Sunday, February 12, 2017

Emptying Your Cup: The Way of Internal Gongfu

The "empty the cup" metaphor is typically interpreted at the level of conceptual thinking. A summary of these interpretations is, "Set aside whatever concepts you have already formed and be open to learning without judging, comparing or weighing new experience or information against previous experience or information." Obviously, emptying the cup at this level is an important first step which by the way, can take a long time in and of itself! Going deeper, this kind of interpretation unfortunately is not readily understandable in terms of an internal gongfu practice. In this post I will try to explain how this and similar metaphors describe a key component of internal gongfu practice.

In addition to the "empty the cup" metaphor, there are also other terms and phrases which point to essentially the same meaning, for example:
"You must unlearn what you have learned." Yoda (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980).

"How can you fill your cup if it's already full? How can you learn gong-fu? You already know so much. ... Empty your cup." Lu Yan (The Forbidden Kingdom, 2008).

"Frankie likes to say that boxing is an unnatural act, that everything in boxing is backwards... To make a fighter, you gotta strip 'em down to bare wood. You can't just tell them to forget everything, you know; you gotta make 'em forget in their bones... Then you gotta show 'em all over again. Over and over and over... till they think they're born that way." Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Million Dollar Baby, 2004).

Wujifa uses terms such as "relax" and "let go".

Chen Taijiquan uses the term 放松 (fàng sōng); calm down.

Let's first start with Yoda's statement by asking, "What am I supposed to unlearn?"

Using my self as an example, my earliest learning was the way my childhood self unconsciously adopted the patterns of my parents; a combination of their emotional-muscular body structure became my emotional-muscular structure. Over time, I added an injury here, an emotionally traumatic event  there, a little scar tissue here, some facial adhesions there. All these added to my structure resulting in a unique emotional-muscular pattern. This is what I "learned"; not concepts but a particular emotional-muscular bodymind pattern. This then is what I have to "unlearn".

In terms of the body unlearning what it has learned since childhood, we may also think of this kinesthetic unlearning as being a process of emptying the cup. So you see, when "the cup" is a metaphor for the totality of my emotional-muscular body structure with its unique pattern of chronic tension and flaccidity, "emptying the cup" assumes an entirely different meaning!

Like boxing, there is nothing "natural" about developing whole-body connected movement. Everything about the process of getting there is completely backwards. I used to believe that learning whole-body connected movement followed the same learning or adding-to process as everyday activities. I was totally wrong! Everything about the process is completely backwards. To get to the highest level, I have to be stripped down to bare wood. Layer after layer after layer however long it takes.

From my experience, emptying the conceptual cup is the first hurdle. Many people can't get past this stage. After this, and sometimes concurrently, engaging in unlearning, emptying, stripping down, relaxing, letting go, calming down is the second hurdle. Many people get stuck at this stage... including me. However, coming back and persevering has its rewards.

Once the body unlearns, empties, relaxes, lets go, calms down enough to get to the "state" or "condition" where internal connection shows up spontaneously and naturally (without any effort to learn or achieve it), then and only then can learning begin. But this time, the learning is along the lines of learning how to develop this nascent and unique feeling. The body has drastically changed. The frame of reference has shifted. Questions arise from this new experience. A genuine Beginner's Mind emerges; the mind of the unlearned, empty cup, bare wood.

* * *

After two decades of training and not "getting it", my frustration peaked and I lost all hope of achieving my dream which eventually led to my giving up training stance. Recently I had an insight (from "You must unlearn what you have learned") in which I realized that my childhood instilled drive to learn was counterproductive to the bodily process that needed to occur; to unlearn! Something shifted.

And so this month I began practicing stance again. Now I dedicate time to allow the process of unlearning to work as it will. I'm finding that this shift in priority, from learning to unlearning, has fostered a different underlying approach to training stance. It's as if the intense desire to get has given way to a felt sense of.... (What word best describes what I'm feeling...?)

Unlearning precedes learning. Emptying precedes empty. Stripping down precedes bare wood. Relaxing precedes relaxed. Letting go precedes let go.

Standing Wujifa zhan zhuang is the process of unlearning, the process of emptying the cup, the process of stripping down to bare wood.

The cup must be emptied of the old body before it can be filled with the new body.

See also Investing in Loss (吃亏): The Way of Internal Gongfu

Happy practicing everyone!