Citoyen

 

Cave-to-obesity

“Our deep history was spent, at different times, in ancient oceans, small streams and savannahs, not office buildings, ski slopes and tennis courts. We were not designed to live past the age of eighty, sit on our kleisters for ten hours a day and eat Hostess Twinkies, nor were we designed to play football. This disconnect between our past and our human present means that our bodies fall apart in certain predictable ways”

Neil Shubin,”Your Inner Fish” page 186

 

If the remit of tai chi is to encompass all possible Range-of-Motion movements that evolution prepped us for-to wit, loping for hours on a sun-stunned savannah after a greater kudu,  spearing mammoths or woolly rhinos, flaking obsidian for axe heads for hours, digging for roots, constantly foraging-then it follows that the edge of that ambit for Supermarket Man is when ligaments or tendons-chlorotic seedlings compared to the robust rubber vines they ought to be- fray and shear from a trivial stumble. Knee joints leak and blanch, not from “wear and tear” as is claimed, but from years of still immobility punctuated by walks, cycles or frantic antics in a gym or dancefloor.

Fascia melds the muscle seams via the atrophy of idleness; the body secedes into discrete blocks, and suppleness is lost; the lithe youth, all slim limbs of green willow, slowly lumbers by the daily drudge into a boxy robot. Sclerosis can afflict the pipes and brain, and the whirligig of juvenile exuberance is clamped and soldered into sober suits and levered legs. But I bring glad tidings; the full ROM for citizens can be recovered; thus, tai chi and qi gong are concise summary sets of lost daily ranges for the limbs for restricted citizens whose society prescribes inhibitory movements for interaction during the working day; and proscribes all but children and acrobats the full gamut. Silent Metro Sitting, the desk-bound hunch, the pinstripe march-most of these involve severe restrictions of limb movement. Seeing Cubans walk was an imprinting moment for me. I say “walk” with hesitation- their languid panther sashays were a stunning muscular refutation of any dictionary description of the dirty pavement shuffle by us pallid, spindly, tubercular Coldlings.

Given the industrial nutrition we are ingesting, and the structure of the days we keep, I cannot control the level or rate of a student’s practice. So when I talk about these optimal ROMs, I am referring to Ideal Student, the focused bunny who practises every day and reaps benefit. But we are slaves to habit and routine, conditioned since kindergarten to clocks and bells, our day shaved into ever-smaller slices of a Babylonian 60, so the full hour I get with some people every week has to be a stuffed episode of data and practice, a Barnum and Bailey extravaganza for frazzled city-dwellers.

It sometimes makes me sad to realize that we are no longer free to roam all day, as hunter gatherers did, and still do in vanishingly small numbers. My childhood was spent in monochrome suburbia, but beside the sea, so I had at least some taste of a tepid wildness between the scholastic morning and the domestic evening curfew. I was lucky in that I was introduced to the world of wild birds at the age of 9, a revelation of “otherness” that has never left me. The appreciation for plants came later. But I still inhabit a gelded world. Ireland is bereft of wildlife, shorn of trees beyond manicured gardens and black regiments of spruce-cloaked hills. Wonder is reduced to watching David Attenborough in our germ-free cells. We are not evolved to deal with our diet and static status, and we are paying through “mismatch diseases”, and a sickness of the soul. Exponential levels of cancer and cognitive disorders are tiding in. Yet we wring our hands and look for cures, not causes.

 

Etiolated, weakened by excess and automation, we are wide-open prairies of opportunity for pathogenic killers. The exponential Babel of new diseases ascends to the clouds. Eponyms for new diseases now metastisize. Crudely, we are prey to new diseases because we are no longer prey. The whetstone of evolution that should hone us daily onto that slim, slippery ledge between death and survival has widened into a sprawling mall full of fast food outlets, and we have widened too, physically; the argument that a constant harassment by hunger would preclude the development of any “higher” cultural pursuits is refuted by fifth-century Athens. Under threat of annihilation by Persia, the tiny city-state rose to combat Xerxes while producing some of the greatest art work the world has ever seen. As Nietzsche said, we are Epigones; members of a later and less distinguished generation.

My service then, is to offer a highly artificial Sisyphean task; to arrest the entropic inevitability of decline inherent in the average western body which has access to a fearless supply of denatured food. Whole foods plus some tai chi and qi gong can be a powerful antidote to the relentless disintegration of the average industrialised body. The change in the mindset of a world bent on self-destruction requires a revolution in human evolution before it’s too late. I leave that to some oratorical genius who can persuade our species as a whole.

 

 

 

 

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Spokes

 

seahorse

My colonizer tongue speaks for me now. The emeritus beauty of Old Irish is now retired to texts and those faded few who can speak it still. Modern Irish has suffered a butchering from the grimly shrill goons in charge of the fois gras method that passed for my school days. English was my first love, from the days I read Henry IV and onto Hamlet and Lear, and my mind melted under the magical vowels of Shakespeare, and I love it still. My wet Atlantic celtic culture lacks a living tongue beyond those clinging, lichenwise, to the western cliffs. I mourn my endemic deficit, my Gaelic autism, but must needs make do with Cromwell’s greatest legacy, the Queen’s English, the which I wield like a supple blade to tattoo “aha” into student minds.

For most of my teaching life, I talk the walk, as well as attempting, in my personae as huckster, to walk the talk. By this I mean that I spend much of my teaching time explaining human movement via words. Spoken language defines us as a species, Homo Logos. Those who are mute or autistic are cut off from the sonic dialectic. I use the left brain to give the right brain clues. It often fails. Concepts of spatiality, attempts to place limbs in positions that are strange or new, often fail when asked to differentiate between Left and Right, when such concepts are meaningful only when familiarity with the axis of presentation has gelled. I often stumble, dumb, over the fusing of movement and speech, my movement brain clashes with the speaking one, and commands clash with directions.

