Sitting in the back seat of a relative's car, I picked up a copy of Oprah Magazine. The magazine was filled with articles about how to have a happy-go-lucky life. The first article I read was called, "How to Be More Creative." The gist of the article is that creative people cultivate synesthesia. Poets for instance, actually try to feel the sadness in rocks and trees, or the temperature of a rainbow. (I couldn't find that article online, but I did find this excellent one about musician Pharrell Williams and his synesthesia.)Read More
Strengthness with a Twist: A blog about internal martial arts, theatricality and Daoist ritual emptiness
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New Book, New (New)(New) Deadline: April! Thanks to everyone sending me encouragement!
Los Angles: 5th International Martial Arts Studies Conference (May 23rd-24th)
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Weakness is a door for returning to our true, unconditioned, baby-like nature (zhende 真德, yuande). But weakness itself is not a type of fruition we seek. The idea of nurturing weakness arose because aggressive intentions preclude subtlety, cover up sensitivity, and obscure awareness. Focus is aggressive. Focus limits responsiveness. Weakness is a way of keeping options open.
In the early debates between Buddhists and Daoists, both advocated for a kind of potency. Buddhists argued that a focused mind could be used to break through to clarity, and Daoists countered that clarity was self-arising.
Daoists also argue that strength is self-arising. In fact, I have become an advocate of self-arising strength. The problems with strength all come from putting intent into the muscles. If strength is limited to the physical body, the power of the void will be less accessible. If this sounds mystical, bring it up with Rory Miller, he is saying similar things. It isn't mystical, it is the way our bodies work when we drop aggression.
In order to develop coordination and self-healing, many people find it beneficial to develop the ability to feel every part of the inside of their body. This is okay, as long as those senses do not become hardened. The reality is that the inside of our bodies cannot be felt directly, the true feelings are defuse and confusing. That's why babies need to wiggle their arms and legs for many months before they actually gain control of them. It is a process of linking up the imagination with felt experience and visual perception. All that is a function of the imagination, and it should stay imagination, flexible and dynamic. The interior of the body should not become some hardened notion of truth. When our imagination becomes hardened truth, Daoists call that death (or the birth of a ghost).
A key concept of internal martial arts is the idea that the body can feel hollowed out. This is called tong, sometimes translated "through." It is the type of emptiness that allows a flute to produce sound, a hollowness that goes all the way through. I am an advocate of any type of strength which supports the experience of tong.
At some point, I noticed that students who do not have much tone in their biceps have trouble keeping their shoulders tong. This led to my own experiments, and now I advocate keeping the biceps toned all the time as a way of keeping the shoulders tong. Relaxation is fine as long as the biceps remain toned. Another way people lose tong, is by pushing their shoulders down, this destroys the open space and commits the arms to a line of power. This is probably the biggest structural error in the world of martial arts. It is very common. People with this training will have to pass through a period of feeling weak before they can establish actual strength with tong. I used to think this period of weakness needed to last months or years, but that was a hook without a worm for most people. I have since figured out that students can replace strength with shapes of empty vanity by flexing their biceps all the time. By this method one can drastically cut the time it takes to develop tong shoulders. The key is that strength must stay in the imagination, the biceps must not be used to carry. If a student picks up a weapon, they must imagine that it is part of their body, not something they are carrying.
So weakening into the void means recognizing the emptiness of all strength, and cultivating it. The mind does not go into the muscles. The mind must remain unfocussed and without limitation. Plastic. The mind goes into the void.
Naturally, acting skill works the same way. Strength or image which is committed to the body becomes permanent character. Theatricality can be built either around a profound change in a person's character, or around a character who refuses to change even while everything around them is changing. In either case, the actor does not want to become a permanent character, acting skill is the ability to take on new characters and imagine dynamic worlds for them... Acting requires being weak and unconditioned enough to allow strength to be self-arising. Daoists call this pacing the void (步虛 buxu).
Here is a diagram for the ritual from Michael Saso's website:
The best skill is the darkest, the most deceitful, the most illusory, the most invisible. A guy gets stabbed in the back and doesn't even notice until it is too late.
