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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.

IS TAI-CHI DYING?

Is Tai-chi dying? Are there still teachers teaching the intricate mechanics, the physics, the dynamics of mind and energy that underlies the beautiful movements? Or are we playing “Simple Simon”? Simple Simon says, “do this”; simple Simon says “do that”.

Are we, as teachers, worried that if we actually ask students to learn the principles that they will leave our classes and switch to a simpler form of exercise? Has Tai-chi become a collection of “techniques” or is it still a transformative experience?

These are the questions I ask as I look around at the practice of Tai-chi as it is today. I see push hands players standing in tense, misaligned positions and knocking their arms around. I see people doing forms with all their energy bound up in their heads and upper backs, with locked hips.

I hesitate to bring this up because each Tai-chi teacher feels he or she is doing Tai-chi the “right way”. It is just those other people over there who are doing it wrong. We should be open minded and allow for variations of practice, I am told.

In this post, I am asking other Tai-chi teachers this question, to answer just within yourself. Do you feel that you are aware of, feel and practice the internal practice? Is your mind connected to each muscle and joint? Is your mind evenly distributed throughout your body or can you pay attention to the body only from the head? Is each part of the body independently conscious and is it in a creative relationship with each other part of the body or is this question meaningless to you?

Tai-chi is a practice designed to lead you to an experience of, and healing of your internal state which then affects your relationship to the rest of the world. Has it been that for you and have you found ways of transmitting that experience to your students so they actually feel it?

What do you feel is the state of Tai-chi practice today?

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.

THE TAI-CHI MIND

Tai-chi has a powerful effect on the way our minds work. We are used to using our minds linearly, as you would when reading words in a book, one word after the other. We are trained to use our minds in this way and cannot stop even in our everyday lives.

So when we practice Tai-chi it is very difficult to allow all our joints and muscles to move at the same time. We can only concentrate on one thing, then the next, etc. You may see Tai-chi forms in which the body is held stiffly but the arms and legs move gracefully. This shows the limitation of how many things the student can pay attention to at once.

The goal of Tai-chi practice of course, is to have no such limitations but to allow each part of the body to pay attention to itself, in coordination with all the other joints and muscles. This requires our thinking mind, delegating authority to the body. Yet the thinking mind thinks it is the only thing that can perceive and react to things. It can barely conceive that the body is intelligent.

The Gnostics tell a story of Sofia (representing the seeking for wisdom) trying to find God. During her journey she gave birth to the demiurge (lesser God) and then continued on her journey. The demiurge looked around and realized he was the only one there and thought he was God.

This is a way of saying that the thinking mind is not the King – that each part of the body is a center of intelligence. Tai-chi allows us to achieve this decentralized attention so that we can be better coordinated, healthier and have better relationships with other people.

If our attention is isolated in our heads, as if in a box, then all perception is related to the head. We feel isolated in that box and perceive other people as being boxes. Each of us wants to be a bigger box, or a more powerful, or smarter or braver box. Our identity is related to our isolation.

With decentralized attention, our identity is related to our connections – to other people, to nature, of the mind and the body, etc. We don’t feel opposed to others but connected to them, part of them.

Imagine if everyone in the world had a mind like this. Their very identity would depend on their connection to everyone else and every other living thing. How would the world be different? When a Tai-chi teacher teaches, he or she not only tries to improve his students’ health, but is laying the groundwork for a more peaceful world.

The body requires an even distribution of attention in order to maintain its health. When attention is locked up in the head, the body is starved of the energy of attention. Notice how you feel after finishing a Tai-chi class. Your body feels empowered and connected, relieved of stress. You feel more open to other people and to nature.

You are helping to heal the world every time you take a Tai-chi class or spend time practicing. Remember the principle: “The inside and the outside reflect each other.”

TAI-CHI LESSONS FROM OUR MONTHLY WORKSHOP

The smallest changes in how we use our bodies can lead to much greater health, physical skill and longevity. In our last monthly Tai-chi workshop we learned important lessons that will help in our Tai-chi practice and any other sport.

Rotation of the joints: We often mistake moving a joint around in space for moving the joint itself. For example if we wanted to push we might thrust our hip forward rather than rotating it in place. The sequential movement of the joints within the body, along with the even expansion of the breath, leads to greater force than just throwing your joint at the object you want to push.

But it is hard to feel the difference between these two actions, let alone to sequentially move the joints in the proper order to perform the task. This issue is at the heart of learning any sport or activity. The human body is designed to be very powerful in the intricacy of its movement. We tend to substitute brute physical force for the lack of fine motor coordination.

Your attention needs to be within the joint itself to move it properly. To often we think of a joint as “over there” because our attention is in our head. Human beings are capable of moving the center of our attention within a part of the body to make it function properly. This is an essential part of Tai-chi training.

Movement of the low back: I call the low back the “control panel” because its flexibility is essential in initiating any movement. Even the sacrum, whose bones are fused, should be flexible and the coccyx bone (last bone of the spine) should be very active in your movements. But most people have frozen hips and low backs. All their attention to movement is in the upper body.

