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LEARNING FROM ANIMALS

The animal importing company was like my second home.  After school and on weekends I took care of monkeys, parrots, anteaters, hedgehogs, pythons, dragon lizards, tarantulas and dozens of other species.  The animals were my family.  Many had been there for so long that they were now fully grown.

These animals were imported from areas that were being destroyed.  They were sold to people or organizations that were studying how to breed them in captivity. 

At the same time, I went to New York City as often as possible to study a form of chi-gung based on animal behavior – a system I now call “Zookinesis”.  The reason I was chosen to receive this teaching is that my mind and spirit had already been formed to a large extent by the animals I worked with.  I spent more time with them than with people.

In this chi-gung system you learn to copy the patterns and qualities of internal energy (chi) of various animals.  By experiencing the large variety of patterns of chi you learn to appreciate the dynamics of chi.  You can then use these dynamics in healing. 

I soon began my own animal importing company and decided to live in the animal compound.  There were always problems and you had to be right there if an animal got loose or was sick.  I soon saw fewer and fewer people and more and more animals.

When I began learning Tai-chi I could relate the movements and qualities to many of the animals I worked with.  When I learned Push Hands and the self defense sparring of Tai-chi I practiced what I had learned in class with the animals.  They enjoyed it and I learned a lot from their response. 

It was important for me to learn Tai-chi sparring.  When I would unpack a shipment of new animals I never knew what to expect. The shippers often included unexpected animals or ones that were larger than what I ordered.  Opening the orders meant getting attacked by many animals that were in a bad mood.  I had to get them into their cages, protect myself and make sure not to hurt them.  I often got the worst of it. 

But as I learned the behavior patterns of each species I could use Tai-chi and Zookinesis principles to control them and calm them down. 

At a certain point I realized that I lived in a different kind of world than most people.  The very make-up of my mind and spirit was the sum of all the animals I worked with as well as the effects of my training.  This made me feel isolated.  So I searched for traditional teachers of other cultures that understood this relationship between the human spirit and the spirit of animals, cultures such as Native American, Celtic and others. 

Through readings I found that the idea of learning from the spirit of animals was widespread in the ancient world.  Ancient people felt they were an intricate part of nature.

Yet I found that in modern forms of chi-gung and Tai-chi, the practice of learning from animals is missing.  The only remnants are in the animal forms or such chi-gung practices as “The Animal Frolics” which are stylized imitations of animal movements.  But this is no substitute for working directly with animals.

There were five other large animal importers at that time in the New York City area.  Most Saturdays I visited one or two of them to see what new species they brought in.  The owners of these animal compounds would discuss their new animals with me.  If I found the animal especially interesting I would get a few in to work with them.  I spent three summers in Central America, canoeing through the rivers to see animals in the wild and visit the remote people who lived deep in the jungle. 

At the end of each trip I felt that I wanted to stay there permanently but my teachers were up in New York and I still had a lot to learn.

After graduating from college I worked as a travelling teacher of ecology around New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, bringing some of my collection of animals to each school and discussing the importance of protecting the environment.  I saw how excited the students were, how their eyes lit up at each new animal and how much they wanted to touch and hold them.  There was an innate need to be connected to nature and I provided that to the students of each school at least for one day.  After 20 years, I had presented the programs, called “The Animal Man” to over one and a half million students and teachers.

The yearning of children to connect with animals is the same yearning for each of us to be connected to our own bodies.  We have become strangers to our own bodies.  The body seems to us like some big, awkward thing down there that carries our head around.  With Tai-chi and Zookinesis we learn to feel each part of our bodies and to understand how to use the body properly.  Through these exercises each part of the body feels alive and awake.  You can feel healing taking place as the body becomes more conscious. 

In the sense of the consciousness of the body, we are not as smart as other animals.  It is only our thinking ability that is superior.  But we have sacrificed the consciousness of the body for the thinking process.

