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.
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.
“We make vessels of clay,” observed Lao-tzu,
“but their true nature is in the emptiness within.”
The Taoist Arts approach to stillness at least in the guise of meditation is emptying our minds without focussing on emptying or stillness itself. There is no stated goal of Taoist meditation during a particular sitting session. The direction is as simple as, “If thoughts come in, just let them go. Don’t focus on them.” This observation of our chattering mind is extremely useful as it allows us to experience how our particular mind works with the thoughts, feelings and what-nots that lurk within us. Observing this while sitting still in a posture facilitating internal circulation allows us to connect mind and body in subtle ways.
Certainly, there are other martial arts and meditation practices that can help us connect in this manner. The form is not as important as the non-judgmental observing of ourselves. Over time with a long-term practice, we get to know ourselves and how we respond internally to the events around us. This understanding born out of observation enables us to see the myriad things in the world and not be moved by them. Stillness emerges. Once we connect with some level of stillness within ourselves, we are more relaxed and able to weather difficult experiences. Our manager can come yell at us and we respond with calm and listening to what’s behind the words so we can interact in a way to discharge the angst and deal with the problem at hand. Our spouse can come home all wound up from work and we can interact with them in such a way to help them understand they are home and safe. We may find ourselves in a car accident and react as we can to avoid death or dismemberment if at all possible. Connecting with the stillness within allows us to respond appropriately to the situation and it’s needs. This is the function of stillness. We see a need and fill the need. We observe without judgement and do what’s necessary in the short-term while not sacrificing the long-term.
SIDE NOTE: Stillness is an unstated foundational concept of managing the “business of you” I share on another blog at www.bizofyou.com. Instead of meditation, martial arts or other art forms, it looks at ourselves through the lenses of business and systems thinking to ultimately achieve the same thing, using stillness to create the life we truly want.
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.
I was recently reviewing my notes from Master Moy Lin Shin and a few ideas ring today as much as they struck a chord with me when I first heard them. I’ve strung the ideas I jotted down with other thoughts but maintained the intent nonetheless.
You can actually cultivate your internals and improve your health by cultivating each of the five virtues associated with those internal organs. When we focus on kindness we support our liver like wood supports our houses. Practicing self-sacrifice stokes the fire of our heart. Through propriety we strengthen our lungs like metal reinforces a building. Sharing and learning new wisdom nourishes our kidneys like water brings life to our gardens. And, when we work with trustworthiness, we support our spleens like the earth provides for our lives.
Let the insides direct the movements.
Play tai chi. Coil and uncoil the spine, not too fast as you’ll lose control, and not too slow as you have to keep things going.
Taken together, these ideas for the basis of life long practice. First we must learn the movements for sure, but the movements are but the tip of the Arts. The art form is something we practice day-to-day in our interactions with people and our environment. Over time, our practice helps us connect with what’s deep within us. Once we establish these connections we further our art form by letting our insides direct our movements and interactions. And, most importantly, it is up to us to find the fun in our daily form. When we can play with our internal nature and express that through our movements and interactions, we cultivate the best in ourselves allowing our health, stillness, and connection with life to emerge.
Stillness, health and connection to live emerge as we cultivate ourselves through our daily interactions.
As stated in the post, Using our Bubbling Spring, I’ve added a fictional collaboration to my manuscript where various characters come together in a tai chi class to create the book Managing the Business of You. The concepts in the book are derived from quality and business management principles but are born out of my work in the internal martial arts. Here’s another except from the manuscript I’m attempting to discover an agent who connects with the ideas therein.