In space, such concepts are without reference. Speaking while moving, even when it is old turf to me, still causes me problems, yet students almost always clamour for the commentary. Silence means a cutting of the mooring ropes, and I drift away like a Zeppelin from them, and they resort to ad hoc limb jinking while rubbernecking to see where I am in the sequence. Hence my tongue is employed with a repertoire of commands designed to goad, amuse, flatter, cajole and admonish gently the hesitant neophytes. Watching and Following is still the dominant method of teaching Tai Chi, so far as I know, or else there are general commands with a flaccid lack of specificity, all the more urgent given the diversity of phenotypes that present in the average class.

Those who inhabit head space need the head to lead them down the dark steps into the abyss of their bodies, up to now a peon serving the taste buds and gonads, an annoying appendage that requires exercise, a tedium chore executed with the head still too grand to take part, consciousness occluded by the white glare of a relentless earphone pulse. Clean emptiness now needs to flood the mind, the dulled nerves need rousing by alert sensing, hologrammatic awareness of the entirety needs to replace pleasure-centre hogging.

The conjoining of listening without and within is the mark of the initial classes, mostly listening without, until the self-corrective awareness can take over. A point is then reached when remembrance of the physicality has plateaued, at which point, to progress further, a descent into the darkness of the deep is required.

Haptic

Of the dark space that blind people inhabit, I know nothing. That some of them do not live in perpetual darkness, but a kind of “visual tinnitus”, was a revelation to me http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-ouch-31487662.

There are creatures who live in caves or underground that have dispensed with eyes, other senses taking over the task of transmitting information of their environment, of prey and predator. There is a comic book hero, Daredevil, whose extra-sensory skills amount to a virtual infra-red capacity to see in the dark. Synaesthetes merge sound colour; some report seeing orange when they hear a trumpet for example.

Seeing people rarely listen with their nerves ( we will overlook the auditory nerve for this argument). The suite of neuronal stimuli that babies must receive in order to function effectively, from the endless sticking into mouths of objects to the fingers into sockets, triggers the brain and creates new pathways.” Developmental delay is often seen in children receiving inadequate or inappropriate sensory stimulation. For example, orphaned infants exposed to the bleakest of conditions in eastern European institutions exhibited impaired growth and cognitive development.”   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2865952/

 This is the point at which I ask students to do the Form with their eyes closed.

This completely removes the lazy habit of “following the leader”, which they will do even if they are practicing as a group; invariably they will seize upon someone who seems to know the whole sequence well. I catch them watching this corporal and not remembering. When the group level is fairly uniform and the whole sequence is roughly comprehended, then we turn the lights off inside. This way, they are forced into muscle and mind memory. It is almost always a revelation. Besides balance, which is impaired due to lack of proprio-receptive signals, they are forced to feel their way with their limbs, rely on memory, and the feedback loops are shorter with no attendant distraction from visuals. The inside leads the out. Sensory horizons mushroom and the waiting brain can be almost heard to lean forward in his chair, cocking an ear.

Thus, from my larynx to their cortex, the stages of learning are set. The goal is to groove the cerebellum via repetition, from the intense crucible of looking and listening intently to the more spacious cockpit of self propulsion, and then, cruise control so that the mind can hover easily between in and out, “an artist of the floating world”

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Janus

janus-big

“We see, at least consciously, only what we are attending to in a focused way ( with the conscious left hemisphere). Since what we select to attend to is guided by our expectations of what it is we are going to see, there is a circularity involved which means we experience more and more only what we already know. Our incapacity to see the most apparently obvious features of the world around us, if they do not fit the template we are currently working with, is so entrenched that it is hard to know how we can ever come to experience anything truly new”

McGilchrist, “The Master and his Emissary”, p.163

I teach tai chi and qi gong for people to learn to relax the stress-compressed tension that turtles their backs and petrifies their joints, but, more importantly, for long-term stress relief, I try to make students become conscious of the source of their physical rigidity, to recognize the invisible screen that their conscious mind flicks between from lucid apprehension of the world “as it is” ( this can be easily stimulated by bursting a balloon near someone. In that state of shock you are “thoughtless” and present) to the “1000-yard stare” mask that hides the internal theatre that is staging either a recreation of a past traumatic event or a dramatic clip of a future encounter or social situation that has as its result a state of social or personal humiliation for the worrier, because this is what worry is; fear of that Not-Yet-But-Could-Be, which always has a negative outcome. This feeding of relentless misery to their mind’s eye and thus their exhausted adrenals has them prepped for yet another “life-threatening”argument with a colleague, boss or spouse, or experiencing the shame and ridicule of neighbours or family of not paying a bill, or being late for a meeting, or even wearing the wrong dress, whilst exterior vision, idly in neutral at the same time, has them fidgeting in traffic, gazing blankly ahead with the radio a-jestering to keep them jolly and tilt them away from the despair or boredom that blackly pools on their periphery.

