"Internal" and Bragging Rights
Perhaps a bit deeper than that?
Let me make one comment up front in order to set the stage. A lot of the talk about “internal” that is currently trendy assumes that there is a certain grouping of basic elements that is “internal” and that a number of different people have those elements and that they use different approaches. In other words, essentially all those different approaches are viable for the assumed target-group. I think that’s where the big misunderstanding is.
The misunderstanding probably starts from the assumption that whatever internal strength is, it’s reasonably contained in a small group of knowledge and skills (not to mention buzzwords), sort of like martial-arts techniques. So a person often gets an impression of a topic, for instance “dantian”, and thinks that at least that portion of “internal” is reasonably understood and simply needs some refinement and training.
Or perhaps a person wants to do “standing meditation” and assumes the general posture, accepting perhaps a few tweaks and adjustments from a real expert (hopefully... an amazing number of people get adjustments from the local self-proclaimed expert and convince themselves that they feel something special). I’ve seen people spend hours a day for years going mostly on the general shape of a standing posture, convinced that they’re doing the proper ritual.
Another common skillset is standing against a push. I’ve had various people show up at workshops convinced that what they were already doing as “stand immovable against a push” was what I was talking about. Their general idea seems to be focused on the simple idea of “several guys at this seminar have tried to move me as I’ve shown them how immovable I am, so therefore I have already arrived and needn’t pay any attention to useless suggested corrections”. And by gum, they don’t pay any attention. “Ah yeah, we used to do this with Tohei back in the day”. Or, “This is the way we do it in our Koryu art and look how good it is”. We’re talking about very different things, but they’re focused on the idea that the local yokel beside them can’t move them, so mission accomplished for “internal”.
Or perhaps, basic jin. Rough, muscle-jin is not that hard to learn and a lot of teachers essentially pattern their special teaching around a little bit of jin and a lot of techniques. Using some bit of muscle-jin along with normal movement is the most common thing I see in people claiming that they’re “internal too”.
“Dantian” has become something suddenly everyone has in the last year or two, it seems. Look at this quote that someone recently made on a web-forum as part of an argument that his style is "internal", too:
if somebody comes to see me and i can take their center from first contact (and i generally can), then we have nothing else to talk about. if they really understand what "using the dan tien" means, then i wouldn't be able to capture them so easily.
There are several things in the statement that are worth thinking about. First of all, it’s not “when I meet someone”, it’s when they make the pilgrimage to him. He can “take their center”.... what does that mean? Even someone with normal strength can take someone’s center, so that doesn’t mean anything about “dantian”. Since he “usually can”, there is no more to talk about? That’s pretty lofty. How does he mean to take their center? In a fight or in his favorite game of rou-shou, push-hands, chi sao, etc.? I.e., his home game on his own turf or does he mean just he and his lowly opponent just touching each other without movement?
How does “dantian” come into what would be a real capture of someone’s center? The way it’s really done is with jin, which is intent, not dantien. So we already have an idea how “internal” he is.
Anyway, I hope that any moderately skilled person who can’t be captured at first touch simply walks away without talking anymore. You certainly don’t want to give this guy any more ammunition to make his brags even worse!
What “dantian” too often becomes is simply a buzzword that is used to impress beginners. The talkers often don’t really know, but they will still throw out the term, so any thinking martial-artist should take the moment to ask them what they mean. If there is no clear-cut answer, but only a drift into other areas, you’re probably being strung along with the typical “we’re internal” stuff that has been popular since the days of Wing Chun claims on rec.martial-arts back in the early 90’s.
If you want to see if someone is “internal” who is tossing in words like “dantian”, have them stick their arm out straight and move it with their dantian while you feel their dantian. I suspect that some of these guys will now start faking a coordinated arm and stomach motion, hoping that is satisfactory and will get them by.
Another thing that needs to be looked at with a lot of the people talking about “internal” is their size and strength. Back in the days of the old Neijia List, I made some instant enemies by pointing out that the teachers all bragging about how good their “internal strength” was... well, they all happened to be big guys and some of them were pretty strong. I also happen to be a big guy and pretty strong and I often point out to someone while pushing hands that part of the reason they’re having trouble dealing with me is that I’m big. Mass and strength count for a lot. Most of the large “teachers” of internal strength wouldn’t have their purported skill level if they were medium-sized guys. They’d be using a lot of muscle to make up for the edge their size now gives them. That should be a common-sense thought that everyone quietly has when looking at a large, strong “teacher”.
So there is a lot of talk about “internal”, but really what most people have is a little bit of muscle or maybe some muscle jin, maybe some neigong training, and a number of nifty techniques. Techniques are not the criteria for internal strength, though, so they should be left out of any discussion about basic internal strength.
What we have is a spectrum of martial skills ranging from muscle and skill at, say, “rolling hands” or “push hands”, all the way to full-bore use of dantian and suit, jin, pressure, and so on. The idea that all the people claiming to do “internal” are doing the same thing is simply wrong... and naive. The “we are internal, too” bragging stuff has been a western mainstay since at least the Wing Chun wars on rec.martial-arts and it’s nothing new except to the newcomers.
So the next time you hear descriptions about various people all doing "this stuff" or "internal", without making any distinctions about what "internal strength" really is, be aware that you're probably listening to the typical low-level discussions that are a mainstay of discussion boards.