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PUSH HANDS CLASS

Take a look at clips from one of our push hands classes:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsXq_S9WIAU

POWER OF TRANSFORMATION

“The inside and the outside – they are made of the same flesh”.  This is reportedly the cry a student of Chan (Zen) cried out when he reached enlightenment.  It is an apt description of the basic principle a Tai-chi teacher tries to teach to his students to bring them to their first perceptual breakthrough.

Every discipline of personal development is based on the principle that, to change one’s life, you need to change what is going on within yourself.  What else can we do?  We can’t change the whole world around just to our liking.

And so we learn how perfecting proper body mechanics allows us to perform physical tasks easily.  Learning about the mechanics of our attention (mind) allows us to be effective in interpersonal relationships and in navigating our lives.

As we discover the physical and mental behavior patterns that presently fill us, learn which ones are effective and which interfere with our power in life, we can reconstruct the very mechanisms we use to live our lives.

And then we discover that much of the way we perceive the world around us is really a reflection of the patterns of behavior within us.  As we become more creative in gaining Tai-chi skills, the world itself seems to change and not be as threatening or as cold.

The student discovers that much of what he took to be the cold reality of life was just the projection of a story he was telling himself, onto the world outside.

At this point he realizes that part of that story was his identity.  To really gain power in life, to be able to drop the behavior patterns of battle and self destruction, you have to allow that story about your identity to change.

And then you become just a simple person.  In another Zen story, a Buddhist student brags to his Taoist friend that his Buddhist teacher can create miracles.  “With a movement of his arm he can make an entire dinner appear in the middle of the forest.  He can knock over a band of robbers with one breath.  He can clear a valley of fog with one in-breath.”   The Taoist student was not impressed.  “That’s nothing compared to my teacher,” he said.  “What can your Taoist teacher do?”  The Taoist student replied, “When my teacher is hungry, he eats.  When he is tired, he sleeps.”

To what degree do the stories we have been told, affect our perceptions and our behaviors?  We trust that pieces of paper (money) have great value and then numbers in computer memory have great value and then learn, as we have lately, that there is nothing really backing up that value.  These are stories we tell each other to help our lives run smoother.

But we have all learned what happens when some of us no longer believe those stories.  Perhaps we need to base our lives on stories that are not “built on shifting sands”. 

In the novel, The Doubting Snake, I suggest this battle of stories is the basis for the underlying drama of our times and that those who become the new story tellers, can lead us into more meaningful lives.

But we must begin by understanding the stories that we have based our lives on.  To what degree is health, loving relationships, and a feeling of connection to the earth important in our lives?  And to what degree does the quest for money overshadow these values?

If you tell yourself a new story, a healthy one, that story may resonate with others and become their story.  The power of life is to be the story teller and not just the actor portraying someone else’s story.

Transform the inside to transform the outside. This is what every Tai-chi student must realize at deeper and deeper levels.

PHILOSOPHY OF PUSH HANDS

While push hands is a physical activity, trying to push your partner off balance, it encompasses all of the principles of Taoist philosophy.

For example, when we think of pushing our partner, we resort to all our old habits related to force, competition, tension and resistance.  Our partner can easily use these habits to knock us over.  So we are put into a situation in which all of our old habits interfere with the goal.  The more effort we expend to reinforce the habits, the more quickly we get pushed over.

As the student learns push hands, he has to see, examine and let go of those habits.  The difficulty is that he feels that he is those very habits.  His identity is tied up in his habits.  So to give up his habits, he has to give up himself. 

That habit self is not his true, creative self.  It is composed of the programming that has been jammed into him since birth. Many habits are simply reactions to fear.  The habits are his ties to his culture.  To let them go, even if just for push hands practice, means that he has to connect with a different self – a more biological self.

And so push hands becomes a game of remembering your original self.  The principle here is that you can’t really go around trying to find yourself.  But you can let go of all that is not yourself and whatever is left, is you. 

You find out that there is a lot higher percentage of programming than there is your real self.  In many ways, we have forgotten who we are, that we are part of the world around us, and only know how to react against external circumstances. 

