Closure

Closure

Every Taiji form has a closing move (收势 shōushì), and it’s common to just think of it as the last move, or, often in reality, the ‘non-move’ that closes the form. However, a few days ago, as my wife and I were leaving our taiji group, she mentioned something that caused me to view the shōushì with renewed interest. She said that previously, after doing the closing, one or both knees felt ‘stuck,’ with a slight ache. But this time, while performing the closing move, she concentrated on ‘sinking the qi,’ by doing the move slowly and very consciously, relaxing the chest, sinking the shoulders, and relaxing the lower back, all the while feeling the energy ‘sinking’ through the body and into the ground. Done in this way, she told me, there was absolutely none of the ‘stuck’, aching feeling in the knees.

This is a lesson, perhaps, in the truth that there is nothing unimportant in the taiji form. Everything is there for a reason. Every detail has been carefully honed through reflection and experience. It’s also a confirmation of the often-encountered council that in taiji, the form itself will teach you how to do it, if you just ‘listen’ carefully. This is most obviously true of breathing. Yes, you can deliberately inhale through the yin movements and exhale through the yang movements, but many practitioners (myself included) find that by practicing the form correctly, the deep yinyang breathing will happen by itself, naturally. The movements will induce it. The form will teach. We just need to be good enough ‘listeners.’

Advertisements

The Path

path (2) (497x800)

A while ago I mentioned the Harvard history professor whose course on the Chinese philosophers had become the third most popular class after introduction to economics and computer science, and I was wishing the class could be made available online. Then in the bookstore the other day I saw a new book called The Path (a translation of the Chinese word ‘dao’) and, picking it up, realized the author was the Harvard professor, Michael Puett. Subtitled “What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life,” it is a remarkable little book that provides an almost revelatory window into what the likes of Confucius and other Chinese philosophers were up to.

The main drift of the book is that (to take Confucius as an example), instead of addressing the ‘big questions’ like the origin of life, the existence of God, what is the nature of goodness, or abstracted ethical scenarios (the runaway trolley car will kill five people, but if you pull a switch in time, it will veer and kill a single person on another track- what should you do?), the philosophy of Confucius or Mencius begins with something like “What do you do in your daily life?” or “What small repetitive acts do you spend a lot of time doing and how do you do them?” Philosophy, for these ancient sages, was always about the art of living, the pursuit of the good life. It is through paying attention to the ‘rituals’ and small actions we do everyday, instead of doing them almost unconsciously, that we build up a repertoire of goodness, and an emotional instinct for how to express goodness in any situation. Master Kong’s students were always asking him to define the good life, or to define ‘ren’ (), but he never took the bait. He would describe an act expressing goodness within a particular scenario, and the scenarios were always different. But the act was always one that was most helpful or appropriate for someone in that situation. The act or attitude might be one expressing joy, gravity, indignation, or humor, but it was always the right approach for the given situation.

As the author points out, we like to think that when we make daily decisions we do so in a very rational step-by-step fashion. But, in fact, as many studies have shown, we don’t. Much of the time there is a fair amount of feeling and emotions involved. We make decisions based on a complex and subtle blend of cogitation, past experience, and the ‘feel’ of the specific situation we are part of. Master Kong simply recognized this and counseled his students to ‘use the mind to educate the emotions.’ And this training goes on every day, and especially in very small things, like the ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ rituals, the way we greet people, even the kind of face we show a passing stranger on the street. If we ‘train’ in this way every day, in small things as well as large, Master Kong tells us, we will get much better at knowing the right expression of ‘goodness’ in any given situation. We are sages-in-the-making all, if we simply pay attention.

Be Like Water My Friend

Be Like Water My Friend

When Bruce Lee uttered those words he was talking about naturalness and fluidity in martial arts, and water also figures prominently in taiji and qigong. The taiji classics allude to it, and the late great grandmaster Cheng Man Ch’ing spoke of ‘swimming on land’ as proper form for doing taiji.

