"Cultivate spirit through ordinary affairs in daily life.
No need to do spectacular, grand events."
I saw this on the Wa-Qi website today. Don't know to whom the credit belongs, but I like it:
"Cultivate spirit through ordinary affairs in daily life.
No need to do spectacular, grand events."
"Because mankind has lost its mind, which we freaks have been desperately trying to find. And while he strove be stronger, he simply ended up being the monster. Well, I guess we're just mutants of this here monster." Jim Dandy Mangrum
What a world we inhabit. As I write this, I am truly concerned about the mental health of our planet.
I was listening today to a report on NPR about a community of Hasidic Jews living in fear, in Williamsburg, NY. Hasidic Jews originally moved to this area because it was welcoming and safe. Now, in this age of Nationalism and White Power, they are being harassed, threatened, and killed.
Just last week, a man walked into a Texas church, began shooting and was taken down with a single head-shot by one of the parishioners.
Right here in the relatively small Southern town in which I live, young men are shooting and killing each other in a manner reminiscent of Chicago or LA.
And just last night, the CIA and Pentagon carried out an intentional drone strike against the number two figure in Iran, a move certainly to make the world less, rather than more, safe.
These are all events of the last few days.
The thing is, I don't consider myself paranoid or fearful. I don't think I'm alarmist. I'm not advocating for government-administered change or evangelical revival. I fully support the right to bear arms, but I wonder if our national gun culture has gotten out of control. It's not law-abiding citizens I worry about, it's nut jobs, punks, gangsters, and Nazis that concern me. More gun laws won't fix crazy, because the folks doing all this shooting could care less about the law. And I don't really believe we can live in a world without some military, but it seems the Department of Defense has for some time been more concerned with offense. What really concerns me is not politics and laws, but the collective insanity that has seemingly taken over our world.
This is the beginning of a new decade. For the most part, I truly believe the last decade was in many ways fabulous. And I believe the future has unlimited potential. But I am concerned about the world-wide fascination with violence. I find it unsettling that one can't walk through a department store without the feeling of being on patrol. Now that applies to school, concerts, and church for God's sake. I am not a Social justice Warrior--far from it. But I am concerned about the world we live in and I admit it is sometimes hard to find the optimism needed to see through the haze. But that is what I intend to do: be faithful and promote peace in my own way.
I have more to ponder on the current situation of the world. I wonder why bigots don't have anything better to do. I can't help but wonder what first century followers of Jesus would have done had they been in the recent Texas Church situation. I don't understand the world these young men live in who are always armed, and take such a nonchalant view of life. And I no longer wonder if, but when, our idiotic foreign policy will backfire in such a manner as to equal all the hell we have unleashed across the globe in the last 100 years. God save us when it does.
In the meantime, I believe we can empower ourselves and be conduits of change by example. We can live in alternative community, right here among the insanity. Not brick and mortar communities of separation, but communities of ideas, ideals, and living examples of peace and harmony even if said community only exists in the recesses of our minds, exemplified through our actions. In short, we don't have to join the insanity.
We have numerous practices for intentionally moving energy through the body, and they serve many different purposes. To a large degree, these practices help with meditation, especially for the beginning practitioner, as we engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to calm monkey mind. But energetic practices obviously shouldn't be limited to pre-meditation, or to beginning practitioners. Nor should one proceed with the idea that energetic practice is necessary for stillness. Energetic and meditation practices are mutually supporting, interrelated practices.
Energetic practices work well to set up the conditions for stillness. But the meditation practitioner is advised to cultivate mindfulness at all times, to understand that the state of stillness is our natural condition. The practice of meditation and and any of the various preliminary practices help to pull back the veil that hides this fact. So the experienced meditator may be able to drop into this natural state at any time, or better, to abide there all or most of the time. But that doesn't negate the function of energetic practices. Depending on the specific practice, we can still heal the body, harmonize the nervous system, increase martial skill, improve attention, etc... with energetic practices. In short, they can be utilized independently of one another, or as complimentary practices.
Further, there are richer relationships between energy and spiritual practice that tend to blur any sense of separation, but are beyond the scope of this short blog post. These are not to be ignored, as advanced practice can open possibilities that are hard to imagine and even harder to describe. While we can utilize these practices separately, we also learn there really isn't any difference in an absolute sense. This is where an understanding of Taiji (Yin-Yang) theory comes into play. One can't have movement without stillness and vice versa. So it's ultimately not a question of movement or stillness, but a concern of the quality of a balanced, holistic practice.
