San Bao

My Qigong teachers in China talked with me one time about a perspective on the 三寶 San Bao or three treasures. They explained that there were several, perhaps uncountable, lists of things that were San Bao. They said the San Bao of philosophy are Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. The San Bao of existence are 地人天 Earth, man and Heaven. They then explained that the San Bao of the self were 精氣神 Jing Qi Shen/essence qi and spirit. They drew a diagram with each of the first of the lists at the bottom rising through the others to the top, like this:

佛 天 神

孔 人 氣

道 地 精

They said Daoism relates most to the Earth and its practices are the most focussed on essence. Confucianism is focussed on the world of men and their relationships and so is the most focussed on the cultivation of the Qi between things. Finally Buddhism looks to Heaven and so is most concerned with cultivation of the spirit. They explained that each practice has its place and purpose. They are like the roots trunk and leaves of a tree, none is better or more useful than the other.

That being said they then smiled and explained to me, “Still it is the study of Dao in the natural world which is the basis of all of our practice (not everyone’s practice, the practice that they were teaching me at that time), so first you must cultivate the Jing and never leave it behind for pursuits of the mind. Always carry it forward to provide an earthly grounding upon which your practice stands.”

I received this lesson at Clear Sound Pavilion 情音閣 on 峨眉山 Emei Mountain in 1991. I’m not saying its any kind of standard or truth in Daoist practices, it is simply a lesson I was taught over a cup of tea.


The cult of mystical ignorance

A persistent theme of my work is the confrontation of problems arising from the issue of folk-modelling, also called cultural modelling, within the martial arts. We form cultural models by repeated daily interaction within a cultural context. Things become familiar and we acquire a sense or feel for how something actually is. An issue that arises repeatedly in Chinese physical culture is that we often use the terms, phrases and concepts from Chinese medicine, even though most of the people using the terminology have no formal training in the medicine. Terms and ideas get used so often that they acquire a kind of cognitive solidity and, despite being used incorrectly, reach the level of canon. “Because we mean this when we use a certain term it means this when we use it.”

These kind of tautologies are widespread and pernicious within Chinese physical culture. However, we must also face the fact that most of what happens within this culture, especially the martial arts, is just a kind of live action role-playing game in the end. There is a lot more dress-up and pantomime to the practice than most of us would like to admit. Therefore most of the time it doesn’t really matter what we say and do. Any harm that comes is usually so insignificant as to be unworthy of mention.

There is a practice that I would like to address that has been a bit of a bee in my bonnet for some time. In Qigong there is a well known exercise/method known as 小周天 xiǎozhōutiān, often rendered as “small heavenly orbit.” 小 is certainly a word that means small. 天 means the sky or the heavens or heaven; having both atmospheric and spiritual/celestial connotations. The middle word 周is more problematic.s00977 Looking at a seal script version of the character we can see it is based on the root of 中 zhōng, meaning centre. An upper mark indicates the bronze offered to an ancestor and this formed the word 用 yòng to use, as the offering brought blessings and so aptitude and utility. The lower mark is derived from an old form of 及 jí to seize or to catch, and over time scribes changed it to a mouth for reasons lost to the ages.

So the word 周 is a word that began as an expression of the centre that evolved to include the central place of sacrifice to the ancestors. Sacrifice to the ancestors is an act that brings fortune and therefore makes every activity better. It is universally useful and so becomes a metaphor for something which is all encompassing. Being all-encompassing it extends to even the outer edges or circumference of things. Because it extends to the circumference it has come to mean orbit as well. The problem with the word orbit is that it is not all-encompassing and implies a place of passage or a cycle of movement.

A quick survey of the discussion of 小周天 will show that most people describe it as a method to link two extraordinary meridians, the 任脈 Rénmài and the 督脈 Dūmài, for the purpose of increasing health. Typically the method is described as a visualization of the 氣 Qì rising up the 督脈 Dūmài and descending down the 任脈 Rénmài with the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth as a key component of the linking process. Sometimes the meridians are described as arising in 丹田 Dàntiān though it is more frequent that no references to the body interior are made. In this method the metaphor of the orbit is in full use with the focus point of the mind acting as like a planetary body on its trip around the sun.

An aspect that is often discussed as well is the idea of opening the connection between these two meridians. I am reminded of a day at the Kootenay Lake Taijiquan camp in the early 90’s when Yeung Fook (an accomplished adept if ever there was one) was visiting. Someone asked him about “opening the small heavenly orbit” and the snort of derision he gave when the question was translated to him will never leave me. He dismissed the idea by saying “Open it! You are alive aren’t you? Then its open.” I had suspicions about the practice early on and Master Yeung’s reply that summer day was the beginning of the rant that I am undertaking in this blog this winter’s day.

So what are we really talking about here? Why don’t we get past the folk models and lay out the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài, the Eight Extraordinary meridians? The 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài are a primordial substrate of the complex communication system that has developed through evolution of the organs of the interior of the body and the superficial tissues and structures of the body’s exterior and limbs. We can see manifestations of the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài in simple creatures and there is evidence to suggest that their function has largely been taken over by what we call the 十二正經 Shí-èrzhèngjīng the 12 regular meridians. Of the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài the most important are the 任脈 Rénmài and the 督脈 Dūmài as they actually have their own acupoints.

