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.
“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.
Master Moy once told me during a major correction, “You should be able to learn tai chi from anyone, even someone who doesn’t do tai chi.” I was doing dan-yus in front of a group of about 30 people at a Fung Loy Kok Taoism workshop. He also said some things to me which seemed so militant to some onlookers that they left the Taoist Tai Chi Society. However, to me I never had the sense Master Moy was trying to control me. Quite the contrary, I had the experience of trust and attempting to peel my outer layers like an onion and show me what was inside of me. It’s as if he took my hand and showed me around my inner being. After what seemed an eternity of his lecturing me through an interpreter, I felt lighter and was able to do far more of the exercise I could do before we started. I also remember information about the physiology and physics of the exercise.
Many things stick with me from the correction. However, I usually return to his voice and the translation of “You should be able to learn tai chi from anyone, even someone who doesn’t do tai chi.” In the context a tai chi correction, this statement implies we need to be open to the learning all around us. I practiced the Taoist arts for over 15 years in an organized environment and instructed Tai Chi, Lok Hup, Health Recovery and gave classes in Taoism. After my wife and I started our family project, our involvement in the Taoist Tai Chi Society dropped off and faded away. Our interest and practice remains to this day. We continue to learn from each other and from the world around us. Our practice is sporadic which affords us the opportunity to observe and experience the fundamentals of the Taoist Arts in way unavailable to us while heavily integrated into the society.
The external form is just as we taught years ago with a strong foundation in angles reflecting body mechanics. A forty-five degree step is along with proper length of step is critical to the many aspects of the forms as is alignment of knees, hips and an ever shifting center of gravity. Internally, we return to connecting the bubbling spring and tigers mouth as well as dropping the coccyx to open the hips giving the internals freedom to move and connect to the movements. Deeper yet are the connections to the stillness learned in meditation and the non-judgmental awareness of both internal and external environments. Out of this stillness we stay over our emotional, physical and mental centers. We enable ourselves to learn tai chi from anyone and most especially those who do not even do tai chi.
My wife and I have the fantasy of returning in some fashion to the Taoist Tai Chi Society if life affords us the opportunity. If it doesn’t we still continue our quiet cultivation. We connect with ourselves, each other and those who pass through our lives. We learn tai chi from the world around us.
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.
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.
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.
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.