How can we find stillness? Wang Xiangzhai (founder of Yiquan) himself said that we cannot be truly still, that we are always moving. True stillness can only be found in movement and true movement can only be born of true stillness. We move to find stillness so that true movement can be manifest.

Moving to find stillness is like making a rubbing of something carved into a rock or wood, you cover the paper with graphite from a pencil so that you can trace what is not there. You use a fullness to reveal an emptiness, and we do the same in Yiquan (or any other zhan zhuang practice…or meditation for that matter). All internal arts purport to do this, the difference is simply in refinement. Wang is commonly quoted saying that a small movement is better than a big one, and no movement is better than a small movement. This is maybe the only significant difference between Yiquan and other arts like Taijiquan and Baguazhang; that the former simply uses smaller more refined movements to discover a more reified kind of stillness than do the latter.

When we use grosser movements such as we do in Taijiquan, we are defining a grosser center. With these movements, our internal scene is much more complex and dynamic. This has its benefits, no-doubt, but it yields a grainier image of our true equilibrium and stillness than zhan zhuang does. When we use smaller movements to discern our still-center, we are using a higher resolution. The average person just walking around has some sense of equilibrium gained from everyday movements and activities. This is like using a rubbing as mentioned above. A trained martial artist has a  more refined sense of equilibrium from his or her training. This is like using a microscope, it is more detailed because it is more precise. It is a smaller view. One who practices zhan zhuang has an even higher resolution sense of equilibrium gained from the tiny movements made during his or her ‘stillness’ training. This is like an electron microscope! It is a very precise and focused search for equilibrium. Equilibrium found during zhan zhuang is super-concentrated or truer than what we get from grosser movements. Don’t get me wrong, all styles have something to offer. But zhan zhuang is the mother-practice of them all, because it yields the most fundamental sort of power and equilibrium.

Even Yiquan, with its focus on zhan zhuang, moves around with grosser movements much like the other arts. The only difference, and it’s a big one, is that Yiquan is flowing freely from that true stillness found in zhan zhuang. All the jumping around and punching in all directions that you see Yiquan practitioners doing doesn’t look much different than other arts, but its root is absolutely different. The Yiquan doesn’t move because someone told him to, he moves because that is what has to happen right then in that moment, and for no other reason. Yiquan is an unbridled expression of what we are deep down. No one can really claim to have found the deepest part of who they are, because it just keeps going! The Yiquan practitioner simply listens as deeply as he or she can and acts with fidelity on what he or she finds there. This philosophy is, of course, rooted in Chan and Daoist traditions.

Zhan zhuang is a way of looking as deeply as you can into what you really are. We find not only stillness and peace, but incredible power. With that power, of course, comes incredible responsibility. It is not always easy to act with integrity on what we find in our depths, but we must. Otherwise, we are something unreal; an imagination, a forgery of who we really are.

I hear and read many people saying that there is no concept of Qi in Yiquan. Anyone saying this does not understand the concept of Qi. What Wang Xiang Zhai (Yiquan founder) was railing against all those years ago, was the superstitious and unfounded use of the concept of Qi. I don’t know Wang and don’t read Chinese, so I can only go from the translations of his ideas. The ‘Golden Age’ of martial arts brought about all sorts of fantastic tales of magical powers. These powers were described in terms of Qi…because everything is described in terms of Qi. You see, many of the people nowadays talking about Qi have no idea what is meant by the word. The word ‘Qi’ is a philosophical term that describes the fundamental ‘fabric’ of our universe. Modern scientists have the word ‘Quantum’ and ancient Chinese observers had the word Qi. The ancient Chinese observed that our world is a closed system and that nothing is really created or destroyed, only transformed. That which is transforming they called Qi. It is that simple. Now, whenever we are talking about any sort of energy, we can use the word Qi. So, naturally, when someone experiences something outside of the norm or for which they have no better way to explain it, they will talk about Qi. For the human being, our Qi is simply the activity of our body. This activity is controlled by our minds and our spirit. Our spirit includes all activity of our physical body as well as the activity of our minds. Our mind is our conscious awareness and control of this activity. All endeavors that require any physical coordination require that we expand our conscious awareness and control into vaster realms of our spirit, thereby expanding into more aspects of our physical being as well. This includes everything from learning to type or drive a car, to practicing martial arts.

