Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Trying vs. Trying Too Hard: Journal Notes #117

Notes from my December 2013 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang.

* Questions: Regarding theraband pulling, how am I doing? (I demonstrate.)
Answer: You're doing it wrong. Your arms are leading the breath and there's not much, actually, no dan-tian movement.

Me: Darn! But I've been feeling a lot of movement.What the heck am I doing wrong?

Instructor: You're using muscle. You've coordinated breathing and movement but you've done so mechanically. Your movement is not being driven by the breath. The movement must be driven by the breath. Look in the mirror.

Instructor: (After adjusting my stance), now pull the shoulders back, hold the arms out straight with the elbows down and locked, and palms down. Hold that!

Me: This is a hard position for me. Keeping the shoulders back, elbows and palms down feels really tense and I feel myself getting angry.

Instructor: Now just breathe.

Me: As I did, my arms moved with the breathing. (Wow! Amazing!)

Instructor: Now you can add some stretch with the breath. It's OK to use the mirror but then close your eyes and feel the kinesthetic.

Me: After I was able to do it more correctly I said, "I see" (looking in the mirror).

Instructor: Look at me.

Me: I understand.

Instructor: Understand what?

Me: You f###er. (A learned response when I notice that I am noticed.)

Instructor: (Talking to my school brother), Notice the anger. Mike holds down a lot of anger that he doesn't want to feel because if he allowed himself to feel it then he'd have to address it.

Instructor: The way you do anything is the way you do everything. Not wanting to feel one area manifests in his general inability or difficulty in feeling overall.

Instructor: That feeling is your kinesthetic. That movement is what we call stretch.

* Question: Regarding mini-breathing squats, how am I doing? (I demonstrate.)
Answer: You're stuck in one focus. Snap your fingers to the music and move your arms around.

Me: But I'm not consciously doing anything with the arms.

Instructor: I know but your body has engaged them with the movement. Now do you notice your kua?

Me: I can't find that feeling.

Instructor: (Demonstrating.) Here. Feel what I'm doing in front and back.

Me: I try to do the same and my body is surprisingly doing it. My brain is engaged in inquiry as to how this is working. I ask a question based on my immediate kinesthetic.

Instructor: Good question! This is exactly the kind of question you should be asking that should be driving your practice. And then he explains.

Me: Ohhh... And then I try to get ahead of myself and ask, How does this work in the CXW wrist spinning exercise?

Instructor: Don't do that. You're not ready for that yet. If you do that now, you will just build in bad habits that you'll have to unlearn later. You are where you are. Don't try to jump ahead.

* (In the next class) I've been practicing mini-breathing squats. I noticed three ways of doing these:
  1. I felt the breath separate but coordinated with rising and lowering.
  2. Breathing pressure pushes out to the sides and does not generate any "lift".
  3. I can channel or funnel the pressure down into the perineum which results in the torso rising.
* Question: Is pushing the breath down more on the right track?
Answer: Yes, but you're tensing the abdomen and chest muscles to create the boundary of your "funnel" and this is wrong. You need to stay relaxed.

Instructor: Try this. Knees forward. Bow at hips. Push xyphoid process to spine but do not hunch. "Tuck" to straighten the back and get a stretch. Roll the femur heads out. Now, breathe down as you stand/straighten up.

Me: What I notice is a pressure expanding up and into and through my entire torso. I feel very tall.

* Question: In my practicing side-to-side, I discovered that I get a more pronounced feeling of kua closing when the abdomen angles across and down into the thigh rather than moving straight across. And I feel a more pronounced kua open feeling when the abdomen angles up and away from the thigh. Am I on the right track?
Answer: No! You're over-thinking it. You're trying too hard. You're being too mechanical about it. It's like you're simultaneously tightening your bicep and tricep and trying to straighten or bend at the elbow. Of course you'll feel a "stretch" of the muscle that is being overpowered but this is absolutely wrong. You're violating the relax principle.

