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SPARRING LIKE THE OLD DAYS

I recently had the opportunity to spar with my original instructor, Tom, in Grandmaster William C. C. Chen’s school in New York City.  It was like the old days again and reminded me why Tai-chi-Chuan sparring is so different from other styles.  We flowed in between each other’s strikes, slipping each other’s strikes to the sides. 

I also sparred with a young man who was practicing for the tournaments.  He seemed hesitant to strike me with full force.  I had to just stand there and ask him to keep hitting me as hard as he could to convince him I would not break.  When you are used to sparring with full force, the little taps that some people give you can be annoying.  You need to know that the partner is at least trying to hit you with full force so you are sure that if you felt just a tap it was because you successfully neutralized his strike. 

One of the main features of Tai-chi-Chuan sparring is that your full focus of attention is inside the partner’s body.  His strikes are just brushed aside.  You don’t focus on them because you don’t block them.  Rather, you are fully aware of the spaces between you and him and slip your body into those spaces to evade the strikes.  From there you can deliver your own strikes.  Whoever is the master of the spaces controls the sparring.

The strikes emanate explosively, exponentially increasing in force as they move outward, like a cannonball being shot out of the cannon.  As quickly as they shoot out, they bounce back into place setting up the next punch.  Each strike has the full force of the body behind it and the power comes from the legs and hips.

Any strike has to have a solid base to shoot out from.  In Tai-chi-Chuan that base is the floor.  In most styles of martial arts the base is the body’s tension.  In those styles strikes emanate from the tense back and shoulders.  The strikes are not bouncy and explosive but are used like battering rams.  The body cannot slip into empty spaces because it is needed to serve as a “floor”, a base for the strikes. 

By using the real floor as the base you free up the entire body.  You can stay within the striking distance of the partner but remain “invisible” because you “exist” only within the spaces.  Once you leave the spaces, to block for example, you are exposed. 

The orientation of your sparring strategy is  tied to the partner’s tensions and force if you block, rather than to the empty spaces which allow you to move, and to the body of the partner, which you strike as is the case in Tai-chi-Chuan.

Another strategy of some styles is to hold the arms in front of the body and face at all times for protection.  In Tai-chi-Chuan we allow the arms to flow and be functional.  Although they remain close to the body and face, they are allowed to creatively interact with the partner.  If the arms are held rigidly, then you can just punch his hands into his own face.  You can also strike the sides or the top of his head.  I can tell you from much personal experience that full strikes to the sides and top of the head are very effective.  The striker must use a loose fist when striking the skull so he doesn’t hurt his fingers.  Since the strike is explosive, the force is not just felt at the surface but penetrates the head and body. 

If your partner holds his arms in front of his body you can feel free to strike his arms.  The arms can only take so much before tiring from the beating.  You can certainly add grappling and just pull the arms away so you can punch or kick.  Pulling the arms also destabilizes him so that you can more easily deliver a strike to the legs.  (We usually kick mostly to the legs and a bit to the midsection.  Kicks higher than that make the kicker too vulnerable). 

It is important to notice where the partner is focusing his attention.  If he if focused only on your torso, for example, you can punch his legs so that he will no longer be sure that your strikes will only be coming to his upper body.  The legs can only take so much striking.  Usually when you spar with kicking, the partner cannot focus only on the torso and head because his legs are constantly being kicked. 

Yet many styles kick mostly to the torso and head so the partner doesn’t need to divide his attention.  He can disregard the lower part of the body.  Tai-chi-Chuan uses this vulnerability by striking the legs, torso, head and arms so the partner must keep his attention on all these areas.  We train to develop our attention, as described in many of the other articles in this section, so we are comfortable with an expanded and sustained attention.

As we are aware of the pattern of the partner’s attention, we focus our strikes to areas of his weakest attention at that moment.  This requires us to develop the sense of attention so that we can perceive how strong his attention is at any point in the sparring area.  We keep our bodies in the areas of his weakest attention so it is difficult for him to hit us.  

My wife Jean also had the opportunity to spar with Tom and she enjoyed it.  We vowed to practice sparring more with each other.  We each have not sparred for many years.  This is because fewer and fewer people are interested in traditional training anymore and we ended our sparring classes. 

When they find out that they must first learn a Tai-chi form, the Zookinesis chi-gung exercises and push hands before sparring, prospective students lose interest.  They can go to a martial arts school down the block and start sparring after only a few months.  These schools also offer colored belts, while Tai-chi-Chuan, and my own fighting system, Phantom Kung-fu, do not offer any belts. 

The internal systems at my school require that you let go of tensions, inefficient behavior patterns and bad attitudes before beginning sparring.  Most people get involved in martial arts to reinforce their behavior patterns and attitudes, not to go through a transformation.

After the class, Tom and I talked about the “old days”, when there was much more excitement in the martial arts and when people were willing to experiment with alternative approaches and ideas.  The traditional schools used to be filled with students. 

Part of me is waiting for those days to return but I know that you can’t just wait for the times to be right because life will be over too soon.  And wasn’t the lesson of those more creative times that we each need to create our own lives no matter what is going on around us?  The “eternal flame” of the traditional training is fed by continued practice.  Jean and I continue to visit Grandmaster Chen’s classes whenever we can to remind us of that.

