Sunday, December 19, 2010
There is an amazing exhibit at the Japan Society (http://www.japansociety.org/event_detail?eid=46394dff) in Manhattan featuring the brush paintings and calligraphy of Hakuin Ekaku. He’s the guy that posed the immortal koan, “What is the sound of one hand?” Many of the images will be instantly recognizable to even the dabblers among us. The moment I entered the gallery I was transported to exquisite state of insubstantiality that only got more rarified as I went on. The exhibit of 78 scrolls is only there until January 9th, and is not to be missed.
The one thing that burned into my memory from my walkthrough was the above quote. Taijiquan is sometimes called a “moving meditation” and I have spilled some ink over the years addressing that aspect. So it was striking to me to see such a major figure as Hakuin say that “meditation amidst activity” is not just another way of doing it, but it was a “thousand million times superior to meditation in stillness”. Pretty unequivocal.
I don’t think Hakuin was belittling the importance of stillness meditation at all. I’m pretty sure he logged his hours of zazen. Sitting is certainly an important part of my practice. I think he was emphasizing how important it is to be able to access an openhearted transrational state regardless of circumstances.
This is one of the core principles of taijiquan. “Seek stillness in motion. Seek motion in stillness.” Taijiquan practice begins in stillness—central equilibrium—and extends from there. Central equilibrium is not just balancing the body’s mass. There is also a shift of consciousness where the nervous system is calmed as the body/mind becomes more coherent. We move into a transrational state of consciousness, which is also characteristic of meditation.
Simply doing a taijiquan form begins the process. To reap the rewards Hakuin talks about though, we must take our gongfu deeper. That requires not just diligent practice but constantly challenging and refining our process. The form does not self-correct. We can make the same mistakes for decades unless we are willing to question our beliefs and submit them to testing.
Friday, December 3, 2010
Like you I’m not an expert on thermodynamics. My understanding is more metaphorical than technical. That said, we both agree that some familiarity with the concept is valuable in getting a handle on describing how things work.
I’m going to take a crack at integrating the macro and the micro here. Your description of the universe moving toward entropy jibes with my understanding. What you call “low entropy bubbles” are what I call Life. Energy is trapped in a given structure/system for a finite period, but eventually returns to the big bouillabaisse. It’s a matter of perspective: from the inside, a life form coheres to use the energy that is available; from the outside it is just part of the Big Entropy. Both perspectives are necessary to get a “true” view (conceding that some inaccuracy is inevitable).
“The more information and structure we want to create and maintain, the more energy we are going to have to come up with (and lose)”. I’m not sure about this. It’s a key assumption in your post and may lead to some insight about efficiency. When we talk about relative entropy, we have to compare similar stuff. My IPhone can do some amazing things and uses a (relatively) tiny amount of energy. It is much more complex than the technology of a generation ago, which would have sucked up vast amounts to do even a small part of what this little bugger can do in its sleep.
Another example: the six-cylinder engine of my ’64 Chevy was a triumph of simplicity. I could fix many of its problems with a wrench and a screwdriver. I can’t even change the oil in my 21st century Maxima, it’s so complex. But the Nissan gets twice the MPG as the Bel Air did.
I think this sheds some light on the relationship between coherence and complexity. The IPhone and the Maxima are both more complex and more coherent than their older counterparts and thus more efficient. The magic ingredient to make this alchemy happen? Consciousness. The consciousness that designs the technology is aided by the artificial consciousness (computers) that maintain it. The non-stuff organizes the stuff to use energy more creatively. Evolution. Less becomes more. So I don’t think that the “stuff of non-stuff” is bound by the same laws of entropy. It can create stuff out of non-stuff.
I agree that “we are not reversing entropy”, at least not globally. I don’t think it’s accurate, though, to say “we are basically moving it somewhere else so that our internal order is maintained.” I don’t think it’s zero sum. A highly coherent system/structure may not reach zero entropy, but it can approach it. I believe that the coherence of the system can actually reduce entropy in the surrounding environment, rather than just exporting it to its neighbors.
Nor do I think that zero entropy is the ideal for life forms. Humans enjoy a relatively narrow comfort zone. There is an optimal range for any living thing, and all life dissipates some energy. That’s what makes it interesting. A brick is a near equilibrium structure and dissipates little energy. The kiln that fires the brick is a far from equilibrium structure and dissipates a lot of energy. Neither environment is ideal for most living creatures. When you play your guitar you dissipate energy, but the forms you create have the potential to generate increased coherence in your environment. A school bus full of children eats up lots of dead dinosaurs, but may contribute to the evolution of the community it supports. And it may be more efficient/expedient than dozens of school kids pedaling miles to and from school. We have a choice in how we spend our entropy.
Anyway, that’s my take on integrating micro with macro.
I wonder if consciousness can actually reverse entropy in the inner world. Maybe that is what is happening with “enlightenment”. Coherence extends beyond the well-ordered inner world and radiates out to enhance the lives of others. Isn’t that LOVE?
Thanks for playing along! I hope this is just your first installment.
Monday, November 29, 2010
I much enjoyed your opening thoughts on negentropy. The idea of negative entropy, or syntropy, is really fascinating to me. So okay, the universe is constantly dissipating energy from higher to lower concentrations, ultimately theorized to lead to total heat death. And entropy is increasing faster and faster all the time! As this is happening there are these low entropy bubbles where some processes are moving into more complex and differentiated forms. But complex structures require more energy to be stable. As I understand it, order and differentiation is actually maintained by creating entropy someplace else. Complex systems, like you and me communicating about entropy using sophisticated technology, can only cohere by dissipating a huge amount of heat energy in the process. The more information and structure we want to create and maintain, the more energy we are going to have to come up with to use (and lose). This at least seems valid in most biological systems, which is why there can only be so many predators on top. And look at us now--dissipating billions of years of stored solar energy in a few centuries by burning hydrocarbons in order to create and sustain this interconnected hyper complex world we’ve made.
So in a way, entropy is the power source making the whole show dance; the faster we create it in order to do stuff, the more stuff happens. I think it’s not that we are reversing entropy, we are basically moving it somewhere else so that our internal order can be maintained. I should say that I’m no expert and could be utterly incorrect, but that’s what I understand to be the case.
Now, I am very intrigued by the connection you are drawing between energetic coherence and negentropy / syntropy, and I would like to understand more. First, what is the relationship between complexity and efficiency? A car is more complex than a bicycle, but a bike is way, way more efficient per pound / calorie. (Expediency certainly seems to come at the cost of efficiency in most cases) So when you suggest that coherence involves using energy in more complex ways, and that complexity translates into more efficiency, I intuitively get it right away, but the language and theoretical aspect hasn’t caught up for me.
“Entropy is inversely proportional to efficiency and harmony within any system.” I’m right with you here, an efficient system produces entropy less quickly than an inefficient one, and can do more with less by reducing heat loss. What is confusing is how complexity and coherence connects to efficiency. Moreover, I don’t quite understand negentropy to be the same as efficiency, more as the capacity to create and maintain order and differentiation by offering up entropy somewhere else, outside of the internal system. So entropy approaching zero would be, in sort of physical terms, like the moment of the big bang--all potential but no differentiation, no stuff, no movement, no change. Is that infinite coherence?
