Diary of a Failure (Part 2)

Disclaimer

One, this post isn’t finished yet (see: Part 1). Two, I’m looking for things to criticize in order to try and justify his failure and my own desire to continue practicing. Therefore, most of this stuff is stuff you might not care about in a normal situation. I may have intentionally misread or misunderstood the details of what was going on in order to paint what he said as contributory to his failure. Three, and again, he did not actually fail at anything. I am sure he is very successful now, albeit in another field.

Almost “Getting it”

It was ten years ago today that my friend finally discovered his own Qi. Good for him. He had a quantum breakthrough understanding of his martial arts. That is good. But several strange things happened over the ensuing years which bothered me. He would complain of strange injuries he would get from forms and pushing hands. He would pull a muscle in his hand while kicking. He would have an inexplicable problem with his hand or arm joints in push hands. In hindsight I view this as a sort of “chi sickness”. My theory is that he was involved in too many arts. He probably picked something up, some sort of general understanding, but it was not deep enough and his familiarity with tai chi (etc.) simply was not there. Many key points of internal and neijia training were simply not there or were very unclear. For example, I remember once when we discussed the importance of forms. He did not understand the concept of why the form was so important. I recall reading the Tao Te Ching, chapters 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 17, and many others, speak of the way to practice Tai Chi. But somehow he did not seem to have learned these lessons, or lacked a teacher who was able to explain them — either in simple terms or from the classics. As a result, he had many troublesome points of understanding. Yet he worked so hard. I wondered, if it would be enough for him.

No respect for Kung Fu

In retrospect I think I can sum up many of his problems from pulling one idea out of the part 1 post. He had very little respect for traditional ways. In Dai Family Xingyiquan there is a saying, “Three years of standing, and two years of walking”. This refers to the incredible amounts of time required to train the internal shenfa and come to properly express it in taolu. My friend would always say that was bullshit. But there is a strange truth to it. Some things cannot be rushed, and often even when one feels he is making progress, he is not. Sometimes it comes in waves and doesn’t mater what you know or what you trained. It is in those moments I myself have realized that the only thing that mattered is that I was training for a certain length of time, at a certain intensity. Hard work over time. That was the only factor. But before such a realization it always seemed so important what I was training. Perhaps it is a combination of both. One cannot leave out the kung fu or getting it is impossible.

For me, personally, I am scared that if I put in the hard work it will be fruitless. This is because I am older now and if I fail in this try I only will have one more chance, at best. It is different for me than for someone younger. Perhaps being younger my friend had a more careless attitude. Perhaps this youthful reckless carelessness was the culprit. At least, a contributor.

The Fall

Looking back I can identify the first major fall he took. He began filling in the blanks. Once it became acceptable to him to make judgements about how past masters trained, and the time and effort they put into their kungfu (a point I will touch on in one of my next posts) it was also acceptable to start making things up about how internal arts worked and how they were supposed to function. Since he could apparently “feel his qi”, this made him an expert on almost everything, and he closed himself off from future learning.

I remember one event in particular when we were discussing how jing and shen was taught in taijiquan and he told me that you absolutely must be taught the specific visualizations for the particular series of jings at every stage of the tai chi form. This, obviously, is rubbish to anyone who knows taijiquan at a higher level. There are no such visualizations which are required for anything. I’d always known this to be bleed-over from other arts and qigong sets. But he believed it and felt that any tai chi that didn’t have visualizations of jing and so forth was a waste of time. He also didn’t believe in practicing the form for more than one hour a day. It was difficult to talk to him at this point because he was more interested in just spewing out whatever came into his head about tai chi and internal martial arts. It was already too late to reach him. I wasn’t skilled enough to show him either. This was my failing, a failing I one day hope to recover from. It will be a difficult task. One of the things he began doing shortly before the end is criticizing multi-decade Tai Chi lineage holders for how they practiced. I knew then it would not be too long before he gave up. He had lost his connection to the source. Maybe he would land safely in xingyi — maybe he would catch some Dai family and it would shake him up a little. I didn’t know, but I had hope.

