What is 'Gong-fu'?

Hundred Eyes asks Marco this question in one of their training bouts punctuated by kicks and punches. (The video is available on Vimeo at: vimeo.com/120397980) There follows an explanation illustrated by, among other things: a servant combing his mistress's hair, another servant carefully dusting the Great Khan's throne, an artist painting a dangerous wall-mural for Prince Ahmed, and an acupuncturist treating the Khan himself.

The answer, paraphrasing a samurai adage, amounts to: application, concentration and "paying attention to little things". Two other essential ingredients are patience and time. Put these together and you have an answer for that most irritating of questions: "But why is Tai Chi so slow?" To which an appropriate response might be, "Mindfulness!"

On July 16th. 2016 I wrote that...

"...in Tai Chi we achieve emotional balance by regulating two aspects of the mind, xin and yi. Xin can be thought of as the heart-mind. When we say that we are down-hearted, heartsick, heart-sore or that our heart is troubled we are referring to xin. Yi is often spoken of as intent but it is more than that. Yi is also the attentive mind. It is the aspect of mind that pays attention, that naturally concentrates and is objectively aware. These two aspects of mind are like the two pans of a balance scale. If we wish to moderate one, we must activate the other. When we come to our practice, often “the world is too much with us”. We may be worried about the kids, about work, about our car insurance, about finances…. Then we commence Tai Chi and for the next 20 minutes we let our attention rest upon the details of movement and our awareness of where we are in the continuum of the form. Our breathing quiets, our awareness is tuned, we become calm, and by the end of the form we are a bit more sane. The activation of our attentive mind has quieted the troubled waters of our emotional storm. Our problems may still be with us but we are able to regard them in a way that is quieter and less troubled. To paraphrase one of the old Classics, once we are able to sink into a clarity of relaxation, we “are ready for anything from any of the eight directions....

This describes the rationale for mindfulness as a means of balancing Yi / attention and Xin / heart. The means of doing this - the means of achieving mindfulness - come back to "...paying attention to little things."

For purposes of exploring this, I shall here examine the best-known and most familiar of all Tai Chi movements, the Commencement of Tai Chi, which consists of raising and lowering the arms to the front. I demonstrate this at the beginning of www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1sZE1zTUVk. A view of the lowering of the hands can also be seen at the end of the video. This analysis deals with how the movement is executed in the Yang family tradition.

The first point to note is that the forearms from the initial position rotate approximately 30 degrees out in the course of being raised and extended to front. They then undergo a slight counter-rotation inwards as they are lowered into the palms-down position to front. These two rotations, along with slightly modified wrist adjustments, are the essentials for the Peng (Ward or Bump) and An (Push or more correctly Press) energies which are core essentials of Taijiquan. (I am aware that 'Bump' and 'Press' are unfamiliar translations for these two energies which are more traditionally translated into English as 'Ward' and 'Push'; this is a subject for another time.) This rotation of the limbs is important as a means of ensuring that the trapezius musculature does not activate during the movement and that a high degree of dynamic relaxation prevails in the shoulders and upper back. Combatively, the resulting arm angle has the effect of deflecting the opponent's action and flinging him back. Slow practice permits perfection of form. Deployment at speed against a real strike is the acid test.

Different teachers have developed various means to teach the trick of this kind of rotation. Fu Zhongwen for example enunciated an inner Yang family method in which a dot painted on the outside of the forearm (the radius) was rotated out as the arms were raised and then rotated back in as they lowered. This pedagogical method is called the jindian (power dot) technique. It can be further refined, however, by direct reference to certain acupoints in close proximity to these dots. In raising one can mentally focus on the Hegu acupoint (point LI-4) on the crease where the base of the forefinger merges with base of the thumb and imagine the hand being pulled up and away by a thread attached to this point. Similarly, in lowering the hand one focuses attention on the Shenmen (H-7) point on the crease of the wrist under the little finger so that the wrist is depressed. In rising or lowering, the hands gently rotate these respective points up or down so that the arm is turned in a unified way.

When the wrist including the Hegu point is bumped up so as to form a convexity, this is wrist-Peng. When one then sits the wrist, this is wrist-An. But fixating on arm movement is still very limited in terms of the deployment of internal power. As explained in The Four Tangibles (Dec. 14), the entire body has to be integrated into the movement: wrist-movement harmonizes with those of tailbone (weilu, GV-1) and ankles; elbows with ming-men (GV-4) and knees; shoulders with upper back and hips. Further, in expressing energy there is usually a specific sequence in which these harmonies are activated. I won't go farther at this point because the exploration of these linkages best should be shown hands-on by a teacher. The effect is whole body flexion that is subtle and powerful.

Part of this may also involve the direct experience of qi's internal currents. Qigong may form an important part of the training for this reason, but not all traditions explore this aspect. However, when this is present, it constitutes one more part of the fabric of detail which constitutes the tapestry of our practice.

The point is, of course, that all of this - plus the rotations described above - are part of the "little things" that must be attended to. They constitute the physical background awareness that permeates form and is subconsciously brought to bear spontaneously in a moment of dire necessity. They are the elements, along with circularity, weight-shift and The Four Intangibles, that unite meditation and martial application.

In the video above various examples are given of 'what Gong-fu is'. Those embodied by Hundred Eyes mostly relate to what in the martial arts we call "eating bitter". He requires this of Marco. If Marco is to be a fighter, he must know how to receive punishment. This is the training that hurts. Usually it involves legs shaking with fatigue, sore muscles, some bruises and occasionally the impact of someone else's fist.

This can be part of the Tai Chi experience, but not commonly. Fatigue, sore muscles and shaking legs are pretty basic, but the real test of character is...patience; the patience to go slow, to pass through fatigue to the other side, to do the form over and over and over while paying intelligent regard to all its details, and to retain full focus and awareness.

Paying attention to the little stuff is crucial! When we can do this, we discover 'the magic' and the joy of the art.

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