Doorway To Power

March 14, 2009

I’d like to elaborate on the previous idea of soft and hard power and to continue developing that line of thought. As I’ve probably mentioned a dozen times before, power can be separated along two orthogonal axes. There is soft and hard along one dimension, and internal and external along the second dimension (there are probably several more dimensions others may want to divide kung fu by, but those classifications are by and large regarding different styles, as opposed to different powers).

I previously described soft power as pushing a door open, whereas hard power is breaking the door apart. The differences should be plain with this explanation. Soft power is gradual, while hard power is sudden, explosive. One might say, a hundred pounds of force is still a hundred pounds of force. But though a hundred pounds of force may be required to gain entry–that a door might require a hundred pounds of force to open and a hundred pounds of force to break apart–one method preserves the object, but changes its state from open to closed, while the other maintains the state of being closed while changing the object from a door to pieces of the door’s material. To put it more abstractly, one method preserves intent but changes the direction, while the other method changes the intent but preserves the direction.

This is rather important, as no effective system of fighting exists as either completely soft power or completely hard power. All usable offensive power lies somewhere in between. The difference in styles is only a matter of where along this gradient the style primarily emphasizes. For example, tai chi, with the exception of the Chen branch, emphasizes soft power. As does jujitsu. A style such as hung gar, on the other hand, emphasizes the hard, though to be fair, hung gar is so expansive the statement isn’t entirely accurate. Regarding Chen style tai chi, it contains a healthy dose of hard power, though the focus remains on soft power.

I want to move away from mentioning and using specific styles as examples though, as though it is more often than a hindrance more than help. Any mention of a specific style would only result in distortions from existing preconceived notions of said style whether right or wrong. Instead, I want to focus on the existing door analogy.

Soft power and hard power are complementary, and are mutually exclusive. As well, they are diametrically opposed to each other, one capable of completely neutralizing the other. Soft power seeks to redirect the hard power, while hard power seeks to use speed and strength to drive through before it can be redirected. Imagine trying to push open a door that might fall apart from the weight of the push, or busting open the door that is on a loose set of hinges. The objective is achieved, but the energy expenditure is wholly unnecessary. And in a fight, the most efficient fighter of two equals in strength, speed, and skill is the winner.

The sole objective of a fight is to last longer than the opponent. With hard power–the more intuitive power to use–the idea is to cause enough pain and physical damage to the opponent to cause the other to stop returning the favor. The objective of soft power is a little different. Soft power cannot be used for causing damage. At best, soft power can achieve a throw into a body slam. Thus outlasting the opponent with soft power is literally that: waiting for the opponent to tire while expending as little energy as possible to neutralize attacks. While this sounds great in theory, it is impossible to pull of between two equally skilled combatants in practice.

Both soft and hard systems rely on the horse, the root, the stance. Newton’s second law states that for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. Thus, for us humans to physically move about, we must use the ground as leverage. The ground is what gives us our energy to maneuver. If the opponent is standing on the ground, so must we. Otherwise, there would be nothing for us to push off of, and instead of causing damage on impact, we would fly backwards ourselves. That would look rather pitiful.

To be completely soft, even the foundation must go. Not only is that impossible, the effectiveness of every action would immediately be halved. Thus pure soft power is not practical at all. Instead, soft power is used to complement hard power, to be used during the times in between the hard movements. Such down times have to exist, as by nature, hard power is explosive, and it wouldn’t be terribly explosive if the energy output was constant. Any practitioner of hard power receives a considerable boost in stamina with strong soft power. This is because while someone who knows only hard power is required to use hard power for every motion, one is versed in soft power can substitute soft power in certain instances.

Orthogonal to hard and soft is internal and external. I know I’ve said this before, but internal power is power which an outside observer cannot see, and in fact cannot necessarily detect, while external is easily seen. To continue with the door analogy, internal may be the chemical structure of the door, while external may be the door meeting your face.

Most people confuse internal with soft, and external with hard. Hard external is very obvious. Hard power, as I stated above, is intuitive. External power is intuitive, because that’s the power we use when we do things. Even something as simple as typing this up requires external power. Not much, granted, but the power is still external. External soft is the next easiest to grasp. It requires externally exerting gradual changes in power. The width or shape of the curve is largely unimportant for this categorization, so long as it is a curve and not a spike. There are more ideal shapes and less ideal shapes, and faster is typically better albeit more difficult to create the right shape. But that topic I reserve for another time.

Internal power is incredibly difficult to grasp. What most people think of internal isn’t actually internal, but is either soft external power, or simply hard external power. That is not to say that they don’t know what internal power is, but that most people tend to misattribute the term. Because internal power cannot act on its own, it is not used in the same sense that one might use a limb. Instead, its purpose is to support and perhaps eventually supplant the external power, so that movements suddenly start relying on internal power more and more.

Internal hard power is most easily illustrated by the image of a shaolin monk during a performance, gathering “chi” to a specific part of the body. While this may be how this is explained by the system, the more general explanation is to say that monk is activating the internal hard power in those parts of the body.

Internal soft power is the soft version. It is the most abstruse of powers, as if you really think about it, it means soft power that cannot be seen, effectively no power at all. But it is there. It exists. It is actually the relaxation of the entire body. This is more difficult that it sounds, as most muscles in our bodies are constantly being flexed or are in a perpetual state of usage. This is because to so much as stand, our muscles have to support our frame and prevent it from collapsing due to gravity. The undoing of this intuition is extremely difficult. But if done properly, it can create an enormous boost in soft power.

External power can be trained through movement. Push-ups, sit-ups, practicing forms, etc. are all methods of external training. In order to train internal, the opposite has to happen. Instead of doing, internal training ideally involves no motion at all. It is, in some respects, a form of meditation. Rather than radiate the energy outwards in external training, internal training draws the energy inwards. This is the key component to the internal workout. Just as in external training, there is repetition, there is what I call cycling of energy for internal training. Slow or fast, gradual or sudden, cycling of this energy determines whether it is hard or soft internal power being developed.

Before ending, I want to mention something quick about weapons as a segue to the next post. Weapons are used as an extension of the arm. But a weapon needs to be met with a weapon, while the arm can be met with any part of the body.