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Posts Tagged ‘Taoism’

BREAKING DOWN THE WALL

Push Hands

When you visit another culture you realize how differently other people see the world. We tend to feel that our “modern” world-view is the most correct because we are the smartest people who have ever lived on the earth. And yet, the fact that we are willingly destroying the life support system of the earth creates questions about how smart we really are. The way in which our life-style is destroying the life support system within our bodies also calls into question even our dedication to survive.

Tai-chi practice is a way of introducing into the modern world, the concept that each of us is an ecological environment, completely connected to the larger ecological environment. How we balance the internal ecology with the external ecology should be a large part of our “personal culture”. If we can experience our bodies as living and conscious, rather than just a machine that carries our head around, we can begin to restore our health.

Our modern culture is based on the isolated individual, each of us fighting against all the others. To maintain this feeling of isolation we “condense”, that is, we tighten ourselves physically and mentally, turning ourselves into a walled city. We feel that, as long as our lawns are green, the rest of the environment doesn’t affect us.

According to Tai-chi principles, the destruction of the natural world and the destruction of our own physical health, arise out of the same mind-set. When we practice the two-person exercise of push hands, for example, there is a tendency to use physical strength to push the “opponent” over. It is common for someone, being pushed, to grab the arms of the pusher to avoid getting pushed and thereby be able to say that he didn’t really get pushed.

Push Hands is a game of transformation. It is based on not using tension but fluidity. It is based on allowing the push of your partner to be absorbed by your body, the force distributed among all the muscles and joints, and then transformed to go back to the pusher. Your role is to transform the force that comes to you. In this way you learn the connection between your inner self and its connection to the forces around you.

When you learn Tai-chi forms, it is not just a question of memorizing movements. You learn to generate movement from the relationship of the hips and legs to the root (your connection to the ground). The rest of the body then expresses that relationship. So forms teach you how to express your relationship to the earth.

There is a tradition, in Zen practice, of expressing your feelings at the moment of enlightenment. One student expressed it this way, “The inside and the outside – they are made of the same flesh”.

Every time you tense up and isolate yourself, you damage not only yourself, but also your connection to the earth, and even the earth itself. Every time you set yourself against others in anger, you do equal damage.

Tai-chi practice teaches you how to live an ecological life in the modern world. Practicing Tai-chi this way is a powerful way to transform your life.

MORE TAI-CHI LEARNING TIPS by Bob Klein

How to Learn and Teach Tai-chi DVD

1. “The feet are the gateway to consciousness”. When you walk in a natural area, the feet conform to the shape of the ground, which is formed by the geology, botany and weather of the area. As your feet conform to the ground, each joint of the body adjusts to keep you aligned and in motion, thereby also participating in the natural history of that area. Our flat floors deaden the feet and also the whole body and cut us off from participating in nature. So when you step, allow each joint and muscle of the foot to individually settle onto the floor, to help enliven the foot.

2. When you breathe out and the upper body settles downward, its weight sinks through the hip area and into the feet and “root”. When you breathe in and expand upward, that expansion has to pass through the hip area. If the hips are rigid, these transfers of energy cannot take place. Keep the hip level open, like an open pipe, so that momentum can flow through it.

3. The head is part of the body. We do not consider it to be the “seat of consciousness”. The whole body is the seat of consciousness. There is a tendency to keep the head and neck rigid, as if it were a stone throne that the king sits in, ordering the body around and judging the results. “Think” with the feelings of the whole body and allow the momentum, created by your form or chi-gung, to flow through the neck and head. While the head does not flop around, it moves in circles about an inch in diameter. If the head is rigid, the body will be rigid.

4. Release energy at the beginning and end of each breath. If you are not yet familiar with the experience of “chi”, think of energy as momentum. At the end of the in-breath, when the momentum flows up and out, let that momentum go, never to return. Then allow the body to begin sinking back down, drawing into it “new” energy until the end of the out-breath as you sink into your root. At that point, allow the chi (or momentum) to be released into the ground, never to return. When you begin to breathe in again, expanding upward, allow new energy to fill the body from the bottom. If you hold energy within the body, you will not get the health benefits of Tai-chi.

5. At the end of each in-breath, expand the palms and feet. Allow them to relax as soon as you begin to breathe out.

6. Once you are comfortable with the sequence of movements, don’t think of the movement before or the next movement. Allow the form to unfold, as the mainspring of old watches, unwind during the day to move all the little gears of the watch, allowing “time” to unfold. If you have been trained how each part of the body participates in each part of the form, your form will have been imbedded into each part of the body, like a mainspring ready to unfold.

