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
Brand New Book: TAI CHI, BAGUAZHANG AND THE GOLDEN ELIXIR, Internal Martial Arts Before the Boxer Uprising. By Scott Park Phillips. Paper ($30.00), Digital ($9.99)
Also buy: Possible Origins, A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theater and Religion, (2016) By Scott Park Phillips. Paper ($18.95), Digital ($9.99)
I live in Boulder, Colorado. If you get into trouble socially in Boulder, all you have to say is the magic word, "sustainability." This works for all situations. If the police are trying to arrest you, just say, "sustainability," and they will let you go. If you step on someone's foot at the cafe, say "sustainability," and everyone smiles. If your dog barks at someone, if your goats get out of the yard and chew up the seats of your neighbor's convertible, if you forget a friend's birthday, just say "sustainability;" it is the universal safe word for Boulder. All advertising, marketing, education and politics uses the word "sustainability," in all situations.Read More
One of the enlightenment goals of Daoism is closing the third eye. Many religious systems actively try to open the third eye because it is associated with intuition and wisdom. Daoists don't openly reject intuition and wisdom--both are good for party tricks and playing the stock market--but most of the time we don't need them, especially not before I've had my morning coffee.
In the old days, the third eye had many practical uses, like seeing what was happening far away. It took a lot of effort and was unreliable, but using it made people feel powerful. That is why Daoists close the third eye, the two regular eyes are unreliable enough without adding intuition and wisdom into the mix.
Now-a-days, everyone has a smart phone or a computer close at hand. Using these devices opens the third eye. You can ask any question, create any fantasy, see any event or map, and know what is going on anywhere. It is not just that you can hear a few voices in your head--you can hear any voice!
The basic instructions for Daoist meditation can be summarized like this: if the third eye opens, close it.
Closing the third eye used to be easy. Most people wanted to open their third eye, but it took so much effort, concentration and practice; so most people didn't bother. That's why some religions valorized it. Historically, Daoism was responding to the excesses of fasting, drug use, and sleep deprivation strongly associated with opening of the third eye. Daoist doctrine, beginning with the Daodejing, saw this as a waste of life and vitality (qi and jing).
Today, third eye powers are common, and used for so many different purposes; if someone wants you to believe in their religion, say the Second Coming, global warming, gender indeterminance, or that it is good to marry a piece of furniture--they will show you this with their third eye! See? Just watch this video or visit this news sight.
The first Daoist precept--explained by the founder of Religious Daoism, Zhang Daoling, the original teacher, in about 50 CE--"Don't interfere with people's direct connection to heaven." In other words, if people want to believe something, let them. You just close your third eye and see things as they are.
Closing the third eye is becoming harder. Socially people are expected to keep it open as a form of communication, and to stay informed. Having an open third eye is so easy that most people become addicted to it at some point. This is extremely draining. People actually say things like, "Do you remember how you used to find your friends at a crowded public event?" People now use their third eyes for all sorts of things which their regular eyes are perfectly capable of achieving.
Now let me explain a Daoist method for closing the third eye. Use your third eye in reverse, suck in and dissolve the world. While doing standing meditation, look out into the distance and suck everything into the third eye, send it down to the feet, and merge it with the firmness and darkness of the earth. The need for the third eye will be eliminated because everything in the environment will be present. Simply find chaos and embrace "not knowing."
Over time, the effect of closing the third eye is that the body becomes empty of all intent, old injuries resolve, and one's natural (child-like) ability to balance incoming forces is restored.
Having an open third eye drains the kidneys, injures the lower back, and causes the head to pitch forward. The modern explanation for this problem is that people are spending too much time staring at a screen. The traditional explanation is that when the third eye is open, you can't see the hungry demons sneaking up to chomp on your kidneys and nibble on your neck.
In closing I would like to say a few words about standing meditation. I think it is the core of internal martial arts practice. People often talk about the difficulty they have meditating, the difficulties they have starting or maintaining a practice. I have always found this puzzling. Perhaps it is because people are trying to open their third eye? This might explain why people find it difficult.