Zookinesis teaches you how to balance both forms of consciousness so that they work together.  The “Body-Mind” and the thinking mind are no longer at war. 

My Zookinesis teachers emphasized that, just as there are many forms of consciousness among different kinds of animals, there are many different perspectives in the cultures and thoughts of people.  We need to respect the different ideas and attitudes among people just as we need to respect the consciousness and the very right to live of animals.  If we have the attitude that only our own thoughts are correct then we may become disrespectful and even violent towards other people.  If we feel that we are superior to animals then we may feel justified in destroying their habitats and even entire species.

They emphasized that one reason it is important to spend time with animals is to appreciate that each species is a perfect part of the web of life of nature, that violence to bodies or to consciousness destroys all of nature. 

If we can repair the damage to our own bodies and to our own consciousness, we are actually helping to repair all of nature. 

I knew that it would be impossible to teach Zookinesis if I required my students to spend long months in the wild with animals which is how it was originally taught.  And so I combined Zookinesis training with Tai-chi to create a training system that incorporated all of my experiences into a simple, cohesive training system. 

The way my students most commonly describe their experience of this process is that they realize they have hips or they have a back or some other part of their bodies.  What they mean is that they now actually feel the aliveness of those parts of the body.  They are connected to their own bodies.  Their minds and bodies blend together so that both work at maximum efficiency.  Their behavior is no longer controlled by awkward behavior patterns, by fears, by excess movements or by the racing of the mind.  They are no longer blind to what is going on inside of them. 

When they catch themselves at ridiculous behaviors, they laugh at themselves.  We call that “The Dragon Whips its Tail”.  There is an animal mythology that goes along with Zookinesis that makes it easier to understand.  In this case the laughter helps you to whip away the ridiculous behavior as if you were flicking away a fly.  You realize that you are filled with self destructive behaviors and the laughter keeps you from getting angry or depressed about it.

For example, when we get stressed, we often tense up our shoulders.  Of course this behavior doesn’t help you deal with the stressful behavior.  It only makes you feel worse.  Through Zookinesis, Tai-chi and Tai-chi massage, all these harmful behaviors are exposed and we can more easily let them go. 

Finally our bodies and minds feel free and clear, like a natural animal.  We no longer feel caged by our own tensions and fears.  The vibrancy of nature is felt in every cell of our bodies and we feel how we are connected to the rest of life.

LEARNING TO FEEL

Another episode of my experiences learning from the people of the jungle forests of Central America:

Carlos came down from the hills to our little “town” early in the morning.  Eduardo handed him a cup of coffee and we all waited for the cow to be milked for the cream.  When Eduardo’s son came running over with a bowl of cream, he spilled a little into each of our cups.  Carlos told me that he wanted me to come with him to his cousin up the river so as soon as the coffee was finished we began to walk up the trail alongside Rio Chepo.

A couple of hours later I asked Carlos how long it would take to get there.  He asked, “What difference does it make how long?”  I suggested that we could get there quicker by taking the canoe taxi which was a dugout canoe powered by a motor that took people up and down the river.  He said, “So?”  I explained that back home in the U.S. we tried to find the quickest ways to do things.  He turned and kept walking and reminded me that I was not home anymore.

On the way we met a troupe of howler monkeys in a tree.  Carlos extended his arm and several of the monkeys came over to him and they patted each other on the back.  I was surprised.  He motioned to them to pat me on the back and two of the monkeys actually shook their heads, “No” as if that was out of the question.  But Carlos convinced two of them to climb over to me and pat me.  They then quickly retreated into the tree as if they had just survived a daredevil act.

We then went up a trail away from the river and into the hills.  I was a little worried.  I knew that there was a little store along the river trail and I was hungry.  I asked Carlos if there was a store along this new trail.  He assured me that this was not a shopping trip.  When I told him I was hungry he simply said we would have something when we got there and that was that.

