, they will label their experience "Body Awareness" without any sense or feeling of the gradations or levels and assortment or variety of kinesthetic feelings awaiting them. For these folks, breaking the surface is so different from their normal everyday lives that this experience gets labeled as if body awareness were like an Off/On switch and they "got it".

* I now understand the meaning of "Breathing is a method" as meaning that the breath can be used to exercise intention by "directing" it within the body. It is also a method to help liberate stuck parts of the body, for example, "breath into the kua" directs my awareness to my kua and by involving my breath, further reinforces and deepens my "body awareness", that is, my internal proprioception skills in a manner that also helps to get these parts moving.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Exercise for Kua Freedom of Movement: Journal Notes #126
Next article in this series: Vertical Kua Exercises: Journal Notes #128

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Walk with My Teacher Through His Garden

I arrived early for class one balmy August morning. My instructor was already sitting on his front porch in his favorite chair, enjoying the mid-morning energy. After we bid our greetings, he arose from his chair and said, "Follow me. I want to show you something..."

Ma Lin Landscape with Great Pine Song Dynasty 13c
 "OK." I replied as I followed him down the steps of his porch and into his yard.

He led me to a small Japanese maple tree where we stopped and stood for a moment. Drawing a slow, long breath, he finally said, "Look at this tree and tell me what you see."

After years of trying to second-guess the answer to these kinds of questions, I've settled on simply saying what I see and then wait to discover where the conversation goes from there. So I replied, "I see a small tree".

His response began with his classic wry smile. I knew something good was coming.

Trees will grow according to their environment. We can intervene with vision to shape their growth. We can prune or use wire or other props to encourage a particular growth pattern. You must first have a vision of how you want the tree to look before you consider which methods to apply. You must also know how the tree will respond to various methods over time. You must also know the time horizon of your vision. Do you understand? Pruning and supporting are two methods and may seem contradictory but they are not contradictory when applied at a specific time and at a specific point.

He continued talking about the various branches, pointing out where he had pruned and why and how this pruning supported his vision of the tree's growth. He also pointed out heavy copper wire, which I had not even noticed, which he said was there to gently train those branches to grow in a particular direction. As he went on and on, my mind drifted off, pondering, "Do you understand?" I was pulled back to the moment when he said, "Let's go back and sit down."

"So," he began, "Do you have any questions?"

"I'm getting stuck on the, "Do you understand?" I mean, yeah, the metaphor seems obvious but I think that I probably don't have the same idea that you want to convey."

Too many people practice without a vision of where they want their practice to go. They may start with curiosity and get hooked into a practice and then get strung along pursuing whatever is presented to them. Suddenly years have passed...

"Yeah, this is pretty much how it works", I interrupted.

You see, if there's no vision or purpose, then you wind up making decisions based on "it just seemed to be the logical next step". Following "the logical next step" could take you on a very interesting journey. But this is not vision. Having a vision of where you want your practice to grow will help you avoid the trap of "the logical next step". You can approach practice with a near-sighted "do this now" or with longer range vision.

"So, then, what's the difference between vision and purpose? You always ask, "What's your purpose?"

Vision is based in kinesthetic feeling. Purpose is based on concepts and words. When you apply vision with purpose then you get functional! Look at the masters. See the vision they were seeing.

I recalled one of the Wujifa slogans, "Follow not in the footsteps of the masters. Seek out and discover what it is they sought."

As others arrived for class, I sat quietly pondering this unique teaching. A couple months have now passed since that summer day and whenever I see that little tree, I can see the twisted, windswept tree of his vision. Even now, seeing a twisted, windswept tree, I am gently and subtly reminded, "What's your vision for how you want your practice to grow?"

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Exercise for Kua Freedom of Movement: Journal Notes #126

Notes from my September 2014 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

* During the month of September, I devoted a good deal of time and energy to calming an emotionally distraught family member. This left me tired and out of sorts and consequently my practice time suffered. Things settled down toward the end of the month and I got back into practicing about an hour a day; half-hour stance and half-hour other exercises.

* A sole practice of zhan zhuang stance is not enough. You also need to do isolated exercises to get the feeling of relax in specific areas of your body.

* In one class, one of my school brothers reminded me a a class a couple years ago where we were all together and I clawed my forearm and cried, "I can't feel anything!" This was a huge turning point for him! In my moment of frustration, he realized that he couldn't feel the things that he was being instructed to feel for either! He slowly then came to realize that "armoring" is a word signifying this non-feeling condition. "Armoring" is not a mere theoretical or mental construct or metaphor. It is a real description of areas of the body where a person is tense or is blocking from feeling. I mention this here because:
  1. An emotionally dramatic moment in class led him to understand what constitutes a functional internal practice.
  2. This experience changed his approach to practice from thinking it was all mental gymnastics to realizing the actual physical work that was needed. He's since made a lot of progress!
  3. He articulated his turning point with such clarity! This may help others understand too.

* My instructor has been saying that I am amongst his worst students because he's had to "dumb down" even the most basic exercises. I prefer to reframe this the following way: due to my armoring, he has had to refine and calibrate his teaching methods to the most elemental, fundamental level to facilitate opening, relaxing and feeling in areas that are traditionally the most locked down and difficult to open.

* Sometimes I feel overcome with pride with what this little band of practitioners is accomplishing. Between a devoted teacher and dedicated (even if sometimes troublesome) students, methods of building internal connection are being tested, developed, and documented that will benefit generations of practitioners in a way that other teachings of this topic will never be able to.

* The following is an exercise that I was shown in class and that I've been working on to help develop more range of motion in each hip:
  1. Get into the Wujifa zhan zhang stance position; feet parallel and one foot's length apart. Flex the knees a little.
  2. Shift weight to right so all weight is on right leg.
  3. Lock the right femur into place so that both the knee and the greater trochanter remain perfectly immobilized! This is the key to this exercise! I've been practicing this by standing beside an immovable object, like a door, and holding my right greater trochanter against the door knob.
  4. With the right femur locked in place, and keeping the lower back relaxed, then slowly move the left side of the pelvis forward and back on the horizontal plane with the only movement occurring at the right hip socket.
  5. Repeat on the other side.
    When I do this correctly, with my weight sunk, my quads fatigue within a minute. My instructor has exposed to me the many ways that I cheat. In other words, there are many ways to do this wrong. Here are a few:
    • Rotate the shin bones on the ankle bone.
    • Rotate the femur with the shin bones.
    • Tuck and untuck the pelvis.
    • Move the other leg excessively giving the illusion of pelvic movement.
    Why are these mistakes? If my focus is on proving that I have a full range of motion and no tension or holding my femur and pelvis, then I am more likely to unconsciously add elements like the above as "proof" that I can do this.

