Let Go Your Singular Focus

Down, Up, Same Time
In, Out, Same Breath
Left, Right, Same Side
Hand, Foot, Same Body

Our ability to focus is a blessing and curse. Our focus determines our reality as some say. It also limits our ability to perceive more than the focal point upon which we become attached. This is true of many aspects of our lives. Relative to the subject matter of this blog, I want to poke at a concept hinted at by many Tai Chi masters including Mr. Moy. I have contemplated his teaching of “up down same time” in the Dan-yu, Tor-yu and many moves of the forms. Recently, my body has recently provided me with the experience out of which I’m beginning to grasp the teaching over two decades later.

Many students struggled when shown how to pay attention to both the hand and foot at the same time or breathing continuously without stopping. These are all of the same nature. Namely, the philosophy of yin and yang are interwoven into all we do. However, the concept of yin and yang is more of a gradient as opposed to competing constraints or polarized opposites. Our Western mind is cultured to think of opposites as different, distinct and separate. The traditional Eastern mind comes at the opposites as an interplay or dance between friends. This continual exchange of energy between opposites may be experienced in Taoist Arts and other forms of martial arts. Power emerges out of properly aligned relaxed posture. Health emerges our of balancing physical work and relaxation within our particular situation. Philosophically, opposites are fundamental to our experience due to our naming minds. We separate things based on our observations. This is this and that is that. The mere act of naming separates aspects of what is ultimately a single integrated experience. For lack of a better construction, yin and yang are used to conceptualize the differences and ever changing relationship between. The thing is yin and yang are of the same nature or rather originate out of the same experience. Without light there is no shadow. Meditation pokes at this experience of the oneness of things underneath the trappings of all our thoughts, descriptions and understandings.

To facilitate the experience of the relatedness of yin and yang, we have to let our focus and attention be different than our normal apprehension of our experience. There are many paths we can take to accomplish this. The experience of unifying opposing elements may feel completely foreign. For those driven to do, do, do without cessation to the point of sleeping only a few hours at night, letting up on our focus on whatever needs done can feel like bulldozer demolishing the house we live in. For others, who go day to day without direction, purpose or meaning, the experience is elusive. It can feel like warship cutting through the lazy waters of the sea we are floating in. The waves from the ship turn us over into the depths of what we know not. No matter our particular approach to life, there’s a middle ground to stand not upon but within. More often then not, we need a guide or some type of feedback from another further along the path to realize this middle realm between our particular oppositional forces in life.

Occasionally Mr. Moy would touch a hand while doing foundations or a move and talk about the bubbling spring and how the intent is in the feet. This is the beginning of expanding our attention and loosening our focus on one body part. It slowly connects two or more body parts within a movement or posture. I remember a particular correction from Mr. Moy who touched my hands as I pressed down in the dan-yu. He mentioned to push from the bubbling spring in the foot. He did the same as I pushed up out of the squatting exercise. Pushing up from the feet and expressing through the hands while going up was easy to grasp. Going down in that correction left me grasping. However, after a few moments I must have caught on as he said, “You see, up down same time.” The experience of what occurred when I allowed my attention to be split between hand and foot at the same time set me on the path eventually repeating the correction. With regular practice it became a part of my movements. Mr. Moy also set me off on a journey of discovery about unifying the opposites instead of holding them at opposing corners of a boxing ring. Letting go of our need to do right with our singular focus we can pay attention to more than one thing. It’s the same as allowing your vision to relax. When our focus is not centered on one thing our periphery vision pulls more information into our consciousness. We see “more.” In actuality, we see the same amount of information. Our brain simply removes most of what we see from our consciousness due to our focus on an object. We have a perceptual bias tricking our brain into “knowing” what’s going on when we are deluded by our bias and its singular short term focus. “You see what you expect to see, Severus.” (Potter fans will get that reference). 