THE SPIRIT WORLD

The concept of a spirit world, common to almost all pre-industrialized cultures, lies at the heart of developing and learning to use internal energy (“chi”).  Zookinesis explains this concept very simply.  We humans have senses that we do not use anymore.  The way we have been trained to use our attention no longer allows those senses to function. 

If we were to fully develop our attention, all of our senses would work again.  We would then see the world very differently – more fully.  The world we would see once our senses were restored is called “the spirit world”. 

Two of those senses are the sense of internal energy (biological energy) and the sense of the dynamics of attention (how consciousness flows through the body).  The difference between an “internal” martial art and an “external” martial art is the ability to perceive and use these senses. 

Each part of the body becomes more functional, alive, active and yet relaxed.  You can move one small part of your body out of the way of a strike, for example, without moving the entire body.  When you are grappling you can absorb the force of the partner through your body either into the ground or around back into the partner.  Your body is able to absorb, use and transform energy instantaneously. 

In Taoist terms this would be called, “Taoist alchemy”.  To many people Taoist alchemy is known as training to increase longevity or to increase sexual energy.  But its benefits go far beyond these things.

Taoist alchemy restores our biological consciousness which every animal has, while allowing us to retain that special human consciousness we cherish so much.  Early humans developed a way of developing the thinking mind.  “The elements” were a way of categorizing the world they experienced into five distinct groups.  I have written about this in other “weekly lesson” articles.  Our civilization rests on this particular development of the human mind.  And so we divide our world into matter, space, energy, time and consciousness.  We divide our personal lives into our bodies, minds, personal drive or energy (“will”), emotions and again, consciousness.

But in modern times our educational system has concentrated so much on this categorization or thinking process that it has ignored developing other aspects of our human nature or what I would call our “animal nature”.  We pride ourselves in being superior to animals.

But I think we can all agree that something in our civilization is missing.  There is an inner awareness and a deep inner satisfaction with life that seems to have gotten lost.  In my many years of teaching I have found what I feel is the basis of this lost “animal awareness” or animal nature.  It is the fear that if we perceive fully, if we can see the spirit world and function within it, then our thinking abilities will weaken.  There is a deep-seated illusion that full awareness competes with full ability to think clearly.

The root of that illusion is our weak attention.  This is the root of all the problems.  Our attention is just not strong enough to think and to have our bodies function well at the same time.  If we do not maintain an animal awareness in which attention is distributed evenly throughout the body, then attention actually weakens.  When the attention is so concentrated on thinking as it is today, then the rest of you suffers. 

Attention (or consciousness) is experienced (by Tai-chi students) as an energy which flows through each living thing and therefore is connected to all other living things.  By concentrating it in the thinking process you cut attention off from the rest of your body and the rest of nature.  It becomes like a lake, usually fed by a stream that suddenly is cut off from the stream.  It then turns into a smelly swamp.

Attention that is not connected to the rest of nature decays.  Just see what happens when our political leaders think they know so much that they don’t listen to people who disagree with them.  They don’t consider all views and facts.  The result is poor leadership.

On a biological level all our cells and organs need attention flowing through them.  For most people the body is just a big thing below our brains that carries our brains around.  Tai-chi and Zookinesis teaches the harmonious relationship between the thinking process we have developed and the animal consciousness.  The two don’t have to be competing.  They can re-enforce each other.

In the internal martial arts, for example, you need to fill your opponent with your attention so that you feel every action and intention of each of his muscles and joints even before they emanate as a strike.  You flow with the opponent, allowing him to control the movements but you control the relationship between you.  That relationship is that you move away from his incoming force and into his open, unprotected areas.

Internal martial arts training requires that you can perceive the spirit world before you even start to learn the actual martial arts techniques.  If you can’t see inside your own body and that of your opponent, then you have no business even beginning to learn the fighting.

In modern martial arts schools the students want to fight right away and not have to go through any internal changes at all.  “Just show me the techniques”.  Modern martial arts schools (with some exceptions) are all about the techniques and not about the heart of the martial arts. 

Martial arts is a personal path, much like a religion or a philosophy.  The fact that you are learning to punch and kick people is just the method of teaching the path.  You are actually learning about your own desire to be violent, about its roots and about how to resolve those issues.  You are also learning how to see inside the opponent and understand him on an internal level.  While effectively defending yourself you can still remain calm and not have the violent emotions of the opponent duplicate themselves inside of you.  If the opponent has transferred his pattern of violence inside of you then you lose, even if you have won that particular fight.

And that’s how it is in everyday life.  There are many angry people walking around.  Many of my students are doctors.  One told me that many doctors nowadays are “practicing angry”.  This means that patients are angry at doctors and ready to sue them.  Medical insurance companies look for every excuse not to pay the doctor because perhaps, the patient’s name was misspelled on one of the papers.  This makes the doctors angry.

Our culture is a reflection of our nature as individuals.  We put all of our attention into our calculating minds and fear allowing that energy to connect with the rest of our body and the rest of nature.  Then our culture is composed of closed individuals who fear their connections to other people.  We fear being connected, letting our attention, our feelings merge.  Relationships are strained. 

I remember as a child watching situation comedies on television.  They seemed to all be based on the same premise.  The husband and wives conspire against each other to get what they want.  I wondered, “Is this what a relationship should really be about?” 

Have we become a culture of fearful people conspiring against each other to get what we want?  I guess it’s silly to even ask the question.  But is this what you want for yourself?