We passed a few huts along the way and they were starting their evening cooking fires.  When we stopped at one hut I could see a little stream about fifty feet away.  Carlos sat down and began talking to the people, two men, two women and a few children.  They were not speaking Spanish but I understood that Carlos was explaining who I was – a zoologist from America who came to study reptiles. 

One of the men came over to me and started speaking but I didn’t understand him until he asked, “Don’t you speak English?”  I told him I wasn’t expecting anyone to speak English so I wasn’t prepared to hear it.  He told Carlos what I had said but Carlos said he knew enough English to understand me.  They both looked at each other and nodded and Carlos told me to just sit by the fire and relax.

An hour later both men came back and told me they had bought some cold soda from a nearby store that had a gas powered refrigerator.  They mixed it with some juice and gave me the mixture.  “You said you were hungry,” said Carlos.  I didn’t feel they were very good hosts.  A glass of juice and soda after a whole day’s walk?

They then brought me about ten minutes up the little stream and told me to sit on the earth.  Carlos said that Hector was good at explaining things.  That’s why he brought me here.  “Hector can explain things in English,” he said.  I asked Carlos why they use Spanish names for themselves when they are Indians.  He explained that they were “modern” Indians and needed modern names. 

Hector told me that I have to learn to hear the “old” language of the forest.  I am expecting to hear a “modern” language from the forest.  I told Hector that I don’t expect to hear any language from the forest, unless he means the noises of the animals.   He told me to just sit there and remember that I couldn’t hear his English because I wasn’t expecting to hear English.  There was some type of communication that I could hear or feel from the jungle that I wasn’t expecting.  He then left.

I was still hungry and the juice and soda didn’t satisfy me much.  In fact it was making me a little sick.  I must have fallen asleep and when I woke up I was still sitting on the earth.  It was very dark and I didn’t see Carlos or Hector.  I began to worry that a jaguar or other animal could attack me.  My specialty is the reptiles and I certainly wouldn’t mind a big boa crawling nearby.  But I wasn’t that familiar with jaguars.

The sounds of tree frogs and howler monkeys began to die down and all that was left was the sound of many insects.  It was an intricate orchestra of sounds and became louder and louder. 

Suddenly I became aware of the presence of an animal off towards the right about fifty feet away.  I couldn’t see it but my whole body responded to its presence.  My whole attention was focused on where I thought it was and dared not to move or I would give myself away.  But I somehow realized that it knew I was there.  My belly began to ache and pound.  My fear grew to such proportions that it became a huge presence of its own right in front of me.  I could not help but concentrate on that fear.  I forgot about the animal I thought was there and felt that I would be consumed by the fear itself.  Sharp pains and aches filled by belly.

When I heard a branch break I suddenly remembered the animal and realized that the fear had become a separate issue from the animal.  Fear fed the pain in my body and the pain fed the fear.  The two became partners against me.  Now the animal itself, which triggered the fear, didn’t seem so threatening.

I realized the idiocy of allowing fear to grow out of proportion, as if it were a real thing and I was able to let it go.  The pain in my belly subsided.  All that was left was the feeling of strong connection from my belly to some unseen animal in the forest.  There was no fear left.  I thought that there may actually not be any animal there but soon heard twigs breaking as the animal moved away and our “connection” broke. 

My experiences seemed very odd and then I fully understood the problem.  For some reason I was afraid that I experienced a communication with the animal that I could not see.  It was as if my sight needed to identify the animal that my “belly” felt and my sight itself became afraid. 

I now felt a very complex interaction of the forest with the center of my body.  Slowly my body became warmer until it felt as though I had no skin and was completely connected to the forest and aware of every part of it.  I didn’t need to see because the information coming in was, if anything, more detailed than what I could know with my sight. 