We can choose to let our focus relax not just with our vision but with other senses and even our intent. This relaxation of our focus is the first step of letting go the need to be at the center of everything. It is expanding our use of attention. It is the experience of not knowing begetting the ability to say “I don’t know” which in turn allows us to learn. Using our attention outside our singular focus is an opening of our spiritual to experience more than our limited ego-bound reality. It’s a door to new experience not of our nature. As we let go our conscious self and reach out with our feeling (a reference for the Star Wars geeks), we open our world to more richer experiences. Over time this creates the ability to perceive the simultaneity of movement in the instruction “up down same time” or the circular breathing of “in out same breath.” We start to see the world from a different perspective. It’s like we start working the third aim and objective of what used to be the Taoist Tai Chi Society, “cultural exchange.” The words themselves take on meaning beyond the simple and albeit confusing sentences as above so below (one for the Alchemists). Our dedicated practice through the years creates experiences moving beyond the emptiness of the words taken at face value. The words become reflections of our experience, directions on how to achieve those experiences as well as pointers to principles not easily captured in written form. And, therein lies the heart of openness, learning and spirit. 

Hand, Foot, Same Intent
Left, Right, Same Side
Out, In, Same Breath
Up, Down, Same Time

Returning to the Source

Returning to the source is something we need to do everyday. We read in Taoist texts of the idea of returning to source. There are all kinds of methods and symbolic instructions for transforming the body. While I don’t want to distract from whatever Taoist lineage or martial arts philosophy you practice, I want to bring the idea of returning to the source to something more pragmatic. I want to elucidate that it’s not some mystical thing that by practicing the methods we can achieve immortality. Returning to the source is an approach to living we can embrace everyday and within our practices no matter how advanced or often we partake in our art forms.  

I haven’t posted in a while as my martial arts practice has waned due to what I talked about in the 8mm of Learning post from almost a year ago. The path of recovering from a major surgery like an intervertebral fusion is a winding one filled with pot holes, setbacks and frustration. It also has a plethora of opportunities to rediscover lost art forms and practices. Pain and suffering has a way of focusing our attention on what’s important. For me, it was about treating every moment as a decision to bring movement to every part of my body. A year after the surgery, I can tell you without regular movement my body begins to remind me of its importance. Muscles tighten. Small nerve sensations speak to me of the edge I live on every day. I certainly do not have the pain and nerve issues that brought me to my knees, sent me to urgent care, restricted my walking range to 50 feet, or started me down the path of opioid and muscle relaxer addiction. I understand from others who have had parts of their spine fused, my surgery is a 100% success. I can do everything I was able to do before I first felt that twinge in my back after shoveling some wet Colorado snow. Furthermore, I can do it without medications. 

Going through the process of conservative techniques, pain management, surgery, and rehabilitation has given me a new awareness of the edge we all live on with respect to our ability to move, our general health and the myriad threats to our daily living. It has also revealed to me the importance of enjoying what we have and the need to balance risk and reward in our daily decisions. I haven’t swung my pendulum to the never ending pursuit of an unobtainable ideal of perfect health. Nor have I let myself not care about what I do with my body, health and life. I’m finding my particular balance day by day. Some days are better than others. Just the other evening I was practicing the foundation exercised called the dan-yu. I was fairly relaxed and found the connection Master Moy helped me find years ago. Focusing on the bubbling spring on the bottom of the foot, the movement felt like it did not stop. There was no bottom or top of the movement but rather transitions from squatting down to standing up and back again. My pelvis opened and closed with the movement and timed with my inhalation and exhalation. After a few cycles, the movement began to integrate into a single ever-changing experience. The breath guided not only the up and down but the expansion and contraction in the pelvis or perhaps those movements created my breath. Both are true and depend only on our perspective.  The weight stayed anchored in the bubbling springs throughout.