Imagining that you are moving through water, that the air is just a bit ‘thicker’ than usual, while practicing taiji or moving qigong like Eight Silk Brocades (八段锦), is an important part of using these modalities to increase sensitivity to subtle energy and, eventually, to move it and use it.

I think that, whether specifically expressed or not, this is also one of the reasons behind the urgings of many taiji instructors to “slow down.” Our taiji teacher is always saying “slower!” Especially in the beginning, slowness is required in order to feel the qi energy aspect of the practice. Of course, at times it makes sense to speed up too, especially if the martial aspect of practice is being emphasized. But mindful deliberation is extremely helpful for sensing the energetic aspects of taiji, and trying to move as though through water or ‘thick air’ seems to be particularly helpful for many people. There is also a Chinese saying “滴水穿石” dī shuǐ chuān shí : “Dripping water penetrates rock.” This saying speaks both to the power of the apparently ‘insignificant’ subtle energy of qi, and also to the patience required for mastering taiji!

So this week I’m paying attention to going slower in my practice. Swimming on land, being like water.

One of the Four Junzi

One of the Four Junzi

 

As my wife and I, two eager hobby naturalists, were driving slowly along beside a vacant field I spotted a spike of red flowers. Amateur botanist that I am, I immediately knew it was the flower spike of a native Florida orchid, so we stopped and took some pictures (including the one above).

Orchids, especially those of the Cymbidium tribe, have figured prominently in Chinese culture for thousands of years, and constitute an entire genre in traditional painting. This is probably due at least partly to it’s mention by the sage Kongzi (Confucius). He once remarked that “Orchids do not cease to emit their fragrance just because they happen to grow in a deep valley where no one treads. In the same way, the junzi does not abandon his integrity because he is alone, or because difficult material circumstances challenge him.”

Thus, for many generations, orchids have embodied the qualities of refinement of knowledge, steadfast integrity, and loyal friendship, human values integral also to the scholar-warrior way of life.

(By the way, the other “junzi” are bamboo, chrysanthemum, and plum blossom.)

Scholar, Warrior, Doctor?

Scholar, Warrior, Doctor?

From all indications, traditional medicine, embracing both herbal remedies and internal energy practices, tended to go hand-in-hand with martial arts; that is, up until recently. Martial arts masters were very often traditional doctors as well. Partly this was for very practical reasons: teachers of martial arts needed to be ready at all times to treat their students for injuries or illness. Often there were no other alternatives, especially at remote locations. Today, martial arts themselves are often understood to fall within the category of ‘holistic health’ practices, in addition to their utility for self defense. This is particularly true of those belonging to the nèijiā 内家 (internal) family: taijiquan, xingyi, bagua, and the like.

I’ve always thought China has the original ‘health food culture.’ It seems whenever I’m having a meal with a Chinese family or gathering, the health properties of at least some of the various dishes on the table become items for conversation, and, in general, nutritious food is regarded as the safest and most reliable way to help maintain optimal health. As one often hears in China: “Shíwù shì liáng yào” (食物是良药), “food is the best medicine.”

However, herbs are also held in high regard, and perhaps particularly for those aspiring to the scholar warrior way of life, since such individuals are generally looking for optimal quality of life, rather than just avoiding illness. During my last couple of stays in China, I made a point of visiting traditional doctors for health advice. I noticed that certain herbs frequently came up as being indicated for general health maintenance, or herbs that bǔ qì (补气), that is, herbs that boost one’s ‘qi’, or internal energy. Among these, one that is particularly recommended is American ginseng, or, in Chinese, ‘Western ginseng’ (西洋参), in general the most highly valued kind of ginseng in China. Botanically, this herb is closely related to Asian ginsengs, but, in its actions on the body, it is quite distinct. Alone among the ginsengs, it is frequently recommended for regular use over extended periods of time. In contrast with the sometimes harsher stimulating effects of red ginseng, American ginseng gives rise to a calmer, more gradual energy boost, experienced more as overall energy support rather then explicit stimulation. In many ways, this herb is perhaps one of the best for a scholar warrior to add to her/his arsenal of health armor.