Which is better skill:
- You know that I uprooted you and you feel my power; or you don't know I uprooted you and you don't feel anything coming?
- Causing pain; or causing damage without immediate pain?
- You feel me attack and you move; or I move you, but you think you moved yourself?
- You don't feel me attack so you don't move; or you move yourself, but you think I moved you?
In each case, the latter is better skill.
Technique is amoral, but the use of technique is always moral (good or bad). That's why the teaching of technique needs moral context. A dark technique is only dark because we associate it with social deviance, the bad guys; the actual technique itself can be used for righteous action, given the right context.
Correctly conceptualized, the subject of Internal Martial Arts is the exploration of the interactions between social-dominance reactions and the perception (and misperception) of the underlying physics. The biggest obstacle to learning internal martial arts is the word "internal" itself. Martial techniques don't happen in the body, just like thoughts don't happen in the body. This odd confusion between inside and outside leads people to look for power generated from inside the body. It also leads to unproductive modernist discussions of body-mechanics. Perfect body mechanics should follow from purposes, not lead them. In fact, there are only two powers: gravity and momentum. Body mechanics basically comes down to one thing, how does it all work together?
There is a story in the Daoist classic, Zhuangzi, about three thiefs. The low level thief practices picking the locks on peoples luggage; the master thief steals the whole bag and hopes the luggage holds together during his escape. The true master thief, however, uses charm to take control of the whole country and then just collects taxes.
If we are the same size and I want you to believe in my superior skills without causing damage, that is going to be a confidence game. I'm going to need a trick of some kind. If I have removed the automatic, monkey-dance-I-dominate-you signals out of my movement, I will have to trick you into submitting. I think this is the secret history of a lot of internal martial arts stuff.
If I am using my dark skills, I have the option of causing real damage, but you are not going to know that. I'm not going to signal it. By not signaling my capacity to harm, most people will not feel justified in trying to hurt me; they may not believe I have the skills.
Convincing people of capacity to harm, is a different skill set than actual capacity to harm.
There is so much deception in the world of martial arts teaching.
That is why I think theatrical skills are so important. Fake dominance and submission skills are extremely useful in social conflict. Is vanity the root of all human problems? Perhaps. That's why there are lots of Daoist precepts meant to bring awareness to vanity, so that one can practice discarding it. But I teach my students to develop maximum explosive vanity! I want them to be adept at displaying hotness and coolness! Peppy-le-Pew meets 007. Strong and heroic on the outside, empty on the inside. This is what is meant by balancing yin and yang. Being the master of one's own vanity is one of the keys of self-empowerment.
What exactly is reverse breathing? Is it actually baby-like breathing? Do the kidneys actually "grasp" the qi from the lungs? Does the mingmen (lower back) expand to suck air in? Does the bellybutton go in with the inhale or in with the exhale? And what does it actually do? Why breath in reverse?
It is actually quite simple.
Normal breathing happens in the lungs, the diaphragm goes down, the ribs open to the sides, and the bellybutton doesn't change much. When it is conscious, we just think "suck in" and "breath out."
Reverse breathing is when we move the body first, movement forces the breath inward, and then movement forces it outward. The breath begins by expanding the ribs to the sides. Most people can get this far on the first try.
Cheetahs can run fast because ligament structures connect their diaphragm to the action of their legs, which passively forces huge amounts of air into their lungs. Humans have this ability too, but it requires a particular engagement of the legs. It is more than a simple bending of the knees or squatting. To make this process conscious requires relaxing the legs and sinking downward while paying attention to the passive effects on the breath, and then playing with the result until it can be coordinated with the active-conscious opening of the ribs. It isn't hard.
What is challenging is the exhale. Once the lungs are expanded, an autonomic or habitual forcing of the air outward tends to take control. So the inhale is "reversed," but the exhale is just normal.
To get fully reversed breathing, the spatial mind must initiate the inhale from outside the body. (Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with this idea.) In this case a simple way to proceed is to look at the canopy of a tree above one's head. Imagine that the leaves are breathing, going up and down, and out and in. The visualization must sync up with the actual movement of the body.
