Mountain Man

Peasant-cezanne

I met a man in France who suffered from depression. He was isolated for a long time in a forested milieu, struggling to make ends meet, pining for his lost family life, his daughter and lover. Work was an effort because it paid badly, family and friends were around only in the summer and he existed with the snow, eagles and loneliness of a remote valley. He had a lower back that was pulled in by his upper back being rounded and pulled up. The trapezius was pulled up in a permament state of contraction. As a result, his chest wall was collapsed. This impacted on his diaphragm, which was severely atrophied. Breathing was mainly from the intercostal muscles, and every breath caused his sternum to collapse even more as the upper back became more rounded. I see this a lot. He was breathing shallowly, and the pattern resembled that of someone who was anxious.

As a result of this constant shallow breathing, he was permanently angst-ridden, and his upper back muscles were badly inflamed. The muscle bags that gave him his hunch and grinding lower back ( he had an L4-L5 disc issue) were glued together, so changing the structure was going to take a long time. But even after a few weeks, he started to feel better, because the diaphragm was beginning to function. All of the major benefits of deep diaphragmatic breathing began to kick in: activation of the parasympathetic nervous system; reduction in blood pressure due to carotid sinus recognition of increased oxygenation; organ massage and freer flow of interstitial fluids; lymphatic drainage; lower back relief due to the globular pressure on the abdomen from the breath; alkalinisation of the blood; more energy from increased oxygen and, perhaps most importantly, a calming of his mind.

Breath has always been used as a gateway to the mind. It is always there, so can be used as a rhythmic constant to keep the mind moored to the moment. He began to improve, this quasi-Quasimodo, he pulled up the front and the back receded down near to its proper configuration. As usual, like me years ago, he asked how he could know what the “correct” structure was. As I mention elsewhere, this Zero Point is difficult to reach, but can be achieved with practice of Feeling and getting pressure through the system by getting the scapula and neck in a better position.

He overcame his depression eventually because his mind started to go inside in a different way. Instead of going mind-mentally in, he went mind-physically in, began to sense the cauldron of bubbling, seething fluids, the rivers of blood that cascade through the millions of pipes and channels, the nerves picking this bass beat up and bush-telegraphing to the brain, which then strained to hear the static and the low-frequency hiss and fibrin-fidgeting inside the deepest of muscles that held the oldest tension with familiarity, like Golum caressing his Precious. He told me, over the months, that he never felt so relaxed in his life and other elements in his life were beginning to resolve themselves, like a photo appearing in a dark room redlit pool.

To truly relax, the mind’s radar has to sweep the dark recesses and caves in the muscles we share as mammals, the lost Latin sirloins that cleave to the bone, known only to surgeons,  pathologists and bodyworkers- the peroneals, the extensor digitorum longus, the psoas and the collagenous cage of fascia they bed down in. Feeling the body is not normal in our insane society. Distraction rules, ignoring pain is the norm, bulldoze through the signals, “be a man”, stick it out-until you get irremediably sick. Muscular tension leads to high blood pressure, stress exhaustion, and coupled with shallow breathing and a mind that is constantly envisaging the worst possible outcome to any situation, usually involving some kind of social humiliation -for if you truly didn’t care what others thought, why would you worry about most things?- you have the elements of a short pale life lived in constant fear of living.

Children are ruined by the stagnant, bedesked necessity of daylight drudgery called “School” and “Job” that benights cities and countries in our modern societies. The carapace of hunched habit crusts willowy youth into aged curmudgeonly crabs, prey to degeneration and illness, their arteries plaqued as they eat dead food, nutrient-pale, pesticide-drunk; as they breathe stale indoor air, exist starved of wildness, stars and adolescent rituals. We are a decadent child species with terrifying power.

Qi gong and tai chi have been maps leading me back to those yore days, when semi-hemi-wildness still existed near my house in the suburbs near the sea, where owls and kingfishers clung on by their talons. I do believe, and still believe though, that if you have not been exposed to nature as a child, if you have not stepped into the hushed moment of the presence of a wild animal, all senses throbbing, breath kept, an intense melding of consciousness between you and the creature; if you have never had that, you will never really care for wildness, or the environment, except maybe vicariously through television. The stillness I have achieved in my practices, both physical and meditative, have chimed with deep memories from those days, when the avian otherness of birds led me away from the deadening distress of my home and school life.

We have a long way to go to restore ecological balance, to redress the tree razing, the predator wipeouts, the fish shoah. Though this Frenchman lived off organic foods, surrounded by wildness, his mind and body were wracked from postural stress and endless negative brooding.

So you need to start with your inner wilderness, start with learning to respect your own physical and mental nature, and the nature of your earthy human body, born of supernova dust and the salty internal sea of our primordial past by giving it the physical poise it needs to be a balanced being, at home in itself, connected with not itself via right brain empathy with that which is; ingesting whole foods free of toxic chemicals; making a living wilderness inside, a soothing black silence that we can draw deep upon during the shrill assault of fetid city stress; the mountains of the back, the Richard Crookback we have become, can be smoothed over, we can make you whole again, a pyramid of taut tentness. From the base camp, ascent to higher summits is possible. Physicality can breed mentality which exhales spirituality.