Push hands teaches us to stop battling our way through life, to be more creative and therefore, more powerful.

HEAL YOURSELF WITH A SIMPLE MEDITATION

In traditional Chinese medicine the body is considered an ecological system which functions in a similar way to a forest or other natural area.  In the winter life condenses and in the spring it blossoms, becoming more and more vibrant into the summer.  In modern times we control our environment so that the body is not subject to these variations.  But there are so many cues for our body, connecting it to the rhythms of the seasons, that its chemistry, its behavior and its growth cannot really be disconnected from nature.  We disregard these cycles in our daily lives while our bodies and even our minds and emotions struggle to maintain the cycles.  The result is a biological battle within us that wears us out and dulls our minds.  It is helpful to remember the changes of the seasons and to understand what mode your biological being is in.  That is one of the reasons all cultures have holiday ceremonies at each change of the season.  In the spring for example it is very healthy to spend even a few minutes outdoors each day, breathing in the air, absorbing the sun and feeling the “mood” of the season.  This allows your “insides” to coordinate their rhythms with the “outside”.  It is a very natural form of meditation. You will find the feeling of battle is replaced by the feeling of healing.  Even a storm deserves to be observed and “felt”.  When you travel in a plane you must yawn every few thousand feet to even out the pressure inside and outside the ear, otherwise your ear would experience too much pressure.  Spending some time in meditation of the change of seasons does the same on a different level. You will be amazed at how much better you will feel!  Be your own healer.

SECRET MESSAGES IN THE TAI-CHI FORM

The movements of Tai-chi encode lessons of how to bring power back into the body.  Each principle of movement is like the chapter of a book, explaining how to keep the body young and the mind creative.  A teacher must explain how to read this movement book so the student can discover its secrets.  The most striking feature of Tai-chi forms is the smoothness of movement – an unbroken, even current, ebbing and flowing. 

In order to achieve this movement, the mind must also flow smoothly, rather than jump from one point to another.  In this way mind, rather than being at one point at one time, must expand, filling up the whole space within and surrounding the body. 

As you breathe out, you sink into the ground, and as you breathe in you rise up.  Each joint relaxes as you sink.  Each joint expands as you rise in a sequence.  There is a corresponding effect on the mind (attention).  Your attention flows downward as you breathe out, following the momentum as it sinks into the earth.  Your attention expands upwards as you breathe in, following the momentum as it flows upward and outward. 

Let’s just take these dynamics of movement and attention and understand what information is being conveyed that may help us to improve our lives.  Too often our attention gets caught up in the specifics of what we are doing and we forget our overall goals in life.  Our attention becomes like a pinpoint – one dimensional.  We need to be aware of the totality of our lives – what we have been trying to achieve, what skills we have gained, lessons learned and how we can continue to be creative with our lives.  Otherwise our minds will be in a bus someone else is driving. 

If our bodies are smoothly flowing and cannot be jerked about by our own patterns of thoughts and tension, then surely our attention cannot be jerked around by the forces around us.  When the news tells us that what is going on is that one group is fighting another, the news is creating an agenda in our lives.  It tells us what we should be paying attention to.  The news is driving our bus. 

The Tai-chi student learns that the conflicts we see or read about in the world around us, superimpose themselves inside of us, so that our minds are filled with conflict.  The mind and body seem to be in conflict as the mind tries to make the body do what it wants (and usually fails).  Our relationships and everyday lives seem to consist of one conflict after another. 

At a certain point in our training it becomes obvious that we have adopted the mode of conflict we see around us into the very essence of who we are.  But what would it be like if conflict was not the basis of every level of our lives?  It would be like the Tai-chi form.  This form is a movement code for a harmonious mind and body, a harmonious human being living a natural way of life.  Indeed if the form were done with conflict, with tension, with jerkiness, it would not really be Tai-chi. 