Missing the point

My friend began to miss the point. Why was he doing the form? What was it supposed to do, exactly, Why train sword? Why do push hands? It’s just wrestling right? Look at all these people pushing and shoving. This is the way to get what works? Soon he became so disillusioned he had to take a break. I didn’t see him for about two weeks. When he came back he confided something in me which I will never forget. He told me he didn’t really get it. He told me he didn’t really understand the internal arts. That whenever he got frustrated in push hands against someone who was far above him in skill he would try to win with external techniques — roughing it up a bit so to speak.

There is another thing that struck me about him. Throughout all of this time he would give a running commentary on his blog about why people didn’t get internal arts, how they didn’t have a good teacher, weren’t introspective enough, how certain people were no good because of x y or z, how Western people could never understand kungfu and why, and so on. But all of it applied to him. Read another way it was almost a confession. I began to feel sorry for him. If only he would listen to me. I could teach him everything. It was so simple. So easy. All he had to do was trust me. But he had already made his decision. I could tell in his heart he was preparing the way for him to admit he did not believe that IMA were even real.

The Reprise

My friend suprised me. He began an in-depth study of past masters. He read everything he could get his hands on. He talked with people. He went and met people. Through this he met a sifu he eventually baishi’d to a year or so later. He gave it one last shot. I was relieved. I thought this time, he would do the work, this time, he would listen to his teachers, this time would be different. But shortly after he had begun with his new teacher he began telling me many stories of Chen Man Ching’s secret teachings, secrets of the Yang family, Tai Chi secrets and so forth. Facepalm. Now he was being led down the garden path in an entirely new way. I knew if this continued, when he fell flat on his face he would finally break. This time he would feel lied to, defrauded, and perhaps rejected. Now that he had been let in on some lineage’s “secret” qigong (oh boy… eyerolls extreme…) there was no turning back. If he didn’t “get it”, then it must not exist.

He really bit in hard. He reversed his position on science being applicable to CMA and qigong, he idolized past masters, and he searched for wisdom wherever he could find it. After all this time he had finally been taught the very basic push hands exercises for ting jin in a somewhat proper manner. No bullshit. But to him it was new, an eye opener. Perhaps because of this he was unable to accept it’s importance.

Some part of him just didn’t agree. Ultimately I think he decided deep in his heart he just didn’t “believe” — whatever that even means. And he said so. He was calm and cool about it. He confided to me my worst fears. All along, he thought the IMA and it’s training methods were complete bullshit. I asked him what he was doing baishi’d into a lineage that did all three major IMA. I’ll never forget his answer:

This is real Tai Chi, we don’t go in for any of that “secret” bullshit.

We use force as well as emptiness. It’s yin and yang. Not all yin like those other Tai Chi people. We spar in push hands and we spar using valid techniques from many CMA.

I was dumbstruck. In one fell swoop he threw out all the traditional training methods, all of the word formulas and songs, the concept of qi, proper relaxation, nuturing the small, mind intent, qigong, and so forth. And what did he replace it with?

Basically? Wrestling, shuai jiao, judo, I guess, in a word. Basically his practice was to mimic the external forms and go through the motions in push hands, until he felt some opening and then use hard, external force to apply technique. He would take moves directly out of shuai jiao or judo and use them with or without the opponent’s consent. He had no idea of “leader” and “follower”. He would just resist, and use the shock of it to distract (feint) and set up a throw. He was at this point beyond reach and beyond help because although he had some experience with qi and sensitivity, his tai chi had become permanently corrupted by what he knew from other arts. In a sense he was unable to let go of his other knowledge and learn the tai chi way. He wanted to learn HIS way, which was picking and choosing whatever move, shape, form, or energy he could from everything he knew and putting it into push hands like it belonged there. He didn’t even understand the point of push hands. It was a total train wreck. About this time, we stopped talking. That was many years ago. Most of this post comes from remembering what he wrote on his blog.

