Wednesday, May 24, 2017

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

The phrase "investing in loss" (吃亏) has been widely (and wildly) interpreted and yet no one to my knowledge has ventured to explain this phrase in terms of an internal gongfu practice!

Unfortunately, the phrase "investing in loss" first appeared in a reference to Tai-chi Chuan and the mechanical practice of yielding or redirecting in push-hands. I now believe that the context in which this phrase appeared has misdirected a generation of practitioners away from its true meaning. Before we get into it, let's step back and look at the bigger picture.

The Invest-Gain Pattern
In our everyday lives, we are taught to think of investing as a method to gain something; invest in learning to acquire knowledge, invest money to gain profit, etc... By the time we become adults, the invest-gain pattern is deeply ingrained in our being. Even if we implement the various interpretations of this phrase, we do so with the expectation that we will get something in return. It is not the nature of this pattern to expect the result to be the loss of something with no imminent gain on the immediate horizon.

Translating chī kuī  (吃亏)
The Chinese phrase chī kuī (吃亏) literally translates as “eat loss”. Although the primary meaning of chī (吃) is "to eat", chī in another context can also metaphorically mean "to bear" or "to suffer". The term kuī (亏) can have the meaning: deficient, loss, to wane. And so chī kuī (吃亏) translates as "to suffer or bear a loss". Thus, on the surface, translating chī (吃) as "invest" may appear to be a bad translation but probing deeper, there is an inner logic within the English language which renders this a brilliant translation but only when considered within the context of a qigong or an internal gongfu practice! And please, do not confuse kuī 亏 (loss) with kǔ 苦 (bitter). Although loss may taste bitter, and you may need to eat bitter to attain eat loss, the two are not the same.

When understood from an internal gongfu perspective, chī kuī (吃亏) "invest in loss" stands as a principle of an internal gongfu practice synonymous with other phrases such as: empty your cup, unlearn what you have learned, relax, and calm down. (For an internal gongfu understanding of these terms, please see my post titled: Emptying Your Cup: The Way of Internal Gongfu.)

Soft-Round and Martial Intent
My research and experience now leads me to infer that the meaning of "investing in loss" probably arose in the context of qigong which advocates developing a soft round body. Those who achieved the kinesthetic quality of soft round and subsequently experimented with imbuing this quality with martial intent made an incredible discovery. And as they say, the rest is history. (For a discussion of soft, please see my post titled: Tai Chi Principles: Muscular Quality of Sung.)

In an oversimplified and very generalized formulaic context: soft round + martial intent = the kinesthetic quality that is the hallmark of the highest level of ALL martial arts. Distinguishing soft round from martial intent is an important distinction. Why? Because each require a unique form of practice. It is the blending of the two that manifest a unique form of martial-oriented movement.

What does soft-round have to do with "investing in loss"? Simply, to develop soft round requires practicing chī kuī (吃亏), "investing in loss". (For an in-depth analysis of the meaning of "round", see my book Secrets of the Pelvis.)

Chī kuī (吃亏) Comes to America
When and how did this phrase enter western vernacular? According to my research, Cheng Man-ching (郑曼青) authored at least two books and maybe more in Hong Kong which used this phrase. It is most likely that these books and this phrase entered the U.S. with his arrival in 1962. His students in the U.S. subsequently translated two of these books into English. Since only two of his books have been translated into English (to my knowledge), we will limit this discussion to these two Chinese books and their English translations.

In 1957, Cheng Man-ching published a book in Hong Kong titled: 鄭子太極拳十三篇 , 鄭曼青, 時中拳社, 香港

Here is the only passage from his 1957 book that contains the word chī kuī (new style: 吃亏; old style: 喫虧):


Master Cheng's Thirteen Chapters on Tai Chi Chuan

The first English translation in the U.S. of the above is Master Cheng's Thirteen Chapters on Tai Chi Ch’üan. By Cheng Man-Ch’ing. Translated by Douglas Wile, Sweet Ch’i Press. 1982. In Chapter 1, Page 1 we see:
“Therefore, let me say that to study T’ai-chi ch’üan, one must begin by investing in loss. When one has learned to invest in loss, then one is blessed with just the opposite. This is the ultimate in gaining the upper hand.”

