Archive

Posts Tagged ‘the elements’

FEELING TIRED WITH CHANGES IN THE SEASONS

As we move into Spring you might expect to become more energetic.  Yet many people feel tired at the change of each season.  The Spring brings pollen and even if you are not allergic, your body fights against pollen’s foreign protein and this requires a lot of energy. 

This points to one of the most basic principles in Chinese medicine.  The body is like an ecological community, with each of its types of tissues like the many different species of plants and animals in an ecological community.  As the Spring changes the face of the landscape, so it changes the face of our internal landscape. 

In modern times we try to maintain a constant environment in our houses to overcome the changes in temperature, humidity, etc. outside.  Yet, no matter how much we control our environment, our bodies and even our minds and emotions are at the mercy of environmental and seasonal changes.

This is why many cultures have festivals for each season, welcoming these changes and preparing us emotionally for the fact that we are entering a new phase of the year.  We can do the same, for example, by spending a day in a park for no other reason than welcoming the Spring, or spending a day planting seeds.

We may like to think that our bodies are machines that we own, but the Tai-chi perspective (and that of most ancient cultures) is that the body, mind, emotions and spirit are all interweaving living energies.  The impression of ourselves as a single identity is a reflection of the relationship among all those “elements”.  When that relationship becomes rigid (because we cling to a rigid identity), we cannot adapt to the changes in the seasons of the earth or the changes in the seasons of our lives.

Rigidity leads to battling against the changes in the environment rather than adapting.  There is an old story about a Zen teacher walking with his student in the woods.  They saw an old man fall into a rushing river and the student was about to run to save him.  His teacher stopped him.  The student asked, “Why are you stopping me from saving that man’s life?”  Soon they saw the old man emerge downriver unharmed.  His teacher said, “That man is a Zen master.  Where the river flows in, he flows in with it.  Where it flows out, he comes out”. 

The quality of the Spring is to “lift” up the sluggish parts of yourself which were lying dormant in the Winter.  Your sleeping spirit has been wakened but is still groggy.  As the flowers blossom, your spirit will be affected in the same way.  The inside of your body is affected in the same way as the flowers.  It will take time for the stem to push its way through the earth but soon the plant becomes vibrant and beautiful.  Give yourself time to flow with the energies of the Spring.  Allow your “elements” to adapt and participate in those changes so that your internal environment becomes vibrant and alive.

