Monday, March 10, 2014

Narcissism's Affect on Internal Gong-Fu Practice

When I was learning and practicing Tai-chi, Bagua and Xing-yi forms, I was unaware of the mental processes I applied to learning the fine motor coordination used in these forms, push-hands and sparring. As I got into the deeper aspects of internal gong-fu through Wujifa, I learned how processes that were functional in everyday life can become dysfunctional when applied to learning the deeper aspects of these kinesthetic arts. In this article, the Greek mythological figure of Narcissus provides a convenient frame to explore the question, "Is the approach I am applying to learning internal gong-fu congruent with the material to be learned?

Of the many variations and interpretations of the Narcissus story, the theme I will use here is that of falling in love with one's own image. Of the various psychological uses of this story, from the functional vain personality to the dysfunctional narcissistic personality disorder, I will simply consider how Narcissism shows up in my everyday, ordinary life and how this impacts my internal gong-fu practice.

To the extent that I consider my morals, values, attitudes, and behaviors to be part of my self-image, and to the extent that I adhere to and hold dear this self-image, this is the extent to which I have fallen in love with an image of my self making. Granted, this is not a typical or common understanding of narcissism but this interpretation provides a interesting frame. Consider the following....

If I was no longer in love with a particular aspect of my self-image, I might feel free to let it go. For example, I used to love the image of myself as being a "rock star". (OK. So this was a fantasy.) Eventually I fell out of love of that image and it is no longer part of my self-image.

If I wanted a self-image that I don't currently have, I might find a way to add to my image. For example, I want to be seen as the "Answer Man" in the office when it comes to database questions. So I attend training, study, and over time, develop a level of knowledge and experience where I can answer most questions. I now love the image of myself as being someone who is knowledgeable about databases.

These are just two examples from my everyday life which I hope can point you to examples in your own life. Which self-images are you in love with? Let's consider a third example more in line with internal martial arts.

After decades of reading, learning, training, and practicing Tai-chi Chuan, I love the image of myself as someone who has a lot of knowledge about the internal martial arts. But when I encountered a practice (Wujifa) which challenged this self-image, I found that I could not easily let go of this self-image. I was just too much in love with my Tai-chi self-image which thought and said things like, "Oh, I already know that. What you're saying sounds like..." I experienced a case of Narcissus interfering with and sometimes blocking Beginner's Mind.

While this example is significant and while it took me a long time to generally stop loving this self-image (there are still remnants), it is a rather superficial example and easy to identify. So let's go another level deeper and look at what happens when the underlying functioning of a self-image, which is generally functional in ordinary, everyday life, reveals itself to be dysfunctional when applied to practicing internal gong-fu.

In this next example, my self-image involves intellectually understanding a given desired or optimal state or condition and then either taking action to achieve the desired/optimal condition or taking action to resolve the problem that is inhibiting the desired/optimal condition. I applied this underlying function to and found it worked quite well in the following activities:
  • Learning how to play a song on my guitar
  • Maintaining and repairing my automobile
  • Maintaining and repairing navigation radar equipment
  • Writing college academic philosophy papers
  • Learning Tai-chi, Bagua and Xing-yi forms
  • Doing house/home maintenance and repair
  • Learning small database system programming
If I told you I could do all these diverse, seemingly unrelated things, you might think I was a smart guy. But this is a superficial view. In fact, the mental processes used in each of these branches can be traced back to the same root, a common underlying function of identifying the desired/optimal outcome and applying comparable mental processes to achieve it.

When this rather technical, mechanical, logical mental process is applied in these circumstances, it is mostly functional. I developed a strong love of my "Problem Solver" self-image. I never encountered a challenge to the validity of this self-image in any of these activities. The challenge was always in adapting the mental process to a new subject area.

But when I brought this self-image into internal gong-fu practice, the results I achieved were both complimentary to and limited by the function applied. Complimentary in the sense that I slowly came to recognize the desired/optimal outcome and the steps to achieve it. And limited in the sense that approaching a unique kinesthetic art with technical, mechanical, and logical problem-solving mental processes did not lead to the desired/optimal kinesthetic state or condition.

Despite repeatedly being shown how my everyday functional narcissism was dysfunctional in the arena of internal gong-fu, I was so deeply in love with my technical, mechanical, logical "Problem Solver" self-image that I could not let it go. I saw the practice of internal gong-fu as yet another area in which I could apply my "problem solver" function to achieve a level of mastery of the subject. Even though I could intellectually distinguish the fact that internal gong-fu is a distinct sort of kinesthetic art (as I've repeatedly written about in this blog), I could not fathom that a process that worked so well for me in many areas throughout my life, would not work here. I was stuck.

And so the lesson is... by becoming aware of your self-images that are generally functional in everyday life and by becoming aware of which of these self-images you "naturally" use in learning and practicing internal gong-fu, you may begin to identify how you are approaching your internal gong-fu practice. Knowing the self-image that you bring into practice, and more importantly, its underlying function, this insight may provide an understanding of the sort of results you are likely to achieve.

Is the approach you are applying to learning internal gong-fu congruent with the material to be learned?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The End of the Road: Journal Notes #118

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

*Question: I'm noticing movement under the skin just above my pubic bone. How do I expand or grow this feeling for side-to-side?
Answer: First, get into stance and shift to the right side. (I get into zhan zhuang and then shift to my right. My instructor adjusts my structure while I'm on my right leg. My right quads fatigue in seconds and I physically cannot continue standing in this posture.)

Your zhan zhuang is not strong enough to do side-to-side. Side-to-side is not about moving to avoid pain. This exercise looks simple but it is very difficult to get the body to the place to do this deceptively simple movement correctly.