So, in Yiquan we practice sensing and using that subtle interface of mind and intent (yi) with our body. That interface is literally ‘our Qi’. Ironically, no internal martial art I have ever practiced is more directly a method of Qi cultivation than Yiquan. You simply have to know what Qi is to see that. Qi is never anything outside of our experience. Qi is only what can be sensed in one way or another. Crazy people will use anything to validate what they think is real, i.e. God, Qi, magic, gnomes, aliens. However, this is in no way an indicator of whether God, Qi, magic, gnomes or aliens exist. Everything is Qi and Qi is everything. The word is simply a deferential term that allows us to describe the phenomenal world as a single field of energy perturbations of which give us distinct phenomena. This is precisely the conclusion to which many modern scientists are coming. When martial arts theories talk about Qi, they are referring to the activities of the human being – many of which are unexplainable and not understood even by modern science. When we have a ‘whole body connection’ and feel the jin connect through us to the ground, this is Qi. It is a tangible experience that can be had by anyone but doesn’t have a particular explanation other than as a sort of coordination that makes us feel rooted and powerful. We can call that good Qi. If human Qi is the interface of mind and body, and you are moving your body with your mind in a way that is good…that’s just good Qi.

What happened with Qi and Yiquan is basically that some folks who may have been a bit nutty used the word Qi to explain and validate things that only they were experiencing/imagining. Not having a clear understanding of the very rational and scientific reasoning behind the concept of Qi, later commentators threw out the baby with the bathwater. We have a lot more information about our world today that we did just fifty years ago, so we can describe things in detail. The word Qi is becoming less and less useful in common parlance, but the concept it represents has never been more important to science and spirituality alike. I am an acupuncturist. My entire field is based on the concept of Qi, but I rarely use the word with my patients. The concept guides all that I do, but the word is unnecessary because I have more detailed descriptions of what the patient is experiencing at my disposal. The same is true for modern martial arts. We know more about physiology and biomechanics as well as physics, so we can use those terms to more precisely discuss what is going on while we move around. But having a better way to talk about what is going on, doesn’t take away from the concept that the word Qi represents.

Many people would be surprised to hear that they are a gongfu master, but they are. In fact, no one on the planet can be better at being them than them. I have studied many styles of martial arts from many different teachers, no doubt benefiting in one way or another from all of my training. But, what I have learned from Ha Sifu stands out. In most martial arts class settings, the point of training seems to be to learn a form. The idea is that if you learn the form you will eventually gain the skills that the guy who created the form intended to pass on to you. Over time, the well-known master fades away and all that is left are his students, diligently trying to recreate their master’s skills. For almost every traditional martial art there is a set pattern of forms that constitute the bulk of the school’s training. From generation to generation the form is changed and spreads among the various students and family members. The forms and techniques eventually cease being a means to an end and become an end unto themselves. This is where Ha Sifu differs from others with whom I’ve studied.

Fong Ha teaches that, “At the end of technique is skill…at the end of skill is spirituality.” So, for Ha Sifu, it really doesn’t matter what tools (i.e. forms or styles) you use so long as you are cultivating your own skills. One of my favorite Zen quotes is from Basho: “Seek not to follow in the footsteps of men of old, seek what they sought.” There has been much work done to make uniform martial arts sets so that we can have competitions, etc. I don’t see anything wrong with this ‘sport’ approach as long as we call it what it is…a sport. Cultivating, manifesting, and utilizing your own gongfu requires an entirely different approach than does the sport aspect.