THE ELEMENTS

“The Elements” are the basic philosophical tool of Taoism. It is the language by which the philosophy is described. This week, I will discuss the element of metal. It is the element of will and spirit. I can describe metal with a discussion I had with a student this week dealing with his overweight condition. He explained that many people suggest diets to him but he already knows what he should be eating. The problem is that the food (or substitute whatever addiction you may have such as excess worry and thinking, smoking etc.) has control over him.
I explained that the idea behind the element of metal is that pure metal has to be smelted from rough ore. There may only be a small amount of the desired metal in the ore and the rock ore must be burned at very high temperatures to extract the metal. Once extracted, it is shaped, sharpened and polished into a sword with a very fine edge.
The element of metal represents will. You know what you must do, yet there is a multitude of feelings inside you pulling you in many directions. It feels like walking through fire. There are behavioral habits and fears. To deal with each of these feelings would be like unravelling the Gordian’s knot. Gordian was an ancient king of Phrygia. The knot created under his reign was to be undone only by the person who would rule all of Asia. Alexander the Great “undid” the knot by slashing it in half with his sword.
Within our bodies, there is a Gordian’s knot of emotions and mental patterns. To spend our lives unravelling this knot might not be the best use of our time here on earth. We can smelt the ore of will and then shape, sharpen and polish it so that it can cut through all the inner nonsense.
This type of will is not forceful, nor is it stubborn. It is a quiet, relaxed will, like a mountain that stands for hundreds of thousands of years yet there is a vitality of life within the forest covering that mountain. It is difficult to know what will is. We look for force and aggressiveness but that is not it. We look for anger and stubbornness but that is just anger and stubbornness.
The will of metal is gentle yet powerful and that is the quality we need to look for within ourselves. Tai-chi has often been described as metal wrapped in cotton, soft and yielding on the outside yet resolute on the inside.
Can we remain on the path of eating healthy food, for example, without beating ourselves up? I find that if we are part of a training system that we understand, it is easier to exert this gentle will. Zookinesis is a very effective tool for weight control. Its simple exercises bring the attention down to each muscle and joint so that your attention is evenly distributed throughout your body. Your attention becomes joined to the feeling of health within your body more so than to those emotional and mental patterns which are based on fear.
The will you develop is the yearning for each cell in the body for health. It feels as if each cell has a sword and all the cells together constitute an army ready to fight for your health. When you practice Tai-chi sword fighting, the sword is gentle – that is, it is thin and agile. You don’t hit your sword against the opponent’s sword or your sword will break. You flow along the opponent’s sword and slice through the openings.
The will of metal relects this light, agile inner state. The heaviness of your inner fears has no effect on it. Zookinesis exercises develop this light agility which penetrates not only to your physical movements but to your inner feelings as well. This allows your “inner sword” to repeatedly be immersed in the smelting fire and come out even stronger each time.
The Push Hands exercise sharpens your will by testing against another person. If you use too much aggression, you will tense up and be ineffective. If you are too soft, you get pushed over easily. You develop an edge between these two qualities.
Practicing the animal forms is the polishing. These forms express the qualities of the various animals and gives your spirit a sheen. Before you are about to eat, remember the quality of your spirit. Smelt your sword, refining the feeling of your will out of the general chaos reigning within you. “Bring” your sword to the table. (You may even carry a little replica of a sword with you at all times to remind you of your teachings).
Then when you eat, remember that each little cell of your body, each with its own little sword, is eating with you. We all know that we should be eating good quality food but we need to create our sword of will. The elements are a way of teaching us about the many types of inner power we have and how our training develops this power. Our addiction will have less and less hold of us as our power develops. I think this is much better than switching from one food fad to another.