I exhort them to feel the dim glass-dark cocoon that is their body and valiantly reclaim it from this myopic demon; the rapid edit-cuts from inside to out, bound by the sclerosis of conditioned vision, the CGI of the mind filling in expected co-ordinates, ensuring daily boredom by snuffing out the capacity to really see something beyond the programmed expectation of Quotidiana. The fact that bricks and offices don’t rustle, change colour, harbour animals and birds, release pollen, waft pleasant odours, drop fruit, hide prey, and generally behave as sentient beings has led to a massive shriveling of city-dwellers’ ability to scan a landscape like a San bushman or an Amazonian native.  I ask them to consider, via a dual sensation model, how to let the environment seep into them while they let their own interior bubble up. So you soak up things that you see and strain to “see” that which you normally don’t, while simultaneously feeling for the positioning of your body such that you don’t fall back into dysfunctional autopilot ( which also depends upon knowing where and what The Neutral Point is). Ultimately, this initial phase of tai chi is about remoulding the fascia, but it is predicated upon the capacity to “take stock” of one’s given physical present, and to become aware of one’s locked-in neurobiological status; that is to say, the proportion of time that is spent “being present” as opposed to being in a “mode” of reflexive autonomy. The goal of the Tibetan meditation practices that I have familiarity with is to access a state of constant, unswerving awareness, even when engaged in mental and physical tasks. The trope of the cushioned meditator in the lotus position is hackneyed, but is understandable. Certainly, the initial stages for a meditation practice must be tried in a quiet place, in a posture that prevents you from being sleepy. But later, the stability of the mind allows one to switch into this state anywhere, doing anything.

The physical routine of the tai chi Form allows the practitioner space and time within which to practice and develop this discipline of mental presence and physical sensitivity. It is unique and marks tai chi out from mere ‘exercise’ which has become a debased, almost hated activity among those who are not drawn to it naturally, and which is often executed with loud distracting music and a total absence of presence.

Inside and outside merge into a continuum, a conscious field of awareness that tracks the changing body and gazes at the mind’s pyrotechnics, the thousand and one popping lightbulbs that bedazzle the attention. The goal is to becalm the monkey mind, seek the sharp clarity of the instant moment and smudge it across your day’s visual feed, becoming a more detached observer of the million-pixel circus that is modern city life, a binnacle of balance in emotional squalls and tempests.  But of the underlying fabric of your emotional and energetic “stuff”, another essay must need delve into that blue green Sargasso sea.

 

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Adagio

chameleon

We slow. Athwart the room, a hive mind in synchrony.  Slow. Tai chi is famous for it. It is the mark of it. A ward of coronary infarctions tell me they first saw it in Hong Kong or Shanghai in the morning, a silent, rhythmic slowness that had a narcotic effect. An opium dreaminess.

But also a yearning. To slow like a river smelling the salt up ahead, dallying among deep pools under willows pendulous. Many students meander for years before they arrive, laden with silted limps or a sold-by-date corps. For some, it is almost too late, but there isn’t anyone who can’t be helped. When you slow, you can feel. You can auto-correct as you move, you inhale in the right tempo, you access the battery of data that floods your mind, sifting and sorting at electric speed. Internally, murky then clear awareness of inefficient contractions, uneconomic tightness and superfluous holdings that must be jettisoned to achieve grace, flow and a pinch of panache in the pose.

Lucidity and lightness dissolve into each other to produce a cellular tidal rhythm, an opening and closing of hydraulic power and joint compression. The nerves learn better when they are seduced, not raped. The engrams are laid down like underground wire. Like adagio followed by andante, the Form can accelerate if the slowness forges tempered ligaments and tendons that strain like a ship’s ropes as the mast of you pitches, rolls and yaws through a waterless sea.

 

Slow makes fast. Premature speed shears the weak chemical bonds of movement memory and the body flies apart like whirligig. Slowth is needed. Motion with ears open, senses alert, calm, not frayed and suppurating with weeping stress at fracture point. Musical metaphors can be also strained, but the idea of recapitulation is valid. Many movements recur in the Long Form like motifs or themes, little islands of familiarity, and the slow repetition serves to make of them stations of Mnemosyne, places to orient oneself ( the pun is apt) and to re-feel the lineaments of motion. But they can easily become locked-in programs once the general tenor is in place. I see it in my students (and lament it in my quondam self) when they do not feel. They embrace the movement with self-satisfaction, unaware of their failings, happy to have, they believe, “mastered” this move, ready for the next one. A mania for collecting, for “getting” tai chi; just another bauble to parade. They like, and they do not like, with that faint annoyance of the half-mastered, to be told something they think they already know. I remember and catch myself with this swelling irritation when asked to change something I already “know”. We like certainty, we don’t wish to delve too deep, we are happy with approximation. But it’s not good enough. It is grazing, it is speed-reading by the body.

The envelope of physical security that enwraps a person who can do the Long Form smoothly is deeply satisfying; for smoothness is the blurred smudge hiding sub-skin pistons busting gaskets to keep the lanky limbs elevating and landing with balletic precision. Normal movements of quotidian life betray small signs of the power beneath. Speed is the hallmark of our society; rushing, stress and frantic hyperventilation to the graveyard. Long-lived animals are slow; nothing worth anything comes quickly. Adagio comes from “ad agio”, “at ease”, and this is what we are looking for; ease and smoothness in our movements, and, perhaps, in our anxious lives in this shredded world of hurtling news doom. Your Yin slowness might trigger reflection, a pause in the relentless Yang scouring of our world, and allow some breathing space for the other denizens of our little blue globe to recover and prosper. All roads lead to death. Let us, at least, walk calmly and slow with bright eyes and supple limbs on a hale frame to leave it better and more soothed than the hunched angst on scuttling claws that westerners morph into, disfigured by our deeply cancerous paradigm of modern life, long-lived yet rusting from the core; brittle and sheared from conditioned grooves of empty modernity.

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Silver Silk Screen

JasonFakeChan

I am Cliché

 

It has become a tiresome cliché to see tai chi used in films, appearing for a few seconds in a movie to convey the sudden attainment of “inner peace” or equilibrium with one’s ambience for the protagonist.