The martial arts seem to be so much about fearful people conspiring to hit each other to “win over” each other.  Yet, whether an internal or external martial art, this training is supposed to be about self awareness and the ability to live in harmony with other people.  It is really about spiritual development as defined by becoming a fully developed human being.  Your thinking mind must be involved in learning the martial arts but when you spar you use the animal attention. 

When animal attention combines harmoniously with the thinking mind you are in the spirit world and you are fully human.  You can then perceive the energies behind the physical manifestations.  As an example you can feel the dynamics of attention and internal energy that leads to a person’s behavior.  You feel less fearful because you can perceive the origins of a person’s behavior before they manifest physically and you can be ready.  You don’t get taken by surprise.

In Push Hands practice, you begin to neutralize the partner’s incoming force at the exact same time as the force begins to come in to you.  You saw the origins of that force in the preparation of the partner and know what to expect.  Push Hands then takes place in real time.  Yet as a beginner you didn’t realize the force was coming in until it was right on top of you and then it was too late to neutralize it. 

Imagine if you could see things coming at you much earlier and prepare for them.  Many people can do this economically.  They study the economic trends and know that a recession or that good times are around the corner.  They can then prepare for the future.  They use their thinking minds to see into the future.  We can do this with our animal attention as well.

Just for a moment, think of the trends of how the behaviors of people are changing.  Then look into the future.  Are you happy with what you see?  All we can do as individuals is to develop ourselves.  Our nature as individuals can then affect those around us.  Each interaction with another person is a chance to decide the future of our culture.

I always ask myself, “Am I in the spirit world right now?”  Have I let the angers and conflicts of the world around me program my own behavior or do I have some say over my behavior?  The concept of the spirit world helps me to maintain my direction in life.

MARTIAL ARTS STRATEGY FOR EVERYDAY LIFE

Tai-chi-Chuan uses a fundamentally different fighting strategy than any other martial art.  When this strategy is applied to everyday life and to conducting business, it provides a more powerful and effective approach.  This is just one example of that strategy.

“Yield to Yang/fill in Yin”.  The aggressor concentrates his force in a particular area.  If he strikes with his fist, he has a target in mind.  You learn to automatically retreat from his target and to find the most empty and unguarded spot on his body to move into and strike.  The retreat is not away from him but rather, towards his unguarded area.

In everyday life the defeats we constantly experience are like the strikes of an aggressor.  If we focus on the defeat, we are like the fighter who blocks the incoming strike, focusing on the aggressor’s power.  If we are thrown by the defeat, we are like the fighter who moves away from the strike.  If we contemplate the change in our life situation caused by the defeat and re-adjust our focus to take advantage of this change, then we are like the fighter who moves around the strike and delivers his own strike. 

As a fighter you know that the aggressor will not just stand there and take your punches and kicks.  Most of your efforts may never reach their target and some of his efforts will reach you.  If you thought of each of his strikes as your defeat, you could never psychologically muster the nerve to practice sparring.  Your own emotions would destroy you more than would the opponent.

Much of the impact of a defeat is not the effect of the situation itself.  It is more that it hurts your self image.  It is your self image which is being beaten, more than your body or your life.  Once you realize that your self image is not you, then you are on your way to victory. 

True humility is not acting as if you were a lowly human being.  It is the understanding that your self image is not you.  Your behavior no longer is controlled by needing to maintain that image. 

If, while sparring in class, someone strikes you, you can appreciate their skill and be happy for them, even though you got hit.  In life you can appreciate the challenges you need to overcome and the skills you gain as you turn each defeat into an opportunity. 

One of the high level achievements in Tai-chi sparring is to substitute your self image with the principles of Tai-chi, mainly yielding to Yang and filling Yin.  You can only be defeated if you don’t allow your self image to grow into a wider perspective. 

In business it is well known that you should not argue with a customer.  Instead of arguing that your product is indeed a good one, you ask the customer how you could improve your product.  You not only make him feel that you care, but you may actually get some good advice.  Customer complaints are the best source of good ideas.

If you are competing with other companies producing similar products, you could throw more money into advertising or spend more hours in the day promoting the product.  Or you could ask yourself, “What real needs of people are the competing products not meeting?  How can I adjust my product so that it will fill those needs?”  In other words you can compete in a “Yin” area, in a niche market that the other products are not reaching.  It would wear you out to meet head on with large companies with big advertising budgets. 

To be “nimble” in business in this way, the self image of the business has to be flexible.  You think of your business as providing a product to the customer.  Now you switch your viewpoint and think of your business as fulfilling a need of the customer.  It’s not the same and that switch changes the way you do business. 

When I began producing the “Zookinesis” exercise series of DVD’s, I approached the series as providing exercises to keep you strong, flexible and energized.  I noticed a great change in my older students through the years.  They looked, acted and felt much younger.  In fact, these exercises are supposed to keep you young, but I never explained that in my advertising.  Now I call Zookinesis “Age Reversal Exercises” and market them to seniors.  I knew all along that they are supposed to reverse aging but never thought to promote that aspect. 

Looking back, I realized that I thought that since most of my students were not seniors, I wanted to promote the fact that Zookinesis keeps you vigorous, athletic and toned.  I didn’t think age was an issue for non-seniors.  But it seems that no one wants to feel that they are getting older, whatever age they are at the moment, if by older it is meant that the body deteriorates. 