Understanding the basic usage of internal energy and the relationship between energy and stillness is fundamental Kung Fu, or basic skill development that we need always nurture. As in all practice, to advance we should always work on the basics, as that is where the real skill lies. As we advance, working on basics shouldn't be redundant or boring, but revealing and reassuring. If we look, we may notice that yin and yang are not separates but different phases of one continuous process. In the end, it's all Qigong.
My inclination has been to chart my own course, despite what the Universe has in store for me. The inevitable result is frustration as I resist what will happen anyway. One would think that at some point I would realize the futility of it all. And somehow, even with a clearer and more open mind, I still see the same thing unfolding, although so very different. I am at the point where I think the old Zen ideal of simply being is the only real "Way" of consequence. The key point to this is being comfortable with paradox and not-knowing. Life is basically a big question mark. As soon as the question is answered, the context changes so the original question and answer are not at all relevant. We don't ever get smart enough to second-guess, or even understand the process. The best we can do is surrender.
It's really simply after all.
"Be still. Stop struggling. Enter the holy shrine of your heart, and there find peace and joy. You have always been perfect and you will always be perfect. There's absolutely nothing you have to delete or add." Robert Adams
"Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." John Lennon
I have for sometime now, been dedicated to training/practice on a daily basis (as much as possible). I sometimes even work out temporal plans for an upcoming week. For example: Taiji form and Sabre practice on Monday; Hatha Yoga on Tuesday; Strength training on Wednesday; Hunyuan Qigong on Thursday; Taiji form on Friday; Strength training on Saturday; Sunday rest-day; with of course, meditation and some form of yogic exercise every day: Qigong, Tibetan Yoga, Pranayama, Dao Yin, etc...
Some version of this plan makes for a good schedule for me. When it works. However, what often happens is my ideal plans get altered in favor of life demands. It is at this point that the real practice begins. Training is important, and sticking to lifestyle regimes is important. And I do. However, when life has plans of its own, we have to ask: why do we do this anyway?; why do we train?; what are we practicing for?
For me, physical and energetic training are important, but they are nothing less than embodied mind training. If we see ourselves as whole entities, we can't really, in the end, divide ourselves into mind-body, three treasures, or anything else. When we are engaged in physical practice, we are also engaged in mental practice, and vice-versa. Further, we are training to live life. And the ultimate aim of life is love. So, when we are faced with challenges, we must respond with love. When work demands or family situations divert us from our physical and/or spiritual routines, we are blessed with opportunities to apply our training. Such situations are not diversions. They are the meat of life.
The life we live is the life we have. it is good to be intentional, but it is also good to be realistic and understand that we have not, do not, and will not control all aspects of life. We must be good at being appropriately proactive and intelligently reactive. To do that, we need to understand just a little how life works. Once we find our True Center, we find it's not outside of us. It's not in the past, nor the future. And it really has very little to do with the day-to-day activities we are involved in. We can learn to cooperate with the nurturing aspect of the Universe, but we must learn as well that we can't control it. Nor should we even want to. Once we become acquainted with our higher aspects, that of Ultimate Reality residing within us, of which we are part and parcel, we see that all is well in this world. We can do our best to live engaged and intentional lives, but we do well to understand that doing so is based more on internal understanding than it is external manipulation. In short, we should be centered and go with the flow.
This is what I called applied training. So, on those days when life doesn't allow me time to meditate or work on my Taiji form, I know that this is the time to apply the training. When family obligations override training plans, it is time to respond with love, to utilize that Center we so fondly nurture in practice. When it's all said and done, all we really want is to live life the best we can.
Samsara is Nirvana. Waking up is as ordinary as swatting flies. It doesn't require beads and robes, exotic names and ceremony. It doesn't require anything, really. It's just ordinary and simple. I imagine we encounter sages all the time throughout our lives, we just don't recognize them because we are seeing bus drivers and beggars, lawyers and nurses. Imagine Jesus sitting on the bank of a river, or a lake in the park, fishing with a cane pole. They say Babaji lives in a Himalayan cave. Surely he isn't looking for anything, or drilling yoga in search of enlightenment. Or consider Han Shan, wandering the Chinese countryside, writing poetry on the side of barns with broken pieces of coal. To borrow from Joan Osborne, "What if God was one of us?" Could we then slow down and take it easy?