The problem with films is that they are just that-thin films of light. The grunting inertia of reality never seems to be a thermodynamic challenge to Jet Li or to Jackie Chan. They fart helium, and then spit out iron in their fist. The periodic table of elements is a mere helpful caption to their mastery of the world. The sartorial elegance, the choreographed sweep of grace in silk that we see in the movies, or, indeed, in most tai chi videos, is a beguiling, seductive ad campaign, and nothing more. But hey! Who wouldn’t want to move to the rustle of rusted autumn maple leaves, under early yawning sunshine, when “ the morn, in russet mantle clad, stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops”or the still pools of the moon, feeling the silk caress your sweatless skin, hearing and integrating with the mellifluous melodies of a nightingale, all liquid bursts and tremolos of joy, the soft curtsy of moss underfoot, that paves the ferned paths of the underforest whose raised boughs you spiral around. You spin slowly, you wave your arms in delight with the union of your mind and body with the Dao, with the gentle breeze that flatters you with its cooling breath. Not far away, the temple bell dongs, reminding you of the stillness that you seek in movement, and you breathe deeply, your body and mind not separated, just enmeshed as a pulsing, joyous nexus of aliveness, exultant in its potentiality for detonation. Ah yes…

As Leonidas might scream: This is Ireland!

This is more likely: You live in a flat so damp that moss grows on your bed, you cough up blood from tubercular lungs; half-fish wriggle under the floorboards, and gurgling sounds from the kitchen harmonise with the sound of frogs. It is so dark in the winter morning that you dress like an Inuit all day and don’t undress for bed. The living room is tiny, with a cell window so high up it can’t be cleaned, letting in light just dim enough for ferns to curl up from your dirty socks. Trying to practise in small apartments seems impossible and you have to move furniture, splitting your shins and stepping on translucent shrieking cats with foggy eyes who are mew mute.

The central heating has broken, so cumulus clouds emit every few seconds from your blue konk as you strain to see through the glacier-blue gloom. Wrapped like a clumsy mummy, you move like a slow zombie having a stroke and dream of the scenes above.

While I exaggerate, the essence of the above was my situation for many years in a dark flat. I made progress, but mostly through standing. It was too cold outside to practise tai chi for most of the year, and I still don’t do it much, on account of my desire for privacy as well as avoiding the inevitable “gurriers” who sidle up speaking their guttural anglo-klaxon, trying to follow me and asking me if I ever did “Ka RA ee”.

The trope of Tai Chi as a symbol for Oriental Inner Peace is compelling, powerful, and no doubt based partly on truth, if you leave out the vicious martial applications that were sandpapered out of it by Yang Cheng Fu. Translated to the west, the trope of fluidity on a beach with white silk flapping in the breeze has hardened into a pretty shell; nice to look at, but empty. The video of Yang Sau Cheng doing his form with the light in the background is not a pretty thing to see, except for those with eyes to see. He is in everyday clothes, and the room is standard Hong Kong; it looks hot and humid. He seems rigid in some moves, but this is a mis-seeing. Often, parts of the body have to be kept still to allow for internal movements. It is a subtle masterpiece on flickering celluloid, an ironic counterpoint to the operatic martial extravaganzas that would soon be made in the self-same city.

 

 

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Élève Professeur

students-class

No matter how exalted, how proud, how sure one is on the lofty peak of perfection, the greatest teacher needs a student. Even Zarathustra had to descend the mountain to seek them.

My students have made me. It is a peculiar (and possibly common) quirk of my pedagogy that I enjoy teaching myself while I myself teach.

In other words, I learn while I expatiate at length. I relish the thought that Knowledge will dawn in their heads in the same way that it dawned in mine, and I genuinely want them to know. This has had unfortunate consequences, as I have, over the years, expounded and descanted upon concepts to my seniors or not-so-seniors that sounded like Hittite or Maori to them, and I have had to slacken the pace of teaching to seek not only the essence of the new idea, but think about the best way to teach it with drills and simple two-person exercises. I have had to cut my teaching cloth to what I need to convey. A few days ago, I was chastened by a senior student who asked me to slow down as I had gone into Assumption Mode, assuming that the new concept was already embodied, when a cursory glance would have confirmed that it wasn’t.

Much of what is glossed and presented as “tai chi”, even in hallowed China, is mere external choreography.  As I have argued elsewhere, if the underlying structure is poor, the student is merely learning a dance. If the mind is distracted, as it is in every gymnasium, then it becomes mere “exercise”, something boring to be done for a muscled reward.

My students have forced me to think, to be disciplined; they have been whetstone, critic, cat’s eye, guardian, conscience and foil. In general, I have found most people are unaware of the potentiality of tai chi and qi gong. They mostly arrive with an injury or recurrent pain, extreme stress, or a desire to seek refuge from the madness that passes for “normal “society. The more enthusiastic or passive-aggressive they are, the faster they disappear. It is the quiet absorbers who stick around.

As they silently and slowly ascend the slopes as sometimes-perplexed Sherpas, I always see myself at their level, as I explain some finer point of movement. Often, they tumble back down the hill a bit, but a few are gifted, capable of rapid adsorption of information to their neurons .  As we sedately progress, of course we shed. I lose students to jobs, babies, money, boredom, incomprehension, umbrage, frustration, pain, weather, emotions, projection, and sometimes Death. In other words, the panoply of Life. But we also accrue. I can see when they comprehend, when the ears whisper the rules to the brain, and down to the limbs. When they manifest power. I keep students via Delight, Power, Strength, Agility, Serenity, Energy, Equanimity, Wholeness, Symmetry, Comprehension, Drive, Accomplishment, Achievement and so on. Aspects of personality change, I see the portrait of bodies change weekly on the canvas of their lives. Many of my seniors who I know well enough to be ribald to, of their home and professional lives, I know almost nothing. We meet at a fixed weekly node of our making, and interface with our personal lives during a ritual movement practice and then, some chit-chat after, they disappear into the ether of their existence for another 7 days and I await the next cohort.