SWORD OF THE SPIRIT

The element of metal, in the Chinese teaching of the elements, represents, among other things, the human spirit. This spirit is represented by the sword. The art of sword making refines the base ore into the refined metal, which is what we are trying to do in our lives as we develop our character.
The sword serves the same symbolic purpose in many cultures. In the Kung Arthur legends, for example, the sword can be thought of as one’s life. It comes from the Lady of the Lake, representing the Great Mother and at the end of the legend, returns to the Lady. This legend can be thought of as the story of how this sword is used and misused by the legend’s characters. In our own lives we are influenced by many people and groups, each vying for our allegiance. We are sometimes misused by these people for their own petty purposes.
Merlin thrust Ex-Caliber (the sword in the Kung Arthur tales) into a stone when it was misused. It could only be removed by a “good person”, the rightful king (which was Arthur). When we are misused it feels as if we are embedded in stone and only a “good person” can get us out of this state. Some people try to impress us with their power but it is the spirit of the person that frees us. The Kung Arthur tales took place at a time when the “old ways” were giving way to the “new ways” (paganism giving way to Christianity) and the legend was based on this transition.
In our modern times many people also feel old ways giving way to new ways. The old ways can be thought of as living a sacred life, a spiritual life. This means that much of our focus is on our own inner development, the development of our character. The new ways are all about getting ahead, owning things and eliminating the “magic” from our lives. Many people feel lost in this “new world”. It is no longer a Pagan vs. Christian conflict. People of all faiths and no faiths are equally concerned. While the sword represents the spirit, it is a weapon. Our spirit is our greatest power to live an enjoyable, positive life.
One of the first lessons in sword fighting is to be constantly on guard not to let anyone take your sword away from you. How often during the day is our spirit taken away from us as we worry about all sorts of things? When we worry we are doubting our power to take care of the situation. We doubt the power of our spirit to get us through difficult situations. How often during the day do we encounter people trying to convince us of things so we can join their crusades?
The sword-bearing Knight of the round table must have guiding principles to use his power, based on helping his community, otherwise he would just be an armored bandit. His common sense and sense of justice must guide him. When we see news of powerful people using their money and position to rob ordinary people of their life savings in order to make a few more hundreds of millions of dollars, we often wonder what would we do if we had power. We do have power. Even though our little spirit sword may not seem as powerful as the resources of a billionaire, that belief is one of the ways we are robbed of power. It was not King Arthur’s strength or wealth that made the legend what it is. It is the idea that he was a just and fair king.
Developing our character may seem naive when the level of corruption in our country seems so much greater than ever before. Yet, with all of their power, what really built the Knights up and brought them down was their character, and that was what the legend was all about. With all of Merlin’s magic, he was at the mercy of the inner spirit of the kings. Neither he nor Ex Caliber could do anything by themselves.
Take note of all the distractions in life – new computer programs you need to learn, new inventions you have to learn how to use, the news of wars and tragedies on television, your friends’ problems, the creditors threatening to turn something off, your own health problems. That is the fire that forges the metal for your sword. Without it you would have a sword made of rough ore. When each of these distractions meets you, remember your power.
Use the “opportunity” to forge your sword. Don’t let the distractions steal your sword. Forging the sword involves both heating and cooling. The red-hot sword is plunged into water. Remember to take some time each day to cool (to practice Tai-chi, Zookinesis or meditation). The balance of fire and water strengthens the sword. Ultimately, worldly power such as money cannot bring you an enjoyable life without inner power. Be the good and fair king in your life. Then, whatever worldly power you have, will be a blessing to us all.