So the smoothness of the form tells us to look at nature for flowing harmony and let  nature control your bus.  Just as our attention flows into the earth and sky with our breath, you can also control whether your attention moves to conflict or to harmony.  In this way you learn to drive your own bus.  You learn to become the harmony that others can learn from.

By expanding your attention so that it fills your whole body and surroundings, you learn that your surroundings are really part of you.  Your sense of identity moves from a set of opinions and a pattern of emotions to a whole living body and vibrant, creative awareness.  From there, it expands to your natural environment, your community and to all life.  At that point, conflict is hardly possible. 

You had to be convinced that you are completely separate from nature and from other people in order to be trained into a life of conflict.  When you cast that illusion aside your life regains its natural power.  Even your past and present seem to unite as you remember how the dreams and hopes of childhood gave you enthusiasm for life.  That enthusiasm still lives inside and can return home.  When you forget your dreams, you lose your power.  They tug at you when you sleep, fighting their way up through the layers of conflict that have pressed them down.

When conflict no longer tears you apart, when your dreams of power become part of your life, then you physically experience your connection to the biological aliveness and consciousness of the world you live in.  The shell that seemed to contain you dissolves and permeates into the world around you.  You have come home to that world, you are well known in that world, and you are loved by that world.

THE POWER TO CONTROL YOUR LIFE

It may seem that we have lost the power to improve our lives in these tough economic times.  Many people have heard that Tai-chi and Zookinesis help you develop more power in your life.  This training was developed at a time when everyday life was hard, without the benefit of modern conveniences.  It developed the strength and power within an individual so he could be more powerful in his everyday life. 

Yet the teachings seem mysterious to us in modern times because we have a different understanding of what power means.  We think of power as just earning more money, controlling the behavior of others or developing larger muscles.  When a potential student hears that Tai-chi teaches you to develop internal energy (“chi”), he immediately thinks of science fiction stories of shooting rays of energy to conquer enemies.  We take very sophisticated ancient training and make them seem silly. 

The term “internal energy” refers to the way that what is going on inside of you influences what happens in your life.  It means that your state of health and emotional balance is the most important influence on your power to improve your life.  I show below a way of explaining this that I use in my classes.  It hopefully retains the flavor of the ancient way of writing while making the principles described above, understandable to our modern minds.

Some students want to learn to concentrate and direct their energy.  I teach them to release their energy and let it go where it wants.  The students wants to gain power.  I teach them to stop interfering with their natural power.  Some want to win the heart of a lover.  I teach them to release their heart and let it go where it wants.  Some want to live in a beautiful house.  I teach them to become alive in their bodies. 

When you are alive and vibrant, your consciousness seeks to expand and to connect with the world around you, and so you live in the world, and are alive in the world.  It is your living energy, merged with the world around you that makes that world beautiful.  When you withdraw your feelings from the world around you, the world itself feels dead.  When you withdraw your feelings from your body, your body feels dead. 

Your life then becomes divided, one part withdrawing, and the other part wanting to be released so it can join the world.  You then seek to acquire things of the world.  In this way you can remain separated from it, yet claim ownership over part of it. Owning something takes the place of really being part of it.  

Your relationships with people are no longer based on releasing yourself to the other, and receiving them, but rather on agreements and arrangements.  You originally withdrew to protect yourself from the unpredictable behaviors and intentions of others, yet wound up damaging yourself by being disconnected from the vibrancy of life.  Tai-chi and Zookinesis teach us that the state of withdrawal is so prevalent in our society (and in many others past and present), that we have forgotten how it feels to be connected.  Some of us have even forgotten how to let another person completely into our souls.  We have “hesitant” relationships. 

Tai-chi and Zookinesis teach the art of “letting go” (releasing).  At a certain point you feel the flow of energy within the body.  You realize that you are “holding” that energy, or we say, “locking it up”.  Even our attention (consciousness) seems to be locked into patterns of thinking.  At another point in the training, that energy suddenly “jumps the fence” and seeks to merge with your surroundings.  It is a startling moment because you realize how much “locking up” the energy has hurt you previously. 

