Acupuncture and the Martial Arts

The martial arts connection to medicine is very weak unless we dive into specific religious notions of medicine and health. That view has long made me a polarizing teacher, some people love me, some hate me.  As my regular readers are aware, connections between theater, religion and martial arts were severed at the beginning of the 20th Century. Because of this, few people can actually see the religious connections between medicine and martial arts.  What we got, almost by a historical fluke, was the valorization of the martial arts school connected to the herbalist and the bone-setter.  This connection is certainly real.  The connections between ways of training the body and massage techniques (bodywork, tuina, etc) are strong in practice.  That is why the Daoyin for bodyworkers program has been successful.  But for this connection to be meaningful, the language has to be correct.  Otherwise it just becomes laying theory on top of practice; an unnecessary burden. 

Countless martial artists have included acupuncture charts in their books. Some have even attempted to link movement patterns to acupuncture meridians, in qigong for example, and even in fighting technique.  I've never been able to make any sense of this stuff.  And I've had a long time to ponder it and experiment with it.  My Daoist teacher was the founder of Five Branches School of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and I taught for five years at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.  

Typically people start with a perfectly good method or practice.  Then they come up with a theory to explain it. And then they tack on the acupuncture meridians.  That's two steps out over the cliff in my book.  That's adding mathematical variables to an equation and hoping it doesn't change the results too much.   

Don't mis-understand me.  I'm not anti-theory.  Even wrong theories can create new ways of looking at a problem.  Or suggest strategies for simplifying a problem.  And yes, sometimes things get so screwed up that adding a mathematical variable and watching the results is a good method.  But if you are going to follow the Road Runner off of the cliff, be prepared for a lot of backpedaling (in mid-air).  

There is a cosmological connection between meridians and martial arts, but it isn't what people think.

A ghost is a weak commitment.  Why?  Because that is usually what happens to a person's commitments when they die.  If your body isn't around to act on a commitment or a desire it tends to weaken and float away into nothingness.  But sometimes the living will try to carry on the will, or the intent, of the dead.  The further a particular intent gets from the body of its inception the weaker it is.  But a living person can catch hold of someone else's desire and preserve it.  It thus becomes a ghost, or a ghostly influence.  We can also create our own ghosts.  For instance, a commitment made as a child, or during a previous relationship, can cling to our body and keep manifesting unconsciously in our actions.  

When an intent or desire (think: imagination) gets stuck in the body, it infuses the body with qi.  In a wuwei (non-intentional) state the imagination is free to roam and qi floats outside the body as a buffer between the imagination and the body.  Normally, we have simple desires, they manifest somehow in our actions, and then they disappear.  No fuss no muss.  But unfulfilled desires can take up residence in our bodies.  In the modern world we think of these as anxiety or stress.  The Chinese thought of them as set patterns of qi: meridians.

The classic Daoist idea of illness has one of three causes.  1) You inherited a ghost from your ancestors, usually a bad habit like drinking whiskey, or hating your neighbors.  2)  You picked up a wandering ghost, some dead person's unresolved desire to harm--usually via revenge, but there are countless other possibilities.   3) You are a screw-up all on your own, your homegrown desires and conflicting emotions lead to self-harming conduct.

All three of the above causes manifest in the same way, first as bad conduct, then as meridians.  Acupuncture is the study of how patterns of inappropriate conduct get stuck in the body.  When a person has all twelve meridians they are dead.  

It is a simplification, but we can think of acupuncture as a form of torture meant to scare away ghosts, and purge the body of stuck patterns of qi.  

Death occurs when all the qi at the surface of the body gets forced by the imagination into the physical body. When the imagination becomes all substance, that is death.  Sickness is when just part of the imagination is stuck in the body.  

The idea that someone would want to use a movement pattern to establish meridians in the body is crazy.  Less crazy is the idea the someone might want to use a movement pattern to clear out the meridians.  But the connection is still weak.  There is little reason to involve the meridians in martial arts at all.  


This is where the demons come out.  Most of the people writing about internal martial arts today are discussing something called jin 勁, usually translated as internal power.  I can assure you, if your whole body becomes jin, you are dead.  

The purpose of jin, from a Daoist point of view, is to chase out the ghosts. Old lingering ghosts in our bodies have established themselves in our behaviors, but more immediately they have established themselves in our unconscious movement habits and patterns.  By establishing a super clear and conscious pattern of movement inside the body, we can overwhelm the weak lingering qi patterns of ghosts. 

But from a Daoist point of view, it is a mistake to leave that super clear conscious movement pattern in the body.  Once the jin has chased away the ghosts, it should be discarded too.  Accumulate too many jin patterns and they will start to fight each other for dominance in your body.  Allow just one to dominate your movement all the time and it will slowly wear down all the soft tissues in the body leaving you crippled.  

There are a lot of different ways things can go.  Daoists thought this through.  You can switch types of jin with the seasons, develop different types of power at different times of year.  Or you can use a divination method to decide what type of power to work on.  But pursuing the same pattern usually leads to a story like this, "I played football until my injuries caught up with me, and I switched to basketball, until my knees gave out, so I started biking, when I couldn't do that anymore I switched to golf, now I just swim and walk."  This is all okay. We don't need to beat death here.  (As I pointed out in my last blog, I'm not into the ghost of "sustainability."  It would not be that easy to use up all our resources even if we tried, but we certainly don't need to leave all this "stuff" for our grandchildren.)

The Daoist view is that jin can be used to clean out the ghosts, but the fruition of "internal power cultivation" is not internal power!  It is no-power stored in the body.  It is pure liquid mass and momentum surrounded and nourished by a wild predator mind.  An immortal rainbow egg; the empty body/jing surrounded by qi, surrounded by spirit/imagination/shen, and then surrounded by emptiness/xu.

Wait, did I just walk myself off of a cliff?  Anyone who has spent time around Traditional Chinese Medicine knows that there are a ton of different theories, and many of them contradict each other.  They can't all be right and they can't all be wrong!