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?