The fact that these two of the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài have their own points are a big part of the problem. Acupoints are places of peculiar activity along the pathways of the meridians. They tend to be reactive to touch or warmth or, especially, needle insertion. A convention within the organization of acupoints along the 十二正經 Shí-èrzhèngjīng is that they are ordered to generally follow the flowing pouring of the meridians. While this may seem to also be true of the 任脈 Rénmài and the 督脈 Dūmài there is a problem. This problem is that one of the things that distinguishes the 十二正經 Shí-èrzhèngjīng from the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài is that the former displays a regular pattern of flow and the latter does not. This is very important, the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài do not flow. They do have a regulating and storage function but they do not behave the same as regular meridians despite having points.

To use water metaphors, you could say that the 十二正經 Shí-èrzhèngjīng behave like rivers and streams. Flowing and pouring with areas that are broader and slower while others are fast and narrow. The 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài are more like ocean waters with oscillations of deep up-welling that may or may not appear from day to day (like El Niño).

A survey of the textual references to the pathways as they are described in the ancient classics may be useful here to show some of the problems with where people have taken the idea of 小周天 xiǎozhōutiān. In the [素問:骨空論] “Foramen Chapter of the Plain Questions (from the Neijing)” it says:

“督脈者, 起于小腹, 以下骨中央, 女子人廷孔 — 其孔, 尿孔之端也. 其絡循陰器, 合篡間, 绕篡后, 別绕臀至少陰, 与巨陽中洛者合… 其男子循茎下至篡, 与女子等. 其少腹直上者, 貫臍中央, 上貫心, 入喉, 上頤, 環唇, 上系兩目之下中央.”

This could be rendered something like :

“The Dūmài, arises in the lower abdomen, descends to the symphysis pubis, in women it enters the urethra, this hole is the urine hole’s end (external orifice of the urethra). Its net-like branching portion travels along the external genitalia (literally the “Yin tool”), unites wrapping at the perineum, wraps posterior to the perineum branching and wrapping the buttocks it arrives at the Lesser Yin (Kidney meridian), with Great Yang (Urinary Bladder meridian) its unites within net-like branch. (there is a portion here that I did not render as it is actually a review of the pathway of the Bladder meridian and its connections to the head and back. It begins at the eye’s inner canthus, up the forehead, crossing at the apex to enter and net the brain, reversing it exits and bifurcates descending the nape, down between the shoulder blades to the small of the back entering into the deep erectors it nets the Kidneys). In men it travels along the stalk’s underside, to the perineum, and then the pathway is the same as in females. From the lower abdomen it moves directly upward, pierces the navel centre, rises penetrating the heart, enters the throat, rises to the dimple, circles the lips, rises to link the midpoint under both eyes.”

One thing that stands out is that there is no specific reference to the posterior mid-line yet there is a clear outline of the pathway we associate with the 任脈 Rénmài. In this early description we see both posterior and anterior aspects in the text. If we look at the Classic of Difficulties, a later text to the Neijing that addresses issues arising from the Neijing we can see a more familiar, but simpler, outline of the pathway. From the [難經:二十八難] The 28th Difficulty:

“督脈者, 起于下極之俞, 并于脊里, 上至風府, 入屬于腦.”

This we could render as:

“The Dūmài, arises at the most extreme inferior acupoint, travels within the spine, rises to reach the Wind Palace (an acupoint at the base of the skull), enters and connects at the brain.”

Let us then look at the descriptions of the 任脈 Rénmài and then we can put them together. There is also an outline of the 任脈 Rénmài in the [素問:骨空論] “Foramen Chapter of the Plain Questions.” It reads as follows:

“任脈者, 起于中極之下, 以上毛際, 循腹里, 上關元, 至咽喉, 上頤循面入目.”

We can translate this as something like:

“Rénmài, arises centre extreme’s underside, rises through the pubic hairline, rises to Guan Yuan (an acupoint a hand span below the navel), arrives at the throat, rises to the dimples crosses the face to enter the eyes.

There is another reference to 任脈 Rénmài fromthe Neijing is found in the [靈樞:五音五味] “The Five Sounds Five Flavours chapter of the Spiritual Pivot.”

“衝脈, 任脈皆起于胞中, 上循背里, 為經絡之海; 其浮而外者, 循腹 (右) 上行, 會于咽喉, 別而絡唇口.”

This could be:

“Chōngmài, Rénmài both arise in the uterus, move up within the back, acting as the sea of all meridians and collaterals. Its superficial and exterior portion, travels along abdomen (right) moving up, unites at the throat, branches and nets the lips and mouth.”

There is also a description in the Nanjing: 28th Difficulty [難經:二十八難]:

“任脈者, 起于中極之下, 以上毛際, 循腹里, 上關元, 至咽喉.”

This last description is the same as the one found in the “Foramen Chapter of the Plain Questions” except that is does not include the last phrase describing the connections to the face and head.

I know that is a lot of stuff to wade through but lets try and frame it all together. We can see that in the core classics of Chinese medicine where we see the 12 Regular meridians, the 十二正經 Shí-èrzhèngjīng, clearly laid out and mapped in complete detail, the 8 Extraordinary meridians, the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài, are not so clear. This has led, over the centuries, to speculation and attempts to fill in the blanks.

If we look at the pathways described and put them all together we can see that they rise from the inferior of the body. We can see that they have each have both anterior and posterior pathways, though you could also read that each includes partial descriptions of the other. We can see a great deal of overlap and cross-connection with other meridians; the Bladder and Kidney meridians (足太陽膀胱經, 足少陰腎經) with the 督脈 Dūmài, and the 衝脈 Chōngmài with the 任脈 Rénmài.