7. Practice one thing at a time. Your teacher may have presented you with a hundred principles and you can’t keep them all in your mind at the same time. Practice just one or two for a while and then switch to another one or two principles. Trust that such practice will add up; that the body will store skill you have gained in each practice session.

8. Don’t “hold yourself together”. Most of us start all bound up, tied up in knots, as if we would fall apart if we relaxed. For each posture, notice which muscles are “holding” more than they have to. Can you allow that muscle to use less tension? Even less? Use the minimum tension possible just before the arm or the whole body starts falling down.

9. There is an intelligence within your body that is greater than your thinking mind. Yield to it. It may be hard to notice at first. The forceful, thinking mind is like the sun, overpowering all the stars in the sky. Yet those stars are still there, even during the day. The “Body-mind” is always there but requires inner quiet to be noticed.

10. Don’t forcefully try to quiet the thinking mind. That is only the thinking mind trying to quiet itself. It is just a trick. Rather, pay attention to the flow of momentum and allow your attention to ride the flow of momentum like a surfer rides a wave. Yield to the momentum. Yield to the breath that helps to create the momentum. Yield to the relaxation that helps to create the momentum. Yielding to life quiets the thinking mind and strengthens the Body-mind.

These principles are described more fully in the dvd series “How to Learn and Teach Tai-chi” by Bob Klein available at:
http://store.movementsofmagic.com/belevi.html

RESPECT

The relationship between mind and body should be the same as the relationship between yourself and another person. Each of you wants respect and wants to know the intention of the other. Each wants to maintain its individuality and also its connection to each other. Each wants to enjoy the interaction and benefit from it.

When you gain a skill, you reach a certain point where you have to let the body do the work (in riding a bicycle for example). You trust that the body knows what it is doing without the intervention of the thinking mind. But it is difficult for the thinking mind to let go of control.

It is difficult to accept that another person thinks differently than you. As an example, it is difficult to accept that an aboriginal culture may want to maintain their way of life, with perhaps, just a few well chosen modern advances. If there are “resources” beneath their land (oil, coal, gas for example), it seems to us unreasonable that they don’t allow another culture to come in and tear apart their land to acquire those resources.

As we learn Tai-chi, the mind thinks us through the movements. We remember all the advice from the teacher on proper mechanics. We “push” our bodies through the movements so they are done properly.

But then we learn the push hands exercise, in which there are no pre-set movements (in free-style push hands). The thinking mind could not possible keep track of all the spontaneous movements and be able to respond.

The student has to let go of the absolute control of the thinking mind and trust the creativity of the body. This creates a fear of dissolution in students whose whole identity is centered in the thinking mind. At this point it is important to examine your relationships with other people. Are those relationships based on respect of their individuality and intelligence?

If you can respect that another person can be intelligent and yet disagree with you then you can more easily accept that the body can have an intelligence that is different in its nature than the thinking mind but equally as valid. You might also be willing to accept that the body can be more intelligent than the thinking mind.

To allow the Body-mind to have equal sway in one’s life as the thinking mind is like courtship. You want the other to be part of you but you don’t really know who she or he is at first. Is she intelligent or does she just parrot what she has heard? Is she kind? Will she treat you well? You look for signs within your interactions that will answer these questions. Yet somehow, you know that for better or worse, she is part of you and you cannot grow as a human being without her. You look for ways of working together in harmony.

The point at which the student “allows” Body-mind to be equal in power to Thinking-mind means giving up absolute power. You no longer “shove” the body from move to move but yield to an inner knowing of the form. You find the Body-mind wants to do the form differently than the ideas in your head, and you yield to that. You allow them to be part of you. You actually listen to what they are saying.

More importantly you allow yourself to change, to be affected by the qualities of the consciousness of others. The two lovers grow mentally and emotionally, from knowing each other. Thinking-mind and Body-mind each grow from having to interact with each other.

So respect, a form of yielding, allows growth. Without growth we deteriorate physically, emotionally and spiritually. We engage in battles both within and outside of ourselves.

What is the degree of respect and yielding in our culture today? Are we becoming more rigid or relaxed and fluid? Where are we headed?

There is a Zen saying that “The inside and the outside are made of the same flesh”. I believe that Tai-chi practice can be a great help to our modern world by encouraging respect on all levels.

TAI-CHI AND THE BIG BANG THEORY

How can the big bang theory and other scientific concepts be used to illustrate principles of Tai-chi? Both science and Tai-chi principles can be difficult to grasp but if they are compared, then both become clearer.