After the retreat our collaborators went out for dinner together. They talked of their experiences. They shared how their bodies felt after a weekend retreat. They related how their thinking had changed through the course of the weekend. Emmet agreed and indicated he could see it in the faces and bodies of most of the participants during the final meditation session. “The stillness was palpable. People’s bodies were relaxed and there was a spirit in their eyes that was not so evident when we started a couple of days ago. There was something under the surface so to speak that helped people maintain upright postures and a relaxed nature even with the two ambulances roared past during the sitting sessions. “I think if the ambulances had come by when we started, people would not have been able to stay centered.” Sarah was smiling. “As you were describing our retreat, I had the image of an iceberg come to mind.” Connie loved these random associations. They showed active imagination and free association she tried so hard to get people in her practice to let happen. “Icebergs are amazing symbols. They are so stable amidst both calm and rough seas. They emerge out of the great ice floes at the poles and float out into the oceans shedding material and adding their pent up water to the environment.” Emmet followed the flow of meaning developing. “That’s a good image of the class but not necessarily the icy coldness of an iceberg.” Connie immediately added, “symbols are not perfect just like life itself.” Emmet continued, “the class was very stable like an iceberg despite the agitating nature of the ambulances and other distractions.” Felicia had an odd look on her face. “I don’t know if I follow the whole iceberg analogy, but I definitely felt the connect we had as a group. Everyone was working better together after the meditation sessions. Our movements felt more alive and expressive as well.” Ricky and Ronda Roots said at the same time, “We were connecting.”
The group was amused as usual when Ricky and Ronda spoke at the same time with the same or similar words. The completed each other’s sentences and did not regret the interruption. The Roots have a connection that few relationships do. They integrated so much of their lives it was like they were of one mind. Although no one had asked, most wondered what their sex life was as connected as they appear to be. The collaborators enjoyed this even if it was a little threatening to the feeling of loneliness within us all. Felicia added to the dialog, “We were connected, having fun and just allowing ourselves to be who we are.” Emmet was enjoying the fact that his instructions had a positive impact on people’s lives outside of class. “We were practicing stillness.”
The Taoist Arts and more specifically Tai Chi and Lok Hup may be practiced within a group setting or solo. Each practice has benefits and detriments. Often people connect with a group more readily than finding the connections going solo.
In a group you can:
let go of need to know next move,
learn different perspectives as people share their experiences,
be carried by the dynamic of the group into experiences difficult when solo,
Receive external feedback from an instructor or compare yourself to others.
By one’s self you can:
Let go of any performance anxiety
listen to your own experience without getting drowned by other perspectives,
learn to follow our own intention using our awareness,
find the flow of your own energy without reference to others.
Having talked to multiple people who have returned to a group practice after a long time on their own, the experiences vary from mind-blowing to not much different. Everyone connects in different ways and has different levels of awareness. One thing I find is an increased level of trust in the form itself. Often people experience something more within a group. There’s additional energy to align with and follow in a group setting. Without many years of practice, going alone can lead to going astray and fabricating movements not grounded in the fundamentals of stepping, sitting and keeping things simple. It’s easy to let ones sensations exaggerate little things in the movements. This expression is what One advanced instructs called getting “flowery,” and can lead to distortion. There’s another side of practicing solo. It can feel luxurious to immerse one’s self in the group. It’s comfortable to forget the need to remember what move is coming next. In the height of life where our responsibilities peak, simply having time to practice can feel like a luxury.
The comfort and flow may be found solo after years of practice when the body remembers without conscious deliberation. There’s a sense of letting the energy flow without thought and conscious direction. The form becomes a moving meditation. This aligning with the energies within is just as mind-bending as returning to the fold of the group dynamic. The more we practice in this way allows to understand the difference between our own energies and those external to us. This is immensely beneficial and amplifies what we can learn in group practice.
To be clear, I am of the mind both group and solo practice have their place and are beneficial. The thing is we have to align with the forces in our lives and practice in an appropriate way for where we are on or own path. No matter where we are it is imperative to have fun with it and keep things simple.
Master Moy used to say, “Trust the form.” The form is more than the movements, it is a tool we can use to learn without being told what to learn (reference the page: The Form). Trust is composed of character and competence. Our character is made up of our integrity and our intent whereas competence is comprised of our capability and results. Thus to trust the form is to apply our care and openness to honestly practice day after while being truthful in our observations of our posture and movements. It is continually expanding our knowledge, skills and experience while establishing our credibility through not only maintaining but achieving increased levels of health.
Trusting the form does not require external guidance. Rather it requires humility in the recognition of what our capabilities truly are. It requires us to keep our practice simple and aligned with the basic principles of the forms. And, it requires compassion for ourselves so we may find the connections within our own movements. Certainly, feedback from an any instructor can help us along our path, but it is ultimately up to us to find our own direction, internal feedback and align that with the principle of continuous improvement based on factual decisions regarding our physiology and physics.