With all epic journeys, it is important to keep the destination firmly in mind, to have a definite purpose as a goal, and to understand what it is we are working for. It is easy to become side-tracked and lost on other paths. And, we need to keep advancing, no matter how incrementally. A Chinese saying goes, “It doesn’t matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop”.
I knew within minutes of meeting my Sifu, from his lecture and demonstration, that I would be practicing Qigong for my entire life. It was what I had been looking for and hadn’t even known it. Upon researching Qigong more, gathering scientific and medical books translated from Chinese on the subject and reviewing the case histories, no doubts whatsoever existed that Qigong was the key to unlock unlimited human potential. With access to this knowledge and the resources, I decided in that moment to take sole responsibility for my current and future health. The notion of ever falling prey to a medical industry that only manages disease and pain by treating symptoms rather than healing, with its treatments invariably causing more harm and complications than the original illness, and one that profits from people being sick, turning patients into clients for life, was not an option. At the beginning of my studies, my Sigong, Grandmaster Yang Meijun, was already into her nineties and vital, so she was living testimony to its proof as a longevity and vitality skill. She once said, “As long as you practice well, earnestly and persistently no disease will afflict you”. I understood if I was not willing to treat Qigong as prescribed then there was little point in doing it at all.
Some students come with very set, often unrealistic, ideas about what they expect to achieve, within arbitrary timeframes, and with minimal work. It seems quite common for them to come to a point where they feel that they are not making improvements and not progressing. Often, this is an erroneous perception. The simple truth is that every single time we practice, we are improving, as we are gaining more experience and clarity, and coming to understand about ourselves as much as the skill. Even if we may not see or notice, at first, others certainly will. Whatever we put in, we get out. It’s as simple as that.
Fear of stasis seems to be part of the human condition. It seems innate to be constantly rushing about, being busy, and going nowhere instead of being still and growing upwards. Part of the problem lies with today’s society, and Attention Deficit Disorder, a restless impatience and boredom in need of constant stimulation, or else being so goal-oriented that only the most immediate quantifiable results count for anything. It can take up to thirty-five years for an oak tree to grow, and every day you will not notice the growth that much, unlike say bamboo which can grow almost three feet in a day. The Chinese say (concerning traditional skill), “Three years small success. Six years moderate success. Nine years big success”. They also say, “Treat one year as a day”. So, clearly to have unrealistic expectations within the first few years, when we should not expect too much, is setting ourselves up for failure. And, that is with consistent daily practice! Those not prepared to work with sincerity should really not expect anything at all.
Few remain on The Plateau for very long. One of two things is likely to happen: Either students will gain fresh insight, inspiration, and find the focus and a renewed enthusiasm and vigor for training, to continue with the ascent, or will lose all impetus, so practice becomes even more haphazard and sporadic until they give up altogether. This is tantamount to falling off the mountain and crashing back down to ground level. Students in the first situation tend to be in a minority for when the thrill is gone, it seems to be well and truly gone, and all the benefits or healings gained seem to be quickly forgotten.
There is, however, one other alternative, whereby practitioners remain on The Plateau indefinitely. This is because there is no discontent or dissatisfaction to discourage them. These students do not understand, or even care that the principles must be correct for the skill to work as designed. “Ignorance is Bliss”, as they say, well and truly. They will continue to maintain their minimal routine, whatever it is, with no discernible change in understanding, experience or ability, from decade to decade. This plateau includes all of those that learn from video or drop studies before acquiring Base Camp foundations. They genuinely believe they are progressing, but with no teacher to correct them and no Gongfu brothers and sisters to compare with it is easy to perpetuate this delusion. It also includes those long-term class students that attend more for the social aspect, or the feeling the class itself offers them, working with a collective of good, positive energy. But, classes are not intended for practice; they are for learning. Practice is for the rest of the week, in order to gain and build upon experience. Many groups we see in parks throughout China, and the world, just follow a leader or group of leaders. No formal teaching exists. Most members of the group cannot ever manage to do by themselves and are only able to perform as long as they copy others. Not truly practitioners, they are literally born on The Plateau, and they never leave it.
Those that gain euphoria and exuberance from the movement and deep natural breathing are more apt to want to practice as often as possible, with increasing conviction from validation, and far less inclined to ever become denizens of The Plateau. However, a great many people today lack all awareness of their bodies and sensitivity to feelings of wellbeing. It is as if that switch that forms the connection between the mind and body is permanently set to “Off”, and has never been turned on. Some of those that use their mind excessively become imprisoned by it and live solely within their own heads. So, when they practice subtle internal Chinese movement (as opposed to Western exercise that can be performed like an automaton without ever engaging the senses), they cannot feel, or discern what is happening inside. Because of a hyperactive mind, relaxation (the first internal training principle!) does not come naturally, and there is a tendency to rush, and move at double tempo. In this situation, it is patently obvious that there is no awareness of both the body and the breath because there is no synchronization between them.
