Here is a link to a very noteworthy interview between Ken Gullette, host of the Internal Fighting Arts podcast, and Marin Spivack 默灵, the senior western disciple of Chen Family Taijiquan Gongfu master Chenyu 陈瑜.
The interview linked above is actually part two of a longer interview, recorded in late 2014 and posted in two separate segments of approximately one hour each (not counting introductory commentary at the beginning of each segment).
While both parts of the entire interview are very worthwhile, it is one particular aspect towards which the discussion in the second part of the interview relentlessly moves that I wanted to call attention to here: namely, the question of the value and purpose of years-long disciplined pursuit of mastery of one of the arts handed down through the centuries such as Taiji (among many others preserved in various cultures around the globe).
Marin Spivack has clearly spent decades in just such a disciplined pursuit of mastery, and has clearly thought deeply about this subject, and as such what he has to say on the question is especially valuable.
Beginning about the 58:00 minute mark in the second segment of the interview, linked above, 默灵 says:
It's for individuals who want to cultivate themselves. They want to cultivate strength, health, maybe some wisdom if they're lucky [ . . . ] and they want to cultivate martial ability. Now, martial ability can be cultivated. Maybe it will save your life, maybe it won't -- that depends on you, how far you want to take that -- but fighting ability can definitely be cultivated. And then, the other part of it, which is the Taiji side, meaning: yin, yang, and the cultivation, the flow that we get involved with, the transformation side of it, okay. There is a qi gong that is part of this gong fu. And so, when you cultivate it to intermediate and to advanced level, then you are cultivating martial arts and qi gong at the same time. And so essentially it's like a practice of cultivating yourself into like a forged weapon, and at the same time as cultivating your balance, so you're not an aggressive weapon but you're this -- you become a stronger person. It's like self-actualization, you know. You become a stronger person. Not just because you can fight and all that, but you will increase your confidence in that area: that's an old tried and true saying in martial arts. But you also just cultivate your actual person -- your character, your strength of character, having gone through something that requires that kind of perseverance -- and you also, you know, if you really cultivate this kind of gong fu, you start to establish a space that is outside of mainstream society and mainstream thought. You're establishing a private place for you to cultivate yourself. And I don't mean your "self" like the one that Buddhism wants to dissolve. I mean just your own existence. You're cultivating that container, that awareness that you exist within, using martial arts as a vehicle for that [ . . . ].There is much more in the discussion of this important subject that is worthy of careful consideration, including the importance of finding authentic transmissions of received traditions such as the one Marin Spivack is describing (as opposed to commercialized or even we might say "westernized" versions of ancient traditions that have lost their connection to the ancient stream), as well as the pitfalls of ego and "politics" that can develop among groups of individuals who are studying a difficult and demanding art that takes years to pursue (and in which the temptation to compare one's progress or status versus others in the group can become a serious distraction or obstacle to the actual pursuit of the goals described in the quotation above).
I would argue that many of the insights expressed by 默灵 Marin Spivack in the passage cited above resonate with insights that John Anthony West has expressed concerning his analysis of what the culture of ancient Egypt was about -- at one point saying that Egypt's art and culture appears to have been aimed towards "a continuous exercise in the development of individual consciousness" (Serpent in the Sky, page 90).
In that discussion in Serpent in the Sky, John West considers the question of why they ancient Egyptians chose to work their sculpture in some of the hardest and most difficult materials, including diorite and granite, and concludes that "achievement takes place only in the face of commensurate opposition" and that "by forcing artists to work with the most intractable material [ . . . ] the sages of Egypt provided their artists with a challenge that gave them an opportunity to achieve a pitch of mastery they might never achieve left to their own devices" (89).
A few pages later, he reproduces part of an Old Kingdom illustration showing "ritual dance movements" which he notes are "curiously similar to those practiced today in certain groups devoted to 'inner development'" -- in other words, they appear to be an ancient Egyptian form of Yoga, or something related to kung fu and Taiji (page 93).
In other words, the benefits and concepts that Marin Spivack has observed through his own discipline appear to be part of a very ancient stream, one that was central to the cultures of antiquity found in different parts of the world, and one from which modern western society has too often been disconnected.