In this example I use the big bang theory to explain an advanced aspect of Tai-chi training. The scientific theory of the origin of the universe begins with nothing – no space, matter, energy or time. The universe exists as a “singularity” and then explodes, creating space, matter, energy, and time. As it progresses, the individual stars, planets and other heavenly bodies evolve. The question is, will the universe keep expanding until its energy gives out and then die out? Will it expand to a certain size and then shrink back to a singularity? Will it reach a steady state? These questions are worked out mathematically and I don’t attempt to out-think the physicists and astrophysicists but just use their attempts to understand the universe to clarify our attempts to understand Tai-chi.

One of the most difficult aspects of Tai-chi is that you have to become aware of every joint and muscle of the body and how each operates at every second of your movements. This requires a type of attention that is everywhere at the same time. Yet our attention is fixed and located in a specific place (the head). It doesn’t have to be so, yet our culture created this condensation of attention in the head.

In my studies of animal behavior (I was an ethologist), and work with thousands of animals in the field and in captivity, I have found that their attention is more evenly distributed throughout their bodies. Human athletes also have this quality of attention.

For a student to be able to function with precision and grace, he has to go through a process in which the attention is allowed to individuate (to be located in each joint and muscle of the body). The head cannot direct this attention by the thinking process, because thinking is slow and awkward.

In order to have the attention individuate (seep into every part of the body and function there), the fixed point of the attention in the head (the singularity of attention) has to empty. Every increase in individuation of attention requires an equal emptying of the singularity of attention in the head.

If we look at the big bang theory, this would mean that as the universe individuates, the singularity must continue to empty. So the singularity doesn’t cease to exist, rather, it is in a balanced relationship with individuation so that its emptying is equal to the evolution of the universe. The existence of the universe doesn’t end the singularity but is one side of the whole while the emptiness is the other side.

Again, I am not trying to be a physicist but just trying to illustrate a Tai-chi principle. So what is this concept of “emptying”? In Tai-chi it is relaxing, letting go and not fixating on anything. Our attention is usually so weak that it can easily be grabbed by our senses, thoughts and emotions. Most of us are at the mercy of these sensations and have no independent existence. Any form of meditation helps to develop the “passive observer”, a state in which the attention is vibrant but cannot be grabbed.

If your attention is not in this state then it is very hard to concentrate on many things at once. The very idea of “you” concentrating on something else means that you are in a state of fixed attention in the head or in the thinking process. If attention is more individuated the individual parts of the body have more say over how you do your form or your push hands and it becomes more creative and spontaneous.

The attention in the head and thinking process does not have to end in order to allow the body to be filled with attention, but rather it has to “empty”. It has to move toward the “passive observer” state, which we call “Yin”. Yin is not the absence of “Yang” but the balancing of “Yang”.

Yin attention is not “held” and can seep into every part of the body and function there. It can seep into your surroundings as well. When it seeps into a natural area, in which randomness predominates, the attention can easily stay Yin. When it seeps into our modern world, with its geometric, fixed structures, the Yin attention turns Yang. We order the world around us to maintain a fixed Yang attention, which is why it is so hard for us to flow in a Tai-chi form or to relax in everyday life.

If we then use these ideas in Tai-chi to understand the big bang theory, then we have to look for a process of “emptying the singularity”, which again does not lead to an end state of but is a continuing process that balances the evolution of the universe.

This is a very difficult achievement for Tai-chi students – to realize that letting go is not a goal with an end but is a continuous process. It is the letting go that initiates the movement. Tensing does not initiate a movement. One of my students realized that he keeps putting breaks into his letting go. He lets go a little and then stops because he feels he has “achieved” the letting go.

In astrophysics there is an increasing understanding of how “black holes” help in the evolution of the universe. These holes are really matter that is so dense and has so much gravity that nothing can escape them, not even light. It is like attention that is so settled into the body that it cannot be disturbed and grabbed.

When a person is comfortable within their own bodies and relaxed, this draws other people to them, just as a black hole pulls matter into itself.

The real question for Tai-chi students is, once this individuation is achieved and each part of the body becomes conscious and functional, then where does the intention come from to do anything? If all the attention is dispersed into each cell, organ, muscle and bone of the body and there is only a “passive observer” at the “helm”, then how can things get done?

In Tai-chi theory, it is the balance of the individuation and the passive observer that allows creativity to flow. That creativity is the cooperative conscious activity of every part of you combined with the flow of consciousness through you. The “flow of consciousness through you” requires further explanation.

