內外相合 – Nei Wai Xiang He, or “The Internal and External Merge Together” is a good old Tai Chi saying. It’s one of those less common proverbs that has been more or less forgotten. There are far more popular ones and there might be a “Western” reason for why this one is less popular. But before dwelling too deeply into the minds of West and East, let’s first dissect the proverb a bit.
Understanding the proverb
Nei means internal, Wai means external. Those two characters are the same as used in “internal” versus “external” martial arts, as in “neijiaquan” or the internal family, or school, of pugilism. The characters are also the same used for “external” and “internal” medicine, or Waidan and Neidan. Waidan was understood as medicine taken from outside as pills. Neidan, or “internal elixir” became known as a term on a certain type of Daoist exercise and a whole philosophy.
“相合”, “xiānɡhé” is a word or expression meaning “to fit”, “come together”, “interact with”, “harmonise with” “coincide with” or “coincidence” and can also be translated to “congruent” in English. As Chinese is a contextual language, the exact meaning depends on how it is used in what situation.
The proverb 內外相合 is mentioned in Yang Cheng Fu’s ghost written Tai Chi book “太極拳使用法” or “Methods of Applying Tai Chi Boxing“. The translation of 相合, Xiang he, as “merge together” is something I borrowed from Brennan’s free, non-profit translation of the same work. His whole translation of the proverb “Nei wai xianghe” is “Inside and outside merge together”. However I would argue that “Internal” and “external” is more logical in this Tai Chi context, but still, I do agree with his translation of “xianghe” as “merge”.
In older Chinese texts, when something is said to be together as one, or to “be one“, usually the characters “he yi”, 合一, is used. For instance, the Neo-confucianist philosopher Wang Yangming of the Ming Dynasty “School of Mind” created his own proverb, that says that knowledge and action are together as one inseparable unit, or: “Knowing and Doing are One”, zhi xing he yi, 知行合一. Here “He yi” means that they are connected as one, but the two characters could also be translated as “harmonizing together” or “melt together” and similar depending on the context.
I believe that the characters “xiang” and “he”, or here translated as “merge” should be used in the same way as “he yi”. In Tai Chi, Nei Wai Xianghe, means that the internal and external cannot be separated, or that they must be used together. They must be used in a unison, as a whole. But how? And what consequences does this have in a practical sense?
What to merge?
In old Chinese tradition, there are no real boundaries or limits from where the “internal” starts, and there is no exact definition of what is “external” compared to internal. This also depends on context. This can be a bit hard for westerners to understand, but there is no real definition of what is what, as they cannot be separated and must be used together.
In one of his books, Sun Lutang, who is often mistaken for creating the dichotomy between “internal” and “external”, said that martial arts styles are not actually internal or external, but that only “Qi” can be internal or external. (I’ve written more about this here)
But here is a problem of language. In the paragraph where this view is stated by Sun Lutang, some translators of this paragraph use “Qi” as it is, and others translate “qi” as breath. But, and as not many know, “Qi” can also be translated as “movement”. So exactly what did Sun Lutang mean by “Qi”? In his Bagua book, Sun Lutang says that most people use “post-heavenly qi”, but you must learn to use “pre-heavenly qi” ( I explain what pre-heavenly principle means in this post).
My teacher meant that “post”- and “pre-heavenly” movement should be the correct expression. He used this expression, “pre-heavenly movements” about building up a certain type spontaneous movements, and about letting the body work as much as possible by itself and to understand what the body “wants”. (If you want to learn more about this concept, you can read about it here.)
“Movement” is also a better word to use in order to describe what Sun Lutang really meant when he says that only “Qi” can be either external or internal. Looking at any definition of the “Qi” as energy, then Qi is just Qi, it can not be external. So he cannot have meant that energy “Qi” can be either external or internal. And breath is also neither internal or external, it can only be higher or lower, shallow or deep, but it cannot be internal or external.
However, both Qi and breath can be used in an internal or external manner. Using qi or breath in the internal arts means that we use it by stimulating it or circulate it by moving. However, just to complicate it yet a bit further, there can be several things that could be regarded as movements, internally and externally, as physical movements and breath.
So when we think about internal versus external, or when we try to understand what to merge together, we should consider all internal and external aspects. Mind, heart and breath might be considered as internal, outer form and physical appearance should be. All difference aspects and both external and internal movements are important. So if a martial art merge together “external” and “internal” it means that no art could be considered completely “internal” or “external”. But the focus in practice can be different between styles.
When theory leads to separation
Here in the West, many define “internal” as “mind”. Sun Lutang didn’t even mention “mind” when he discussed a definition of “internal”, but still, many here in the West would say that it’s the use of “mind” is what is internal. Sometimes maybe they do this because they regard everything physical as “external”.
But just by assuming this, they have made a basic error. They have already separated what they believe is internal from what they define as external, and I believe that this type of mind-set is wrong. Many interprete the saying: “Yi leads the qi, the qi leads the body” as that the mind must teach the body to follow the order of the mind or thought.
Some people do this by trying to “think ahead” of their movements and try to let the body to follow their “yi”, or “intent”. In my opinion, this is also wrong. By doing this you have already separated what you believe is internal and external. There is no need to practice your mind or intent in any special way. Instead you must use everything you believe is internal and external together as they are one.