The first step is to realize that no teacher of any kind can get you where you need to go. We can only benefit from teachers as far as they manifest those skills or attributes we seek. Bottom line, if you are going to learn from someone, they need to have in themselves what you are looking for. Only you can master you. We may call someone our master or Sifu, but that is only a sign of respect. A true master will be the first to tell you that. What is it that you seek from your teacher? Do you want simply to learn a form? That’s ok. I still buy DVD’s and catch well-known teachers’ seminars when I can. It is always good to play around with the answers others have come up with, so long as we don’t forget to ask the questions. I’ve heard it said that advancement comes from answering questions, but discovery comes from questioning answers. It is discovery that we are after. Yang Lu Chan is long gone. Yang Cheng Fu never knew me, never mind trained me. Simply learning an old master’s set of forms will not get you anything but good at doing their form. Yang Lu Chan would likely murder most of the people doing Yang Style Tai Chi. What is it to ‘do Yang Style Tai Chi?’ Give me 100 Yang Style Masters, and I’ll show you 100 different forms. This is because, to master a style, it has to become your own. What drew me to Fong Ha was the directness with which he pursues his own gongfu and the consistency with which he asks you to pursue yours. Even after the four years I have been practicing his Integral Chuan, I still find myself trying to pin him down and crystallize the teachings. He can’t really be pinned down! He is not a Tai Chi Master, but he absolutely is. He is not an Yiquan Master, but he absolutely is. Fong is just as likely to use ballet or Xingyiquan to convey his skill as he is to use Taijiquan or Yiquan. Whatever we do – whatever style we practice – if we use it to cultivate, manifest, and utilize our own innate wisdom, power, and equilibrium, we can get ourselves to where great masters like Fong Ha are pointing.

We are all masters of our own way. We are the only ones who can fulfill our own destiny. Our practice should reflect that always.

Gongfu is what martial artists, healers, qigong practitioners, and anyone else learning to do something and do it well is after. Gongfu basically means skill. Everything we do in life refines our gongfu or it doesn’t, it is our choice. In both martial arts and spiritual practice circles, we have the idea of learning by direct transmission. Direct transmission is exactly what its name implies, it is the transmission of ability or skill directly from one person (the master) to another (the student). I have had many teachers in my life who have taught me wonderful things and helped me attain some real skills. However, In all of my martial arts training, I had never really experienced direct transmission until I met Fong Ha.

Now, I’m a bit of a skeptic. I’m open minded, but a skeptic nonetheless. Most of the stories told about this sort of thing are full of a lot of fantastic imagery which usually throws me off (I know it shouldn’t – working on it). What I experienced with Ha Sifu in 2006 when I first met him was something quite amazing. It wasn’t ceremonial or magical, it just was. Fong Ha can wax philosophic all day long with the best of them and his martial arts pedigree is one of the best, but as impressed as I was with all of this, it was his very presence and skill that really did the trick for me. Pushing hands with him and just feeling the sort of power that is cultivated through arts like Taijiquan and Yiquan when done right opened something in my mind that talking and doing forms just can’t get at. Something happened then that I am still getting my mind around. Some deeper part of me responded to the experience of that kind of power, and in an instant I transcended all that I had ever learned about martial arts and about life. It wasn’t an annihilation of my experiences up to that point, it was more of an organization of them. It was like turning on the electromagnet underneath the metal filings. Out of the chaos of the filings comes the order of the magnet. Out of the chaos of theory and sophistication came the order of the simple skill and power I was experiencing. When we can receive transmission like this from a master like Fong Ha, I think it strikes a powerful tuning pitch for all that we are. Suddenly, things make sense and we feel free. I find myself fighting this freedom, even to this day, because it is so contrary to how most people do things. I get caught up in wanting to complicate my practice and forget to stay rooted to the simple skill that I was after in the first place.

It is good to learn as many different methods and techniques as you can, but if you can’t put them down and just be what you are, they will burden you. A real master of anything must be able to point directly to the essence of what he does. If he can’t do that, he is not a master. Mastering a thing means being free of it. If your art imprisons you, you cannot master it. When a student has the sort of direct transmission that I experienced, it can open your eyes and in an instant take you further than a million years of learning forms and talking about theory. There is a truth to all things that cannot be put into words. It cannot be put into form of any kind, because it is the mother of all forms. Only experience can get you there. By experience, I don’t mean the length of time you spend doing something. Thirty years of doing something wrong doesn’t make you a master. One second of doing it right can bring you real wisdom and skill if it takes you to the essence of the practice and you are willing to go.