 

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Knowing and “Knowing”

left-brain-right-brain-minimalism-wallpaper-2560x1600

As Gregory Bateson says, all knowledge has to be knowledge of distinction, and it is of something other than the self. Equally one might say that all experience is experience of difference. Even at the sensory level we cannot experience anything unless there is a change or difference: our sensory nerves quickly ‘fatigue’, and we become accustomed, for example, to a smell, or to a sound. Our senses respond to the differences between values- to relative, not absolute, values. ( It seems that knowledge and perception, and therefore experience, exist only in the relations between things. Perhaps indeed everything that exists does so only in relationships, like mathematics or music: there are aspects of quantum physics that would support such a view). This fact..implies that we can come to an understanding of the nature of any one thing, whatever it might be, only by comparison with something else we already know, and by observing the similarities and differences”

McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, page 97.

There is no doubt in my mind that one of the biggest reasons why people drop out of tai chi is that they do not spend the requisite amount of time practicing in order to seal in the novelty, export the feeling into at least some demarcated part of the daily ritual, and try out the différance. When they first come to class, the right brain is excited by the newness, the sense of adventure, the sense of pride in finally getting round to doing something they had wanted to do for a while. However, ineluctably, the luster pales, and despite my Barnum Bailey pyrotechnics, Xhosa clicks, somersaults and electric cattle prods to keep them amused, provoked, shocked, thrilled and agog, there are slinkies who sink away, unable to “get it”; and contrary to expectation, it is not only the agèd: many young men arrive full of garrulous gusto or post-karate swagger. By the end of the first course, sometimes before, they mutter their excuses and whiten into the air, the reality of real realness not synching with a digital click into the role-playing dungeons of their retarded adolescence.

Learning physical movements that need to replace existing programmes of motion is difficult, and requires patience with onself, and time. More, and pertinently to this essay, it requires the capacity to discriminate between the routine and the holiday feeling. Differentiation (be careful of this word) between stepping forward as you have done since you were three, plunging the foot down vaulting the weight onto the thigh down to the foot, and lowering the front leg with a gentle slow controlled deftness, pawing down with the light tread of a stalking panther, relying on the power of the back leg- this requires the capacity to be aware, to identify two contrasted concepts. Using the arms and back with novelty is of a far more difficult nature, mostly on account of the scarceness of nerves in the back.

However, the adept who is well trained will eventually “get” the new feeling, understand the new way of moving, and initiate the move as part of a new movement paradigm from the whole,  and not from itself.

More dangerous is the left-brained trap for the teacher; continuing to stick to whatever initial change was made in their first training, and then teaching on auto-pilot, with little awareness or inclination to improve their current status, not learning, not cross-training, not questioning, content with just enough security in their little territory, fond of routine, habit and rhythm; this is fine for a dog, not a teacher. Sclerosis, arrogance and mediocrity result.

The left brain likes repetition and regularity- “ ..new experience of any kind-whether it be of music, or words, or real-life objects, or imaginary constructs-engages the right hemisphere. As soon as it starts to become familiar or routine, the right hemisphere is less engaged, and eventually ‘the information’ becomes the concern of the left hemisphere only” ( McGilchrist, page 94). Hence, a teacher like this becomes stuck in a bad groove, and can’t or won’t learn anything new.

“ To know ( in the sense of kennen) something is never fully to know it ( in the sense of wissen) at all, since it will remain for ever changing, evolving, revealing further aspects of itself- in this sense always new, though familiar, in the original sense of coming to belong among our chosen ones, those with whom we stand in close relation, our familia ( McGilchrist, page 96)

 

Jung “ All cognition is recognition”

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Stone Atlas

Michelangelo-unfinished sculpture

 

I often get students who limp in suffering from some structural ailment. Frequently, they mention the physio or chiropractor they visit, and the relief they get. But very often, as soon as they are in the blissful Cloud of Unknowing called Non-Pain, they “fall into dysfunction”, that is to say, they unknowingly fall back into the postural mould that has them in the tangled mess they are in, and they must needs return to the practitioner for more temporary relief because the system cannot cope with the strain anymore.  

 The root cause is not being addressed unless the relief is permanent. How can this be achieved? Fascia can be moulded through continuous isometric holding, and the ailment relieved, as long as the alignment is correct. But what is correct alignment and how can fascia do that?

How can you possibly check if your 3-D,  conical-skyscraper self is obeying the downward pressure of gravity such that no joint or muscle feels like Atlas struggling in a Sisyphean world? The weight of the body should sustain itself buoyantly in the internal tensengrity structure, and nothing should feel heavy.

But how? Most people do not know if they have a bad back until it gives out, discs bulging out like a spare tyre, just as cardiac victims are unaware they have had a heart attack until either they see the Reaper’s scythe or the hospital ceiling lights.