As a teacher and a student, I know the power of each to define the other.

When I was younger, if I were shown a new move, I would often “see” white noise, and mild anxiety would result, as I feared looking clumsy, and I know my students suffer from this too. Learning new movements is a complicated sonata for the nervous system. It is only when I am “on stage” performing the movement for my seniors that my brain, my explicating brain, “sees” the movement from many different angles, and flashes of insight inform my teaching. I learn, and my students learn, through a very public dis-assemblage, and dissection. We then attempt to cohere and “incorporate” the newness. It is a debate and a drama, a ritual and a rite, a Socratic exchange and a mercantile bargain.

It is impossible, of course, to separate out all the elements that go to make a class what it is. But the Teacher-Student dialectic is critical, and fundamental.

And yet it is so, so often unheeded. I am always conscious of the deadened, calcified furrows that my own schoolteachers ploughed, killing so much of my teen life, that I actively impart in ways that I wish I were taught. Humour and self-deprecation are necessary. Students can smell bullshit and hubris planets away. Like mechanical stress and weight-bearing on a bone, my students, the many thousands of them, have formed and deformed my teaching style; kept me primed, keen and sharp with their flinty minds, fists, kicks and astringent quips. I salute you all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tanzen

dervish2

 

 

“ We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once”

“ I would only believe in a god that knows how to dance”

Nietzsche

“How can we tell the dancer from the dance?”

Yeats

Form and content fused into one. You can debate the merits of a poem, a painting, but music passes through your skin into your mitochondria without any polite notice given, an urgent physical desire to move that modern pop has exploited well.

Dancing is perhaps the ultimate in physical expression. The Supreme Ultimate, as Tai Chi means. Is Tai Chi a dance? Many think so. Perhaps it is. But for me, dancing has to be intoxicating, a self-unconscious form of spontaneous extrusion, a soul wagging its tail in delight. “When asked a question, Zarathustra danced”

If my tai chi used to be “acted out” like a script when I was a muscle buck, most of it was repertory; I was moving mostly unconsciously, my limbs following the vague blurry paths that my “master” was demonstrating with little knack for grace, style, spirals, or anything resembling the self-eating Eight Dynamic Snake that Master Ma radiates like a pulsar.

I was also probably mentally adrift on cloudbergs of randomness, reacting to incessant stimuli, and merely “existing” in a never-to-be-completed sense of futurity, always seeking out something not in the Sudden Now, occasionally re-animating, “Coming Back To Myself” and exulting in my “role” as fake warrior, a Spear Carrier in a fifth rate play playing to rustic hicks chewing tobacco.

Now, 21 years later, I am inside out. I am so assailed by physical stimuli as I move, attempting to move in a vacuum of mentality, a still space of gleaming presence, that I feel insecure in my progress. I filter and compute so many physical variables, so many dials showing the presence and functioning of so much of my movements, that I have to slow down into state of near catatonia as I attempt to right myself, to “light” the pathways of fumbling darkness that my limbs extend into when my Captain’s Bridge mind is checking something else. WHEN it is not gapping into self-forgetting! I have to hold on while something catches up, or seek to integrate and compensate for the myriad-known glitches that curtail optimum smoothness.

The result is a feeling of cohesion, of rooted expression, a lightness and a symphonic unity that cannot fail to cradle the mind in ease, but not the soporific ease of laziness or the mental Brownian Motion of the average hominid. This “lightness” literally radiates. But it is not that Dionysian ecstasy of the dance. It is, perhaps, an Apollonian clarity, a singularity of soma and psyche, body and mind. It is not even a sedate dance, dancing uses the feet first, whereas we use the entire body like a caterpillar undulating like a wave.

The wretched, lazy reflex definition of Tai Chi is “Death’s Ante-Room Shuffle”, the feeble waving goodbye to life by those resigned to the dumpster by society dismissive of the retired, the aged and “unproductive”; a compensation prize for the incontinent and senile benighters fading into dusk and dust, a last-gasp effort to shuck the inevitable barnacles of age from clogging the keel. It is seen thus as a Danse Macabre, a collective funereal ritual for the doomed.

 

The nations that dance the most, that have exuberant spontaneity, tend to have more bright light, more heat in the veins,  more rum, reefs and rhumba. But their societies are often chaotic, blighted, and deeply unequal. The solid, practical, cold and equitable northern climes do not dancers make, Riverdance notwithstanding! In Ireland, we are also chaotic, blighted and deeply unequal. We lack the sun, we are faintly Norwegian in our genes only, so we lose on both scores. Perhaps, the tidal rhythm of the movements of tai chi can slowly melt the sediments of tension that layer the Irish psyche, its Celtic wildness neutered by a crozier and a bloody-sworded Crown. But with freedom came the paralysis of choice, a craving for demagogues, a curtailing of movement from 9-5, and a retreat from dance beyond the sloppy flails of a beery wedding or disco.

With the retreat from dance died the vestiges of sensual flirting, and romance is now sought primarily seated, sucking in vats of industrial booze. The stilted niteclubbing dance done after is shorn of romance, save for “slow sets” that allow intoxicated intimacy to proceed.

