Thursday, May 29, 2014

Unleashed (2005) Movie Review & Summary | Internal GongFu

Unleashed (2005), originally titled, "Danny the Dog", can be viewed as a dramatic depiction of the internal gong-fu development process. As I've repeated in this blog, the process involves identifying and letting go of habituated muscular-emotional patterns to develop integrated mind-body presence. The steps of this process dramatized in this movie are:
  1. A traumatic event (and/or environment) causes you to shut down to feeling which results in "living" life mechanically; automatically responding to learned cues and triggers.
  2. You are introduced to "feeling". You recognize an aspect of life where you are mechanical/non-feeling.
  3. You make a conscious choice to relax and let go of that to which you are imprisoned.
  4. You explore your new-found openness and freedom with curiosity and uncertainty.
  5. You go back to your old ways but when you do, the old ways are seen with a new eyes.
  6. You try to blend both worlds; remain in the old with a commitment to not being shut-down.
  7. Ultimately, it comes down to a struggle; a fight to live life with feeling.
  8. If you are successful, a new life opens for you.
The main characters in Unleashed serve as the archetypes that show up in our lives:
  • Danny (Jet Li) represents me, you, literally everyone who is on the journey.
  • Bart (Bob Hoskins) represents that to which we are beholden.
  • Sam (Morgan Freeman) represents the sage-guide who invites the student to simply join him on his journey.
  • Victoria (Kerry Condon) represents the younger teacher who is still learning and is more method oriented. She employs a variety of methods to help the student develop connection.
  • The cage represents an area of life where we are shut-down to feeling; where we are "stuck" or colloquially, "imprisoned".
  • The collar represents the cue which switches a particular response or behavior on or off.
  • The piano represents our emotive-muscular structure. In tune; we live authentically. Out of tune; we live mechanically.
  • Music, song, represents the ethereal stuff of feeling and connection.
The Story
Danny's mother was a student of piano in an academy. As a child, he would play at her feet while she practiced piano. One day, Bart (a loan shark) and another man pay her a visit and the man winds up murdering her. Because little Danny is the sole witness, Bart abducts Danny and imprisons him in a cage. Danny shuts down and in those routinized moments, upon cue, he unleashes his trauma energy against others.

What we learn about Bart is that he uses anger to manipulate and dominate others and he is sexually frustrated. His sex dream ends in violence and his rough, drunken, sexual encounters are always interrupted. From what we are shown, he seems incapable of developing lasting, authentic, intimate, human connection. The phrase, "Like father, like son." seems to apply here. Referencing Bart's own (suggestively troubled) upbringing:
Bart: Like my saint of a mum used to say, "Get 'em young and the possibilities are endless."

Mr. Yussef: I thought it was the Jesuits who said that.

Bart: Probably got it from my mum.
One day, the now older Danny is led into a room of pianos (to do a job for Bart) and is distracted from his task by the pianos. In this environment he encounters Sam, a blind piano tuner.
Sam: You know a lot of people think because a piano's so big, it is very strong and you can just pound it any way you want to and nothing will happen, but that's not so at all. Pianos are a lot like people. I mean, you pound on a person, they get out of tune.
In this same scene, Sam relays the key psycho-somatic, body-mind, emotional-muscular internal gong-fu training directive:
Sam: Loosen up. Music's got to flow from within, you know. Can't flow if you're all stiff... Just relax.... Go ahead relax. Let the energy flow. Let the magic happen.
Later, Danny escapes from Bart and returns to the piano warehouse and to Sam who creates a space for Danny to relax, let go and open on his own terms. Sam invites Danny to share in the ordinary activities of his life; eating meals, walking his step-daughter to school, shopping, cooking, helping with tuning pianos.

Victoria, on the other hand, employs a variety of methods to try to get Danny connect with life-feeling; giving him a small portable piano, showing him how to eat ice cream, taking him to watch a movie, taking him on a boat ride, playing piano with him.