The bubbling springs is an acupuncture point on the sole of the foot. It is an entry point for the kidney meridian. The image of the bubbling spring is apt as it brings about the idea of energy bubbling up and supporting the life around it. All movement within the body happens with fluids and lubricity. The bubbling spring in Chinese acupuncture theory is an entry or source of this energy. Without the renewing vitality inherent in the Bubbling spring, we degrade over time becoming dry, rigid and inflexible. Further stagnation exacerbates this situation. I witnessed a lot of stagnation through the trials and tribulations along my path through the forest of immobility over the last couple of years. It wasn’t until the other night, I felt like I had returned to the source of vitality I cultivated for most of my life. I’m not saying that the bubbling spring is my source. It was simply a focal point or schwerpunkt to rediscover after a significant change. In mythological terms, it was a threshold I passed returning from another realm where I had to slay one of my many dragons of pain and suffering. My schwerpunkt or center of gravity in my life is movement without which death begins to speak to me over my left shoulder or through the nerves in my leg. Movement and change bring about learning and growth keeping mortality at bay.  Moving and changing removes oppressive nature of mortality from our concern and connects us with our internal and external environments. Paradoxically, being more aware of my mortality and eminent but unknown time of death allows me to live more fully. And herein lies the true source of vitality of life. Respect for life and movement come from accepting death, stillness and the unknown moments ahead. Being certain about anything is a form of stagnation preventing learning, moving and change. When I say death, I’m not just referring to our physical passing from this universe. I’m also referring to the death of ideas, relationships and interactions internally and externally. Everything lives and dies. Movement and stillness are intimately related.   Bringing these facts into our daily lives is a source of vitality, humility and respect. It is returning to the source.

Why Practice?

Why practice your form of particular martial arts, meditation, silent retreat or whatever relaxation techniques? We practice to apply the principles we are taught.  While practice does bring benefit in reinforcing our learning, the true benefit lies outside of the practices and in the practical application of what we learn as applied to everyday situations.  Applying the essence of the art forms we learn to our interactions and experience has the capacity to lessen the suffering of both ourselves and others.

We develop situational awareness and understanding of our influence on what’s happening when we take the time to observe ourselves, our behaviors and more importantly the thoughts driving us in any given situation. We develop the capability of observing without judgement and more specifically without fear of loss and how we think others are judging us through the the art forms of martial arts or meditation.  This allows us over time to recognize the transient nature of our thoughts and emotions.  Thoughts come and go.  It’s our focus on the thoughts making them recur over and over until we generate the dis ease that filters into our body, awareness, and attention.  Emotions are the energy we experience in response to the unfolding moment including both external and internal realities.  When we hold onto our emotions and the thoughts they generate, we create the altered reality we generally experience in our daily lives.  This leaves us to ride the waves of our experience or get crushed by the force of them.

Practicing meditative or a martial art chips away at the mental and emotional structures we build up over our lifetimes. Practice begins to lessens the waves or at least the destruction caused by the major waves impacting the shores of our soul.  Reflecting on the essence of our practices allows us to simplify the practice into things we can apply moment-to-moment and not just to the situations of our art forms.  Our interactions slowly change to more manageable situations.  We find the emotional trauma and suffering doesn’t last as long.  Anger, sadness or happiness come and go just as the thoughts we witnessed in our practices.  Herein lies the true benefit of practice.

We bring about more life satisfaction if we can reduce how long we hold on to the anger, sadness or other things that make us suffer.  Reducing the suffering in our lives in turn provides an example for others to follow.  This is the pebble we drop into the stream of life having the potential to lessen the suffering not only of ourselves but those we interact with.  We help others by maintaining our calm and center during the storms we encounter day to day.  Instead of stressing out, we can simply adapt to the ever changing moment benefiting both ourselves and others.

When we apply what we learn in our practices in this manner, we move from practicing when we set time aside to do so towards practicing all of the time we are awake.  This impacts others even when we are not awake and thus we connect with something beyond ourselves when we turn our lives from practice into an art form itself.  May we all enjoy the practice of making our life into an art form.

Practicing Tai Chi

Practicing Tai Chi is not just moving through the forms of the tai chi set.  It’s not just practicing the other Taoist Arts, foundations or meditation.  It’s not just coming together and finding our connections, relaxing and working with one another.  Practicing Tai Chi also includes how we interact with people throughout our lives.  It is our exchange of energy with the environment. It is respecting the spectrum of yin and yang aspect of all things.  It is achieving balance throughout our lives and by balance I mean the appropriate amounts of different things, not equal amounts.  Everything to it’s own accord.  It is knowing thyself and our particular balance of self to others and self to environment. It’s our personal biz integrating with the biz of those in our lives. Practicing Tai Chi is about continuous and incremental change as we progress along the path in our particular life.