My definition of meditation is: pick a time and place to practice. The time is one hour, the same time of day, everyday. The place is a quiet place, a space where you won't be disturbed or distracted; the same place everyday. If a practice has some other characteristics, it might be better to call it something other than meditation so people don't get confused.
Fun personal note of no particular significance: I've been standing still since I was 20. In my 24th year of practice (four years ago) I passed a significant marker: having stood still for the equivalent of a whole year.
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.
Let's get some things straight. There are standing postures in all Chinese Martial Arts. The physicality of Chinese theater comes out of these same stances. Many different religious traditions in China require participants to hold specific stances during ritual.
The term most often used to refer to standing postures these days is zhan zhuang. That term does not apparently make any distinctions between difficult jibengong basic training stances which are often physically difficult and painful for beginners, and standing meditaion which is only difficult because people won't let themselves do it.
Also, zhan zhuang is probably not the correct term for describing these standing practices used in theater and ritual. I think the term comes from Wang Xiangzai, if anyone knows different please let me know.
In the martial arts world, difficult standing postures are a key part of jibengong, or basic training. After a student can do a falling stance with their butt on their ankle (feet parallel, one leg all the way straight, the other all the way bent), then I have them hold the stance with their hips (measured at the greater trochanter) one inch below the level of the knee. After they get that I have them hold it with the hips one inch above the level of the knee. Then there are arm positions to add, and a few other tricks. There are instructions like this for every posture in Taijiquan, Shaolin, or Xinyiquan. Students often rebel, they don't like the pain. They think I'm some kind of sadist, when the truth is I love them, they are my babies.
There are a whole bunch of easier postures that are used for meditation, horse stance, post stance, and just simple knees bent, feet shoulders width apart, back straight. When I say meditation I mean an hour of stillness. (If the stance is on one leg, then it is a half-hour on each leg.) Why an hour? Why not? Do you have some place to be? Because if your mother is in the hospital or something you should probably get over there! Or if you have a game of Frisbee golf to get to...at 7 AM...hey that's important stuff!
Frankly I've heard countless explanations for why an hour is good. Yawn. This is an experimental tradition, do your own experiments, find your own answers. I've heard even more excuses from martial arts teachers about why they don't do standing practice. Yawn.
The heart of the problem is in the framing. If people don't understand that martial arts were fully integrated into religious ritual, meditation, and theater they are likely to come up with some argument about how long periods (really..., an hour is long?) of standing are not utilitarian. Yawn. Let's face it, if you haven't lived in a violent world with a violent lifestyle where you had to use moral (or immoral) acts of skillful force every few days you don't even know what utilitarian is.
Here we go. Movement is communication. We are social animals. The tiniest movements are communicative. If you hold your pinky out when you drink a beer you are communicating something. Even if you are alone. That's why people tend to freak out when they find out someone has been secretly watching them, even if it was just for a couple of minutes. After going into complete solo retreat far away from other people for long enough, upon returning to society, one will be shocked by how much physical and mental attention goes into managing where everyone else is positioned, how they are moving, and what all those movements mean. In other words, normal everyday human activity is intense, we are just used to it. (Perhaps we could call this material "unconscious" or "sub-conscious" but...yawn...there is a lot of baggage there, and I like to travel lite.)
In the theater communication is king! and queen, and the forest and the grass and the mountains and the naked hairy wildwoman, etc. Every movement matters. The quality of every movement matters. On the stage, everything gets seen (unless it is intentionally hidden). In Chinese theater there is an expression, "The actor wears the scene on his body!" (jing jiuzai yanyuan shenshang). Yep. If a person's body is going to do this well, it requires the capacity to add and subtract tiny little details of movement. That capacity comes from being physically and mentally quiet. Standing still is key.
Ditto for religion. Who is watching us? Gods, ghosts, demons, our imaginary ancestors (hi grandma); what is it they are seeing us do? What is agency? Is this my movement or am I just walking like John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" because that was my favorite record album when I was 10 years old. Free will? Maybe, but then why do you put your pinky out when you are drinking beer?
If our conduct is connected to our morality, then how we move is a profoundly moral issue. This is a core concept of all Chinese religious expression, especially Daoism and Confucianism, yet there is hardly a better theological explanation for why Buddhist monks practiced martial arts at Shaolin temple.