So at the beginning, I thought that I was teaching exercises just to keep you strong and flexible when the need of the students (at least in their own minds) was to stay young.  I didn’t change the exercises at all but just got better at explaining what they are in a way the students could appreciate. 

Perhaps there was yet another factor.  If I were teaching people to reverse the aging process, perhaps that means that I, myself, am getting old and that age reversal was an issue I needed to address myself.  Not wanting to think of myself as getting old, I avoided using “age reversal” as an advertising point for Zookinesis.  My vanity interfered with my business.  Yet I, of all people, knew that age is not a matter of years but of health and attitude.  This is an example of how issues of self image can interfere with business as it can interfere with everyday life.

When I first started to learn to spar with Grandmaster William C. C. Chen I couldn’t help but concentrate on his fists and feet.  Which one would hit me next?  After gaining some skill I found that I was more interested in the spaces between our body parts.  Which space could I use to deliver my own strikes?  I found that emptiness (space) was equally as important as form (the body, the strikes).  I needed to know where I could move into to avoid his strikes. 

I realized that sparring was not about maximizing hardness but rather maximizing balance. When you are not willing to change and when you invest all your hopes in one particular outcome, that is like hardness.  When you invest in developing your attention to follow and adjust to change, when you accept change as part of life and when you learn the strategies of change to always look for opportunity, then your life is based on balance.

You maximize hardness when you try to defeat hardness by blocking rather than ducking.  That brings up another related issue.

“If you think of winning and losing you are already defeated”.  In Tai-chi sparring, you concentrate on the details of the aggressor’s body mechanics and the pattern of his attention.  You are so connected to him that you feel that he is part of you.  Your ability to remain connected to him in this way is essential to how you spar.  You don’t think of defeating an “enemy” but of finding a weakness and striking that weakness.  It is the weakness you discover at any one moment, that you are sparring against, not the person.  The aggressor and you are one unit.  The weakness are the target. 

In everyday life there is a tendency to think of yourself as fighting against the world.  According to Tai-chi principles, the world you experience is, to a large extent, a reflection of the world you have created inside yourself.  Through the Tai-chi forms, push hands, chi-gung, Zookinesis and other practices you can examine that inner world and see exactly how the weakness there can distort your view of the world around you.  You are no longer battling the world but correcting that balancing mechanism that creates your outer life from your inner dynamics.  Sparring is actually the most effective practice to give you this insight and the skills to make the corrections inside of yourself. 

The world around you is no longer your “enemy”.  Defeats are just changes.  The only real defeat is when your attention becomes rigid and you can no longer adapt to changes.  You are defeated when you let yourself become old, no matter how many years you have lived.  When you are no longer able to adapt to change, you are old.  Flexible in body, flexible in mind – you stay young

A MORE POWERFUL LIFE

In an internal martial arts system, the smaller your movement, the more powerful it is.  The goal is to send your energy into the other person.  If you can do that without using up that force in your own movements or in tensing up your body, you can send almost all of your force out.  In external martial arts systems, the body tenses up to provide solidity.  There can be no small subtle movements within the body and so the body moves in a stick-like fashion resulting in large movements.

In an internal system such as Tai-chi-Chuan and Phantom Kung-fu each muscle is under your control and is kept relaxed.  You can move several muscles and joints just a tiny bit each to result in the strike so that the overall movement of the whole body is very little. 

Power comes out in a spiral pattern from the ground up through each joint.  This spiral pattern magnifies the force.  At the moment of impact the body tenses just enough to prevent the arm from collapsing and to allow the force to flow through the arm.  The internal martial artist is aware enough not to tense up even the slightest bit more than is necessary.

It is the degree of his or her awareness, to be able to make such subtle adjustments in just a fraction of a second that results in power.   If the martial arts student can make his concentration fine enough to make these tiny adjustments, he can be powerful.  And so there is a general saying that the smaller you can make your attention, the more powerful you are. 

As an example, if you think that a punch is the thrusting of the arm forward or turning the whole body to thrust the arm forward, then you are only aware of the arm as a whole or only the movement of the whole body.  If you think of a strike as a quarter turn of the spine and a slight upward quarter turn of the hip, your movement will be much faster, more connected to the body and to the ground and more powerful.  As far as your attention is concerned, you will be striking from the ground up and from the inside of the body out, which is the proper mechanics for sparring.  External stylists generally keep their attention on the outside of the body, keeping their bodies rigid.

When you can bring your attention to a point you become very powerful.  When you can work with many of these points at once then you can really start to learn.  Internal stylists also learn to bring their attention into the joints and muscles of the sparring partner so that he feels completely connected to the partner.  In this way he can feel what the partner is going to do before he actually does it.

The martial arts practices have their greatest benefit in everyday life.  If you can take this training into dealing with other people, with business strategies, with goals in life and with your health then your life can become powerful.  A few examples will explain.  It is very easy to get caught up in the emotional patterns of other people.  This is because most people cannot bring their attention into the subtle changes of feeling inside their bodies.  If your attention were everywhere inside of your body and at the same time was inside of the other person, you could tell how the other person’s emotional patterns were affecting you.  You could see the mechanism of how your own feelings and reactions change due to the other person.  You could then take control of that mechanism so that you do not copy their emotional patterns or even react blindly against those patterns.  You can remain centered and examine how you can be most effective.

In the martial arts, each partner tries to control the behavior of the other, confusing them or freezing their attention.  In everyday life, most peoples’ emotional and mental patterns are so chaotic that they constantly damage the people around them.  It is important to be so aware that you are immune to that damage. 