Sam and Victoria, as internal gong-fu teachers, have different strategies to elicit feeling-connection in his body.
Sam: Sometimes, I worry about that boy. It's as if something or someone has made him shut down his feelings so hard, he can no longer get in touch with them.
Victoria: That's what I've been trying to get him to do.
Sam: With vanilla ice cream? Maybe we should come up with some different strategies.
During another evening at Sam's apartment, Victoria removes Danny's collar.
Victoria: Everything is new about you now. Your clothes, your hair, your whole life. This is the last thing left..<She reaches for the collar. He grabs her wrist to stop her.> I think it's time to put the last thing away. Don't you? <He is apprehensive. She removes the collar. He sits, numb. How to respond? What to do now? Removing the collar was always the cue to behave a certain way but he has gained enough presence to know that that behavior is not appropriate in this environment. Everything has changed.>
Everything is new about you now.
While exploring his new found freedom, Danny encounters one of Bart's men and Danny returns to his old life. Why would Danny go back to his old way of life? Externally, he did it to protect his new family from being discovered and hurt. But maybe...
Sam: Sometimes being happy just isn't enough. Sometimes people have to go back and fix the things that made them unhappy before they were happy.... Sometimes people have to do things themselves.
Danny is returned to Bart but now wants to learn what Bart knows about his mother. (Danny did indeed go back for a purpose.) Bart denies knowing his mom.

Bart brings Danny to a fighting arena where he is expected to brutally attack as before. But Danny has changed. He has swung to the opposite extreme. In his naivete in his new emotional territory he simply repeats:
I don't want to hurt people anymore.
But Bart pushes him into the fight pit. Danny's decision to not hurt people makes him an easy target for others' hostility. His inability to calibrate the appropriate behavior results in his using a lot of energy trying to avoid being hurt. This approach proves to be a misstep and he takes a beating.
Bart: Danny! You're gonna get killed! Fight back!
Danny realizes the functional purpose of fighting. He learns the value of confrontation. He finds an emotional balance between the two extremes. He stands up for himself. He fights for self-preservation. After the fight later that night, Danny climbs out of his cell which was never locked in the first place (hugely symbolic!), and rummages through Bart's desk and finds another photo; a photo of a room with two pianos with a Chinese woman at one of the pianos. He confronts Bart with the truth:
Danny:You lied to me! This is my mother. You knew my mother!
Bart lies his way out of the confrontation and takes Danny out to fight in another fight. On the way, Danny forces the car to crash and he escapes again. He returns to Sam's apartment and shares the picture he found. Sam suspects his mother attended a local music academy and he brings Danny there. At the academy he is given another picture of his mother playing piano. That evening, Victoria plays the music that his mother was playing as seen in the photo. This triggers a flashback and Danny connects with the repressed memory of his mother's murder. He now believes that Bart murdered his mother. He knows they are in danger. As they pack to flee for their safety, Bart and his thugs arrive. Final fight scene.

In the final encounter with Bart in Sam's apartment, Danny, now knowing with certainty the life he wants, rejects Bart's appeals to return to his old way of life.
Bart: This is your place of... awakening? Art, books, music? For what? Did it make you a better person? ... you're not meant for this kind of life, Danny. You're a dog... Come home, Danny. <pulls Danny's collar out of his pocket>

Danny: I am home.
The movie ends with Danny dressed formally in a black suit and bow tie attending Victoria's piano recital. The final irony is that Danny has traded one collar for another.
Sam: <gesturing to Danny's bow tie.>  You're alright with that thing around your neck? Is it OK? <Danny smiles and nods.> I'd say it was a decided improvement.
Victoria begins playing the song Danny remembers his mother playing. Danny connects the memory of his childhood and the present with feeling... a tear rolls down his cheek.

Further Thoughts
In addition to dramatizing the internal gong-fu development process, Jet Li's superb acting provides a flavor of the changes in emotional-muscular structure as one lets go of old patterns. (I don't see authentic change in his structure but his acting provides a window into what this change looks like.) We see Danny's emotional state transition from sullenness and anger to animation and joy, from isolation to connection, from holding to relaxing. How is this change portrayed in this film?

Danny's evolving emotional state is most obviously displayed in the physicality of his fighting. In the opening fight scenes, he either sullenly approaches or angrily chases down his target and attacks with a rabid brutality. His body looks fairly rigid. Toward the middle of the show, in the fight-pit scene, he begins by acting inappropriately given the situation he was thrown into. With coaching, he "wakes up" and uses all the skills he has but with a different intent. (Compare facial expression to earlier fight scenes.) In the final fight scene, he runs away from his attackers and stands his ground only when he has no where to run. He looks more grounded and fluid compared to earlier fight scenes.

Unleashed video cover
If you previously watched this movie as a crime-action-drama movie (with your attendant expectations and criteria of this genre), you may have missed how this movie can be viewed as one example of the internal gong-fu development process.

If what I've written here seems strange to you (as in "What is he talking about?") and if you are curious, then watch this movie again and again and again. Watch for the nuances I've described here. What do you notice?