    As I practiced this over the month and worked on distilling out the errors, I discovered that in fact I have very little range of motion (at most only eight degrees) and very little single leg strength under a slowly moving load. This is in contrast to the nearly 90 degrees range of motion I have when I rotate an unweighted leg (on the heel resting on the ground) from foot forward to foot to side.
    So the issue is not range of motion in the hip socket per se, but rather the way I "hold" myself upright. My habitual range of motion has patterned certain muscles to work in certain ways. I'm strong enough within that patterned range but weak on the edges. I think this exercise is designed to extend this range.

    When I shifted the focus of practice to monitoring for cheating, e.g., "Am I maintaining stillness and non-movement throughout my body? Am I only moving at the hip capsule?" then my practice changed. It was the same "external" exercise but when I practiced with a different purpose then I got different results!

    After getting a feel for this (which may take months of practice), then apply this to walking. Grab your pants at the side pocket seam and then as if throwing something, throw/pull your pant seam forward throwing the unweighted leg forward. Pulling the right side means rotating on the left femur head and pulling the left side means rotating on the right femur head. This exercise provides the greatest opportunity to cheat so pay careful attention!

    An advanced form of this exercise involves counter-twisting the spine and punching forward with the hand opposite the forward foot. This begins to look kind of like a simplified Xing-yi.

    * I've also been practicing this exercise:
    Facing a surface that is about waist height, I extend my arms over my head and bend over to this surface placing my elbows on the surface. Squat down a little bit. With my torso hanging relaxed like a hammock strung between my elbows and hips, I then create the feeling as if I am pushing out a poop. Feel the skin across my pelvic floor stretching and opening. I couldn't feel anything "back there" for several weeks but eventually I began to notice how the greater trochanters can move a little more than before.

    Why bend over to do this exercise? Because bending over takes the back and torso out of the equation. In this position I can learn that it is not my tight back causing the problem of "frozen" hip joints but rather it is a tight butt and tight pelvic floor.

    * I demonstrated my mini-breathing-squats in class and was told that the "going up" looks OK but the "squatting down" part is broken. Just as the "up" is as if inflating and slowly building pressure as I'm inhaling deep into the lower pelvis, conversely the "down" is as if deflating and slowly releasing that pressure on the exhale. We reviewed again the details of the min-breathing-squats. Remember, the entire "mini-squat" only moves in a 6"-12" range from the full upright position to the full squat.

    * My instructor told the story again how he spent years working on isolating muscle activation. I think this gave him the "competitive advantage" in learning and developing a very deep sense of kinesthetic feeling. A simple and beginning example of this is to rest your arm on a firm surface and then relax and tighten the bicep and only the bicep and no other muscles. Once you are able to do this, then relax and tighten only the tricep. You get the idea. Practice this on all the muscles throughout your entire body.

    * While practicing mini-squats at home, I got an insight regarding the exhale/deflation. I also got a deeper feeling for the intentional-mechanics of the hips and knees movement. How to explain? Previously, I "thought" I had the intention of "knees forward, sit back and down" but I always got corrected so obviously something was missing. With this deeper feeling, I found a much clearer sensation of the knees driving forward while simultaneously sitting back and down.

    * My school brother asked a question. I answered with my understanding of the question. He said, "You don't know what I'm talking about." Our instructor then answered the question. How could he answer it and why couldn't I? He could understand that the words of the question were selected to represent a feeling my school brother was experiencing. I didn't understand the kinesthetic feeling he was trying to verbalize.

    Further reading:
    Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
    Previous article in this series: What's Sex Got To Do With It: Journal Notes #125

    Sunday, September 28, 2014

    What's Sex Got To Do With It?: Journal Notes #125

    Notes from my August 2014 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.
    * * * *
    If you've been following this blog for the five years I've been writing, you'll know that I've never directly referenced genitalia or sex. The astute reader likely thinks this is odd since the pelvis contains, among other things, genitals, and genitals were designed for sex.

    You should know that in the non-public, that is "indoor" classes which I blog here, genitalia and sex are in fact mentioned routinely. It has been my own sense of what is proper to write about which has prevented these class notes from going public as it were.

    Something has shifted in my practice recently and I don't feel compelled by the same inhibition. And so beginning with this Journal Notes entry, I will begin providing notes that discuss the role of sexual expression in developing connection.
    * * * *
    * I've been practicing the laying down exercise; lay on back, feet flat on floor (knees bent up) with feet a little closer than hip distance apart, coordinate breathing with knee movement; breathe in and knees splay out to about a 45 degree angle to floor and breathe out and knees return to upright position. The key is to breathe into the lower abdomen so the area immediately above the pubic bone on inhale feels like a pressure pushing the knees apart and on exhale the knees return to upright.

    * Through the month of August, I was waking up just before 6:00 am and practicing zhan zhuang for 30-40 minutes before going to work. Some of these morning sessions were more like "sleepy stance". In the evening I would practice other exercises like the mini-breathing squats for 30 minutes.

    * I go for a walk each day during break at work. On these walks I focus on letting the lower abdomen just above the pubic bone relax and move as it will. One day while walking I noticed this area moving more than it had been. By the end of my 20 minute walk, that area was getting sore and I got a little scared of what might happen. (Nothing happened.) Whenever I walk, I focus on letting go of holding in the pelvic area as much as possible. I interpret this feeling like my hips are swaying with a feminine quality.

    * Question: Now that I've noticed this holding and release just above the pubic bone, what is the next step? How do I work on this?
    Answer: Don't "work" on it. Continue to set the intention to allow movement to show up and remain in the moment with it.

