Sunday, July 25, 2010

So You Wanna Be a Sage

I was talking to my son Devon recently about Taoism and how many people, when they read some Taoist texts, automatically want to be the Sage. Devon's comments really resonated and I asked him to do a shorty piece for the blog.

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

Hemispheric Synchronization

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.

Binaural Beats

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. I have just ordered a Gamma wave MP3 from noted sound therapist Dr. Jeffrey Thompson. Gammas have been recorded by Buddhist monks in meditation (with Dalai Lama approval). Also in ayahuasca sessions. I’ll keep you posted about that one.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Pain in the Neck

One day back in the last century, I was practicing my taijiquan at a friend's summer house in upstate New York. After a while I noticed my neck was tense and stiff. From experience I knew this might lead to a headache unless I did something to alleviate it. When I tried to relax, however, I found my range of motion pretty narrow.

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

Rick Barrett presents
Tai Chi Alchemy in Sedona
September 10-12
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. ( 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:
Rick Barrett
PO Box 141207
Staten Island, NY 10314


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Windsurfing Through Life

Whenever we see a t'ai chi master gracefully demonstrate a form, or an exquisite dancer glide through a routine, or a point guard in the zone passing to the only spot on the floor where something COULD materialize, we might be tempted to see only the effortlessness they display and forget all the effort it takes to become so "effortless". I have often heard students argue that true skill can only be developed by relaxing and going with the flow. That's what the masters do, right? Isn't that the whole point of the Tao Te Ching?

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.