What we are now is not what we were seven years ago.  In that time our bones have completely replaced themselves through normal biological processes.  We are not what we were a month ago when we had an entirely different liver.  We think we are the same as we used to be physically, psychologically and spiritually in the past.  We are not and we will not be what we are now in the future.  This to is practicing Tai Chi.  It is the wisdom of our unique situation as individuals and as conscious beings.  In this wisdom we are practicing Tai Chi with the rest of humanity whether they know the tai chi set of movements, Tae Kwon Do, Jeet Kun Do, football, Catholicism, Wicca, Islam, weight lifting, working, retired, schooling or whatever we may do.

Exchanging energy, changing throughout our lives, and practicing the forms and rituals we do is the grand ultimate.

Injury as Teacher

Practicing Tai Chi or any martial arts after an injury is an excellent opportunity to learn or relearn basic principles.  I recently sprained my ankle.  After a few days of taking it easy on my affected leg, I practiced some forms and was reminded of how important it is to connect with the bubbling springs.

Every time we bend our knees and hips to lower our center of gravity, being grounded in the sole of our foot allows the structure to carry the weight instead of the soft tissues.  A small deviation away from balanced structure is felt immediately with an injury somewhere along the chain of pearls connecting our feet with our spinal engine.  Moving slowly through the forms also allows us to listen to the rest of our structure as a small change outside of proper alignment can be felt with the injured tissues.

A couple of principles of martial arts apply here:

  • The fundamentals are always good to practice and relearn.
  • Listen with all of your senses to ensure alignment and connection.
  • Be mindful of injury, but do not allow the injury to define you or your movement.
  • We can learn our form from anyone, even someone who doesn’t practice our form, even from our own injured body.

 

Good Form

Good form is the most efficient manner to accomplish the purpose of a performance with a minimum of lost motion and wasted energy.
-Bruce Lee, Tao of Jeet Kune Do

This is true no matter what martial art you practice.  Focusing on effective and efficient movement enables us to achieve our end goals in our art forms.  It also allows us to understand when poor instruction seeps into our classes or when movements do not work with our particular bodily capabilities and constraints.  To understand effectiveness in our form requires us to be aware of the purpose of the individual movements, their function and what is intended in the movement.  To understand efficiency is being aware of what it takes to achieve the intent and eliminating the unnecessary.  Thus, to practice good form, it is imperative we understand the intent of the form and individual movements.

Awareness is critical.

In-Out Up-Down Same Time

During the Dan-yu there’s a rhythm of movement to be synchronized with our breathing.  When we descend, our bodies draw life in.  As we ascend our bodies naturally exhale.  This drawing in and letting go is the nature of the up and down in the dan-yu.

The dan-yu is integral to the movements of Tai Chi, Lok Hup and Hsing-I.  Finding the dan-yu in the movements and listening to our bodies allows us to find the rhythm of drawing in and letting go.  With much practice the movement becomes more natural and timed with our particular body and its unique attributes.  Using our entire lung capacity, we may find ourselves timing the set of movements slowly.  Focusing on the beat of our hearts and flow of our cardiovascular system, we may find ourselves timing the movements more rapidly.  The key is not the timing nor the finding of connections with the various parts of our bodies.  No matter how “groovy” it may feel to tune into those things, the key to chi kung is simply to listen to the rhythm and let the movement express what’s needed in any given moment.  We must listen to our own timing which changes with our situation, environment, our health and age.

Master Moy Lin-Shin talked often of “up down same time.”  In classes we would work on the connections between the outer movements of arms and legs and the inner movements of our spines or for those more adapt at chi kung the movement of energy.   In the movements of chi kung, we have the capacity of moving both up and down at the same time.  Our outer form may be ascending, but our tailbones are already descending.  Our arms may be down in the bottom of the movement while our spine is already going up.  This internal timing is the following of the internal rhythms of our bodies and energy.  It is the flow of the movements if we can simply let go our conscious selves and listen with all of our thoughts, senses and perceptions.  Listening with everything we are stills the unnecessary in our experience and connects us with something more than can be explained with a few words on a blog.