By this method it is possible to delay the exhale without creating compression. The spatial mind (outside the body) can easily delay the exhale if it is more than six feet away from one's actual body. If the spatial mind is too close to the actual body, it will force a compression of the ribs. Compression involuntarily forces the breath outwards.
Anyway, that's it, that is reverse breathing.
Why do we want to avoid the involuntary compression of the ribs? There are probably a lot of reasons, I will try to address a few. First, that exhale is used to solidify our identity, and the goal of acting and martial arts (as enlightenment) is to free oneself from any fixed identity--especially identity fixed by rigidity in the physical body. The second, is that communicative social-methods of communicating power, all tend to rely on this forced compression exhale. We want simple power, not socially expressive power. Socially expressive power is used for domination and submission.
That is what I have to say on the subject, but I would like to open it up to others who may have something to contribute here.
Here is a wonderful article about, vagal tone and the vagus nerve: http://mosaicscience.com/story/hacking-nervous-system
Vagal tone is measured by the ratio of the heart rate during the inhale over the heart rate during exhale. A slower heart rate during exhale indicates greater vagal tone.
Vagal tone is associated with a better functioning immune system. So that is the big question, how does reverse breathing effect vagal tone? And I'm sure readers can think up all sorts of related questions.
Go for it!
Perhaps a little more contextual explanation will help explain the confusions about reverse breathing. In the early twentieth century in China, there was a big push to medicalize Chinese healing practices. Concepts of health were as much about religion as martial arts were; that is, they were a single subject. Both were squeezed into anatomy and physiology. The Red Cross and the YMCA were models used in China to make tradition seem more modern. Reverse breathing was probably connected to Daoism, and Daoism was trying to make itself into a philosophical practice by discarding content related to gods. This was framed as a search for "essence" or "refinement," this may have made the practices more accessible (especially in the West), but it also diminished them.
Originally there were two gods, Heng and Ha. Not a lot of research has been done on them, but I suspect they were weather gods (technically a type of "thunder god"), one who breathed in "heng" and one who breathed out "ha." Naturally people knew about these two gods because there were comic stage routines based on the hilarity of someone who can only breath in or only breath out. Somehow this relates to reverse breathing--medicalized versions of Heng and Ha as "exercises" can be found in numerous modern qigong books.
Here is a cool tid bit I just grabbed from Chinese History Forum:
As for the name "General Heng and Ha 哼哈二将", they originated from Ming dynasty novel Fengsheng Yanyi 《封神演义》 (The Investitures of the Gods). The author based them on two Buddhist door guardians. Both of them were fierce and brave. They generally became Chinese folks figures because of this novel [Editor's note: most likely the "novel" is a collection of rituals that already existed].
One was called Zheng Lun 郑伦. He was able to spit out white breath from his nose to kill the enemy. The other was called Chen Qi 陈奇. He was able to spit out yellow breath from the mouth to kill the enemy. [Editor's note: Extreme nose phlegm and halitosis?]
You can see these figures in many Buddhist temples of China [Editor: Most of these were made in the last ten years]. Shown below the figures outside the door of Buddhist temple Eastern Mountain in Beijing 北京東嶽廟 [Editor: A key temple connected to Fengshen Yanyi, and most likely the history of Baguazhang.]
People ask me, "Scott, why do you hate power so much?"
I don't actually hate power, but every type of power obscures access to other types of power. Readers may respond that certain types of power can be added together to create composite powers, so it isn't necessarily true that one type of power obscures access to another. But even with composite powers, it is smart to separate them into distinct forces, so they can be perfected individually.
The primary method of Daoist martial arts is to reduce power, or to discard as many types of power as possible. What is left when power is discarded? Mass, structure, perception, awareness, balance, the capacity to change, density, fluidity, mobility, pliancy, and expression.
Daoist martial-theater uses expression to imitate the appearance of power, both as patterns of movement, and as techniques for moving other people's bodies. But power is not necessary, the techniques and appearances are all illusions of the theater. I may look tough but I'm actually empty. My toughness is fake. I my look wimpy, but my wimpiness is an illusion, I'm actually tough. (Fake things can still have real world effects.)
