Strength and Modernism

The worldwide movement called 'modernism' seems to insist on squeezing everything 'traditional' to see what can be extracted of value. This view assumes that what is of value in tradition can and should be extracted from the valueless mumbo jumbo of belief and superstition. What this aggressive view misses when applied to internal arts is that they have already been refined many times- every generation goes through a process of unfolding the material of the past and making it their own. Internal arts, and gongfu in general, are super concentrated already.

When this 'separate out the chafe from the wheat' notion of modernism is applied to qigong, qigong seems to weaken and wither away. If we insist on examining qigong from the point of view of Modern medicine for instance, or sport based athleticism, at best qigong will appear to be mild hypochondria or a fantasy. It will seem too insignificant, too slow, too ineffective, and too boring!

But don't let that get you down. What happens if we turn the table around and use qigong to examine these other two? Modern medicine seems obsessed with inconclusive tests and invasive procedures, it's way too much- way too late. Sports look like competition indMuscle Chemistryuced trance, as a way to achieve glory with out sensitivity.

Such attempts to 'cross reference'-- or as the cliche goes, 'meld east and west'-- are delicate projects which too often bring with them a kind of enthusiasm which lacks sensibility. Fields of knowledge have their own inherent logic only when considered in context. We don't use molecular biology to analyze traffic congestion, or shipbuilding to analyze pastry making. This being said, indulge me in this brief look at what weight lifting is from a qigong point of view. I am often in situations of trying to explain qigong to people who lift weights. Normally I try to use language and terms which bring them into conversation comfortably, rarely do I get to explain what it is like to look out at the world from the perspective of someone practicing qigong. Here goes.

Weight lifters carefully damage muscles and other soft tissues a little bit at a time causing contractions in all the soft tissues around these minor injuries, generally restricting the circulation of qi. This then causes the muscles to grow larger and more rigid in order to reduce future injury to themselves and other soft tissues. Most people do it for the look or the feeling of strength. This suggests that they started out feeling weak, or are perhaps drawn to an idealized image of what they could be. Others lift weights because the work they do or the sports they play are characterized by regular injuries, the added bulk gives them some protection, and the reduced circulation makes it possible to sustain small injuries without feeling them.

muscle spearThe work and exercise people do often leaves a regrettable mark on their bodies. On the other hand, if you are good enough to play for the Chicago Bulls, do it! Why resist? Some fates are easier to unravel than others.

If my arguments seem to strong, perhaps there is a resolution. Daoism has always held that there needs to be many different ways for different people to fulfill their natures and that despite apparent differences we are all participants in a larger collective body and we actually need each other to be different in order to support a community, or a community of communities. The world is big enough for many different ways of being. My guess is that weight lifting has its true roots in the skillful wielding of heavy weapons and that perhaps what seems like two diametrically opposing views actually has a resolution in the practice of martial arts, something close to my heart.

If after reading this you still wish to lift weights, my suggestions are: Be graceful, develop evenly, and use loss of movement range as a measure of when you've gone to far. I will venture that the real distinction between muscular strength and muscular tension is: Strength happens where you want it to happen, tension happens where you don't want it to happen.

In the practice of qigong we do not want strength or tension and we tend to follow this simple adage: If it feels like strength-- it's tension! Qigong practitioners are adept at releasing unwanted tension from anywhere in their bodies.