So first, if we acknowledge that there is more to the 督脈 Dūmài and the 任脈 Rénmài than the simplistic superficial pathways often outlined in 小周天 xiǎozhōutiān practice, then we must question the nature of the method. We must also ask questions based on the understanding that a characteristic of the 奇經八脈 Qíjīngbāmài is that they do not flow in the same way as the 十二正經 Shí-èrzhèngjīng.

A very popular phrase within the world of Chinese physical culture is “意領氣” Yì Líng Qì, or “the mind leads the Qi.”  A more complete rendering of the phrase is “心領意, 意領氣, 氣領身” Xīn Líng Yì, Yì Líng Qì, Qì Líng Shēn, or “heart leads mind, mind leads Qi, Qi leads body.” It is an outline of the use of intent as tool within cultivation. That intent is a key feature of the methodology and development within Chinese physical culture and medicine is clear; therefore, it is no surprise the term is widely used.

Something that has come up in my writing before is the fact that the internal cause of disease is the mind.  This is the problem with using the mind as a tool for cultivation, it is very much like a Chinese straight sword, it has great reach and its two edges make it as dangerous to learn to use as it can become in battle. The mind is a powerful tool as well as a dangerous one. I often say that “Mind leads the Qi is not the instructions, it is the warning label on the bottle.”

So when a person reads a book about Qigong or studies in a class and learns the 小周天 xiǎozhōutiān practice of using the mind to follow the “orbit” up the back and down the front, carefully touching their tongue to the roof of their mouth, just what are they up to? If they are told that they have “blockages in the 督脈 Dūmài” and are instructed to use their mind and awareness to open them up, just what aspect of the ocean is blocked? If I follow the orbit with my mind am I feeling a flow or am I making it? If I expect to feel a flow is it really there just because I feel it?

Now finally to the Cult of Mystical Ignorance. I see within the Qigong and Chinese martial arts worlds many who trust information from sources that may be well lineaged, but are ignorant of the clinically tested facts of Chinese medicine. Even though their intentions may be above reproach, though there are usually economic factors involved as not many teach for free, the information they share may be grounded in ignorance. Mysticism and exotic otherness often stands in for the details in these practices and this can lead many astray.

The Small Heavenly Orbit 小周天 xiǎozhōutiān practice stands out as one that strays into very dangerous ground. If the intent is used to “move the Qi” through the orbit there are some tangible clinical effects that can result. The lifting of the Qi through the 督脈 Dūmài can lead to stagnation of Qi in the upper back and head, not really in the 督脈 Dūmài, but in the 足太陽膀胱經 Urinary Bladder meridian. This can lead to headaches, nausea, tinnitus and stiffness of the neck and upper back. The circumstances of the practitioner, what I like to think of as the “climate” of the body, may mean that there is more of an inflammatory process at work and we can see the signs of heat (熱 rè). This can lead to dramatic psycho-emotional changes, such as manic or reckless behavior. In the worst cases we can see the transformation of 走火入魔 zǒu huǒ rù mó, the “fire chasing demon.” The risk is particularly great if the practitioner also uses drugs recreationally  or for the purposes of “journeying.”

The descending of Qi through the 任脈 Rénmài can lead to gastro-intestinal problems, gynecological issues and even such things as prolapse. If it goes on too long the body can accumulate pathological metabolites which we call 痰 tàn or phlegm. Phlegm creates weird problems in the body and can lead to the lodging of heat as well, creating a 走火入魔 zǒu huǒ rù mó by another means.

It may be useful to remember that 意 Yì can mean “attent” as well as “intent.” Perhaps if we go back to the classical understanding of the 任脈 Rénmài and the 督脈 Dūmài and apply our awareness more than our intention then we will be on stronger ground. If I am aware of the encompassing nature of these meridians in both the front and the back I may be at less risk when considering 小周天 xiǎozhōutiān. As one of my teachers pointed out one day “we need to train 10 years in this varied and busy world to get to the level of internal quiet that novices started at 1000 years ago.”

I hate to see people being led astray by their practice and, even more, injured by it. I do firmly believe that knowledge is our greatest tool in 內功 Nèigōng cultivation. If we remain practical and grounded in the real accumulated wisdom of the methods we can avoid injury and move forward in confidence. We would do well to remember that the natural philosophers of ancient China left evidence of deep pragmatism and little superstition. If we don’t allow ourselves the indulgence of hiding ignorance behind mysticism then we can advance without injury.

A brief view of Neigong and Martial Arts

Cheating a little here as this was drawn from a post I made on the forum. I was asked to say something about what is Neigong.

Lets see if I can just nutshell this idea. “Between Heaven and earth is Qi and its laws; between Yin and Yang is Qi and its laws.”

“Human beings are generated by the process of heaven and earth blending their qi. Therefore, we are made of qi and can never be without it. Just like fish are enveloped by water and incessantly move their fins to swim in it, human beings are enveloped by the universe and incessantly move their nostrils to breathe in it. Human beings, therefore, always have to rely on this all-encompassing and all-transforming qi. Therefore the ancient saying: “Eat, and the physical body will be satisfied. Move, and all transformative processes will be in harmony.”
From the Huai-nan-zi 120 bce.

What they are pointing out here is that Qi is the interplay of structive potentials (Yin) and con-figurative forces (Yang). In medicine when we discuss Qi it is always the Qi of some specific relationship of Yin Yang. It is never “energy” it is a specific relationship. So when we consider internal cultivation, Qigong and Neigong what is the specific relationship or relationships that we are seeking to cultivate?