Then time / entropy starts to happen and bang, suddenly there can be work and change and complex structures precisely because potential is being used up and thrown away.
I should add, I’m right there with you about the nonstuff parts of consciousness, the subtle, mental, and beyond aspects on the continuum, of which stuff is the most gross and material. The question is, is that non stuff-stuff bound by the same laws of entropy as the stuff?
How does less become more in coherence?
My sense is that you are basically freeing up energy that has been locked, stuck, or misused in the separating or atomizing parts; and this change is a change in view / attitude and in subtle awareness (energy). Is it possible that a coherent body-mind is more evolved, more developed and present, but actually less riven by the complexities of innumerable parts and isolated systems, confused views and incomplete understandings? When the body-mind becomes a coherent whole, interconnected and open, is the awareness more expansive but actually less complicated (fractured)? It certainly feels that way in those aha! moments you've shown me. Exponentially anyway, moments of genuine presence feel much less complicated than moments of confusion. Once you get above rationality, complexity seems to become inclusivity.
Anyway, thanks for offering up some good fodder for ponder and letting me play along.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
If you view the world from the materialist side of the Western Gate, then all you see is stuff. You even see yourself exclusively as stuff. And as stuff, you then feel the same entropy you see in all other forms. You see yourself wearing out, getting older, losing your energy.
Of course we are made of stuff. But we are non-stuff as well. When we only address our stuffiness, then physics and chemistry are often sufficient to explain what is going on. But when we go beyond the Western Gate things get a little fuzzy. That’s where Life enters the picture.
I wrote about negentropy in Taijiquan:Through the Western Gate, but it’s an idea that bears repeating. I’m not sure if Erwin Schroedinger coined the term, but he wrote about “negative entropy”:“The essential thing in metabolism is that the organism succeeds in freeing itself from all the entropy it cannot help producing while alive.”
As all the stuff in the universe moves toward entropy, Life evolves to more complex forms to utilize all that lost energy. Grass utilizes the energy of sunlight via photosynthesis. Sheep can’t do that. But they have evolved to eat grass and access the energy they can’t get directly from sunlight. Wolves can’t get their energy from grass, but have evolved a taste for mutton to get energy that way.
Humans are constantly developing new ways to reclaim lost energy. Consequently, living has become quite complex for the species. There is a desire to keep the game going. We may wax nostalgic for the simplicity of the “good old days”, but that djinn has left the lamp.
We can, however, slow entropy down, at least in our own bodies. Biophysicist May Wan Ho describes negentropy as “stored, mobilizable energy in a space-time structured system.” Energy gets “trapped” in a living organism and does work in sustaining it. The energy doesn’t stay there, it does its work and moves on. The more complex the system, the more energy that is required to sustain it. It also takes longer to move through a complex system. (A whale needs the energy of the millions of krill it had for lunch to keep on keeping on.)
Taijiquan and qigong use the consciousness of the practitioner to utilize the energy of food and breath in more complex ways than in normal activity. More bang for the buck. They also train the body/mind to move more efficiently, so there less energy leakage. Energy becomes more coherent.
Mae Wan Ho says, “As coherence approaches infinity, entropy approaches zero.”
That is to say: Entropy is inversely proportional to efficiency and harmony within any system.
It is the non-stuff of consciousness that makes it work. It continues to evolve new ways to utilize the energy that is dissipated by all the stuff it meets. Learning what it means to be coherent and how to access it often is the key to negentropy.
Thankfully, the process is quite a bit of fun.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Most of the participants had not worked with me before so it was a rare opportunity to start from zero and present a large chunk of information in a day. Ideally, one learns a small piece and has time to integrate it through practice. That's what happens in my regular classes in Staten Island. But there is an advantage to getting the full adult dose too. Higher level internal arts can only be fully appreciated in a transrational state of consciousness, and it takes some practice to be able to get there easily by yourself. In an intensive learning experience like this one, you climb aboard TransLove Airlines early in the day and stay there as we explore some of the remote outposts of the internal arts. Fortunately, we had Maria there too to keep things real and grounded and to explain from another perspective. A demonstration of effortless power takes on additional weight when performed by a 5'4" grandmother.
Here's a synopsis of what we covered:
*"Three thumps". Got this one from a Donna Eden Energy Medicine workshop. (See YouTube vid: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNDgwNTE0NTY=.html) You use your fingertips or knuckles to vibrate energy points to unstick and enhance energy flow. K-27: Located in the corner of the chest on both sides of the sternum just under the clavicle. Meridians run backward and get clogged when we get stressed out. Thumping K-27 unsticks them.
Thymus point: On the sternum at the level of the second rib. Energizes the immune system.
Spleen: Metabolizes stuff. Not just food, but also life experience. Stress collapses our spleen energy and makes it tougher to deal with the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."
*Energetic coherence: Consciously reaching with the index fingers to restore a sense of wholeness to the body/mind. When energy is more coherent there is less entropy in the system. (This is explained in detail in Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate.) I demonstrate the power of energetic coherence in this YouTube vid: http://youtu.be/oRJu_u2EWKs
Most of the stuff to follow was discovered/developed after the release of TTWG. I was taken aback when I noticed that.
*Central Equilibrium: This concept is a central pillar of taijiquan and I assumed I knew what it was for 20 years of so. I wrote about central equilibrium in a couple of blog posts already, so I won't cover it here. This vid demonstrates "effortless power" from central equilibrium: http://youtu.be/V28HRFsB3YA
These two, energetic coherence and central equilbrium, are essential for establishing effortless power. Energetic coherence unifies your body/mind and central equilibrium opens the valves to connect with the Big Qi, the energies of earth and sky.
*Ball/Knee/Kua: This is a sequence for establishing a firm foundation and maintaining central equilibrium regardless of the body's position.
*"The Edge": This is a five part exercise that develops the ability to handle energy without freaking out. Most of us have a hard time receiving energy without contracting, resisting, or avoiding. This exercise helps to overcome our fear-based responses and receive energy and information consciously, with an open heart.
*Martin Buber: Empowerment through relation. Shifting consciousness by entering a state of reciprocal respect with another...and so much more. I consider Buber's I and Thou to be the most important book of the 20th century. Who knew it had application to martial arts, peak performance, and creativity?
*Center line: Using intention to interrupt or enhance the energy in the central meridian. Disrupting an opponent's energy field can create an advantage in push hands or sparring. Energizing the field is a powerful tool for healing yourself and others.
Of course, this only skims the surface of what we covered Sunday. Effortless power is a by-product of doing things that are virtuous in their own regard. It takes gongfu. The stuff we covered is a map. You still have to walk that road.
Many thanks to David Shaver and the whole gang at Peaceful Wolf for a wonderful day.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Tai Chi Alchemy XVI in Sedona astounded and delighted in ways earlier chapters could not have anticipated. Writing about it is a bit like piecing together a dream: the few markers that stand out in the memory are but the tiniest fragments of what happened. The high octane information that is shared provides a context and a structure for the real miracle-- the incredible interactions of people in a vibrant, intelligent natural setting. The level of dialogue has evolved to where even newcomers are comfortable discussing and working with energies that seemed distant and elusive in our earlier meetings.
