Reflections on a Hot Bath #1

12 12 2010

Japanese Macaques

Sitting IN a hot bath–When one stands or sits or moves in meditation, the sensation, the very first hint of the presence of qi is a feeling…in the fingertips. “Your qi is flowing.”

Western science says this sensation is the direct result of extended study. One of the foundations of internal martial arts is relaxation–Song (See “Everybody Wants Peng” When, through diligent practice, the proper amount of relaxation is achieved, a sensation is detected. Tingling or perhaps warmth is felt in the fingertips. This means the very smallest capillaries in the fingers are opening up, perhaps for the first time of years, and blood is filling them.

This is qi. Sublime relaxation.

When one steps into an excrutiatingly hot bath, a similar phenomenon occurs. But this is a sort of capillary rape. The hot water rips them open and blood rushes in. The sensation is a mixture of pain and pleasure and a mild sadness follows once the capillaries have achieved their maximum dialation.

What is qi? There are many answers and probably most of them are right. But be aware the next time you bathe.


The Power of Words

29 08 2010

Illuminated KJV Initials

Last night it was time to read an ARC for book review purposes. I opened it and began. The first letter of the first word of the first sentence of chapter one was illuminated. The word was unknown to me. Add the illumination and I was completely at a loss. Fortunately I know the fine editor of this fine book and so asked him to elucidate. He admitted that he was a bit worried about this himself and might change it in the final version.

 This thought led me astray and it was some time before I was back reading. [ Strange interlude-once I made it past the first letter the illuminated initial, I was thoroughly caught up in the novel and read into the wee hours] “So,” thinks I, methinks. We editorial types spend an inordinate amount of time worrying over a single word in a book full of words. Or do we? Then I muses on the nature of a book, I does. And I came to a conclusion that is pretty damned obvious unless you are not thinking about it.

 Every word in a book is of equal importance. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is effing true. If any word is unnecessary, then what in the hell is it doing in the book? So all those “the’s” and “and’s” and “but’s” and “I’s” mean something. And it is right and correct then, that editors fret over each and every word. I still shiver with this thought. It is as if a physicist were worrying over the existence and placement of every atom…or quark.

Aum in Tibetan Script

 Middle-of-the-night thought processes are often non-linear. So ma’ wee tiny brain does a lurch and turns right at the nearest black hole and I winds up in India, or, for my purposes, in Tibet with Aum. I was taught by a teacher in the Tibetan tradition, that “Aum” is the presence of all sounds. Every sound in the universe, or universes, is and are all expressed at the same time by pronouncing “Aum.”

 I first learned about the power of Aum through other sounds. I was studying with this same teacher, learning a most wonderful internal martial art called Tibetan Blue Heron 藍鷥拳. Lord of mercy but this is one fine fighting system. It is similar in some respects to the better-known Crane style, but there are differences. It was brought to China by a wandering Tibetan monk, Lama, Zurdwang (1530 -1620) from Quamdo, Tibet. Sometimes it feels, in the bones, like Taijiquan. One major aspect is striking at acupuncture points. It is a subtle art among subtle arts. 

American Great Blue Heron

In our warm-ups, we learned a particular meditation practice. I call it Heng-Hung. We would practice controlling our breathing and focus on our centers. As we intoned “Heng” we would mentally move our centers up into the thorax, and then on a lower note, “Hung” or maybe “Hoong” and move the center down to the dandian. We were learning to move our centers at will. Ai-ya, what a fine practice.

 And there was power in those words. Night after night we meditated and intoned the words and we gained greater control of our centers.

 At this same time I was pushed kicking and screaming and dragging my heels into a meditation class. I didn’t want to learn how to meditate. I wanted to learn how to fight. Ha, to quote my Centering teacher, who gestured with his hand indicating the large wushu practice room and 40 odd students clad in black hifus and cotton shoes, “This is all bullshit! Unless you learn meditation and centering, you will have nothing!”

 So, I learned to meditate. And we were taught a mantra. It was a mantra of prosperity and we chanted it to bring good fortune to our school. It began and ended with Aum. Now at the same time I was studying acupuncture—how can you strike your opponent’s acupuncture points if you don’t know where they are? And I learned Centering, physical and mental, and Chinese Yoga (which included the feat of using each and every muscle separately), and the manipulation of Subtle Energy. Holy Moley but I learned a lot in just a couple of years.