The second English translation in the U.S. is Cheng Tzu's Thirteen Treatises on T'ai Chi Ch'uan. By Cheng Man-Ch’ing. Translated by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo and Martin Inn. North Atlantic Books. 1985. And in Chapter 1, page 22 we see:
"Therefore I say, "To learn T'ai Chi Ch'uan, it is first necessary to learn to invest in loss." When one learns to invest in loss, [the loss] will polarize into its opposite and be transformed into the greatest profit."
余故日,学太极拳必自学吃亏始。从来学拳,无不欲胜人而占便宜者,今日学吃亏,谁宁为之。(same passage translated above)

In 1974, Cheng Man-ching published another book in Hong Kong titled: 鄭子太極拳自修新法 , 鄭曼青 , 時中拳社 , 香港

Here is the only passage from his 1974 book that contains the word chī kuī (new style: 吃亏; old style: 喫虧):


Zheng Zi's New Method of Taijiquan Self-study

(Side note: I find it interesting that this section is titled literally 'no fear eat loss' (無畏喫虧) or as I translate "Don't be afraid to bear loss". Indeed, fear is a typical precursor to losing, to letting go, to relaxing. This seems to suggest that an indicator of a successful practice is the encountering of fear associated with losing, letting go, relaxing. Or said another way, if you are not encountering fear in the course of your practice, then you're not really practicing internal gongfu. More on this in a moment.)

The only English translation in the U.S. (that I am aware of) is Master Cheng's New Method of Tai Chi Self-cultivation. By Cheng Man-Ch'ing. Translated by Mark Hennessy. (1999). On page 12 we see:
"If you want to study, begin by investing in loss. ...

... a tiny investment in loss brings minor benefits while a large investment in loss brings you great long-term benefits."
貪小便宜喫小虧。貪大便宜喫大 虧。反此者。即是吃小虧得小便宜。喫大虧而後可以得大便宜。

"Concentrating your ch'i to become soft is the only proper method to invest in loss - then you will not fear losing."

As I mentioned above, these passages are embedded in a discussion about Tai-chi Chuan push-hands which could lead one to believe these passages are talking about the mechanics of push-hands. I too believed this for the past thirty-five years! However, it is now my opinion that these passages were grossly misunderstood due to the context in which they were interpreted! Consider this, if you had never before seen a diamond and a "purveyor of diamonds" showed you a handful of sparkly glass baubles (only a few of which are real diamonds), how would you distinguish the diamonds from the baubles? Would they not all look like diamonds to you? And all the while, the real diamonds remain hidden in plain sight. This is essentially what has happened with our western understanding of chī kuī (吃亏). We interpreted the value of chī kuī (the diamond) based on our experience with glass baubles.

So let's ignore the glass baubles and get right to the diamonds! Let's explore the internal gongfu meaning of each passage.

If you want to study, begin by investing in loss.
Most people who come to a loss-based, internal gongfu practice are quickly confused about the nature of the practice despite their confidence in their own preconceptions; "I know what 'investing in loss' means. Just show me what to do." With a life-long indoctrination in the invest-gain pattern, the presumption is that the same invest-gain mindset can be applied to an internal gongfu practice. Although the principles and methods may be quickly absorbed at the intellectual level (though inaccurately understood), it can take a long time to structurally comprehend what the practice actually entails. If you want to engage an internal gongfu practice, the place to start is by doing the "not" of whatever it is you think you should be doing to "get" internal gongfu. What does this mean?

Concentrating your ch'i to become soft is the only proper method to invest in loss.
As we know, the term ch'i (qi) has no equivalent in a western cultural context. It has been horribly misused since its introduction to the west and from my experience it serves no useful purpose in the internal gongfu arena. Instead, I propose thinking of this sentence in these terms: Focusing your intention on making your muscles supple is the only proper method to invest in loss.

What does it mean to make your muscles supple? Relax! Let go of emotional-muscular rigidity that is bound up in your body. From an internal gongfu perspective, loss refers to letting go of or "losing" chronic emotional-muscular tension and habituated ways of moving and being. When relax is done properly, this is loss. When on the verge of letting go of long-held muscular rigidity, fear asserts itself. Bearing fear, loss occurs. "Investing in loss" is a far more profound practice than superficially learning (adding on) a new skill; how to mechanically "yield" and redirect all the while maintaining your emotional-muscular rigidity! "Investing in loss" is not a practice about adding and refining a new muscle memory. "Investing in loss" is a practice about releasing (or losing) old muscle memories! Practice chī kuī not to get something but to lose something.

Additionally, becoming "soft" does not mean becoming "limp". Releasing/losing emotional-muscular rigidity to develop muscular suppleness occurs in the context of maintaining structure and balance.

Then you will not fear losing.
Coincident with the invest-gain pattern is the fear-of-losing pattern. Together these are a formidable barrier to allowing loss to occur. For decades I practiced Wujifa zhan zhuang both with the aspiration of gaining something and with the fear of losing something. I don't recommend this path. However, throughout my years of practice, I've also experienced countless mini-losses (let go a little here, a little there) which in hindsight represents a significant accumulation of loss! It's like the old joke: How do you eat a whole cow? One bite at a time. Letting go in a big way will get you there faster. Letting go in a small way may get you there eventually.

