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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.