 So we sang Aum, and with the Heng-Hoong training we found that we could move the Aum around inside the body. Change the shape of the mouth and the pitch of the sound and use your mind and Aum moved up inside the skull and then down into the thorax and the abdomen and the vibrations could be varied and watch your breathing now, and, and it was marvelous. We learned to know and control our own bodies. How many people can say that?

 To this day I am a little cautious when it comes to saying Aum in public. The word is a word of power even if only inside my own body, and with the cavity resonance it can be loud or soft or penetrating or caressingly smooth. It is my favorite word in a career involving many, many words.

Gutenberg Bible A book, and an example of illumination

 Perhaps then, a book, with all of its words, to turn things around, perhaps a book is a fraction of Aum and in its totality and in each and every word, it is a thing of power.

Shifu John Painter demonstrates Tibetan Blue Heron techniques

Wither Goest I?

7 10 2009
Why don't you do right...

Why don't you do right...

I had a long talk with my doctor today about taking responsibility for myself and for my health, kind of the medical version of the song “Why Don’t You Do Right?” And so I have given this some thought.
Now usually when I pound out a blog it’s like “…the kid that handles the music box…” I’m hitting a jag-time tune. Typing to hear my head rattle. But this time I would appreciate some feedback.
The first “modern” television show ever to enrapture me was “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” based on stories by Max Schulman and starring Dwayne Hickman and Bob Denver. In this case I am going to assume that memory serves me correctly and if it doesn’t, well, it’s close enough to make my point.

Mr. Pomfritt

Mr. Pomfritt

I seem to recall some 50 years ago or so, an episode of Dobie Gillis wherein the quintessential teacher, Mr. Leander Pomfritt played by William Schallert, assigns a paper to his students, giving them the title “Wither Goest I?”
And the plot of that episode revolved around Dobie Gillis and his good buddy Maynard G. Krebs (the “G” stood for “Walter”) and perhaps the brainy Zelda Gilroy, (she scrunches up her nose, Dobie responds reflexively, he can’t help himself, and then he shouts at Zelda “Now cut that out!”) trying to figure out where they were going in life. Only for Maynard was it easy. He would listen to Thelonius Monk and keep going back to the movie theatre to see, again and again, “The Monster Who Devoured Cleveland.”
It seems a bit of a stretch to be asking the same question at age 60, but so be it. And the real question is plural. Wither goest I? Wither goest thou? I guess it comes back around to raison d’etre. Why am I here and what am I supposed to do? How do I know when to applaud and when to get up and go home?
These questions or perhaps reiterations of the same basic question, scare me. But just a little. I also find it difficult taking it too seriously.
antzIf a colony of ants were to produce an animated film about homo sapiens, called, maybe, “Humanz” the voice over would still have to be Woody Allen.
Humanz are inherently ridiculous. We carry on in the most asinine way, killing each other and putting up buildings, flying through the air in big tin cans, and eating stuff called Twinkies and Gogurt. Well, how can one take any of this seriously? That grain of salt better be pretty damned big.
So I ask you, what is my purpose here on this little bit of god-forsaken dirt? For that matter, what is yours? Let us leave out the “god” part though. It will just make you crazy.

Han Shan Hermit

Han Shan Hermit

Well then, procreation comes to mind. No matter what else we do, the urge to procreate is up there near the top. Huh, I have no children and will have no children. I guess the closest I ever got was either the Chinese orphans I send money to, or my various tai chi students over the years. Ha, I suppose the very, very closest would be my retired lady students. So all of my children are at least twenty years older than me. Oy, technically, I have failed to procreate.
Then how about the old saw, “Leave something to posterity?” Naw, that doesn’t work so good. One hundred years from now anything I left would be gone. Besides, I’ll be gone, so what do I care?
“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you will die.” Okay, I kind of like that as a rationale. I certainly like to eat, I definitely love to drink, and the two together makes me kind of merry. Only problem is, go back to sentence one, nu? I was talking to my DOCTOR! Already I am eating and drinking and making merry enough to kill me sooner than later. So that’s-a-no-good.
There is a certain appeal to asceticism, the lean old monk makes his way down the street, begging bowl in hand, hoping for a handful of rice…no, wait, he sits on top of the mountain communing with nature or you-know-who whilst thinking monkly thoughts or even better, not thinking at all, just being, one with the universe. Ai-ya, methinks this would get old pretty quick.
All right, let us assume that yours truly will live at least to the age of 80. If I find some golden mean between eating and drinking and that making merry stuff, and sitting on a mountain contemplating my navel, what else do I do? Why am I here?
TangoArgentinaHa, I told my doctor I would like to take up ballroom dancing, but I didn’t have the fifty bucks for a pair of shoes and I wasn’t sure my car would make it to North Seattle. Is that some great ethereal goal, learning to tango?
A great deal of my cultural background comes from Puritanism. Our ancestors all loaded onto a ship and sailed across the second biggest ocean in the world fleeing religious persecution so they could find a new land and persecute each other for not being ascetic enough and while they were at it, do their best to wipe out a bunch of natives who had been happily killing one another until we came along and gave them new diseases to worry about.
And guilt, the Puritans brought along enough guilt to choke a dozen Jewish grandmothers and all that pent up everything built like winding an enormous clock which produced so much guilty energy we unwound our way across the face of the earth spreading our beliefs like mayonnaise on white bread and doing our best to make everyone else feel as guilty and miserable as us. Ha! No wonder we drink. And right, sex is just for procreation. If it didn’t feel good we wouldn’t do it and there would be no new generations for us to nudge.
I remember from English History class, I had a wonderful professor, Wendell Knox. He told us a little story about an English saint, I think he was another St. Augustine, who was a hermit and he kept having visions of naked women, so he would throw himself into thorn bushes. Well, it kept him busy, and idle hands ARE the devil’s playground.

