Framing the learning of internal strength in terms of learning a foreign language might be a useful model to help you gauge if you are learning a completely different body-movement language or if you are learning variations or refinements of your current body-movement language.
Let's first consider this basic sequence of language learning and cross-cultural experiences. Many of you may have walked part of all of this road in your life:
- If you never met a Chinese person and all you knew was based on what you heard, read, or saw on TV, then your meaning of "Chinese are X" would represent this level of understanding and experience.
- If you got to know a Chinese person as an acquaintance, friend, or in-law and learned to speak a few words in Chinese, for example, ni-hao, xie-xie, gam-bei, then your meaning of, "Chinese are X" would be different than before.
- If you took a 10 hour Chinese language class at the Community Education program and went on a ten day tour of China, then your meaning of, "Chinese are X" would be different than before.
- If you took a couple years of Chinese language at university, got a job in China and lived there for a year or longer, then your meaning of, "Chinese are X" would be different than before
- If you continued your Chinese language studies in China (in Chinese), developed complete fluency in Chinese, married a Chinese and lived within the wider Chinese community for 10, 20, or more years, then your meaning of, "Chinese are X" would be different than before.
Anthropologists and linguists have long argued over the relationships between language, thought, and culture. The way you "naturally" move is also as much a product of your native culture as is the way you "naturally" speak. Hence why this model fits so well here.
As we move through each of these five language-learning and acculturation "levels" we probably find the most people with a "Level 1" understanding and the fewest people with a "Level 5" understanding. The same is true in the internal martial arts community. Here's why.
Assume that your native body-movement language is "English" and the foreign body-movement language you want to learn is "Chinese". Remember, English, Spanish, French, and German languages are all based on or derived from the same Latin alphabet. Chinese is not.
So you come to your first Tai-chi Chuan class only knowing "English". (We'll use Tai-chi because it's the most well-known of the internal martial arts.) You learn open hand and weapons forms. Have you learned "Chinese"? No. You only learned "Spanish". You learned a variant language using your underlying "Latin alphabet".
You go on to learn Tai-chi push-hands. Have you learned "Chinese"? No. You only learned "French". You learned a variant language using your underlying "Latin alphabet".
You go on to learn Tai-chi joint locking and sparring. Have you learned "Chinese"? No.You only learned "German". You learned a variant language using your underlying "Latin alphabet".
From your "English" point of view, you think you are learning something completely different, and developing internal strength, however, the "foreign language" you are learning is merely a variant of a common underlying alphabet. An "M" is still an "M" and a "P" is still a "P". You are merely training a variant of your native body-movement language.
So how do you know when you are beginning to learn "Chinese"; a non-"Latin" body-movement language? You will know when your teacher begins teaching you 放松 and you ask if this is like "M" and your teacher says, "No"! Or your teacher begins teaching you 圆软 and you try to make it work like "P" and your teacher says, "That's wrong." Or you ask your teacher to show you 沉 and you have no letters to equate it to.
When you finally reach the understanding that there is no relation between 放松 and "M" or between 圆软 and "P" or between 沉 and any other "Latin" letter, and you can demonstrate a little 放松 and 圆软 and 沉 then you've advanced to Level 2 as above.
Just as many Americans experience culture shock when they travel to and are immersed in Chinese culture (and vice versa), when you try to make your "P" fit into 放松 or or "M" fit into 圆 or vice versa, you will probably encounter a kind of body-language culture-shock. More on this later.
See Part II: Internal Martial Arts as a Foreign Culture
See also: How Beliefs Can Inhibit Martial Art Skill Development.
And: The Language of Internal Strength