Awareness and testing helps. But the teacher can’t be there all the time. Where is the still point of the balancing act, when all muscles, bones and fascia are poised on the event horizon of absolute zero positioning? Where the head balances on top of the spine like a bowling ball on top of a billiard cue? This end point is a grail of difficulty that I myself have only reached within the last few years, but when you reach it, it is revelatory. ( When I say “reached” I really mean “visited; I have yet to fully drag my reluctant head all the way back. Some millimetres-they may as well be miles-remain)

If Milan Kundera wrote a book about Perfect Posture it might be called “ The Bearable Lightness of Being”, as the whole feels like the composition of a Yin/Yang: heavy yet light, solid yet insubstantial, grounded yet buoyant. The concept “perfect posture” can be instantiated in the individual, but only with the practice of feeling how the subtle changes in head/neck positioning can trigger immediate slack or taut feedback compensation cascades in the thorax, abdomen and pelvis. These constant internal ripples and agonist reflexes, designed to prevent dangerous listing and keep the keel even are co-ordinated and executed in milliseconds. Constant sensing, what I call “body scanning” can give you unparallelled knowledge of where you are and what your muscules are doing to such an exent that correction of posture can take place with a quick downward “scan” with immediate compensations dropping into alignment.

Continuing the ship analogy, the human caravel can tolerate a huge variety of barnacles and dead weight. I have seen students with rounded upper backs as dense as a pine cone, but suffer no apparent pain, even as the head is pushed forward. Others have twisted spines or pelvis, and again are not in pain. Still others have no apparent structural issue yet suffer immense pain from nerve damage or trauma. All are different, and so no one presciption can help them. And yet they can be helped. But the impetus to help oneself must be present or progress will be geological.

The passivity of many patients is an aspect of modern westerners. Many do not do the remedial exercises given them by their physios unless they are in pain that is cramping their life. This could be because they are inherently boring and repetitive.

Qi gong is an active process. It is also repetitive, but it proceeds with awareness and vigilant listening in order to constantly improve the movements until smooth power and, yes, beauty, is reached.

What does smooth power that is beautiful look like?

It’s not just wearing silk and prancing around at dawn. Any hippie on peyote can do that.

Beautiful, powerful tai chi and qi gong motion coheres first into a potentiality; there is an “uptaking” of the body, an inbreath of movement, a harvesting of  muscular power, followed by a calibrated, proportioned expulsion like a segmented ribbon, a chain of kinematic motion unfolding like a Fibonacci fern, with the vital ingredient of torque reversion; that is, there are spiral reversals being grounded for each and every movement away from the centre to supply power.  Done slowly, the whole should look under feathery control, with the body moving like delicate kelp, rooted but swaying, the whipping motion extending out to the poles of the limbs, and then undulating back in so as to wind up again through the legs and feet. The Hun Yuan form of Master Ma showed me this better than any other Form I had learned.   Smoothness and power, effortless power, are the supreme acknowledgements that your body is moving correctly, all alignments stable yet opening up to their optimal ceiling via the serpentine whipping inertia and momentum. Animals do this unconsciously, and chlidren with normal childhoods too. Knowing that the alignments are correct takes many years of neural conditioning, combined with testing and feeling. This marks qi gong out from normal exercise. At the end of this training, you can then move your body out of alignment, still get the same results in terms of power, but you can then snap back your body to its optimal alignment, like a rubber band returning to rest.

Beginners often get discouraged. As a Beginner still on the piano, with bio-chemistry, and my long-running feud with the Chinese language, I know this sinking feeling too well. And I remember it with my tai chi too. But nothing can not not be changed. Michelangelo left many sculptures half finished, and they are among his most powerful works; the titans within struggle to escape from their marbled matrix. We understand his description of just “uncovering” the figures within.  Learning tai chi and qi gong can be like this process; you are shedding sediment, breaking free into your true self, rediscovering who you are. Becoming who you are. 

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Platonic Forms

Liuposter copy 3

“Do it as if you are doing it perfectly” Liu Hung Jieh

 

I am embarrassed to think of the years I taught and practised tai chi which was, according to my current standards, appalling. And yet, even approximations to the Ideal produced results. The Grail is to move your body as close as possible to movements that are “out there” so to speak; you are slipping your limbs into ghostly sleeves which represent Ideality. As argued elsewhere, and consistent with the holographic nature of these essays, you must reach a certain level of restricted movement in order to optimise fascial liquidity within optimum parameters, and then, and only then, can you go beyond them.You can bleed past the frontier whilst retaining connectivity, like an amoeba casually extending a pseudopod. But of that “breaking” aspect, elsewhere shall I write.

What is Ideal? The human body is encased in a heavy gravitational field, the physics of motion constrain and corset what is possible. We cannot sprint like a cheetah or stott and pronk like a gazelle. The wall of possible limits has been reached if judged by the quantum wafers separating gold and silver in the chemical-soaked Olympics. We can do certain things, and not others. Part of what qi gong attempts is to train the body to move the limbs in all possible realistic ranges of motion ( astanga yoga, I am looking at you here) that might possibly be encountered in a martial (or training)  movement. The Hun Yuan Qi Gong does this to prepare the student for Hun Yuan Tai Chi, but what my students and I are realising is how the qi gong gives the body the kind of deep totality of aligned twisting and strengthening that can only come from a life dedicated to working with adzes, scythes, spears, and a history of shinning up trees. In other words, it is a superior substitution for a weakened city existence that can do things that makes the standard physical fitness regimes look limited, halting and focused on isolating cardio-fitness and muscular development to the detriment of just about everything else.