THE CENTER OF THE DRUM

American Indians use the drum as a form of meditation and as a metaphorical representation of the development of consciousness. Imagine a hand-held drum made out of a six-inch wide ring of wood. An animal skin forms the head of the drum. A long strip of leather winds in and out of holes drilled into the ring of wood. The leather strip crosses the inside of the drum at many points, weaving through the holes on the other side of the ring. The result is that on the inside of the drum, you have many strips of leather across the center. The drummer holds the place where the strips cross.
Imagine that the ring represents the world and that each strip across the inside of the drum represents one aspect of our being (one “element”). One may represent the body, another the thinking mind, emotions, will, memories, the senses, creativity, attention, etc. When you hold the drum at the center, you are “balancing the elements”. This means that you are controlling the relationship among all these aspects of your being.
The beating of the drum represents time. The sound that results represents how your individual spirit (individual Tao) creates the quality of your life, as you live your life through time. The drummer varies the tightness or looseness of the various leather strips as he or she drums, to vary the sound. This represents the way we can be creative with our spirit in the way we interact with the world (the wood ring of the drum).
Drumming then becomes a beautiful way to understand how we form our lives by creating a cohesive feeling of who we are (represented by the center of the strips that the drummer holds) based on the relationship of the elements. Each person usually emphasizes one element more than the others and uses that element as the center around which the others are balanced. For some, the thinking mind may be the most important element. For others, it is the emotions. The skill in balancing the elements in all ancient cultures is to keep all the elements balanced.
Yet I have found that in all the cultures I have studied, one element is considered the best to use as the balance point. Those of you who have followed these weekly lessons will not be surprised to read that this element is, attention. It is consciousness itself. Balancing the elements really means paying attention equally to all the aspects of our being. We need to pay attention to our physical health as well as our mental development as well as our emotional balance, etc. Within the body, we need to pay attention to all those muscles, joints and other parts, making sure that each is relaxed or flexible or whatever quality that part needs to have to function well. We too often neglect our bodies in general or, even if we exercise, we may not practice an exercise that works all parts of the body and relaxes as well as strengthens.
The drum analogy also points out another aspect of training that is important in Zookinesis and Tai-chi. Those strips across the back of the drum are constantly varying in their tightness and looseness. The drum wobbles back and forth to create interesting sounds. Too often we get stuck in one dynamic of how those elements behind the “drum” (behind our everyday lives) blend and play with each other. We become rigid in our thinking, in our emotional state and other qualities and loose our creativity. The “sound” that comes from our lives becomes a dreary beat of time leading to our sad deaths.
The alternative is to live our lives as if we were creating joyful music with each day. What can you do this day to be creative with your life? It may be something small, such as eating a different breakfast than usual. But if you get used to asking yourself how you can be creative each day, that will gradually bring creativity into your life. It will bring your attention to how you can use the elements to live a creative life. That hand that grabs the center of the leather strips and plays creatively with them, is you. It is the interaction of attention and creativity, the interaction of yin and yang. Attention centers. Creativity varies.
We may complain that the everyday problems of life make it hard to stay with our practice. We just don’t have the time or energy. Let’s go back to the drum. We have the drum and the hand holding the drum. Yet can it make a sound without being hit? The stick hitting the drum is the everyday problems and activities of life. The resulting sound comes from the interaction of how we “hold” our spirit and how the everyday activities of life resound on that spirit. In this way, drumming represents life itself. When you listen to a drummer or to any musician, you can tell whether he is playing from his spirit or if his music is just technical. He may be technically proficient but that alone will not stir an audience. You may have another musician who is not all that great technically but his spirit shines through the music. We can forgive the lack of technical proficiency. The lack of spirit is harder to forgive.
In the same way there are people who are very proficient at certain elements. They may be good at acquiring wealth or have great knowledge. But what is the quality of their spirit? Each of us has a great wealth. We have the wealth of our attention and creativity that is given to every person in the world. We can stay centered (not give in to anger, greed or jealousy) and be creative (love the challenge of doing the most with what we have). We can make every day of our lives an act of balancing the elements, of facing the problems of life with creativity. That stick will continue to hit our drum but we can determine what sound it will make.
When we practice our Tai-chi form or Zookinesis exercises, remember the interweaving strips that meet at the center behind the mechanics of the movements. Bring your attention to the center and from this center, be creative. At one moment your mind may kick in, the next moment, your emotions or your will or a memory. Allow this interplay with the elements but don’t shift your attention from the center.
The interplay of the elements should not be suppressed as long as your attention does not get pulled by any one of them. Sometimes an element may try to steal the attention from the center. A thought, for example, may try to convince you that you need to pay full attention to it and abandon the center. You can develop the ability to quietly be aware of the “antics” of the thinking mind without getting caught up in them. You are like the parent, watching the antics of a child and the thinking mind is usually very much like a child. It wants all of your attention and does anything it can to get that attention. It is jealous of any attention you give to any other part of you.
For many people, the elements of their being are very much like jealous children and there is chaos inside of them. The practices of Tai-chi, Zookinesis and drumming are designed to create harmony where there was chaos by keeping the attention centered and creativity active. I love studying how other cultures try to achieve the same results as the Taoist culture. The teaching techniques may vary but the goal is obviously the same. The external harmony of music not only reflects the internal harmony of the musician but also resonates a harmony in the listener. When you see a Tai-chi practitioner doing a Tai-chi form, that also resonates in the viewer. Harmony is the interplay of centeredness and creativity. If everyone in the world had such a practice in their lives, how the world could change for the better!