From what I remember he lost a lot of friends over his decision, actually. A lot of the more traditional people he hung out with began to stop talking to him. About this time he would start to go more and more back to judo, aikido, and finally MMA classes. He had made a strange decision, despite being baishi’d, to leave his lineage and study Judo and MMA. Hey whatever works. I am not calling him a traitor and I don’t think he made a mistake necessarily. I don’t want to paint it like that. But in the ensuing years, as his blog transformed into MMA central, and then died, I kept wondering;

Why did he Quit? Why didn’t he get it? Am I a fool for believing? Did he know something I didn’t know?

Ultimately as I look back on his life and the things he was involved with I come to three very distinct conclusions about why he quit IMA after being so deeply involved with it. Why he felt it was useless. Why he made a switch.

  1. The culture of IMA, Tai Chi in particular, is not appealing. Frankly it is difficult to find good push hands partners. Many tai chi people do it for health. Etc. Not conductive to your average martial artist.
  2. He simply did not put in the required effort. Unfortunately this is more true than he and even I would like to believe. The fact is, money matters to a lot of people. And as it is said, it is dangerous to try and become stronger. If you fail, can you support your family? Not everyone can train six or even four hours a day. We have jobs and families. For some it is possible but they would rather play their videogames, have their guitar or their piano, or have their friday nights our with the boys. Some people just like drinking and smoking. Some people just don’t really want the kung fu. They would simply rather do something else.
  3. He did not specialize. Kungfu requires specialization and true honestly not just with oneself but a with a deep understanding of the theory and practice of the art. How much history did he know? How deeply did he understand Tai Chi (or any one of the literally 10 different arts he was interested in)?

In the end I believe these were the three greatest contributions to his failure as an internal martial artist.

Within a year or so after getting involved with MMA he quit MMA and closed his blog. He doesn’t come around here anymore. I don’t even know if he lives in Taiwan anymore.

I wish I was strong enough to help him or to show him a better way. But I am not strong, I am just a beginner.

Wu Style Six Stages

At 14:00, the following is said: ‘Tai Chi has six stages. Form, stance, will, chi, power and spirit.’

I like this way of explaining progress in Taijiquan and I find it to gel nicely with what I was taught in the other three major styles. I find it has a particular emphasis for beginners which is helpful. I think this formula should become more well known especially because of that — it helps beginners see not only where they should go, but helps them see where they are now. Thus it is accessible and thus more useful than some other formulas, for beginners.

勢 意 氣 勁 神

Here is my explanation of each word in the formula.

(xíng) – Shape (form)

First the beginner must learn the form. This means the person knows the basic long form and can execute the movements to a certain degree of flavor with a minimum of aji. In short, the beginner is able to practice the form on his own for his own benefit.

(shì) – Stance (power; force; tendancy)

In this stage the player is no longer a true beginner but knows the form well and works on understanding the form a bit better. This can take many forms. Perhaps they do a little standing meditation or qigong to accelerate form development. Perhaps they work on breathing. Perhaps they learn settling or posing techniques from their instructor. In any case, from the tendancy to do the movements over and over comes a familiarity, a second level, where the student becomes extremely comfortable in the form and begins to express that familiarity in various ways.

(yì) – Will (mind; intention, attention)

When the student begins to pay attention to his body naturally (since he no longer needs to consciously remember how to do the form step by step) he may focus on the internal sensations he gets. How this is done is a matter of taste and style but I am of the school that they should be observed but not touched, other than to stay relaxed and serene (i.e. ‘attention’ to the inner workings). This is what it means to put your mind on your movements and to think about your body and to use your mind during practice. During this stage the player may begin to notice sensations of qi, but they will only be glimpses and shadows until the player can reach the next stage.

(qì) – Chi (gas)

Sun Jian-Yun’s lecture on Nuturing the Small is a great way of understanding this stage. Once the player has begun to put his mind on the movements this is the ‘collecting’ and ‘merging’ stage. In this stage one can use the mind to increase density.

(jìn) – Power (strong, unyielding, tough, powerful)

Practicing properly in-line with qigong development will lead to the stage of various jins. It is then possible to accquire ting jin, etc.

(shén) – Spirit (refined martial spirit)

Once one practices with, learns, accquires and then forgets the various jins, another level is reached where jins are no longer an important mechanic. From this stage you can explore the true skills and mechanics in Taijiquan.