    * Let's say that you have a knotted ball of string. Loosen one knot and focus on how that change impacts the whole. Don't continue focusing on that knotted area. Don't compartmentalize. Focus locally, notice the result, then focus globally and notice the larger result of that "isolated" result. This is the process.

    * Me: I've been practicing the baby rollover that I learned in July and I think I've made some good progress.
    Instructor: Show me.

    Me: I demonstrate.

    Instr: That is much better. Can you do it with more relax?

    Me: I don't know. How? Where are you seeing not relax?

    Instr: Drop your head. Relax your solar plexus/xyphoid process area. Don't go limp. Good. Now try again.

    Me: I do it but with some shaking and jerking. I feel like crying. I want to call the change subtle and distinct but it is a huge change! I feel more of my entire body elongating.

    * Question: Is shaking during zhan zhuang practice the door to fa-jing? I ask because when I was standing the other day, I was shaking and there were some very sudden drops which left the hands behind giving the impression of projecting the hands forward.
    Answer: No. Shaking appears at the cusp of letting go. Shaking is oscillating between relaxing and holding. It is your brain saying, "Relax! No! Hold on! No! Relax! No! Hold on! No! Relax!..." much more quickly than you can form the concepts and words. When you get shaking, take a deep breath and relax. Let go. Calm down. You may get a few violent shakes afterward and that's OK. The goal is to relax, not to shake. Shaking is a byproduct of relaxing.

    * The external way is to use muscles to force the desired structure to appear. The internal way is to relax and discover how the desired structure shows up.

    * Those who are dedicated to a system tend to see through the lens/filter of that system. It is difficult for them to compare the internals of a different system to the internals of their own.

    * People can't do whole-body (some say six harmony) movement because their pelvis is locked. You've got to get the pelvis freed first! Some women have a very free pelvis but it is disconnected from the heart and mind. Unlock the pelvis and connect it to the heart and mind.

    * Data is a tool. It is useful but it is not the truth. Data is one step removed from feeling which is true. Concepts and words remove us from the present. Change perspective.

    * When most people say, "That's interesting", what they find interesting is usually a trigger that inspires them to create action, to pursue what they find interesting. I used to be like that, following my curiosity. Part of my shutting down has been to diminish what I find interesting by putting it in a box labelled, "That's interesting" and then ignore it instead of explore it to see where it might lead.

    * How does this show up in your practice?

    * Question: What is a good student?
    Answer: One who asks, "What is x?" and then says, "Show me." and then goes home and practices x, returns in a week and asks for verification. A good student is one who is curious and open about feedback.

    * A word can evoke an image. An image can evoke a kinesthetic expression/emotional feeling. A kinesthetic feeling can evoke an emotion and vice versa, an emotion can evoke a kinesthetic response. Opening a long locked-down ano-genital area can evoke feelings which may be conceptually interpreted as threatening one's sexual identity. The response to this can be a renewed closing or shutting down to those feelings to keep the rigidity of the identity intact. Only when you notice this cycle, are you then able to change it.

    * The "Gold Standard" of internal connection is, "When one part moves, then all parts move." Few if any are capable of going from 0 to 100 in three seconds. How do you get there? Deconstruct it. Dumb it down. Simplify it into a wide variety of simple exercises to develop feeling, to help the person get past their armors, to build a repertoire of kinesthetic feelings. THEN and only then can you begin to connect these experiences to develop a generalized feeling of connection. This is the Wujifa path to begin developing "When one part moves, all parts move."

    * I realize now that for many years I completely did not understand the vision of the various exercises I was doing. I saw them as isolated, unrelated instances. Now I see more clearly how the various exercises are extracted methods of the "When one part moves, all parts move" kinesthetic quality. It's all to easy to get caught up in individual methods and lose sight of the purpose... even when repeatedly reminded!

    * The phrase, "Where the mind goes, the chi follows." also means that language, words, semantics are a reflection of how the mind is operating. The words I use are a linguistic expression of my body disposition at that moment. The flip side of these phrase is "Where the mind is stuck, the chi is stuck." And by extension, where the body is stuck, so too the chi is stuck and so too the mind is stuck.

    * If a practitioner for whatever reason is holding back from pursuing or engaging in sexual activity, it seems that the unconscious fascial response through the genital/kua region, that is, which connects from hip to hip through the genitals, assumes a "holding" pattern which is not relaxed and so inhibits the ability to feel in general and feel into the pelvis specifically. (Those who regularly engage in sexual activity but are holding somewhere else will also find it difficult to feel into their body.)  If sex is where you are holding back, know that holding is holding and letting go and relaxing the holding, will open a door to discovering more feeling and internal connection.

    * Question: Why do you sexualize everything?
    Answer: Back to you, Why do you interpret what I say as being sexualized? The truth is that 99% of people's problems are in their pelvis, including you. Getting the pelvis unstuck is the key to developing connection. Because the pelvis contains the ano-genital structures and this is where people are stuck, how else am I to talk? So if your structure is revealing that you are holding in your penis, the easiest way to talk is to say to drive your penis forward. And you have seen for yourself how you have difficulty with this simple exercise.

    By nature we are sexual beings. We are only here today due to thousands of years of sexual activity of our ancestors. Ironically, we live in a society of sexual creatures that dampers their natural action/expression. You have to find a balance of expressing feeling without engaging in socially inappropriate action.

    Most people drive their pelvis forward by moving the spine because the muscles in the back are locked. When the back muscles relax and let go, then the pelvis can rotate on the femur heads. You can't feel connection through slackness or tightness.

    * Everything is Wujifa follows the principle of connection. Beginners look at parts. Working on parts is a useful method for beginners. But the principle of connection is to look at the whole. So if you see only a part, then this violates the principle of connection. As you gain skill, then look more globally. For example, if you only look at the front channel or the kua, or whatever, then you violate the principle. It is useful to understand how the parts work but getting stuck at the part level violates the principle. As a caveat, beginners should not try to do full body viewing because they overlook their own habitual disconnection. Hence, the reason for the methods that work on parts is to help the beginner notice and feel deeply into that part (even if  "deeply" for that person at that time is in fact very superficial).