It is also noteworthy that the motions of arts such as Taiji are often explicitly connected to the natural world, as well as to the infinite realm of the heavens.
The very name of the art of Taiji -- written with the Chinese characters 太 which is pronounced "tai" (Mandarin) or "taai" (Cantonese) and means "ultimate," "highest" or "utmost," and 極 (in the traditional characters, or 极in simplified characters) and means "roof beam," "throne," "ultimate," "highest degree" -- appears to have a possible celestial reference. The second of those two words, indicated by the second of the two characters, which contains the "tree" radical 木 to indicate its "pole-like" nature, is also used to refer to the North Star (which we call Polaris) -- and thus contains an implicit reference to the great axis of the heavens, the point around which the celestial realms all turn (as a function of our earth's own rotation upon its axis).
Further, as I have noted in numerous previous discussions, the number of motions in some traditional Taiji forms is 108, which is a number filled with celestial significance, related to the longest of all the celestial cycles preserved in the world's mythology: the great and inexorable turning of the ages of precession.
Precessional numbers such as 72 (the number of years it takes for the heavens to be "delayed" by one degree due to the motion of precession), 108, 216, 432, and so on are preserved in the Vedic texts of ancient India, in the Norse myths of Scandinavia, in the Odyssey of ancient Greece, and in countless other myth-traditions from around the globe.
Precessional numbers are also preserved in the specific ratios of numerous ancient stone monuments around our planet -- some of which are separated from one another by 108 degrees of longitude.
Many traditions encourage the repetition of mantras 108 times per chanting session.
And, other martial arts also incorporate the number 108 -- the famous wooden man post 木人樁 (or "wooden dummy") of Wing Chun is also traditionally understood to contain 108 movements or 108 applications (this tradition is not a secret and can be found in many places on the web using a simple search for the words "wooden dummy 108" or similar searches).
Martin Spivack in his valuable interview also makes reference to the number 108, at approximately the 20:00 minute mark in the same "part 2" interview linked above -- in this case, discussing the different ways that power can be generated, and noting that some people mistakenly criticize Taiji as having "only eight" words for generating power, while their art has 108 or another number.
The importance of these numbers, I believe, is the fact that the celestial realm -- the heavenly realm -- is consistently used in the ancient wisdom (preserved in the ancient myths, as well as in ancient disciplines which have survived in some cultures, such as Yoga in India or Tantra in Tibet or certain arts in China such as those streams of which Taiji and other martial arts clearly are surviving manifestations) as representative of the Infinite and Invisible Realm. I would suggest that the references to numbers such as 108, found in disciplines such as meditation, reciting mantras, and some martial arts are indicative of the fact that these practices are vehicles (in the word used by Marin Spivack in the quotation cited above) for the cultivation of qualities which are beyond the merely physical, and which relate to some of the very qualities he was explaining in that quotation.
I believe that it is truly valuable (in ways that are perhaps impossible to fully express) to connect ourselves to an authentic ancient tradition or discipline such as Marin Spivack has done -- although finding such a tradition is by no means easy (since they have been relentlessly suppressed by various forces over the centuries), and pursuing such a discipline long enough to achieve mastery equally difficult.
Thus, we should be grateful that he has chosen to share some of his experiences and insights in the interview on Internal Fighting Arts with Ken Gullette, and that he is teaching and passing down what he has learned to those who are fortunate enough to train with him.
I also believe that there are other ancient practices (some of which are mentioned above) which one can choose to pursue deeply in a very similar way -- and note that John Anthony West indicates that art such as sculpture and music can serve the same function, although mastery in any of these usually takes years of discipline.
And I further believe that the ancient myths which were given to humanity as a precious inheritance serve as a valuable guide to assist us in such pursuits.
Note that the web player linked above does not seem to have the ability to "fast forward" to different points in the interview, but that you can download the interview onto a mobile device or onto a music-playing application (such as iTunes) which should allow you to jump to any point in the interview (in order to find the passages cited above, for example), by going to this page and clicking on "download."