It is important to note at this point that Yin Yang are not states, like states of matter (solid, liquid, gas or plasma), they are frames of reference that can be moved, twisted inverted, shrunk or expanded. This is why when we consider Qi we should also ask “Qi of what?” The widest frame of understanding your own Qi is your mind-body complex itself.

So broadly, Neigong is the cultivation of the relationship between your mind and your body. Just saying it that way points to the problem. Mind and body, as if they are two distinct things instead two ends of a spectrum. Were do they meet? This is a serious question, and in martial arts terms a deadly serious question. If you can begin to experience the integration of the where your mind interfaces with your tissue then are beginning to reach towards the issue that Neigong tries to address.

Any bullet headed goon can be strong and fast, I direct your attention to mixed martial sports and its athletes. Great athletes, but not much martial art. Within three years any person can be trained to maximize their raw physical, as opposed to integrated, potential. The cracks in that system can be seen as they age, and not age very much. Most of them become slower rather quickly as they progress. They get more experienced and this leads them to be able to apply their methods within their arena. However, very often it merely comes down to the lucky hit or cardiovascular fitness or the first one to get a trick in. This is in stark contrast to killing arts that rely on precise powerful striking and explosive joint dislocations that must occur within a heart beat or two from the first touch. This latter skill requires much more of the whole person to be trained and addressed.

What does it mean to understand your own emotional architecture? Just as we fix our physical structures we must give as much attention to our cognitive structures. Can you really be generous, with the resources of your soul more than your wallet? Can you be truly honest with yourself and your actions? Do you put effort into winning small arguments? Do you lie to gain small benefit? Do you listen or do you wait to talk? Do you train or do you go through the motions? What aspect of your quality as a human being can you improve?

Weakness of the spirit translates into physical and physiological imbalances. What is wrong with your martial arts is absolutely related to what is in your head. To fix your heart-spirit is to fix your body and vice-versa. However, fixing the mind fixes the tissue much more obviously than fixing the tissue balances the mind. This is because the mind can unbalance itself with a speed and power the tissue cannot. This is the true difference between internal and external training. If you are not addressing issues of your character then you are (at best) getting internal mechanics without true internal power.

This is why I say the main characteristic of Neigong is honesty. Radical, brutal and raw honesty. Do not be daunted by the task, though it is a hard and steep road, for the life of a true human being/真人/zheǹ reń is the result.


No matter whether you feel the study of the 易經 Yìjīng is relevant to the study of 八挂掌 Bāguàzhǎng or not, there is no escaping the association of the style to the 8 three-lined images that the Yijing is built on. It is in the name after all. Some Baguazhang practitioners that I have great respect for are in the “it is irrelevant to the art, and even counter-productive to mention” school of thought. I can see where they are coming from as I have also met or seen the work of people who blather inanely about ancient philosophies without the slightest clue as to what they are trying to say. I have seen plenty of people who use the Yijing as the very hallmark of “exotic otherness” upon which their mystical desires are hung. Yet this seems to be yet another manifestation of the argument of practical vs intellectual; with the unspoken assumption that reading is time not spent fighting or sparring and so you cannot have a clue about martial arts “in the real world.”

Not for the first time I will say that just because someone offers an either/or proposition doesn’t mean that I will accept their framing of the world. If there is a theme to my ranting it is that these dichotomies always seem to be reconciled by applying the perspective of “and” rather than “or.” Looking at the Yijing when studying Baguazhang doesn’t necessarily mean to cast the oracle in the midst of the fight to see what the Dao is telling you to do, though I have heard that as one of the dismissals of the Yijing in Baguazhang. A couple of long ago conversations, one with Michael Smith and another with Sam Masich, led me to begin exploring a model of the Bagua that is simple, practical and usable under stress. This model has been my primary lens for all of my subsequent studies in Baguazhang, no matter the branch or style.

One of the first things is to consider how the 卦 Guà are constructed. When the Yijing was cast the mathematical calculations based on the random falling of the yarrow sticks led to a number that showed a 陽 yáng or solid line, a 陰 yīn or broken line, or a solid or broken line that was changing to its opposite. The trigrams were always built from the bottom up and so have a distinct top and bottom; this vertical quality is important for where we will go with this.

The trigrams build from the inside outwards.

The trigrams build from the inside outwards (image from Wikipedia).

The trigrams themselves can be essentially laid upon the body with each line of the gua being associated with a particular body region. The lower line corresponds to the area from the hips down to the feet. The middle line equates to the waist and ribs. While the upper line is related to the shoulder girdle and arms. Since a solid line is Yang and a broken line is Yin we simply need to be clear about how we will consider what we mean by Yin-Yang in this context. The most basic way I use this pattern is to treat Yin-Yang as hidden and obvious respectively. When we touch do I show you my structure or not? Do I let power be apparent or do I use releases and small spirals to hide behind?

So the Heaven trigram would be three solid Yang lines and I would be strongly structured and obvious when I touch; while the Earth trigram would be three broken Yin lines and so would be my most vaporous and evasive, showing you nothing of my structure and power. The idea is simple, yet it takes some concentration to pull off with a degree of consistency. It is simply an experiential metaphor that gets applied to the touch. There is little point trying to manifest this in a solo way, though it can be done, as it makes the clearest sense when under pressure.

Therefore, Heaven is all obvious, like a blitzkrieg attack; full out, no holding back, without fear or subtlety. Tactically it is the attack that is used against the tentative or weak, crushing the foes under foot. I liken this to when the hero is wading through the minions on his way to the boss battle. It is Bruce Lee in the underground in “Enter the Dragon,” one-punching foot soldier after footsoldier.

