A Way of Life
Where the external arts teach aggression, the internal arts focus on relaxation of body as well as mind. In the internal arts, clear intention is paramount, but that intention is not held in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). It is the result of mindful presence and years of practicing for hours a day.
I originally talked mostly about tai chi chuan on this page because of my long history with it. In the spring of 2018, as I turned 71 years old, I began training in internal wing chun in the Chu Shong Tin lineage under Nima King. A year later, I am now teaching siu nim tao–the form that is fundamental to wing chun in the course Mindful Body, Compassion, and Flow at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California.
Most people think tai chi consists of the slow motion forms that are now taught in classes everywhere. However, those forms are a training tool and not the martial art of tai chi chuan. The same is true with all forms of kung fu, karate, and the popular kickboxing classes; without the sparring, none of them are martial arts.
In my younger days, I practiced a few complete martial arts, training almost 20 hours a week for several years; today, my only involvement is the daily practice of the tai chi form and the siu nim tao wing chun form, and weekly wing chun chi sao with training partners who are able and willing to take it very easy on this old man.
The mindful wing chun that I teach is about practicing a mindfulness-based way of life that revolves around giving 100% to every activity throughout the day without any aggression, striving, or grasping. There is no focus on achieving anything. This commonly results in a high degree of success in every endeavor. Even when things don’t go as planned, this approach means that situations that would otherwise be judged as failures are actually appreciated as learning opportunities.
The greatest learning comes from the willingness to lose in various life (and martial) encounters. Traditionally, this was known as being willing to invest in loss. This philosophy and approach to life leads to life mastery.
From this perspective, striving and grasping for a specific result are often counterproductive and in contradiction to any type of mindfulness practice. If you learn how to recognize all the mindless chatter spewed out by the brain and you learn how to mindfully return your attention to your task at hand, you increase your odds of being successful. This is true for work, play, and relationships. (back to top)
A Lifelong Process
The tai chi and wing chun forms do not take long to learn. However, my tai chi teacher, Grandmaster William CC Chen has been teaching since 1952 and says he is still learning when doing the form every day. Personally, I find doing my tai chi and wing chun forms each day to be extremely satisfying, in that, I am always learning something new. To a beginner, the form appears the same every day, but once you no longer need to consciously think about the various movements of the forms and their sequence, you will find that new things are learned constantly, and that it continues to influence how you literally move through your day.
(back to top)
My Tai Chi Form Demo
The form I am doing in this video is the empty hand form of Grandmaster William CC Chen, which is a slightly modified version of the form taught to him in the late 1940s by Professor Cheng Man-Ch’ing in Taiwan. In 1980, I was impressed with Master Chen so much that I gave up everything I had previously learned from Master TT Liang in order to train with Master Chen. In the video below, in order to make it easier to see all my movements, I made them larger than the way I normally do them.
Meaning and Purpose
Living my life in harmony with the wu wei (non-doing) principles of Tai chi chuan and internal wing chun provides a sense of meaning and purpose to my life.
(back to top)
Mindfulness in Motion
This is a way of practicing mindfulness without it seeming like formal practice. Any physical movements can be a source of play, which help us to live in the moment. Forms practice can be a practice of playing with being fully alive, aware, and present throughout the day.
This mindfulness in motion practice is similar to traditional sitting mindfulness practice, except that you will be getting exercise as you are practicing mindfulness. This is important, given the new information on the dangers of being sedentary and the importance of moving throughout the day as much as possible. Throughout the day, putting your conscious attention on every step and every physical motion, you will gradually reprogram your entire nervous system. Thoughts of all kinds will come into your conscious awareness. As they do, the practice is to consciously return your attention to your physical movements—whatever they are, from moment-to-moment.
Good practices to ask yourself throughout the day, in all physical movements:
- Am I over my center of gravity?
- Am I fully aware of my immediate environment?
- Am I fully present with the activity at hand?
- Is my mind (and intention) in my body-center (rather than in my head)?
- Am I relaxing downward and expanding my spine upward?
- Am I practicing mindful relaxation?
- Is my breathing diaphragmatic?
- Am I practicing symmetry with equal attention to left and right?
Cultivation of Awareness
Every time I practice the tai chi form and wing chun forms I try to stay fully present and every time I come to the realization that my mind had wandered, I gently, non-judgementally return my attention to the form.
