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.

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.