Hector suddenly appeared, pulled me up by the arm and walked me back to the hut, where everyone was sleeping.  He explained that I was afraid of the “old” parts of me, the parts that could “hear” the forest.  I asked him what those parts were and he replied, “The parts that can hear the forest”.  I wanted to know what specific parts of the body he was talking about but he shook his head and said, “Even when you know I am speaking in English, you can’t hear me!  You felt those parts tonight.  I sat behind you the whole time.  I could see you speaking to the jaguar.”

I asked him if it were a jaguar why it didn’t eat me.  “He was talking to you.  It wouldn’t be polite to eat you.”  He laughed and then said that jaguars don’t eat people.  Hector suggested that I pay attention to how my whole body felt the forest so that I could be as comfortable with the night as with the day.  “We have senses for both the night and the day.  People fear what they can’t see because they can’t feel.  They have been taught that feeling is the devil.  So they have a battle inside themselves.  What they see fights with what they feel.  Silly, isn’t it?”

He pointed to a plate of chicken, plantain, rice and vegetables on the table and finally let me eat.  Before going to bed he said, “Carlos wants you to stop fighting against yourself.”  I stayed up a couple of hours more because I didn’t want to lose the feeling of the forest.  The next morning I awoke on the patio floor.  The feeling of connection was gone and I was extremely tired.  Over the next month, more lessons would drive home this new sense of talking to the forest so that the feeling would never leave me again.

THE SPIRIT WORLD

The concept of a spirit world, common to almost all pre-industrialized cultures, lies at the heart of developing and learning to use internal energy (“chi”).  Zookinesis explains this concept very simply.  We humans have senses that we do not use anymore.  The way we have been trained to use our attention no longer allows those senses to function. 

If we were to fully develop our attention, all of our senses would work again.  We would then see the world very differently – more fully.  The world we would see once our senses were restored is called “the spirit world”. 

Two of those senses are the sense of internal energy (biological energy) and the sense of the dynamics of attention (how consciousness flows through the body).  The difference between an “internal” martial art and an “external” martial art is the ability to perceive and use these senses. 

Each part of the body becomes more functional, alive, active and yet relaxed.  You can move one small part of your body out of the way of a strike, for example, without moving the entire body.  When you are grappling you can absorb the force of the partner through your body either into the ground or around back into the partner.  Your body is able to absorb, use and transform energy instantaneously. 

In Taoist terms this would be called, “Taoist alchemy”.  To many people Taoist alchemy is known as training to increase longevity or to increase sexual energy.  But its benefits go far beyond these things.

Taoist alchemy restores our biological consciousness which every animal has, while allowing us to retain that special human consciousness we cherish so much.  Early humans developed a way of developing the thinking mind.  “The elements” were a way of categorizing the world they experienced into five distinct groups.  I have written about this in other “weekly lesson” articles.  Our civilization rests on this particular development of the human mind.  And so we divide our world into matter, space, energy, time and consciousness.  We divide our personal lives into our bodies, minds, personal drive or energy (“will”), emotions and again, consciousness.

But in modern times our educational system has concentrated so much on this categorization or thinking process that it has ignored developing other aspects of our human nature or what I would call our “animal nature”.  We pride ourselves in being superior to animals.

But I think we can all agree that something in our civilization is missing.  There is an inner awareness and a deep inner satisfaction with life that seems to have gotten lost.  In my many years of teaching I have found what I feel is the basis of this lost “animal awareness” or animal nature.  It is the fear that if we perceive fully, if we can see the spirit world and function within it, then our thinking abilities will weaken.  There is a deep-seated illusion that full awareness competes with full ability to think clearly.

The root of that illusion is our weak attention.  This is the root of all the problems.  Our attention is just not strong enough to think and to have our bodies function well at the same time.  If we do not maintain an animal awareness in which attention is distributed evenly throughout the body, then attention actually weakens.  When the attention is so concentrated on thinking as it is today, then the rest of you suffers. 

Attention (or consciousness) is experienced (by Tai-chi students) as an energy which flows through each living thing and therefore is connected to all other living things.  By concentrating it in the thinking process you cut attention off from the rest of your body and the rest of nature.  It becomes like a lake, usually fed by a stream that suddenly is cut off from the stream.  It then turns into a smelly swamp.