Once the first loss has passed, then other losses may come more easily. Repeated letting go and relaxing results in a diminishing if not an outright loss of the fear of letting go and relaxing. (This of course depends on the person and their attachment to the particular rigidity encountered.) That said, as I continue to lose, I may encounter more deep-seated fears. Being reminded of previous losses, the fear of losing may be diminished (and again, maybe not). Losing the fear of losing may require years, decades, or a lifetime of practicing loss. At some point, we are reminded, you will no longer fear relaxing and letting go. You will no longer fear losing.

A tiny investment in loss brings minor benefits while a large investment in loss brings you great long-term benefits
This passage simply refers to your practicing loss. How much do you practice each day? How many years have you been practicing? What is the quality of your practice? If you practice relaxing, letting go, losing a little bit, then you get a little benefit. If you practice relaxing, letting go, losing a lot over a long period of time, then you get great long-term benefits. What are these benefits?

When one learns to invest in loss, [the loss] will polarize into its opposite and be transformed into the greatest profit.
The key term here is "polarize". This was the great discovery of the Chinese of yore who practiced qigong (soft round) imbued with martial intent. This is where the magic happens. However, it would be more accurate to say, "After one has lost a particular amount of emotional-muscular rigidity, then within the suppleness there may be discovered an entirely different feeling of bodily movement." Developing this feeling, which may be thought of as the "polar opposite" of normal, everyday mode of moving, yields the greatest "profit" for health and martial arts. It is only after the body has attained a degree of this transformation that the diamonds and glass baubles begin to show their true value. As Douglas Wile translated, "When one has learned to invest in loss, then one is blessed with just the opposite. This is the ultimate in gaining the upper hand.” When you have lost more muscular rigidity than your opponent, then you can see where your opponent is "holding", where there is a "break" in your opponent's connectedness. This holding or break is a "weakness"  that can be exploited to your advantage.

At the beginning of this article I said these selected passages were embedded out of context. This is not entirely true. Now that we have a clearer understanding of the meaning of these passages, we can now go back to the entire passage and draw the relation between these phrases and the surrounding context.

The extent to which you can sense-feel within yourself is the extent to which you can sense-feel into your opponent-partner. If you don't practice losing (letting go, relaxing) or you only practice very little, then you probably will not be able to sense-feel deeply into your own body and the level of your push-hands skill will be superficial. Alternatively, if you lose a lot of emotional-muscular rigidity and in the process of losing you develop the ability to sense-feel very deeply into your own body, then the level of your push-hand skill will be profound. And so the place to begin the partner practice of push-hands is in the individual practice of losing emotional-muscular rigidity.

Finally, let's wrap up with looking at the translation of chī (吃) as "invest". A great amount of time, effort and more often than not, money, is needed to lose emotional-muscular rigidity. The backwardness of practicing loss is that you cannot practice to achieve that which you think you are practicing to achieve. You don't know what you will lose. You don't know where the loss will occur. You don't know how you will feel after the loss. You don't know what losing will lead you to discover. Rather, you dedicate time to allow ever deeper tensions to fall away and somewhere in this process of losing, the body naturally transforms to something else. That which was not previously available becomes available. Invest time with trust in the process without knowing what needs to be lost. Only after you have endured a particular amount of loss will you know the loss that was required for the transformation to occur (for you). Then you realize the benefit of time and effort invested in this pursuit. The term "invest" is one we readily understand. It is the process in which we invest for an unknown outcome, that is not readily understandable.

In Wujifa, there is a saying, "You don't know until you can demonstrate it." In this article I've provided a conceptual framework for these passages based on my experience and current understanding of my experience. I hope you find these insights applicable to help guide you from "knowing" to demonstrating.

September 5, 2021 Addendum

I recently read American Shaolin by Matthew Polly (Gotham Books, 2007). This is a story about his experiences training at Shaolin Monastery. There is one passage that made me think that maybe this "invest in loss" phrase was recontextualized from its original intent.

"Coach Cheng believed that before a fighter could learn how to win, he first had to master losing. He had to experience defeat after defeat until there was nothing new to it and thus nothing left to fear.  The ideal Chinese kickboxer stepped onto the leitai with indifference, nonchalance - just another day on the job. It was an approach Coach Cheng felt crucial for me to develop, because the fear of physical confrontation left me paralyzed." (pg 205)

Happy practicing everyone!