There are different ways to look at one's progression within the traditional Chinese martial arts. One way that I like looking at one's progression is based on our Tiger Crane Combination systems teaching on the three battles. I have discussed the three battles before but want to offer a slightly different perspective.
The three stages of development:
The first stage a student must go through is the stage of forms and shapes. A student must learn the specific shapes, movements and physical structures that the particular system they have chosen teaches. They must change the physical body so that the structures and shapes are not forced and can be settled into with ease. Taking them to a stage where the shapes and structures of the system become the intuitive way they move and stand. Thought is no longer needed to align correctly; it’s automatically correct. These shapes can be like external scaffolding that allows the student to now enter inside and do the next stage of work. - This stage can take between 5 to 10 years of training - this depends mainly on the quantity and quality of one's training.
With the body now aligned correctly and holding our structure in place correctly, we move inside and begin the long and challenging process of changing our inside. This process is not about adding anything - it is purely a process of letting go and abandoning all that is unnecessary. We build up a lifetime of bad habits, ways of thinking, emotional states and these all have a direct effect on how our body and energy move and react. The work at this stage is about letting go physically and mentally of all that offers resistance, our first 5 to 10 years of training has given us the scaffolding and structures physically and mentally so that we don't crumble during this process of abandoning the unnecessary. Most martial artists begin this stage but do not leave it. This stage can take between 20 years and a lifetime of training - Again, this depends on the quantity and more importantly here, the quality of your training. This part of training is also challenging to achieve without a good teacher who knows the path through experience, not intellectual understanding.
The third stage is about removing the scaffolding, the structures and shapes you have mastered no longer matter, you have changed your mind and your body to become Kung Fu completely so everything you do and don’t do, think and don’t think, say and don’t say is Kung Fu. Internal and external are no longer separated, and all things are united.
In essence, the journey is about learning how to to do so we can abandon doing.
Here is one of my favourite quotes from Chuang Tzu that embodies this process,
“Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.”