Layers of Internal Training

(Published in the summer 2017 issue of Qi Journal)

Internal Martial Arts.  Labeling something as such requires definition of the label itself. What is meant by Internal in this context? Here it becomes even more difficult as every teacher seems to have their own variant on the definition and how it is passed on to their students. This is why I can only speak from a personal point of view on the matter rather than in broad strokes, in order to be fair to all the other possible definitions used in the martial arts world.

Internal martial arts training has three distinct levels or depths to it, none exclusive of the others but each level more difficult than the next. Wai (外) or the outside or surface level of the art is the learning and practicing of basic postures or choreography. It is what is seen by others when a person practices, what people see as Tai Chi or Bagua or martial arts in general. It is the soft, connected and flowing movements seen in masters that practitioners attempt to learn and copy. It is the part of the art that entices people to learn them in the first place and generally is the first level of understanding of the practice.

The second or middle layer of training (Zhong 中) is like the muscle under the skin of the previous layer. Deeper into the body the training goes, becoming mechanical and physiological correction of posture, origin of and cascades of movement throughout the muscularity of the body. This is the controlled, exact and deep study of the relationships within the human body. This is the study referred to in the original language as Qi (氣) which has many meanings and translations from “energy” to the more simple and pragmatic “relationship”. In either case the rippling movement and correction of posture in minute detail is indeed both a result of understanding relationships in the body and the use of energy, be it mental or physiological. The study of this middle layer relies heavily on the first layer of training as it needs a particular set of movements to initially demonstrate the errors in our postures and movement. Over long periods of trial and error the martial arts and qigong forms we see today were developed for this purpose. This tends to be the bulk of a student’s study in the arts as it is of course an unending study of the body and its relationships.

The third or deepest layer of training in this model is Nei (內) or inside, most often referred to as Neigong (內功), the bones of the training. This is the layer of training that is most difficult to undertake as it is the study of the self. Not just the deep study of the structures of the body or the relationships that are a part of our physicality but the part of us that observes the whole of our reality. Nei Gong is the study of the relationships that make up who we are. To quote my Gong Fu brother Professor Kevin Wallbridge “Qigong corrects flaws in your structure. Neigong corrects flaws in your character.”

Neigong training has many layers or depths as well as we go into the study of the self. To move from the internal martial arts and their external training (physical training) towards the “inside gong fu” (as my Master Chen Qi Ming refers to Neigong) is the first step. Here the martial side of the arts becomes very important for personal development. The questions one dislikes asking of oneself become the method. How do I feel about being able to harm someone? Am I able to reconcile the practice of a movement, in minute corrective detail, that could maim, paralyze or kill another human being? How do I feel about this? Can I, in good conscience continue to practice this art?

Many people who reach this type of training back away from the uncomfortable truths very quickly. Telling themselves that the health aspect is all they want of the art and that is why they are training in the first place. In fact most people in a Tai Chi class join with this exact mindset and feel very uncomfortable moving to this stage of training. However the fine tuning of the practice at the first and second stages relies heavily on martial application for physical posture, angles and lines of drive for force to follow to be correct. It is that level of correctness that creates the physical health benefits of the art in the first place. Ten percent correct practice only yields ten percent health benefit.

If one can reconcile the issue of martial ability and study within themselves as a way to increase their health benefit they can continue to move deeper into the “inside work” of this layer of training. The questions of being physically capable of martially injuring someone then continue to be turned inwards into a matter of morality. “Could I do this to someone? Is it alright that I am alright with that?” To paraphrase Jungian thought- without accepting our shadow selves we reject reality. Here we see the interplay of Yin/Yang in a profound and internal way within us. We are both altruistic champions and monsters and to deny either side of ourselves is to remain in the dark about who we really are. It is the balance between the two that we are seeking through training an art for health reasons that its very practice involves the mental and physical training to rend and injure others.  Compassion must be a choice rather than the only option for us to be fully empowered within ourselves. The ability to harm others through preparation for war is a powerful tool for understanding peace, compassion and a real respect for others.

This inwards training of course can continue for a lifetime. As they say “It takes three lifetimes to learn Taiji.” (unknown). The process then moves in a parallel outward direction as well. This can start with dealing with human interaction or simply experiencing reality. No matter which path is chosen first the other must become a part of the training as well during its course.

Neigong training dealing with human interaction is trained through the recognizing of the parts of the self and their apparent jobs. In the Chinese Internal arts these are referred to as the Shen (Spirit), Yi (Intellectual mind) and Xin (Emotional Mind). In many cases people are led around by their emotions as is evidenced by statements like “He made me feel…” The training is through questioning and realizing that outward stimulus does not make one feel anything or any particular way. It is the emotional response to that stimulus that is the issue. Our emotions are a powerful part of being human, yet should not run our entire lives. Asking “Why do I feel this way?” can cut through a great deal of the cloudiness of our internal emotional selves. We realize that many times anger is based in our fears, our sadness or anxieties are based in not living in the present moment and so on. Asking ourselves uncomfortable questions about our emotions is the path here to studying our relationships with others. If we have a problem with authority is it a result of those person’s actions, our emotional response to them or past trauma? But I digress.

Our interaction with reality is another extensive level of training. Not how we fit in to society or our own social groups, which is the previous type of training, but reality itself. We as human beings tend to assume and miss a great deal about our present moment.  Seeing reality for what it actually is, is the goal here. Beginning with questions for ourselves like “What is the temperature in this room? Is it hot, cool, uncomfortable? Is there air movement?” These types of things go by unnoticed throughout our lives and becoming more and more aware and present with them changes our relationship to the world around us and allows us to see it more clearly. “What do I hear in this room? In this building?” or turning inwards again “Can I hear my own heartbeat? The sounds of my digestive tract?” These things are always taking place and yet we ignore them, generally to project our thoughts into the future or past and ignoring the present and the reality in which we live.

When we practice our art we have the time to work deeply on these types of things. Our forms or exercises give us the time to look directly at all these levels of movement, thought, emotion, structure, relationship and time. It is overwhelming and this is why teachers generally introduce these levels to students piece by piece rather than confuse and side track the current level training. But as a practitioner you are in control of what you are working on at all times. While there are many other examples of nagging layers and questions to study other than what I have written here they are all findable to the person who is dedicated to self-work. Finding balance in conflict is the martial arts method, not ignoring the demons we all possess yet not embracing them either. Balance is the method that leads us closer and closer to what some might call “enlightenment”.

But it is only through careful conscious study we have a chance to approach this type of training. I ask you to ask yourself what it is you are training when you are training. Internal martial arts are already practiced at its lowest level worldwide. It is up to us to do the hardest work of all individually. Learn to see the lies we tell ourselves for our own comfort and try to dispel them as best we can. Reality is harsh and as such we too must be iron willed in our approach to perceiving it.

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