In ancient cultures consciousness was not considered to be just the activity of nerve cells in the brain. That is a modern idea. Consciousness was considered to be a natural energy, just as as gravity or what we now know of as electro-magnetic force and subatomic forces are natural forces. Each creature lives within these forces and adapts to them. We have joints and muscles to provide leverage to counteract the force of gravity. In the same way, our brains use the flow of consciousness to function. Since this is the understanding of the culture that Tai-chi evolved from, we have to take this into consideration in our training in order to make sense of it.

The state of balance between Yin attention (release) and Yang attention (holding) is the proper state to achieve creativity, not to mention health. But to be willing to “empty” the condensed state of attention in the head is the most difficult task of the Tai-chi student.

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(This is a technical aside for those familiar with these ideas. If you are not involved in the technical aspects of Tai-chi, please skip this paragraph). Yin is often used to denote “condensing” while Yang is used to denote “expanding”. In this case I am using Yin to mean release and Yang to hold. Yang attention is likened to grabbing a bird to see it. While you can see it, the bird is frightened and unmoving and all you can see is its external appearance. Yin attention is when you release the bird. You can see it until it disappears in the trees but what you are seeing is its true behavior, not just its appearance. When Yin is released, it is said to turn into True Yang or expansion. When that True Yang connects, such as the attention connecting to other parts of the body, the connecting is called True Yin. You can also see that holding or Yang (such as holding attention in the head) results in Yin (condensing). This interaction of Yin and Yang where one generates the other shows their interdependence, but you do not need to know this to understand this blog post; I’m just injecting it here for technical clarity. Now back to the blog post.
***
The teacher has to use his or her teaching creativity to guide the students to that state. The feeling of this type of letting go (of the singularity in the head) has often been compared to jumping off a cliff. If the teacher has helped to develop the body consciousness (“Body-Mind”), you will have something soft to fall on when you jump off that cliff. You will find that the cliff is only two inches tall.

This brings me to an important point. In each culture the dynamics of the culture are expressed in terms of their cosmology. Their description of how the world started and what is really going on within it is a reflection of the dynamics of their culture. Whether their explanation is of the interaction of the Gods or the mechanics of science, these explanations change as cultures change.

It seems to most of us that science is in a different category than other cosmologies because we strictly test all our theories. But the very structure of our minds is what gave rise to the scientific method and re-enforces it. As someone trained in the sciences, I am dedicated to the scientific method and believe strongly in its effectiveness to reveal “truth”. But I also understand that to some degree, culture affects how we perceive the world around us.

This is clearly shown in Tai-chi training. It is shown in how students interpret what the teacher says, for example. It is difficult for them to accept the teaching in its most simple form because their minds are not ready to receive the ideas and their bodies have not experienced them. And so they interpret teaching in odd ways. A typical example is that in Tai-chi we use “whole body movement”. This means that every joint and muscle is in continuous movement appropriate for what it is doing at that moment. This results in fluidity. Yet many Tai-chi students (and teachers) interpret this to mean that you keep the body stiff, with no movement whatsoever in the torso but the body as a whole moves slowly and smoothly. This latter understanding is clearly absurd yet it is commonly followed.

I was teaching a student to “release your attention out the back as much as you move your attention forward”. He interpreted that to mean that he pay attention to his back (the back of his torso).

We can only understand what our minds allow us to understand. As the dynamics of our minds change through time, our relationship to our bodies and to the environment changes. And then our cosmology changes. Just think what the changes to our attention, caused by our addiction to electronic devices will do to our cosmology in the future.

Tai-chi students must understand the relationship of the dynamics of their attention to their perception and seek to maintain a dynamic, balanced and alive attention, consistent with what is required by the body to maintain health and joy. When you learn to let go, you find that tremendous energy fills you. How would our modern cosmology be affected if everyone practiced Tai-chi?

If every part of our body is experienced as being alive and conscious, then the world around us is experienced the same way. We no longer look at animals as dumb, but filled with consciousness, just of a different nature than ours.

The big bang can be seen as the birth of a living organism and its growth as the growth of that organism, including the growth of consciousness. By making ourselves more alive and conscious as individuals, we are participating in this evolution of the living organism, the universe, just as each cell in our bodies participates in the evolution of ourselves as individuals. And just as the death of one cell of our body is not seen as our own death, the death of individual people is not seen as the end of life but as part of the growth of the larger cycle of life.

If consciousness is a force that flows through us, then the death of an individual is not the death of consciousness. On the other hand when we block the flow of consciousness within us as when our bodies are deadened with our unhealthy life-styles, this is more like a death.

TAI-CHI TEACHER TRAINING

Snake Creeps Down Movement of Yang Form

In our last teacher-training course, I discussed issues a new teacher will have to become comfortable with teaching. The first issue is to know which principles you want to teach with each movement of your form. Each should explain how to move properly but also how the principle applies to everyday life.