Your consciousness now joins the “consciousness of nature” just as the water of a stream joins the water of a river and then the water of the ocean.  You feel a member of life.  Your thinking and behaviors are no longer so patterned, but are more creative.  Once your consciousness fills your body and the world around you, your life is felt more intensely.  Every cell of your body is like the string of a stringed instrument, which is played by the beauty of the world around you.  Your attention is attracted to beautiful things and thoughts rather than to worries and anger, and so your life goes in a new direction. 

This is all accomplished by learning how to release your energy (“chi”) and consciousness and let it go where it wants.  You will feel like you were a caged animal that has now been let loose into its natural habitat.  The cage of fear is no longer your home.  I have a rabbit who lives in a cage in the house during the winter.  When I let it loose from time to time, it seeks the “shelter” of a stool I use to hold a plant.  The rabbit stays within the four feet of the stool.  It has been let loose yet seeks the security of something that looks like his cage.

When the student’s energies have finally been released, there is a tendency to seek a new “cage”.  He seeks philosophies and “truths”.  Tai-chi is not really a system of truths.  It is a way to become re-connected to nature and to other people.  It is a simple, practical teaching that does not get involved in abstract philosophy. 

The goal is to understand yourself – to see yourself.  There is a saying, “See yourself, be yourself, appreciate yourself.”  See all your patterns and see your creativity.  Don’t try to twist yourself into someone who is “approved of” and turn into a fake version of yourself. 

And then appreciate all the efforts you have made in your life to survive in this world, to understand the world and to be creative in the world.  Appreciate your biological aliveness and how you are connected to nature.  Appreciate the creative efforts of others and be sympathetic to their lack of perfection (as well as to your own). 

Understand that other philosophies are also a way of understanding yourself and releasing you from self-imposed prisons.  Don’t seek them as the security of yet another cage.  Seek nature in your surroundings and in people.  Step out of your own way so that the now invisible world of creative energy can be perceived.  Let that be your new home. 

Remember that nature is creative.  Nature is vibrant.  Tai-chi also teaches that nature is conscious. The qualities that you seek for yourself are already in you because you arose from nature.  When you release your energy, your attention, to nature, you enter the flow of creativity, vibrancy and consciousness.  As much as you release, that much and more flows back.  So the teaching of “letting go” is the path to power.

BALANCE YIN AND YANG TO STAY YOUNG AND HEALTHY

One of the primary effects of Tai-chi and Zookinesis practice is to keep the body and mind young.  The basic principle about how this can be accomplished is the balance of Yin/Yang energy in young vs. older people.  When a baby is born, according to these principles, it is all Yang energy (expansive).  As you get older you become more Yin (compressed).  Your body shrinks and your mind becomes more rigid.

The body and mind are most powerful when the expansive energy (Yang) exactly balances the compressive energy (Yin).  As an example, if a joint gets injured and the ligaments, tendons and muscles around that joint are damaged, the body starts healing.  If you just sit around and don’t move the joint a little, the repair job will be affected by the immobility of the joint.  The repair will be compressive, which means that you will have little flexibility.  This is why physical therapy is needed, partially to stretch the muscles and connective tissues around the joint so you will maintain flexibility.  When you stretch and use the joint, your body then knows how that joint is to be used and it repairs the joint with that “in mind”.  I healed a torn knee this way, without surgery. 

Tai-chi theory explains that the body does, in fact, have a mind (Body-Mind), which is aware of what needs to be done and intelligently adapts the repair to the needs of that part of the body.  Stretching and using the joint would be considered Yang, while giving the joint adequate rest would be Yin.  You need a balance for a good repair. 

There is another factor for the repair job to come out right.  Children, as noted above, are more Yang than adults (in general).  They will run around without worrying about the possibility of injury.  They love to move and use up energy, while adults like to sit and talk (in general).  If your body is repairing an injury and you are the type of person who doesn’t do much and doesn’t have much to look forward to doing after you get better, then your injury may not heal as well.  We all know about athletes who get injured on a regular basis and have many surgeries.  They want to get back into the game as soon as possible.  This Yang attitude helps their recovery.  They can’t wait to get better.  The Yang attitude of mind helps physical recovery. 