Still the unnecessary in your experience with focus
Still the unnecessary in your experience with focus

Internal vs External

I had a most excellent conversation with a fellow martial artist about balancing our internal and external work.  For the last two years, he’s been focused on his job, rebuilding his house after the floods, and dealing with his mother passing away.  As he described his focus and use of energy over the last couple years, I got the distinct sense he was putting his life in order externally but not internally.  I shared this with him and he agreed.  He has practiced both internal and external martial arts and has a good grasp on the intent of both approaches to development.

From a pure practicality perspective, there is no internal or external martial art.  We practice both whether we are aware of it or not.  We develop in both manners whether we are aware of it or not.  Our school or practice may focus on one or the other which helps us understand a cohesive system of development.  Of course, maintaining a sole focus on one or the other while exploring the minute details can lead us of the path of balanced development into the proverbial ditch.  We can become lost in the nuances and forget the overarching goal.  In doing so, we can become obsessed with beating people up and winning in the external forms.  We can become lost in letting go of our ego and killing off the external world in our practice of the internal forms. We can lose ourselves in the practice of martial arts, religion and for that matter our careers.

Balance is the key.  We have to have compassion for ourselves while developing it for others.  We have to not lose site of our own objectives while pursing the objectives of our particular practice.  As stated in a Biz of You post from 10Sep15, life is a choice and it’s our responsibility to manage ourselves.  The same holds true in our practice of martial arts. External and internal paths are balanced whether we focus on one or the other. Our particular focus is unique to us and it’s up to us to find a school or practice meeting the needs of our personal development.

Life is a choice and so is balance
Life is a choice and so is balance

Economy of Movement

A Lok Hup instructor once said, “You should be able to stop at any point in the form and be balanced.”  This isn’t an easy task.  I’ve been working on it for years.  The more I work on it, the more stable and grounding the form becomes.  It helps me connect with my surroundings more.  It’s worth trying, no matter what form you practice.  Obviously, if you are doing a flying kick, the instruction is not applicable.  For the most part any of the internal martial arts can use this instruction to discover more connectedness.

Constellate this with the idea out of industrial engineering of walking the process.  In the quest for continual improvement, a process is walked through.  During this, someone sees what the actual work being performed is, asks questions and learns what is happening.  This activity is then aimed at reducing waste and inefficiency.  Process engineering of this nature is about making every step and movement of product count.

I’ve been living this for some time in my life.  I try to optimize my activities so I can squeeze as much life as I can out of the time I have.  Recently, my wife made an observation.  We get up at the same time.  She starts a shower while I go feed the dogs.  In recent times, I’ve been able to get back up stairs by the time she starts her shower.  One morning she said, “Do you even feed the dogs?”  I laughed and shrugged it off, however, thought about it over the next few weeks.  The thing is, I optimize my time by expending as little energy as possible so I can have more energy for other things like getting back up stairs in the morning to do a couple martial arts exercises, stretches or writing before I take my shower.  The dogs just want their breakfast as soon as possible so my leaning of my tasks helps them and helps myself.

As in business, so in martial arts.  If we can use the smallest amount of energy in our movements of the forms, we optimize them.  The movements become more simple and easier to remember if you go without practice for a while.  Forms become more efficient and thus more powerful.  We are told many times by our instructors to keep the form simple or trust the form.  Simple form is efficient form and has a greater impact on our ability to use the form for its intended purpose.  When we move simply, we relax and enable ourselves to do more with what we have.

This is economy of movement.  When we are aware of the energy our movements take, we can more readily take corrections and learn new aspects of the form. We can establish good habits quickly which then become the foundation of more advanced movements using the same form.   When we get lost in all the things the form can do, it can quickly disintegrates into something other than what our instructors showed us originally. The key here is to keep it simple, balanced and use as little energy as possible thereby enabling us to use the form to discover more advanced aspects of the forms or deeper elements of ourselves.  With enough economy of movement the form itself can take on a stillness of sorts where there is not thought required.

This is one of the experiences of the ancient art forms that can incrementally transform our lives.  It occurs when stillness is born from our movements and movement is generated out of our stillness.