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?

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