    * You can notice what you notice. You cannot notice what you do not notice. This seems to be an obvious truth but it is often overlooked.

    * If you look at one part, the tendency is to ignore other parts that you're not paying attention to. So if the exercise is to only practice moving one part, you may inadvertently move five other parts. Hence, it is critical to have someone notice for you; to bring your attention to what you are not noticing. (The "noticer" will only be able to notice in you what s/he has already resolved in him/herself.)

    * Me: Recently in zhan zhuang practice I noticed my entire torso from top to bottom inflate with each inhalation. (I demonstrate.)
    Instructor: Good but don't go down that path. The problem is that you're hinging/bending the back to get that feeling.

    Me: I didn't notice this.

    Instr: I know. Can you get the same feeling AND keep the back straight?

    Me: (Trying)

    Instr: Now you're slightly rocking your pelvis.

    Me: Now that you mention it, that is barely perceptible.

    Instr: Barely perceptible to you. Obvious to me. The way you are rocking your pelvis is causing you to lose connection. You're losing upward force. Keep the pelvis rigid (as a temporary medicine) and feel the upward force.

    * Question: I'm continuing practicing laying down breathing. Is there more to this exercise? I feel like I'm doing this exercise better now. I'm really focusing on relieving the stuck point between my femurs and pelvis that caused the pelvis to move. I'm feeling the breath pushing the legs apart and I feel a pulling of the legs together.
    Answer: You're not breathing entirely into the lower abdomen (into the pubic area). You're breathing partly into the chest. This is a leakage. You need to have all the breath go into the pubic/kua area. Try this. Put your hands on your chest. Breathe in and raise the chest. Now breathe out and lower the chest. Notice the location of the chest on complete exhalation. Now, without moving the chest, breathe into your pubic/kua.

    Me: I get more breathe into the kua. Wow! That's interesting. (I'm trembling after a few breaths.)  I get this at home but after 15-20 minutes of practice.

    Instr: You start trembling when the charge gets into the pelvis. You just plugged a leak and so now more charge is going there more quickly. What is the trembling saying?

    Me: Nothing. No words. Just an "ahhhh" sound.

    Instr: If you gave it a voice, what would it say?

    Me: "You go girl!"

    Me: (surprised at the words that just came out of my mouth) "Whoa! That's weird! Why would it say that?"

    Instr: You've got to wake up your penis (your male genital energy). It's been sleeping too long.

    * Trevor Skyped in from California. He's making great progress! When you train like Trevor is training then you make progress. When you don't put in the time, then you don't make progress.

    * After work one day as I was walking to the car, I was thinking, "Lead with penis" and I felt a little forward opening and then just as suddenly a thought spontaneously appeared, "Don't stick that thing out there! It will get cut off!" My conscious reaction to that was, "Oh, so that's how deep traumatic muscular memory goes!" (I was circumcised when an infant and like most guys never thought anything of this. About ten years ago I started reading about genital mutilation and its deep psychosomatic effects on individuals and society at large.)

    Further reading:
    Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
    Previous article in this series: The Intention to Roll Over: Journal Notes #124
    Next article in this series: Exercise for Kua Freedom of Movement: Journal Notes #126

    Tuesday, July 29, 2014

    The Intention to Roll Over: Journal Notes #124

    Notes from my July 2014 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

    * Reminder, I've been attending class every other week for many years. This is a very different training pattern than a weekly or more frequent attendance pattern. Due to this schedule and vacations, I only attended one class in July.

    * My practice during this month has focused on doing the mini breathing squats for at least 20 minutes per day. On weekends I would add 40 minutes of zhan zhuang each day.

    * I've noticed a contradiction in trying to maintain the knees forward when standing fully up. I've also noticed a tendency to pull the trochanters backward on a full stand up. To counter this, I've worked on maintaining knees forward through the entire range of sit back and down through full stand up.

    * I demonstrated the mini squats I've been practicing and explained what I've noticed and how I'm working.
    Instructor: You're using counteracting forces. You're clenching the front to counter the tension in your back to give you your feeling of knees forward. You're making this exercise much more difficult than it is. There's a huge difference between maintaining a still pelvis through clenching vs. through relaxing. You're still focused on compartmentalizing your movement. You see and explore the component parts of movement and as a result, your movement has the same kind of segmented quality. It's not about two ways of seeing or two ways of understanding moving, it's about two ways of moving!

    * I had a very frank discussion with my instructor in which he said I was one of his worst students. So I asked, "What's the criteria to be a worst student?"
    Instructor: How much do you train every day?

    Me: Recently? Twenty minutes a day.

    Instructor: And how many years have you been training?

    Me: More than ten.

    Instructor: There's your criteria. Theoretically it should only take one to three years for someone to develop this skillset who is truly open to learning and who follows instructions, trains two to three hours a day and does not resist or deviate. In your case, you've hit a glass ceiling which is at the point where someone who's trained seriously for one year should be.

    Me: But I've got ten years of great notes! I've got a much clearer understanding now.

    Instructor: Go back and look at your notes. How many ways have I said, "Relax and feel connection"? When are you going to simply "Relax and feel connection"?

    Me: I don't know.

    Instructor: There's your answer.
    * All these various exercises are meant to purify and refine the intention. Ordinary people's intention is rather scattered. In Tai-chi they say to use the eye to lead the hand as a way to develop intention but this generally does not produce the level of results needed.

    * Look at babies. When they want something, their intention is to reach for it and their entire body follows. Practice this exercise. Lie prone on your back on the floor. Pick up your left leg and reach it over your body to your right. Reach to the right with your left foot until your foot drags your body over onto your stomach. Use only your intention to reach. After you can do this, then try it using your arm. The arm is more difficult. Don't brace or push off with any part of your body. Keep the legs straight. Only use your intention of reaching to pull the body over.
    Note: Watching my instructor do this was a bit disturbing to me. It looked like his body became some kind of amoebic-like creature being pulled along the ground by some invisible force. I don't know why, but I felt a bit put off by this. My school brother (whom I hadn't seen for months) said he could not do this at first but had been practicing and told me the trick is to relax and let the body stretch behind the intention of the leading foot or hand. In fact his demonstration which looked a bit stiffer didn't disturb me, rather, I found it fascinating.