Attention that is not connected to the rest of nature decays.  Just see what happens when our political leaders think they know so much that they don’t listen to people who disagree with them.  They don’t consider all views and facts.  The result is poor leadership.

On a biological level all our cells and organs need attention flowing through them.  For most people the body is just a big thing below our brains that carries our brains around.  Tai-chi and Zookinesis teaches the harmonious relationship between the thinking process we have developed and the animal consciousness.  The two don’t have to be competing.  They can re-enforce each other.

In the internal martial arts, for example, you need to fill your opponent with your attention so that you feel every action and intention of each of his muscles and joints even before they emanate as a strike.  You flow with the opponent, allowing him to control the movements but you control the relationship between you.  That relationship is that you move away from his incoming force and into his open, unprotected areas.

Internal martial arts training requires that you can perceive the spirit world before you even start to learn the actual martial arts techniques.  If you can’t see inside your own body and that of your opponent, then you have no business even beginning to learn the fighting.

In modern martial arts schools the students want to fight right away and not have to go through any internal changes at all.  “Just show me the techniques”.  Modern martial arts schools (with some exceptions) are all about the techniques and not about the heart of the martial arts. 

Martial arts is a personal path, much like a religion or a philosophy.  The fact that you are learning to punch and kick people is just the method of teaching the path.  You are actually learning about your own desire to be violent, about its roots and about how to resolve those issues.  You are also learning how to see inside the opponent and understand him on an internal level.  While effectively defending yourself you can still remain calm and not have the violent emotions of the opponent duplicate themselves inside of you.  If the opponent has transferred his pattern of violence inside of you then you lose, even if you have won that particular fight.

And that’s how it is in everyday life.  There are many angry people walking around.  Many of my students are doctors.  One told me that many doctors nowadays are “practicing angry”.  This means that patients are angry at doctors and ready to sue them.  Medical insurance companies look for every excuse not to pay the doctor because perhaps, the patient’s name was misspelled on one of the papers.  This makes the doctors angry.

Our culture is a reflection of our nature as individuals.  We put all of our attention into our calculating minds and fear allowing that energy to connect with the rest of our body and the rest of nature.  Then our culture is composed of closed individuals who fear their connections to other people.  We fear being connected, letting our attention, our feelings merge.  Relationships are strained. 

I remember as a child watching situation comedies on television.  They seemed to all be based on the same premise.  The husband and wives conspire against each other to get what they want.  I wondered, “Is this what a relationship should really be about?” 

Have we become a culture of fearful people conspiring against each other to get what we want?  I guess it’s silly to even ask the question.  But is this what you want for yourself?

The martial arts seem to be so much about fearful people conspiring to hit each other to “win over” each other.  Yet, whether an internal or external martial art, this training is supposed to be about self awareness and the ability to live in harmony with other people.  It is really about spiritual development as defined by becoming a fully developed human being.  Your thinking mind must be involved in learning the martial arts but when you spar you use the animal attention. 

When animal attention combines harmoniously with the thinking mind you are in the spirit world and you are fully human.  You can then perceive the energies behind the physical manifestations.  As an example you can feel the dynamics of attention and internal energy that leads to a person’s behavior.  You feel less fearful because you can perceive the origins of a person’s behavior before they manifest physically and you can be ready.  You don’t get taken by surprise.

In Push Hands practice, you begin to neutralize the partner’s incoming force at the exact same time as the force begins to come in to you.  You saw the origins of that force in the preparation of the partner and know what to expect.  Push Hands then takes place in real time.  Yet as a beginner you didn’t realize the force was coming in until it was right on top of you and then it was too late to neutralize it. 

Imagine if you could see things coming at you much earlier and prepare for them.  Many people can do this economically.  They study the economic trends and know that a recession or that good times are around the corner.  They can then prepare for the future.  They use their thinking minds to see into the future.  We can do this with our animal attention as well.