There are a couple other Zen-like scenes where the student becomes teacher; the grocery store fight and the follow-up in the apartment. Notice those too.

As you may have guessed, I love this movie! Combining outstanding martial-arts action with plenty of depth is a winning combination in my book! I notice a little more every time I watch it.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Door Into Wujifa: Journal Notes #121

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

* Feeling emotions changes your structure. Blocking emotions changes your structure. Feel emotions, become alive. Block emotions, become mechanical. Connecting with allowing myself to experience and feel emotion changes everything.

* I demonstrated the way I've been practicing the mini- breathing squats exercise and my instructor gave me some adjustments. Upon finishing, I did not reach for my notebook to record details of what happened as I usually do. This is a huge change for me! When asked why I wasn't making notes, I responded, "What should I write? I can't describe the feeling." I was content with the experience. 

* Connect with happy, angry, sad and don't try to change it. Just allow the expression. The alternative is to close off the emotion. The intent to block feeling (emotions) has the effect of blocking feeling (kinesthetics). There is only the experience or activity of "feeling" which is applied to both kinesthetics and emotions. The level to which I connect with emotional expression is the level to which I connect with kinesthetic expression.

* My habit in stance practice has been to go straightaway to structure and then to try to find feeling in structure. In my mind, I do this to optimize my training time of which I continue to do precious little. I would be better served to use the time to calm down and notice how I'm emotionally feeling and develop a connection with the emotion.

* I don't notice a break until someone brings my attention to it and in that moment of hearing what they notice, my structure changes. How subtle and how amazing!

* Freedom of movement must precede the feeling of connection. Do not confuse "freedom of movement" with "range of motion". (An upcoming blog article will look at this in more detail.)

* If you think/imagine/try to feel or develop your dan-tian, then you'll do it wrong. A common remark is, "I feel something weird in my abdomen." The true feeling (of feeling your dan-tian) arrives completely unexpectedly. It shows up as a result of having developed a certain level of whole-body connection. You simply cannot intentionally create the feeling of your dan-tian in isolation of the whole. When you get all your parts connected and you can move in a connected way, then dan-tian movement (which is at the intersection of all the connected parts) automatically, spontaneously, and naturally shows up as "some weird feeling in my abdomen".

* The problem (with me) is not that I am not feeling or that I do not have feeling, the problem is that I do not allow myself to express and thereby experience the full range of my emotional feelings. To the level I damper my ability to feel-experience any feeling (whether it's emotional or kinesthetic), is the level to which I damper my ability to feel-experience any feeling (whether it's emotional or kinesthetic).

* Why would I do this? Some life experiences are so difficult/painful/sad that it's easier to speak in a disassociated way about the feeling rather than to speak through the experience of the feeling. While this is intended to be a protective mechanism, it also has the unintended effect of being an armor or a method to reduce the amount or level of feeling. The result? Inhibiting my internal gongfu progress.

* Bring feeling-emotion into the physical movement. Joy is preferred but if you're angry, then anger is OK too. Doing zhan zhuang or any movement without emotion, without your heart in it, is dead and mechanical. Express emotion-feeling through movement. Connect!

* My school brother, John, has become a model for me. Through the way he describes what he's doing, I get an insight into what he is noticing in his body and how he is practicing. I really, really, need to move to this model. Here's an example from class:
When I'm practicing my "dancing around", I feel a break at my left should and when I focus on fixing that break, then I feel tension in my lower back which makes me feel like I'm floating and not in my legs. So how can I keep connected to my legs, not necessarily feel more weight in them, but keep the feeling of connection to them so I can feel more connection through my whole body?
Now, here is the instructor's response:
Cool! Do some mini-squats. Don't worry about doing them right. Just do it the way you would do it. OK. Now, notice your kua. (John's mere paying attention to his kua completely altered the way he was doing mini-squats.) Good! Now keep that connection through your kua and do your dance thing. How does that feel?
I could see that he was more connected now than when he first demonstrated and asked his question. John was clearly enjoying his new-found practice experience and continued doing his shi-li kind of dance thing for another several minutes. A comment he made during this time was that it felt like an internal massage. The instructor's final comment on this was:
That's the door into Wujifa!
Note: This is a long-time coming evolution for me. Many years ago in class I first heard Dan talk about his functional awareness-experience of his body and, well, here is what I wrote in
Levels of Noticing: Journal Notes #47 from July 2011:
Dan: (Demonstrating stance) I feel stuck here (pointing to a spot on his shoulder). How do I un-stick that?
Me: Wow! How did you come up with that kind of question? How can you feel so you recognize a feeling of stuck-ness? How does stuck feel?
Dan: I notice where I relax, then notice where I'm not relaxing.

