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THE ILLUSION OF PHYSICAL PAIN

One of my students was in such agony from a punch to his shoulder that he had to sit down, shaking his head from side to side.  Yet I only gave him a light tap.  The reason that he felt the light tap as a powerful blow gives an important clue to Tai-chi as a martial art and as a healing art. 

I struck him at the moment he was about to punch me.  At that instant his attention condensed into his punching arm.  By striking the area where his attention was condensed, I shattered the attention.  Only a light tap was necessary to disrupt the attention because his attention was so condensed.

The instant shattering of a condensed attention is so disruptive that people usually interpret the experience as physical pain.  Yet when my student actually thought about whether his shoulder really hurt or not, he realized that, not only didn’t it really hurt much, but it didn’t hurt at all.  There was no real physical pain.  It was all psychological pain interpreted as physical pain.

In our culture, we are taught to condense our attention into a single point in the head. This is because our eyes are on our head and we are so visually oriented.  When our attention is locked into one part of the body or into a habit of thinking or acting, the attention is not really functional. 

One of the main reasons Tai-chi trains you to be fluid in your movements is to develop a fluid attention as well – one that can move, vary in its qualities and dynamics.  This is essential in fighting but also in living one’s everyday life.  The more rigid you are, the less functional you are and the more easily your attention can be worn out or broken.

When practicing a Tai-chi form, allow your attention to sink down into the ground, as if you are a lotus plant, floating in a pond with your roots deep into the mud below.  As you breathe in, your attention flows up through your stem (up the body) and into the lotus flower, which is within the chest at the sternum (breastbone) level.  Continuing to breathe in, the lotus flower opens and so the front of your body flows up and then opens out to the sides, like an opening flower.

The opening flower then lifts your head which is the center petals of the lotus.  Breathing out, the front of the body sinks, the sides of the chest drops to the center and your attention returns to your roots.

 This process will bring fluidity to your attention so that it can never be frozen again.  Frozen attention makes you vulnerable and ineffective.  As the reality of life tugs at your attention and your attention resists the tugs, life seems like a struggle.  You feel as if you are at your “wit’s end” because the requirements of the dynamic mobility of your attention is greater than its actual abilities. 

Once attention is freed from its rigidity it instantly has all the energy it needs.  It becomes more balanced and easier to move – just like the needle of a compass.  The needle is so balanced that it can spin around easily.  But if you move its fulcrum even a tiny bit, the needle will fall over and not move at all. 

Breathing as if you are a lotus flower is a very valuable form of meditation even while standing still (as long as you allow your body to sink down and expand upward as described above).  As we get older there is a tendency for our attention to condense (yin condition).  The lotus flower meditation helps to prevent this aging process. 

Remember that what you may interpret as frustration, anger and even physical pain, may just be the result of a rigid attention which not up to the task of functioning properly in our complex modern world.  My student could barely stand up at first because of the “pain” he was experiencing until he realized that it wasn’t pain at all but rather, the shock of a suddenly opened attention.