Qigong, most importantly, means “Breathing Skill” (as well as “Internal Energy Work”), and those rushing through routines, without due care and attention, without feeling and awareness, forget about mindful breathing entirely. Breathing with awareness is to exist in the present moment and to enter Dao, harmonizing with the natural order and flow of the universe (the highest purpose of Qigong!) while those rushing mindlessly, carelessly and neglecting to synchronize breath with the movement are existing solely in the future. When I observe students practicing in this manner, I frequently remind them, “If you are not aware and in control of the breath, you are not doing Qigong”. This makes me wonder, of the millions of internal practitioners in the world, how many are just like this, simply going through the motions and, in effect, just pretending? Habitual offenders are condemned to The Plateau, by default. Until this mental blockage is overcome, it is impossible to ascend any further, regardless of how much knowledge and forms are accrued. Knowledge may grow, only to expand further outwards, like a waistline, becoming bloated with forms neither practiced nor fully understood, but it can never grow upwards, toward the summit.
Some seek internal training in order to fix something within themselves, such as the need to relax or “de-stress”. They read about the benefits and results (testimonials/ case histories), yet despite being taught the method just never come to experience firsthand and taste it for themselves, and then they become frustrated, lose hope and give up. This is very sad, as the one thing they need most and is available to them they cannot access, and then voluntarily close themselves off to access altogether. The problem lies in their own admittance they are trying so hard to relax or feel the internal connection or movement of Qi. The harder they try the more they are setting themselves up to fail. It is like trying to hold water, or fine sand, in the palm by squeezing the fingers tightly together. The harder we squeeze the more we lose. Instead of trying, we need to do the very opposite which is to let go and relax. Relaxation is the very first principle of all internal training. The mental rigidity or impatience with which some approach the skill is antithetical to this principle, which is why some will only ever know the external movement and fail to tap into the mysteries of the subtle internal body.
Trying to feel becomes a dead end because it is the wrong point of focus and the wrong order of progression. Instead of concentrating all energies on this, it is preferable to practice the forms and just gain familiarity with the movements and sequence first. When we no longer need to think to remember, then we can really let go, and focus on what is happening internally, and then feeling comes naturally and instinctively. Trying implies failure. Stop trying! Just do! And, keep doing! It is the process that matters. Trying only makes it that much harder with the added pressure to succeed, and what should be a joyous journey into self-knowledge can be turned into a chore!
Some flounder on the Plateau as a result of self-sabotage, of which most engaging in this act are likely not even aware. A wide swath of the general public gives themselves mental blocks and make irrational decisions. Some are even capable of giving themselves physical ailments. Why would a person wreck their own plans with no good reason? Famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung explains, “It frequently happens that unconscious motives overrule conscious decisions, especially in matters of vital importance”. This hidden or repressed aspect of the psyche, unwilling or unable to integrate with the conscious mind, the mysterious force steering people away from their goals and what they want to accomplish, he called, “The Shadow”. This can be a result of (childhood) trauma, unmet needs, and other reasons. Statistically, and evidentially, some of this demographic will be students. These students can’t help but bring their “Shadow” with them to classes, and prove to be resistant to instructions and corrections, and create issues. Most will fail to practice, outside of class, when they know they should. Instead of keeping this information to themselves, some elect to announce this like an achievement, while others appear to run a guilt program and “beat themselves up” over it. Where else can students like these end up, but other than on The Plateau?
Personally, I feel very fortunate never to have experienced the despair and frustration of life on The Plateau. There are periods where learning new material comes few and far between. It is during the fallow periods that we are afforded the opportunity to practice what we have learned, to consolidate and gain the invaluable, incomparable personal experience that allows us to come to understand the skill in time. This is “climbing the mountain”; not just accumulating. We can learn but not remember, we can remember but not understand, and we can understand but not necessarily know. Knowing comes only with experience. Some want or expect the teacher to provide all the answers for them, but some answers can only be found within direct experience, as a result of dedicated practice. This is true knowing.
In climbing the mountain of internal training, as skill improves, our Qi comes to operate on a higher frequency and vibration, as it is constantly being refined. The functions of the external sensory organs become fortified because the internal organs connected to them become stronger. Also, the reservoir of internal Qi becomes filled so there is more available to reach and nourish the brain, firing the synapses and awakening the dormant parts left unused over generations. This is developing the human “potential” and Mind. As a result, our senses become heightened, and we become awakened and more aware of our environment, in tune with nature/ the cosmos (Dao) and more observant of the subtleties, patterns, signs and synchronicities of life. Every moment that we are focused, aware, and in the moment, is alive, pulsating, and imbued with deeper meaning and purpose; the opposite of a humdrum existence to which many unconsciously confine themselves.
Perhaps though The Plateau itself is good, and necessary, existing solely to separate the wheat from the chaff? There are many reasons for why students can end up on the Plateau, but practically speaking, all that really matters can be boiled down to nothing more than lack of commitment and insufficient practice. The only way to get off The Plateau is through renewed commitment and sufficient practice. My Sigong, Grandmaster Yang Meijun, also said, “Remember Zheng (Uprightness), Zhun (Accuracy), and Shi (Honesty). You must be principled, precise and persistent in practice, not half-hearted and chasing the latest thing, trying different things all the time. Otherwise, all your efforts will be wasted”. This is where so many go wrong and why they end up on The Plateau.
By Adam Wallace