Thoughts

I think that it is interesting that in any such formula as this the basic assumption is that it is the result of doing the long form and push hands over time. Yes, you build on each level, but ultimately it is the result of long form practice.

Disclaimer

This is just my personal take on it. I don’t do Wu style, but I would sincerely love to learn. I’ve probably made some errors in interpretation compared to how the Wu family teaches this.

Diary of a Failure (Part 1)

A certain friend of mine, who started on down a similar path of honest exploration and development in the world of Chinese Internal Martial Arts, shall remain nameless.

He had studied under several people who should have otherwise known what they were doing.

It certainly seemed as if he was checking all the boxes. Doing all the forms. Pushing hands with all the right people.

But over the years, I began to notice a serious problem developing. And then came the end. He gave up Tai Chi and began practicing what might otherwise be called external martial arts.

Without getting into too many details I will record my general impression of what happened solely based on what I read on his now defunct blog.

Disclaimer

One, this post isn’t finished yet. Two, I’m looking for things to criticize in order to try and justify his failure and my own desire to continue practicing. Therefore, most of this stuff is stuff you moght not care about in a normal situation. I may have intentionally misread or misunderstood the details of what was going on in order to paint what he said as contributory to his failure. Three, and again, he did not actually fail at anything. He is very successful now, albeit in another field. Finally, this is a work in progress. I’m not even half done.

Did not recognize the value of learning more than one form of Taijiquan.

No biggie. But I noticed it. I personally know three different styles of Taijiquan and within that I know at least two different forms in each style. I can tell you that I have received incredible value in each style. When I initially went from Yang to Chen I thought I could leave Yang style behind forever, but I was wrong. I now see value in some of the moves that merit practice. Then when I learned Sun style I thought it was next to useless, but as I learned it I realized how valuable it was. I also have learned variations of several forms, especially in Chen style and moreso in Yang. I see incredible value in these experiences. However, this person did not at the time see any value in more than one or two long forms. I will also point out that this person showed a strange lack of awareness and appreciation for the history and development of Taijiquan as it was passed down through the Chens, Yangs, et cetera, through the Japanese invasion, Cultural revolution, etc.

All over the place in other arts.

Perhaps most strikingly ironic was that he was learning a great variety of martial arts and non-related practices such as Yoga, Xingyi, Bagua, whatever. You name it! He eventually found himself baishi’d into a lineage that practiced a series of different martial arts as well. Not suprising. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, it can be done. But based on several things he said on his blog it was very clear he did not have a firm foundation in the theory and practice of the basic shenfa of the arts he was practicing. I would say he had a wide but not deep experience with the arts he did. Even so, the width of his experience had holes in it that began to show in strange and unexpected ways. Several of the things he commented on showed a lack of experience and knowledge one would expect from someone who had done a lifetime of research into the available material. For example, he apparently was one of the “doesn’t believe in qi” people. I am certain the amount of cross-pollination he was willing to do was limiting his development in any one style.

Fundamental lack of information and knowledge of Qi.

One of the most striking things I picked up on was that this person wrote and explained things like they had absolutely no idea what Qi was, even going so far as to give a throw in of support of sorts with the Martial Tai Chi/Joanna Zorya crowd. This was the first major red flag that something was up. Someone in this person’s position should have already reached that level of development. The confusion over it told me something was very likely wrong with the training regimen. The funny thing is that he seems to say that he has felt qi before, but with the caveat that qi is subjective, and that what he has felt he doesn’t want to explain because it’s different for everybody. In a way I am still undecided on his Qi experiences, but remaining unsold is a strike against him here. The final weight was the way in which he would ask questions and puzzle over certain topics as if he didn’t know the answer and then, in the end, fail to provide a clear and strong answer to that same question. When I see people doing this I call it “puzzling”, or “fishing” for answers. I feel that they do it because they feel unsure about what they know, which tells me they haven’t put in the time and effort to figure it out, or haven’t been taught properly, or both. Of course, I can’t see into his stomach so I don’t know what he really ate. Just an impression.