Instructor: Try again. Keep the back straight. Don't lead from the shoulders. You still have a little wobble in your spine. Really focus on moving from the hips. Keep the knees in place. Move only part way across the middle. Keep the muscles relaxed on the sides of your hips around the greater trochanters then notice/feel what is happening across the lower belly.

Me: I notice a feeling of a movement under the skin extending into the kua. It's kind of the same as the mini- breathing squats but different.

Instructor: It's different because side-to-side works the horizontal plane and mini- breathing squats works the vertical plane.

* You have to try. Some people don't try hard enough. But trying too hard can be a resistance too in the sense that you're not letting go and simply noticing/being with what is there.

* To help remedy this over-seriousness, access or get into a playful state. Recall a happy, joyful time from childhood. Whatever it is, allow yourself to access the memory, re-experience the feeling. Relax. Let go. Why childhood? Because children tend to bring their whole body/being into play so accessing that memory can recreate that state in the body. Practice from this place.

* The Christmas class is one of the few times a year when the instructor breaks out his top shelf liquor for class, pouring full the little tea cups normally used for kung-fu tea and toasting for the New Year. This year we enjoyed his: "Carralejo Triple Destilado" a limited production tequila from Mexico, La Mestize" an orange and chocolate flavored liquor from Mexico, and finally, some Grand Marnier. One of the perennial favorites is his home brewed Deer Penis Wine and his Snake Wine, however, he did not bring this out this time.

* Training with a little alcohol helps reduce the inhibitions and resistances and so helps in training.

* Punctuated Equilibrium. The principle that shows up in evolution and in practice. Spurts of development punctuate long periods of no change.

* Question: How do I stop the clicking in my left knee when I do stance or side-to-side? (I had a torn miniscus surgically removed in the 1970s. This long-ago injury never made any noise until recently.) There's no pain but the sound is disconcerting. I hope I'm not exacerbating any damage.
Answer: You are relaxing and opening the hip and moving the femur but you are keeping your tibia and fibia locked in place which is torquing the knee. Allow these two shin bones to move and stay connected to the movement of the femur.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Wujifa Mini Breathing Squats: Journal Notes #116
Next article in this series: - Stay Tuned... I'm still in the game...

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Denial of Vulnerability and Martial Arts

Being vulnerable is antithetical to martial arts practice, or is it? Everything I've learned, read, and seen about martial arts is all about defending myself and/or attacking the opponent. Deny my vulnerability to my opponent. This dictum has immediate and practical benefits at the level at which these techniques, strategies, and training are intended. Defending oneself and kicking butt has its time and place.

However, to make progress in the more internal aspects requires stepping out of what may be a lifetime of learned denying vulnerability and allowing myself to become vulnerable. This can be really, really tough to do... or not. It depends.

Denying vulnerability can begin long before beginning any martial arts practice. Regardless of the who, what, when, or where involved in the origination of why I developed a "denial of vulnerability" character, the result is that I unconsciously selectively deny vulnerability in situations that I unconsciously perceive as being threatening at whatever level the threat is perceived. This can be as mundane as feeling a need to defend my point of view.

Here are some example phrases that I think describe or indicate a denial of vulnerability:
  • Being defensive
  • Digging in my heels
  • Needing to be right
  • Being dismissive
  • Standing up for myself (rigidly)
  • Blind adhering to rules / not pursuing passion
If you've been following my Zhan Zhuang Journal you have now read over ten years of my Wujifa class notes. While there may be some wonderful insights regarding zhan zhuang and internal gongfu practice, you may also wonder, "Why is it taking this guy so long to get it? Is it really that difficult or is he a slow learner?"

The simple answer is that I want to hold on to those attitudes that show up as a denial of vulnerability. While I've undoubtedly made progress over the years, I'm not going to really "get it" until I allow myself to be vulnerable and live feeling life. If I've learned anything, my biggest mistake is in unconsciously adhering to and applying the "denial of vulnerability" perspective to my training; that mastering internal gongfu is about adhering to the rules (methods) regarding how to "get it".