On the other hand, your own behavior patterns from the past, may have taken control of your present behavior.  When you react to a situation it may not be in the most effective way or even the least bit logical.  If your attention is so pinpointed that you can feel how your own patterns are affecting you, then you can get beyond them.  They only have control if you can’t see them, if you feel you ARE them. 

That is the most powerful effect of developing the fineness of attention.  We have come to believe that our identity is the patterns of behavior and reactions that have programmed us.  Most people have really lost the awareness of themselves.  When you reach your original creative, connected self there is great calm and joy.  But most people are trying to follow the “breadcrumbs” home, meandering through the thick forest in search of themselves. 

The finer your attention, the more you can see the mechanisms that control your behavior, the more you can see what is not you and the quicker you can discover the source of your creativity, of what makes you a unique individual. 

At that point you can see that while we are all unique individuals, we are also completely connected to each other and to nature.  At that point we can finally love fully and let go of anger and resentment that may have been seething inside us for many years – about issues long since gone.

I have also found that in business, you are able to get to the heart of any negotiation and better understand the issues that bother the other person.  Very often in business negotiations the other person is not saying exactly what they want.  They’re trying to be coy.  It is important to sort out the issues so that you immediately understand where the other person stands.  This makes for more effective negotiations for both sides.  If your attention is strong and can follow many lines of discussion at the same time, it is easier to sort out the underlying themes and get to the heart of the issue.

Training the attention in this way is not easy.  The Tai-chi forms and Push Hands exercises and the Zookinesis exercises teach the attention to seep into every crevice of the body, to follow many patterns of energy and movement at the same time and to constantly re-adjust the body and mind to changing external conditions.  It is said that it takes five years of Push Hands training to be able to consider yourself to be a beginner.  This is because the condition of our attention in modern times is so poor.  Our attention can be considered to be in critical condition – almost dead.  To bring it back to even normal health takes a lot of work.  But the result of that work is not only a more effective life but great health and joy. 

There are two reactions to practicing Push Hands among my students.  The first is laughter.  They laugh at how dead their attention is compared to how healthy they know it can become.  The second is shaking their heads and saying that they can’t believe how stupid their bodies are.  They know what they should be doing, but the attention is so rigid and so programmed with useless patterns that it is a great struggle to free the attention.  It is as if their attention is entangled in a net. 

And yet, as a teacher, I see that they are making great progress in every lesson.  It is just such a long journey back home!

You can go through the rest of your life knowing and being yourself and enjoying the thrill of living or trying to follow the breadcrumbs through the forest as if you are lost.

ANIMAL STYLES OF KUNG-FU

Kung-fu systems such as Tai-chi-Chuan and Phantom Kung-fu are based on the way animals defend themselves.  The student learns to copy the body mechanics and skills of several species in his sparring. 

In the 1960’s and 1970’s I owned an animal importing company to provide wild animals to organizations and individuals that were studying how to breed them in captivity and develop captive breeding populations.  Every few years, I traveled through the jungles of Central America to study the animals and for adventure.

Up until the 1990’s, I kept a collection of over 150 reptiles, many of which were part of breeding populations and some were used for educational programs.  My sparring students were required to work with these animals to get a feeling for their power and body mechanics. 

It was exciting to introduce new students to the animals.  They had never seen these species before in person.  The black, rough necked monitor lizard sat in its own huge cage.  At six feet long, thirty inches tall (when straightening out its legs) and about two feet wide (when puffed up), it was an impressive animal, especially when hissing and whipping its tail.  Its long neck, covered with large spiked scales and long, narrow head and nose gave it a bizarre appearance.  It was as black as Darth Vader. 

The students had to enter the cage and, while the dragon lizard hissed and whipped its tail, the student had to pet it to calm it down.  Soon the lizard’s hiss changed to what was obviously a hiss of ecstasy.  The ability to walk right over to what seemed like a live, angry dragon, changed the perspective of the student.  It allowed him to overcome his fears and spar better. 

I found that each encounter served to alter the state of consciousness of the student, gradually bringing him or her to be able to connect better with the animals, and with each other.  It allowed the student to be able to perceive the consciousness of the animal and understand how he could control his own behavior to control the behavior of the animal so it would calm down.   This is an essential skill in sparring.

The pine and bull snakes were great teachers.  Their hiss was so loud it seemed like you were standing right next to a steam locomotive.  You would walk near the cage and the incredible hiss would suddenly be upon you.  It was very hard not to jump into the air with fright even though you knew it was just a harmless snake.  The student would pick it up and the snake dug the tip of its tail (which was fairly sharp) into his arm as it stared at him.  It looked like it was saying, “Now take that!” 

The students soon realized that as frightening as the animals seemed at first, they were very gentle when handled correctly.  I once bought a thirteen foot reticulated python from someone because it was too vicious for them to handle.  I thought this would make a great animal for my students to handle.  But when I brought it into the Tai-chi studio the snake became very tame.  We couldn’t get it to misbehave if we wanted to.  I had played up this snake as being very tough to handle.  I guess it sensed the peaceful atmosphere and felt safe. 

