The Body We Feel

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.  


Golden Bell vs. Iron T-Shirt

Hammering a Gong Hammering a Gong

At the recent Daoism Today conference in LA, in addition to presenting my unfinished paper, I did a participatory demonstration of many of the elements of Northern Shaolin, daoyin, taijiquan, and baguazhang which are theatrical, and appear to be connected to exorcistic rituals.  Most of the responses were positive and encouraging.  I did the demonstration on the first day of the 4 day conference so I had lots of time to respond to peoples comments and to hear suggestions.  Zhou Xuanyun is a Daoist priest/monk who is married and lives in Boston.  He describes himself as Zhengyi (Orthodox Unity) but he was trained on Wudang Shan which is a center of Quanzhen (Perfect Reality) monasticism and martial arts.  His comment, which he made through an anthropologist, was that he didn't understand how I could practice both Daoist (taijiquan, baguazhang) and Buddhist (Shaolin) styles of practice simultaneously--wouldn't the training methods undermine each other?

My first response was that my first teacher's teacher, Kuo Lien-ying, practiced theater, Shaolin, taijiquan, and baguazhang.  The anthropologists loved this answer because finding an actual person who embodied both traditions and saw no contradiction in practicing them both is their gold standard.  The anthropologist view is that the continuity of culture is unbroken.  To say continuity or tradition is broken is to apply some external idea of purity to a culture which never had it.  So actual informants are king.  I may not be doing them justice but I think that is the gist of their view.  I tend to see the idea that Shaolin (Buddhist) and Taijiquan (Daoist) would need to be kept separate as a contemporary political contrivance.  But I must add here that the anthropologists are doing a wonderful job of gathering detailed accounts of living and recently passed Daoists. This is fantastic stuff.  (More on this in a future post.)

Hammerng by hand Hammerng by hand

Zhou's challenge is still serious.  He is right that the practices seem different and sometimes contradictory in methodology.  Teaching a lot of Shaolin does disrupt my bagua and taiji practices.  But I think this has less to do with method and more to do with the type of trance and energy expenditure necessary to teach kids classes.  I might just as well ask, how can a person do Daoist practice in Boston?  Isn't the chaos of urban America too much?  I would hope that the answer is no, disruptions are not enough to negate strongly held commitments.

Historically speaking, I could spin this argument a lot of different ways but taking the time right now would be too much disruption of my own practice.  Instead, I can make the argument simply and quickly.

One of the founders of the Boxer Rebellion (Yi He Quan) was a martial artist famous for his "Golden Bell" practice.  This practice was said to be the original basis for what became the much derided Boxer Rebellion claim of invincibility to bullets.  Golden Bell is still a common form of conditioning.  The term conditioning here means a method of developing resistance to, or protection from, strikes to the body.  It is a kind of toughness.

Tuning a gong Tuning a gong

The other common type of body conditioning is called "Iron T-Shirt."  Golden Bell and Iron T-Shirt are good stand-ins for the larger argument between the internal practices of taiji and bagua on the one hand, and the external practices of Shaolin on the other; Golden Bell is internal, Iron T-Shirt is external.

The methodological difference between inner/outer or Shaolin/Wudang (Buddhist/Daoist) is resolved by looking at the convergence of these two practices.  Iron T-Shirt is a process of rubbing, pounding, massaging, scraping and hitting the surface of the torso.  Over time it makes one tougher and more resistant to strikes by thickening the surface, strengthening the bones, and desensitizing one to the shock of being struck.  Over time the differentiation between outer toughness and inner softness becomes stronger and more prominent.  At that point the process begins to reverse itself.  The external surface becomes quiet while the inner softness becomes more lively.  One no longer fears strikes to the surface because the differentiation of a lively, soft interior makes it is easy to move the vulnerable inner organs out of the way.

Golden Bell works by the opposite methodology.  It starts from the inside.  One relaxes and empties the torso of all tension, initially testing the torso for uniformity as a container of qi, like casting a bell, or tuning a gong.  The density of the surface of the bell must be uniform, and the interior of the bell must be free of tension, imperfections or obstructions.  Over time, the differentiation of inner liveliness and outer stillness becomes more distinct.  Once this distinction is achieved it is tested the same way Iron T-Shirt begins, with rubbing, pounding and strikes to the torso.  If the process has been completed correctly strikes to the quiet relaxed surface of the torso do not disturb the internal organs because they can be easily moved out of the way.