    When I tried, which I was resistant to trying, I could not do this. In fact I got quite argumentative about the exact details of what I should and should not be doing.
    Here's a short video about a baby rolling over. Notice how soft is the baby. It looks like more intention than compartmentalized muscle movement is driving its rolling over.

    * Per my school brother, another way to think of  "one part moves, all parts move" is to think of proportional movement. When one part moves, it doesn't mean that every part has to move at the same time and same speed. It's more like a sound wave. At twice the distance from the source the sound is not half as loud but rather a quarter a loud.

    Further reading:
    Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
    Previous article in this series: The Self Delusion of Beginner's Mind: Journal Notes #123
    Next article in this series: What's Sex Got To Do With It?: Journal Notes #125

    Thursday, July 10, 2014

    The Self Delusion of Beginner's Mind: Journal Notes #123

    Notes from my June 2014 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

    * After class John and I moved a large rock (maybe weighed around 200 pounds?)  across our instructor's yard for landscaping. The three of us each had a different approach to moving this rock and determining how to place it for aesthetic appeal. Rick was more interested in exploring how different placements would feel from different viewpoints. John was more interested in getting to "good enough". I was more interested in getting the job done; forget about feeling. Each time one of us revealed a little bit of ourselves during this brief thirty minute project, our instructor chimed in, "And how does that show up in your practice?" Indeed! How you do anything is how you do everything!

    * In the beginning of the month, my body was really stiff and tightened up, especially through the lower back. In class I was given a few exercises to help open the kua. I think of these as deconstructed components of the Wujifa side-to-side exercise which is actually a pretty advanced exercise.
    1. Lay in fetal position on the floor on your left side. Straighten the bottom (left) leg. Turn your head and torso to the right. Hold a few minutes. Repeat on the other side.
    2. Stand with feet parallel, shoulder width apart. Shift weight to the left. Pivot on the right heel so the right knee and foot moves from pointing front (kua closed) to pointing to the side (kua open). Return to pointing front. Repeat several times. Repeat on the other side.
    3. Stand with feet parallel, shoulder width apart. Shift weight to left. Slightly lift right foot off ground and pivoting on the left hip joint, turn the pelvis so the right knee crosses over left knee. Ensure the left knee does not move with movement of the pelvis! Touch the right foot to the floor outside of left foot. (Close the kua). Rotate on left hip join to return foot to starting position. (Open kua.) Repeat several times. Tip: Keep hips level. Do not drop the unweighted hip! Repeat on other side.
    4. Same exercise as "C" and now stand within an arm's length of a wall. Place one hand against the wall and apply a slight pressure to maintain the path between hand and foot while rotating on weighted hip joint. Practice with same hand-hip and opposite hand-hip. Focus is on developing range of motion in hip with the intention of maintaining groundpath.

    * Question: I've been practicing exercise A through D for the last two weeks and it feels like I'm getting some pretty good movement. How's this look?
    Answer: Let's take a couple pictures. (snap. snap.) Look. How much are your hips moving?

    Me: Oh. Not much at all.

    Instructor: You get nice movement on the unweighted leg so why can't you do it on the weighted leg?

    Me: I don't know.

    Instructor: You've got a lot of holding patterns to overcome. So practice it now. (Guiding my movement of opening and closing again...)

    Me: (I practiced for ten minutes and focused on closing and opening the weighted kua.)

    Instructor: Look! You've made more progress with ten minutes of correct practice than you've made with two weeks of wrong practice.
    * I noticed that Trevor and John are making huge progress and I wonder, "Why not me?" We were all pretty much beating along at a similar pace, getting little insights here and there and suddenly I see them pulling way ahead. Why? What am I missing? Luckily I had an opportunity to ask these two guys, "What was it that changed for you? How did you come to accelerate your progress the way you have?"

    John said he realized that modifying the simple exercises as provided in class actually slowed him down. 'It's amazing how sticking to doing simple exercises can get huge results.' Trevor said his training was not focused so he trained nothing but mini- breathing squats for four months and explored this very deeply.

    Here's a short clip of John practicing. Looking good, John!

    From their wise insights, I realized I was was making both those mistakes: I was practicing a wide variety of simple exercises not exploring any one deeply AND I was modifying these simple exercises according to my own understanding of exploring and experimenting. And so after reaching this realization, I felt a new surge of enthusiasm for practice and I committed to practicing every day and I committed to only doing the simple mini- breathing squats exercise and exploring this deeply.

    * As a result of the mini-breathing squat practice, I noticed a by-product of knees forward, sit back and down; I could get a smooth upward while keeping the lengthening feeling in my quads but on the downward, it felt like a ratcheting feeling, not smooth. So in the next class...

    Question: I've been practicing mini- breathing squats and I have questions about this.
    Me: I focus my breathing deep into the lower abdomen and I feel like a balloon feeling filling the bowl with each in breath.

    Instructor: That's the wrong path. Put your fingers on your kua and use your breath to push out your fingers.

    Me: This feels different.

    Instructor: Remember, breathing is a method. You can do the mini-squats with any pattern of breathing... later. (He demonstrated.) For now, breath in going up and breathe out going down. Feel the kua open when going up and close when going down.
    Also, you're tucking on the downward part of the mini-squat. Don't tuck.

    Me: When I focused on this, I couldn't notice it at first. When I finally noticed it, what I noticed was a muscle which is used for tucking was just beginning to engage. Very subtle to me but very obvious to my instructor and school brother. It took a few more squats with the intention to maintain down and back which kept this muscle from beginning to engage. Or in other words, I practiced to overcome the patterned movement and stay relaxed.

    Instructor: You're not standing all the way up. Stand all the way up.

    Me: When I did, I felt like a bubble-gum stretching kind of feeling. Very subtle.

    Me: Squatting down feels like ratcheting.

    Instructor: Use the imagery of a balloon slowly deflating.