Just for a moment, think of the trends of how the behaviors of people are changing.  Then look into the future.  Are you happy with what you see?  All we can do as individuals is to develop ourselves.  Our nature as individuals can then affect those around us.  Each interaction with another person is a chance to decide the future of our culture.

I always ask myself, “Am I in the spirit world right now?”  Have I let the angers and conflicts of the world around me program my own behavior or do I have some say over my behavior?  The concept of the spirit world helps me to maintain my direction in life.

THE PRIMAL STATE

The immediate goal of Zookinesis training is to re-experience the primal state – the biological state of consciousness.  At this level of awareness the world you experience is very different and you have more power.  You understand the connection of your consciousness to that of all other people and all living things.  You instinctually know how to use those connections. 

The development of civilization seems like an effort to escape this primal state of consciousness and develop one based on the thinking mind alone.   In the effort to “evolve” culturally, we have abandoned the primal state.  The philosophy of Zookinesis suggests that the development of the thinking mind should not be a substitute for the “primal mind” (or “Body-Mind”) but that both can be fully functional and work together.

From the perspective of the thinking mind we are each separate from each other.  When you operate from the primal mind it is startling to discover that the power of the connections of consciousness between people makes the thinking mind’s perspective of separateness a very shallow perspective indeed.

By a “connection of consciousness” I don’t mean that we talk together and hear each other’s opinions.  I mean that consciousness itself is not separate within each individual but forms a continuous flow which activates all living things.  The consciousness in you is the same as the consciousness in a squirrel, but of course each species and each individual uses this force differently.

Once you can actually perceive this, by entering into the primal state, then you have much more power in your life.  You can understand other people better.  You understand the dynamics of how to channeling the force of consciousness through the physical body.  You understand that many physical problems arise from problems with these dynamics.

Perhaps most importantly you see that your fundamental identity and power as a human being does not come from your opinions and behavior patterns.  These are not you.  Your power comes from maintaining the connection between the primal state and the “cultured state”. 

We have made the mistake of trying to culturally evolve away from animals.  But our nature, as this human animal, is to develop both our thinking and our biological health.  Zookinesis, which is a Taoist training, describes two forces which continually interact to empower our lives.  One force is consciousness or “attention”.  It is pure awareness.  The other force is creativity.  When the thinking mind, which is really a set of patterns, has too much power, then our lives become too patterned and we feel trapped. 

When creativity and attention are balanced, then we can see our situation in life in many ways and choose which perspective has more power. 

In the primal state for our species there is a balance between the scientist or religious purist part of us, who knows everything as absolute fact, and the story teller who understands that the way we see the world is a reflection of the stories we believe in. 

For a primal state human stories can change, and he seeks those stories that empower his life and the lives of those around him.  He is not afraid of the stories of other people. 

But everything starts with re-experiencing the primal state.  From this state of balance, the fixed ideas of the mind and the story telling of creativity can play with each other. 

Once you see the world through “primal eyes” then you truly comprehend what a huge part of our lives we have lost.  You understand that many of our emotional problems and bad feelings are just a reflection of our deep inner loss of the primal state. 

With the primal state returned, we become more creative, adventurous and willing to create a grand, powerful story of who we can become. 

Fortunately it is not difficult to achieve this state.  With proper training, progress is steady and new worlds constantly open up before you.  In my classes I have to be careful not to let the students spend too much time telling me about the new experiences they have had that week.  Although I love to hear about these things, I feel that I am being paid to teach them and want to spend as much time actually training them as possible.  Yet it is wonderful to hear about their increasing joy for life and the great improvements in their lives.  They now seem “fully human”.  Instead of battling against the world, they now can see that their life situation is a result of their internal dynamics.  By gaining creative control over those dynamics they gain control over their lives. 

Zookinesis gives them the nuts and bolts of how to do that.