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Author Interview #3 Jess O’Brien

July 19, 2007

Taoist icon, Weaverville Joss House

Taoist icon, Weaverville Joss House, California. Photo by Jess O’Brien

Ba Gua practice, San Francisco
Ba Gua practice, San Francisco, California. Photo by Isaac Kamins

Ba Gua practice, Oakland, CA
Ba Gua practice, Oakland, California. Photo by Eric Nomburg

One of our interns, Rachel Siegel, came up with some questions for one of our authors, Jess O’Brien. She sent him the following, which he then answered in the form of an essay. I hope you enjoy our third Blue Snake Books author interview. If you’d like to join in the discussion, let us know how you’d answer some of the same questions.


What is Tai Chi Chuan?
Why is it so useful for health?
How can soft style martial arts overcome strength and youth?
What kind of mysterious and unique training methods do internal styles use?
What role does mindfulness and meditation play in these practices?
How can martial arts be spiritual?
What is the purpose of studying internal martial arts?
What have you learned from the interviews you have conducted?
How did you become interested in martial arts?
How do Tai Ji Quan, Xing Yi Quan, and Ba Gua Zhang differ?
What are some changes in your life that you directly attribute to your studies of the martial arts?
What is qi?
Why should it be important to those practicing martial arts?
How do the martial arts help to foster mind body unity?
How do internal martial arts differ from more traditional ones?
What are the dangers or risks associated with martial arts?
Are there any contraindications to performing Nei Jia Quan?
Where are the internal martial arts most practiced?
How can the reader get involved with internal martial arts?
Where can I find more information on Nei Jia Quan?


The Chinese martial arts have a number of unique qualities that make them attractive. One thing that has really struck me in the short time I’ve been
involved in the arts is that there is not really a Western equivalent to the place that martial arts has in Chinese society. It shares some qualities with western sports in that it teaches methods of physical development, along with perseverance, concentration, endurance, and courage. However, it has some other aspects that we normally don’t associate with our sports here, such as the study of history, culture, and philosophy, alongside family values, healing
skills and meditative practices. Chinese martial arts are deeply interwoven with long lived and highly developed cultural traditions.


I believe that these other aspects are part of what has drawn many Western students to the study of Chinese martial arts. The relationship between
instructor and apprentice is one that we really don’t have in our culture at this time, and martial arts has reintroduced this to our society. This is one reason that Chinese martial arts will never truly fit in with the world of sport fighting and health club workouts. It fills different needs and simply exists in a category of it’s own. It’s neither better or worse than conventional sports, it’s just a separate thing.


Another unique aspect of Chinese martial arts is the cultivation of a strong connection between mind and body. By combining intense, complex movements with a deeply concentrated, focused intent, the practitioner slowly brings about a harmonious state where the entire person enters into a very fluid, cohesive sense of embodiment.


As our current medical and scientific investigations are showing, the relationship between mind and body has many powerful implications for physical and mental health. Chinese martial arts are a way to build this skill of integrating calmness of mind with movement of body.


Tai ChiAbove and beyond the physical and mental aspects of training, Chinese martial arts all have a spiritual aspect. This is particularly obvious when you look at the internal styles of Chinese martial art (Nei Jia Quan). Ba Gua Zhang is based on a method of circle walking meditation originally taken from Taoism. Tai Ji Quan takes as it’s central symbol the yin-yang symbol that is also originally Taoist, and deeply ingrained in Chinese philosophy. All of the internal systems include practices that engender very deep states of calm, peaceful, mindful awareness.


For example, every school of Ba Gua Zhang teaches students to walk in a circle of varying size, using a variety of simple to complex stepping patterns. Once the physical movements are memorized, the student then begins the actual meat of the practice, which is to calm the mind and body again and again, relaxing every joint, muscle, bone, organ, and eventually every thought, emotion and memory that arises. Over and over again the student follows this training methodology, and each system has a complete system of exercises for bringing the mind and body to a progressively deeper and calmer state.


All the while the practitioner continues to walk the circle, doing gradually more complex forms at faster and faster speeds. Step by step the student is able to coordinate the relaxation with the movements, and over time is able to engender a very alive and aware state of being that is both calm and incredibly responsive.


This kind of training is not actually spiritual per se, but it uses some of the same things that spirituality does. Both martial arts and spiritual cultivation demand an intense degree of concentration and calmness. The difference is that the martial artist then uses this state of being to supercharge their fighting skill, and help themselves reach a whole new level of responsiveness and efficiency in facing a life or death situation.


Sparring and full contact fighting are critical practices for all martial artists, and all of the body and mind training is put to use in that context. Again though, this is where martial arts stand apart from sport. Martial artists seek out fighters of the best caliber to challenge themselves. Every win or loss allows the student to seek more deeply the resources they need to strengthen their mind and body. This practice is one of the best ways to experiment with and test the mind/body connection. However, sparring is just another drill, just like the push ups, the forms and the standing or circling meditation. Sparring is not the goal in itself, it is just another way to train along the way.


In martial arts the path IS the goal. Although this kind of practice isn’t attractive to everyone, it really does fill a void in our society and brings many
people to Chinese martial arts who seek a holistic practice that will benefit all aspects of their lives, rather than seeking to win some particular competition.


Spirituality is perhaps something even more important than fighting skill or athletic prowess. And Chinese martial arts provide very solid basic training in concentration, patience, awareness and sensitivity. These things help one along their spiritual path, and indeed, some martial arts include actual spiritual work, such as meditation, prayer or interaction with mystical beings. However, it is important to recognize that martial arts and religion are two separate things. Doing kung fu won’t make you a better person, unless you work at that specifically. As in any cultivated practice, the more you develop
your concentration and attention, the more you can apply it to any aspect of your life. The Chinese martial arts provide a unique and compelling way to
strengthen these resources.

Jess O'Brien, author photo
Jess O’Brien, a freelance martial arts researcher and editor, located in Oakland, California, is the editor of Nei Jia Quan, Internal Martial Arts Teachers of Tai Ji Quan, Xing Yi Quan, and Ba Gua Zhang.


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