    Me: Ah. This helps.
    * Question: Why do I have such difficulty letting go of the data? It's like data is primary to me.
    Answer: You ego is tied to data. Remember! Experience precedes data. Data is the afterthought.
    * I've come to the conclusion that I'm the one inhibiting my own progress but in a way I never noticed before. As much as I believe that I am open to learning, in fact, I'm not really. As I examine this more deeply, I discovered that there is a difference between saying and believing that I am open and willing to learn vs. approaching learning without filtering through previous experience and attitude. The insidious aspect is that I was not even aware of this layer of resistance in myself! I could see it in other students but I was not like them (exactly) so in my mind, I did not have this resistance.

    I think I may have begun to learn what was mentioned in my July 23, 2012 "Training Submission: Journal Notes #101" post "If you don't begin training with submission, with surrendering, then you can't learn." At that time, I thought I was submitting, but now I see that it was according to my definition and understanding of submitting. At that time, I just couldn't see how I was resisting.

    Now, after seeing the change in two of my school brothers, I had a "a-ha" moment and a new understanding and model of the behavior for submitting, yielding, surrendering (Beginner's Mind) and how this is manifested. I felt something shift inside.

    I now realize that I used my self-belief of having a "Beginner's Mind" as a veil of self-delusion to conceal a deeper, internal resistance to learning; I will submit to your instruction (external perception) but only to this point (internal reality). In the end, that point became the point where I got stuck. Such is the level of subtlety at which internal gongfu is played!

    Further reading:
    Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
    Previous article in this series: Resisting the Simple: Journal Notes #122
    Next article in this series: The Intention to Roll Over: Journal Notes #124

    Monday, June 23, 2014

    The Zen of Pleasantville (1998) Movie Analysis | Internal GongFu

    The movie Pleasantville (1998) starring Toby McGuire, Reese Witherspoon,, ingeniously illustrates two ways of experiencing Life; either through fear, control, and repressing life feeling or by accepting, allowing, and expressing life feeling.

    As you may know, there are as many analyses of this movie as there are those offering such analyses. However, in my opinion each of these either unconsciously overlooks or deliberately ignores parts of the movie which do not support their point of view.

    Pleasantville video cover
    Contrary to others' reviews, I contend that this movie has no plot because Pleasantville is a state of mind. Even though the typical plot description narrates two 1990s teens navigating life in the 1950s, this “plot” is actually a cleverly designed vehicle to present a collage of "accepting, allowing, and expressing life feeling" experiences, any one of which may lead to a Zen enlightenment moment.

    These moments are ingeniously portrayed using a change from black & white to color. The moments depicted in the movie involve: falling in love, experiencing and expressing the sensuality of sexuality, exploring artistic expression through painting, reading and feeling an author’s words, taking a stand for someone, acknowledging a deep feeling of love and appreciation for someone, expressing rage. Authentic expression - “It’s not supposed to be anything.”

    Prior to these moments, the Pleasantville state of mind controls and regulates the expression of these natural impulses of Life through mind-numbing routines. Pleasantville is a world of black & white and shades of gray. It is a world where there are no highs or lows, where everyone and everything is, well, pleasant. It is a world of codes of conduct, habitual behaviors, book burnings, sexual assault,  repression and destruction of artistic expression, restrictions on movement and thought, fear of freedom, etc.

    Another way to think of this movie might be as a depiction contrasting the two extremes as elucidated in Chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching:

    Therefore when the Dao is lost, then virtue arises  (故失道而後德)
    When virtue is lost, then righteousness arises  (失德而後仁)
    When righteousness is lost, then morality arises  (失仁而後義)
    When morality is lost, then law arises  (失義而後禮。)

    The movie begins with David firmly believing that life is supposed to be a certain way and as his “supposed to be” falls apart around him, he seeks refuge in escaping to a fantasy of “supposed to be”. (Each of us has a “supposed to be”. What’s yours?) In this example, the central character (representing me and you) imagines life in his “supposed to be” world.
    Bud: If we don't play along, we can alter their whole existence...
    In this line, Bud is expressing fear about changing. Addressing fears is a huge part of an internal gongfu practice.
    Bud: He won't notice anyway.
    Mary Sue: Why not?
    Bud: They just don't notice that kind of thing around here.
    When you live mechanistically, when you get locked into patterns, when you are even a little bit numb to feeling in any area of your life, then your level of noticing is limited and it is really difficult to notice anything outside of the pattern. This presents a huge problem to practicing internal gongfu where one’s ability to notice what is simply there is dampered by one’s habitual patterns and blind spots.
    Skip: I think I might be ill. Something's happening to me.
    Mary Sue: That's supposed to happen.
    Skip: It is?
    Mary Sue: Yeah. Trust me.
    The first time you have a breakthrough and feel in an area that had long been shut down, you literally will have no concept to explain the feeling. Trying to "make sense" of it, you will likely misinterpret what you are feeling. Someone who is familiar with you and with the process can reassure you. In this scene it is interesting that despite this couple having had sex, they both remain in black & white. This is a key point. Simply going through the motions is not the same as being fully connected.
    What's outside of Pleasantville?
    This is an important question. What would be my experience of life it I did not live it as “supposed to be”? How would my life be different if I felt a little more deeply, if I connected a little more? Having the curiosity to simply ask the question is a huge step.
    Mary Sue: How come I'm still in black and white?
    Bud: What?
    Mary Sue: I've had ten times as much sex as the rest of these girls, and I still look like this. I mean, they spend like an hour in the back seat of some car and all of a sudden, they're in Technicolor?
    Bud: I don't know. Maybe it's not just the sex.
    This is an excellent example of how you can be disassociated from or not connected to your body. You may simply go through the motions or you may develop connection.
    Dad: One minute, everything's fine. The next... What went wrong?
    Bud: Nothing went wrong. People change.
    Dad: People change?
    Bud: Yeah, people change.
    Dad: Can they change back?
    Bud: I don't know. I think it's harder.
    In this poignant, touching scene, Bud has recently changed to color. He has connected with himself. His dad is still in black & white. I think this brief dialogue speaks for itself.
    Bud: I know you want it to stay pleasant around here but there are so many things that are so much better. Like silly or sexy or dangerous or brief. And every one of those things is in you all the time if you just have the guts to look for them.
    In this courtroom scene, Bud expresses what he is learning. It takes courage to address resistances however subtle. Once a resistance is removed, everything changes.
    Mom: I'm forty years old. It's not supposed to be like this.
    David: It’s not supposed to be anything. Hold still.
    Mom: How'd you get so smart all of a sudden?
    David: I had a good day.
    Here, David summarizes his Zen moment of realization, “It’s not supposed to be anything.”