Sober sets of tai chi are not as exciting as salsa, but can train your body to move like a samba mambo, or flamenco wave. Dance your way back to life, shimmy and shimmer, jink and jive like a child, with some oriental body sets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Airport Carousel

trauma-painting

HH the Dalai Lama once said that you should never get married until you had “gotten over” your parents. What did he mean by “ gotten over”? He meant that you cannot claim to be free of the continual rain of influence that your childhood had over you until and unless you can sit down to dinner with your parents as an adult and not have some “buttons pushed”. What does that mean precisely? If asked, most people would say it means that something your parents say-usually criticism-engenders a hair-trigger response of anger aimed at your parents most likely stemming from guilt or a feeling of inadequacy which then seethes inside as you feel you will never come up to your parents’ expectations. This is a rough definition of “baggage”, because you carry it with you everywhere.

It goes without saying that losing this luggage is something to be desired at all costs, and the “talk therapy” culture actively promotes this goal. However, Woody Allen’s life and works demonstrate conclusively that merely talking about one’s issues is never going to dissolve them. His neurosis is probably the font of all his creativity.

No doubt there are people who have benefited from talk therapy but Freud’s top disciples always felt his theories were inadequate, and that being a passive listener to a patient’s ramblings is going to get nowhere.

What is needed is a definition of “baggage” that also includes such inter-related terms as “trauma”, “PTSD” and “Shock”. Any event which has engendered such conditions inevitably creates a shock wave that permeates the physicality. Otherwise, we would be fine after a bomb explosion, or murder attempt. All soldiers would settle back into society with no problem. But they don’t, and they are killing themselves more and more from their “demons”. But where do the demons reside? ( New evidence is emerging of the actual shock wave of IEDs and bombs having serious effects on the brain) Are “demons” the same as “baggage”? What is it? What is needed is a theory of body that is able to competently explain how emotions can inhere and cohere to the deepest recesses of a human being, and how certain triggers can cause the original event to be “re-lived”, creating the “PTSD”. What actually happens when they “have an event”? In essence, they go asleep from the current reality, and they enter an internal world of projection, where the event is replayed, and the body believes it is happening again, firing a cascade of stress responses of the HPA ( Hypothalmic Pituitary Adrenal axis)

The best theory I have heard is the Initial Traumatic Event lodges energetically in the connective tissue, like a sonic signature, and assumes a “shape” that can be accessed by a certain “pitch”; in other words, a sentence, word or even the physical presence of somebody can trigger the “shape” to “play its tune” which provokes (Jericho-like) a seismic emotional quake in the mind’s “eye”, replaying the initial traumatic event which the person then perceives as “real” ( they must perforce lose presence during this event)  and they have a response commensurate with the initial incident. To make things worse, many people replay the trauma daily by creating relationships with people who are similar to their abuser/parent: Individuals may also suffer from repetition compulsions, which are unconscious, habitual reenactments of elements of a past traumatic experience (if not repetitions of the precise trauma itself). Repetition compulsions are frequently seen in the area of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. For example, a survivor of childhood abuse may unwittingly select an abusive partner in adult life, and adults who grew up witnessing domestic violence may demonstrate the same abusive behaviors toward others that were modeled to them in the past” http://www.thebody.com/content/art48754.html

Any therapist will tell you that they have had clients who have cried on the plinth after a massage or a deep tissue session. What is happening here? The deep manipulations cause the connective tissue to be vibrated and the embedded signature tune is “woken up” and plays itself reflexively, and the client has an event, except that in this case it is to be hoped that after “playing itself” the original traumatic episode is allowed to release itself into the ether through pathways opened by the therapist via the physical therapy because the internal alignments are restored to something approaching “normality” ( whatever that is depending on culture); I have no proof of this that can be shown on the page except for thousands of “anecdotal” personal accounts, because of the inherent limitation of western science to the idea of “Energy” despite the fact that they blithely assign the term “dark matter” to much of the known mass of the universe and that Descartes still rules in many academic throne rooms.

Is there a point to my prelude, my preamble, my amuse-bouche?

Of course, you can guess. Tai Chi and Qi Gong do the same thing. The deeply deep twists of tai chi and qi gong go right into the very recesses of the core of your body, and when you spiral those fibres down to the marrow, you inevitably release stuff, mostly unconsciously. It often hit me as fatigue, or a crushing desire to sleep.

When I started out in tai chi, I was very strong, but also very tight, tighter than a bow string, and equally highly strung emotionally, always easy to blow off the handle or cry, but mostly prone to depressive lows, thanks to a less than Von Trapp family upbringing. Now, at 47, I believe I am much more relaxed physically, emotionally, psychologically and mentally, despite constant provocations from the same and new sources. While some of this is due to my meditative practice, meditation alone without regard to the body could not have achieved it. However, certain questions remain. Is it possible to be mentally clear, “enlightened” according to the traditions, and be physically tense, and can that physical tension hold “baggage”? My own meditation teacher, Namkhai Norbu, is very clear on physical relaxation being a necessary precondition for mental calmness. He calls it “cutting” (chod) as in cutting the rope that binds a bunch of sticks. The natural falling to the floor is the kind of relaxation required. The Chinese term “Song 松”has a similar meaning of “untying”.