In Tai-chi movement begins at the center of the body and then emanates out into the rest of the torso, legs, arms and head. It is like dropping a pebble into a calm lake. Waves then ripple out in all directions. This keeps the movements centered and the body stable. We pay attention to the central area of the body first, especially the low back and create the movement there so that this part of the body moves first.

Our chi-gung system, “zookinesis”, is very effective for developing awareness of and flexibility of the center of the body. There are many exercises that create specific patterns of movement or vibration at the center, which you then allow to flow out through the rest of the body.

Relax the abdomens: The degree of relaxation and tension of the abdomens is vital for proper movement. As an example, when you begin to step, the abdomens (on the side of the stepping leg) relax at an even pace. This relaxation helps to extend the leg. You do not extend the leg by using the muscles of that leg. Stepping is a result of the rotation and relaxation of the opposite hip and the relaxation of the abdomens on the same side as the leg.

Pelvis as shovel: When you shift from back to front the pelvis acts as a shovel. It first circles back as you shift back, then digs in towards the ground as you begin to shift forward (breathing out). Then it lifts as you finish the shift (breathing in) as if you were throwing the dirt from the shovel on a pile in front of you. This rotation of the pelvis during shifting energizes the center of the body and provides grounding in push hands.
It also allows the energy from the torso and legs to interact so your efforts are more efficient. Even walking becomes easier.

We learned much more but you will need to come to the workshops to get the full depth of training.

YANG STYLE WORKSHOP – FEBRUARY 2014

We explored how the plane of motion changes in the form and how to make smooth transitions into the new plane of motion within each joint. We also practiced how the hips rock in a figure “8” motion with weight shifts in the legs, as if the hips were a piece of wood floating in the ocean. This requires mobility in the low spine, especially in the sacrum.

Then we practiced how the motions in the hips result in waves of motion up the spine, stretching and turning it. The spine then moves in a spiraling motion, both in its stretching and relaxing, where the wave of motion returns to the hips and root.

Next we explored how to keep the attention balanced through the movements by concentrating attention in the opposite direction of movement. This makes sure that we don’t bunch up (condense) our attention in only one direction and we maintain a spherical balance of attention. This balance is also maintained between the area above the ground and in an equal area in the root.

March’s workshop will be on the 30th (Sunday) 10:15am to 12:15pm. We will begin Saturday classes in Yang form in April (10:15am to 11:15am).

CAN YOU DETERMINE YOUR FUTURE?

Imagining a bright future

Our future is becoming clearer – faster pace of life, increasing distance between people, less healthy food choices and increased stress. It’s now more important than ever to understand how choosing the future of your personal life can be different than going along with the future destined for you by our society.

Recently an Australian farmer’s crops were infected by pollen from a nearby genetically modified organism (gmo) farm. This farmer’s organic status was revoked and he went bankrupt. He is now trying to sue the gmo farm.

I watched an episode of “Dangerous Grounds” yesterday. In this reality show a coffee grower visits dangerous areas to buy gourmet types of coffee beans. In one area of Brazil the farmers have to keep 24-hour guard around their villages to protect themselves against agribusiness. The farmers claim that thugs from agribusiness keep trying to sneak into their villages to shoot them to take away their land.

In many ways our food, and the earth in general, is a battleground of people who wish to live simple, healthy lives and those who want to rape the earth. We can certainly help to protect the earth by joining ecological groups but we also must protect the earth in another way.

Our bodies are part of the earth and part of the web of life. We can protect our bodies and our minds from a sort of rape by the violent patterns within our culture. We can make sure that destructive patterns, which may have invaded us (like the gmo pollen), are rooted out and discarded. The fears that make us distance ourselves from other people and groups can be recognized and the power of those fears over our behavior, dissolved.

This is what Tai-chi and Zookinesis practice do. They give us the tools to bring our original organic consciousness back. The teacher explains what has happened to us internally and guides you back to being human. The Tai-chi Bodywork quickly melts away years of tension, fear, trauma and self-destructive patterns to free you to live a better and more enjoyable life.

Learning and practicing these exercises is just as important to protecting the earth as working politically. They teach you to control your own personal future so you can better contribute to a better future for everyone.

LESSONS FROM OUR JANUARY YANG FORM WORKSHOP

1. The tan-tien should feel as if it is a marble moving within the pelvic bowl. The Tan-tien is a spot about one and a half inches below the navel in the center of the body. Once it pops up above the pelvic bowl, you are disconnected from your root. If it moves beyond the pelvic bowl you are off balance.

2. As you move, each part of the body rotates, sending a wave upward and outward. The next movement begins from the ground, not from the spot the wave moved into. In this way each change of movement creates a new wave. When the wave reaches its furthermost point, let it go. Don’t let the wave pull your body out of its root.

3. The center of the body (hips, abdominal area and low back) is like a ball that can rotate in many planes of movement. In the form, these planes are changing from one movement to the next. The form takes place in this central “ball” with the movements of the arms, legs and head a result of the ball’s movement. Each action of the ball is like a pebble, dropping into a still lake that sends out ripples into the surrounding water.