In 1997 or 98, I announced in my opening comments that I wanted everyone in attendance to "feel their qi" before the weekend was out. My partner at the time told me I was nuts to suggest such a thing. He said it took years to develop that kind of awareness. Well, everyone got a taste, and have every year since. Now the level of certainty has risen dramatically and we work with qualities of energy with confidence.
Just a few years ago Stephe Watson amazed us by "moving" people without touching them. This year, Rob Mann helped the whole class understand how to execute this remarkable skill in a drill called "Search Center". It's actually a cooperative exercise, where the "pusher" directs intention and the "pushee" feels the intent and goes with the direction of the flow. We start out with eyes open and physically touching, then gradually gain confidence and do it eyes closed at a distance. The exercise teaches us to direct intention coherently and to sense intention before the actual physical execution (ting jin).
Each year we add to our vocabulary for describing and clarifying what was only recently quite ineffable.
New Venue: Poco Diablo
TCA XVI was held at a new place, Poco Diablo Resort (about 4 miles from Bell Rock). The resort was easily accessible, the surroundings were exquisite, the accomodations were very comfortable, the food was good, and you couldn't beat the company.
I liked the energy of this place--delightfully mellow. It didn't crackle like some of our other locations, but I think that allowed for more attention on the really cool stuff being presented. The usual open-hearted joy pervaded the group. Where else do you find adults of all ages hugging spontaneously and laughing unabashedly at 7 am? Seems you were never so happy to be reunited with people you just left a few hours ago.
We had quite a few contributions from unexpected sources this year:
Noted author, teacher, filmmaker and film critic, and contributing editor for Inside Kung Fu Magazine kicked things off by stressing the importance of developing a "mental kung fu" in our lives.
Since the most challenging opponent we'll meet is our self, then we have to prepare to meet this worthy over and over. He emphasized that "the only one Bruce Lee couldn't defeat was himself."
I followed by taking the group through "The Edge"--an exercise designed to increase our ability to calmly and consciously handle incoming energy without contracting or flinching. It takes the triggers that would ordinarily produce a fear response in our nervous systems and re-programs our nervous system to respond from higher centers of consciousness.
Lynn Sharp and Nick D'Antoni got us started Saturday morning with some powerful energy exercises, focusing on stretching, strengthening, balance, and qi flow. Rich Szeligowski showed how the Taiji Tu (yin/yang symbol) can be used to heighten awareness of shifting energies in sparring and push hands (This was a subject for a recent article he wrote for Inside Kung Fu.)
It is a TCA tradition to take a field trip Saturday morning to Bell Rock and
Courthouse Butte, two of the most powerful and popular vortexes in Sedona. (As many times as I've been there, I am always blown away by them.) This year we were honored to participate in an amazing Native American blessing by kung fu teacher and shaman, Tom Delacy. He invoked the spirit of that sacred place in a special smudging/drumming ceremony that brought many to tears. It was as profound and moving a religious experience as I have had, and it set the tone for our vortex explorations with reverence and humility.
After lunch I reviewed how to use "energetic coherence" and "central equilibrium" to access effortless power. Once you establish these two, many of the seemingly miraculous taiji tricks become understandable and available. For example, I showed how pointing at your opponent's center line in push hands or sparring will strengthen you and weaken him. If you trace a meridian backwards, even at a distance, you can weaken or strengthen it. The same principle can be used for healing or fighting, depending on your intent. We used this technique to hone our intention.
Guru Mike Casto took it a step farther and showed how to use intention in sparring. Using slow, no impact drills we practiced reaching through our partners' guard to make contact.
Saturday Night at TCA is reserved for energy healing. Anne Buhlig took us through Self Healing with Jin Shin Jyutsu. Catherine Carrigan presented Healing Your Hara. I found myself blissfully transported during a delightful group healing led by Rob Mann, called Wei Qi Gong. He learned it from Professor Duan Zhiliang.
Great stuff in the early session (7-8 am). Rich introduced exercises for Hemispheric Brain Synchronization. Ethan DeFord opened our heart chakras with mudras and meditation. Tom followed with a section of Bodhidharma's Yi Jin Jing (Muscle Tendon Changing Classic). Very powerful.
After breakfast, Maria Barrett led a meditation, then the transformative "Healing Your Voice". Valarie Gabel shared an ingenious set of exercises for accessing the "light and insubstantial energy" above the baihui (crown point of the head). Balancing small baggies with a few ounces of rice on top of our heads, we practiced our forms. When the bags were removed, the sensation lingered for a long time. Simple, yet profound.
Rob's "Search Center" was a huge hit. Everyone got a real sense of transpersonal play at a high level. Then we finished up with Maria and I leading "Small Changes" (an exercise created by Don Miller and I, a crowd favorite). The group divided into two teams, the "Marias" and the "Ricks", and played push hands. I would pose a challenge to Maria (the smallest movement needed to establish an advantage) and all the Ricks would do that to their partner. Then Maria would counter with the smallest change necessary to reclaim the advantage. We took turns posing questions to our partners, and answering in turn. The Marias won.
TCA XVI for me was an exquisite, illuminating, radiant experience full of surprises and opportunities to connect with loving, creative, passionate people. Thank you all.
Saturday, August 21, 2010
The Way cannot be separated from us for a moment. What can be separated from us is not the Way…There is nothing more visible than that which is hidden and nothing more manifest than that which is subtle.
…Before the feelings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy are aroused it is called equilibrium (chung, centrality, mean). When these feelings are aroused and each and all attain due measure and degree, it is called harmony. Equilibrium is the great foundation of the world, and harmony its universal path. When equilibrium and harmony are realized to the highest degree, heaven and earth will attain proper order and all things will flourish.
Larry went on to state, “The definition of chung here certainly seems to regard it as a transrational reality.”
In the last post I wrote a little about how establishing central equilibrium enhances your power and efficiency by aligning your body/mind to the earth and heavens. Like wu wei ("Doing based in absolute non-doing"), the idea here is that if we establish some degree of central equilibrium first, then all our actions will exhibit greater harmony. (Equilibrium is the great foundation of the world, and harmony its universal path. When equilibrium and harmony are realized to the highest degree, heaven and earth will attain proper order and all things will flourish.) This might sound a bit too woo-woo when only viewed from the perspective of the Western Gate, but proves out very nicely in the doing. As shown in the last entry, even beginners can feel a substantial improvement by applying it. It establishes the foundation to develop “effortless power” and greatly enhances rooting.
So how is this done? Here’s the short answer: You bring your center of gravity over the balls of your feet and extend awareness up through the top of your head. Unlock your knees, relax your lower back and drop your sacrum (all without shifting your weight back into your heels).
Sounds easy enough. It’s actually pretty simple. But simple doesn’t mean easy. The above formula is only a rough sketch of the substantial (shi) body shape that can lead us to central equilibrium. It’s like saying you balance a bicycle by keeping it moving while steering in the right direction. What we are looking for is an insubstantial (xu) quality, and it’s one that we want to have in whatever position we put our body. Just as we must explore the insubstantial quality that keeps a bike from falling down before we pop wheelies and ride in traffic, we need to establish our central equilibrium in neutral positions before we use it in sparring or running.