    The movie concludes with these lines:
    George: So what's gonna happen now?
    Betty: I don't know. Do you know what's going to happen now?
    George: No. I don't.
    Bill: I guess I don't, either.
    We like to think we know how our days, seasons, and life should be or will be but in reality…

    Here’s an experiment you may try. After you watch the film, imagine you are amongst the crowd leaving the courthouse or any other moment where a character first experiences seeing something or someone in color. Now, put yourself in that person’s place and look around you. Select one object at a time. See that object for the first time, in color, without name, fresh, new. Allow yourself to feel awe and wonder (the Wow! moment) at the vibrancy of its distinct shape, the tone and hue of its color(s). Look at a few other objects the same way. Now notice how different this feeling is from your ordinary black & white experience of only a moment ago and to that which you will likely return.

    In terms of internal gongfu and developing internal strength, this little experiment provides a useful distinction of just how different your ordinary “black & white” muscle movement feeling is from the “color” feeling of internal connection. The subtle shift in feeling you experienced is the level of subtly at which internal gongfu is played.

    A big stumbling block on the path to developing internal strength is maintaining the belief that it is supposed to feel like something. If we learn anything from the movie Pleasantville, it is that "it" is not supposed to be like anything.

    If you did not notice a distinct shift in feeling, don’t despair. When I first saw this movie over ten years ago, I barely understood the symbolism at the level of data. It's taken a long time for me to reach the understanding of this movie that I have today.

    And know too that as you develop sensitivity at one level, there is another level and another and another… Through the training process, your body changes and you develop your ability to notice and feel at more subtle levels. "It" is constantly changing. To try to reduce this dynamic process to a "supposed to be" puts you on a mechanistic path to a dead end.

    And so the relevance of the movie Pleasantville to an internal gongfu practice lies in its portrayal of how we approach an internal gongfu practice. We generally start in the black & white world of Pleasantville and evolve to discovering color. We struggle along the way. And we don't know which moment will be the breakthrough moment. Even though we may think that we are "on the path", we won't "get it" until we "pass through the door" and connect deeply within ourselves and with others.

    Sunday, June 15, 2014

    City of Angels (1998) Movie Review and Summary | Internal Gongfu

    Although City of Angels (1998) was reviewed as a fantasy love-story, looking at it with an internal gongfu perspective reveals an entirely different meaning. City of Angels is the American re-imagination of the German movie "Wings of Desire (1988).

    For the internal gongfu practitioner the inner meaning of this movie is that to become human, that is, to become fully embodied and feeling, requires dying to being disembodied/disassociated. Feeling both emotionally and physically is what it means to be fully human and coincidentally, feeling both emotionally and physically is required to develop internal gongfu!

    City of Angels video cover
    In this film, angels are used to represent the non-feeling, disembodied life. They represent living life disassociated from or numb to physical/emotional feelings. Their drab, black attire lacks vibrancy. Their sullen, stiff postures lack the animation of emotional expression.

    In this film, humans are used to represent the feeling, embodied life of being integrated with and alive to physical/emotional feelings. Their colorful attire exudes vibrancy. Their variety of postures and animated movement exudes emotional expression.

    Through the juxtaposition of colors, postures, facial expressions, and movement of these two groups, the film shows us in black & white, and in living color, two very different modes of living. When viewed this way, the title "City of Angels" then suggests that cities are full of people living their lives mechanistically, that is without feeling, being guided by the "musts" and "shoulds" rather than living life guided by a trust in what they feel.

    In the internal gongfu practice, feeling is king. Yet for some, like me, it can be difficult to open areas that have long been so ardently controlled and regulated to the point where the area is in effect "shut down". But opening to feeling is an essential part of the internal gongfu process.

    So as the movie rends its way through its fantasy love story plot, which I don't need to re-iterate here, be mindful of the symbolism and how this adds a rich, instructional texture to an otherwise superficial fantasy. Here are a few quotes from the movie which I found to be particularly meaningful.

    The following  passage is the key internal gong-fu training directive:
    Seth: What am I doing?
    Maggie: You're touching me.
    Seth: How do you know?
    Maggie: Because I feel it.
    Seth: You should trust that. You don't trust it enough.
    I remember many a Wujifa class years ago where I said something and my instructor asked me, "How do you know?" In those days, I responded with a lot of data. It took a long time for me to evolve to where I could say, "Because I feel it." And to this day, I still have trouble trusting what I feel. I still second-guess and rationalize away what I feel. And I wonder why my progress is stalled?

    In the following passage, Maggie, though she is human, provides a rather clinical/mechanical response. But Seth is looking for a feeling response.
    Seth: Why do people cry?
    Maggie: What do you mean?
    Seth: I mean, what happens physically?
    and here, you can see Maggie shift into "data mode" to provide the "correct" answer:
    Maggie: Tear ducts operate on a normal basis to lubricate and protect the eye. When you have an emotion, they overact and create tears.
    Seth: Why? Why do they overact?
    Maggie: I don't know. 
    Seth, who is trying desperately to understand 'crying' from the perspective of feeling, responds:
    Seth: Maybe emotion becomes so intense...your body just can't contain it. Your mind and your feelings become too powerful. Your body weeps.
    It is very interesting that Seth says, "Your body weeps." He sees humans as a fully integrated emotion-body. He does not see the two as separate. And although Maggie is human, she has been trained to respond mechanistically. Much of the love story throughout this film is based on Maggie evolving from doing what is right to trusting her feelings.

