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.


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