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TRADITIONAL MARTIAL ARTS TRAINING

One of the discussions going around in the world of martial arts is whether there is a value in traditional martial arts. Lately the “systems” of Mixed Martial Arts and Ultimate Fighting have become very popular. Students don’t want to go through the long process of traditional learning but would rather start fighting right away.

There are also discussions in the field of education about traditional or “classical” education vs. vocational training (just learning to do a job). On another front, students who are used to texting are having trouble being able to write essays in school or even letters.

In each case there is a devaluing of developing a student as a whole human being. It is a fulfillment of the trend begun in the industrial revolution of turning people into parts of the machine. It seems strange to me that just as we have unparalleled access to information and educational opportunities and as teachers of many styles of martial arts, exercise and healing make their training easily available, we are moving more towards a dumbing down society. The goal is just to make the money or knock out an opponent.

Traditional martial arts training teaches you to live in peace with other people and to feel part of all living things. It teaches you to consider all life to be sacred including the life within your own body so you would strive for a healthy lifestyle.

It teaches you to understand the underlying philosophy of the training and to appreciate education in all its forms. Most importantly, you learn to understand your own behavior and put it in perspective so you can grow as a human being.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t practice fighting. You certainly learn to defend yourself. You also spar as exercise and sport.

Many people recently have asked me to open new martial arts classes, but when they realize that I teach traditionally and expect a well rounded martial arts education, they are less enthusiastic.

I wonder, what is it about this particular time in our society that has changed what people have come to expect of the martial arts or of education in general.

MY MOTHER’S INSPIRATION

My mother always wanted to be independent. She lived nearby in an apartment and called my brother and me each day so we could sure she was all right. At about 85 years old, she started falling a lot. Luckily she never broke any bones, but she usually fell in a way that she couldn’t reach the life alert button hanging around her neck.

As she got weaker, she made the painful decision to move to a nearby nursing home; one our family could visit regularly. I also began to adapt a system of chi-gung exercises for her to practice, one known as “animal exercises” or what I now call, “zookinesis”. But I didn’t have enough time before her death to bring back her strength and health.

I continued adapting these exercises for the chair to provide for other elderly people to regain their strength and health, producing instructional dvds and teaching in senior centers and nursing homes.

When I first begin teaching a group of seniors, at first they are not sure what to think and just a few participate. Within a couple of month all are participating and soon they ask me to upgrade the level of the exercises. It always amazes me how quickly seniors take to the zookinesis exercises and enjoy them.

As I teach I always think of my mother who first inspired me to teach exercise to seniors and now I myself am entering that phase of life. I hope the seniors of today have greater expectations of their continued abilities and demand to have exercise as a vital part of their nursing home programs. It is as important medicine as drugs, and I feel perhaps more important because if seniors can remain healthy, they might need a lot less drugs than they take today.

My doctor told me that almost all seniors nowadays take drugs for various ailments. He is surprised that I don’t take any. For me, zookinesis is my substitute for drugs. Basically it is just moving every part of the body in every way to get the “juices” flowing.

ENERGIZE YOUR BODY FOR THE SPRING

 

As we begin to see plants growing and leaves emerging from trees, remember that your own body is also going through a transformation.  According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the body is an ecological system which goes through natural cycles and is affected by nature’s cycles.

During the winter, the body condenses and slows.  In order to emerge from this semi-hybernation we need to “clear the channels” of energy.  This can be done through chi-gung exercises such as “zookinesis age reversal exercises” or massage such as “Tai-chi massage”.  These healing methods “wake up” all the parts of the body, strengthen them, allow blood, lymph and intercellular fluids to flow more easily and gear up the body for a higher level of efficiency.

Going directly from winter to spring without preparing your body can lead to becoming overwhelmed as the energy of nature becomes magnified.  This energy penetrates and connects to your body.  If your body gears up for this change, it can ulitize that energy for healing and for everyday activities.

This was the secret of longevity found in ancient Chinese healing texts.  If you understand how nature works and live your life accordingly, then you will always be healthy.  So do your zookinesis or other chi-gung, practice your Tai-chi forms and/or get a good Tai-chi massage.  This may be the best spring you ever had!