Central equilibrium is not just balance. I made that mistake for years. It is something much deeper and more subtle. Something insubstantial.
And it is cultivating that awareness of the insubstantial that gives us insight into Confucius’ words, “There is nothing more visible than that which is hidden and nothing more manifest than that which is subtle.”
Hidden in Plain Sight
There’s a hidden factor that pretty much guarantees you won’t find it on your own without a lot of work. It’s hidden in plain sight and even when I show it to people, most reject it. Why?
Most of us learn how to walk within a couple months of a year old, give or take. It is during that time that we establish the basic template for an activity that we now expect to perform for decades. A toddler just wants to get moving and not fall down. Lots of minute adjustments are made each moment to make that happen, and after some practice those adjustments are established as an unconscious pattern. Under ordinary circumstances we don’t think too much about how we stand or walk. We trust that our body/mind will remember. (That changes when we get falling down drunk or are walking an I-beam fifty feet in the air. Then we might get very interested in how this walking thing works.) For most of us, though, we simply add to the basic program without really inspecting it.
In practical terms what this means is that 99 out of 100 people you meet will spend most of their ambulant time with their body mass centered on their heels. Most of us are unaware of where in our feet we take the load. It’s been on automatic for so long it just feels “natural”. It’s far from natural, however. It’s just the devil we know. Actually, it’s about as far back in our base as we can go: like standing at the edge of a cliff with our muscles tensed to keep from falling backward. And this acts as a constant stress on joints and connective tissue.
Our bodies are most efficient when we load up the balls of our feet. Anyone who has played a sport has been admonished by the coach to get on the toes. A tired boxer is in his heels and halfway to Palookaville; a fresh one has his weight forward. Of the five primary energy gates in Chinese medicine, two are located there. The “Bubbling Springs” (yongquan) are in that part of the foot and are the gateway for earth energy. When the yongquan is open, a circuit is completed and our energy can be grounded. Fresh yin ch'i rises from the earth and supports, calms, and replenishes us.
My high school football coach didn’t know this, of course. He just knew from experience that a linebacker or a center is going to be much more effective with his weight centered in the active part of his feet than rocked all the way back in his heels. I knew I could match up against a bigger, stronger opponent if I did it, and I’d get grass stains on my butt if I didn’t. My reaction time was much faster and I even felt stronger.
The Booby Trap
If it’s so great for sports, why don’t we do it all the time? Ah, there’s the rub!
That’s the internal sense we have of body position and movement. We are constantly adjusting our bodies for comfort and/or efficiency. We get a sense of where we are and what we’re doing, and try to fit that in with what has worked in the past. Oftentimes our idea of what our bodies are doing is quite different from what is actually happening (as any neophyte in t’ai chi finds out).
Our nervous systems draw maps of where to find our feet or ears. It records the nuances of catching a ball or typing a letter. It has volumes of information on standing and walking. And it’s not going to revise the basic program for the latter without a very good reason. There’s too much at stake. We established our comfort zone a long time ago and when our center of gravity goes outside a narrow range, the alarm bells go off. It doesn’t feel “natural”. Even athletes and performers who dramatically challenge the limits of human performance don’t necessarily translate that to their off duty lives.
When I adjust someone’s posture to get close to central equilibrium, there is an initial distrust. We have been doing it one way for so long that doing it differently feels really weird. Whenever I walk students through this, adjusting their weight to center on their feet rather than all the way back in the heels, they almost universally resist it. Why? They have been leaning backward so long that true vertical feels like they are going to nosedive into the floor. Their bodies get frightened.
When they finally let go and trust the process, something magical happens: not only is their balance dramatically better, but also an “effortless power” pervades their whole body. Whereas before I could easily knock them over with one finger, now they are able to withstand many times that force with little apparent effort.
I’ve done many demonstrations (one is on YouTube) where I stand in central equilibrium and a bunch of guys try to push me backward. As long as I can maintain it, I can usually handle hundreds of pounds of force coming at me. I must find my central equilibrium and maintain it in a swirl of dynamic forces. This allows me to remain calm in the presence of various challenges.
When humans respond primarily from fear-based consciousness bad things usually happen. Fear has its place, but let’s save it for situations where it is of value, like saber tooth tiger attacks. Fear usually clouds our judgment and makes us act dumb. With our weight way back in our heels our bodies already have to work very hard to keep us upright. Long-term health problems can result (sciatica, back pain, sacroiliac joint pain, neck problems—the list goes on). More insidious, though, is the unconscious stress we rack up moment by moment as our bodies execute the simplest of actions. And that stress drags us down, collapsing our consciousness.
When we are centered and rooted, the opposite can happen. We replenish our energy and feel just a bit better about life. Our spirit is calmed yet energized. Expansive.
Good stuff happens.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
For the first twenty years or so of my martial arts training I assumed I knew what it meant to have central equilibrium. It was humbling to find out how superficial my understanding was, but really exciting to stumble upon a treasure that great. I had heard the term “effortless power” bandied about, but those few who actually could do it couldn’t or wouldn’t share the secret. As I approached true central equilibrium in my t’ai chi practice, I began to get glimmers.
The term central equilibrium means establishing a powerful central axis and aligning all movements to that. Body is erect and balanced. You must become aware of your center of gravity at all times and use it to create stability from which you can generate power. It’s something similar to the effect a gyroscope has on anything attached to it. You can see this effect in a bicycle. An unmoving bike won’t stay upright, but when the wheels start spinning it can go for miles. The spinning wheel stabilizes the two-wheeler. Central equilibrium does the same for your body. Your center becomes the hub of the wheel.
Something unexpected happens as you tune into it. You aren’t just better balanced: you get rooted. By that I mean you generate a powerful energetic connection with the earth. Your feet get nailed to the ground (until you decide to move them). Your effective power gets seriously amplified. That is, you can learn to increase your apparent strength dramatically without increasing your muscle power. In this video, students are introduced to this idea and get to feel its effect for themselves:
(If you can't view this video go to YouTube)
An even subtler (and maybe more powerful) effect is that you also connect up to the yang chi from the sky through the crown point of your head. It takes a lot of practice to discern this quiet flow, but it is powerful nonetheless. This “heaven ch’i” replenishes and restores us. It descends through the crown chakra like white light through a prism, and each chakra receives vital energy and information at the appropriate frequency.
Central equilibrium allows you to tune your relationship between the earth and the heavens. As you approach optimum alignment, you begin to tap into the Big Ch’i. You start to ride the wave of a bigger energy than your own.
That’s where the fun begins.
How do we do it?
I’ll give some hints in my next post.
Sunday, August 1, 2010
Ultrasound therapy has been used by physical therapists for decades, but only recently have portable devices become available and affordable to people like me. I bought mine online from Sonic Relief for about $200 a couple years ago. Now I see other models on Amazon for less than half that.