I have found that being very soft with a capacity to contract only those muscles needed for any given counter-attack can manifest huge power. But how much do I need to constrain myself within the Rules of Structure?  How sloppy can my Form get without me losing power? I should be able, on an internal fiat, be able to snap into a powerful structure, conforming to “my” Platonic Ideal of how to maximise body alignment for expressing a physicality of raw power; this comes from endless practice and “knowing” where I am at any given moment. The Snake Form is relentless, as is the Hun Yuan; both are demanding in that they require rigorous, but relaxed control. The muscles that are being used are contracted appropriately, not tensed. It is getting the body to contract at precisely the right moments, in the right areas, which defines a powerful tai chi movement.

Platonic Ideal Forms may have chimed with Christian rejection of the body as impure, but the sense of the Tai Chi Form as having an insubstantial “Life” of its own outside of ourselves, that we then “Perform” as some kind of ritual attempt at earthly corporeality and reification, is a compelling and verifiable concept.  The closer we come to the “Ideal” the more we can wander from it, yet never lose sight of it.  I have lost count of the students who complain they cannot practise at home because they “ do not do it perfectly”. The self-censuring, probably stemming from that same Christianity ( at least here in Ireland) precludes acceptance of something less than perfect. As if they can “feel” what perfection is! They make judgments based on a visual comparison with me and, perhaps, a residual loathing-courtesy of Christianity-of the body that thwarts them feeling anything beyond crude sensations of sex, food or elimination.

Freedom of movement and excellence in tai chi and qi gong comes from a  precisely calibrated connectivity of total bodily muscular contraction and a mind that is open, relaxed and aware; acceptance and knowledge of one’s physical limits, and progress measured in layers of sedimentary corporeal and mental comprehension of oneself in one’s environment as precise motions are enacted.

This is The Supreme Ultimate, or Tai Ji; nothing less than a self-perfected acceptance of Everything As It Is.

Ideality is Now, my dear Plato. That roiling Greek mind of yours was none too calm methinks..

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Ineffable

zen-garden

“Real poetry, is to lead a beautiful life. To live poetry is better than to write it.”
Matsuo Basho

 

I am returning to academia (Deo Volente) to pursue study in Botany, one of the oldest of scientific professions, the better to contribute to the war against the destruction of the natural world partly created by science ( or perhaps scientism) itself, but currently promulgated and prosecuted by forces of brutal commerce that lack anything resembling sense or sensibility.

Pleased at the chance to finally try to nail some mercury better, I pause at the thought of all that relentless reductionism. I fear the loss of overseeing, of creativity becoming an oversight in the grim Roman determination to assault the citadel of Truth, and accumulate “facts”. As Krishnamurti said, “ Do you know that even when you look at a tree and say, ‘That is an oak tree’, or ‘That is a banyan tree’, the naming of the tree, which is botanical knowledge, has so conditioned your mind that the word comes between you and actually seeing the tree? To come into contact with the tree you have to put your hand on it and the word will not help you to touch it”. Krishnamurti, “Freedom from the Known” page 28.

This Adamic sense of “possessing” a thing because we have named it, is still in me, for during my youthful bouts of Faustian fear at not knowing enough, it sufficed for me to merely skim the name of an object, bird, rock formation or person to possess its soul but I had merely placed a phonic wall between me and Knowing the Thing in Itself.  I well remember the endless lists of birds I used to type out on my aunt Cora’s Underwood, excited at the English-Latin dual nomination, a sense of owning increasing my power as a 10-year old Druid. Yet careful fieldwork was beyond me, my mind having only the capacity to stare and absorb the gestalt.   For personal reasons at the time, my mind was not capable of sustained concentration beyond drawing or writing lists; behavioural analysis and observation were beyond me, and maybe still are; these essays are not “objective” in the least. When I looked, as a boy, at a bird that I had never seen before, I experienced wonder, shock and a still point of being that dry analysis cannot reproduce, and thus spurns; “ the analytic process cannot deal with uniqueness; there is an irresistible temptation for it to move from the uniqueness of something to its assumed non-existence, since the reality of the unique would have to be captured by idioms that apply to nothing else” McGilchrist The Master and his Emissary”, p.28.

True knowing is nameless.  I cannot, though I contradict myself through trying here, describe what tai chi IS, but I can report from the zone of what it feels like, using necessarily limited descriptive prose, each word of which will resonate with overtones and undertones differently with each reading human, the reader’s response to prose being necessarily hieroglyphic (as proved by the capacity to read text which is missing vowels), as well as being of a grazing character- whole paragraphs are skated over nimbly, and only certain memorable phrases or metaphors tarry us ( Nietzsche: “ “It is not for nothing that one has been a philologist, perhaps one is a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading.” Daybreak, Preface)

Slow reading is a lost art, as is speaking aloud while reading. In today’s Babel of Banal, stale gobbets of emetic prose infect language with spores of decay, leading to newspapers that mould opinion, in both senses, leading to stasis of a true criticism and a babbling penchant for cliché and vulgarities. Quid Nunc gossip and lazy writing are yawning gorges on either side of the tightrope of sustained effort.

