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.

8mm of Learning

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.