What happened with me in that simple little gathering of people years ago changed me forever and opened the door to stronger gongfu than I ever thought I’d have. I simultaneously wish I had more time to spend with Ha Sifu and wonder what more he could possibly pass on to me. Ha Sifu has students all over the world. He has been meeting some of them in the park for decades. And yet, he is the most modest and unassuming master of his ilk that I have ever known. There is the old saying that when the student is ready the master appears. Maybe everyone’s experiences with Ha Sifu are different. I know people who attended some of the same seminars I did who did not have the same experience I did. I think when the time is right, the Spirit flows. The time was right for me in 2006 and something flowed that I was not expecting. My experiences with Ha Sifu continue to fuel my own evolution as a martial artist, as a healer, and as a human being. As Sifu says, “The end of technique is skill, the end of skill is spirituality.” I hope that everyone out there can find a teacher who provides for them this sort of experience – don’t stop until you do.

My journey in martial arts began twenty years ago. I have studied Taijiquan and other internal arts for the past ten years now. The past three of those years have been spent almost exclusively on Yiquan, only practicing Taijiquan a few times a week. Yiquan offers a sense of freedom that I find hard to resist. With Yiquan, we don’t worry about forms, techniques, or rules of any kind. In the years leading up to my introduction to Fong Ha and his Integral Chuan practice of combining Taijiquan, Yiquan, Qigong, and Tai Chi Ruler, I had studied simplified Taijiquan, Baguazhang, Xingyiquan and various forms of qigong. I was overloaded with forms, rules, and techniques. Yiquan brought me back to the root of internal martial arts practice.

I recently moved Washington State. As an East Asian Medicine Practitioner, I am always looking for ways to share my ways with the community. I began teaching Taijiquan at the local YMCA. I wanted to teach Yiquan or qigong, but those forms are much less popular than Taiji. This proved to be a bit of a blessing in disguise. I have always loved Taijiquan and was happy to jump back into it after such a break. I was pleasantly surprised at how my Taiji had still improved, despite the years away from it. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Fong Ha has brilliantly explained that the essence of all the arts is basically the same and that it really doesn’t matter how we train as long as we understand the root. Getting back to my Taijiquan really showed this to me. I can remember the form becoming stifling. I sometimes find myself asking many of the same questions the founder of Yiquan, Wang Xiangzhai, asked. I asked questions like, “Why do a kick here…why is single whip like this?” This is a natural part of the process. We outgrow our understanding of the form. We may feel, as I did, that we have outgrown the form itself, but this is not always true. It is our understanding that has become stifling, not the form.

This has been a wonderfully liberating lesson for me and has taken my Taijiquan practice to a whole new level. The form feels more alive to me than ever before and I am finding all sorts of nuances of expression that were hidden from me by the limitations of my own understanding. I think I’m coming to understand why Ha Sifu calls his art Integral Chuan and why it really doesn’t matter how we practice the basic principles of central equilibrium, listening, and finding our own way. We can learn these principles in Taijiquan or Tae Kwon Do, but the real lesson is in practicing them every day in all that we do and to keep ourselves free to roam from form to form, method to method, without losing the root of it all.

Can we ever really be totally still? I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone can know. It has been my experience that I continue to find ever deeper levels of stillness. I look back over the years of meditation and self-cultivation and see patterns of deep stillness giving way to deeper ones. I can feel like I’m really on my game, so to speak, and suddenly tap into a big ball of stress and discord. I don’t suddenly feel the stress and discord per se; I just realize that it is there, and that it has always been there. To me, this emphasizes the need for constant vigilance and awareness of one’s own inner state. Our practice can become so rote that it loses its questioning and probing qualities. We can fall into the doldrums of practice and quit forging ourselves. If we quit exploring and discovering what lies within us, we can stall out. The parts of us that are out of sync and doing us harm can reorganize and do even more damage. The road we take to healing can lead to our end if we take it half-assed.

In my experience, the biggest influence that distracts me from the Way is that of wanting to ‘use’ what I’ve gained in my practice to ‘do’ something. We let go of the big no-brainer things like our pettier emotions and simple distractions and gain some clarity. If we then turn around and replace all those things we let go of with the new distractions of our new-found awareness, we have jumped out of the pan into the fire!

The practice of the Effortless Way in whatever form it takes (Zen, Daoism, meditation, Yiquan, Taijiquan, etc.) is the same in the end as it is in the beginning and the middle – effortless! I forget that, and I’m sure you do to. But even in the forgetting we move toward the way of things don’t we? If we know we have forgotten, we create the opportunity to remember and to be.