The second issue is to be comfortable in your class. There is a tendency to feel it is you against the audience. You have to realize that the audience (class) is on your side. They want you to teach them well. Also realize that you know your subject (or should know) and they don’t. You are leading them into a new world of self-awareness and health (and maybe later on, self defense). You live that world and, like a tour guide, are showing them the “sights”.

You don’t need to “prove” how good you are. Certainly you should demonstrate movements to them but not to show off. What will most impress the student is your own enthusiasm and love for Tai-chi. If you can help them make the slightest improvement (stepping smoothly, relaxing their shoulders, etc.), they will remember that and want more. The Tai-chi class is not about you, the teacher. It is about them, the students. It is about making their lives better. If you have fun teaching, they will have fun learning.

It is important to align the students’ bodies. They can only know the difference of poor posture and good posture if you put them into a good posture. But they may feel awkward in that good posture, because they are not used to it. Explain that people get used to poor postures or to tensions and feel strange when they relax or align properly.

As you teach someone you may notice many corrections that need to be made. But focus in on only one or two. If you give too many corrections, the student may become frustrated. It is hard to hold yourself back from correcting but the student can only remember a little at a time.

These are some of the issues we discuss in our teacher training workshops. To assist the aspiring teachers, we have produced a “How to Learn and Teach Tai-chi” dvd series. Here is the link:
http://store.movementsofmagic.com/belevi.html
(Insert the above link in your heading to enter the dvd website and then go to the bottom of that page.)

LEARNING FROM YOUR DREAMS

Dreaming can be used to help us let go of negative, programmed behavior in our lives. While many people think that dreaming happens only during the night, this process is always with us, even in waking.

During the day our senses and everyday activities “outshine” the process of dreaming so it is hard to notice the dreaming. It is similar to the way the sun outshines the stars during the day so we can only see stars at night.

Whether during the day or night, there are two processes working in our consciousness which Taoist philosophy refers to as “Yin” and “Yang”. Yang is the creator, forming ideas, assumptions, ways of perceiving the world and habits. “Yin” is the dissolver, melting those thoughts and habits so they don’t become too ingrained. In Hindu philosophy “Brahma” is the creator and “Shiva” is the destroyer (or dissolver). Both are needed in a balanced and dynamic way.

At night Yin is stronger and so our thoughts and habits start to dissolve. This allows us to become more creative, like starting with a new canvas to paint a picture. During the day Yang is stronger and our attention is more trapped by our habits of thinking.

But day or night, there has to be a balance. The healthy function of consciousness requires that creation and destruction (I like the term “dissolving” better) play with each other. An unhealthy person may be too dogmatic and extreme or on the other hand, flaky and air-headed, easy to push around.

The dissolving aspect of attention is called, “Yin attention”. I have written about this before. It allows you to let go, to let music take you away, for example. I believe that in our society Yin attention is almost absent and this is part of the reason we have gotten more antagonistic politically. When either form of attention (Yin or Yang) becomes so predominant that it pushes out the other, health deteriorates.

By noticing your dreams you can sense whether Yang attention predominates (anxiety dreams), Yin attention dominates (can’t remember your dreams) or if there is somewhat of a balance. It is important to notice the “dreaming within the waking”, that is, this same dream process of creation/dissolving, during the day as well. If you can notice this process during the day, you can gain a great deal of understanding of your inner state.

The Tai-chi and Zookinesis exercises are designed to help you keep this process in balance (if they are taught properly), and to help you to be aware of this process so you can understand yourself better. They also help you to not be a slave of your habits.

RELAXATION IS POWER IN PUSH HANDS

Push Hands

When I do push hands with new people I often find that the fear of losing causes them to tense their muscles and lock their joints in an effort to present a strong, solid front. They lose their ability to move and connect. It becomes all about muscle.

To be able to let go of the tension and joint locking allows you to connect with the push hands partner so that you can interact in a deeper way. This two-person exercise teaches you that your well-being depends on becoming part of the interaction rather than resisting the interaction. It teaches you that paying attention to what is going on and adapting to it is more powerful than isolating yourself from what is going on and paying attention only to your resistance.

At first the student fears that if he puts down the armor of tension he will lose the push hands volley and get pushed. He will remain loose only up to the point where his partner has him at a disadvantage and then will tense every muscle in his body to avoid getting pushed. That of course, doesn’t make mechanical sense. If you are tense, you are more likely to get pushed because you can’t react properly. But tensing is a habitual reaction.

