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 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.
Eight millimeters is a significant misalignment between the sacrum and lumbar vertebrae. How do I know this? It’s the underlying cause of not being able to practice tai chi for over seven months or unable to walk more than fifty feet on the most painful days even with the narcotic pain medication, nerve desensitizers and muscle relaxers. Life in the past year has been a struggle to say the least. When you can’t even walk a few hundred feet to go see your daughter sing in a choir in front of hundreds of people at a winter festival, it’s pretty obvious something needs to be done. The inability to enjoy and partake in family activities was the last straw. It was not long after that moment of laying down in the car waiting for my family to return from the winter festival that I went under the knife. I had my fifth lumbar and first sacral vertebrae fused. I was literally screwed and glued. It was an excellent decision. There has been practically no sciatic pain since the surgery. There’s occasional tingling in my foot or hip the doctor says could be the nerve recovering or my body figuring out how to move as my vertebrae fuses.
I used my practice of tai chi, understanding of physics and physiology to respect my limitations for months leading up to the surgery. The form gave me an opportunity to explore and understand the rhythm of nerve conduction from my back into the butt, down the leg, and across the foot to the big toe. Slight misalignments sparked the pain while the simplest adjustment relieved it. When I was unable to move within the form, I used my practice of mindfulness and intent from the Taoist arts to help me relax and maintain as much functionality as possible. The practice of mindfulness emerging from decades of tai chi enabled me to perform my regular activities at work and home as I got into the drug cycle. As my situation deteriorated, my understanding of the spiritual aspects of tai chi helped me take support when needed. I allowed family and friends to help me here and there. I didn’t feel bad, or at least too bad, when I had to take time to rest, sit down or nap in the midst of getting Thanksgiving dinner to a bunch of guests. I used the practical nature of the art form to build supporting devices like a stool with rollers to keep me cooking for the family. I used damn near every opportunity to learn just as we do when practicing the Taoist arts.
Tai chi is more than fifteen minutes of movement. It is a way of moving and relaxing with all movement and thoughts throughout the day. When the sciatic flared up, the tai chi form became something I was unable to perform. My tai chi practice became what it needed to. I learned from my condition and worked within my constraints to retain as much heath as possible. However, towards the end of the year, my movements became so restricted there were few options. Life is movement and thus my life was disappearing out from under me. I used the meditative aspects of tai chi to maintain my center and not get lost in the misery and suffering of pain or the side effects of the significant medications. Pain, disability and addiction are amazing teachers. And herein lies the art of tai chi. Opening ourselves what Master Moy told us, “to learn tai chi from anyone, even those who do not do tai chi.” Furthermore like the originator of tai chi did, Chang Seng-Feng, it is up to us to observe the nature of things, learn what we can, and most importantly apply it to our practice. Learning from our environment both internal and external and applying what we learn daily is the essence of tai chi.
Side note: I almost called this post “Suffering 8mm” but looking back any suffering along the way were stepping stones of discovery. Focusing on suffering is not the way or at least that’s not my experience of the Tao.
After doing something for more than twenty years, things are “easy.” And if, after two decades, you are not learning from yourself and your observations of your environment, you haven’t progressed past being a beginner. This is true of martial arts, a marriage or a career. It’s up to us to apply what we learn every day, moment to moment.
Mrs. Kwan, who worked with Mr. Moy and taught Tai Chi, Lok Hup, and Hsing-I, once commented about doing the “series of four” of Brush Knees, Monkeys, Cloud Hands and Parting Mane when a cold is coming on. It gets the circulation going well. So can a hundred Dan-yus. What if you combined them and added other repetitive moves?
Whether you practice Taoist Tai Chi, Fung Loy Kok Taoist Tai Chi, other internal or external arts the principle is the same. Interspersing a repetitive move with a foundation exercise is a power house to get things moving. Relative to Taoist Tai Chi, you can start with 18 Dan-yus. That’s not so bad. Then do a row of Strum the Pei Pa followed by 18 Dan-yus; Brush Knee & 18 Dan-yus; Repulse Monkey & Dan-yus; Cloud Hands & Dan-yus; and Parting Horse’s Mane & Dan-yus. Depending on how fast you perform the movements and how long the rows are, the circulation will be pumping in 10-30 minutes. In that time is 108 Dan-yus plus a lot of repetitive movements. It’s excellent to see how quickly people can fall into the stillness of the movements. If used as a warm up for the form or foundations, you can utilize the circulation to share details of the movements that normally get shared in workshop settings.
If you’re on your own keeping your practice going without the luxury of time to connect within a class setting, this idea is an excellent opportunity to explore old or newer corrections within different movements.
I came across an article that explains how movement decreases stress, how our core strength relates to our posture and effects our ability to relax. This is something I heard years ago and echoes with the idea of “Movement is Life.” In different ways, every workshop in the Taoist Arts had some slant on this idea.