Staying whole is a big part of Daoist philosophy. When we are divided against ourselves, we fail to maximize the experience of what we are. When we are divided, we fight against ourselves. We fight against our urges, our thoughts, our feelings, as well as against those of others. This is too much struggle, too much fighting. When we are of one mind, and are in a focused state, we are integrated. This means that the totality of our being is unified in its expression of our own natural state. When we are divided, we are disintegrated.

Many people struggle with thoughts and urges that they have come to deem wrong or immoral. Many of these thoughts and urges are perfectly natural. People fight themselves over thoughts of sexual attraction to other people, wanting to be rich, wanting to be poor, wanting to help, desiring delicious food, etc. All of these are perfectly natural thoughts. Many of them are tied to deep genetic hard-wiring, while others are tied to psychological conditioning. Regardless of where they come from or whether they are good or bad, fighting yourself over them is not the Way.

As with many things in life, the way out is through. We can’t un-feel our feelings anymore than we can un-think our thoughts or un-act our actions. Once they are here, we have to accept them. The key to staying centered is in realizing that these thoughts, feelings, and actions are not all we are. They are a part of us, but they are not all of us. If we focus on them – either fighting them or indulging them – they will rule us. Trying to deny that you are sexually attracted to people other than your partner will lead to cheating. Denying yourself tasty food will lead to eating disorders. Pretending you don’t feel anger will lead you to an outburst that you cannot control. If we are sitting in a dark room staring at a candle, it seems like the candle is all there is. If we sit there staring at it wishing it weren’t so bright, it seems even brighter and has us totally mesmerized. However, if we just turn the light on, we see that there is more than that little candle. The way we ‘turn the light on’ in our minds is to realize that we have a lot more room in our minds than we think. We have a lot of thoughts other than sexual urges when we see an attractive person. We have thoughts other than binging on burgers when we see a food commercial on television. It is in identifying more with the whole of us and less with the parts of us that we find freedom and the Way.

“What is fullest seems empty” is from chapter 45 of the Daodejing. It is a reminder that potentiality is more potent than manifestation. Applied to our lives, this chapter helps us to remember that all phenomena are born of their opposites. When we are at our highest, it is time for a fall. When we are at our lowest, it is a time to rise up. We are fullest when we are empty. We must empty ourselves from time to time (or be emptied) so that we may take in something new. We have to exhale before we can inhale more air. There is great power in the ‘exhaling’ that is to be done from time to time. When we are down – either sick or depressed or something – we have a chance to tap into our greatest strengths. If we can cultivate non-attachment to the form of things, we can see that things just change. We can’t really say whether the changes are good or bad. This is not because good and bad don’t exist, it is just that they are judgments of snapshots of an ongoing process. I paraphrase one of my favorite Daoist stories:

A farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbors came to comfort over his terrible loss. The farmer replied, “Maybe, maybe not.” A month later, the horse came home bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbors came to congratulate for his good fortune, “Such lovely, strong horses!” The farmer replied, “Maybe, maybe not.” The farmer’s son was thrown from the horse and broke his leg. All the neighbors came to console, “Such bad luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe, maybe not.” A war broke out and every able-bodied was recruited except the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. The neighbors came to congratulate the farmer. “Maybe, maybe not.” replied the farmer.

We can’t know the outcome of things. We can’t even really say whether something is good or bad for us. All we can do is sit back and enjoy the ride. The ups and downs serve purposes we can’t fathom, so let them. We don’t need an answer for everything. Sometimes ‘maybe – maybe not’ will do just fine.

I have never found authority. I’ve heard about it, but I have never seen it. People claim to have authority. They claim to derive their authority from the government, from their bank account, from the color of their skin, from the end of a barrel, the edge of a knife, or even from God. It is, in the end, an empty claim. No one has authority over me or you. We are sovereign. The only power another person can have over you is the power you give to them. Power given is power that can be taken. Power that can be taken is not power, it is an agreement between two parties. A cop can convince me to pull over with flashing lights because of an agreement between us. Without that consensual arrangement, I don’t have to pull over. Now, the decision to evade a police officer will certainly incur some hefty consequences, but I am free to do what I want.