Earth is as hidden as possible; with the lightest touch creating dissolving spirals and quick footwork. When touch is maintained it is completely segmented so that nothing behind the touch can be found. Earth is the ultimate of leading-into-emptiness, with evasion at maximum and no thought of attack at all. It is the body movement of the person trying to get out the door or towards the weapon that will turn the tide. Of course it may also only be a moment of the touch that creates the opening before the counter-attack that utilizes another of the gua.

Water is a solid line between two broken lines, so the obvious manifestation is the waist. Think loose limbs and strong body. Water flows around obstacles so this is for passing guards and reaching into the body of someone who is braced-up. It is for the stiff human-tank who wants to wade in and pound with heavy shots. The hits from Water are heavy and wet, like the classic mud-palm; while the body receives the hits either by being non-compressible (think “belly flop”) or by taking the hit but dissipating the force out one of the limbs through a spiral. I suspect that my meaning is much easier to show that tell.

Fire is composed of two solid lines top and bottom with a broken line in the middle. Here the body is hidden behind the fences created by the limbs. This is where you do not let your body be touched and punish every attempt with darting crispness. Fire’s hits are not heavy, they are sudden and continuous. This is the realm of limb destructions, Chin’na and striking chains. Where Water does not care if the body is touched, for Fire keeping the body safe is the whole game.

Lake is a weak broken line above that cannot hold the weight of the solid Yang lines below. Water is the tactic of up to down. So this is the realm of take-downs and drops, like the classic swallow-skims-the-water. This is for the opponent who has too much weight forward and poor connection to his legs. As you join in you do not contend with the upper body, hiding the shoulders, while you add your weight into their structure attempting to crumple them. It is also trips and sweeps with low line kicks as the leg’s power can show.

Mountain is a solid line above over two broke lines. This is where we have a good strong bridge between the upper limbs but the waist and legs remain hidden. This style of moving provides the set-up for throws and over-turning. The idea is taking the opponent up and over, so it has a close feeling to it, where you enter and get hip to hip. It actually works against the same people as Lake, but by taking them the other direction. Instead of crushing the weakness in their structure, you tear it up out of the ground.

Thunder is a solid bottom line followed by two broken lines. The image is one of a strong start but a weak ending. Since the legs are shown but the waist and shoulders are hidden it has the quality of a burst from the ground that dissipates quickly. Here we use a shove to create distance or space. It is like the often criticized Taijiquan “push.” This has quality similar to Earth in that it doesn’t really include a good finishing attack and is going to need to turn into something else. However in terms of multiple opponent fighting this is something that I find is frequently useful as it can be used to place opponents on the battlefield. It is the toss that does no direct injury, yet can put someone another’s path or some unyielding surface.

Finally Wind is a broken line on the bottom with two solid lines above. The image is that the weak Yin line below cannot contain the strong line above. This is were we use rapid footwork with power coming from the waist and legs. I often think of the style and quality of good Aikido when I think of Wind. The footwork sets up the connected body and limbs to create projections. Where Thunder will fire you off of the legs Wind pulls you into angular momentum while stepping around you. Thunder is a landmine, while Wind is getting your boot caught in the stirrup of a runaway horse.

So this is a basic glance at the way I use the Bagua in my everyday training. It is fairly simple in idea, yet complex in application.

In from the cold

I recently had the good fortune to meet a hero of mine, Xu Guoming (George Xu), a master of Chinese internal martial arts. He was clear and precise and extremely pragmatic. His use of models for explaining stages of progression was unambiguous and intended to help any us of achieve the skills of internal power. As well, he was humble without being weak and direct in his assessments without being cruel. He really embodied the ideal that I strive for as a martial artist, teacher and human being.

I wonder if it is his background as a mathematician that leads him to explain everything within a frame of what precedes it and what follows it? Having trained with dozens of masters of Chinese internal martial arts over the years there was really nothing he was saying that I had not heard in some way shape or form before; yet his clarity and ability to contextualize the information as a part of stages of development was quite new for me. While he used many models and frames there was one thing he talked about that really struck me.

He was describing what he called “The Twelve Stages of Dantian.” 丹田/Dàntiān is a rather fuzzy concept of Chinese physical culture that seems to describe what you need it to describe depending on the circumstances. Is it physical? Is it energetic? Is it just an idea? Is it critical for understanding? The answer to all these questions seems to be “yes, except when it is no.” What can be agreed upon is that the lowest Dantain is the most important and it resides somewhere in the lower abdomen.  A common classical location is one and one-half proportional body “inches” (寸 cūn) below the navel and midway into the body from there. This is the area we call in Chinese medicine the 小腹 xiǎofù or “small abdomen below the navel.”

Xu’s description of Dantian was on the pragmatic side. He discussed the need to understand the six sides of the Dantain: diaphragm, perineal floor, obliques (left and right), lower abdominals and psoas. He pointed out that many people only focus on the 氣海 Qìhǎi acupoint on the front of the body below the navel and lose sight of the other dimensions. While his explanations of Dantian began very down to earth he still was able to bridge outwards into the more esoteric regions of classic expressions of the concept. I found his ability to frame the information, from the physical out to the energetic as a continuum, fit with my own opinions of Chinese physical culture that have developed out of my years in the field of Chinese medicine

.kevin and xu

With the idea of the abdomen as the basis of his Dantian model he went on to explain Dantian in terms of stages of development. He actually started by talking about level zero. He said people who move with pure external strength are level zero. We all know, or-have been, the martial artist who is strong, but strong in pieces. Well developed shoulders and thick neck, but not the coordination to connect from the core, so their power is much less than feared.