Truth is a product of perception, not necessarily of looking, searching, struggling. Our practices and paths, while quite precious to us, have limited value in terms of Ultimate Reality. Maybe we should be willing to ditch them altogether in order to find what has been right under our noses for all of eternity. At best, we can reconsider their purpose, or even better realize that everything is Dharma, that everyone is our teacher, and all our teachers are Satgurus.
There is a flame, a fire below the cauldron, which ever burns, but is not always utilized. It is the internal fire of change, the motive power of transformation.
This fire refines the inner metal, burning off impurities and attachments that we might see clearly, move smoothly. The components of the flame are alignment, balance, timing, the coordination of the various jin, the intensity of intention.
The initiation of action, the form, is the spark of ignition. The burning is unmistakable at the flame tears through the central channel, searching for fuel and initiating change. And when the flame dies down, after it has burned out, we are never the same.
In my approach to Taiji-Qigong all training is subjective. Our abilities, our goals, the visible reality of our goals, the meaning of these goals, even having goals at all is subjective. Setting an objective standard is a game-stopper and a sure fire way to alienate people who may otherwise benefit from the practice.
My biggest frustration as a teacher, if I have any at all, is getting across the idea that we are all different and that is OK. I don't expect everyone to be able to do the same things the same way. I don't expect anyone to progress at any speed other than what is typical for said person when he/she is doing his/her best. Our bodies know what they need--much better than we do, much better than our teachers do. It is sad to me to see students who think they are struggling, and are holding up the rest of the class. First of all, struggle is a mental construct. You only struggle if you believe you struggle. Second, there is no holding up the class, because there is no where to go. The benefits of practice are found in the practice, not at the end of practice. No one is or should be in a hurry. If they are, they have also misunderstood the nature of this practice. If I have said it once, I've said it a million times: the means are the end.
The way to progress is through diligence, humility, and surrender. That includes surrendering expectations. We should all just go with the flow, flow with the wind. Take a step, then take another. If you feel the pace of things is too fast, slow down and go at your own pace. If you think the pace of things is too slow, slow down and look really close at every single movement, every breath, every intention. You may find it's not going slow enough.
Taiji-Qigong practice should be fun, relaxing, and energizing. Let it.
There is one sure fire way to not progress in practice, and that is to not practice. Yet ironically that is something we often see in "practitioners". Often, these are the practitioners who have the most pressing questions in class or during workshops, the most doubtful about this, that, or the other thing. And they are as well the practitioners who will jump from workshop-to-workshop, style-to-style, retreat-to-retreat looking for the right thing to answer the same inner questions we all have. What they are less likely to do is practice hard, on their own, on a regular basis.
Training is not medicine. Medicine is something you go to for a relatively quick fix when nothing else works. There are times when medicine is necessary for all of us. Training is something else altogether. The practitioner who does her yoga asana/Taiji form/gym routine/meditation/Qigong sequence (whatever the preferred practice) on a regular basis like clockwork will progress. This is a given certainty. The practitioner who only goes to class once or twice a week (or month) will never progress at the same rate. There is no hacking of the process.
In recent years there has been a renewed interest in psychedelics and jungle medicine as a type of bio-hack, a quick way to reach understanding about oneself and the nature of reality. There is some validity to this approach under certain circumstances, and it certainly has a place for some people as a part of the path. But I question any shortcut to growth as a final approach. I fully believe that eventually we have to do the work. Faddish diets for quick weight loss; supplements for quick muscle development; energy medicine for physiological/psychological relief; psychedelics for enlightenment--all of these approaches may work in a certain context, but as hacks they are just shortcutting the work of discipline, which will need to happen sooner or later.
I have said many times, there is no means to an end, the means are the end. The thing you are looking for in practice is found in the training itself. Embracing discipline will reveal your higher self. The purpose of the path is for it to become so routine that it isn't a path at all. Arriving is found in the striving, but once you stop moving the need arises again and again. Concurrently, looking for satisfaction through a hack will lead to another hack, and another. So what is your chosen path?
Rodney J Owen