“Relaxation is not a procedure, it is the result of practice.” I’d like to add to this excellent repost that relaxation emerges from the relationship between mind and body and more specifically moving with the dynamic tension present in every moment.
Anyone who wishes to master an activity must first understand its tools and rules. In internal martial art practice, the tools are not material objects but concepts, and the rules governing mental rather than physical performance only.
In Tai Chi practice, in order to achieve a high level of understanding and mastery of this art, practitioners should understand what the determiner of maintaining a relaxed manner in any single movement. These important aspects are mental state, physical condition and related coordination between the mind, breath and movements, including dynamic motion and static posture.
Relaxation is not a procedure, it is the result of practice. Therefore to relax, the posture and the movement have to be correctly performed according to Tai Chi principle. One of the golden-rules in Tai Chi practice is: “fast, but not mass; slow, but not pausing; light, but not floppy; sinking, but not stiff.” It indicates…
We start from the outside and move within when we begin practicing any of the internal martial arts. We learn angles, stepping, and weight shifting. After we have these basics, we learn what tiger’s mouth is in our hand and arm structure as well as the bubbling spring and alignment of our weight. Over time these things become more natural leaving us to experience what’s happening when we have proper alignment and skeletal structure. These externals allow us how the movement feels inside. With guidance the internal feelings are expanded and verified via feedback from the groups we practice with or an instructor. This tuning into the internals is where the internal martial art begins.
With this said, I must share a cautionary note. There are many people who have an innate ability to feel things more than others. Often these are the folks drawn to the internal martial arts in the first place. Within the beginning class, they share how they can feel the movement inside. The caution is this, that feeling is ephemeral and changes as the fundamentals of the form have not taken root. It is extremely important to ground ourselves in the fundamentals of our arts before we start exploring the internal “feels.”
The angles, stepping and weight shifting come first. The mechanics of the form is critical. With the foundation in place, we can then place the girders of bubbling springs and tiger’s mouth. we can then start erecting the walls and ceilings of turning, extension, contraction and lateral movement of the spine after we have the skeletal structure in place on top of our foundation. This external home is where we can then start exploring the internal nature of our forms. This process can take anywhere between 7 and 20 years depending on the individual and some don’t ever get there. Being in a class for a couple of months and feeling internals is like walking through a model home. It’s not until you put forth the resources including time and energy in building the home can one start to live there.
It’s of utmost importance to revisit the foundations If we lessen our practice for whatever reason life brings us. When new instruction comes our way it is up to us to understand how it fits into our home and if it’s appropriate to integrate where ever we may be in our development. Hopefully our guidance and new instructions come from individuals who have a deep understanding of our form and its many different applications.
I once had the chance to work with Master Moy and Dr. Elliot Kravitz who watched an individual perform some Dan-yus for roughly ten minutes in front of a group of instructors. Elliot asked the group what instructions we would give. There were various answers. After feedback was collected, Elliot said, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” He went on to say the person was moving appropriately and not damaging anything. Sometimes we simply need to practice a while before we move on to other levels in our forms.
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.
Master Moy often said, “Trust the Form.” Which form? There’s Tai Chi, Lok Hup, and Hsing-I in the Taoist Arts as well as weapon forms, sitting, standing and sleeping meditation. There are other forms in the Taoist Arts more subtle in nature. As I watch my kids learn Tae Kwon-Do, I question what is the form to trust there. There’s other martial arts and health benefiting activities. What about those forms?
When I was practicing and teaching within the crucible of the Taoist Tai Chi Society, I didn’t question much. I took the teachings at face value for the most part and was very diligent in practicing all that I was shown. Over time, I was able to perform a particular set one way and then an entirely different way. Now that I’ve been on a sabbatical of sorts focusing on family life, I’m left questioning what form to trust. When I’ve gone back to class here and there over the last few years, I’ve noticed my form can fit in with the current practice. There’s some nuances I don’t have with the current instructions touted as “advanced,” but I find I’m able to move just as easily and fall into the rhythm of the current teachings. This leads me to believe there’s a form underneath of the nuances and different manners by which we can practice and cultivate our art forms.
Maintaining strength, flexibility, openness and health is about learning the form within the different appearances that come and go over a lifetime of practice and cultivating health. I’m finding the form Mr. Moy was telling us to trust is deeper than the movements and corrections given by this or that instructor. It’s deeper than the “advanced” instructions and more akin to that first movement as a beginner when we are thrilled to learn, open to all instructions and observations. That spirit of wanting to learn and trying different things to see what works for our body is a form we can follow throughout our lives. The form we need to trust is where all parts are moving, connected and open. It is movement without judgement while grounded to what’s needed in ourselves and within the environment around us. This form is adaptable to whatever external movement we take part in and bodily changes occurring throughout our lives. This form connects us with the essence of ourselves and the practice we engage in no matter what it’s appearance or name is. This form is the expression of who we are in what we do.