A pattern of toughness which is held as stored power, even if it is just a mental strategy, will limit the range of one's expression. The key is to stop carrying around strategies for domination. The simple effort of carrying around ideas about power, obscures access to the purest, most innate forms of power.
Thus, the daily project of Daoist martial-theater becomes the practice of cleaning or clearing out power from the body. To do this one must fully comprehend each type of power. At first this seems like a paradox, because one will not be able to fully comprehend any type of power unless he or she practices using it. In the Taijiquan Classics, this practice is actually called dongjin, literally: comprehending power.
The implication is that once power is fully comprehended it is no longer needed. This needs further explanation.
There are countless types of power used in Chinese martial arts, some of them obvious, some hidden. Generally the term jin is used to denote all these types of power, while the term jing is used to denote just the physical body without intent. So jin are all the ways intent is used to move jing.
Daoism's golden elixir practice (called jindan) has been a constant of Chinese culture for a couple thousand years. It uses the idea of qi as the intermediary between shen (the spatial mind) and jing (the physical body). Shen moves jing, but only in directly, qi is like a buffer which is released from jing whenever intent in the body is reduced.
For example, if I slap a student in the face, qi will float off of the student's face. Whether he or she associates the slap with love, or hate, or a comedy routine, is a process of the imagination, we call that shen. Theatrical content is created by simultaneously linking the experience of the qi (we call it heat or "a stinging sensation") to the location of the slap and the imagination. Qi is the intermediary between jing and shen (the "sting" is the intermediary between the physical body and the imagination).
That is what we call in Daoism jindan, the golden elixir of immortality.
To develop this, one has to re-learn how to move. Although cosmo-physiologically speaking, this is our original state, our self-empowered predator state (before we became appendages of our tools).
The process is different for everyone because we each come to the practice with different types of developed power.
Each type of jin (by definition: using intent within the body) will make the body more dense in some way or other-- if it is practiced as power. But if a type of jin is simply practiced as a pattern of movement expression, without attempting to accumulate power, it has a cleansing or purifying effect.
So one could say that every type of imaginable power fixes or cleans the physical body in some way, as long as it isn't used as power.
The cleaner the body (jing) becomes, the more readily qi is available as an intermediary. And thus, the more readily, and expressively, the imagination can move the body. (Rory Miller's crowd is now calling this effect "plastic mind.")
All those types of power become underlying integrity. This is most obvious with structure training, but is true for all type of power. This is very simple to explain in the case of "good" structure. Once it is established it simply supports other movement, it does not need to be used in any direct way.
This is why, for instance, I teach the four basic taijiquan powers (peng, ji, lu and an) until students can move with them in a continuous flow; and then I have students drop them. They represent interior structure and efficiency. What I don't do is encourage students to perfect these powers as techniques past the point of being able to simply do them and identify them in themselves and others.
Once a type of power is established it can be used to clean the jing, to purify one's form. This is done by practicing power as movement patterns using only the spatial mind, with no intent in the body.
Actually, the body can be cleaned by simpler movements, like shrinking and expanding. The golden elixir of immortality (jindan) practice does not consider martial power development essential. However, students of martial arts who fail to develop power(s) will likely lack the ability to apply advanced spatial mind connections to fighting games or against tricky opponents.
So go ahead and develop power, just practice not using it.
For reference, see the Daodejing, chapter 28, The Uncarved Block.
There are lots of different ways of moving. What I'm provisionally calling "pure internal movement" is predicated on making clear distinctions between different types of movement. Without those distinctions there is no way to define either "pure" or "internal."
Here are two distinct types of movement which have the potential to profoundly improve the way people move.
1) Predator movement is always "on" your opponent. I mean really on them, before, during, and after contact. Make them double-weighted, make them carry you. Make your mind like a dark cloud surrounding your opponent's body, shooting lightning bolts into his openings. As a predator, your opponent should smell like food, or like that first cup of coffee in the morning. And also imagine you are leaving your scent all over your opponent. Needless to say, predator movement uses all the senses.