Hence, they separate the mind from the body in a way that was never intended. The mind and body should move together, not separately. You can’t really find a harmonious equality between outer and inner if one must be taught to lead the other.
In Chinese tradition, body and mind are always connected. Your thinking will always have an impact on emotion, and emotion will always impact the thinking. Thinking and emotion will always have an impact on the breath. And if you cannot control and your mind or breath, your “Qi” won’t sink down to the lower Dantian. And if Qi cannot sink down to the Dantian, the qi cannot circulate and Essence cannot be refined.
In Chinese tradition, you cannot practice one aspect by separating it from the other. In fact, the saying “Yi leads the Qi, the Qi leads the body” is just a way to describe how the mind and body works naturally. You cannot force it and it’s not necessary to train this type of relationship further.
The Mind – not over – but together with matter
However, you can use your yi, or mind, to “merge the internal and external together”. But this doesn’t mean that the mind forces any type of control over the body.
First, I would rather speak about a “mind-state” than about “yi” or just “mind”. The correct state of mind in Tai Chi is anything else than a controlling or forcing type of mind. Instead, it’s a relaxed, calm and an “empty” state of mind where no logical thinking, worrying or anxiety belong or can interfere. Both the mind and heart are calm and still.
If you use the name “Wuxin” (No heart-mind) or “Wuji” (non-differentiated) to describe or name this mind-state doesn’t matter. It will be a most tangible feeling of emptiness together with a strong sense of awareness regardless what you call it. It’s not a sleepy, drowsy kind of calmness. It’s empty from though and emotion, calm and relaxed. But from this, you will also sense a razor sharp awareness where you experience that you can see everything
You need to learn how to understand this mind-state by your own experience. But later when you have got used to this feeling and get to know it better, you can learn how to tap into this mind-state instantaneously and by will.
When you practice this mind-set, you should not only let your mind relax, but also let your whole body relax and let the strength sink down to the feet and let your breath become deep and full. Everything in this whole process must work together and as a whole.
But if you find this mind-set and practice it, just the mind-set alone will make everything come together naturally, everything internal and external will fall into place automatically without you having to do anything special.
I am not speaking about theory or anything intellectual. This is not something you should “think”, but something you need to learn how to do. It will become something direct and instantaneous. Merely the thought or intent to relax either the mind or the body will trigger the whole process, everything together.
Still, there is no need to rush anything. Trying to force something that needs to be part of a larger progress will lead to mistakes. If you try to hard or too early, you might fool yourself that you have accomplish something that you still have not. When you have achieved this stage, you will now. I don’t believe that you have to rush, it is better to leran Tai Chi step by step. And you will have a long journey ahead of you. If you haven’t read my outlining of a learning process of body mechanics in Tai Chi, you should do this as well.
If you are a beginner, you need to remember that you will have to learn the form, get accustomed by a certain way of moving and use your own balance, before you should even consider “merging internal and external” on a deeper level. However, practicing on how to coordinate everything you have learned yet, together as a whole, is a good start and something worth to always keep in mind.
From Doing to Being
However, when you have gone through all of the learning stages, there is one clear separation you need to make. There will come a time when you need to separate yourself from the beginners mind-set and start to practice your art in a new way. You need to practice your art as someone who knows Tai Chi instead of learning it.
For all of us, it is all to easy to get stuck in all our flaws and mistakes. We often practice our art in a segmented, detailed manner. Many of us will focus on something special while practicing our forms. One day one as we practice our forms and drills, we might focus on keeping the head erect and straight, and let the head follow the body. And another day we might focus a little bit more on moving from the Dantian. And sometimes we might to correct our stepping and control the knee alignment. And of course, there are other things as learning how to store and release movements, and things as opening the kua. Yes, there are indeed many aspects we can go through again and again and come back to.
But here is the thing. As soon as we try to do something more or extra with a certain part of our body, we have gone back to a beginners stage, a stage where we separate both the mind from the body, and the the body itself to different parts. This type of practice is very good for beginners and intermediate practitioners, but on a later stage, it could be a good way to practice occasionally only.
When you have reached a point when you feel that you do most of the details right, and you feel comfortable in that you understand and can use the shenfa, or “Tai Chi body method”, you need to progress further. Instead of looking at details and flaws, only the mind-state, or the whole mind-body state, should be of concern. When the time is right, instead of just “doing”, you will reach the state of “being”.
As you focus on, and tap into, the correct mind and body state, everything you have learned so far will come together naturally and everything fall into place by itself. Now, you have reached the state where you don’t need to focus on any kind of detail, looking for mistakes or make sure that you do everything correct. Instead just “being” is enough for the mind and body to make every piece fall into the correct place. The body, breath, mind – everything will correct itself by itself, just by the state of “being”.
It might be hard to understand this, that you won’t need “to do” anything specific any longer, or to understand how everything can arrange itself correctly by itself. It will be hard to understand anything of this if you haven’t experienced this already. Why so few speak about these things, and so few try to explain them, can give you a hint about how hard it is to reach this stage and how few of all those “masters” who writes Tai Chi books have reached it. However, when you understand these things by your own personal experience, you can also claim that you now understand the deeper meaning of – Nei Wai Xiang He – How the Internal and External merge together.