POWER OF TRANSFORMATION

“The inside and the outside – they are made of the same flesh”.  This is reportedly the cry a student of Chan (Zen) cried out when he reached enlightenment.  It is an apt description of the basic principle a Tai-chi teacher tries to teach to his students to bring them to their first perceptual breakthrough.

Every discipline of personal development is based on the principle that, to change one’s life, you need to change what is going on within yourself.  What else can we do?  We can’t change the whole world around just to our liking.

And so we learn how perfecting proper body mechanics allows us to perform physical tasks easily.  Learning about the mechanics of our attention (mind) allows us to be effective in interpersonal relationships and in navigating our lives.

As we discover the physical and mental behavior patterns that presently fill us, learn which ones are effective and which interfere with our power in life, we can reconstruct the very mechanisms we use to live our lives.

And then we discover that much of the way we perceive the world around us is really a reflection of the patterns of behavior within us.  As we become more creative in gaining Tai-chi skills, the world itself seems to change and not be as threatening or as cold.

The student discovers that much of what he took to be the cold reality of life was just the projection of a story he was telling himself, onto the world outside.

At this point he realizes that part of that story was his identity.  To really gain power in life, to be able to drop the behavior patterns of battle and self destruction, you have to allow that story about your identity to change.

And then you become just a simple person.  In another Zen story, a Buddhist student brags to his Taoist friend that his Buddhist teacher can create miracles.  “With a movement of his arm he can make an entire dinner appear in the middle of the forest.  He can knock over a band of robbers with one breath.  He can clear a valley of fog with one in-breath.”   The Taoist student was not impressed.  “That’s nothing compared to my teacher,” he said.  “What can your Taoist teacher do?”  The Taoist student replied, “When my teacher is hungry, he eats.  When he is tired, he sleeps.”

To what degree do the stories we have been told, affect our perceptions and our behaviors?  We trust that pieces of paper (money) have great value and then numbers in computer memory have great value and then learn, as we have lately, that there is nothing really backing up that value.  These are stories we tell each other to help our lives run smoother.

But we have all learned what happens when some of us no longer believe those stories.  Perhaps we need to base our lives on stories that are not “built on shifting sands”. 

In the novel, The Doubting Snake, I suggest this battle of stories is the basis for the underlying drama of our times and that those who become the new story tellers, can lead us into more meaningful lives.

But we must begin by understanding the stories that we have based our lives on.  To what degree is health, loving relationships, and a feeling of connection to the earth important in our lives?  And to what degree does the quest for money overshadow these values?

If you tell yourself a new story, a healthy one, that story may resonate with others and become their story.  The power of life is to be the story teller and not just the actor portraying someone else’s story.

Transform the inside to transform the outside. This is what every Tai-chi student must realize at deeper and deeper levels.

Wheeling and Dealing

Tai-chi principles can be used to better understand the economic troubles we are facing.  Most of the classroom training focuses on using the least energy to create the most effect.  We learn how we too often waste energy, both physical and mental, and we learn about how to use proper mechanics of the body and mind.

In the 1970’s many economists were worried about the fact that so much of our economic energy went into buying and selling companies rather than on actual production of goods and services.  Financial transactions became the predominant business of our country rather than manufacturing or non-financial services.  We stopped “doing” and spent most of our time “wheeling and dealing”.

I think the economic collapse is largely a result of this problem.  How much of our personal lives consist of wheeling and dealing and how much do we actually get done?  What do we do for our health, for our continuing learning, keeping in touch with friends and being creative? 

It feels like our energy is getting sapped just by working more to pay bills or trying to find work.  But sometimes exercising or engaging in creative activities acts like putting more wood in the wood stove when you are huddling under a blanket and unable to function.

When I was young, play consisted of moving and interacting with other kids.  Today it seems to consist of moving only your thumbs on the Xbox remote. 

We use the term “not doing” in Tai-chi. This term really means “not doing anything ridiculous”.  It means not wasting your energy because of poor mechanics.  So when you are “doing” the form or push hands or self defense practice, you are certainly “doing”.  It’s just that you understand what is meaningful and useful and what is wasteful.

I think we need to examine this principle in our personal and national lives.