On the other hand, if they cut their recovery short and go back to the game too soon, they can re-injure themselves.  So again, a balance of Yin and Yang attitude is essential. 

When I was a zoologist, studying animal behavior in Central America, there was a troop of spider monkeys that passed by the research station every day.  The alpha (leading) male was battle-scarred.  He had lost two fingers on one hand and three on another.  One of his eyes was missing.  I asked one of the researchers how he could be the alpha male with all those injuries.  How could he even swing through the trees with all those fingers missing.  The researcher simply explained, “Attitude.  None of the other monkeys would dare mess with him.  And his attitude helps him to hang onto the branches with the few fingers he has.” 

Somehow I don’t think that monkey spent much of his time whining about his physical condition.  I resolved back then to always remember that monkey if I ever started whining about anything. 

Another story:  A researcher had just come back from Ecuador where he met a man who kept marine iguanas as pets.  They were housed in a fenced in area in his back yard.  At that time, and even today I believe, zoos were not able to keep marine iguanas alive in captivity.  So the researcher was sent to find out this man’s secret.  What did he feed the iguanas (which normally eat algae on rocks under the water)?   He fed them scraps from his table along with scraps of vegetables he got free from the local market.  “But this is not the natural food for marine iguanas!” complained the researcher.  The man explained that he loved his iguanas and they loved him.  They were very happy.  So it didn’t matter what they ate, as long as they were happy.  Food going into a happy iguana, he explained, turns into a healthy iguana. 

The point of all this is that an iguana or a person who looks forward to and is excited by each day is in a healthy state of being.  A person who whines and worries about each day is in an unhealthy state of being.  The excitement of life adds Yang energy, which can compensate for the tendency to become more and more Yin as you get older. 

In the Tai-chi practice of Push Hands, this principle goes one step further.  (In Push Hands, two people stand facing each other and try to throw each other off balance).  There is a tendency to tense up (to condense) when trying to push the partner.  That tension makes you rigid and your partner can use your rigidity to actually push you over instead.  So you are taught to relax your back and let it sink into the ground.  This relaxation and grounding then sends energy upward and forward, pushing the partner over without needing to tense up.  You are using relaxation to generate force. 

The principle here is turning Yin energy (relaxation) into Yang energy (the release of your energy upward and forward).  You are transforming Yin into Yang.  When your partner pushes you, you take that Yang energy and sink it downward into your “root” and compressing your legs.  You have turned his Yang energy into your Yin energy (compressed legs which is potential energy).  As you are grounding his Yang energy, you are sinking your back into your root again and then pushing him with your own Yang energy plus his Yang energy which you stored in your compressed legs. 

And so Push Hands is the art of transforming Yin and Yang energy in a continuous flow of motion until one person gets the upper hand due to greater skill (not due to greater strength).  You learn to balance and use Yin and Yang so the body stays relaxed yet powerful.  This keeps both the body and mind young. 

In everyday life you can stop for a moment to assess your balance of Yin and Yang.  Do you feel your body and mind compressing or expanding too much?  You will learn to develop a balance that will keep you healthier and younger. 

You may say, “What if I don’t have anything to look forward to?”  This reminds me of an experience I had when in nursery school.  I was always happy.  A girl came over to me and asked, “Why are you so happy?”  I couldn’t figure out why I was happy, so from that time on, I wasn’t happy anymore.  My state of unhappiness led my mind to contemplate unhappy things so as to explain why I was now not happy.  It took many years to remember that turn in the road that led me in the unhappy direction. 

Tai-chi training taught me the relationship between mind and body.  That relationship is more “me” than either one alone.  Identifying with the balance of mind and body then allows you to enter into a balanced relationship with your environment.  By starting with balancing Yin and Yang energy in your life, you are led to the balance of mind and body and then to the balance of yourself with your environment.  This is truly the basis of health and keeping young.