Of course, practices such as tajiquan and qigong safely and gradually build strength and health as well. The best medicine, besides good food, is the elixir that we produce ourselves by cultivating inner peace and vitality through the mind-body modalities of the scholar warrior way.

The Way of Li 礼

The Way of Li 礼

No, that doesn’t mean following the teachings of Bruce Lee, although that may not be a bad idea. is a venerable idea that runs through the warp and woof of Chinese/ East Asian philosophy, and is particularly important for the thought of Master Kong. Li means engaging in right action for the value it has in and of itself and for one’s own spiritual health, but it also means practicing mindfulness in word and action because such behaviors influence others.

Taiji and other martial arts modalities come from cultures steeped in li and it’s associated constellation of values and rituals, and thus these mind-body paths also consistently emphasize moral integrity. In traditional martial arts, virtue and power are never separated, but are in fact interdependent: the effective and efficient application of virtue requires power, and the appropriate, life-supporting use of power requires virtue. The concept of li encompasses both.

One morning, after I had been rereading the Analects of Confucius (论语), I awoke with three words running through my mind: ‘Love, peace, power.’ I thought, “Alright, that’s an interesting mantra, but…” A couple of days later, actually while doing a Taiji workout, it occurred to me that the ‘mantra’ was a causal chain. In practicing love, or in the Master Kong contextrén (humanity, compassion), that is, shifting one’s center of concern from the individual ‘me’ to a more collective ‘we,’ we gain an almost immediate sense of peace (because we have begun to align with li). From this inner peace then comes more effective power, just as in Chinese martial arts, insistence on ‘fàng sōng’ (放松), relaxed alertness, is prelude to the effective generation of power in a context of virtuous action.

Li. A concept whose time has come, again. In these days characterized by the large scale degradation of private and public discourse and action, being an ambassador of Li, or even just plain civility, is indeed a high calling. Prime time for scholar warriors.

Feel the Qi

Feel the Qi

I first went to China to live for several years in the days when hardly any Westerners had heard of the energy phenomenon called ‘qi,’ (‘ki’ in Japanese) and you were unlikely to find even a single book about ‘qigong’ in American bookstores. But I had heard of this ‘energy work,’ and so one of the first things I did after beginning to teach classes at a Shanghai university was to ask my students if they could put me in touch with someone who could teach me qigong.

A few days after my request I was introduced to a graduate student in physics who also practiced qigong. His teacher was also the head of the Shanghai Daoist (Taoist) Association. Throughout my year in Shanghai he taught me basic qigong principles and practices. After a couple of weeks of standing practice I began to feel the odd ‘magnetic’ sensation between my hands, increased energy, and some other sensations.

However, the strangest qi experience during this period was aboard a train going from Shanghai to Guangzhou in the south. I discovered that one of my cabin mates was also a practitioner of qi arts. He told me that his teacher designed a special regimen for him that he could practice while he was studying and practicing English! At one point he said “Here, let me show you something.” We were sitting on opposite lower bunks in the cabin. He had me put one of my hands out, palm facing him, then he held his right palm about a foot away and slowly waved it back and forth, then asked if I could feel the qi. I didn’t feel anything and told him so, whereupon he briefly rubbed his palms together, blew on them, and tried again. To my great surprise, as he slowly moved his hand back and forth, I distinctly felt a wave of pressure moving back and forth over my hand. This was nothing subtle, like the feeling between my hands in my own practice up to that point. It was very clearly and suddenly there, following precisely the movement of his hand. That was my first convincing experience with the phenomenon of fa qi (发气) or fa jin (发劲): sending qi energy to a point outside one’s own body. Needless to say, after this, I continued my own practice with renewed interest and enthusiasm!

Later on, in taijiquan practice, I also discovered that one of the aims of doing taiji in a group is to increase the ‘qi field’ (气场 qichang), so that all participants can benefit from the enhanced health and energy benefits. I also discovered, in visits to places like the Shanghai Qigong Treatment Center, that fa qi wasn’t just an interesting trick, but had a real role in traditional healing arts.

So: Cultivate the qi. Feel the qi. Share the qi.