To be able to remain loose, connected to the ground (“root”) and to flow exactly with the partner’s movements requires years of practice. It requires that you are aware of the activity of every muscle and joint in the body, your balance and alignment and the way your fears interfere with your proper mechanics – both within your own body and that of the partner.

If you were to use tensing and locking as your main mechanics (as in “competition push hands”) you would never be able to achieve the awareness described above. And so a student has to decide if he is practicing push hands to improve his life, health and awareness or to better be able to push people off balance. If it is the former, then you have to sacrifice your tension and your fear. Making that sacrifice is very difficult for most people yet it allows you to change to such an extent that the world around you seems to change as well.

There is a Taoist saying that “the inside and outside reflect each other”. When you change the world inside of you, the reactions of other people to you change as well. Your mind is clear enough to see new opportunities. You feel more enthusiastic about your life, have more energy and participate more in the world around you. You are happier.

It is typical of Tai-chi that the greatest changes in your life result from the simplest acts. Nothing could be simpler than relaxing, yet it is so hard to relax. So much of our behavior and attitudes are tied to tensing. One act of relaxing begins the path of profound change to a healthier and more powerful life. This is why we say that “relaxation is power”.

TAI-CHI HEALING WITH THE ELEMENTS

The modern idea of healing is to cure a disease or injury when it occurs. Tai-chi represents an older, more traditional approach to healing and that is to keep the body healthy so that it can resist disease and injury.

The idea that your body must deteriorate as you age is a modern idea. Those who practice Tai-chi know that you continue to strengthen as you have more years to practice Tai-chi. It is common to see people practicing extreme Tai-chi forms well into their ‘90s.

Tai-chi Tiger Form

If you read this blog you know that Tai-chi training consists of a variety of exercises (forms, chi-gung and push hands) and healing practices (massage, herbal medicine and acupuncture). There are simple principles to all of these practices and they are expressed in the teaching of “the elements”. This set of principles is common throughout the world. A version of “the elements” can be found in Native American, ancient European and other cultures.

There is great variety in how the elements are explained but in the following description I hope to specifically convey the principles of healing.

Earth
Earth is the physical world. It represents how we need to make sense of the world around us by trying to create a coherent story of who we are and what is going on around us. Our society provides this story to us. Within that story we can find ideas that limit us and ideas that free us. The social movements throughout human history are an effort to change the story of the society about who we are and where we came from. They attempt to fashion a story that frees our creativity and allows us to fulfill our potential as human beings.

Earth also represents simplicity. We are encumbered by fears, patterns of habits and tensions, regrets as well as by “stuff” (junk that we buy and don’t need). By simplifying our lives we can remove the ball and chains we are dragging behind us. We can also learn to let go of negative people who are pulling us down and have no intention of really helping themselves to heal.

Earth is also the food that we put inside of our bodies. That food is sacred. When we shovel pre-made, chemically infused who-knows-what into our bodies, we not only injure our health but break the bond between us and the earth. Simply growing some food that you eat repairs that bond. Eating organically, healthy food helps to repair your body.

Earth is the center as our bodies are the center of our consciousness.

We could go on much further about earth, but let us continue to metal.

Metal
Metal is transformation. It is creativity, the ability to allow yourself to change and to see things differently. We take base ore and melt it in heat to extract the metal. In the same way, you (base ore) go through the fire of life and of your training to become the shining pure gold that you are capable of becoming.

And then this metal is turned into useful implements, swords for example. Do you just live your life to take up space or is your life being used to help the world around you? To help heal our world, you must first become transformed in the smelting process and then become fashioned into a healer of some sort. Simply by having been healed, your presence, by example, can help to heal those around you.

Metal is also the element of “animal consciousness”, or the natural “body-mind”. This mind is contrasted to the “clever mind” of modern times. Not that there’s anything wrong with the clever mind – it has produced technology. But the natural mind is the common sense and sensitivity to the natural world that lies at the base of our consciousness. It becomes aware of imbalances in our lives and pushes our behavior to correct those imbalances. In contrast, the “modern mind” seeks the extremes.

When you wake up in the forest and breathe in the beautiful scents, your natural awareness is awakened. Metal is associated with the lungs in Chinese medicine.

Wood
Wood is the element of life itself. It is the way nature unfolds and provides energy to all its creatures to promote the consciousness of metal. It is wood that provides the fuel to transform the metal ore.

Wood is the tree whose branches and leaves reach towards the sun to absorb energy and whose roots reach deep into the soil to absorb water and nutrients. It is an example of the balance of “heaven and earth”.

