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.
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.
To be, or to do that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a see of troubles, And by opposing end them. To act, to do Get it done, and by doing to say we end The heartache of open commitments and responsibility That minds and spirit are heir to, ’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d. To act, to do, To achieve perchance to create our vision: ay there’s the rub! For in that sense of accomplishment what other dreams may come When we have shuffled off our current toils Must give us pause. There’s the respect That makes enjoyment of so long life. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When we ourselves might our stillness make With a simple act of getting shit done. Who manages To grunt and sweat under a weary life, Creates themselves through their actions, Deeds and decisions and puzzles the will Of those without the connection between seeing What needs to done and doing it without question. And thus the native resolution of those without passion Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises dreamed of die within, Leaving regret and thoughts of other’s sin. With this regard their currents turn awry And further lose the name of action.
To the great Shakespeare, I apologize for hacking and slashing what I think is one of the greatest creations in literature. With that said, my point is thus. Without acting on our decisions and observations we lose our connection with life. Life is movement. Without the action of our bodies, minds and spirit we atrophy, lose resilience and die. This is a critical internal to external connection we have the potential to nurture and develop with every conscious decision and unconscious choice of our lives. To be or to do that is the question.
This fundamental connection can transform our lives. Master Moy used to talk about it during his classes and workshops. “When you see a dirty dish take it to the kitchen and wash it.” “When you see someone has an empty water or cup of tea, offer to fill it.” “If you see dirty floors, pick up a broom or mop and clean it.” His focus was on helping others so that we can nurture our virtue and thereby cultivate our health through our actions. Essentially, if you see something needing done, then do it. This applies to action in our individual lives, our interactions with others and our environment. In this sense, my answer to the question of to be or to do, is quite simple. Do or die, there is no try.
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.
Yang is clear and Yin is murky; Yang moves and Yin is still. Starting from the root and flowing to the branches, it gives rise to the myriad things. Clarity is the source of murkiness, movement is the foundation of stillness. When people can be constantly clear and still, heave and earth return to their places. . . .
. . .Although it is called attaining the Tao, in reality there is nothing to attain; But in order to transform people, it is called attaining the Tao.
These are some lines from the Taoist scripture of Clarity and Stillness. There’s additional information about how we are entangled in desires, cravings and ideas about banishing them. I’ve found some truth in the words within this particular scripture in my personal studies and experiences.
In the movements of martial arts, stillness arises after a lot of practice. The first time I experienced stillness emerging out of movement is after a day full of tai chi practice at a workshop when I was tired and past the point resistance. I found I hold my body in ways to prevent opening myself to others. After a lot of tai chi I learned to relax in ways unbeknownst to me before. My interactions with people became more authentic and open. Connections were more readily made. I found a stillness I had not known before. I liked it. I spent years chasing the experience attending workshops, learning new forms, giving more of my time, meditating and the like.
Then, life hit and I started a family project. Now practicing the art forms for hours at a time is a luxury. Even so, I retain the stillness within. This leads me to an understanding of sorts. Practice is a vehicle to transform us just like the concept of the Tao. Ultimately there’s nothing to attain. Stillness is something to be uncovered within ourselves. Sharing my experience with others in and out of the Taoist arts has lead me to understand stillness is something under the daily routines, our quest to be a hero or heroine, our religions, our gods and even under the god that rules them all. These things are not paths up a proverbial mountain but to the still point within where everything else dissolves leaving us alone in our our truest experience of reality connected with everyone and everything around us.
Joseph Campbell talked about finding that still point in our minds where things drop away. From this perspective the peak of the mountain is where all the paths up the slopes vanish to reveal our experience in it’s rawest form with no strings attached, no religion, no deities, no sense of ‘other’ committing us to the myriad things. Our movements and wandering in life beget stillness. Out of stillness, all of our movement, interactions and understanding emerges as the forms of our life.
We practice forms to discover stillness. Once found, our cultivation of stillness allows our forms to emerge. Stillness is the root of clarity, movement, transformation and ultimately the Tao.
The bubbling spring is an area on the soles of our feet that connects us with the earth. For my own practice of the Taoist Arts, connecting with the bubbling spring has become a major indicator of whether I’m moving in an integrated manner or not. This is true in our foundation exercises, Tai Chi, Lok Hup, or Hsing-I forms. It is also true when I’m walking around at home or at work.
There are specific sensations when our movements are properly integrated and connected with the bubbling spring points on the soles of our feet. We will feel the weight evenly distributed when we are standing. We will feel the tendons of the foot gently stretched. When we are walking or moving in the forms, we will feel the weight glide throughout the foot depending on our stepping motion. The foot will feel like we are rolling through all of its structures when we walk or do weight shifting movements.
Most of the time we are unaware of this sensations. Here is the key. If we can direct our attention to the bubbling springs as we move, our movements will be more integrated. Out directed attention allows us to connect our movements with our intention which we will talk about later.