His explanation (which was an indication of how (and how much) he was practicing was so simple, functional and to the point. And yet, here I am, three years later still encountering my same fundamental resistance.

I'm reminded of a parable I heard decades ago that goes like this: Many people enjoy looking at a picture of a pie and enjoy imagining how wonderful it would taste. Fewer people will seek out a pie. Fewer still will actually get and hold a pie in their hands. Fewer still will nibble at the crust. Fewer still will actually cut a slice and eat it. And fewer still will learn how to make a pie for themselves. And fewer still will share their learning with others.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Be More Humane with Yourself: Journal Notes #120
Next article in this series: Resisting the Simple: Journal Notes #122

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Circle of Iron - Quotes for Internal Gongfu

I first watched Circle of Iron (the 1978 remake of Bruce Lee's "The Silent Flute") over thirty years ago before I started on the Tai-chi road. At that time I was enamored with the choreographed fighting scenes and the Asian martial arts mystical fantasy. Now, after thirty years of seeking and training to develop "internal movement", I watched this old movie again but with different eyes.
Circle of Iron video cover

If you haven't seen the movie or if you want to watch it again, you may be able to find it online.

Leaving aside the movie critics' comments about bad fight choreography, bad acting, and cheesy lines, I still enjoy the film. Here are some quotes I have found meaningful in the context of my experience practicing internal gong-fu.

1. There are rules and you have broken them. You have chosen to break almost every rule of the contest. You wear no fighting clothes. You belong to no group.
I am my own man.
Reflection: Getting caught up in rules, clothes, customs, group identity is a distraction. The most difficult trial is overcoming the rules in their myriad forms which have been written into my bones and from which I live an habituated existence. The challenge is to discover how these rules show up in my structure. The challenge is to truly become my own man.

2. The trials along the way are severe.
Reflection: In this movie, I interpret the choreographed fighting scenes as representative of the internal emotional-muscular struggle involved when I am confronted with a change that is different from the way my beliefs, values, or morals are patterned in my body. Sometimes during the practice of zhan zhuang a severe trial may present itself. Freeing oneself from habituated patterns can be a trying experience. Addressing internal resistance, however subtle or nuanced, is never ending.

3. My skills are not there to impress you.
Reflection: "Seekers" speak of the skill of dan-tian movement and fa-jin as if these were the Holy Grail of martial art achievement. Many say they want high level "internal" skills, however, many drop out of this pursuit when they discover the kind and amount of work involved. The skills you see demonstrated (externally) are a byproduct of many years of internal hard work. The very personal purpose driving the person to engage and maintain a practice that results in this kind of body change is beyond the superficial desire to impress others.

4. One is taught in accordance to one's fitness to learn.
Reflection: The teacher really must have the skill to discern the level at which the student is prepared, able, and willing to learn and then teach at that level at that moment. The concept of  a "lesson plan", of spoon-feeding what I want to teach has its time and place.

5. What style of fighting do you use? My style.
Reflection: How you resist or fight against relaxing and letting go is highly individualized. When it comes to the internal, emotional-somatic struggle between holding and letting go, there are various "internal fighting" styles. For example, some may run away (literally or figuratively), or be confrontational, or be manipulative or combinations of each at once or over time. The specifics of how each person fights or resists change are part of that person's internal structure.

6. Other seekers have other trials.
Reflection: While the overall process is the same for everyone (relax, identify tension/holding, let it go, build the feeling of connection), the individual challenges are uniquely personal. No two bodies share identical emotional-muscular patterning. Our bodies are very complex. The process of identifying and releasing ever more subtle "stuck points" is highly individualized.

7. You come to me to test yourself. And in losing you have gained your victory. For now, you are on the threshold of truth and knowledge. That gift, which is what you really want from me, you have it now.
Reflection: In the movie, the challenger losing his life can be understood symbolically. Often, simply showing up for class is a test. In a good class I will lose what binds me and through this, I gain a deeper level of relaxation, feeling and understanding. This is the threshold of truth and knowing. The gift that a truly gifted teacher can bestow is helping me find that in myself. Many come asking for the gift. Not everyone wants the gift the teacher is capable of giving. 

8. My husband sent me to you. This will not violate your vow. The desire to... may be enjoyed without consuming it.
Reflection: Desires, control, vows. What severe trials and important lessons await here!

