by Mark Jensen
Recently I picked up a book that I had read some time ago titled "Mind Over Matter - Higher Martial Arts" written by Shi Ming. This is not your normal "how to" or "style application" book but it is a treatise, if you will, on a concept he calls "Refinement of Consciousness". Sifu Ming is a highly accomplished master of Taijiquan with over 40 years experience and training and is also a board member of the China Martial Arts Society and the Beijing Martial Arts Society. As he outlines his ideas, he defines "Refinement of Consciousness" in this context:
"'Refinement of mind,' 'refinement of spirit,' 'cultivation of essential nature,' and 'refinement of consciousness' are all defined by modern people as different levels and facets of the interrelationships within the domain of the vital spirit and depth psychology. 'Refinement of the body,' 'refinement of the physique,' 'refinement of vitality,' and 'refinement of energy' all belong to different levels and facets of what modern people define as interrelationships with the domain of the component of the human body. Since refinement of the body and refinement of the mind are both inseparable from refinement of consciousness, we use the term 'refinement of consciousness' as an inclusive term."
This definition, as I see it, means that a higher state of consciousness can be achieved through some type of medium such as martial arts, meditation, calligraphy, playing a musical instrument or anything other such pursuit that employs both the mind and the body in search of perfection. As westerners, we tend to think of such concepts as so much Eastern Philosophy and leave it at that. However, if you can think about it in a western context you might get a glimpse of what Sifu Ming means. As I think back, I can see it in the men I idolized though out my life. When I was in high school and college, I played baseball and my idol was Ted Williams - the last hitter to achieve a season batting average over .400. Later on I started playing golf, and my example was Ben Hogan - a golfer who could literally make a golf ball do exactly what he willed it to. I have played guitar all my life and my favorite guitarist is Carlos Santana - a musician who, when he plays, takes my spirit with him where ever he goes. All three of these men achieved a higher state of consciousness through the practice and refinement of the skills used in their profession.
So what does this really mean to the average martial artist and how can we recognize (if at all) the existence of such a concept in our own study of our art? I believe that the answer to this question resides in our own private practice, that time when we are alone with just our art and our own consciousness. When we go to our school for lessons, it is not just a learning experience but a social interaction as well. We meet and talk with the other students, our brothers and sisters at the school and catch up on each other's lives since last we talked. We practice our latest lesson or refine what we already know while the other students around us are doing the same. We help each other buy offering encouragement, insight, consolation and friendship. This is how it has been for generations and how it should be within a school's family. But, these distractions can keep us from sinking our minds deep into our what we are trying to do. This is why we must find a time and a place to be alone and practice by ourselves.
In chapter eight of his book, Shi Ming talks about the "Laboratory of Refinement of Consciousness". Since I was trained as an engineer, I could understand him when he defined his ideas in a scientific sense. The "laboratory" is the time and the place where a Martial Artist trains. The "specimen" that is experimented on is the martial artist's mind and body. He goes on to further explain that, in the world of science, when experiments are conducted, the methods are usually to magnify, break or slow down the normal properties of the specimen in order to gain the greatest understanding. Both Ted Williams and Ben Hogan broke down their respective baseball and golf swings to analyze each part before they rebuilt them into world-class movements. When he is practicing, Carlos Santana slows down his fingers, looking for two notes to play at the same time that complement each other rather than just single notes when he plays a solo. This gives him a very distinctive sound that, when you here it, you know that it can be no one else except him! They all enter their own private laboratory and conduct experiments. In Martial Arts, nowhere is the concept of slowing things down more prevalent than in Taijiquan. Because Taiji is practiced slowly, the practitioner gains a greater understanding of the movements in terms of application and correctness of form. The slowness as well as the softness also has the added benefit of increasing the flow of Chi through the body.
How do we experiment when we practice alone in our own personal laboratory? There are many ways that can be beneficial and you should strive to find and try as many as you can in search of what will work for you. Here, I will relate a few that I use in my own personal practice. The reader is free to discard them or adopt them, but the point is that you should incorporate some sort of experimentation in your practice.
At a basic level we practice the "form" in our forms. We tend to think about the form as a set of static positions linked together. Each one of these moves are practiced and then pieced together for the complete set. But what if we practiced the "moves between the moves" or rather, the transitions from one move to the other? This is just as important as the move. Transitioning from a kick to a punch in the most economic manner will conserve energy, increase speed and power and make the form appear to flow. When a singer practices singing a song, he or she does not practice singing each word but rather they practice the string of words, together in tune and in time with the music so it all flows together and conveys the spirit of the song. Every Martial Art form has a proper spirit (intent along with rhythm and tempo) that should convey the sprit of the form. The spirit of a Tiger is strong and fierce, different from the spirit of a Crane, which is frail and graceful. This difference should be evident in the performance of the form such as Hung Gar's Tiger and Crane set. The transitions between moves should be slowed down as much as possible in order to understand the correct path from your last move to you next move. Once this path is understood, you can speed it up to see if it really works.
As we start to understand the transitions between the moves that will ultimately piece them together in a single flowing form, we will begin to exert only as much physical energy as is needed to perform the set. Have you ever watched a new student practicing their first form? It is clear that they are using way too much energy and it is also a sign of their skill level. But, when we perform our sets there should be points where you should see energy, what I will call punctuation points. These are the points in which your power is released, such as a punch or a kick, and they should be obvious to anyone watching you perform. If we practice trying to express power only at the instant it is needed, no muscle power at all until the exact moment when you want to release your power into the target, it will improve your understanding of the relationship between movement and energy.
One of my favorite ways to train is against an imaginary opponent. This for me has always been much easier to do with Hung Gar than with Baguazhang. Although applications of Hung Gar moves can be numerous, they are relatively intuitive. I am constantly struggling to understand how the palm changes in Bagua might be applied. The point here is that if you practice with an imaginary opponent, you can refine moves that you know where, when and how to apply and seek to understand moves that you do not know how to apply. You might ask your instructor or your fellow students what their interpretation of an application might be even if you understand it yourself. I am always amazed at how many different interpretations there can be for one single application. Try to use these applications when you practice your form against your imaginary opponent. If you think that the application will work, when you get back to you school, ask one of you fellow students to work with you to see if the application has merit.
It is Shi Ming's proposition that this laboratory experimentation "is" the process of refinement of consciousness (using conscious thought to refine consciousness) and that this type of consciousness can constantly be refined, in an upward spiral, with a destination that is as yet unknown. I find that the result of my practice times alone, in my laboratory and free from distractions, always seem to leave me with a different perspective on what I was doing than I had before I started. If you do it on a regular basis and if you are able to keep your mind deep into what you are doing, there will be times when you will have revelations. All of a sudden concepts that were once hard to understand will become clear. You will gain insight into things that you had no idea ever existed before. This is a phenomenon that will happen as a matter of course if we practice with the proper frame of mind. This is the "Refinement of Consciousness" or "Higher Martial Arts".