The flow

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Some ways of organizing thought processes are superior to others. In the case of the art of Ba Gua Zhang, the optimal attainment occurs when thought processes "achieve harmony with the Tao" to create power, or te. As previously discussed, traditional Taoist belief is that man is a microcosm, a miniature


Wu Ji (Void) Chaos before creation Taiji/T'ai Chi Grand Principle

Five elements Five symbols of creative and destructive forces in the universe

Ba Gua Eight points of analysis/"Eight trigrams"

in Taoist and Confucian cosmology


Standing exercise/first move in T'ai Chi Ch'uan(boxing) added to term to give name to martial art Basic movements in Xing yi

Sequence and names of the "eight guas." Standard names of the eight basic forms in most styles of Ba Gua martial art.

representation of the larger universal model. Optimal power for man occurs when he ego-disidentifies and becomes "in flow" or in harmony with the Tao. Taoist sages thought that the highest power naturally occurs without effort or individuated ego. Consider the following translation of Chapter thirty-eight of the Tao Te Ching:

The Highest power (te) is not powerful (not trying to be powerful), therefore has true power.

Lower power is always (trying to be) powerful, therefore never (attains) power.51

The subject of "flow" experience has been discussed in recent psychological literature. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, in Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, argues that "flow" is the subjective experience intrinsic to "autotelic" activities (behaviors deeply enjoyable in and of themselves, functioning as their own end). He measured a wide range of life-centered activities and reports of performers such as surgeons, dancers, rock climbers, and chess players being optimally functional when in the "flow state."

Diagram 3

All flow experiences are not the same, but they do appear to share a common structural dimension_First, flow involves a focused and ordered state of consciousness, described by one of the rock climbers as "one-pointedness of mind." The person focuses complete attention on the event or activity Consciousness is highly structured and organized as the information that the mind deals with appears at an optimum level for comprehension.52

This optimal state may have been what the Taoists intuited 2,500 years ago as wu wei or nonaction. Non-ego-based action and lack of self-awareness or self-consciousness, of losing oneself in activity, may produce an optimal state that

Diagram 3

leads to higher levels of functioning. In the example of the rock climber it might be argued that the rock climber is so consumed in the moment that he loses awareness of himself and becomes super-efficient. This model gives us insight into an ideal mental state for internal martial art practice and would explain the emergence of concepts of mind and mental processes appearing in relevant texts at the time when internal martial arts were first written about at the turn of the century. In fact, flow experience may be the most essential key to understanding internal martial arts, the mental state being one of the most important aspects in defining this new category of pugilistic study. It is germane to consider one rock climber's report quoted in Csikszentmihalyi's book:

You're moving in harmony with something else ... it's the Zen feeling, like meditation or concentration. You can get your ego mixed up with climbing in all sorts of ways and it isn't necessarily enlightening. But when things become automatic, it's like an egoless thing... somehow the right thing is done without you ever thinking about it.

Inducement of the flow state seems to be related to the intensity or urgency that particular situations encourage. For example, the surgeon is dealing with a life-threatening situation, as is a rock climber. Any performer, be it on stage or on a football field, is under considerable pressure to perform and is therefore in an intense state of mind. This added importance brings an element of reality and "being completely in the moment," which aids the concentration and focus of attention. Hence, if we can manage to capture and include that same mental direction in the practice of Ba Gua Zhang, we will be transcending and heightening the movements of a true art form.

Most professional athletes who have studied their performances' peaks and valleys know that self-absorbed thought in the midst of performance limits higher performance. Taoists believed that freedom from ego-based thinking was essential for attainment of the ultimate. Every thought produces neuro-chemical reactions in the brain that are potentially counterproductive if sent as "nervous" or "tension" signals to distal muscle groups. Disidentification with the ego may allow a unified mental process to occur that produces a more enhanced mode of functioning. Such optimal functioning may result from yet to be fully understood neuro-chemical patterns and related thought processes that are a by-product of ego-disidentification. For example, consider interviews with great athletes. When describing a great play or incredible performance, they often report "not being aware" or that they were "an observer" of their activity at the height of their greatest play. This is a common example of ego-disidentification in sports. Mental surrender like this applies to Ba Gua Zhang practice and may facilitate optimal neuro-psychological functioning. This is spoken of in Taoist texts as "giving up" any attempt to prioritize the mind, de-emphasizing the importance of knowledge, and instead harmonizing with the Tao. Chuang Tzu, in 300 B.C., wrote:

Your mind has a limit, but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger. If you understand this and still strive for knowledge you will be in danger for certain!53

On the subject of letting go and attuning one's mind and spirit with the Tao, Chuang Tzu's famous story of Cook Ting is often used as an allegory for martial arts mastery:

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-Hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee—zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he was performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time with Ching-shou music.

"Ah, this is marvelous!" said Lord Wen-Hui. "Imagine skill reaching such heights!"

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, "What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now—now I go at it by spirit and don't look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint."54

On discussing the spiritual state of mind and the martial arts, Eugene Herrigel, in the classic Zen in the Art of Archery, writes:

This state, in which nothing definite is thought, planned, striven for, desired, or expected, which aims in no particular direction and yet knows itself capable alike of the possible and impossible, so unswerving is its power—this state, which is at bottom


(Note: Another cryptic instruction handed down to Liu Xing-Han from Liu Bin and Gi Feng-Jeng.)

The secret underlying creation is in the blueprint of the Ba Gua diagram.With diligent practice, strong dedication, and will, the underlying concept of a Gua will suddenly be revealed. It is a mystical experience of the interconnect-edness of life. To touch this, the student "takes a step beyond the normal human realm of existence and experiences a different way of knowing."

purposeless and egoless, was called by the Master truly "spiritual." It is in fact charged with spiritual awareness and is therefore also called "right presence of mind." This means that the mind or spirit is present everywhere, because it is nowhere attached to any particular place. And it can remain present because, even when related to this or that object, it does not cling to it by reflection and thus lose its original mobility. Like water filling a pond, which is always ready to flow off again, it can work its inexhaustible, power because it is free, and be open to everything because it is empty. This state is essentially a primordial state, and its symbol, the empty circle, is not empty of meaning for him who stands within it.55

"To master Ba Gua is to master the soul." Mastery of the soul leads to a deep understanding of the universe. It is thought that Ba Gua martial art derives from the / Ching. In this vein, the twentieth hexagram kuan, as translated here by Richard Wilhelm, addresses the mindset of the sage and is apropos: "It enables them to apprehend the mysterious and divine laws of life, and by means of pro-foundest inner concentration they give expression to these laws in their own persons. Thus a hidden spiritual power emanates from them, influencing and dominating others without their being aware of how it happens."56

To master others requires mere physical force, but to master oneself requires true strength.

Tao Te Ching

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