I will, in my essays here,  attempt to pen my belief in this magnificent human art the better to bronze its current status, which is that of a “worthy” but also “quaint” piece of “china”; a faintly musty piece of kitsch that your grandmother likes.

Metaphorein– “carrying over”, that makes poetry “wonder-full” is useful here in describing a movement art to perhaps encourage or enthuse the prospective practitioner. A panegyric to myself is not what I intend, because with any movement art, Yeats’ line is apt, for  “how can we tell the dancer from the dance?’; thus I must divest my description of all unintentional auto-lauds from my studied impressions of the movements and their manifold effects.

There is these days a quiet cohort of natural history writing penning prose that burns like phosphurus, approaching the aquiline heights of AJ Baker. Metaphoric delights, “saying one thing in terms of an other”, picking out tangential points of similarity, arrest the careful reader. But they do not, can not, convey more than mere second-hand knowledge of the Thing In Itself. For that, experiential tactility is required. Thus, though these essays serve to describe the somewhat ineffable, it cannot sensualise the sentience of tai chi.

For that, you need a teacher.

 

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Learning by Occident

Caspar

Tai chi is not a philosophy. Lovers of wisdom seldom move, at least in the
west (exceptions include Nietzsche and Heidegger, who were indefatigable walkers, inheritors of the peripatetic school of Aristotle)

Tai chi can, however,  be a way of life, a Dao, a Do, a  Heidegerrian Way.

How can it do that? Because it has re-patterned my nervous system through repetition, made me aware of my deep muscular and fascial tightness, and all the attendant “issues” that reside therein ( another essay on that topic somewhere else)

That it has made me calmer, stronger, clearer, more mature, empathetic, ( with major reverses to be sure) I can be in no doubt. I am in recovery from myself, from the brutal imprinting.

Learning to recover my infant body-soft, powerful, calm, elastic and springy-before the blizzard of conditioning, from the jackbooted, rage-and-libido-fuelled frothing of the Christian Brothers to the Munch-screaming hormones of home life; the body-shaming éminence grise of the Irish Zeitgest, a suffocating pyroclastic “wind out of blackness” that froze sexual expression into contorted shapes of abortive and furtive guilt-infused pleasure;  I also suffered adolescent emotional aneurysms with respect to girls, un-ritualed and untutored in love, which led to impossible infatuations as traumatic as any Byronic hero; all this led to the volcanic boozy rage of a twenty-something incapable of dealing with life.

A typical Irish life you might say.

An academic life awaited, with probable fermentation and infarction in my 50s.

Yet somehow, I escaped.

Progress was slow. Arrogance of the partially-trained. Teachers of immense self-regard.

Then, a magus. But he was a flawed titan. One of his top students then appeared at a moment of need. Since then, he has helped steer me. Together, we now weave our own tapestries of life and definite death, instructors in bodily weft, teachers of movement warp. Spiraling, condensing and opening; the wringing out of the old, the kneading of the new.

It is not only the movements that sprinkle scintillas of wisdom on me, as I regularly epiphanise in class ( little eurekas of Archimedes slopping water in his bath) and almost immediately try to apply the new discovery to my students. I also get this from my regular lessons from my own teachers, often a long trip will be rewarded with one single insight, the instauration of which I know will take a year or more. Not only the motions, but the emotions that shed their hampering clammy hand. Self-consciousness is not the same as self-awareness. One is a fearful reflexive being, diaphragm held tight in fear of rejection, the other is a bodied and disembodied objectivity, a grounded and dispassionate capacity to distinguish, discriminate and sift before judging and acting.

The stillness inside that grows leads to people who possess genuine wisdom.
It is a banality that when the student is ready, the teacher ( or book) will appear.

I have had teachers for years. In my case, it is “when the student stops his flitting and flibbertigibbetting and learns to really listen, to stop and look, then the words of his master that he has impatiently read already will be read anew, as if for the first time”. The words move like a perfect key through the eyes and ears into the locked mind, and one door, one of many, is opened. Snakes and ladders comes to mind, because I am always sliding back to the beginning to look afresh at what I “thought” I “knew”.

Occidentally born, I revolve orientally.

 

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Pirahá

Piraha-woman

 

The Pirahá are a tribe in the Amazon who have resisted missionaries for over 300 years. The main reason they give is that no one has seen Jesus with their own eyes, therefore it violates their Immediacy of Perception principle. If you haven’t seen it, or someone you know hasn’t seen it, then it’s not worth bothering with. They are perhaps the ultimate empiricists. Their language is notoriously difficult, but one man has mastered it well, a linguistic professor who went to convert them, and ended up losing his faith to them, because they seemed so content, so happy with their lives, that they didn’t need Jesus to “save” them. He realised his attempts at conversion were just another form of colonialism. He also realised that their language violated something that Noam Chomsky had decreed was universal among languages; recursion, or the capacity to create long, complex sentences. Everett showed that Piraha didn’t have this capacity. As a result, Chomsky and his cohort have dismissed Everett as a charlatan, and denied him access to the Piraha, a people he has devoted his life to! What is paradoxical is that Chomsky is a well-known anti-imperialist, and yet here he is expunging any dissent from his fiat about language. The desire for biological uniformity, without any evidentiary proof, is the typical of the kind of arrogance displayed by the inductive linguists who work in the lab and not in the field. The possibility that a language may demonstrate a unique creative weltanshauung is anathema to them. As I discuss elsewhere, it is usually when the anomalies start to build up that the paradigm is doomed, and the hardline defenders are unrepentant until death, for it would mean renouncing their life’s work, which is what  a scientist should welcome as progress. But Science forgets that research is done within the fragile walls of an ego.