SECRET MESSAGES IN THE TAI-CHI FORM

The movements of Tai-chi encode lessons of how to bring power back into the body.  Each principle of movement is like the chapter of a book, explaining how to keep the body young and the mind creative.  A teacher must explain how to read this movement book so the student can discover its secrets.  The most striking feature of Tai-chi forms is the smoothness of movement – an unbroken, even current, ebbing and flowing. 

In order to achieve this movement, the mind must also flow smoothly, rather than jump from one point to another.  In this way mind, rather than being at one point at one time, must expand, filling up the whole space within and surrounding the body. 

As you breathe out, you sink into the ground, and as you breathe in you rise up.  Each joint relaxes as you sink.  Each joint expands as you rise in a sequence.  There is a corresponding effect on the mind (attention).  Your attention flows downward as you breathe out, following the momentum as it sinks into the earth.  Your attention expands upwards as you breathe in, following the momentum as it flows upward and outward. 

Let’s just take these dynamics of movement and attention and understand what information is being conveyed that may help us to improve our lives.  Too often our attention gets caught up in the specifics of what we are doing and we forget our overall goals in life.  Our attention becomes like a pinpoint – one dimensional.  We need to be aware of the totality of our lives – what we have been trying to achieve, what skills we have gained, lessons learned and how we can continue to be creative with our lives.  Otherwise our minds will be in a bus someone else is driving. 

If our bodies are smoothly flowing and cannot be jerked about by our own patterns of thoughts and tension, then surely our attention cannot be jerked around by the forces around us.  When the news tells us that what is going on is that one group is fighting another, the news is creating an agenda in our lives.  It tells us what we should be paying attention to.  The news is driving our bus. 

The Tai-chi student learns that the conflicts we see or read about in the world around us, superimpose themselves inside of us, so that our minds are filled with conflict.  The mind and body seem to be in conflict as the mind tries to make the body do what it wants (and usually fails).  Our relationships and everyday lives seem to consist of one conflict after another. 

At a certain point in our training it becomes obvious that we have adopted the mode of conflict we see around us into the very essence of who we are.  But what would it be like if conflict was not the basis of every level of our lives?  It would be like the Tai-chi form.  This form is a movement code for a harmonious mind and body, a harmonious human being living a natural way of life.  Indeed if the form were done with conflict, with tension, with jerkiness, it would not really be Tai-chi. 

So the smoothness of the form tells us to look at nature for flowing harmony and let  nature control your bus.  Just as our attention flows into the earth and sky with our breath, you can also control whether your attention moves to conflict or to harmony.  In this way you learn to drive your own bus.  You learn to become the harmony that others can learn from.

By expanding your attention so that it fills your whole body and surroundings, you learn that your surroundings are really part of you.  Your sense of identity moves from a set of opinions and a pattern of emotions to a whole living body and vibrant, creative awareness.  From there, it expands to your natural environment, your community and to all life.  At that point, conflict is hardly possible. 

You had to be convinced that you are completely separate from nature and from other people in order to be trained into a life of conflict.  When you cast that illusion aside your life regains its natural power.  Even your past and present seem to unite as you remember how the dreams and hopes of childhood gave you enthusiasm for life.  That enthusiasm still lives inside and can return home.  When you forget your dreams, you lose your power.  They tug at you when you sleep, fighting their way up through the layers of conflict that have pressed them down.

When conflict no longer tears you apart, when your dreams of power become part of your life, then you physically experience your connection to the biological aliveness and consciousness of the world you live in.  The shell that seemed to contain you dissolves and permeates into the world around you.  You have come home to that world, you are well known in that world, and you are loved by that world.

THE POWER TO CONTROL YOUR LIFE

It may seem that we have lost the power to improve our lives in these tough economic times.  Many people have heard that Tai-chi and Zookinesis help you develop more power in your life.  This training was developed at a time when everyday life was hard, without the benefit of modern conveniences.  It developed the strength and power within an individual so he could be more powerful in his everyday life. 

Yet the teachings seem mysterious to us in modern times because we have a different understanding of what power means.  We think of power as just earning more money, controlling the behavior of others or developing larger muscles.  When a potential student hears that Tai-chi teaches you to develop internal energy (“chi”), he immediately thinks of science fiction stories of shooting rays of energy to conquer enemies.  We take very sophisticated ancient training and make them seem silly. 

