A lot of people are searching for ‘internal’ without being clear what ‘internal’ actually is. If you do not know what it is, how can you recognize it if you find it. A lot of people are working hopefully, doing qigong sets and forms because for one reason or another they think it will give them ‘internal’. A lot of work, rarely much by way of result.

Why are people willing to work so much for so little? Well setting aside that some aspects of the work might be physically or socially pleasant they have some idea of what they would like ‘internal’ to be.

‘Internal’ becomes a black box into which are projected desires for invincibility, immortality and a whole bunch of super-powers. These superpowers are usually associated with a mysterious non-material fluid often referred to as Qi or Ki which circulates from mysterious and non-material meridians.

I’d guess that the majority of people who have looked into this will be able to identify a prototype image of this – a kind of map of the body covered in lines, perhaps with a few extra significant spots on it like the three dan tiens. I’d be curious to know if there are any colours that people associate with this map.

This map has not appeared from nowhere. It is visual representation of a certain experience of the body.

The problem is that lots of practitioners get stuck with the map (and the stories of map generated superpowers). They search for the map that they imagine and do not find it. They imagine qi flowing in their meridians but no-one else seems to be able to feel it, and certainly do not seemed to be affected by it – unless they want to be (link).

Working this way is mental masturbation. A little masturbation is not necessarily a bad thing, just don’t expect it to pass on your genes 😉

So let’s set the map and the desires aside for a while.

Here are a couple of things that we know. ‘Internal’ does not seem to lead to immortality – martial arts masters grow old and die, sometimes while fighting – so the invincibility is out too. I’m sorry about that, but I’m sure it’s not that big of a surprise!

The other thing that we know is that past masters trained their bodies rigorously. This suggests that ‘internal’ has some kind of physical basis.

But if it’s just physical, why is it called ‘internal’?

Well the term ‘internal’ has a number of origins, but in true yin-yang fashion it is always relative. Internal can mean relative to China. Some people say that martial arts like Shaolin are external because their legendary founder was an Indian Buddhist, and therefore Shaolin arts come from outside of the country, while Taiji, Bagua etc are associated with Daoism China’s own invention. I think that this is historically erroneous and slightly nationalistic nonsense.

Internal can also be relative to a group of people. Every society is full of insiders who like to distinguish themselves from outsiders. In the case of martial arts in 19th Century Beijing there were a group of practitioners who practised Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua together and referred to their practices as Neijia – a common term for internal these days.

Finally there is internal relative to the body. In this case we can distinguish between external in which the aim is to create an effect outside the body, to internal in which the attention is placed on what happens within the body.

In this definition internal work involves fine distinctions in how the body works and how it is controlled.

Fine distinctions only have relevance once basic distinctions are understood. Basic distinctions may include gross posture and general body awareness. I find that many people are not clear about where their weight falls through their feet, what route it takes or the position of their limbs. What use is it to ask them to make fine distinctions.

Basic awareness, coordination and control need to come first. Can a person actually feel their muscles, ideally individually and consciously relax them?

You could say that this process of learning the body is essentially internal as it involves directing the attention inside to feel what is happening. There are methods for this, but essentially it requires mostly attention and time.

Once there is a certain level of awareness then it starts to be possibly to be aware of physical relationships between different parts of the body, and to move the body in ways that take advantage of these relationships.

The process is essentially meditative. It requires focus and absorption.  The breath plays a major part since it is a constant source of internal movement, and it is consciously controllable. It develops sensitivity to what happens in the body, and stillness of mind. You cannot notice what is going on if you are thinking of sex, shopping, politics or even maps of meridians. It is the body and attention to the body.

Unlike spiritual practice the goal is not enlightenment, or cleansing negative emotions. It is the development of certain specific kinds of body control.

Of course with attention, experience and focus there is usually some overlap with spiritual and therapeutic practice. Emotions and thoughts are to a large extent anchored in habitual physical tensions and reactions. Learn to focus internally in martial practice and you are likely to get more choice over what were previously unconscious reactions.

The ability to apply these internal distinctions and ways of moving is still dependent on the external body. There needs to be a physical contact for a transfer of force to occur. That contact needs at least a momentary alignment of bones, muscles and tendons for the transfer to occur.

This means that martial ‘internal’ power will not just happen through seated or standing meditation practices. It also requires knowledge of how these distinctions, and alignments apply to another body, and how to get to the relative body positions where there is the right contact. Theoretical knowledge will not cut it. This involves learning to deal with punches, kicks and other attacks. This requires experience, ideally not dumb, but down and dirty. The learning happens when what you thought would work does not!

Experienced martial artists and famous old masters often emphasize ‘internal’ work in their personal practices. It is fine for them. They have a lifetime of experience learning and applying various techniques. However without this apprenticeship they would not be able to use their arts.

Time and again I meet people who try and practice like old masters because that must be the most ‘advanced’ method. It is as useful as a ladder with only a few rungs at the tops.

It is constant challenge for teachers in any field who have developed skill through time to realise how much of what they take for granted that their students have no idea of. If a teacher does not really care for the development of their students they are unlikely to give much thought to this.

A teacher of ‘internal’ martial arts should have some sense of how to develop an individual student. There can be broad similarities in how that development occurs, but it will vary from person to person. Differences in experience, ability, physique, coordination and psychology.

My intention when I started to write this was to help people recognize that ‘internal’ training is a physical process dependent on coordination and control. I hope that I have gone some way to show this. It saddens me to see people in internal arts chasing phantoms of their imaginations. I like imaginations, they create humour, literature and plenty more, but art requires technique.

Soon I want to spend some time on this site to outline some of this process in simple, graspable terms, which I hope will be directly applicable to an individual’s practice.viagra 100mg

3 thoughts on “Internal and External

  1. thank you for this ED, food for thought indeed. made me re-evaluate my thoughts to this topic. Would like to think that there is this ‘ energy’ i could direct around and out of my body, but it must come from EXTERNAL movements, almost like a by-product. i’ll just keep practising hard and let nature take its course. once again, thank you for the article .

  2. Very Good my Friend. True focus on the basics of the internal is the biggest problem I see these days. The understanding is way off, but with teachers who can get this across to the students, hopefully we can raise the standard beyond imagined abilities and get to the real ones.


    1. Thanks Ben, I appreciate your work too.

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