Learning martial arts, whether internal or external is always a disheveled process.  No two teachers use exactly the same methods.  External and internal methods are both defined by long lists of preliminary, basic, advanced, and extra-curricular experiments or exercises.  Two different schools rarely produce the same fruition, regardless of whether they share the same "internal" or "external" designation.

I see the fruition of martial arts as a type of freedom.  People are very nearly robots, our actions are usually predictable and automatic.  Martial arts training, both internal and external, is a way to become unglued from our robot nature.  Whether we call that robot "inner" or "outer" doesn't make a whole lot of difference.

(more on gongs, here and here)

More Spirit

The other day I was playing the role of interpretor for George Xu and a boxer who was writing about him. George gave the expression "More Spirit Defeats Less Spirit," as a fundamental martial arts principle-- a principle true for all martial arts.

Now most of my readers will recognize right away that the term "Spirit" here is a translation of the term Shen, in Chinese. But anyone that tells you a particular Chinese word has only one meaning, probably doesn't know. Shen is one of those words which is sometimes used vaguely to bolster a teacher or a doctor's authority. "Do you feel the shen?" "Does he look like he has more shen now" (asked of observers after the treatment/performance). (I wrote about this idea here, the idea comes from Elizabeth Hsu, The Transmission of Chinese Medicine.)

Anyway, at first we thought George was talking about something very obvious. We thought he meant ferociousness, apparent psychic or physical superiority, a kind of prowess. Like for instance, if Mike Tyson got in the ring with Pee Wee Herman--Pee Wee would be instantly overwhelmed by Mike Tyson's spirit.

But that's not what George meant. If I didn't have a background in Daoism, I don't think I would have understood him. What he meant is that a fighter or a predator, can defeat another predator by being able to embody a wider, more encompassing focus.

A predator like a Cheetah who is focused simply on the hunt, has a plural focus. He senses movement, perhaps even the heart beat of the prey. He senses the wind and the shadows, and is careful not to let the prey see, hear, or smell him...until it is too late.

But a predator, like a lion for instance, hunting the cheetah while the cheetah is hunting a deer, will have a more plural focus. In addition to awareness of the deer's movement, the wind and the shadows, he is also making sure the cheetah doesn't see, hear or smell him.

The process of being a great hunter/fighter in this sense, is to effortlessly integrate more aspects of one's awareness. As the Huainanzi puts it, "While traveling-- to be the last one to leave camp in the morning, packing up the kitchen; and the first one to greet everyone as they straggle into the next camp in the evening... with hot water boiling on the stove." (I'm paraphrasing from memory, but you get the idea.)

In mathematical terms: The equation with more factors, is more advanced.

But why would this be called "spirit" or shen? A plural focus means to have a better sense of space, better active and dynamic spacial awareness. When George was trying to explain this, it suddenly struck me that he meant spirits plural, not spirit singular. Perhaps what George Xu should have said was: The fighter with more spirits, defeats the fighter with fewer spirits!

If I'm trapped in a room with 5 attackers, my superior spacial awareness will be tracking and adapting to all 5 attackers simultaneously. There is both a plural aspect to it and a singular aspect.

In Daoist ritual, a priest commands Spirit Troops. These Spirit Troops are both visualized and spatially felt. They surround the priest and answer to his or her commands, marching, running, charging, swirling in chaos, or standing at attention.

The highest ranking priest can have a maximum number of 75 Spirit Troops at his or her command. In the case of a married couple who are both Daoist priests of the highest rank with 75 Spirit Troops each--they are able to share their troops, so they can command up to 15O.

So here we have another clear example of high level internal martial arts being linked to Daoist ritual practice.

(I just spent about 45 minutes looking around for references on my bookshelf so that people could further explore what I just said. They are there but I didn't find them, man...Google is so much easier. Here is a site with a lot of cool stuff about Chinese religion: Singapore Paranormal Investigation. Here is a page from that site which explains Zhuxi's ideas about guishen [I believe the same term I'm using for "Spirit Troops," but maybe someone can correct me, or I'll find a good reference next time I have the time to look. Also the picture of guishen above came from that same site.)