The term “internal energy” refers to the way that what is going on inside of you influences what happens in your life.  It means that your state of health and emotional balance is the most important influence on your power to improve your life.  I show below a way of explaining this that I use in my classes.  It hopefully retains the flavor of the ancient way of writing while making the principles described above, understandable to our modern minds.

Some students want to learn to concentrate and direct their energy.  I teach them to release their energy and let it go where it wants.  The students wants to gain power.  I teach them to stop interfering with their natural power.  Some want to win the heart of a lover.  I teach them to release their heart and let it go where it wants.  Some want to live in a beautiful house.  I teach them to become alive in their bodies. 

When you are alive and vibrant, your consciousness seeks to expand and to connect with the world around you, and so you live in the world, and are alive in the world.  It is your living energy, merged with the world around you that makes that world beautiful.  When you withdraw your feelings from the world around you, the world itself feels dead.  When you withdraw your feelings from your body, your body feels dead. 

Your life then becomes divided, one part withdrawing, and the other part wanting to be released so it can join the world.  You then seek to acquire things of the world.  In this way you can remain separated from it, yet claim ownership over part of it. Owning something takes the place of really being part of it.  

Your relationships with people are no longer based on releasing yourself to the other, and receiving them, but rather on agreements and arrangements.  You originally withdrew to protect yourself from the unpredictable behaviors and intentions of others, yet wound up damaging yourself by being disconnected from the vibrancy of life.  Tai-chi and Zookinesis teach us that the state of withdrawal is so prevalent in our society (and in many others past and present), that we have forgotten how it feels to be connected.  Some of us have even forgotten how to let another person completely into our souls.  We have “hesitant” relationships. 

Tai-chi and Zookinesis teach the art of “letting go” (releasing).  At a certain point you feel the flow of energy within the body.  You realize that you are “holding” that energy, or we say, “locking it up”.  Even our attention (consciousness) seems to be locked into patterns of thinking.  At another point in the training, that energy suddenly “jumps the fence” and seeks to merge with your surroundings.  It is a startling moment because you realize how much “locking up” the energy has hurt you previously. 

Your consciousness now joins the “consciousness of nature” just as the water of a stream joins the water of a river and then the water of the ocean.  You feel a member of life.  Your thinking and behaviors are no longer so patterned, but are more creative.  Once your consciousness fills your body and the world around you, your life is felt more intensely.  Every cell of your body is like the string of a stringed instrument, which is played by the beauty of the world around you.  Your attention is attracted to beautiful things and thoughts rather than to worries and anger, and so your life goes in a new direction. 

This is all accomplished by learning how to release your energy (“chi”) and consciousness and let it go where it wants.  You will feel like you were a caged animal that has now been let loose into its natural habitat.  The cage of fear is no longer your home.  I have a rabbit who lives in a cage in the house during the winter.  When I let it loose from time to time, it seeks the “shelter” of a stool I use to hold a plant.  The rabbit stays within the four feet of the stool.  It has been let loose yet seeks the security of something that looks like his cage.

When the student’s energies have finally been released, there is a tendency to seek a new “cage”.  He seeks philosophies and “truths”.  Tai-chi is not really a system of truths.  It is a way to become re-connected to nature and to other people.  It is a simple, practical teaching that does not get involved in abstract philosophy. 

The goal is to understand yourself – to see yourself.  There is a saying, “See yourself, be yourself, appreciate yourself.”  See all your patterns and see your creativity.  Don’t try to twist yourself into someone who is “approved of” and turn into a fake version of yourself. 

And then appreciate all the efforts you have made in your life to survive in this world, to understand the world and to be creative in the world.  Appreciate your biological aliveness and how you are connected to nature.  Appreciate the creative efforts of others and be sympathetic to their lack of perfection (as well as to your own). 

Understand that other philosophies are also a way of understanding yourself and releasing you from self-imposed prisons.  Don’t seek them as the security of yet another cage.  Seek nature in your surroundings and in people.  Step out of your own way so that the now invisible world of creative energy can be perceived.  Let that be your new home. 

