Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Internal Martial Arts as a Foreign Culture

In my first article Internal Martial Arts as a Foreign Language I used the analogy of English language and Chinese language to illustrate the difference between native muscle movement and internal strength or whole-body connected movement. In this article, I take the analogy a step further by considering native muscle movement and whole-body connected movement as being culturally distinct as well.

In Edward T. Hall's book Beyond Culture (1976), he introduced the ideas of low context and high context cultures. In a low-context culture, little to no context is required to communicate; the words themselves are sufficient. Conversely, a high context culture requires the listener to know the context of the situation to understand the words. Following the example from my earlier article, the United States (and the English language) is a low-context culture and China (and Chinese language) is a high-context culture.

From my experiences traveling abroad, living in a cross-cultural context, and trying to learn whole-body connected movement, I consider native muscle movement to be akin to low-context culture and whole-body connected movement to be akin to high-context culture.

Why? Because in native muscle movement culture, I can give you precise directions on how to open and expand your chest and you would be able to do this. However, in connected movement culture, directions to facilitate connection only make sense in the context of the rest of the body. The quality of whole-body connection shows up on its own accord only when the proper conditions are met.

The below section appears on page 114-115 of Beyond Culture and illustrates a parallel between internal martial arts and culture.
“For some reason, people reared in the European tradition feel more comfortable if they have a rule to fall back on, even if it doesn’t fit. This is important, because people who depend on rules and authorities in order to act are slow to experience the reality of another system. Projecting what they have been told in the past, they fit the world into their own model. Examples and principles from linguistics will serve to illustrate this point:
  1. When an American tries to use his high school French in France, he can neither understand nor be understood. People just don’t speak the way he was taught. This is because the rules for language learning, promulgated by some distant, forgotten authority and passed down to the current generation with little change by a more recent authority are almost invariably wrong.

  2. People don’t learn to perform by combining parts which are memorized according to rules which they must think about in the course of the transaction, whether it is a new language one is learning, or skiing, or spotting enemy planes in wartime. The process is too slow and too complex.

  3. Each culture is not only an integrated whole but has its own rules for learning. These are reinforced by different patterns of overall organization. An important part of understanding a different culture is learning how things are organized and how one goes about learning them in that culture. This is not possible if one persists in using the learning models handed down in one’s own culture.

  4. The reason one cannot get into another culture by applying the “let’s-fit-the-pieces-together” process is the total complexity of any culture. In the West, we cling to the notion that there is such a thing as “the” English language or "the"… The “the" model is oversimplified. It does not do justice to either language or culture. Ultimately, use of the model can only lead to frustration, because there is little in language or culture that can be pinned down the way many would like."

For those of you who are long-time Wujifa practitioners, the above text probably makes sense to you. However, if you are new to internal gong-fu and wondering what learning French or Chinese has to do with learning whole-body connected movement, let me try to bridge this analogy for you.
  1. Trying to learn "connected movement" based on rules that were written by some "distant, forgotten authority and passed down to the current generation" will not lead you to connection.

  2. My natural tendency is to project what I know onto that which I don't know and believe I know because my projection "makes sense" to me.

  3. The "rules for learning" which are functional in native-movement culture are dysfunctional in connected-movement culture.

  4. Trying to "figure out" connected-movement culture by fitting the pieces together from a native muscle-movement cultural perspective only leads to frustration. There is no "the" way to "figure out" connected-movement.

What I've learned and what I'm trying to share here is that the strategies that I use when learning new movements in my native muscle-movement culture failed miserably when I applied them to trying to learn whole-body connected movement. It's as if I tried combining my innate knowledge of American culture with what I read and heard about Chinese culture so I could learn how to function in Chinese culture... before I ever go to China!

I hope my attempt to cast whole-body connected movement as a foreign language and foreign culture can help you understand not only how different the two really are but also how different strategies must be employed to learn the new culture.

Happy training everyone!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Letting Go of Wanting to Get It: Journal Notes #134

Notes from my June 2015 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

Note: Continuing from last month, my severe bi-lateral Achilles tendonosis left me limping on both legs. After a month of physical therapy with no obvious improvement, the therapist suggested I continue the exercises on my own at home. Throughout June I focused on following the physical therapy regimen and did not practice any Wujifa exercises.

June 7
Today we went to a local push-hands meet-up. Before I talk about this, let me preface with little back-story.

I had learned the typical American-style push-hands more than thirty years ago and this got engrained very deeply into my body. When I began practicing Wujifa, I was discouraged from pushing hands in class with my school brothers because I reflexively used my originally-learned push-hands way of moving which interfered with the new kinesthetic I was learning. (Wujifa classes are free-flowing according to students' questions and are not structured like other MA classes with forms class, push-hands class, sparring class, etc.) Touching-hands in class was mostly limited to "strength testing"; applying a push in a static stance posture to discover breaks in the path to ground. Part of my touching-hands training over the years was to train out of my system the way I embodied American-style push-hands so many years ago.

So when I was told we were going to a push-hands meet-up, I had a bit of performance anxiety. I had not touched hands with anyone outside of class for over 15 years. I was coached to do my best and to remember the tips and pointers from the last class. Personally, my intention was to keep my back elongated, take the push into my legs, not revert to limp-noodle yin-yang arm games, and focus on going straight into my opponent's center.

At the meet-up, about a dozen guys showed up representing an assortment of local Yang and Wu style teachers and their students. To me, everyone felt physically strong. I could not discern who was using connection or who was bracing and to what degree. I got pushed around some which surprised me. Also I noticed that my opponents got sweaty and sometimes out of breath after a 12 minute rotation whereas I did not. By the end of the three hour meet-up, my quads were fatigued from grounding pushes into my legs (not playing yin-yang hands and getting out of the way of a push).

At a school debrief afterwards, one school-brother who had decided to observe rather than participate, offered some excellent observations. I was told that none of the other players had connection and that they all used bracing with very little to no hip/kua movement. And, I was told that I was the most tense person there and was using too much muscle! Wow! This latter observation was especially a surprise to me!

June 21
In class, we exchanged ideas about the cause of my Achilles tendonosis. One idea, based on many previous class experiences, is that I carry a chronic, low-level of anxiety throughout my body, particularly in my lower back. Maybe this is now showing-up in my ankles? Another idea is that I'm plain and simple getting old and parts are wearing out. I can accept the anxiety theory but I'm not happy about having trouble walking.

I agree that I've long had a fair amount of anxiety with my daily life stuff. In the week after class, a new thought occurred to me; could my practice also be a source of anxiety? I've long wanted to develop the kinesthetic quality known as connected-movement. And I've long felt simultaneously hopeful that I was now on the right path and frustrated that "getting it" was not as straightforward as it seemed. Particularly troubling have been suggestions to let go of certain habituated patterns that I adamantly want to hold onto which left me wondering if I would ever "get it" at all. It's as if my wanting to "get it" and my not "getting it" became a source of conflict and anxiety for me.

And then something strange happened. I found myself letting go of the wanting to "get it". In that moment, I felt relaxed. In that moment, I didn't care if I ever got it or not. In that moment, it simply did not matter. After a week of sitting with this attitude (and not practicing) I noticed that this feeling of not wanting is different from previous feelings of browbeating myself about not practicing.

Now, I don't know what to do with this. I don't feel like walking away and yet the passion to "get it" is gone. How can I not care about practice and continue practice? This does not compute...

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Tension Blocks Connection: Journal Notes #133