I cite the Pirahá because in our techno-polluted, compass-spinning world, their certainy and calm in the face of death ( they lack myths or redemptive beliefs beyond “spirits”) by the fact that their grammar possesses no future or past means that they live entirely in the present, which has become something of a Holy Grail for the entire “Mindfulness” industry and indeed, my own “industry”. So much of the modern world is plagued by worry, fear and regret that the vast Therapy Mushroom has sprung up to help us “get over it”. Staying in the present is all very well, and is, indeed, the cornerstone of one of my own personal Buddhist practices, but there are some qualifications that need airing. Whilst it seems that the culture of the Pirahá has shaped their grammar, and thus their world-view, we cannot borrow their language and thus their sunny disposition. They lack almost all of the cultural, scientific and artistic wonders we have, but they are completely attuned to their botanical and floristic environment, totally immersed in the forest and the river, knowing the name and capacity of every tree and flower. I cannot express how envious I am of this when I trudge to the cold, electric supermarket to buy dead, boiled milk in a disposable carton, paying paper to a zombified immigrant from a warm climate who is dying inside at minimum wage. I feel disconnected to a massive degree from the sources of my nutrition, and thus the earth, which leads, it must lead, to a form of psychological detachment, and possibly pathological interiority. I saw my own sister disappear into a room for 9 years, emerging only at night to gaze vacantly at the television and eat pizza. She was eventually hospitalised for “schizophrenia” and now wanders the dirty,  curry and vomit-flecked streets of the Dublin quays as a homeless person, a gifted sculptor driven mad by my mother’s pathological insensitivity, herself a victim of her own mother, an emotional cripple who was no doubt poisoned by her own mother. I suppose this is a form of Family Recursion, cripples creating cripples ad infinitum, like an Escher drawing, a cripple in time.

Even those who isolate themselves in communities grow their own food, and earn some rooted satisfaction. Tai chi is my attempt, beside my love of trees, to cleave to the natural world. I need the earth element, and despite my adornment of my studio with motifs from misty Chinese mountains, they remain re-presentations, two-dimensional ghosts. It is the goal of my practice to try to integrate into this mess, and to learn to see it all as a hologram, to trust the results of the Quantum shamans, those brave scientists who peered through the muzzy gauze of Absolute Reality and saw a fuzz, a non-local vibration of possibilites. Futurities are not givens, they are subjunctives, possibilties based on Present stimuli.

I want to be a Pirahá. I want to move like a fish in my environment, comfortable and at ease with everything. In this fractured, consciousness-cursed body we live in that stumbles through the wreckage of a bleeding planet, this goal seems further than ever from manifesting. And yet the Pirahá persist, as long as the Amazon is there, yet that is also disappearing.

Tai Chi and qi gong, alien practices to my freckled pale self here on the Atlantic shelf, have irradiated my life and made it porous to knowledge that meant little on first perusal but that have, through constant exposure, led to illumined eurekas in my limited little head. May it lead you to a deep sense of ease under your skin, so that you can move like a Pirahá in a forbidding city, the concrete jungle where humans can be Piranha to each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Homeostasis

ship-in-a-storm-1887

 

Every day we steer the battered hulk of our body to port many times, as the smooth functioning of our organism requires inputs from food, water and then more subtle additives like shelter, sex, status, meaning, and so on. The physiological losses and inputs are balanced by autonomic adjustments every second in the chemical bustle of the cell and the level of the organ, with delicate tuning, trading and compensating to maintain what is called Homeostasis, the condition of optimal functionality of all bodily systems. In reality, this state is not static at all, so homeodynamism is sometimes the preferred title. Even in the doldrums of a dog-day afternoon, in the backwoods of your house, as you sit in deep silence reading a pleasure tome, in the fiery furnace of your cells you are burning with formulae that clash, seethe and cleave to make up the proteins and hormones and other man-named substances that flow through the pipes, ducts and gutters of your plumbing;  you hum with muffled fuses streaking through neurons;  your lungs haggle oxygen for Co2 in the deep souks of the lungs;  the pink walnut-shaped court of your brain receives a thousand Pheidippides every second, recounting the Marathons that clash in your immune system, as scavenger cells seek burgling bacteria, alien proteins and every ruthless virus.

Meanwhile, floating above and beyond the Rabelesian throng, your conscious mind is serenely looking at squibbles of black ink arranged in a certain manner, and interpreting the inner life of another organism through the decoding of this sequence.

 This would be fine if we were living in a time of stablility and mutual entwinement with nature and ourselves.