Once the interior of the body starts to connect and some coordinated movement begins we start to see level one. This comes from having some of the basics start to settle in. Some stance training starts to give you legs. Some push-hands or partner work starts to give a modicum of sensitivity. Most of the level one practitioner’s skill is still external power. Some of the set-up may be achieved through some relaxation but when pressed they lock up and start to use brute force. If some internal power manifests it won’t be more than 30% of the total and under stress it is mostly back to level zero.

Level two is the place where most skilled practitioners move. At this level the internal connection and the external strength begin to coordinate. In wrestling they are able to combine their power with an ability to evade and change while under pressure. The strength of the limbs is still obvious, yet it is not too rigid and remains adaptable. In striking they hit with heavy hands and again display some ability to change and adapt as the circumstances evolve. Xu suggested that this level was the usual maximum for Dantian development. Xu also called this “snake level,” and I feel this gives a pretty good impression of what this stage feels like.

Level three is an interesting one. Xu describes it as internal moves before external. To my experience this level of skill is the goal of the first form of Chen style Taijiquan/陳式太極拳 with its focus on the body leading the hands. In my experience this idea seems to remain entirely theoretical for most practitioners, yet when it starts to come there is a tangible change in skill level. This is the level where a person begins to show the talent of being able to “disappear” and manifest some the skills that are clearly identified as being “internal.” Power starts to be able to come from places other than the ends of the hands or feet and sometimes things happen that the receiver has trouble understanding. This may be the level that most people who are called Masters actually operate. It is certainly enough to be able to manifest a lots of tricks and take apart level zero and level one people at will. More dragon than snake.

So level four is what this whole blog post is really about. Level four is internal only. It is the level of 花劲 huàjīn or “dissolving/transforming power.” It is the ability to separate the internal from the external. There is a down side however, and that is that this level is manifestly weaker than the previous levels. Xu said that this is the trap. He suggested that 99% of the people who reach this level turn back because they have less power here and go back to level three or, he suggested, more often back to level two, where they can feel their own strength.

Hearing this was a life changer for me. I know these levels and have felt them all, and well over ten years ago I began to touch into level four. I got there and felt… “what?” I felt NOTHING and did not know what to do with it. It is the stage of no feedback at all, because if you are getting feedback you are doing it wrong. I am relieved to know that I never regressed to level two, but I have not really progressed for some time. The thing is, I knew I had all the tools I needed, I just didn’t know how to proceed.

Xu said that this is a necessary stage to go through and you just need to be OK with not being as good as you used to be for a while. How hard is it for us who are teachers to take a step back and allow our students to overpower us while we work on something? I can see how for some this would be an impossible investment. He also said that it is the same in form as everything you have done before, just without relying on any external at all. He said it is an important foundation but also useless in itself as it has not enough power.

So where does this go? Here is the really critical information for me. I had seen level four but did not know what it becomes. He said level five is when internal is bigger than external. He said the breakthrough is this size. What he called “dirty power” or mixed internal and external is more powerful than pure internal, but not if you can “go outside.” He suggested there is a kind of internal intelligence that can develop and that you are able to do things with internal that external cannot. So what you look for is a kind of internal volume or capacity. The more we release and let go the more we can come out from inside. The more the mind can manifest in the movement and touch and the less the meat is necessary to get the job done. In the end the internal can be far larger than the meat of the external and herein lies the its ability to conquer it.

Now level six is where he really finally began discussing Dantian explicitly and it is the stage where it begins to be the prime mover. All the later stages are about what Dantian is doing, but I am really focussing here on levels four to five.

No one I had ever trained with was able to frame the stages with such clarity. No one had ever told me that even though I was weaker at level four that didn’t mean that I was doing it wrong! I remember the first time I started to try to go there and how frustrating it was. I remember the doubt in myself and in the methodology. How much cognitive wind on the internet is devoted to the dismissal of the experience that is level four? I see time and again the affirmation that it will just get you beaten “in the real world.” Yet I have felt internal skill from more than one master. I have heard “let go of your strength” many times, yet no-one ever said what to look for once you have taken the ability to receive feedback away. I was not told that the feedback will return in a different way than before.

So here I am letting my strength go once again. This time however it is not an issue of “well I guess I should trust you ?!?” Instead I know what I am looking for. Beat on me while you can boys, if I figure this out you are all in a lot of trouble, well… more trouble. I understand the release and I will just keep letting it happen until I can figure out how to get around your power. I have spent years searching out the details of the body’s structure and can explain it in terms of bio-medicine or meridians. Now I have a map to move into the cognitive structures and it seems all I need to do is dissolve within the physical frames I have built. Exciting times.

Internal vs External

A popular debate within the Chinese Martial Arts (CMA) community is the question “is the distinction between internal and external even relevant in martial arts?”  Increasingly it seems that the consensus is that it is no longer relevant.

The discussion tends to break along two lines with advocates for resorting to vague appeals to the versions of Qi and Daoist metaphysics that they have received from their teachers; and the those who dismiss the distinction, looking at the issues of body mechanics and structure. If the choice is between incomplete cultural transmission on the one hand and pragmatic physics on the other I will choose physics every time. That being said, I have to question the distinction and ask “is that really the choice?”