If you are not rooted well, the events of your life will throw you over easily. To be rooted in an understanding of your personal history and the history of humankind is essential to really know who you are. To be rooted in a love of the natural world and therefore a love of your own health will strengthen your body and soul. To be rooted in your family and community will balance and empower you.

“Heaven” does not refer to the mythological place we go to when we die (if we are good). It refers to yielding to the forces of nature around you so that your life can be lived in harmony with the promotion of the living world. It means accepting that you can become greater than you are now and yielding to teachings of all kinds so you can continue to grow (towards sources of “light” which means knowledge). Wood allows you to become transformed for the better (as it is burned to transform metal ore) while remaining rooted in the real world (earth) so you don’t become an air-head.

A tree provides a home for birds, monkeys, insects and others. It provides food for everyone. It provides the raw material for homes and furniture. It holds the soil to prevent erosion. Wood takes care of the basic needs of life to make our lives easier. Is your life like a tree?

Fire
Fire is the energy of enthusiasm. When you let go of the encumbrances of life, the bitterness, resentments, self-righteousness and anger and learn to appreciate the simple, sacred beauty of the world around you (natural and human), they you can be enthusiastic about life. That enthusiasm goes a long way to healing you and it can be considered to be the result of healing.

Fire is what gets you up in the morning because you love your life and want to live it. It is the heat in relationships that makes you want to interact with other people. Yet it is earth that moderates that heat so you don’t become too aggressive. In this way the elements balance each other and the job of the healer is to find out which element is too strong or too weak. It is the balance that leads to health.

Fire gets you involved in practices like Tai-chi because you appreciate the beauty of the teaching. In this way it transforms you as fire transforms metal ore. Fire is the movement of the exercises, like the dancing flames of the campfire or fireplace.

Fire is the energy flowing through your body when you release the blockages to the flow of chi or when you let go of sorrow. When your muscles let go of their tension through Tai-chi Massage, you feel energy flowing through your body. While you feel very relaxed, you also feel cleansed and energized. Fire has burned up the fear stored in the muscles and released the energy.

Water
Water connects. It is love and compassion. It is the end of the feeling of isolation so that your spirit can “enter the world” and become part of it. Yet it is balanced with earth, which establishes clear distinctions and boundaries, so that we don’t lose our individual identity.

In any relationship there is the fear of losing oneself, yet the desire to lose oneself in the relationship. The balance of water and earth allows both to happen.

Water cleanses. When you release sorrow or physical tension and feel a rush of energy through your body, the element of water then cleans out the debris (like tears cleaning out sorrow). The body is mostly made of water. The lymph cleans out lactic acid and carbon dioxide from cellular metabolism. The intercellular fluid transfers nutrients and oxygen from the blood vessels to the cells.

Yet these fluids have no pump other than the movements of the body. Each muscle of the body must be used, in fluid movement, in order to move the lymph and intercellular fluid. Otherwise the nutrients and oxygen won’t get to the cells to be metabolized and the cells will be bathed in waste. Your food will wind up as fat and you will be tired because your cells are not metabolizing well.

Water conforms to the shape of the container. It is what allows us to be “invisible” during push hands or fighting because we flow with the movements of our partner. It is the principle of not opposing force but flowing around it to continue to come in and accomplish our task.

Water is strategy as it is so adaptable. It allows us to “shed” our fixed patterns and become more creative. This is called “shape shifting” in some cultures. We identify more with our creativity than with our fixed patterns of behavior and thought.

Meaning of the Elements
This is just a hint of the levels of meaning of the elements, their interactions and use in Chinese Traditional Medical Theory. It is a holistic approach in that it considers the body, mind and spirit and the relationship of all aspects of our lives. Each element is associated with a season, a direction, a color, an organ-system, etc.

And so you can discuss the elements in diagnosing an ailment as well as in how you live your life. It is a set of principles based on balance that is useful in every aspect of your life. The way that most people start to learn this system is through Tai-chi practice. The teacher explains how the elements are used to explain aspects of the movements of your Tai-chi form, chi-gung exercises, push hands, massage and, if you go further, the self defense.

This training strengthens each individual from the inside out. It strengthens not only their bodies but their lives as well, allowing them to live full, productive, long and fulfilling lives.

HOW DOES TAI CHI WORK?

Zookinesis and Tai chi promote health.

We hear that Tai chi exercise is much more healing than other types of exercise. It strengthens the internal organs, makes you more flexible, improves the flow of blood, lymph and intercellular fluid, improves the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs, sharpens your attention and strengthens your immune system. How can a simple exercise do all that?