Homeostasis, in our insane society, is almost dead from exhaustion. The tiller is unmanned, the rudder is locked and fatal reefs are ahead. The ports are full of denatured food, the water is tainted, the muscles are turning to either granite or dough. Millions of beings are serried in ranks to stare all day at tiny arabic numbers or write meaningless reports in a mantis position, sapped in amber,  a petroglyph, the exoskeleton of Joseph K, Kafka’s creature, a drone in a hive, a worker termite, a cypher, harassed in his “spare time” to “become an individual” and buy garbage produced by other drones in other mounds.

The worst-off stumble into my class, blinking and limping, desperate flotsam from the wake of the factory ships, dumped overboard as they can’t keep up, vertically ill from the fiats of the whitecoats to take more drugs or screamed at in gyms or by videos to do this or that crude exercise. They are propelled into the eddy and calm pool of my studio, where, often despite robust declarations of seaworthiness, they are listing badly and sinking.

Deaths from cancer, heart disease and neurological disorders are now of epidemic proportions.

As the climate-deniers are now demonstrating with impeccable stupidity, if you pay enough money to enough people to peddle a lie, it becomes Dogma. But the burning of Earth is hard to ignore like an economic theory can be. Likewise, the streaking decline of health in the general population is burdening the “Health” system to eyeball-popping levels of strain. Shrieking avatars of Economic Growth At All Costs must know that Economy Equals Ecology, but they are determined to flush out every last buck from the blasted planet before they seek shelter in their “country” retreats ( where their land is somehow immune from climate change?) while we little folk buy their crap and die without even a whimper, grateful to die in a hospital bed, and not a trolley.

And this has to do with what I teach….how?

It is difficult to avoid stale cliches. But I will try.

Stand still to listen. Stillness is the center of movement.

Learn to breathe. There are at least 6 different ways of breathing. Fear stuns the breath. Stomachs cohere into a spiral of stuck organs when fear strikes. Awakening the diaphragm can begin a process of deep breathing with the many well-documented benefits ( see Breathing essay)

Move intelligently. At home, at work.

Sit comfortably for hours and practise at work. Eat foods which will make you well, not sick. Stage a daily putsch against the little regimes of oppression that dominate your day. Question authority, object to advertising, stop watching television! Go for walks in a forest, buy your food close to the source, support local traders against the cancerous leviathans who sterilise the high streets.

Become aware. Pay attention to what is happening even around you now. Notice how the mind works, how you become, how you want to become, distracted. 

Start with your body, then with your town, then with the country. Get the balance back. Fight back. Homeostasis cannot deal with the human caprice to self-annihilate. The trillions of Athenian city-states that are your cells need to fight together to reclaim your internal polis against the behemoth called “Modern Life” and then, when you are strong and clear, maybe you can fight for Gaia herself.

 

Do not stand still in your head. Do something. Stand still in your body to start.

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Scanner Darkly

SEARCHLIGHT1

 

Every morning now, when I wake up, during the “hypnapompic” ( from sleep) state, my body telegraphs to me certain sensations. There is either a general sense of heaviness, from the previous day’s exertions ( my Mac wrote Pervious, which seems like a moral judgement) or there is a combination of heaviness with what I can only call “muscular static”, in the sense of an awareness of my legs, in particular, having fired and continuing to fire, especially my calves ( the last thing to relax in tai chi apparently) and an “electric” feeling of disturbance hovering over my whole body, and preventing me from relaxing to a deep level. This is caused by the previous day’s teaching-usually too much- and my muscles haven’t had time to recover. Usually, I go to bed too late, and wake up too early, and as I require beauty sleep, I need to doze more, but I cannot when my muscles are firing constantly. This is when I scan. My intention goes to my thighs, and I start to “listen” with my mind, visualizing at the same time a circular scan starting to descend slowly from the pelvis down to the knees. With practice and time, I can now feel the attachments of my hamstrings, and I quickly become aware of “static” in my legs; in other words, an urgency of tension starts to make itself present to my awareness, and as the scan starts to descend, the “holding” becomes more and more apparent to my mind until a point is reached when the feeling of “holding” is intolerable to itself and it “lets go”, and I feel the muscles drop and relax. The “buzz” in my legs has dropped somewhat.

This probably sounds insane. I couldn’t feel anything when I was 32. My legs were tighter than a log of Persian Ironwood, from cycling for years. I remember well wanting to have them massaged-for the first time- and I went to a small Catalan woman who had claws for hands, and, under my insistent cries of agony, she proceeded to leave lines of yellow bruises in my quads, as she gleefully cleaved into the dense forest of packed muscle. Over the years, as I became more sensitive to my legs, the “ noise” started to make itself felt. So it has reached its current state of sensitivity, such that I can now extend the scanning everywhere else. But back to my legs. As I approach my calves, it’s almost as if the “holding tension” starts to panic slightly at the approaching “awareness” and begins to drop away like refugees fleeing an army. My calves hum brightly with tension, and as I scan very slowly down, I throw into the mix sometimes a visualization of acid dissolving the tightnesss, and I can feel the successive layers start to let go. When the whole releases, I can feel the leg actually drop and become heavier.