What is ultrasound therapy? High energy sound waves above the threshold of human hearing. When directed at soft tissue injuries like joint and muscle sprains, tendonitis, and bursitis it has been shown to relieve pain and inflammation, speed healing, and increase range of motion. When the ultrasound waves vibrate tissues deep in the body heat is produced, which increases circulation. Blood circulation is relatively slow in bone and connective tissue, which usually means slower recovery.
You apply a lubricating gel to the skin and gently move the head of the device in circles on the surface of the skin for 5-10 minutes. Most devices have a timer that shuts off after 10 to prevent over exposure. It is safe to use up to three times a day. Most units come with a gel, but I have been substituting Blue Emu and Traumeel therapeutic creams. The ultrasound seems to bring the healing elements of both these fine products deeper into the troubled area.
Areas to avoid: NEVER use around the eyes, ears, ovaries, testicles, or spinal cord, or where there is an active infection.
When I have an inflammation like tendonitis or a sprain I like to alternate ice packs (to reduce swelling) for 20 minutes with ultrasound treatments (to increase circulation). Ultrasound can relieve the pain of osteoarthritis and may have long-range healing benefits.
Sunday, July 25, 2010
Check it out.
So You Wanna be a Sage...
Taoism, particularly in the hands of Chuang tzu, is unlike most other philosophical and religious doctrines in that it isn't really a doctrine. It doesn't set out to establish a school of thought or a movement. Instead Chuang tzu seems to take questions, both esoteric and commonplace, essential and frivolous, and answer them with whimsical anecdotes about things that probably never happened. The style is itself part of the lesson. If one were to miss the point entirely and try to reason out what the most important principle of Taoism is, an argument could easily be made that first and foremost you must understand relativity. If you begin reading with an eye for prioritizing, you will find that that is one of the first things called into question. If nothing else, Chuang tzu's Taoism is an elaborate and extremely intricate Rosetta Stone for human pattern recognition. It strives to help us recognize and understand the patterns of thought that we cling to, the patterns inherent in the Universe and whenever possible it attempts to help us align our own patterns in a natural and coherent way with the patterns of everything else.
Chuang tzu endeavors to question some of the most thoroughly entrenched notions that human kind has come up with, one of which is the idea that we must place a value on everything. The concept of abandoning subjective value repeats so often throughout the writings because valuation is so thoroughly entrenched in our patterns of thought and action, and yet it is one of the most limiting of concepts we've developed. You won't find Chuang tzu claiming that to be a Sage (or to be a Taoist, for that matter) is inherently better or worse than anything else. To assume that one way of being is right and another is wrong only limits your perception and traps you in a singular mindset. This is the opposite of the desired outcome. Through several anecdotes he reiterates that each thing finds balance in its own lifestyle, and to try to force one thing to be like another is foolishness that will only cause imbalance and suffering. To tell a a person that they must go out and become a Sage would do as much good as to yell at a caterpillar to hurry up and become a butterfly. Instead he explains what a Sage is like in comparison to a normal person, and allows the reader to decide for themself whether they believe it would be better to be a Sage. Implicit is the idea that trying to make one thing into something else can be futile and/or dangerous, however you can help a thing to grow into the most balanced version of itself.
Rather than trying to establish a rigid doctrine of thought or action through which we can become "better", Chuang tzu tries to trick our minds off their well worn paths and into the strange new areas where unknown truths lie. Rather than telling us how we should be, he asks us to come with him on a fun little journey. While on that journey, we ask ourselves at each step whether or not we are willing to take the necessary leaps of consciousness to continue following him. We are not being told to change, but instead being given happy incentive to continuously change our perspective of our own volition. Rather than claiming to hold dominion over the most powerful and important information, Chuang tzu is simply trying to answer questions that he has been asked or has asked himself. How does one obtain supreme tranquility and balance with the Universe? Oh, that's easy. Just accept everything for what it is and do not believe you must force it to be something that it isn't. Next question. In this fashion he treats a question that some would consider to be the pinnacle of enlightenment with the same importance as deciding what type of soup to have with dinner. Again, the method is part of the answer. Placing supreme and undue importance on the question you are already distancing yourself from it, objectifying it, creating a barrier of thought between yourself and the Universe around you. A Sage isn't an inherently better person, but their method of aligning themselves with the Universe has many facets that could be considered advantageous. Some of said facets could be seen as answers to certain questions that people have been asking themselves for many years, such as that pesky "LIfe is suffering" quandary. Be a regular person until you get tired of what that has to offer. When you're ready for what comes next, just ask the next question.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
I was talking with my friend Ingrid (who is also my cardiologist) the other day and I casually mentioned something about hemispheric synchronization. I was surprised that she had no idea what I meant, and I explained it as best I could.
This got me to thinking. How widespread is this concept? I’ve been using it since the mid 1980s and have employed various electronic devices to assist me. There used to be a loft on Broadway in Soho where you could go for an hour and plug into light and sound machines that could take you away while you relaxed on comfortable couches—like a cyberspace opium den. I thought it had worked its way into the mainstream, but maybe not as much as I had thought.
What is hemispheric synchronization? Here’s the nickel version (forgive me brain scientists for oversimplification):
Most people know that our cerebrums have two hemispheres. The left hemisphere largely controls the right side of the body. It’s the logical, talkative side. The right hemisphere largely controls the left side of the body, and it helps us in seeing patterns, the Big Picture. It is mute. Sign and Design. The two sides don’t generally communicate well with each other. The left side literally does not know what the right side is thinking (and vice versa). Most information passes between via a fissure called the copus callosum, the largest white-matter structure in the brain.
I have plugged into brainwave mappers that show real time activity and you can see that our normal thinking state is a confusion of frequencies. Many people believe that thoughts “just arise” and they have no control over these random energy outbursts. I don’t think that is true.
If we can get our hemispheres to resonate with each other, something cool happens. Where our thoughts may have been a bunch of bumper cars at the amusement park, they now start to exhibit coherence. They don’t collide as often and can be directed in meaningful ways. It is as if a higher consciousness is directing our brain activity, using it as a tool rather than identifying with it directly. Like a well-tuned orchestra, we find ourselves functioning at a higher level, since we don’t spend as much energy fighting ourselves. Without as much mental noise, we can be calmer and happier.
One of the easiest ways bring about this resonance is through the use of binaural beats. Simply put, one tone is heard by one ear and a slightly different tone is heard through the other. The brain taps its toe to the differential. For example: If I hear a tone 440 cycles per second in my right ear (using headphones) and a different tone 450 cps in my left ear, my brain will eventually entrain to the 10 cps difference. When that happens both lobes will start dancing together in an alpha wave state (approx. 7-13 cps). Alpha states are relaxed, receptive, alert. (We like to do our t’ai chi in an alpha state). Beta (14-33) is characteristic of the alert waking state (anxious and apprehensive in its non-coherent form). Theta (4-7) is associated with meditation, dreaming, creative inspiration. Delta (0-4) is deep, deep meditation or dreamless sleep. Some say it is the key to profound healing of body and mind, release of anti-aging hormones and melatonin, and access to spiritual insights. (Ken Wilber does a great demo on YouTube where he uses meditation to synchronize his brain wave at delta. An EEG shows his brain activity while he describes the significance of left and right activity. Ken Wilber Controls Brainwaves
The Good News!