(Which is not to suggest that rules, guidelines, methods, suggested practice routines are unnecessary. They have their place. However, the method is not the truth. Once you get the feeling, get rid of the method.)

If you haven't seen the movie Pleasantville, I highly recommend watching this. Although I watched this when it first came out in 1998 (and a few times since), I still cling to living in the rule-based black and white world despite having colorful experiences. To "get it" requires making the shift to living color; to being vulnerable.

In past Wujifa classes, in those instances when I allowed myself to be vulnerable or in instances where I was blindsided by a perspective or experience where I became vulnerable, in those instances I made huge progress. But because I just couldn't let go and trust living in this vulnerable 'state', I put those experiences in a box and reverted to my more mechanistic approach to life.

And how is this strategy working for me? It's not. Truth be told, I am the one holding myself back from going further down this path.

I was reminded of a song I heard sung by Nina Simone titled I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free:

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.
I wish I could break all the chains holdin' me.
I wish I could say all the things that I should say.

Say 'em loud, say 'em clear, for the whole 'round world to hear.

I wish I could share all the love that's in my heart.
Remove all the thoughts that keep us apart.
I wish you could know what it means to be me.

Then you'd see, and agree, that every man should be free.

I wish I could give all I'm longin' to give.
I wish I could live like I'm longing to live.
I wish I could do all the things that I can do.

And though I'm way over due, I'd be startin' a new.

Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky.
How sweet it would be if I found I could fly.

I'd soar up to the sun and look down at the sea
And I'd sing 'cause I know yeah
And I'd sing 'cause I know yeah
And I'd sing 'cause I know
I'd know how it feels
I'd know how it feels to be free, yeah-yeah
I-I'd know how it feels
Yes, I'd know
I'd know how it feels, how it feels
To be free....

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Another Way to Think About Qigong's Tricky Gates

In the Chinese acupuncture and qigong systems, many acupoints include the character for "gate" or "door". Some of these points are in areas of the body that may be difficult to sense/feel into thus making them difficult to "open". These have been nicknamed "tricky gates”. In this article I sort through various images of gates and doors that may come to mind when thinking of "tricky gates" and I suggest what may be a more useful image or way to think of what is meant by a "tricky gate".

Growing up and living in middle-class America, when I think of a gate, a variety of contemporary images come to mind. A gate can be:
  • a section of galvanized fence or wooden picket fence which opens into my backyard.
  • a motorized arm or bar at the entrance to a car park structure or parking lot.
  • an entrance turn-style at a sports stadium, amusement park, or zoo.
  • a section of a livestock corral that can be opened or closed.
  • a section of a dam on a river that can be raised or lowered to control the level of the river.
  • etc., etc., etc...
And so for me, when I hear about gates in qigong, these images come to mind. But because I can't understand what would be "tricky" about any of these gates, I wonder if my experience with these gates is distracting me from a more functional imagery of what is meant by a tricky gate.

Similarly, when I think of a door, a variety of contemporary American images come to mind. A door can be:
  • a steel, fireproof factory locking apparatus
  • a plate glass locking apparatus at a retail business entrance
  • a hollow core, decorative unlockable apparatus dividing rooms in my house
  • a solid core, decorative lockable apparatus at the entrance to my apartment or house.
  • etc., etc., etc...
And so for me, when I hear about doors in qigong, these images come to mind. When I think about the Mingmen point, is this more like an inside door that is easy to kick open or more like a steel reinforced, securely locked exterior factory door that requires special keys or key codes to open?

Maybe the ancient Chinese who applied their daily life experience when naming these acupuncture points had a completely different experience and understanding of gates and doors than I do. Granted, what I propose below may all be conjecture but for me, I think I get closer to a more realistic understanding than applying contemporary American imagery to these terms.