Maynard, Dobie, Zelda

Maynard, Dobie, Zelda

So, back to the original question. Wither goest I? Do I eat drink and make merry like crazy until I die? Do I sit up on a mountain thinking of nothing and being eaten by ferocious little bugs and maybe big brown bears? Do I exercise and restrict my diet and get all healthy so I can be fit as a fiddle when I drop over dead at the age of 88 or 130?
I truly want to know what you think and I cannot answer Mr. Pomfritt’s question all by myself. Why are we here and what do we do until bedtime?

Letting Go

5 09 2009

濘道 Muddy Road

Zen Monks on pilgrimage - art by Sato Zenchu

Zen Monks on pilgrimage – art by Sato Zenchu

Tanzan and Ekido were once travelling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.
Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
“Come on girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”
from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones complied by Paul Reps

I recently began studying tai chi with a new teacher after 12 years at the previous school. My former teacher is world class in forms competition, and was very precise in correcting us.

My new teacher is…different. His postures are not the same even if the form is one I have studied for years. I spent a long time making my postures and movements as precise as my old 60-years-plus body would allow me.

Now things are not the same. The sword may be held at a different level or the footwork is slightly changed. In the most difficult instances, the transition from one movement to the next is different.

No, the hardest thing is letting go. I firmly believe that what goes around comes around. Over the years, every sin I have ever committed against someone else has, in turn, been committed against me.

When teaching taijiquan, some of the most difficult students are those who have studied a different martial art. You show them a movement and their brain relates it to something they have learned in this other art and makes an often incorrect connection. Brains are funny that way.

“No,” I say, “that move looks the same but it is not, and the intent is different as well.”

So, here I am trying to equate what I have learned with what I am trying to learn. Fortunately, I am old enough to keep my mouth shut…well, at least some of the time. I am also lucky to have read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones umpty-gazillion times, and I give thanks that “Muddy Road” is one of my very favorites from that excellent book.

Actually, letting go of the old tai chi chuan forms is good practice for life. As we progress from birth to death we must let go of many things, more, I suspect, than all of the newer things we grasp.

To paraphrase a Harlan Ellison story, “Sometimes you have to let-be, a little.”

On top of all the good I get out of playing tai chi I am also playing at letting go. But, ai-ya, it is not easy.

Note: the Chinese characters for Muddy Road at the beginning of this are not the same as those used in the Tuttle edition of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. If my grammar creates some enormous faux pas, blame me.

Zhang San Feng

Zhang San Feng

意 Yi–Intent

22 08 2009
Pushing Hands

Pushing Hands

This was originally going to be called “moving” or “movement.” After a long period of sloth, continuing to play the tai chi chuan forms but lazily, not pushing myself, I have entered a new era of physical activity. It gets harder as one ages but easier, at the same time because the muscles are there, they just need to be reminded of their purpose.