Strange Fascination with applying Western Science to Chinese Martial Arts

Over and over I noticed that a lack of knowledge of the traditional way was being replaced by (or fueled by) a desire to re-examine the traditional way and understand it in the manner of western scientific thinking, Western sports-medicine knowledge, and so forth. I will explain another time why this is a damaged approach in order to keep this post short. Remind me if I forget.

Promotion of “Free-form Shoving Hands” in the guise of Push Hands

Several times he would comment that what amounted to yanking, bracing, clinching and and shoving was good push hands. A second major red flag. This is particularly ironic since he claimed to have some skill and success in push hands when practicing vs. various people (despite his inability to produce or feel qi). However again I will caution that when pressed he seems to give an explanation of push hands which is in-line with what it says in the classics. It’s odd, that there seems to be a sort of blind inclusiveness to his writings on push hands — as long as it isn’t direct force against force with tension supporting the force, it is useful.

Fascination with Technical Details

One thing which popped out at me was a repeated over-analysis of technical details, which showed me he was stuck at a clear-force / obvious expression stage.

The Kettlebell

Just a cheap little 12kg Kettlebell
Say hello to my little friend.

I’ve been interested in Kettlebells for quite some time as a sort of weight training device which was closer in principle to Taijiquan than dumbells, barbells, and larger weight equipment. Promises of training the “core” were what attracted me, and the “whole body” workout you could get with just a couple of simple exercises really appealed to my knowledge of Taijiquan. However I was (and remain) skeptical because I know what spot training will do to me and my precious sensations during practice.

So I bought a 4kg kettlebell to try it out, then quickly realized that was a mistake because I should start with a heavier weight. This 12kg kettlebell is on the low end of recommended starting weights for an adult male. So I’m going to try a basic “simple and sinister” workout. Ten sets of ten swings and five sets of two Turkish get-ups (one on each side).

I’ve already noticed, however, that I bought the wrong kettlebell. This one’s horns are too wide to do halos. I mean, I can do the halos, but it bothers my hand. It’s kind of annoying. The kettlebell was less than $1000 NTD (about $30 US) so it was relatively cheap, no big loss, and it’s still a great looking kettlebell. It will just annoy me to buy a different one. Even if I use them together I am betting one will be slightly heavier and it will annoy me.

Well, that’s life. I guess I’ll buy a different brand of kettlebell when I start looking for a heavier bell.

The New Place

It took a month of searching but finally the new place is ready. It’s a 1,300 square foot area, training area about 1,000 square feet. I could teach five or ten people in here. Currently I have one student who comes once a week, which is something, but I think I will express to him that he should come more often. Maybe I will just offer him to come every day.

In the month since I came back from Toronto I didn’t practice very often. The shock of a new environment once again dragged me back into old patterns. However I have many things to look forward to. I don’t smoke or drink anymore, at all. Before I would smoke and drink only a little bit. But at this time it is all gone. This is a great headwind for me but it will be temporary, I must work hard. Second, of course, I have my new place and the teachings I have received. One, what I have been taught is still with me, I can do it. Also I know I am willing to push myself to practice and remember it all. But this door that my teachers have given me is a difficult one. I can get back to where I was and perhaps go further this time but it will not be easy. As I work myself into this new way of living there are two things I meditate on. One is the difficulty of my new path. A fellow player wrote it on his blog and I would like to share here.

It is said that a teacher can only lead one to finding the door.
Its up to oneself to walk though it.
One must be clear otherwise many years of practice is of no use. It may take many tries to find the right door.
Often its not the door we think or want.
Its the door that is, waiting.
Out there with out thinking or wanting… its there. Like the broom waiting for one to put it to use. Not quite finished the sweeper of the mind, waits for the mind it sweeps.journeytoemptiness.com “Finding the door”

This helped me remember some of the things my sifu said. Such as, we must always remember our goal and not to get distracted by other things. It’s one of my faults.

Another thing which has been troubling me for some time, which I call ‘the poisoned cup’. It is a surprise, a bonus post, which appears within this one.