Remember that nature is creative.  Nature is vibrant.  Tai-chi also teaches that nature is conscious. The qualities that you seek for yourself are already in you because you arose from nature.  When you release your energy, your attention, to nature, you enter the flow of creativity, vibrancy and consciousness.  As much as you release, that much and more flows back.  So the teaching of “letting go” is the path to power.

NATURAL MIND AND THE MACHINE

My days as a zoologist, canoeing through the jungles of Central America, gave me a unique perspective of how living in a wild area affects the perspectives and perceptions of people. Living in my canoe or in a small tent set up by the edge of a river made me feel like just another animal among many. The villages I visited were just a few huts clustered together every few miles at the river’s edge. The human presence was small compared to the overwhelming intensity of the jungle – its colors and shapes, its humidity, smells and rhythms of life.
As soon as I arrived in the jungle, it “grabbed” me. There was an instant transformation in the way my mind perceived and understood my relationship to the surroundings. By travelling back and forth from New York to Central America, I could feel the effect of each environment on me. I could also see and understand how the people in each area were very different because of their respective environments.
This experience, plus my life-time of training in several types of traditional healing, has led me to several conclusions. The first is that the natural tendency of our minds, (our consciousness – or what I call “attention”) is to expand into the environment and connect with it. This means more than looking at something. It means that each of our minds, in order to operate properly, cannot be locked up inside of us. The mind is not just a by-product of brain activity. It is the biological glue that connects us to the environment.
One of the effects of modern life is to “lock up” our minds into our thinking process. In this way, mind is no longer connected to the body. The body seems to be “down there”. The mind is no longer biologically connected to the environment, except in the sense that we think about our environment.
I have found a fundamental difference in human nature in those societies in which the mind is “locked up” as compared to those in which the mind is not locked up. Stress levels, for example, are higher when the mind is locked up, as if it were soda in a bottle that was shaken. Warmth and humidity have the effect of making the mind more fluid so that it is like watercolor ink dropped onto the wet rice paper.
Notice how you feel inside your home in the winter as compared to lying in an open area on a warm summer day. We have designed our environment to be disconnected. Our shoes and our floors disconnect us from the ground. Our cell phones and computers disconnect us from other people, even as we try to communicate with them. Our packaged, prepared foods disconnect us from picking food from trees and plants.
Our single celled ancestors gathered together in colonies and eventually formed multi-cellular animals that are now considered to be a single animal. Each cell became more and more disconnected from the “natural” environment. In the same way, we are now creating super-organisms, disconnected from the natural environment.
But there are many people who don’t feel comfortable giving up their individual, biological identity, in a sense handing over their very minds to the “hive”. These people require a direct connection to nature, balancing their membership in society with their membership in the living earth.
One of the things I have noticed is that the more removed you are from nature, the more you are addicted to the “drama of life”. The people living at the edge of the jungle certainly had their interpersonal dramas, but their joy of life came mostly from simpler things. On my first trip to Panama, my hosts sat at the edge of the river every evening, staring at the river. They weren’t looking at anything in particular; they were just participating in the world around them. Even when I was young, people would sit in chairs in front of their houses in Brooklyn, “participating” in life.
Things have changed drastically since then. Now we have our televisions and computers to look at. Our activities are less communal. While our society is becoming more isolated from nature, we are becoming more isolated from each other, even as our society as a whole is becoming more condensed and interdependent.
When single celled animals formed into multi-cellular animals, each cell lost much of its function and became specialized (muscle cell, gland cell, etc.). They were no longer whole organisms within themselves. I am reminded of our educational system, no longer emphasizing a “classical education”, but just teaching students to pass tests.
It certainly seems like we are witnessing the birth of a new type of organism which requires a new type of “mind”. This new mind is not whole and balanced. It is not aware of the whole history of humankind, to serve as the backdrop to understand what is going on now. It is designed to be only a piece of a person that is useful for one particular function of the society.
The goal of many philosophies and religions is to acquire a natural type of mind. When Buddhists speak of Buddha, they aren’t only referring to the person, but to the state of mind that he attained and that we can also attain: The same for Christians who use the term “Christ”, really meaning the Christ type of mind. When Taoists speak of “no-mind”, they mean a mind not filled with excess of any kind.
I consider each to be a rebellion against re-shaping the natural human mind for use in the new societal “machine” of each time period. With the natural mind, each person is a whole human, directly connected to the living earth. Relationships are between two whole people rather than between two parts of a machine. Each person is allowed to grow and develop into a mature, full person, rather than be molded into just a piece of a person.
If we believe in developing whole people, connected to nature, then I believe that a well-rounded education is the place to start, an education that emphasizes creative thinking rather than memorizing answers to tests. Growing your own food is another place to start so that your food is healthy and nutritious and so that you have a feeling for where your food came from.
I cut and split wood for my wood heating stove. If I figured out the amount of labor involved in getting wood and taking care of the heating stove, I’m sure it would be a lot cheaper just to use the furnace. But heating the house by my own efforts keeps me connected to nature, especially in winter. On the one hand, I could just consider how to be the most efficient to amass wealth. On the other hand, I could consider how to be the most efficient to maintain the natural mind. I try to balance the two, willing to sacrifice wealth in order to hold onto the wholeness of my life.
What is the balance of these two factors in your life? It is especially hard to maintain this balance in tough economic times. Putting food on the table – any food – is pretty important. But let’s remember that if we put off the health of our bodies and minds, we are more prone to disease and we feel miserable. If you can find one thing to do that re-connects you to nature, such as cooking your own food, or growing it, that will go a long way to keeping you healthy and happy. Meet someone face to face, rather than texting. Sit in the back yard, or at a sunny window, and watch the sun set. Doing one natural thing each day can help us to maintain our humanity in the face of a more and more machine-like world.