Used to be you’d have to spend hundreds of dollars to get a device to generate binaural beats. Now you can download apps from ITunes for a coupla bucks. I just picked up Tesla Audio Science’s “100 Binaural Beats and Isochronic Tones” from the ITunes Store. Lots of ambient tracks. Go crazy. Try em all.
There are tons of CDs that use this technology.
Monday, July 12, 2010
This was puzzling. I had been doing taiji for a few years pretty regularly and had overcome a bunch of bad habits. So why were my neck muscles so tight?
I noticed that my chin was raised slightly, jutting forward, exhibiting the ever so fashionable "turtle head" posture. When I brought my chin down and could feel the pull on my muscles from the base of the skull down to my lower back (trapezius). I felt this impulse to lift it again. Why?
It dawned on me that my vision was slightly out of focus when I lowered my chin. The lenses of my glasses then were pretty large and the focal point was pretty low. That meant I had to lift my head to see clearly. I wear my glasses all the time and for years had been making unconscious adjustments to see better. Over time, my neck muscles shortened to compensate.
Epiphany! The solution to one problem (poor eyesight) led to another problem (tight neck muscles and headaches). I was throwing my whole structure outa whack. So I consciously began to adjust my chin down and in. I did yoga postures like Plow and Shoulder Stand to lengthen the tissues.
I also changed my glasses. When I told the optometrist I wanted the focal point raised to the top third of the lenses, he thought it was a cockamamie idea but reluctantly complied. A higher focal point meant my default line of vision would be perpendicular to the ground. I still have to work at it, but it's a whole lot easier now. More important, this adjustment led to a whole trove of discoveries I wouldn't have made otherwise. I haven 't had a headache in years.
My situation was triggered by my glasses. Other people may develop similar problems due to their height (having to look up all the time), injuries to other body parts, or poor posture. How many of our difficulties are created by reversible movement or holding patterns? We'll take a look at other ways to iron out the kinks in future entries.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Tai Chi Alchemy in Sedona
Sign up by July 15 for a $50 discount!
Tai Chi Alchemy is an event unlike any other. Every year people come from all over to explore and share their knowledge and experience in love-based martial arts and energy medicine. Egos get parked at the door.
I’m not sure what happened, but I think I overdosed from compassion and inspiration. I can't think of a similar experience...and I’ve attended a lot of meetings!
Mark (Kim) Setton
Professor of Martial Arts, University of Bridgeport
Do you need to practice t’ai chi to participate? Not at all. No experience is necessary—just curiosity, a sense of wonder, and willingness to share. Seminars are accessible for beginners and exciting for veterans. (For pictures and more info: Tai Chi Alchemy in Sedona
Tai Chi Alchemy XVI is just around the corner, September 10-12. If you sign up now the cost is $300; $350 after July 15. (My language on the website was confusing. Mea culpa.) This includes all seminars plus dinners Friday and Saturday nights. Other meals are not included, but are available at the hotel restaurant or at nearby places.
Lodging is not included in the price and rooms are booked directly with Poco Diablo resort (not through me like last year). Poco Diablo is a beautiful, comfortable resort just four miles from Bell Rock. (www.pocodiablo.com Phone: (928) 282-7333) A standard room (2 queen beds) is $151 (tax included), and is quite nice. Upgrades are also available. To get this rate you must reserve with the hotel by August 1. We have a block reserved until then.
Please contact me with any questions about Tai Chi Alchemy. I hope to see you there.
Checks may be sent to:
PO Box 141207
Staten Island, NY 10314
Sunday, July 4, 2010
Ah, if it were that easy I'd just lie down on the hammock and wake from my nap with all the skills I would ever need.
The sage may have no preferences, but he won't become a sage by having no preferences. Choices are made in each moment, consciously or unconsciously.
In John Beaulieu’s excellent new book, Human Tuning (I mentioned it on an earlier blog), he likens mastery to hang gliding. It appears that the person hang gliding is effortlessly soaring through the air in blissful relaxation, but is actually making adjustments moment by moment. This requires focused awareness and a high degree of familiarity with the conditions you’ll meet hundreds of feet up in a non-motorized aircraft. The stakes are pretty high.
I have never hang glided, but the same idea is at play in windsurfing (sailboarding). I have only done it a few times (never very well), but was really impressed with the skill required just to keep moving. You have to be responsive to the constant changes in your relationship to the water supporting the sailboard supporting your feet supporting the rest of your body. Each wave changes the pitch of the floor you are standing on and you might be making dozens of small adjustments each second—faster than you can consciously think. At the same time, you have to feel the direction of the wind and adjust the angle of the sail to meet it in a way that propels you forward.
You hold the sail via a crossbar and the mast swivels on a ball joint at the base. So you can move the sail in pretty much any direction to meet the wind. It will also fall over unless you hold it up. The trick is to line the sail up correctly so that it supports itself by the dynamic tension against the wind. If the wind is strong enough you can lean way back and hang from the bar.
If you put this all together with a high degree of skill, you can look pretty cool out there skimming over the water. It may look effortless. What you don’t see are all the minute adjustments that make it look so easy. A miss is a mile, however. Too much or too little and you end up in the drink. Then you have to climb up on the surfboard and haul the sail up out of the water and start over. (I did a LOT of that!)
My friend Patrick once gave an impromptu display of windsurfing mastery at Lake Elsinore, southeast of Los Angeles. The lake was really crowded with hundreds of sailing vessels of all sizes and I was taking a break from the aforementioned exercise of falling in the water and dragging up a water-laden sail. Suddenly a huge Santa Ana came out of nowhere and capsized all the catamarans and sunfish in its path. On shore towels and beach umbrellas were flying. When I looked out on the lake there was one lone sail still proudly erect. Patrick weaved his way through fallen boats at a zillion knots leaning waaaay back to counterbalance against that huge blow. He knew how to find the “sweet spot” that eluded me and just about everyone else there.
In t’ai chi ch’uan we are looking for that sweet spot too. Most of us maneuver our way through life offsetting one tension against another, largely oblivious to the minute adjustments we must make constantly to keep from falling on our faces. We have long ago programmed most of that work to be done at a level well below our conscious minds. We take most of it for granted and are loath to change anything without a real good reason. It takes a lot of work to re-tool something as fundamental as standing and walking.
That’s where the gongfu of t’ai chi comes in. Daily practice allows us to make the shift gradually. We learn something new and practice it. Old energy patterns then reassert themselves and pull us back into old habits. We correct that to come closer to the ideal, and then go through the cycle again. Two steps forward, one back. Over and over. Gradually we learn to release extraneous muscular tension and relax into the intrinsic support of our body/mind. We replace the unconscious holding patterns that control us with a new template that we can engage in real time. Through our gongfu we learn to process countless variables instantly.
It is there that we find the sweet spot. When we un-kink the hose then the energy can flow freely. That's when the cool stuff happens.
Just like windsurfing.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
When most of us hear that something is going to take up the little free time we imagine we have, we quickly shut the door. The payoff had better be pretty spectacular if we’re going to devote a half hour a day. Even those of us who are in it for life don’t always take the time each day to practice.