4. Some Tai-chi teachers tell you to let your eyes follow your hands. This is just an exercise to allow your head to move along with the momentum of the body. You don’t really watch your hands in your form. If your neck is stiff and your head doesn’t flow, then your form will be stiff.

5. One problem students may have is that they may only use the horizontal plane of movement or only the vertical. Each movement of each joint should have a balance of vertical and horizontal movement.

6. Turn by using the hip. Don’t turn from the shoulders. The hip goes first and the rest of the joints follow in turn. Turning from the shoulders means that your attention is in your head. It should be evenly distributed throughout your body. The steps are naturally carried by the movement of the hips. You do not use the muscles of the leg to step.

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”.

THE KEY TO SKILL

Any student of movement struggles to make their skills automatic, so they don’t have to “think their way” through their activity. While long hours of practice are essential to develop skill, another factor is necessary for high levels of achievement and that is what this post is about.

We each have a “vantage point” – a place where we feel we exist. Usually this vantage point is in the head because that is where our eyes, ears, nose and mouth are located. We see and hear from the vantage point of the head.

In Zen training there is a saying that the five senses are like five thieves that rob us of the ability to use other senses. In pre-modern cultures other senses are recognized, so that Tai-chi speaks of sensing “chi” and other cultures speak in similar ways.

In Tai-chi training we are taught to “center our attention” in the center of our bodies, like a spider lying at the center of its web. From this vantage point we can perceive in a different way because the strength of the senses on the head are no longer predominant.

The difficulty is that we are so programmed to believe that we have no other senses that we resist even the idea that we do. Yet we learn from practicing Tai-chi that we have a proprioceptive sense – the sense of momentum flowing through our bodies and how the parts of our body line up with each other. As we practice the push hands exercise (a two person interaction), we learn that we can sense the state of balance within our partner and even how his body prepares to carry out an intention to push even though our eyes are closed.

And so it becomes easier to accept that we also have a “sense of chi”, that is, the intelligent communication among all the cells and organs of the body that keeps everything running effectively. We find that our “head-oriented” vantage point battles against the “body-oriented” awareness.

This is because the head-oriented awareness works in one dimension. It is aware of one thing at a time. The body-oriented awareness is aware of everything that is going on at the same time. It is three dimensional.

In order to achieve great skill the student must develop a harmony between these two types of awareness. You can think of it like a map of a mall. The map shows where all the stores are located and also shows where you are in that map. You need to know both in order to get to your store.

We have become a society of “where we are” awareness but have lost our awareness of the “map”. Our schools don’t teach labor history, womens’ history, art history, the history of the human mind (cultural anthropology), financial history, etc., and so we don’t know where we came from. The history of religion and its interaction with science would be too controversial to teach in schools.

We certainly don’t learn how we humans have become so stiff, so sick, so angry, so stressed, so anxious, etc. But when we practice Tai-chi we have to delve into these issues and recognize the patterns of behavior and tension that have been programmed into us. We have to recognize how they have power over us and by doing so, we learn who “we” really are.

We have to learn how the dreams we had as children have become co-opted by the agendas of those who control our society. The path to achieving great things is to let go of the ropes that bind us to the their agendas and allow your dreams to empower your life.

This doesn’t necessarily mean quitting your job. It means understanding your own behavior. Which behaviors are a reaction to your fears and which emanate from your creativity and your joy?

This is true even when practicing your Tai-chi form. Are you pushing yourself through it to feel you have accomplished something or is the form organically emerging from inside of you and expressing itself? In the latter case, the thinking mind has to sit back as the audience and allow the play to take place without interference.

In many cases it is NOT the lack of skill that holds you back from a beautifully performed form but the unwillingness of the vantage point of the thinking mind to yield its one dimensional control.

The reason I mentioned the importance of understanding our many histories is that all of them contributed to the behavior patterns that we think of as being who we are. In order to achieve an “escape velocity” to become independent of those patterns, I have to believe that there is a “me” that is more creative, more connected to feeling and connected to the world around me in a more powerful way our present society allows.

That awareness is what is achieved through the sense of chi. The world experienced through that sense is described by many pre-modern cultures in many different ways. If you have the experience then you can hear each of those ways and understand that they are describing the same thing – the world as perceived without the coercion of the prejudice of your society’s training.

It is the “you” who is part of that world who does the form, or plays music, or lives one’s life. And the form or the music or the way one lives one’s life is the path to experiencing that world. Each of these art forms is also the way of showing others that there is another way of being. So when you see someone performing a Tai-chi form you should ask, “Is he just going through the movements or is this an expression of something greater?”

Tai-chi practice is more than martial arts, more than a performance art, and more than stress reduction. It is a path to liberating the full potential of your health and creativity. It allows you to become aware of the intelligent “dance of biology” within your body and how you are connected to the rest of the “dance of life” around you. We no longer “exist” just in our heads – in our minds. We exist in the full continuum of life.