Authority doesn’t really exist does it? In our country, we say that the power to govern is derived from the governed. This is the way it always is. If someone puts a gun to my head and commands me to confess to something I didn’t do, I don’t have to do it. It is my choice, not theirs. I cannot be made to do anything. I can be influenced, convinced, or deceived into doing something, but I can’t be made to do it. I might choose to confess rather than eat a bullet – it’s up to me. When I heed the warnings of a meteorologist, I confer upon them a certain kind of power – I enter into the agreement mentioned above. If that meteorologist proves to be inaccurate, I revoke the power of influence.

We are all currently in many agreements of this sort with people, institutions, and ourselves. These agreements need frequent audits. Any such agreements that do not have to do with your direct experience of your own immediate reality should be terminated. Meditation is the best way to conduct such an audit. There should be a rule in your internal kingdom that all influences are subject to periodic review. Meditation is the cancellation of all influential arrangements. In meditation, the need for these influences diminishes and you will let them go quite naturally. Having let them all go, it is much easier to know which ones should be reinstated. I have been meditating for 20 years now, and I still come across these contracts I have with forces inside me and outside me. The more I let go of, the freer I am – freer to think for myself.

I have never had a problem with authority, because I haven’t found any. I don’t know anyone who can tell me more about being me than me. Why would you let someone shape or mold you? They didn’t create you. This doesn’t mean we can’t learn from others, of course we can. It just means that, if we are going to listen to anything anyone has to say, we will do so from a position of inner trust and strength. We can take the advice of others and consider what they have to say, but we don’t let it bypass our own intuition and reason.

I suggest you take some time and consider this concept of authority. To what people or institutions have you given authority to influence you? Why do you give it? How does it serve you?

How can you “do nothing and achieve everything”? At first, this might seem like some kind of fortune cookie wisdom that hippies pass around with a bong. It may be that, but that’s not all it is. This saying is the key to not only understanding Zen and Daoist philosophies, but to living them. And the “living them” part is the part in which I have always been interested. I can wax philosophical all day long. I have read some of the cool books, and I know lots of cool words and phrases – so what!? Anybody with a fifth grade education can do that – hell, I could probably get a parrot to do that. Repeating neat phrases and correcting people’s pronunciation of foreign words does not a master make!

Daoism has the concept of De (德). De (pronounced “duh”) is a particular focus of power and efficacy in overall field of experience (Dao 道). The degree to which something or someone is focused, concentrated, and efficacious is the degree to which they have attained “enlightenment” or “convergence with the Dao.” That has less to do with talking and more to do with being. But being what? Being what you already are without adding anything to it is what effortless means. This doesn’t look any particular way from the outside, and we can’t make any fixed rules such as, “enlightened people are non-violent” or “if you were one with the Dao, you would see things as I do.” No. None of that works. Only you know what you are. Only you can be you. When we meditate or practice the arts of effortlessness (Yiquan, qigong, Taijiquan, etc.), we are just being what we are and nothing else. That is important. The more we can do that, the less we are adding on. The less we are adding on, the closer we are to the Dao.

When we are just ourselves, we can accomplish feats in our lives that could not be accomplished any other way. These accomplishments very often feel as though they happen through us, rather than because of us. That is effortlessness. When we have no choice but to take the action we are taking, we are effortless. This lack of choice is not a restriction imposed on us from the outside. It is just that effortless action is right on the line between voluntary and involuntary. We can’t really tell the difference. Our instincts have this quality to them. We can’t really see from whence they arise, but we know they are true. Very often our rational mind understands our instincts and we act on them. A lion roaring at me engenders fear. My rational mind understands why I feel fear. My action (running like hell) satisfies the whole of me. This satisfaction is the hallmark of effortlessness. When we take action or non-action that is truly effortless, we are comfortable. We are comfortable physically and psychically. Effortless action engenders no internal struggle. It fans no flames of internal rebellion. Effortlessness has a peaceful effect on us. Our actions may not seem peaceful (running like hell from a lion screaming), but they are. We are ok with our actions when they are effortless, regardless of what those actions may be. We don’t have to seek effortlessness. It is what is here when we stop stirring the pot.

So, stop. Be still and move.