The slings and arrows of the modern world are different from the spears and thorns of Paleolithic Man, who faced mostly physical danger. We are assaulted by ecological destruction, connectedness with Nature severed; emotional manipulation, abuse and abandonment on industrial levels; nutritional calamity leading to havoc in physical and mental disease levels; media saturation of fear and impossible standards; promotion of money, youth and fame as the ultimate happiness. Our society is deeply disturbed and ill. These “ thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” are creating deeply wounded humans. It is my hope that the sane thread of recovery that skeins through the warp and weft of the shuttled movements in Tai Chi and Qi Gong, if practised and taught correctly, can contribute to the urgent healing of the society of Man, before it leads to even greater catastrophe.

 

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Gyroscope

gyroscope-man

Dynamic Stability is an essential tool for the serious tai chi student.

“Precession can be demonstrated by placing a spinning gyroscope with its axis horizontal and supported loosely (frictionless toward precession) at one end. Instead of falling, as might be expected, the gyroscope appears to defy gravity by remaining with its axis horizontal, when the other end of the axis is left unsupported and the free end of the axis slowly describes a circle in a horizontal plane, the resulting precession turning.  The torque on the gyroscope is supplied by a couple of forces: gravity acting downward on the device’s centre of mass, and an equal force acting upward to support one end of the device. The rotation resulting from this torque is not downward, as might be intuitively expected, causing the device to fall, but perpendicular to both the gravitational torque (horizontal and perpendicular to the axis of rotation) and the axis of rotation (horizontal and outwards from the point of support), i.e., about a vertical axis, causing the device to rotate slowly about the supporting point” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyroscope

 

And there you have it.

 

During the Hun Yuan form of Master Ma, in fact during any Form where you are not a billiard cue balancing a bowling ball ( your head) on the top, you are going to be subject to certain forces of nature on the body, especially around the lower back, the upper back and the shoulders. It’s not enough that I see the fascial tectonics leading to the corrugation of the upper back, a mini-cape hooding the neck in almost all my students who stumble in like desperados at the last-chance saloon. Any movement where the body is leaning forward, to the side or backwards is going to generate a massive amount of internal pressure on discs, legs, shoulders and necks. It never fails that when I start to introduce even slight leaning movements, the shoulder blades rise, the neck extends, and the mobile units lose equilibrium and slide off the body like porcelain falling off a cupboard. Therefore, one of the most important lessons students need to hear is about Pitch and Yaw and Roll, and how the body wobbles, rotates around its axis when they move and how they can pin the structures to the centre line if they a) pay attention to the area, b) be able to keep the relevant structure still by applying muscular contraction and c) maintaining this structure during the increasing depth of angles of the pitches, yaws and rolls that typically affect a structure during movement. Complicated? Ya betcha.

But it’s critical to any hope of long-term postural health and when I examine any and all so-called tai chi “masters”, almost always soi-disant, the vast majority are incapable of even noticing this. This is not to deny the absolute fact that when the body is totally relaxed, a master can break structure, and have power. I can demonstrate this myself, but this is not the point. The point is that Beginners do not have the fascial rebound in their tissues to be able to spring back to a position that someone with total muscular relaxation can. They are stuck in a silhouette of habit which crabs their movements and turtles their backs.

If you start being Rattenfänger von Hameln and lead your troupe through the motions without paying attention to their underlying structure, the ideal structure to which you wish them to attain, but instead start spouting off about qi/chi, and being all solemn and “mystical”, you are yourself a mere mountebank peddling a packaged preconception of Pot Noodle paradise. Westerners need tai chi and qi gong badly. It can radically change their lives, but the majority that is being taught is sub-sub standard garbage fed by media memes of tai chi in silk on Californian beaches.  This is not entirely the fault of those who teach, as I myself taught questionable stuff for years. But I can see now how we have been sleeping poor on gold pillows.

The gyroscopic idea only applies to the central axis, the appendicular skeleton. The idea is to keep it still while the limbs progressively perform motions of extension, rotation, depression, laterally and medially by pulling gently on the connective tissue which allows them to extend to their maximal range within their ambit of power without overdoing it and pulling the joint out of alignment, or socket, or locking any joint in the process. The level of somatic awareness that requires is considerable. In addition, the hawsers of muscle required to stabilize the neck are significant and require patience and practice.

 

So you have something like the earth that rotates, spins and also tilts about its axis (known as the obliquity of the ecliptic). Human locomotion is an evolutionary compromise for a biped, but tai chi and qi gong can make all movements attain an acme of ambit, proportioned and perfect for any activity.

 

I have worked out ways to stabilize the whole structure so that the adept can safely move forwards, backwards, and sideways and even twistways without losing the essential central axis. Later, when the structure has set, internal torque can increase to create whiplash in the arms such that contact with soft tissue can cause tremendous harm.

The old lady’s art can be a centripetal Catherine-wheel of death.

 

 

pitch-yaw-roll

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Intention and Meditation

Snow_Leopard_Relaxed_head

Part of the training involved in Xing Yi ( one of the three Internal Martial Arts along with Tai Chi and Ba Gua) is a standing practice known as “San Ti” where you stand still and imagine your opponents as blades of grass that you will scythe through without pity or ruth. Leaving aside this violent ethos, shorn from battlefield spear tactics ( the Xing Yi spearman attacks even in retreat), the practice is similar to the standing that I undertook to open up my back years ago.

The second word in Xing Yi means Intention.

Intent is something is very interesting in the Internal Arts.

Effectively, you are doing a form of proto-meditation when you do this practice.  But what is meditation? In this context, it is a short concentrated period of awareness.