Predator movement can not be pre-set, it must be improvised. It must be immediately and continuously responsive. Predator movement can be used to control, but it is leading and initiating the action, not resisting it. In other words, using predator movement, I can move someone around in space, where ever I want them to go, but the patterns I make in space cannot be pre-set in anyway.
2) Unstoppable movement is "on" me. It uses pre-set movement patterns with resistance. When performing unstoppable movement, I do not modify the external appearance of my form or routine. Resistance must be offered by a partner, that resistance cannot be pre-set, in must be spontaneous.
When performing unstoppable movement, I can be doing a form, but if my partner disconnects I will not follow him. My partner is responsible for providing spontaneous resistance against the set patterns of my movement. In this situation my partner could just disconnect and then poke me in the eye. It isn't a fighting mode. It is a way to purify the quality of one's movement. It is a testing ground.
With unstoppable movement, my movement pattern is visibly predictable, my partner's is not. I don't control my partner's body in space. I am spontaneously adapting to whatever resistance she offers. That is why it is "pure" internal; on the outside I am just doing a form, but on the inside I am creative and dynamic.
With unstoppable movement I can not move my partner wherever I want. I can only follow my own pre-set pattern.
Both of these types of movement are key. Unfortunately, many martial artists attempt to do both types of movement at the same time. This causes both to fail.
There are actually three possibilities, 1) follow and evade, 2) follow and evade while offering resistance, 3) lead by improvising.*
Fixed patterns of movement don't produce set responses. There is no positive value in training them that way.
There are ways of moving, two-person forms, for instance, in which both people are doing, linked, pre-set movement. I like this type of practice, but it is important to understand why it fails. Don't try to do both predator and unstoppable movement at the same time--that will produce negative results; instead, change between the different types of movement, or practice in one of the two "pure" modes.
Spontaneously communicating ideas, like talking to a friend in a cafe, is like predator movement, it is the perfection of mind/shen. When we communicate spontaneously we can adjust, repeat, reframe etc...as needed.
Writing a book, is like unstoppable movement, it is the the perfection of form/jing. The reader offers criticism, resistance, analysis, questions, and responses. If the book is well written, all this thoughtful engagement makes the book more effective...but the words are pre-set.
*Footnote from above, for my friends in the theater [In the Keith Johnstone's improvisational theater 1) is called "accept all offers", 2) is called "accept and block," 3) is called "making blind offers."]
The problem is bigger than the fact that English language speakers cannot just stop splitting mind and body because these concepts are split in our language and that is how we think. Awkwardly saying, "Mind-body," all the time does not seem to effect any real change in the way people perceive.
Martial artists sometimes exacerbate the problem by researching so called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for answers. These investigations often end in disappointment because TCM is a modern invention which attempted to incorporate Western notions of anatomy and physiology into a traditional therapy. It is problematic in the original Chinese.
Martial artists often want answers to questions like, what are the Meridians of Acupuncture and how were they discovered? Realizing that TCM doesn't answer those questions they may seek out older Chinese medical texts, or perhaps texts on daoyin. However, these are often framed by Chinese thinkers in the 20th Century who were themselves trying to adopt the mind-body split. And once we are into ancient translations, sadly, sometimes the best we can hope for is concluding that we don't know what the original text meant. Seriously.
A lot of Chinese medicine is passed down in lineages from teacher to student. In these relationships, texts are used to transmit idiosyncratic explanations, ideas which simply can not be gleaned from the ancient texts themselves. (For more on this particular subject see Elisabeth Hsu's excellent comparison of different transmission methods, The Transmission of Chinese Medicine (Cambridge Studies in Medical Anthropology) .)
No! The problem is even bigger than that! Traditional Chinese cosmology does in fact split what we are into different aspects or components! But the split between body and mind is a profoundly different split than the one traditional Chinese cosmology uses!
The concept of jing, qi, and shen is a conceptual split, an artificial categorization embedded in language. To understand this type of thinking everything must be split into these three categories. Discussions of qi alone, will not escape the West's mind-body split. The same is true for terms that martial artists love like yi (intention which is liquid-like, visualized, and felt), or jin (force generated from within the body which is not based directly on momentum or strength). Those definitions I just wrote in parentheses are tangible, but they limit comprehension, they impede student development in the long run.
