Internalism and Flow

BLOG Instalment #4: Internalism and Flow

Dragon Flying posture

I’m reading Barry Allen’s Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts. It’s an engaging read for someone who never got past first year Phil. at university, and I am finding it both stimulating and occasionally frustrating! But there are three areas of his thesis which for me have been particularly engaging.

First of all, in his first chapter he gives an excellent summation of the Asian martial arts as rooted in the dynamics of the three great religious cultures of China: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. A pivotal point in his argument is the issue of the duality of mind and body.

In his second chapter he gives an outline of the mind (or psyche) vs. body issue in Western philosophy from the period of Classical Greece to post-Darwinian Modernism. Due to the fore-mentioned drawbacks of my philosophy education I appreciated this, though I also lost patience when he went off on an unsupported digression about martial training in the context of civilization vs. nomadic culture.

But what really engaged me was his linking of martial arts to the idea of somaesthetics. “Somaesthetics” is a word that was coined in 1996. It combines “soma” which relates to the body with “aesthetics” which relates to sensory perception.

I interpret this as how a martial art feels and how a martial arts performance somehow communicates this quality of feeling to the spectator. I also think this has a great deal to do with Internalism and the quality we understand as 'flow'.

When we witness a really great physical performance, something is mysteriously evoked, communicated and shared at a sensual level. The experience of the performer's grace awakens something within us and we mysteriously share a psychic counterpart to the physical quality of grace.

Sophie Delza, who was herself a professional dancer, distinguished the quality of grace in Tai Chi from that which is expressed in either athletics or dance. She wrote that while athletic grace (as in a baseball pitcher) is the inadvertent outcome of striving toward a specific goal, and artistic grace seeks to externalize something that exists within the artist, that grace in Tai Chi derives from the form itself; that grace is inherent to the Tai Chi form.

I find this unsatisfying. There is a great deal of expertly performed Tai Chi which lacks this quality. It may demonstrate great athleticism and superb gymnastic ability and yet fall short. It may also rigorously adhere to the technical requirements of the form but still miss out in something which the form should evoke in the performer and in the spectator.

In 2007 I attended a workshop presented by Kathy Short Gracenin on the four fundamental movements of modern dance: swing, vibratory / percussive, sustain and collapse. I tend to think that these could in the case of Tai Chi be re-framed as: sink, rise, extend and release. The process and transitions of these phases permeate every posture and every movement of Tai Chi Chuan. For the veteran practitioner, somaesthetics involves a sensual awareness of this process which we usually describe as “flow”.

This quality is not inherent in the form. In tournaments one can see competitor after competitor who are at a high level in purely technical terms, but lacking in this. But this quality can be evoked by the form in the high-level practitioner who is internally developed.

Internal development is based upon physical factors such as a developed elasticity in the joints and the coordination of movements with breath and mental attention. It consists among other things in a sense of rising, extension, release and sinking which unifies movement, unites awareness and the tides of qi, and generates an internal sense of powerful intent and regulated breath like a feather riding on a great wave. This is what the form can invoke. One of my students described it as the sensation of being on a roller coaster.

“Soma” has another meaning besides “body”. In ancient Hinduism it is the drink of the gods. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as: “an intoxicating juice from a plant of disputed identity that was used in ancient India as an offering to the gods and as a drink of immortality”. In short, soma is associated with delight, sensual enjoyment and immortality.

In this sense, the definition of somaesthetics can be extended to the kinesthetic awareness which renders Tai Chi practice so intensely pleasurable. I do not believe that it is enough to know that Tai Chi is good for you. People are motivated by the pleasure principle. There are many activities I know would be good for me…but that doesn’t mean I do them! But I do Tai Chi…because it feels so damn good!

Back to the beginning -- the western tradition is based upon mind or soul or psyche as being separate from physicality. In addition, physical pleasure is often regarded with suspicion, as an impediment to spiritual development. This accounts for the troubled historical relationship in the west between religion and art, in the regular waves of iconoclasticism which are behind censorship and the destruction of art.

In the dominant traditions of the Asian arts, including the martial arts, the pleasure of practice is seen as a path to spiritual development. It is seen as a skillful means (in tantric terms) which allows us to dispel the illusion of a gulf between the physical and spiritual realms. In reality, they are one.

It is to this realization that we are led by our practice.

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