It’s a delicious feeling of satisfaction. I often have to go back over the calf from the top, as the onion layers are peeled back. I “know” when I have made it relax because I don’t feel the “noise” or twitching anymore, and the party has moved on down to the feet. As I near the feet, hysteria grips my nerves. Slowly spiraling up the foot from the heel like the Americans taking Italy, the toes start to fire wildly and thrash and jerk as they release tension, almost like an orgasm. It is a crazy feeling, but after the scanning, my entire leg feels utterly delicious, heavy and relaxed, and I often fall back asleep there and then, but I usually continue to do the other leg, and then my arms. I find tension in the forearms all the time, as they are not relaxed yet totally.

I also find tension in my eyes, mouth, deep hip muscles, and very often in my neck. The whole edifice often drops several times, as the “guilty” feeling lets go. This is without doubt the greatest way I know to relax at a deep level. It has radically changed the way I relate to myself. But what does it have to do with tai chi or qi gong?

Everything.

If you can’t feel your body, you won’t know how tight or tense you are. You may suffer from Restless Legs syndrome, as I used to, and I now believe it was caused by excessive tension making the legs feel “light”. Recall that my legs felt incredibly heavy when I released the tension and sleep was almost immediate. In tai chi and qi gong, the goal is to make your body full of energy through breathing combined with a range of motion for the joints that is close to optimum so that your fascia, tendons, ligaments and muscle tissue can remain at levels of maximal strength. When you are moving, or staying still, knowing where you are in space, what tension you are holding at any given time during any given situation means you can control and change your posture, breathing, and movements even as they occur. Self-correction of the body means that you can attain levels of smoothness and control that might otherwise only occur through mindless repetition like a gymnast or ballerina, whose movements, while seemingly perfect and smooth, actually mask a deep tension. The fact that their careers end early seems to bear this out, while I am actually improving as I age, and Master Ma ( 63) and Chris (53) are also getting better. I don’t know if Master Ma does scanning, but he has the requisite control and softness. It may not have been on the original curriculum, but 19th century Chinese no doubt had greater body awareness than 20th century Irishmen. I was always aware of my power growing up, and my strength, but it was the kind of gross awareness of the results of my strength. . Actually feeling my body was on a dim level.

And what about mental, psychic and emotional relaxation? Can deep physical relaxation lead to their diminution and  relaxation?

I’ll let you work that one out…I’m going for a pint.

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Turtle Neck

Tortoise I know this is a tortoise, not a turtle

Necks suffer. Necks turn into turtles. Turtlenecks. Hard at the back, soft in the front. A carapace turtling forward. The neck is a victim of the shoulder blades flaring and gluing into an open wing position, all the muscles of the upper back corrugating into  a granite range pushing the head forward like a wind-blasted pine on a precipice. It is sculpted by years of looming over a silicon valley.

We are talking humps here. Humpbacks, hunchbacks, kyphosis-call it what you will, the species is spreading.

The back of the neck becomes as compact and dense as a dromedary’s bump, to try and pull back the head from tilting forward like a Pisan tower. The front of the neck with its complement of muscles falls into neural silence, a rain shadow hooding the struts and buttresses that are supposed to antagonize the agonists at the back. Instead, the scaffolding collapses deep into the chest, and fascial shortening contracts the whole sternal area into a sinkhole of atrophy. As a final insult, the chin is forced up, giving the miserable creature an appearance of a tortoise peering out and up.

Such a human cannot breathe, stand up, or walk tall and proud. Condemned to hunch, a capuchin monk, chest depression shortens the breath, leading to staccato or haphazard breathing, and an ever-present gloam of unease and maybe inky clouds of Melancholia.

Re-alignment has to come from the Front. The northern Front, and the southern Front. For this is a battle. A battle against Habit, Gravity and Chairs.

I can fix almost any posture if given enough time to keep checking. The front has to be reclaimed. But first, the shoulder blades have to be pushed back into something like the suburbs of normality. This can be done with a quick little trick. Then, the horse-trading begins. The blades going back can pull the shoulders into a more equitable (or even equine) position, BUT the shortening of the chest tissue will pull up the sternum like a rearing mare and arch the lower back, and maybe make the chin lose its moorings and float up. In order to secure progress, all elements need to be adjusted a little in tandem with each other, as each has a tension integrity connection with the rest. Like commanders moving ships or tanks on a board slowly forward, you need to move all the actors in the head at a speed commensurate with incremental progress on all fronts.

The effort that is needed to remould the upper back and neck is in direct proportion to the time you have spent inflicting it upon yourself via screen-peering on woeful desks which are not measured to your exact proportions. Spending all day sitting on a chair looking at a screen (said he on his laptop) is deeply unnatural and is spawning a new generation of misshapen, pale “Officers” who suffer as much a badly neglected plant in a dim corner.

In the Hun Yuan tai chi-xing yi form, if you move quickly, and in ba gua also, if your neck isn’t securely moored, it will flop like a pigtail, and your capacity to execute a powerful strike will be negated. As I have mentioned elsewhere many times, when the Chinese came to tai chi or ba gua in the violent past, they often had a martial past already or were manual workers with a strong body. When he struck out from the Chen village, seeking his fortune with his “Unbeatable” status, Yang Lu Chan could hardly have imagined how his secret family art, a hybrid of various strands from the remote past, could have ended up being used to heal injured and damaged Foreign Devils in vast cities across the Silk Road to the west. He may well have stroked his wispy beard on that perfectly aligned head, and laughed in disbelief.

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