There is no way around this problem other than perhaps working in pure-animal mode, outside of language altogether! And someone always seems to get bitten when we try that.
I have been suggesting the expression, active-spatial mind, as a translation of shen; and, the physical body without animation, as a translation of jing. However, if we want to use these and get around the mind-body split we have to understand that neither jing nor shen exist without qi as an intermediary between the two. Qi is how jing and shen communicate with each other.
The main terms used to refer to emptiness in Chinese are xu 虛, kong 空 and wu 無. I've seen a wide range of different terms used in English to translate each of these, to the point where there is no meaningful distinction between the three. In putting them together as a compound word, xukong-lingtong, we are attempting to point to a single experience which can be hinted at by it's components.
Lingtong (靈通) means lively and animated all the way through. If I wanted to sound pedantic I might call it whole-body attentive-listening. It also means that there is no articulation of the joints, which is an advanced skill, most training begins with developing clear articulation of the joints first.
In earlier blog posts I have defined xu as empty like a puppet, and kong as empty like a container. But it is how they fit together that matters. Xu is a "dead-weight" body, but it is also radiant and luminous. Kong, is a container in the simplest sense: It has a boarder. There is a way to train which will make the container feel hard, but the xukong container seems porous to air and light--like a dragonflies wings.
The terms hard and soft are used a lot in martial arts, but I haven't found them very useful for describing what I do. With regards to the origins of Golden-Bell and Iron-Shirt body conditioning practices, which come form India (or are considered gifts form the gods); these practices make a distinction between two types of emptiness, impenetrable and insubstantial. Those terms are more meaningful than hard or soft.
Here is a list of xukong concepts:
- toukai (refracted light)
- spherical intent
- mind outside the body
- dead weight
- perfect visualization
- zero density
As a last word, let me remind readers that conceptually Chinese cosmology do did not use the dichotomy of Form and Function. The dichotomy was Form and Emptiness! As the Heart Sutra puts it (awkwardly in English);
Form is not other than emptiness;
Emptiness is not other than form.
One of the definitions of pure-internal power is that there is no compression or loading in the body what-so-ever. This experience or state, once achieved in motion, can be describe as zero density. Because there is no compression anywhere, every place in the body feels the same. Although one might feel a distinction between inside and outside the body, density does not define that distinction. The distinction is purely spatial. This is well established in works on Daoist inner alchemy over the last 1000 years. But as my students tend to point out, it doesn't matter whether you are a tenured scholar of Daoism or a Kung Fu child prodigy, if you don't have this specific experience these words are going to be difficult to comprehend. Somatic language requires somatic experiencing.
Where does this weird concept of zero density come from? Humans are one of the few animals that use our arms for carrying things. And we are the only animals that do a lot of carrying. We are also the only animals that make constant use of tools. This fate (命 ming) is surely related to walking on two feet. The evolution of the spatial-mind (神 shen) is linked in humans to the unconscious and automatic experience of being upright on two feet, and to our ready capacity to carry stuff. Carrying things is practical, but it is also tied developmentally and evolutionarily to status displays. All accumulation of status-objects (money, Rolexes, cell-phones, cars, patchouli oil) begins with carrying stuff. Carrying is also the most convincing way to make a threatening status display-- simply pick up a stick or a rock.
The things we carrying are tied to our sense of who we are, and what we are (性 xing). That is why pure-internal power is associated with enlightenment. This type of counter-intuitive empowerment begins with giving up ambition.
Identity markers, the qualities we "possess," create density in our bodies. Granted, it is a strange idea that the characteristics of our personality involve carrying stuff! Wilhelm Reich called this character armor. The Daoist take on it is that we carry around invisible symbolic-talisman. These talisman are a trade we make in the unseen (unconscious) world; when we seek status, we are effectively trading away some freedom of action. It is a subtle form of dis-empowerment. This is why theatrical performance is so closely linked with enlightenment. Acting is the study of how identity is socially constructed, great acting is the capacity to discard all evidence of a permanent self, and temporarily take on a new one.