I used to have a very large African python.  This species is very active and very intelligent.  As you hold it, the snake brings its face right next to yours to see you (snakes’ eyesight isn’t very good).  Its movements are sudden.  It will quickly turn around, come right up to your face and then just stare at you without moving (just sticking out its tongue).  I have found that there are some people who don’t like that (though I can’t imagine why. It seems endearing to me) If you can get used to the African python, you can get used to the intensity of sparring. 

I used to bring in many species of monkeys and to keep them from getting bored, we would play fight with each other.  I got into the cages and just started mixing it up.  The monkeys loved it so much that each time I stopped fighting they would complain loudly to keep playing.  So many hours were spent fighting with the monkeys that it was easy for me to spar in their “style”.  The same was true of snakes and lizards of course.  But I worked with many strange animals as well.  The best fighters were the tayras and grisons which are related to the weasels but much larger.  Each species loved to play fight and they had more strength and endurance than I had.  Raccoon-like animals like the coati mundi were also a lot of fun.  I probably spent two hours a day fighting with various animals to keep them amused. 

Sparring with people then became easy.  No person was as quick or had as much endurance as the animals.  The animals were my real sparring partners.  It would be impossible to duplicate the training you get when working directly with animals.  Yet few people have this opportunity.  These days I have too much work to maintain a large collection of animals and so my students don’t receive that kind of training anymore.  I hope one day to create a training center where people can learn directly from animals as well as from human teachers, as I did many years ago.  Wouldn’t it be a great experience to learn martial arts and healing exercises from both a human and from animal teachers? 

My students and I used to have long talks about what we learned from our experiences with animals and how to apply them to sparring or to healing.  I could tell which animal the student had been working with from how he sparred that day. 

You always have to respect the animal’s power, though.  I remember working in the Bronx Zoo one summer.  I worked with the small mammals, the monkeys and the apes.  I opened the shift case for a gorilla.  This allows the gorilla to move to this separate cage so you can clean its main cage.  After he entered the shift cage, he sat down.  I then began to close the large iron door.  It weighed five hundred pounds and was closed by pushing an iron bar.  It took all my might to gradually push it closed but about one inch before closing, the gorilla placed his finger on the door and flung it back.  The door came crashing open.    I believe the gorilla gave me a little smirk.

When I spent two months in Nicaragua we had to catch our own food.  The townspeople were going on a caiman hunt (caiman are a type of alligator) and I was invited.  At night you can only see their eyes reflecting back from your flashlight.  The head caiman wrangler used a forked stick to catch the caiman’s neck and he and another man flung it into the canoe.  He turned to me and said, “Grab its head and close its mouth”.  Now, this 10 foot caiman was snapping its jaws and thrashing its tail.  I wasn’t prepared to move towards the snapping jaws let alone to grab them.  But the alternative was for us all to just stand there with a snapping caiman in the canoe.  So I jumped on top of its head and bear hugged its jaws.  The head wrangler then tied the mouth with a rope.  We ate well that night.

If you can jump towards the snapping jaws of a Central American alligator, you won’t fear sparring or for that matter, doing anything else in life.

The animal forms of Kung-fu give you a taste of fighting like wild animals.  I believe that a teacher of animal styles should have extensive experience with the animals of those styles.  Otherwise you are just doing “empty” movements with no real experience of what is behind the movements.  When the student spars with the teacher, the student should really feel that he is sparring with an animal because the animal spirit is indeed, in the teacher.

As our civilization moves further away from nature, the Kung-fu forms can help us keep a feeling for the wild so that at least, our bodies can remain natural.

THE PRIMAL STATE

The immediate goal of Zookinesis training is to re-experience the primal state – the biological state of consciousness.  At this level of awareness the world you experience is very different and you have more power.  You understand the connection of your consciousness to that of all other people and all living things.  You instinctually know how to use those connections. 

The development of civilization seems like an effort to escape this primal state of consciousness and develop one based on the thinking mind alone.   In the effort to “evolve” culturally, we have abandoned the primal state.  The philosophy of Zookinesis suggests that the development of the thinking mind should not be a substitute for the “primal mind” (or “Body-Mind”) but that both can be fully functional and work together.

From the perspective of the thinking mind we are each separate from each other.  When you operate from the primal mind it is startling to discover that the power of the connections of consciousness between people makes the thinking mind’s perspective of separateness a very shallow perspective indeed.

By a “connection of consciousness” I don’t mean that we talk together and hear each other’s opinions.  I mean that consciousness itself is not separate within each individual but forms a continuous flow which activates all living things.  The consciousness in you is the same as the consciousness in a squirrel, but of course each species and each individual uses this force differently.

Once you can actually perceive this, by entering into the primal state, then you have much more power in your life.  You can understand other people better.  You understand the dynamics of how to channeling the force of consciousness through the physical body.  You understand that many physical problems arise from problems with these dynamics.

Perhaps most importantly you see that your fundamental identity and power as a human being does not come from your opinions and behavior patterns.  These are not you.  Your power comes from maintaining the connection between the primal state and the “cultured state”. 

We have made the mistake of trying to culturally evolve away from animals.  But our nature, as this human animal, is to develop both our thinking and our biological health.  Zookinesis, which is a Taoist training, describes two forces which continually interact to empower our lives.  One force is consciousness or “attention”.  It is pure awareness.  The other force is creativity.  When the thinking mind, which is really a set of patterns, has too much power, then our lives become too patterned and we feel trapped. 

When creativity and attention are balanced, then we can see our situation in life in many ways and choose which perspective has more power. 