We hear that it has something to do with improving the flow of “chi” energy but for most of us, that means little. The idea of chi is not part of Western culture and we don’t have a feel for what it means. In the almost 40 years of teaching Tai chi and Zookinesis (a type of chi-gung exercise) I have found ways to explain how these exercises work beyond the benefits of other exercises and offer an explanation below:

We modern people pride ourselves in being somehow superior to animals. We think great thoughts. Our behavior is not controlled by instinct. We feel that our superiority is demonstrated by our technology. We have advanced drugs and surgery that save lives.

Yet our general health and feeling of well-being may not be superior to people of older times. In fact our world is filled with emotional stress and chemicals, which stress the body biologically. Heart attacks and other heart disease strikes earlier and earlier in life and the rate of cancer has greatly increased.

How does Tai-chi strengthen the body’s health and calm our emotions so we are resistant to stress? I have proposed in my writings and classes a simple theory that can make the logic behind Tai chi and Zookinesis more understandable.

In our modern world our basic instincts are almost irrelevant. We don’t live in natural surroundings for the most part and our instincts have been molded by natural environments. So we now rely on our minds, which tell us how to work our devices and how to tell time so we won’t show up for work late. This requires a subduing of natural instinct which hasn’t had time to evolve to function in the world of computers, cars and cell phones.

Yet our bodies still have to function biologically. The molecules and cells within our bodies aren’t controlled by computers. In fact, the entire body is a sort of biological computer, with its trillions of molecules all containing a kind of information as to how to function and adapt to varying situations within the body.

If the thinking mind imposes its patterns on the body’s functioning, there is a conflict. The body has to function one way in order to be healthy but the mind is sending signals into the body to behave quite differently.

With instinct the information in the biological computer moves upwards to control the organism and make it behave in order to achieve maximum health. With the thinking mind the control moves downwards to subdue the body and even its biochemical activity.

When we practice Tai chi, especially in the push hands exercise, we have to yield our attention to the body. We train each muscle and joint to respond with ease, precision and intention. At the beginning this requires the thinking mind (to learn our forms or the principles of push hands, for example). But then our minds have to let the body go and the movement of attention must be from the body’s individual body parts upward to the organism as a whole. The thinking mind could not possibly process all this information in real time.

We get to such a degree of precision that the decisions of movement are not made by a muscle as a whole, but rather, each nerve energizing a part of the muscle must act independently so that the muscle contracts in a wave. The smaller and smaller you can get in this precision the better. But even more importantly, you need to allow each tiny part to “make its own decisions”. If you are still making those decisions in your head, you counteract the precision of the body.

But, you might ask, if the thinking mind is not controlling all these precise movements, then what is? Now we get to the question of “chi”. The experience of chi is that of a communications system other than the thinking mind, nervous or endocrine system, that coordinates all this activity.

The real secret of chi is that it is a conscious energy that works from the level of the very small, upward into the body as a whole. Unless we cultivate this “chi consciousness” (known as “Body-Mind”), the body loses its precision – not just in practicing a form, but in staying healthy in general. The movement of consciousness from the tiny to the large must not be dampened by the movement of consciousness from the large (the mind, the feeling of ourselves as an identity) to the small.

To allow the movement of consciousness in both directions allows us to remain intelligent and also healthy. Each movement of the Tai chi forms or the Zookinesis exercises and each principle of movement of push hands, promotes this upward movement of consciousness, that is, of course, if it is done correctly.

Simply memorizing a Tai-chi form or pushing someone will not have this beneficial effect. Only a legitimate teacher can explain and teach you how to practice Tai-chi in the proper way that promotes this healing effect. This is why even teachers keep learning from other teachers to understand the best ways to practice their Tai chi to promote this effect.

Few people in modern times have experienced the upward movement of consciousness emanating from within each part of the body, let alone how this movement of consciousness is completely connected to the natural environment. When you live in a simple and natural way you soon can feel how the cycles of nature promote similar cycles within your body, which then promotes adaptive behavior on the chemical level and on the level of how you live your life day to day. You feel very connected to your environment.

The disconnected way we live our lives now leads not only to poor health, but also to a feeling of isolation, which then reverberates into the fabric of our society. We do not feel as connected to other people or other living things. That disconnection leads us to order our society in such a way that we can easily ignore the suffering of others or of the earth.

Tai chi practice has the potential of transforming our society, our health and our happiness by restoring the natural flow of consciousness that rejoins us to the earth.

CHI MEDITATIONS

Breathe in and ignite the sun within your belly.
Breathe out to release its rays to join the sun in the sky and the earth below.
Center your breath and relax your body to the four directions.

Expect to receive energy from everything you see and feel.
Leave space inside of you for that energy to move.
Allow the energy to continue on in its journey.