How can you squeeze more gongfu into your busy schedule? You can’t replace hours of focused study under ideal conditions, but you can add depth to your practice through “bus stop t’ai chi”.
Bus stop t’ai chi is working on your gongfu anytime you have a moment. You’re standing in line at the bank and you surreptitiously practice finding central equilibrium while standing on either leg. You wait for a 6 train and train your energetic coherence by pointing your index fingers. You slowly and deliberately rotate your forearm and sense the ch’i. You nonchalantly turn your body while focusing on your dantien.
Practicing this way adds depth to your gongfu by exploring body/mind connections in different contexts. If we only practice at the school, the lessons learned may stay there. By practicing your empty step when you step off a curb, it gets cross-referenced with real life experience. It gets more real.
Just pick a small piece and work on it during your day. No one has to know.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Here's a link to the Preparation posture. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHpxKYYNq8U. Note the emphasis on central equilibrium and energetic coherence BEFORE beginning the form. This ensures that you have a full tank before starting.
Check out the other videos as well. There's some cool demos for peng jin, energetic coherence, central equilibrium, and others.
I'll be adding pretty often for the near future.
with Rick Barrett and Stephe Watson
We're doing the annual Chinese Scholars Garden Event a little later this year in hopes of catching some better weather. We're set for June 27, rain or shine. We'll meet at the lawn before the stage at Snug Harbor Cultural Center.
Seminars will begin at 10:30am, so try to get there a bit earlier. Those coming from Manhattan can catch the 9:30 ferry and I'll pick you up at 10. (Next boat is 10:30 so try to get this one). Latecomers can grab a taxi.
Seminars til lunch at 12:30. Seminars again from 2pm til 4. Then Stephe leads us on a guided tour of the remarkable New York Chinese Scholars Garden. Stephe's tours are as entertaining as they are informative.
Then it's off to Chinatown for an epic feast at 7pm.
Cost: $108 includes dinner. $85 without dinner. Lunch is $10, free if you pay in advance.
You can use PayPal at email@example.com
I hope you can join us for an amazing day of t'ai chi, push hands, qigong, laughter, and fine dining.
Contact info below. Check out the website for more info.
Author of Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate
Sunday, May 30, 2010
I met John in the early 90s at a "sound healers colloquium" in New England. I went to his seminar not knowing what to expect. The paradigm I was driving at the time was like an old Chevy and I happily left after his talk in a new BMW. He wove together insights gleaned from decades of research into psychology, music, naturopathy, meditation, martial arts, alchemy, astrology, Polarity Therapy, etc. with practical, demonstrable exercises. His insatiable curiosity had taken him around the world to study with amazing teachers and healers and his open-hearted generosity led him to share it with anyone drawn to his tent. John is a naturopath, mental health counselor, composer, accomplished pianist, martial artist, energy healer, and raconteur of the highest order. A renaissance man, not a jack of all trades.
That introduction led me to study energy healing with him at his home in Stone Ridge for a number of years. A group would meet for a weekend once a month at his 4,000 square foot log cabin in the woods near Woodstock to learn Polarity. Most of us were experienced energy healers and teachers already, and were drawn to John's comprehensive vision and vast experience. I really resonated with the yang of his bold explorations into the terra incognita of really woo-woo material with the yin of his Hoosier "Show Me" empiricism. Carl Jung meets quantum physics meets medieval alchemy meets chaos theory...you get the picture. We learned tons of practical workable healing techniques and practiced on each other exhaustively. It was an amazing learning experience.
Human Tuning articulates some of the essential parts of his vision in a coherent readable way and presents a simple, effective way to implement using tuning forks. Tuning forks have been a staple of my healing sessions for a long time, but this book takes my understanding to a whole new level. An important section describes the effect of tuning on nitric oxide release at the cellular level. Dr. Beaulieu collaborated with scientists to publish research in "Medical Science Monitor".
On page 55 he writes:
Research suggests that vibration transferred to neuronal, endothelial, and immune cells through tuning forks stimulates nitric oxide, and sets off a cascading of physiological events which directly influences our health, well-being, state of mind, and consciousness. By understanding nitric oxide, we can establish a scientific link between molecular science, medicine, and sound healing.
The book is loaded with lots of great techniques for using tuning forks and tips for selecting which to use. Great for novices and veterans alike.
John Beaulieu is clearly in the avant garde of healing research and theory. His vision takes us boldly in the direction of health creation and away from dependence on harmful chemicals. He empowers every person to become the primary force in their own healing.
He will be teaching in a sound healers training program at the New York Open Center this year. If there is any way you can attend a class or lecture grab the opportunity. You won't regret it!
Sunday, May 23, 2010
I don’t use energy testing to diagnose, but rather as a teaching tool. It’s easier to feel your arm abruptly getting weaker against a gentle push than it is to sense a disruption in energy flow. You can develop energy sensitivity over time, but it really helps to have some physical way of confirming what you are sensing.
If you are using energy testing to diagnose, it really doesn’t matter much if your clients understand what’s going on. They primarily care about getting better. But if you are using it as a teaching tool, it’s crucial that both of you have confidence in it’s effectiveness. That comes from practice…and knowing what you’re trying to accomplish.
There are lots of ways to do it, but the one I use most often involves having a subject stand (or sit) and extend an arm to the side with elbow locked. You put one hand on the opposite shoulder and press down slowly on the extended arm. You want to use as little force as possible to bring the arm down, slowly and smoothly. This is an important part of establishing confidence. You are establishing a base line of resistance that you both can agree to. So when that changes it’s readily apparent to both of you. I usually use one finger to make it clear how little force is being used. (This takes a lot of practice!) You want your partner to feel the point where the arm starts to weaken.
This is where most tests fall apart: no baseline is established, so there’s nothing to compare. If you push down too hard or too abruptly your partner doesn’t get a real felt sense of what is happening. So take your time. You are doing this in cooperation with your partner. It’s not something you are doing TO your partner.
Once you establish a baseline you can see if something weakens or strengthens the energetic coherence. In the picture above, I have Jeffrey touch his thymus point to test the immune system. He’s a bit tired, so the arm comes down quite easily. I have him tap the point several times with his knuckles to stimulate the thymus gland and then retest. His arm easily resists the downward pressure. It’s an old trick in Chinese medicine to thump the thymus to restore your energy.
You can screw up the test by pushing too hard or too abruptly on the second part too. So keep the force even and predictable.
It’s also crucial to establish the intent of the test before you start. Sounds obvious, but unless both know nothing is demonstrated by the test. If I’m testing the coherence of a Taijiquan posture, I ask a student to assume the position and have it do what the posture does. For instance, if I’m testing a Ward Off posture I ask the student to ward off a certain amount of force with their forearm. If that cannot be done easily, then we look for a “kink in the hose”—a place where energy is not flowing freely. If we can correct that energy block, then the Ward Off will indeed ward stuff off. If it doesn’t, then I look for another kink and correct that.