    In the following passage, Mr. Messinger tries to describe what it's like to transition from being an unfeeling, disassociated "angel" to being a fully feeling human.
    Mr. Messinger: You just make up your mind to do it and you do it. You wake up all smelly, and aching from head to toe...and hungrier than you've ever been...only you have no idea what hunger is or any of that it's all real confusing and painful, but very, very good.
    Seth: Human.
    Mr. Messinger: Listen, kid: He gave these bozos the greatest gift in the universe. You think He didn't give it to us too?
    Seth: Which gift?
    Mr. Messinger: Free will, brother. Free will.
    There are a couple points in here. One is that the transition from living mechanistically to living with feeling is real confusing and painful but very good. And the other point is that every day we choose to  continue living mechanistically or we choose to live with a little more feeling.

    Although this is not a martial arts movie per se, it is a movie that was recommended to me many years ago when I began on this internal gongfu path. If you haven't seen it, go watch it. What do you notice?

    Tuesday, June 10, 2014

    Resisting the Simple: Journal Notes #122

    Notes from my May 2014 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

    First, let me begin by saying that I continue in my lackluster "practice" habit which began in April 2012. So I've been stuck in this place for just over two years now.

    For this month of May I practiced zhan zhuang two to three times a week for 20-30 minutes per session. In the past, I enjoyed practicing zhan zhuang early in the morning before work. However, now I've been waking up so fatigued that when I am able to drag myself out of bed, then my zhan zhuang practice is more like a zombie, semi-comatose stance. I'm not happy practicing like this.

    At work, sitting behind a computer monitor all day leaves me mentally fatigued. In the evenings I stretch and practice the moving exercises but even these I do more mechanically than with a mindset of attentive exploration. It's like I just don't have the energy I need to practice at the level where I should be practicing.

    (Note: A progress-oriented practice includes at least an hour a day of zhan zhuang and at least an hour a day of other Wujifa movement exercises. So you see how far I am from a progress-oriented practice!)

    I've been struggling with the question: "Should I continue going to class or not?" I have chosen to continue going. I always learn something. I see how my school brothers are progressing (even if I'm not). And I'm afraid that if I stop going, then this entire venture will slowly fade away. And I don't want that to happen. It's hard to stay motivated for so long when A) results come so slowly for me and B) I unconsciously sabotage my own progress.

    For example, every time I have a breakthrough and get excited about the possibilities, I invariably encounter a resistance to further exploration. When I hit this, then it's like something else in me takes over and I either shut down or pull back. This is my pattern. What am I resisting? Why don't I "push through" the resistance? There's value in recognizing this pattern.

    So that's a little bit about where I am with my practice. Now, here are my May notes...

    * Many "internal" martial arts teachers and practitioners don't figure out and focus on the simple, elemental, functional methods that can lead to developing internal strength. Instead they value complexity and diversity and hence engage a wide variety of sometimes very complex practices which ultimately do not lead to internal strength.

    * Various qigong and martial art systems (with an internal component) come with various flavors of complexity in their philosophy, story, and practices. For example:
    • Taijiquan
    • Baguazhang
    • Xingyiquan - Five Elements
    • Six Harmonies
    • LiuHeBaFa 
    • Baijiquan
    • Eight Pieces of Brocade
    • Twelve Daoyin Qigong

    I think the Wujifa system arguably has the most simple, elegant and straightforward practice with its four points of alignment and four points of structure.

    * Keep in mind, that the more complicated or layered the story, the more resistance or armoring is in place. Cut through the rationale to what is simple. Summarize long-winded explanations to a single sentence. Reduce the complex sentence to a simple "subject + verb" sentence. Clarity is revealed in simplicity. Feel connection! Focus on the simple. Jettison the complex.

    * For some people (like me) it is difficult to let go of old stories. People who come to practice Wujifa have a tendency to interpret their current experience through previously learned stories. Unfortunately, what was learned previously may have been misinterpreted or misunderstood. Do you really want to interpret your current experience through the filter of a misunderstanding? Through the filter of a misinterpretation? It sounds really dumb but this is what people do. In fact, the people who make the most progress are those that simply throw themselves into the practice, stay present with the simple exercises and don't try to interpret present-day experiences through either their own (or another teacher's) earlier misinterpretation or misunderstanding.

    * If I could let go of old stories and complex theories, if I could see the exercises in relation to the whole, then my questions would change. My questions are still based on compartmentalized thinking. (Darn! After all these years!) I still tie current experiences back to old stories and theories that didn't help me make any progress developing connection. Sounds really dumb but this is what I do.

    * I was doing the 'weight on the chest' exercise because I thought I needed to engage my chest in breathing so it would not be so "dead" while focusing on abdominal breathing. So I had questions about the relation between abdominal and chest breathing. I was reminded that the purpose of this exercise is to loosen the rib heads because I'm not getting the "drop the chest" as much as I should.

    * The purpose of mini- breathing squats is to discover how the abdomen moves in relation to hip movement. Feel the connection between abdominal breathing and the horizontal kua movement. I had quite unconsciously forgotten the purpose of this exercise and had developed a more complex mental construct and altered the simplicity of the exercise. Sounds really dumb but this is what I do.

    * Sadly I've also developed an elaborate micro-movement strategy to avoid retaining adjustments (from class) that open the blockages in my structure. I unconsciously dissect, split, and redistribute the blockage throughout my body. (Yes, this was shown and explained to me.)

    Because I still have difficulty feeling the level at which the blockage exists and how this blockage affects the whole, I easily fool myself. By this I mean that when I look at my structure in the mirror, I only see the area of my body I am working on. When I see the desired goal in this area then I believe I've made progress. In fact, I am unable to see how I've subtly distorted other aspects of my posture that contributed to the "correct" appearance in this one area.

    What does "subtle" mean here? We're talking about a difference between a few millemeters of external movement or no external movement but noticing a muscle or muscle group tensing under the skin.

    * There are two ways to open the joints: from resistance (bad), and from relaxing (good). I made a comment that I've never liked hearing or feeling my joints "pop". My attitude is contradictory to the classics which talk about opening the joints. Ah, another insight into my underlying resistance?

    * That kind of massage can be therapeutic. Simple human contact, touch, communicates, awakens...

    Further reading:
    Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
    Previous article in this series: The Door Into Wujifa: Journal Notes #121
    Next article in this series: The Self Delusion of Beginner's Mind: Journal Notes #123