In the primal state for our species there is a balance between the scientist or religious purist part of us, who knows everything as absolute fact, and the story teller who understands that the way we see the world is a reflection of the stories we believe in. 

For a primal state human stories can change, and he seeks those stories that empower his life and the lives of those around him.  He is not afraid of the stories of other people. 

But everything starts with re-experiencing the primal state.  From this state of balance, the fixed ideas of the mind and the story telling of creativity can play with each other. 

Once you see the world through “primal eyes” then you truly comprehend what a huge part of our lives we have lost.  You understand that many of our emotional problems and bad feelings are just a reflection of our deep inner loss of the primal state. 

With the primal state returned, we become more creative, adventurous and willing to create a grand, powerful story of who we can become. 

Fortunately it is not difficult to achieve this state.  With proper training, progress is steady and new worlds constantly open up before you.  In my classes I have to be careful not to let the students spend too much time telling me about the new experiences they have had that week.  Although I love to hear about these things, I feel that I am being paid to teach them and want to spend as much time actually training them as possible.  Yet it is wonderful to hear about their increasing joy for life and the great improvements in their lives.  They now seem “fully human”.  Instead of battling against the world, they now can see that their life situation is a result of their internal dynamics.  By gaining creative control over those dynamics they gain control over their lives. 

Zookinesis gives them the nuts and bolts of how to do that.

HUNTING FOR ATTENTION

I used to spend a few months at a time in the jungles of Central America, hunting for unusual reptiles.  They were used for research programs to study how to develop captive breeding colonies in case the species became extinct in the wild.  When you first walk through a jungle you don’t see the animals.  They are camouflaged.  It takes a while to recognize them.  Once you are used to seeing them, you realize the jungle is filled with animals.

There is a similar problem in working with your attention.  When you practice Tai-chi and Zookinesis, attention is perceived as a force which energizes the body and connects it to all living things.  The development and refinement of attention is a large part of the practice.  But we usually associate attention with the head, specifically the eyes.  To most people, attention just means what direction your head is aimed.

To detect the camouflaged force of attention, the Tai-chi forms require that the head remain in an aligned position with the rest of the body.  This means that you cannot look from side to side or look down to see where your feet are going.  Yet you must pay attention to your stepping so the foot will land up in the correct position.  To do this, you pay attention to the flow of momentum going into the leg, to the feeling of weightedness of the leg and to the way in which the step affects the joints of the body so the body stays aligned. 

You can do this with your eyes closed because you are paying attention to feeling instead of to seeing.   When you begin to step you do not focus your attention on the sight of the foot moving to the floor.  You focus on how the momentum flows through the body and how all the muscles and joints of the body participate in sending out the leg.  Each movement of the Tai-chi form requires this same whole body attention.

The forms also require a certain type of breathing.  You generally breathe in as you move forward and expand and you breathe out as you shift your weight back and sink into the ground.  The timing of the breath must be paced exactly with the timing of the movements.  Your attention must be on the relationship of all the muscles and joints of the body as well as on the breathing. 

When the momentum sinks into the legs, it moves down past the feet into the ground, then circles and comes back up.  When you rise, the momentum flows out through the head and arms.  Your attention follows the momentum as it moves out of and back into the body.

In this way you break free from the attention being disguised as the head and eyes.  You now experience it as a force mediating all the actions of the body and the breathing and connecting you to your environment.

You practice strengthening the attention.  You practice making the attention agile so that it can actively mediate all the parts of your body to keep you properly aligned.  Attention becomes a living force.

Your attention becomes so strong that it cannot be controlled by outside influences that are vying to control you.  These influences may be other people, advertisers, politicians, religions and philosophies.  You remain free and independent. 

You also start to perceive how these various groups are in a battle to control your attention and you begin to understand how people can be made to do things they would normally not do. 

Simply by requiring you to keep your head aligned and to keep your eyes looking forward, Tai-chi starts you on a path that eventually leads to your ability to see dynamics at play in our society, which you never noticed or understood before. 

There are many subtle aspects to this training that yield big results.  It is important for the student to understand these underlying principles.  It is even more important for the teacher to understand them.  If you do not understand then you are learning and you are teaching blindly. 

Once you can detect the patterns and qualities of attention of other people, you can understand them better.  You see how their patterns, which are usually habitual and not free and spontaneous, control their behavior.  You can say to yourself, “That pattern is them.  It is not me.”  You can avoid playing into their habitual patterns of behavior.

The Tai-chi and Zookinesis teacher consciously teaches with these principles in mind in order to lead the student to freedom and to personal power.  One of the purposes of these weekly “lessons” is to remind both students and teachers, of these underlying principles so they don’t think of Tai-chi and Zookinesis as just memorizing movements.

BEING AFRAID

The ability of fear to control behavior is an impediment to developing the full power of your attention.  As you develop the sensitivity of your attention you will notice many things that you were too dull to notice before, such as the flow of energy in the world around you.  This new awareness may trigger fear because it is an unexpected perception.  You may turn that perception into something familiar in order to make it more comfortable to you.  If you experience energy around another person, you may turn it into seeing a color around the person and call it an aura, for example.  You may not be ready to experience the energy directly as such. 

Most of what we experience through our senses is our own interpretation.  When we experience sight, for example, we are experiencing two tiny spots of light, one in each retina.  The impression of experiencing a large scene in front of us, filled with very solid objects is our interpretation of those spots of light, based on prior experience.  This keeps us rooted into experiencing what we expect to experience (what I call the “Echo of Expectation”). 