Samadhi is, depending on who you ask, either a state of non-duality ( the Hindu view) or else a state of  “calm abiding” (or zhiné, the Tibetan Buddhist term). I am more familiar with the Buddhist view, in which the state of zhiné is one where the observer does not merge with the object of attention, but is able, in this state, to practise one-pointed concentration in order to become more aware of the flow of thoughts and the distraction that ensues if you follow thoughts. In other words, becoming aware of the normal undifferentiated state of blurred incoherence, fragmented attention and solipsistic internal monologue punctuated with visualised scenes of potential social humiliation ( otherwise known as “worrying”) that characterises just about everybody; this can be given some sharper edges, a border that can be recognised by the conscious mind whenever one “gaps” ( fall into distraction)

I am more interested in this state in my daily life now, because the state of contemplation ( samadhi in Sanskrit) which is the next stage of deep meditation, as the sensation of “merging with everything”, is still beyond my selfish, dualistic nature, although there have been moments in my life when trailers for this experience have screened themselves in front of my mind’s eye. This state of calm abiding ( zhiné ) is also the most explicable state that can be reached by persons doing Tai Chi or Xing Yi standing ( and sometimes by Ba Gua circle walkers) although I have to state, once again for the court stenographer, that Tai Chi traditionally is not, has not, never has been a meditation ( although the Chang San Feng people might disagree) and those who claim it is so are confidently grasping the mist that is Chinese History, which, Imperial archives aside, is a cloud of poetic unknowing, full of coloured lights and dragons chasing tigers chasing men, a Mirror that speaks whatever you want it to.

Just because Tai Chi is taught nowadays on Wudang Mountain doesn’t mean it was taught there before the Revolution. It wasn’t even called Tai Chi in the nineteenth century; it was called Long Boxing.

However, true to the fluid nature of the essence of Change, and the philosophy of the I Jing, there is no reason why, in these days of the Kaliyuga, that Tai Chi cannot be taught and practised as a meditation . The movements of Tai Chi can be done as a meditation, but not yet for the Beginner. True meditation in the Buddhist lineages is work on your mind without being distracted by the body; the meditation that I teach is actually a real effort to really feel the body which has lost the capacity to feel itself for multiple reasons I go into elsewhere.

The novice has priorities ( in my class at least, dear reader); there is an effort involved in feeling where you are, knowing your presented condition with respect to the Ideal Posture, being able to feel and know what the Ideal Posture is and then softly hardwire the Ideality in to your fascia and bones via repetition and conscious correcting so that the movements can be effected and demonstrated without too much thinking. But automaticity is not the scope or goal. If the motions are performed with headphones on, it ceases to be tai chi, and becomes mere “exercise”. Concentration, awareness and focus are the tasks to persevere with. The application of effort, of intent, marks it out. The Yi can be divided into two; in one seemingly paradoxical attempt, you are trying to keep a structure stable through the continuous contraction of weakened muscles that have allowed your posture ( neck and back) to weaken; at the same time, you are trying to feel the clenched and permanently tightened muscles in the other parts of your body and drop the held tension. This internal dual awareness is very difficult initially but gradually reveals itself.

Adding to the complexity, the other Yi, or Intention, is that of Moving Without Being Distracted. Here, the slow loris nature of Tai Chi comes into its own. The nature of human sight is a pinpoint of clarity surrounded by an vague indistinctness. The chameleon’s eye is a perfect exemplar. Even as it swivels, the pupil is surrounded by a scaly hood. So it is with human sight. We see and, depending on whether we are using the Left or the Right Brain, we have two different experiences- “ Experience is forever in motion, ramifying and unpredictable. In order for us to know anything at all, that thing must have enduring properties. If all things flow, and one can never step into the same river twice- Heraclitus’s phrase is, I believe, a brilliant evocation of the core reality of the right hemisphere’s world- one will always be taken unawares by experience, since nothing being ever repeated, nothing can ever be known. We have to find a way of fixing it as it flies, stepping back from the immediacy of experience, stepping outside the flow. Hence the brain has to attend to the world in two completely different ways, and in so doing to bring two different worlds into being. In the one, we experience the live, complex, embodied, world of individual,always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected. In the other we  “experience” our experience in a special way; a ‘re-presented’ version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes, on which predictions can be based. This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. But it also enables us for the first time to know, and consequently to make things…these are not different ways of thinking about the world: they are different ways of being in the world. And their difference is not symmetrical, but fundamentally asymmetrical” McGilchrist, pps.30-31.

Thus, the practitioner who wishes to use tai chi as a meditation must become aware of the difference between the two hemispheres, and judge whether he is predominantly conditioned by one or the other, and whether he can switch easily or else is a prisoner of either. The switch can be done by allowing the peripheral vision to expand, by adopting various measures such as deep belly breathing, and becoming aware of how one sees.

We need the Right Brain to operate more. It is the Left Brain that makes people panicked, rigid and stressed. Our entire society is the left brain made concrete. When it works well with our right brain, it is very powerful; when it takes over, it is a robotic mindset gone amok: our streets are a grid, our systems are hierarchical, rigid and inflexible; we are prisoners of conditioning, bias and low empathy; we are destroying the environment we live in for a fake currency based on  “endless growth” and so on.

Artists will tell you that they see the world differently. Actually seeing is a faculty that demands work. Ask anyone to describe their route home and they might remember some blatant features but the specific is a blank. We do not see, we “re-present” familiar routes. This is why holidays are memorable: the “route” is very different, and we feel “alive”. There is no reason why this ability cannot be nurtured by people seemingly “bored” by the crushing tedium of quotidan reality, which is only crushing tedium because they do not see the world, they see a lifeless re-presentation of it in their mind.

So, to practise Tai Chi as a meditation requires tripartite intentional awareness in a moving field,  as well as some ability to soften, open up and expand consciousness into a seeing realm without judging or comparing or getting distracted down another rabbit hole of association.

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