I'm also looking for a different interpretation than that which I think is prevalent amongst American acupuncturists and popular qigong practices today. For example, the article, The Role of Taoist Spirituality in Chinese Medicine, Part One: The Gate of All Wonders (Acupuncture Today, February, 2006, Vol. 07, Issue 02) proposes the following understanding for gates and doors:
"When you consider that gates and doors are passageways connecting one thing to another, it's obvious this concept is not concerned with establishing a geographic middle, but rather with pointing toward the potential for mystical transformations."
For me, the problem with applying a mystical interpretation to gates and doors is that doing so invites me to disassociate from my bodily kinesthetics. In my Wujifa internal gongfu practice, one of the goals is to integrate and connect mind and body. And so having an interpretation of gates and doors that offers a practical, functional, kinesthetic imagery that I can relate and apply to my corporeal practice is of prime importance.

During my summer 2013 sight-seeing trip to China. I climbed the Great Wall at JuYongGuan, I walked atop a half mile section of the old Nanjing City Wall, and I bicycled the entire 14km (8.6 mile) of the Xi'an City Wall. On this bicycle ride I stopped at and read the few historical markers that were written in both Chinese and English. With the Great Wall and Nanjing behind me, I discovered another perspective on gates and doors.

The passageway through the Great Wall or through any of these city walls is the point through which the life of the city flows and at the same time it is the point that is most vulnerable to hostile infiltration. Rather than three meters or more of an impenetrable granite block wall, there are only several inches of wood to protect this opening. As such, this vulnerable area is compensated by fortifications of heavily armed military guards.

Attacking this vulnerable yet heavily armored gate head-on became a futile effort. It was too tricky to get through the armors guarding the gate. And so what wound up happening was that those attacking the city shifted their attack from the protected gate to the unprotected wall far away from the gate. In response to this change in enemy strategy, guard towers were built along the wall to protect the space between the gates.

ancient Chinese city wall with gate

My "a-ha" moment is that it is probably more accurate to think of an acupuncture "gate" in terms of the historical mileau in which the name arose. It is probably more accurate to think of a "gate" as a fortified opening which existed in ancient Chinese city walls rather than thinking of the gate I use to get into my backyard.

When I shift my imagery in this way, then when I think of a "tricky gate", I think of an area on my body that exists to allow a natural ebb and flow of energy but which is also heavily fortified, armored, locked-down, chronically tense to protect the inherent or perceived vulnerability of that area. Vulnerable to what? Maybe vulnerable to change? Vulnerable to being open? What happens when the normally armored gate is breached, and its armors dissolved, and the gate opened?

In terms of a functional internal gongfu application of this understanding, maybe the trick of the "tricky gate" is figuring out how to overcome the fear of approaching the gate, and how to overcome the fear associated with dissolving the armor guarding this gate. Once the gate is breached, then the game changes. This was as true for ancient Xi'an, Nanjing, and China as it is for me in my practice today.

The insight I applied to the so-called "tricky gates" may or may not be applicable to all the other acupoints that include the character for gate or door. Nonetheless, applying the above insight may provide a more functional imagery regarding why some "gates" or "doors" are trickier to feel and open than others.

The bottom line. I'm not trained in acupuncture and I have no knowledge of the etymology of acupuncture names.  I am confused by the translations used for acupuncture point names. Only the hù () character is translated as door in Deadman's A Manual of Acupuncture. (See table at end of this article.) The remainder are translated as gate.

Acupoint name includes # of occurrences Common dictionary translation
門 or 门 (mén) 23 opening, door, gate, doorway, gateway
關 or 关 (guan) 5 mountain pass; to close; to shut; to turn off
闕 or 阙 (què) 2 Deficiency
戶 or 户 (hù) 3 household; door; family

Table derived from: A Manual of Acupuncture by Peter Deadman, Mazin Al-Khafaji with Kevin Baker. Journal of Chinese Medicine Publications. 2007 East Sussex England.