With a practice such as Zookinesis or Tai-chi you must allow yourself new experiences.  As you experience new things, such as the flow of energy (chi) you may be uncomfortable because you are in “new territory”. 

When a student tells me that he is afraid to experience these new things I tell him this:

First of all you are not afraid.  By saying you are afraid you are saying that what you are, is fear.  You are identifying yourself as fear.  “I am afraid” rather than “I am Joe”.  The truth is that you are perceiving or experiencing fear, but you are not that fear.  So you are experiencing fear and the new experience that you believed caused that fear.  You tell yourself a story.  “I must not feel fear.  If experiencing chi causes me to experience fear then I must not experience chi.”

You emphasize the importance of not experiencing things.  In Zookinesis and Tai-chi we emphasize experiencing things in as much detail and clarity as possible.  So you can experience the chi and experience the fear as well.  Don’t push the fear away.  Pay attention to it.  How does it feel in your chest, in your back, in your arms, etc.  Get to know the feeling of fear.  At the same time, get to know the feeling of chi.  It is all right to experience two things at once.

Emphasize getting to know your experiences and realize that you are not those experiences.  You are that which experiences.  Fear is just another experience.  It may make sense to avoid dangerous situations but that is not the same thing as avoiding a situation because you experience fear.  The feeling of fear may suggest to you that there is a danger, but then look at that danger and decide for yourself whether the danger is real.

If you are afraid of trying something new because you may fail, for example, you know very well that that is silly.  Yet the feeling of fear keeps you trapped.  In this case, get to know the feeling of fear and know that you are not the fear.  The more clearly you see the fear the more you know it is not you. 

From then on fear will serve to warn you of possible danger but it will not trap your behavior.  It will help you rather than hinder you.

GATEWAY TO CONSCIOUSNESS

The feet are considered to be the “gateway to consciousness”. The condition of your feet as it steps, affects the response of the rest of the body to that step. If you do not have awareness in your feet, and you fall into your step, the rest of the body will be jarred.
During most of the evolution of our species, the ground we walked on was uneven and unsure. The next piece of ground could be soft. If you stepped onto it with full weight your leg would fall right through. Each step had to be made carefully and the pelvic area had to adjust to the alterations in elevation of the ground. This led to a great deal of flexibility in each joint of the body to let the entire body adjust to the irregularities of the ground.
Those irregularities were formed by the geology of the area as well as by the trees and other vegetation. Their root systems create a lot of the structure of the earth. When you walk on such uneven ground, you are participating in the evolution of that area. You are becoming part of the biology and ecology of the area.
Every joint and muscle tunes into how you walk, how the structure of the earth is connected to the geology and biology of the area. When we walk on flat surfaces, we become disconnected from nature and our bodies become less responsive.
The key is the feet. If you step with no awareness you will remain deadened. Step as if you are stepping on living earth. Step as if your feet were petting a cat. Allow each muscle in the foot to settle onto the ground. Allow each joint of the body to adjust to how the foot settles.  Step with no weight and then gradually shift weight into that leg.
This is the proper stepping for the Tai-chi forms.  Find any joint in the body which does not participate in the shifting and sinking of weight or to the springing up of the forward leg to take the next step. Each joint should be springy and should be affected by the activity of the body. Even though a Tai-chi form may be in slow motion, this springiness should be apparent.
Allow the back to participate intricately in the springiness. The back is not made out of a solid piece of wood, though to watch some people, it seems that way. Each joint of the backbone and the ribs must participate in the movements. 
Yet, during all this, the top of the head is lifted and this allows proper alignment rather than slumping. The hip area in most people, is rigid and does not allow for the momentum of the body to pass from the legs into the upper body and vice versa. So each step jars the internal organs. By loosening up the pelvic area and becoming aware of how momentum passes through it. the entire body will become connected to the feet. Thus the condition of the feet, including awareness, relaxation and intricacy of movement will affect the condition of the rest of the body.

HOME OF ATTENTION

This week’s lesson at the Long Island School of Tai-chi-Chuan is about the home of the attention. We usually experience our attention as originating from our head and then going to what we are paying attention to.
In Tai-chi, each part of the body has attention. Attention is experienced as an energy flowing through us. The energy of attention brings each cell and organ alive so that each part of the body is aware.
Rather than moving our attention from the head to the foot, for example, our foot must be aware of itself. When we practice Push Hands or Sparring (Free Fighting), each part of the body is like the member of a basketball team. Each is independent and full of skill and awareness. Yet each is also very aware of every other member of the team and functions in harmony with the team.
Our job, in Tai-chi, is to magnify the attention of each part of the body and to connect each part to the rest of the body. Then, we become more spontaneous in our activities and skill seems to come when needed. In this mode, we do not need to switch our awareness first from one thing, then to another. The whole body is aware of all the intricacies of the situation, the state of readiness of each muscle of your and your partner’s body, the state of balance in each of you, etc. One part of the body can do one thing while another does another thing. Your body is a team.
I find the Zookinesis exercises to be essential in teaching this type of awareness. Without that training, Tai-chi would be very difficult to learn on a higher level. So the “home” of the attention is in each cell, each muscle, bone and organ of the body. We call these “homes” of attention, “Body-Minds”. In Zookinesis mythology they are called, “The dragon’s lair”.