THE ANCIENT ONE

A student of any “internal” system of exercise begins his or her practice in a “catch 22” situation. He learns a series of techniques that should lead him to develop a connection of his mind and body. This connection allows him to become aware that there is an internal system of intelligence that can then take over his instruction. In other words, at some point, the awareness of his own body should itself, instruct him as to how to move and exercise. The catch 22 is that the more he focuses on the techniques he is being taught, the less he trusts his own body and the more he depends on those techniques.
The techniques, in Tai-chi and Zookinesis are considered as the “Zen raft”, that is, a raft that brings you from one side of a river to the other. Once you get to the other side, you abandon the raft and begin your journey on the other side of the river. The techniques of body awareness lead you to a living internal blueprint of the dynamics of the mind and body, of the emotions, will, memories, senses and all the other aspects of being human. You become aware of that internal intelligence and how it lies behind all aspects of your life. The techniques of Tai-chi and Zookinesis are still practiced and perfected but you become aware of how they are leading you to a greater awareness of how flesh and consciousness interact.
In our culture, we believe that everything starts with the physical world and that all other phenomena are a by-product of the interaction of atoms and subatomic particles. In most ancient cultures, the physical world was considered equal to all other human experiences. Each was considered to be an “element” of being human, so that the mind, emotions and consciousness itself were on an equal level with the physical world. The “balancing of the elements”, the main purpose of internal training, was to develop a balanced person who doesn’t obsess with any one element.
As an example, in Zookinesis, the sense of sight is considered to be one half of a paired sense. Sight gives us information about the exterior of objects – their color, shape, size, texture etc. It shows us how each thing is separate from each other thing. The sense of “chi” (internal energy) gives us information about the interior of things and about how everything is connected to everything else with energy. In our culture, the sense of chi is not recognized, so that we don’t feel it. Yet as we learn any internal system of exercise, we need to regain this sense so that we can become more balanced.
Practitioners of the internal martial arts are well versed with chi and use it to strengthen their health, to increase the power of their strikes in sparring and to be able to withstand strikes from an opponent. A student of mine once asked me if I could stop using chi to protect myself from strikes. I explained that I am so used to protecting myself with chi that it was hard for me to stop doing it. But I figured out a way to “turn off” the chi. He then punched me and it really hurt! I told him I would never do that again. He reminded me that since he had not yet developed this protective ability, I should take it easy on him. He made his point.
Often as people practice “Push Hands” (a two person exercise in which each tries to throw the other off balance), or sparring, they will come up with a very creative technique they had never learned before. This will surprise them because it is as if another person inside of them made them do this new technique. As they get used to these new techniques arising spontaneously out of them, they realize that they arise out of their own creativity. Then they come to “know” their creativity as a living energy within them. It is this body intelligence I mentioned above. This awareness will make them feel uncomfortable at first because they realize they are more than they thought they were. There is a power inside of them which seems stronger or perhaps just “smarter” than the students themselves. How can their “weak” little personalities stand up to this powerful ancient intelligence?
An artificial competition begins to try to keep the “genie in the bottle”. It takes time for the student to develop a harmonious relationship with his own inner intelligence. Push Hands is great training for this because it deals with the relationship between two people on a physical level. You can’t use force and tension in Push Hands or you yourself will get pushed over. You really have to merge with the Push Hands partner, uniting your energies until you find a weak point in his alignment or attention and then you can push.
In the case of the internal intelligence you learn to blend and connect your personality with that ancient body intelligence to form a greater self. In those old cultures there was a name for people who successfully accomplished that merging. It was called being “an elder”. We don’t have many elders in our culture and that concept isn’t admired as it used to be. We now feel that each generation knows more than the previous one. We feel that the ancient cultures were ignorant just as we feel that our parents are dumb compared to ourselves. Yet it is not the accumulation of material knowledge that developed an elder, but the type of knowledge that is always at our fingertips.  I find that my best students begin their practice just to improve their health, or to get better muscle definition or to learn self-defense. Yet as they learn there is much more depth to this training, they become even more interested. They realize there is a whole other world out there – the world of internal awareness.
The student is led to this awareness by continuing to practice the techniques until he realizes that simply doing the techniques faster or stronger is not getting him anywhere. He comes to a plateau in his training. It is only when he lets that internal intelligence (the “Body-Mind”) take over that he can continue to progress. At that point, he feels that the person he thought he was, can just sit back and let this new being take over. His exercise becomes effortless and much more rewarding. The old cultures called Body-Mind “the ancient one”. They might ask the confused student, “Let me see the ancient one”, meaning that they wanted to see the student let the internal intelligence take over his exercises. So the point of this week’s lesson is not to let the techniques become the whole of what you learn. Realize that they are leading you to an internal awareness and continue to watch out for hints of the ancient one. When he (or she) comes you will be rewarded.