Chinese Pin Yin Name English Translation English Location
髀關 bì guān Thigh Gate Stomach (ST) 31
沖門 chōng mén Rushing Gate Spleen (SP) 12
耳門 ěr mén Ear Gate Triple Burner (SJ) 21
風門 fēng mén Wind Gate Bladder (BL) 12
膈關 gé guān Diaphragm Gate Bladder (BL) 46
關門 guān mén Pass Gate Stomach (ST) 22
關元 guān yuán Gate of Origin (see note 2 & 3) Conception Vessel (REN) 4
滑肉門 huá ròu mén Slippery Flesh Gate Stomach (ST) 24
患門 huàn mén Suffering Gate Extra Back Waist (M-BW) 6
肓門 huāng mén Vitals Gate Bladder (BL) 51
魂門 hún mén Eternal Soul Gate Bladder (BL) 47
箕門 jī mén Winnowing Gate Spleen (SP) 11
金門 jīn mén Gold Gate Bladder (BL) 63
京門 jīng mén Capital Gate Gall Bladder (GB) 25
巨闕 jù què Great Gateway Conception Vessel (REN) 14
梁門 liáng mén Beam Gate Stomach (ST) 21
命門 mìng mén Gate of Life (see note 5) Governing Vessel (DU) 4
腦戶 nǎo hù Brain Door Governing Vessel (DU) 17
魄戶 pò hù Soul Door Bladder (BL) 42
氣戶 qí hù Qi Door Stomach (ST) 13
期門 qí mén Qi Door / Cycle Gate Liver (LV) 14
神門 shén mén Spirit Gate Heart (HE) 7
石門 shí mén Stone Gate (see note 1) Conception Vessel (REN) 5
神闕 shén què Spirit Gateway (see note 4) Conception Vessel (REN) 8
郄門 xī mén Xi Cleft Gate Pericardium (PC) 4
膝陽關 xī yáng guān Knee Yang Gate Gall Bladder (GB) 33
啞門 yǎ mén Mute Gate Governing Vessel (DU) 15
腰陽關 yāo yáng guān Lumbar Yang Gate Governing Vessel (DU) 3
液門 yè mén Fluid Gate Triple Burner (SJ) 2
殷門 yīn mén Gate of Abundance Bladder (BL) 37
幽門 yōu mén Hidden Gate Kidney (KID) 21
雲門 yún mén Cloud Gate Lung (LU) 2
章門 zhāng mén Completion Gate Liver (LV) 13


1. In colloquial Chinese a woman who is infertile is known as a “stone woman’, whilst the name Shimen means “Stone Gate’ or “Stone Door’. An alternative name for this point is Jueyun (Infertility). These names refer to the unique quality classically attributed to this point of inducing infertility. (pg 504)

2. As well as Guanyuan (Gate of Origin) several of the numerous different names given to this point reflect its deeply tonifying properties, for example Mingmen (Gate of Life), Huangzhiyuan (Origina of Huang), Xuehai (Sea of Blood), Qihai (Sea of Qi), Dahai (Great Sea) and of course Dantian (Cinnabar Field).  (pg 501)

3. Qihai (Ren-6) Sea of Qi, like Guanyuan REN-4, is also knwn by the name of ‘Dantian’ (Cinnabar Field). This reflects its location in the vital centre of the body where the deepest energies are stored and generated, and which plays a pivotal role in the treatment of disease and in Chinese martial arts and qigong practices. (pg 505)

4. Shen is translated as spirit, whilst Que literally refers to the watchtower above the gates which protect a city. This point is also known as Qishe (Abode of Qi) or Qihe (Joining of Qi) These various names reflect the importance of the umbilicus…” (pg 508)