How does zero density play out in martial arts?
Throws to the ground based purely on momentum can be done without any lifting or carrying. Throws based on lifting someone off the ground usually require carrying unless the opponent is tricked into jumping. Generally speaking any type of throw causes our body to become dense, but picking an opponent up off the ground creates more density. The ultimate status display is picking an opponent up over our head and roaring!
Yet I doubt that a tiger with a monkey in his mouth is engaged in a status display. One method for achieving zero density is as follows:
- Practice emptying the limbs, like water flowing inwards toward the torso, without hardening any part of the body.
- Release the feeling of you limbs out in all directions such that you lose proprioception.
- Add an object (a rock or a stick), into your hand and empty it as if it were part of your body.
- Do a set movement pattern while a partner is resisting your movement, empty their entire body as if it is part of your body.
- Lift a partner off the ground as if he or she is part of your body.
Perhaps we shouldn't even call this gongfu, as that term implies hard work. There is nothing wrong with effort. But understanding that artificial effort comes from carrying things on two feet is key to understanding Daoism.
Failure to adequately answer the question, what is qi? Is a seemingly never ending problem in the Martial arts. The core of the problem is that historically qi is consistently described as being both inside the body and outside the body. In the modern era there are two dominant schools of thought for dealing with this problem. The first school says there is no physical force that exists both inside the body and outside the body, therefore Chinese masters before the 20th Century must have been delusional. The second school agrees that there is no physical force both inside and outside the body, but since the Chinese masters of the past were so brilliant in other realms, we must have misunderstood them.
The insistence that qi be explainable in modern terms is something we can work with, the insistence that qi have a direct modern corollary is simply beyond the pale.
The correct question to ask is, how is it possible to have a felt experience which is both inside the body and outside the body? This is a big problem for (modern) Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners too, because most 20th Century texts focus on describing qi as being inside the body. That is not entirely fair, 20th Century texts all describe weiqi (guarding qi) which floats about 2 to 5 inches off the surface of the skin. However weiqi is usually interpreted as radiant heat (or the capacity to distribute it) around the surface of the body. The texts rarely deal with qi out beyond 10 inches. I would argue that qi is never just inside the body, and that thinking of it as such is a modern idea.
I recommend the book The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine because it tells the history of feeling the body from a Chinese cosmological perspective and from an Ancient Greek perspective and then shows how we got where we are today through looking at both art and medicine.
Also on this topic I recently found an essay by Daoist scholar Stephen Bokenkamp, in which he draws on the work of linguist George Lakoff to discuss perception of the self as an experience of body. Lakoff is a Tai Chi guy and his practice has had a big effect on his theories about language. The idea in the essay is that Daoists had an implicit notion of self embedded in the language that exists as a continous background to constituents of self, such as jing, qi and shen or hun and pö, or the infinite array of visualized deities. Lakoff's book is called Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought, the essay by Bokenkamp is titled, "What Daoist Body?" in a book called Purposes, Means and Convictions in Daoism: A Berlin Symposium .
Bokenkamp like many scholars of Daoist religion are asking good questions about what early Daoists thought the body was. Here is my question, how did those Daoists experience their bodies such that they thought visualizing deities would be efficacious? Or the reverse corrolarry, where did modern people get the wacko idea that visualization in and around the body isn't efficacious?
The notion that the specific body we feel is an experience of material reality is a modern conceit. When Shakespeare writes, "Mine own flesh and blood," he isn't talking about the material body, he is talking about imagined ownership and connection. Experiencing flesh and blood wasn't a static truth, and it still isn't.
We define our self, who and what we are, as a specific material experience of our body. I don't know how universal that is. But I do know that it isn't permanent or static. We only have to consider what happens to us when we are dreaming to know this can not possibly be true. There are a lot of tricks (call them methods if you prefer) in martial arts, designed to get us to drop our specific material experience of our body. But even when students understand the purpose of these tricks, such methods are hard to pull off because our specific material experience of the body snaps back like a rubber-band.