If my hidden intention is to show how powerful or clever I am, then that will corrupt the process too. I have to park my ego and do what I can to help my partner discover something new and important.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
1. I was planning to do it a few weeks later anyway, hoping to get better weather. Which leads to the next point,
2. We need a backup plan in the event of rain. My usual options aren't available, but there is talk that a canopy will be installed over the stage area. This would be idea, but I haven't been able to nail down a date. There has been a lot of bureaucratic shuffling at Snug Harbor and I haven't been able to get a straight answer for the past couple months. I kept putting off telling y'all until I got my facts straight. Still not there, but I have been given hope that things will be sorted out soon.
I'm shooting for Sunday June 6 and hope I can confirm that real soon.
Thanks for your patience.
This course will be geared to absolute beginners looking for a serious taste of the internal energies of t'ai chi ch'uan, as well as veteran practitioners who would like to learn to bring effortless power to their form. I'll be covering some of the core principles I talked about in Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate and some new stuff as well: energetic coherence, central equilibrium, ball-knee-kua, sequential joints.
My goal is to get everyone to feel their ch'i and at least get an idea of how to use it in their t'ai chi form. We'll be doing the first few moves of William C. C. Chen's 60 Movements, but the principles and methods can be applied to any style.
Monday, May 3, 2010
At the start of a recent push hands class I read my favorite story from Zhangzi (Chuang-tsu). I think it captures an essential quality of higher level martial arts of all kinds.
Prince Wen Hui’s cook was an absolute marvel, a master of his art. He displayed effortless grace as he butchered the livestock that would be featured at the Prince’s table. The prince was unstinting in his praise. The cook responded:
“What your servant really cares about is Tao, which goes beyond mere art. When I first began to cut up oxen, I saw nothing but oxen. After three years of practicing, I no longer saw the ox as a whole. I now work with my spirit, not with my eyes [“Use the Force, Luke!”]. My senses stop functioning and my spirit takes over.”
(All quotes from Chuang Tsu: Inner Chapters, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English.)
Clearly, the cook would enter a transrational state (spirit=shen) while performing the mundane actions of his craft. He’s slaughtering animals, yet exhibits such a high level gongfu it comes from spiritual place. What does this allow him to do?
“A good cook changes his knife once a year because he cuts, while a mediocre cook has to change his every month because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and have cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the edge is as if it were fresh from the grindstone.”
Here’s the secret:
“There are spaces between the joints. The blade of the knife has no thickness. That which has no thickness has plenty of room to pass between these spaces.”
He’s not cutting muscle, sinew, bone, and ligament. He’s cutting space! This is Taijiquan. It’s moving meditation. He’s able to perceive the path of least resistance and move through it like water. He has enough gongfu (skill and experience) to know what he’s doing, but then he takes it to another level. By engaging his spirit as he works, he is able to sense things he can’t with just his mind. In a transrational state he is able to process much more information than in the rational mode. Transrational has a much bigger bandwidth.
“When I come to a difficulty, I size up the joint, look carefully, keep my eyes on what I am doing, and work slowly. Then with a slight movement of the knife, I cut the whole ox wide open. It falls apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground.”
Wu wei (action based in absolute non-action). He moves from stillness. He “listens” with his knife, seeking that path of least resistance. When found, little force is needed to bring about a huge effect. When he “comes to difficulty” he doesn’t just try to force his way through, he brings his awareness to the challenge and works slowly, trusting in his gongfu.
Prince Wen Hui’s cook illustrates two very important lessons for push hands:
1. We can better access our gongfu from a transrational state.
2. The highest level of gongfu seeks the path of least resistance.
When we respond to a challenge from a prerational (Eye of Flesh) state, our responses are usually filtered through reptile brain responses (fight, flight, or freeze). Body consciousness is incredible when functioning properly, but reverts to a fear-based state when threatened. This is the lowest level of gongfu. Rational (Eye of Mind) consciousness allows us to see differences and similarities, to contrast and compare and is an essential stage for developing gongfu. This mode can easily be overwhelmed by challenges to the system and easily reverts to a fear-based response. This is because rationality has a fragmenting effect on our body/mind, by its very nature. This is not a bad thing, generally, but good gongfu requires that we act from wholeness, not fragmentation.
Transrational consciousness transcends and includes both the prerational and rational. We still feel and we still think, but we're not limited by those modes of consciousness. Transrational consciousness allows us to sense in ways unavailable to the other two. A higher level of intuition can be cultivated that permits us to sense in ways that can seem superhuman. Like the cook, we act from our spirit, not from pre-programmed patterns of behavior. He was able to find spaces where others would only see solid mass. Michelangelo could see the finished work in the lines of raw marble. A great kick returner in football sees seams in the defense develop a second or two before anyone else.
High level taijiquan always seeks the path of least resistance. It eschews meeting force with force. Instead, the ideal is to use "four ounces to control a thousand pounds of force". How do we hope to develop such skill?
Certainly not by doing knuckle push ups and dead lifts. The answer lies not in adding to physical strength, but in shifting our state of consciousness. This doesn't deny the importance of physical conditioning, it just states its limitation. We don't need a lot of force to get the job done, just enough to slide a blade through the spaces.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
I came up with the idea of “Western Gate” as a shorthand description for the philosophical and scientific assumptions that have dominated our interpretation of phenomena since the Age of Enlightenment. In short, the perspective that is generally given the most credence is that which can be proven scientifically. This way of thinking is a huge step forward in the evolution of human consciousness because it demands that our ideas about life should actually conform to that which can actually be experienced. It frees us from the tyranny of “authority” and superstition. Lofty arguments based on the opinions of thinkers of the past were replaced by observations of what is actually occurring. Galileo got into a peck of trouble with the arbiter of “acceptable” knowledge of his time, the Church, by insisting that scientific knowledge be based on such observations. The success of the scientific method speaks for itself, providing us with unparalleled advancement in science and technology.
We run into trouble, however, when we try to apply a rational analytical approach to aspects of life where it’s not suited. Reductionism is a valuable tool for distilling the important parts of anything we’re studying, but is only part of the story. To “study” anything, we must objectify it—reduce it to an object—which can then be contrasted and compared to other objects. But my ideas about something are NEVER the thing itself. They are merely surface impressions. (My thoughts about my dog can never add up to the spotty guy himself.) Unfortunately, this is the source of much confusion. We become so entrenched in objectifying life that we forget how to BE in the world. Our ideas become more “real” than the things they represent.
The successes of the Western Gate have made it the default mode of explaining the world for all “educated” people, even allowing them to scorn all other approaches. What makes the rational scientific approach a gate for me is that it takes us to the edge of an expanded way of seeing the world that transcends and includes it. That gate is locked to those who can only see with the “eye of mind”, but opens to those willing to perceive trans-rationally.
There are many ways to open the Western Gate into the vast territory beyond, but they all demand that we gradually wean ourselves off our dependence on a narrow band of consciousness. Never in human history have so many opportunities been available to ordinary folks like you and me to explore the terra incognito of consciousness, while also living in the world. This is a pivotal point in human evolution and how this plays out probably depends on each of us raising our personal vibration to embrace Love and Light.
I look forward to reading your thoughts on the subjects posted.
In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.