A Writer’s Journey Into the Internal Art of Ba Gua Zhang
Heaven Upholding Palm
Training changes the nature of our experience.
— Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means (1936).
The first part of this essay appeared in Cable Street 2, in conjunction with martial artist Michael Dorgan’s memoir of discovering Tai Chi. I thank him for inspiring this piece.
I concluded Part I by recounting an episode which occurred soon after I began studying Ba Gua Zhang in 2002. To briefly recapitulate, I found myself applying internal arts principles not in a physical fight, but in a verbal face-off with the editor-in-chief of a literary journal I then co-edited. By metaphorically stepping out of the direct line of a personal attack I succeeded in avoiding the psychic shock of confronting an emotional bully. For the remainder of my tenure at the publication, I was also able to exercise a greater degree of editorial autonomy.
This, of course is not the purpose for which Ba Gua Zhang was developed. But it proved to be the means by which the essential strategic and tactical value of the art was first borne in upon me. Though BGZ’s underlying Daoist roots are of ancient origin, as a distinct form it can be traced to the mid-19th century.
“Dong Hai Chan is considered… to be the founder of Ba Gua [Zhang]. It is not known for certain what martial arts Dong studied in his youth, but there is evidence that he combined [these] with Daoist meditation practices, which involved keeping the mind empty while walking in a circle…
“Circle walking is considered one of the key exercises in Ba Gua, because it aids in evasion and counter attack and enables one to literally turn the opponent’s corner in combat. In additon, circle walking calms the mind and trains both the spirit and internal energy.
“The forms and techniques of Ba Gua are manifestations of the principles of whole body coordination or ‘internal connection.’ These internal connections are predicated on using circular and spiral forces to overcome external forces and attacks, and to concentrate and suddenly release the body’s full power in combat. Furthermore, in both training and combat there is an emphasis on internal stillness while the body is in motion. Internally the mind and spirit are still and calm, while internally and externally the body constantly changes and transforms, able to create infinite techniques seamlessly linked together. That is why it is said tha the basic skills of stepping and turning can create ‘1,000 changes and 10,000 transformations.’” [Tom Bisio, The Art of Ba Gua Zhang, Outskirts Press, 2016. pp. 2-3.]
In the twenty-something years I have been training in Ba Gua Zhang, the practice has continued to prove transformational. During this time, I have not, thankfully, had to test its efficacy as a form of self defense. On the rare occasions when I, my family or friends were threatened, I assumed the basic guard posture, clearly signaling my readiness to engage, with the result that the potential assailants declined to press the matter further.
Since I am not particularly intimidating physically, what I drew from these encounters is that there seems to be something deeply disconcerting to many potential assailants about confronting an intended victim whose body language is signaling neither “fight” nor “flight” – and in whose gaze they read neither aggression, nor fear.
Though I have seen numerous instances of Ba Gua Zhang’s efficacy as a martial art, my only personal experience of this occurred when I had about a year of training under my belt. Two male friends and I were talking on the street outside our local café and one of them, a different Tom, mentioned to the third party, someone I’ll call Jerry, that I had been studying BGZ. Being an impulsive and physically assertive guy (he had also trained for several years in am external form), Jerry’s response was to cross-grab my wrist and pull me toward him. To the surprise of all present, myself not least, in the next instant I found myself standing behind Jerry, with his arm locked against his back. The incident turned into a good laugh all round. Until then, my practice had been oriented toward BGZ’s health preservation and mind-quieting aspects, clearly evident from the outset. Yet here was palpable proof of the training’s efficacy as a means of self-defense.
I’m fairly certain that if I’d had time to think about how to respond, or even consider whether this was a real attack or a prank, my body might not have reacted so intuitively. Indeed a key aspect of the practice is to unwire one’s conscious thought, allowing one to move in response to the external forces “given” by an opponent. As BGZ master Gao Ji Wu once said in a demonstration class: “If he wants to go up, I go up. If he wants to go low, I go low.”
In addition to maintaining balance, flexibility and relative good health into my early 70s, internalizing the movements and psychological dynamic of BGZ has had several other welcome benefits. It has sharpened up my driving and street bicycling game, and trained me to step back or forward coherently from corner-cutting Ubers and moped delivery men, as well as to move fluidly out of the path of hypnotized cell phone users charging out of subway cars. It has made it less likely that I will jack my shoulder pulling down the window shade at night, or strain my wrist drawing out a wine cork – since I do many simple, everyday actions with the coordination of the entire body.
Perhaps most importantly, training in BGZ has allowed me to imagine a mode of life less driven by abstract concepts. There are, of course, plenty of concepts in the internal arts, but they are there to give shape to the ebb and flow of our practical existence, not to determine it. The art foregrounds efficacy over all else.
I would like to evoke two images from my training which have altered my approach to writing. The first is the occurrence of what I’ll call, with tongue in cheek, Taking the Magic Flight. This has happened several times when, in sparring with Tom and his senior students, I have been the one to move first. Suddenly, I found myself several yards distant from my partner, with no sense of how I got there and either attempting to find my footing, or flat on my back, or once, bouncing off a wall. According to a common understanding, the magic flight is the result of the attacker’s own force being redirected so as to rebound on them. But it has never seemed to me that my own force, alone, could account for what seems the exponential power of the counter-force. Though I have asked long-time internal arts practitioners about this seeming asymmetry of given and returned forces, I have received no ready explanation for it. Nor do I feel they are withholding information. The phenomenon seems a genuine mystery. That said, I have come to believe it possible that high-level internal arts practitioners, whether consciously or not, are able “borrow” qi from the universe to augment the force of their response to attack. For writers, the analogy I propose is the power of our internal material to multiply itself, gaining in meaning and emotional resonance as it emerges onto the page. And, potentially, to further dimensionalize in the process of editing and revision.
The second image is a recollection from about two years into my training. I was partnered that day with Aaron, a former dancer and accomplished Chinese medicine practitioner. We assumed the basic sparring position, right arms extended with forearms lightly touching and left hands guarding in the posture known as Old Monk Holds Out the Alms Bowl. Both of us waited to see who would move first, and how. After some moments, impatience coupled with a species of anxiety took hold of me, so I tried pushing against Aaron’s arm with the idea of forcing him to react. But I might as well have been leaning against a moored ship’s hawser. Aaron’s arm wasn’t rigid, it had give, but it wasn’t going anywhere. His body seemed completely relaxed – and rooted.
“Soften the eyes,” Aaron said. “Anything can happen.”
Again, I took the teaching into my work as a writer, and in particular with relation to my eagerness to penetrate the subject via my intellect, or put another way, my analytical gaze. Over time I have found that the less I try to make something happen on the page, the wider and more subtle the field of possible meanings and expressive modes becomes. Nor, when I refrain from direct intentionality, need I be concerned about losing the essence of what I am writing. The subject retains its essential nature; it is the form which multiplies the possible expressions. From a personal standpoint, what I have been gradually able to transfer from BGZ training into my writing practice is a confidence in the efficacy of the form itself. A heightened sense of the form’s inegrity permits me to “write what I know,” while tapping into the endless fund of language that permeates my mind and the world outside it, and to allow these streams to flow together. I have long been aware that didacticism and over-reliance on subject matter were not my friends, but my training has made it easier to forego a desire to control outcomes, or write toward a presumptive “therefore.” What has been abundantly affirmed is a sense that my characters exist autonomously within their own relational structure. In this dynamic, I feel closer to being a witness-participant in extant worlds than a creator of imaginary ones.
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