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Investing in Loss in Internal Martial Arts by Tom Bisio

Last month we featured an article on Eating Bitter. This article addresses a related topic, “Investing in Loss,” another important concept in Chinese Internal Martial Arts. “Investing in Loss” is frequently mentioned in relation to push hands practice in Tai Ji Quan. In this context it refers to giving up the thought of winning, or pushing the other person, during practice in order to perfect your skills – getting pushed and observing how you were pushed rather than trying to “win” or count coup.

When I learned Xing Yi and Ba Gua Rou Shou (Rolling Hands) the goal was not to “get points,” but to actually just note the gaps in one’s own defense and the other person’s defense. Similarly, in Tai Ji Push Hands my teacher told me not to try to off-balance my partner or “throw them out,” but instead to observe when you were vulnerable and when your partner was vulnerable without taking advantage of that moment. If you are honest with yourself you know when you are vulnerable, off-balance, or when your attention wandered, even if your partner does not take advantage of these moments (or even notice them). Your partner “scores” while you focus on realizing how he or she is doing it. This can be incredibly difficult, particularly when your partner is fixated on pushing you as many times as possible. In addition to gaining subtle high-level skills, this approach is also a way of getting rid of ego to aid the learning process and to become a better person.

In sparring we would also sometimes handicap one person so they would be forced to “invest in loss.” For example not allowing them to kick or only allowing them to throw while their opponent was not handicapped and could use any technique. For example, if the person who  is only allowed to throw can get off even one good throw, they learned something valuable.

These examples, while interesting, and important, are also a bit simplistic. Investing in loss has many deep implications for internal martial artists. Learning internal martial arts requires letting go of previous preconceptions about the learning process, about strength, about power and to some degree letting go of preconceptions about what is important in life. The inability to let go of these preconceptions, the inability to “empty one’s cup,” is why so many people start and then give up the practice of internal martial arts.

When I first trained in Xing Yi Quan with Dr. Vince Black, he made a point of telling me that to learn Xing Yi, I had to let go of my previous conceptions of strength and power. He held a heavy bag and had me hit it hard (at least I though it was hard). He told me the force did not penetrate the bag. I held the bag when he hit with a very relaxed looking punch and I felt the force come through. He then proceeded to show what was wrong with my approach to hitting – that I was equating the sensation of muscular tension and effort with strength and power, a conditioning I had learned in sports and other martial arts. Letting go of using muscular strength is very difficult, even more so if you are physically strong – because using physical strength works much of the time – until of course you encounter someone stronger. In the early meeting with Dr. Black so many years ago, little did I know that letting go of previous conceptions would go much farther than simply delivering a powerful punch.

The internal arts require many stages of letting go of previous conceptions and attachments. Studying a new martial art requires approaching the training method, forms, techniques and strategies of this new art with an open mind. This can be very difficult, particularly if one has achieved skill already in other martial arts. Investing in loss in this context means letting go of what you know and approaching learning with an empty cup, open to experiencing the new art exactly as it is presented, with a minimum of preconceptions and desires. This can be incredibly difficult, but it is necessary step if one desires to achieve mastery.

One of the biggest difficulties is to let go of being goal oriented. For example, ‘if I do these exercises thousand of times and stand every day for an hour, I will get power or gain X ability.” This may be true, but more likely one will not get the desired result with this goal-oriented approach. When one forgets the goal and embraces a process of learning that never ends, often skill appears, and when it does appear,  it is no longer the special, idealized thing you thought it was.

Letting go of preconceptions also involves letting go of your perception of self and the cultural predilections and prejudices of the society in which you live. One of my advanced students could not let go of looking buff and muscular, and so he constantly undermined his internal training with external training exercises that tightened his muscles and reinforced the very neuro-muscular programming (equating the  sensation of muscular tension with strength and power) that he was trying to change through the practice of internal martial arts. His body self-image – wanting to look muscular – was regularly reinforced by friends and colleagues, and a society in which a washboard stomach and sculpted “pecs” are considered to be indicative of fitness and attractiveness.

We want to change and often begin internal martial arts and Daoist practices to change ourselves from the inside out, but at the same time we resist change by refusing to see things as they really are in relation to training, and instead cultivating a fantasy of what the internal arts are. This requires reassigning at a basic level what is really important and stripping away what is non-essential – often at odds with what society, advertising, and friends and family tell us.

When practicing internal martial arts you look the same outside, while you change inside. There is little external validation for your practice – maybe you fight better or move better or feel healthier, but for the most part the validation is internal. In fact, in internal arts, we are actually seeking to pull away from external validation to find an inner truth and inner understanding. This in turn can change one’s value system so that one is at odds with a society where one is judged by what clothes you wear, what car you drive, where you went to school, how much you make, your possessions, the size of your house etc. – the usual validations of success. Letting go of external validations can be very difficult and yet it is one is one of the most valuable things that internal martial arts offers us.

The aspects of internal martial arts training discussed above can be characterized by the Yi Jing hexagram Bo 剝. Bo can mean “Split Apart”, “Peel Away”, or “Husk.” Bo is related to the final month of Fall, just before the beginning of Winter (which in Chinese cosmology begins around November 7th). The trees and plants are “peeled,” their leaves and fruits have fallen to the ground, and their energies are withdrawing in preparation for Winter. At the Winter solstice there will be a renewal as Yang returns to start a new cycle.

Mountain is above Earth in this Hexagram, with the top Yang line is resting on an unstable base – the Mountain is eroding. However the Mountain also represents stability and Earth represents receptivity. Change often involves peeling away the old, and letting go of past conceptions and patterns to embrace new ones. This requires the still stability of the mountain and the receptiveness of the Earth. To accept change requires letting the old fall away, while waiting for a new pattern to emerge. This hexagram exactly describes the process of learning internal martial arts.

Bo Hexagram

Leo Gaje, my first teacher in Filipino Martial Arts, had an amusing way of talking about these ideas: “First you learn and then you forget. To learn you have to forget, when you forget, you remember.”  The very simplicity and humor of this statement helped me in my training both in martial arts and Chinese medicine. It is still part of my understanding of the “learning process” today as I constantly strive to “forget” and in the forgetting find creativity and mastery.

Investing in loss is giving up who we think we are, giving up our preconceptions, and fantasies about how we think things should be, or what we think the masters of old did, so that we can simply be in the moment with what we are learning and what we are observing inside us – this allows one to experience the reality that is unfolding both inside and outside.

My senior school brother Song Zhi Yong told to stand in San Ti Shi and simply sense inside. “Don’t think about power, don’t try to sink Qi to Dantian, don’t think about what you will get from the practice, don’t think about all the things you read in books about Xing Yi Quan – simply stand and sense.” Simple words, but not easy to actually do. Learning to simply sense what is happening as you train is one of the hardest, but also one of the most rewarding aspects of internal martial arts, and it is ongoing – present in every movement, every exercise, every form, every partner drill and application. By doing less, by stripping things away, by “losing”, one actually does more and gains something.

Chapter 41 of the Dao De Jing reiterates the idea of investing in loss in its characteristic pithy and succinct matter: “things are often increased by seeking to diminish them and diminished by seeking to increase them.”