I would argue that if we, once again, turn to Chinese medicine as our arbiter of the sources of the concepts expressed throughout Chinese physical culture and not merely the domain of medicine, there is a perspective which can shed some useful light on this problem. First of all let us look at the terminology, in English we say “internal martial arts” as opposed to “external martial arts.” In Chinese the distinction is between 内功Nèigōng and 外功 Wàigōng, where 内 Nèi means internal, 外 Wài means external, and 功 Gōng means the strength that comes through work. Another way that this is often framed is between 内家 Nèijiā and 外家 Wàijiā, where 家 Jiā means family and refers to school of thought and method. The 内家/外家 contrast is perhaps more relevant to the first distinction as it refers to the family of internal martial arts (Taijiquan, Xingyiquan and Baguazhang as proposed by 孫祿堂 Sun Lutang)  as opposed to the family of external martial arts; while the 内功/外功 distinction is more suitable to actual methodology.

If we look at the usage of 内 Nèi and 外 Wài in Chinese medicine a very interesting and relevant take on them appeared in the 12th century. 陈言 Chén Yán (fl. 1161-1176) in his 三因極一病证方輪 Sānyīn Jìyī Bìngzhèng Fànglùn discussed three main causes of disease (病因). He suggested there were eternal causes, internal causes and neither external nor internal. The third category is basically misadventure, such a being stabbed or infected by a parasitic worm. External causes are diseases of environmental factors creating issues of excess in the body (heat, cold, wind, damp, etc.), while the only internal cause is the seven  emotions 七情 qìqīng. So we can see that within Chinese medicine when we refer to things relating to internal we are always referring to the mind.

I would argue this is no different when we look at the distinction between internal and external methods. External methods are those which refer to physical training. This includes what may be referred to as the “internal” training for deep body connections and short power. In this context something like Taijiquan silk-reeling exercises 缠丝劲 chánsījīn are no less external than running or calisthenics for cardio-vascular fitness.  If the only thing the so-called internal training develops is a physical skill then how is it internal at all?

So what then is internal training? There are many methods used in Chinese internal martial arts that actually are about addressing issues of thought and emotion. There are training methods that challenge our sense of self and reactions to threats and pressure. For example the sensitivity training in push hands/推手 tuíshǒu should allow us an opportunity to see how we may habitually tense up or tighten when certain feelings begin in our sense of balance or proprioception.  For example, we may feel fine as long as the push hands is between our limbs, but as soon as things start to get close to our chest we get anxious and our movements become stiff and over-defensive. It is when we reach this point that we need to look at ourselves and ask, “why do I feel anxious? How much of my habitual motion is based on my emotional history, and how does my training address that?”

These moments, when our egos and our sense of self and self preservation elicits  habitual actions and defensiveness that are not actually about the truth of the threat that we are facing, are crucial opportunities to go deeper within our experiences. It is far easier to live in our regrets from the past and our fears of the future than to be present in the actual moment we are experiencing. This is the internal experience that needs to be explicitly addressed in our training. These are challenges and issues that interfere with our ability to go to the furthest depths of our cultivation and training. These issues are the ones that internal training can help us deal with. To be who we are rather than merely who we think we are.

Yes we can distinguish between simpler “external” training and more complex “internal” body control methods. We can also argue that in the end they reach the same place and so the distinction is not that useful. I would ask how does your training affect your mind emotions and character? If the mind is not explicitly considered then perhaps  there is no reason to class the training as having any internal component.

We can go further beyond emotional issues like anger or fear and ask how does our training touch into issues of ethics and character? In my previous post about violence I was reaching towards this issue. What is 武德 Wǔdè, or martial virtue? If the training we undertake has no discussion of character and the place of violence in our lives, then is it not still external? I would argue that to really get the usefulness of the internal “mechanics” of Neigong we need to also be actively and explicitly addressing issues of character and ethics. There is a philosophical basis to the framework of classical concepts such as “being like water” or “non-striving” that is not mere physics and structural tricks that can learned like any other physical skill. These methods require a change of mind, an embodiment of the philosophy to fully manifest.

To those who say there is no distinction I would ask in what way do they live their philosophy?  When we walk the walk is it just our meat out for a stroll, or does our mind inhabit our flesh, inform it and configure it?

The fierce tools of a loving heart

I remember being at a Taijiquan camp on the Kootenay Lake in the mid-90’s and being confronted by a Yogini about our swords. She was obviously put off by the idea of weapons being present at a retreat that had such an otherwise soft hippy vibe. In fact, I believe she was having a bit of trouble with my presence there as a warrior, as I was far more martial than most of the other teachers present. In no way was I the most skilled martial artist there, yet I was the most obviously martial in my focus and study.

One thing I felt from  from her was the judgement. I get it, as my own inclinations run easily to judgement and it is one of the demons that requires frequent re-leashing. She saw the violence inherent in the sword-play and the talk of cut and thrust and wondered how we could wield such awful weapons? My own bearing is one that has often throughout my life caused some women to recoil. As an autistic man my emotional volume can convey things that I do not hold inside or intend, as it seems to read as something else when my passion comes out. I have often had women see sexuality within things that are merely fascination and curiosity in me. I know that this has led sometimes to me being perceived as predatory when martial arts and passion come together, and they recoil at what they see as potential sexual violence. More than one adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse has projected their fears onto me and seen in me echoes of their abusers.

Consequently I have spent quite a bit of time contemplating just what is my relationship to violence and what is it that is satisfied when I study it? I have had to ask myself quite soberly “am I a sociopath who has simply channelled his tendencies?” Is the struggle with my own demons been mere training for an outbreak of violence? Am I going to “go postal” one day? I believe that it would be irresponsible of me to not ask these questions, yet having asked them in some way it serves to reduce the potential. I once heard a line in a television show “our minds think these things so our bodies don’t have to act them out.”