5. Finally, according to qigong theory, there are three important gates or passes (sanguan) in the practice of qi circulation through the Governing vessel. These gates, through which it is more difficult to circulate the qi are the Coccyx Pass (Weiluguan) in the region of Changqiang DU-1, the Lumbar Pass (Jiajiguan) in the region of Mingmen DU-4, and the Occipital Pass (Yuzhenwan) in the region of Yuzhen BL-9. (pg 538)

Doors are another matter and I won't address them here. But if you're interested, here are a few references:

Chinese traditional culture and “door culture” traditional residence in Northern
by He Xiaoyan
Inner Mongolia University Of Technology, China
Applied Mechanics and Materials Vols. 209-211 (2012) pp 45-48

Wooden Door Culture of Ancient Chinese Architecture from the 2012 International Wooden Door Culture Forum, Beijing, China

Saturday, January 4, 2014

You Are Where You Are and That's Where You Start

One of the Wujifa sayings is, "You are where you are and that's where you start." Although I've heard and repeated this for many years, it was only recently that I got some insight into the world of meaning neatly wrapped up in this succinct little phrase which can be interpreted as an observation, an admonition, and as a training directive.

When I first encountered this phrase I considered it a meaningless double-speak along the lines of “The grass is green and the sky is blue.” Of course I start from where I am. How could I start anywhere else?

Over time, I heard my school brothers discuss their observations of people who clearly only know the muscular paradigm but who want to perform “whole body” movement in the fascial paradigm. These people will imitate fascial movement based on their current muscular capabilities and fool themselves with the belief that they are doing "whole body" fascial movement correctly. I slowly began to understand that this phrase has something to do with recognizing and honoring the level I am at and practicing at that level.

clay vase with calligraphy
Let’s look at one analogy. Let’s say I want to be a master potter but I have not yet developed the ability to distinguish the various textures of various clays, how different clays respond to different types of water, at different temperatures and humidity levels. And let’s say I just got my $25.99 Starter Pottery Kit and Instruction Manual and I throw and fire my first vase. An honest recognition of where I am might be, “Wow! I just made my first vase!” A disassociated recognition of where I am might be, “Wow! It's easy to be a potter!”

The truth is that I can only feel sensations or sense feelings in my body at the level at which I am currently physically-emotionally capable and I can only perform an exercise at the level at which my body is currently physically capable of demonstrating.

So how can I really know where I am on the internal martial arts ladder of "internal" skillsets? From my experience, I could not know this until after I made some progress. The longer I practice, the more clear it becomes where I am. In the beginning, I had no idea where I was and it was only in hindsight that I saw where I was and therefore, where I needed to start.

As an admonition, another way to interpret this phrase might be, "Don't try to practice ahead of where you are." or "Don't think you are capable of doing something that you actually are not capable of doing." Discerning what and how to practice given your current capabilities is of utmost importance. When I feel proud about my practice, or when I think I look good in the mirror when doing an exercise, that's when I am working ahead of my body. When I alternate between feeling confused or anxious or "this is dumb" or I struggle with doing the simple exercise I've been assigned, in these moments I know that this is where I am and this is where I need to start.

I do struggle with the tension between wanting to get ahead of myself, of wanting to disassociate from where I am and on the other hand, recognizing, "Yeah but, really I can't even do x." And it's in this recognition that I pull myself back to an integrated, realistic, functional practice.

As a training directive,"You are where you are and that's where you start." admonishes me to continue to refine the feeling skills that I am currently capable of accessing regardless of how I judge my current capabilities. By continuing to refine even seemingly irrelevant abilities, over time, the tools developed and understanding achieved will become a valuable asset. Practice is preparation.

When you try practicing ahead of where you are, you'll not only perform the target movement wrong but you'll also build in bad habits that will later have to be undone which will extend your horizon of achieving that which you are practicing to achieve.

Finally, "You are where you are and that's where you start." is also a kind of koan or riddle. How can you start anywhere else than where you are? The answer is, "You can't." Whatever you practice or believe you are practicing, you, as-you-are, are there. You are where you are and that's where you start.

Happy practicing everyone!