(back to top)
Interpersonal Relationships in the Internal Martial Arts
Tai chi and internal wing chun are based on the philosophy of wu wei (non-doing or not striving). It is about yielding rather than meeting force with force. It is a practice of going with the flow. This does not mean allowing others to take advantage of your good nature. It is about resilience—the ability to bounce back. When others push against you physically or verbally, you are more likely to have a satisfying and productive exchange when you yield rather than resist. Yielding is not the same as giving up or giving in. Yielding could simply mean listening and reflecting back what the other person said, as opposed to getting defensive. Once you yield in this way, the other person will be considerably more open to hearing your side of the argument. The aggressor very soon loses interest in attacking you when you remain calm and non-defensive. Personally, I have found that this also works when attacked by an aggressive dog; you may sustain a bite, but the dog will not continue to attack a person who is truly calm and assertive. Whereas, an aggressive defense only causes the dog (or person) to become even more aggressive.
Through tai chi chuan, internal wing chun, you learn to hold yourself in a more relaxed and open posture—both physically and mentally. This results in others (and animals) feeling safe around you. In addition, holding yourself in this mindful, relaxed stance helps you to feel more open to and accepting of others.
(back to top)
This mindfulness-based approach to tai chi and internal wing chun results in the ability to introspect without judging. When you become aware of self-judging, tai chi allows you to mindfully, physically relax into those harsh, self-critical thoughts. Resistance to and suppression of such thoughts only strengthens them, whereas acceptance of them results in diminution of self-critical thoughts.
(back to top)
The internal wing chun that I teach at College of Marin (Community Education) in the Mindful Body, Compassion, and Flow course results in mindful (energized rather than limp) relaxation on a very deep level, and this includes the ability to relax in the face of physical or verbal aggression. From a relaxed stance, you will be able to respond spontaneously and in a productive way. Anyone can relax while sprawled out on the couch. This practice teaches how to relax in the face of conflict. It involves freedom of movement in your body and mind. This freedom is very energizing.
Much of the stress we live with is the result of lifelong habits of holding various muscle groups tight for self-protection, which is not only dysfunctional, but actually reduces our sense of aliveness and wellbeing. Daily practice of the siu nim tao form is a method of learning how to become aware of unhealthy bodily tension and to be able to release it.
(back to top
Self-Mastery and Control
Ironically, the more you learn to yield and relax in stressful situations, the more you will actually be in better control over your life. A sense of being in control over your life is one of the attributes of the healthiest and happiest people. Once you begin to incorporate tai chi or internal wing chun throughout your daily activities, life will begin to seem easier. Prior to adopting one of those practices, most people try to control various parameters of their lives. Through practice, they learn that trying to control a person or a situation results in frustration and a sense of lacking control. The internal martial arts are about giving up control, which paradoxically helps us to feel more in control.
Anytime we consciously practice a technique of any kind that we believe in, we develop self-efficacy. Just that sense of knowing that we have the power to catalyze a specific, desired physiological change, in and of itself, improves the odds of achieving that goal.
Yet, tai chi and internal wing chun offer much more. Although practitioners of Chinese Medicine refer to it as chi, the mindful relaxation, pneumatics and body mechanics of these practices have allowed those who master them to create remarkable, healthy bodily changes.
Self-efficacy is an important component of self-care. It is also an important component of success in every endeavor. If you believe you can succeed in something, and you have the required skills, success is more likely. Without self-efficacy, you are less likely to take the necessary risks that are inherent in achieving success, and if you do take the necessary risks, your lack of self-efficacy will most likely lead to a half-hearted attempt.
The challenge is in finding ways to develop self-efficacy. Achievement of proficiency in any endeavor helps us to cultivate self-efficacy. Because tai chi and internal wing chun are so multi-faceted and complex, the learning and achievement of proficiencies is life-long; therefore, self-efficacy is always being developed in new aspects of the art.
In terms of health and wellbeing, not only does self-efficacy lead to healthier behaviors, it improves health and wellbeing in and of itself; it does this by creating a positive, can-do attitude.
(back to top)
Balance—Physical and Emotional
Virtually all the research shows that tai chi improves balance and coordination. This results in deeper levels of relaxation and confidence, which is due in part to no longer needing to worry about falling. Over time, daily practice of the form reprograms the entire nervous system. This dramatically reduces the chance of tripping and falling, which is why tai chi is so important to learn before old age sets in. Tai chi contributes to mind-body unity and balance.
(back to top)
Pain and Other Symptoms
The more time we spend focused on whatever it is that we don’t want, the more we will experience it. This is why simple distraction techniques are often enough, especially with acute pain or other uncomplicated symptoms.
(back to top