NEW GROUP CLASSES

Our beginners group classes (half Zookinesis Chi-gung and half Tai-chi Yang Short Form) will be Mondays and Thursdays at 7-8pm.  The Zookinesis loosens up all the muscles and joints, restoring flexibility, range of motion and muscle strength.  The Yang Short Form allows your body to flow gracefully and smoothly, and teaches you to let go of tension and stress; Both improve breathing and concentration and increase the flow of chi (natural, internal energy).  If you would like additional classes or classes at other times, please let us know.  Call 631 744-5999 or email info@movementsofmagic.com  We continue to provide private classes and Tai-chi massage at any time convenient for you. 

THE CIRCLE OF LIFE

In many cultures the circle is a symbol of power.  The circle can represent seniors giving their lifetime of knowledge, wisdom and skills, back to the next generation.  In our culture, the emphasis is on constant change, and the knowledge and skills of the past are not as valued as they used to be. 

The circle also represents the constant renewal of the life-giving properties of nature.  The ceremonies of many cultures welcomed each new season and celebrated the cooperation of human and nature.  Imagine spending time welcoming each new day and each new season, rather than plunging headlong towards each year’s vacation or towards retirement.  Celebration of the cycles of nature becomes an important part of the culture, as important as inventing faster computers and new cell phones is in our society. 

I think we have all noticed that in one generation, people have become faster, louder, more frantic and less fulfilled.  While we are told that fulfillment depends mainly on improving the economy and inventing even faster and more powerful equipment, we can also examine how repairing the cycles in our lives plays a part in our psychological and physical health. 

One of the purposes of the Tai-chi forms is to allow the body to move in smooth, unbroken circles.  This heals the “rush, rush, rush” modern attitude, and allows us to feel comfortable and relaxed in our bodies.  I have noticed, in my years of teaching Tai-chi, that most people do not feel comfortable in their bodies.  When you do not feel comfortable in your body, you do not feel comfortable among other people.  You feel unsettled and not centered. 

The smooth, flowing Tai-chi form also heals the attitude that life consists of always rushing to finish the next project.  We have to run faster and faster, to get more and more done, so we can be happy at some unknown time in the future.  The form gives us a few minutes each day to just be relaxed, happy and content in the beautiful feelings of the body, mind and emotions flowing with the cycles of nature.

In a society dedicated not to the cycles of nature, but to constant rushing, the form, or the Zookinesis exercises (or whatever similar practice you are involved in) becomes the daily ceremony reminding you that everything is alright because you are always part of nature.  It reminds you that the ancient wisdom of our connection to nature is still relevant and in fact, is vital to our physical and psychological survival.  By keeping you healthy in many ways, these exercises keep the circle unbroken.  They remind us that it is often the simplest things in life that are the most fulfilling.