If you can't do single leg zhan zhuang correctly for an extended period of time, then you can't do side-to-side correctly. If you can't to side-to-side correctly, then you can't do Cloud Hands correctly. If you can't do Cloud Hands correctly, then you can't do any other stepping because side-to-side is the most basic, fundamental stepping; all other stepping is more complex than side-to-side.

What's the rule with side-to-side? It's to shift left-to-right while keeping your hips on a level plane as if sliding on a rod that goes through the pelvis.

If you have any tension, muscle bunching, scar tissue, fascial adhesions, that is, anything that creates any deviation in movement no matter how small or how subtle, then you are not correctly doing the side-to-side movement. You are aiming to achieve the following: When everything under the skin can move freely, that is, when nothing is stuck, then there will be no deviation of the external movement. This is the meaning of movement in(side) stillness.

Mike, when you do your side-to-side, you have a slight wobble and your hip raises slightly at the end and you're not relaxed/dropped fully into your leg. You're making improvement but you have stillness inside movement. Something is stuck inside causing external movement.You've only got about 30% femur roll forward of what you should have. Your back is still too tight. You need to keep working on this. Don't try to control the movement. Relax. Let go. The correct movement shows up naturally when you get the internals moving freely.
* Here's the Wujifa Side-to-Side video in case you haven't seen it. This video was produced in 2009 when practitioners were just beginning to learn this exercise.

* (My instructor expressed,) It's so frustrating trying to teach Ph.D. level kinesthetics to students at a kindergarten level. I have to dumb it down and make it simple for you to get even a glimpse of what to aim for.

* Zhan zhuang is too complex an exercise to use as a method to learn how to feel into and relax muscles around the hip socket. A better set of exercises would involve removing every variable from the equation. For example, lay on the ground on your back, legs together and straight. Bending at the knees, slide your feet along the floor to where knees were. Move your feet laterally out to the side so they are about a meter apart. On inhale move knees apart. On exhale move knees together. The key to this exercise is to NOT move the pelvis AT ALL while moving the legs.
After doing this a few minutes I find that my pelvis moves. I cannot make it NOT move. Practice isolating movements. Focus on feeling into the hip sockets. How can you get the knees to move without any movement in the pelvis?
* Question: How are my mini-breathing squats looking? (I demonstrate)
Answer: Better but still not consistent. You get some breaks going up and you're collapsing when coming down. Build the stretch on the way up and slowly relax the stretch on the way down. Feeling "the suit" is only one component. The purpose of mini-breathing squats is to feel and develop the horizontal kua movement.

* Question: Soma-psychologists talk about sexual intercourse as being a way to free up or to release holding through the pelvis. Comparing someone who has regular sexual activity to someone who does not, is it correct to think that the person with regular sexual activity is more likely to develop internal gongfu skills whereas the person who does not, will not?
Answer: People confuse "climax" with "orgasm". These two terms are not synonymous. It is incorrect to use these terms interchangeably. Look at Reich's definition of "orgasm". Simply having sex and climax will not help free or release the tension and holding in the pelvis. Achieving the orgastic vibration is an indication of the level of relaxation through the body in general and the pelvis in particular.

* Question: I've been experimenting with something and I'd like your thoughts. I lay on the floor on my back with a block of wood under each of my greater trochanters so that only my upper back and calves touch the ground. My core body weight is resting on my greater trochanters. My butt is suspended off the floor. My idea is that this method will help stretch the hip muscles to help get more "roll femur forward." What do you think?
Answer: I don't like it because you are using a localized mechanical approach to avoid feeling the whole body relaxing in stance.

* The theory is that muscle has vasculature and so it is easier and quicker to build muscle. However, fascia does not have vasculature. Fascia is a gelatanous, fiber-like material that takes time to re-pattern and build.

* Weight lifting shortens muscles and its surrounding fascia. Internal martial arts aim to lengthen the fascia and stretch the fascia. The two regimens are counterproductive to each other.

* Yoga stretches are only functional for internal martial arts to the extent that they target and stretch shortened fascial planes and not just stretch the muscles that are capable of stretching. If yoga stretches do not address the fascia that are chronically shortened, tight or stuck, then these stretches are not contributing to your practice.

* Try to get an individual muscle to contract and relax. Start with the bicep, then move on to the tricep and then apply what you've learned as you systematically go through your entire body. The amount of attention to do this practice is the amount of attention you need to apply to your zhan zhuang practice.

* If you can't feel an area, then try to tighten and relax that area. Isolate that area until you can feel into it. This may take some time.

* It takes a lot of focus over time to re-wire the brain to re-pattern your fascial system.

* If you need music while standing, this is OK if it helps you get started. But this is a distraction. It prevents full focus on your body. It's best to practice in silence. Later you can add distractions to further refine your focus.

* My instructor and I had a couple heart to heart talks this month about why I'm taking so long to progress. Why am I lagging behind others? Why do I withdraw when shown the door? We talked about my approach and how I continue to keep it mechanical. "Are you a scientist?" I think I'm trying to be. "Have you ever read about scientists?" No.

After a couple weeks of thinking about the "Are you a scientist?" question, I conclude that I'm not a scientist. Why not? This may be due to a trait I developed early on. Certainly the kinds of work I got into involved variations on the theme of learning the optimal or desired operation or outcome of something and anything less is a problem to troubleshoot and resolve. Applying this to my internal gong-fu practice, I've identified an optimal kinesthetic quality and I've tried a variety of approaches to troubleshoot and solve the problem in me to achieve this quality. Even though I've made progress, I realize now that this approach will not carry me to where I want to go. I've got to shift to something else. Stay tuned!

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Trying vs. Trying Too Hard: Journal Notes #117
Next article in this series: Noticing vs Analyzing: Journal Notes #119