The notion that perception and action can be separated has been demonstrated to be false in countless kinesiological studies. If you doubt what I'm saying, go to Google Scholar, type in "perception action," then add a word like "matrix" or "integration," or "loop," hit return and start reading.
A few of the key terms kinesiology has come up with to describe this are, proprioception (sense of body in motion), peripreception (sense of space within arms reach), extra-periperception (sense of space beyond one's reach), and tactile perception. There are also various terms for interior perception. I tend to use the general term spatial perception which covers all of these. There are many other terms that have been created to distinguish between the many ways we feel and sense in action.
The felt body and felt space are absolutely key to all movement capacity. That is a demonstrable fact. As is the postulate that different felt experiences enhance or disrupt movement capacity.
The crazy idea that the term qi refers to something inside the body probably dates from the late 1800's. When people were trying to find a Chinese (rather than foreign) justification for the end of foot-binding, they hit on the Modern notion of "circulating qi" as a metaphor for everything good, i.e. medicine, technology, new ideas and commerce...all of which circulate around. Unbinding womens' feet was simply another way to increase circulation! China had the "qi circulation" expression earlier, but it never referred exclusively to inside the body. Before the late 1800's qi always referred to both inside and outside the body simultaneously. Chinese pre-Nationalist reformers of the late 1800's were trying to find Chinese origins or precedents for Modernity, a big part of which entailed seeing the body as a biological lump of flesh.
Whenever we are changing the way we move we are changing the ways we feel our body and space. One of the biggest obstacles to conditioning new ways of feeling is that how we feel is linked to who we believe we are. Both have to change.
For example, the idea that our body is made up of muscles is a function of the spatial imagination. It is not innate. It is not even historically coherent, people in the past didn't think of themselves this way. To have a body of muscles is to have trained one's body to feel them. Most of us learned this as children in our society (it is refined and reinforced in school), but functionally there is enormous variation between individuals. None the less, the body as muscles can be unlearned.
The idea that we can experience our body as emptiness is a core concept for all traditional Chinese movement practices, including: martial, ritual, and theatrical. However there are many different concepts of emptiness. Emptiness is understood in multiple ways.
The idea of emptiness used in Iron-Shirt practices is different from the idea used for fighting while possessed. In the case of possession, the person possessed by a deity has no memory of the experience. That is the definition of possession in China. And the understanding is based on the idea that a person's body can be an empty vessel that the deity occupies temporarily. In Iron-Shirt the body is trained to feel diffuse or numb so that it does not feel pain, this is also described as emptiness.
In one form of Daoist ritual training, adepts first establish emptiness in a part of the body, like an empty room or an office called a guan. This takes anywhere from two of weeks to two years. Then a deity is visualized in the empty space. These deities are always moving, not in the sense of running around, but in the sense that they are visualized in clouds or with flowing silk clothing. Such a deity is then referred to as an officer, also guan (one who occupies an office). In ritual perception-action a deity is moved outside the body so the experience of interior space (the office) is also outside the body.
This Daoist ritual perception-action practice is the way internal martial arts were created. The movement in the imagined empty space does not have to be a deity, it can be anything felt with the imagination. It could perhaps be a giant muscle, an ocean wave, or infinite darkness. The conventions are not important to understanding the mechanism.
The concepts of healing, exercise, exorcism, talisman, education, and beauty, are tied to the way we feel, in every culture. The insight that Daoism brings to all of these is that we have access to an experience of zero. This zero is part of the basic cosmology of ritual and is found in the Daodejing, "Dao gives birth to One, One gives birth to Two... etc...." In simpler English renewal is possible.
Editor's Note: Okay, that is the end of this short essay. What follows is a tail that readers may use as additional food for thought...
I don't know if most people are ignoring how they feel their bodies, or if most people simply tend to use language as if how we feel our bodies is set in stone (or bone?). I don't know if I'm living in a land of ghosts, or if we are all just truly alone?
I have been thinking about early Daoism and I suspect that early Daoist rituals were created to give people a shared sense of being able to change how we feel our bodies. The rituals they created were heavy on group visualizations that altered one's sense of body. And learning to read too, the early Daoists taught everyone to read and write, it was a 2nd Century literacy drive.