9. You answer every question with a question. Do you question every answer?
Reflection: A direct answer is not always the best answer. In earlier days, not getting direct answers to my questions frustrated me to no end. Questions born of the analytic process are usually differently motivated than questions born of the feeling process. Learn to distinguish the two. Puzzles, riddles, contradictions may "short-circuit" the analytic process and create an opening for a feeling realization.

10. You will see things and judge them before you know what they mean.... Your impatience is beyond me.
Reflection: Impatience and misguided judgement are probably the biggest problems plaguing the internal martial arts. Training on the assumption that you know what is meant by "internal movement" without truly knowing can lead you down many a wrong path. There are many who have erroneously interpretted the false as the true. According to the level at which you practice and learn over time, discernment may naturally arise.

11. Learn to listen to that which is not spoken.
Reflection: There is nothing mystical about this. Learn to feel into your body in ever increasingly subtle detail. There are no words in the corporeal, kinesthetic realm. Also in my verbal communication I express nuances of  emotional "energies". When my focus is on the words born of my analytic process, I am not even aware of these nuances. Yet when you can hear that which is not spoken, when you feel the feeling behind the spoken words, then a much deeper level of communication is revealed and understanding achieved.

12. The Seekers fight their way here, year after year, willing, eager to pay a terrible price to see what is in that book. And when they fling it open in blazing expectation to finding all the answers to all life's questions, what do they find.
There is no book, Cord. No enlightenment outside yourself.
There is nothing to take back.
Reflection: After decades of seeking for what the martial arts refer to as "internal movement", after watching others make progress on the road to that kinesthetic skill set, I can now see more clearly what is meant by "internal movement". In seeing this "goal", in seeing how the body changes, I can see which processes provide steps to that goal and which provide distractions.
There is no enlightenment outside yourself. What I learn in and about my body is specific to me. My "a-ha" realizations may serve as guideposts to others. There are known and unknown limitations in attempting to express any kinesthetic experience in words. There are so many nuances, so individualized, so personal. There is no enlightenment outside yourself.

Another scene worthy of noting is the "Man in the vat of oil" scene. This scene highlights the importance of knowing precisely what you want to achieve and knowing if the training method will help you achieve that result in the most functional way possible. In this example, the man in the vat could not maintain a vow of chastity. 
"How can a man be a holy man when that terrible thing attaches him to the earth? I got rid of my money. I shed my clothes. I ate a spoonful of rice each day. My mind began to soar. I felt the universe! I was the universe! And then that terrible thing summoned me, "Hello!" it cried, "Think of the pleasure!"
Because he lacked the courage to maim himself, he decided to sit in a vat of oil until "that terrible thing" dissolved. In the process, he also lost the use of his legs. There are many similarly ridiculous and dysfunctional practices. This scene also highlights the topic of the dissociated out-of-body spirituality versus the integrated in-body spirituality. This can be a topic for another day.

What's your favorite quote from this movie and how does it tie in to your internal gong-fu practice?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Be More Humane with Yourself: Journal Notes #120

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

* When you resist a change is when the armors go up.

* The foundation of practice must be curiosity and willingness to explore what you discover. One of my stumbling blocks is declaring certain areas of my life "off limits" to curiosity and willingness to explore and experiment with change. When one part moves then all parts move. If one part is stuck, then all parts are stuck.

* One of my school brothers made this rather eloquent statement: There are no mechanics to the experience of connection. The methods set the stage to feel something.

* In the noticing of "it" feeling different, something else can show up that you couldn't possibly anticipate.

* Regarding trying to communicate various levels of feeling through writing, it would be better to get together and show and talk about feeling.

* A side-to-side training tip: when on one side, pause, settle, relax, let go, feel the burn then slowly shift to the other side and do the same on that side. One aspect of practicing side-to-side can be as if doing alternating single-leg stance with mindfulness of the transition. There are many lessons to be learned in this deceptively simple exercise!

* As you progress, the tendency is to proudly hold onto the level recently achieved; to assume you have "it". Continued growth is in noticing what your new level of feeling reveals in daily life experience and bringing that experience back into practice, and on and on and on...

* When I encounter an uncomfortable feeling, my tendency is to shut down to it. I would be more humane with myself if I explored whatever feeling I'm feeling, pleasant or painful and talked about it.

* I notice that when I feel relaxed, connected and expressing "me" around other people, in those times I feel overwhelmed and so my tendency is to pull back and squelch that amount of aliveness which then snowballs into a general dampered living of feeling.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Noticing vs Analyzing: Journal Notes #119
Next article in this series: - Stay Tuned... I'm still in the game...