The Poisoned Cup

What is Taijiquan? Every time I visit a different school I get told something completely different. My first teacher, Patrick Kelly, told me that he would teach me Taiji but first I must learn Praying Mantis and Eagle Claw kung fu. Why? Because without a solid grounding in external arts, I could never master the internal. This made sense to me and I had read it in other places. I also knew something of Chen style Taijiquan, having practiced Yang and derivative forms of Taijiquan on a daily basis for quite some time (about three years). With gusto I began my training and I learned two forms, the 18 hands and eight step linked fist. I loved these forms and I learned quite a lot of applications for them. Sadly I had to leave Winnipeg, because I was quite young and not in control of my own life. But I vowed to understand Taijiquan at some point.

Years later I found myself in places like Eddie Wu’s Taijiquan academy, Ji Hong Taiji College, Andy James’ school, the Jing Mo guys on Augusta (great guys, BTW, thank you all), and various groups in the park. The park people were mainly a place to ‘just do it’ for 2 or 3 hours in the morning. Everyone taught a little differently. Different jibengong. Different qigong. Different forms. I began to notice a few things. Today I will talk about one of them, tomorrow maybe another.

We do it this way because we don’t understand what is really going on

The first thing I noticed is that people at the student and ‘new instructor’ level (5-10 years) generally did their forms one way and it was the one true way things should be done. But not because they knew how to teach or do Taiji. It was because they didn’t know. They became locked into a certain way of doing things because their master taught them that way and out of a personal lack of commitment they never picked up on what was really going on. After a very long time I realized this kind of instruction could no longer teach me anything. Even for a long time I just sat around learning different variations of the Taiji form. This kind of stubborn, almost ignorant patience paid off however for three important reasons.

a) (most important) I got a lot of practice in. And it was all ‘Tai Chi’, my taichi in the end.

b) I was exposed to a variety of frames, so I learned to look for something behind the frame to tie everything together.

c) I met a lot of people, including some non-taiji people, who had some interesting skills to share.

In particular with c) I met a tachi preying mantis group which did a 108 taichi preying mantis form. These people had an exercise which is commonly known in Canada from another school. In this ‘other’ school they do not know what the exercise is for. However with just a few minutes of coaching from this group I was able to experience chi flow from my dantian out to my hands and back. This experience was one of the crowning achievements of my Taichi career, however as someone who was still not in control of my life I was unable to grasp and hold this experience.

In particular with c) I met a xingyiquan and yiquan master who taught out of the basement gym of a school on Beverly street. He was able to feed me jing. Quite an interesting experience and something I will remember and be able to work on in the future.

In general I began to realize the commonalities of neigong work and what neigong work was really all about via these experiences and my own personal study. And I realized that for most people even at this level they were not clued in to the particularities and specialties of Taijiquan but had instead fallen down into a wrong path (and there are several). This is a dangerous wrong path for people because it feels like you are making internal progress (and you are!) but it is just not the internal progress of Taijiquan. And you can’t get out unless you go back to the basics and double down on your practice time. You wont find out unless you find out for yourself. I look at these experiences as stepping stones along the Taiji path because I think getting your internals woken up to some degree is something you need to do before you can really understand why tai chi does things in a certain way. Before that point you don’t know and you are too easily misled by others.

But this is not the poisoned cup. The poisoned cup is the great number of tai chi people today who can’t even get to this point because they very impatiently mix taijiquan with other arts that go in a different direction (see above). And they don’t practice enough to get anything anyways. So their cup is poisoned, the information they give is poisoned, any success or gong they get is poisoned, and they are shocked and often insulted when you try to tell them what is really going on, what tai chi is supposed to be. They think they know. But they don’t know at all. The cart has gone before the horse. Reaching for the far and disregarding the near.

To be fair I am still working out what Tai Chi is supposed to be, but I have been set on a certain path in opposition to contrary teachings. I’ve become the mind that waits. I owe it to myself and my teachers to fully explore the path I have been given before once again branching out and seeking the truth elsewhere. Who knows, I may find it this time. But it is the years of doubt, of waiting and wondering, crying, difficulty searching, only to be told in the end I am still not ready (but I knew that).

It’s just that this time, I finally have not just the information and the path, but the means to explore it. Everything has come together. This is what I have been waiting for! With what I have I will be able to explore the future. And then, finally, there will be peace.