As Jiddu Krisnamurti said “We are not trying at present to find out how to dispose of violence, in a violent way or a non-violent way, but what brings about this violence in us. What is violence in us, psychologically (Saanen, Switzerland, August 3, 1969)?” So when I think back on the Yogini and her clear discomfort with the weaponry, the martial arts and with me, I realize that most  of what I do in martial arts is not the acquisition of skills or abilities; rather it is the naked baring of my soul to see the violence inherent in myself. Has martial arts made me violent? From my perspective I would say that it is obviously the opposite, I have become far less violent over time. As my potential power to express violence has increased, my actual risk of committing violence has dramatically decreased.

The fierce tools of a loving heart.

I know that the reason that I began the study of martial arts was the experience of bullying. As an undiagnosed high functioning autistic child in public schools through the seventies I was often the target of bullying, mostly emotional yet some physical as well (both collar bones broken). When I began martial arts training one thought in the back of my mind was “never again!” Over time I have come to see that this is a strong motivator for many of my colleagues on the path.  The power to preserve oneself in the face of threats and to fight back, or fight or flight, lays at the heart of this.

The relationship between fear and fight or flight is clear, even more-so when we use the perspective of Chinese medicine. The 志 Zhì or willpower is at the heart of our sense of self preservation. I often say to my students if they really want to grasp 志 then lay down submerged in a tub of water and have a trusted friend hold you under for a count of ten past the time when really need to come up for air. I guarantee that you will feel your will to survive activated. How much of the study of the martial arts is the study of our relationship to fight or flight? Time and again you will hear the lesson “relax,” yet what are we really trying to relax? How can I relax my tissue if I cannot relax my mind? How can I relax my mind if I am still acting out of fear? Fear is when fight or flight tears the 志 willpower from its moorings and seizes the mind like a captive.

This raises, for me at least, an interesting question about the application of power. How can I not take your life if I have to fight for my own? I see this as an issue that we face as martial artists if we are not going to be mere socio-paths wielding force upon the world. If I train violence but don’t want to do violence how much violence do I need to contain? If I try to train to have only the minimal amount of violence and master a way of peace do I not face the possibility that I may encounter force so strong that I cannot be ahead of it at each moment. What if I encounter violence outside my experience because I have shied away from violence? What if that is how my 志 willpower becomes activated and I kill someone out of desperation to survive?

I would argue that if we are going to overcome violence within ourselves and in the world we must face it head-on. Just as I must face my fear to overcome it I must face my violence to overcome it. This is where we come to the issue of training the killing moves and holding killing thoughts in our heads. It is not a glorification of the violence or a kind of catharsis or looking at it so it goes away. It is the embrace of the hunter and killer within my own heart. When we cross hands I am going to kill you, just in case. If I bring life and death to the table each time then I will never have to find myself outside my ability to survive. If I cross hands with a withholding of the violence then I may find myself killed, not my goal, or I may find myself having to grapple with killing or dying unexpectedly, and I may kill another through accident. I start in the killing place so that I can always moderate from there and never be led there through misadventure.

If I am standing facing death each time we meet then I actually have a circumstance were I can truly relax. If you are going to be able to face your own death you must face all death. Going to a killing place is not to say “I will kill you,” it is to say “one of us will die.” If I bring 100% of the potential and you just want to spar at 30% (or 60% when you start to lose) then I will be that far ahead once things begin. It doesn’t mean I WILL kill you, only that I CAN kill you. The thing about killing power is that takes you so far past the place where blows are traded back and forth that often there is no sparring at all. Once we move I get to the life and death place and my opponent is still looking for an opening. Not being prepared to kill and die is all the opening I need. My friend, teacher and number one inspiration to be good at martial arts, Michael Smith DTCM, once said something like, “Sparring is like dogs trying to see who gets to carry their tail the highest; real martial arts is like wolves taking down a prey animal. They are not the same.”

There is a strange and unexpected by-product of being willing to go to the killing and dying place, and that is once you are there you see your own vulnerability as readily as you can see their’s. 以我知彼 yǐ wǒ zhī bǐ translates as “through the self know others.” The study of violence is not the study of its application alone, it is also the understanding that any method that could be applied to another could be applied to you. Any injury another could suffer is an injury that you could suffer. This is the path that connects the continuum between fighting arts and healing arts. Its is the means by which we recognize that they are one thing and share a common root in life and death.

The way in which I tear a joint apart is the same set up and motions that I will take to massage and loosen bound tissue to free that joint, the only difference is the amount of time and intensity of the force applied. Killing is short time and high force, healing is a long time and gentle force. An interesting thing is that for each of these methods to be successful they both require that ability to perceive you and your circumstances. It takes no less compassion to be able to have the sensitivity to kill someone in an instant than it takes to be able to heal someone with therapeutic massage. In a strange way the study and embrace of one’s own potential for violence increases one’s capacity for compassion. If you are really confronting the existential realities of these arts and their potential for damage then you will be changed at your core. Facing death in all its facets plants our feet on the ground and levels each of us. How can one be arrogant in the face of their own death? How can one judge another who faces the same fate?

Do not confuse my love of killing arts for a love of killing. Do not confuse my  ferocity for disdain or contempt. Do not confuse my willingness to face death for nihilism. Do not confuse my swords for mere weapons of barbarity and brutality. They are the fierce tools of a loving heart.