This morning I arrived at tai chi class and my teacher, Dr. Wang, was standing by himself. He lifted his right hand in invitation and we began to play at pushing hands. Very quickly, my legs started to burn and my shoulder ached. He is a doctor, and he sensed this and we changed sides. Then we began the two handed pushing hands and I was clumsy and somewhat confused, but good old memory came through again and soon we were playing pretty smoothly, considering my under-used muscles.
Pushing Hands from Levande Stillhet

Pushing Hands from Levande Stillhet

Then into the class itself with the 42 Standard International Competition Form with shaking legs, I had to rest, often, and finally the 42 Standard International Competition Sword Form. Trying to stand on one leg with the other knee raised, pointing a sword, well I was pretty pathetic. But in the end I felt really good, more lively. I knew that more oxygen was entering my muscles and my qi was flowing better.

Driving home in the mid-morning coolness, enjoying the late-summer blue skies, I almost glowed with happiness. It feels so good to move and with purpose, and to accomplish goals–we take the glory of our bodies for granted far too often.

Taiji Jian Tai Chi Sword

Taiji Jian Tai Chi Sword

功夫 Gongfu (Kungfu), to achieve, to acquire skill through hard work, what a splendid concept. So, I was moving again and it felt good. Then why Yi, intent? In Chinese martial arts Yi is a primary concept. Simply put, without intent nothing can be accomplished. If you want a drink of water, your intention to pick up a glass must come first before your hand reaches for it. Before we acquire skill at tai chi chuan, we must begin with intent. I have a friend who “intended” on taking this class, but he said he was afraid, it had been so long and now new students and a new teacher…he did not come today. Did he have Yi? Probably not.

Driving home today I passed a young woman. She was clad in comfortable but very nice clothing and she was walking on the sidewalk. The way she carried herself, her stride her posture, her Yi and its culmination told me she was comfortable with physical activity and with her body.

Shortly thereafter, several blocks behind, along came another woman. She was decked out in what I assume is the latest jogging gear, headband, iPod strapped to her bicep, and her shoulders were lifted and tense and her elbows were thrust out and up and her body parts did not work in unison. Each section of her body was singing its own song and it was not harmonious when played together. This woman was obviously not comfortable with her body.

So we have to have the intent and then we must follow through. Just thinking about that drink of water is not enough. Intent and then the appropriate action. Two sayings come to mind: Yi 意, Chi 氣, Li 力. Intent then Internal Energy then strength or power. It all starts with intent.
Dr. John Painter, my Grand Shifu–teacher–says “The mind commands, the body moves, qi (chi) flows.” This makes the most sense to me. Intent then movement and movement produces energy. Of course this means proper movement like the young woman walking.
When I began studying the Yijing (I Ching) many, many years ago, it spoke often of the “Superior Man.” For modern times I change that, and my favorite passage is “The Superior Person stakes the force of life on following the force of will.” Ha! I tried to follow this and was knocked on my ass so many times…I did not understand the most important part, “Superior.” This didn’t work if one was not superior meaning upstanding, honest, gentle, strong…following the four virtues–Honesty, Humility, Patience, Sincerity. So equate “proper” movement with the “superior” person.
This was going to be about the glory of movement, and it still is, but first we must have Yi. Then go forward with the four virtues and celebrate your body and movement. Taijiquan is sometimes called “The Dance of Life.” Regardless of how you move, make it a dance, relax and enjoy yourself.

Dr. Painter on Yi:

The Third Virtue: Patience

11 10 2008




Naifan   (Patient)

Nai: endure, bear; resist; patient

Fan: bother, vex, trouble; troublesome

 Patience: I serve others according to their needs

Patience is the ability to wait until the time is right and to act out of a need for correct action not influenced by personal desires. When you fail, learn to rise again like the phoenix and do better the next time you practice. Understand that you are human and that making mistakes is a part of life not an indication of your lack of ability. © 2008 Dr. John P. Painter

At the end of every session of Daoqiquan training, the students “bow out” saluting the four cardinal directions and reciting the Four Virtues. The third Virtue is Patience. Many folks will say that patience is something they do not have. “I’m losing my patience!” “I’m running out of patience!” In the 1970’s there was a popular black light poster with two buzzards sitting on a cactus. One of the buzzards says, “Patience my ass! I’m gonna kill something!”

 I believe I began learning patience at the knee of my Grand Shifu, Dr. Painter. This began with meditation. I mean come on, you just sit there. And then you sit there. And then you sit some more. At the beginning of each class we sat on the mats around the walls of the kwoon and we meditated. Or we tried to.

 The body immediately began to interfere. I had to swallow, then I had to cough, then I had an itch to scratch. Then someone else would cough and I would have to cough again. This is meditation?

 But, gradually, over time, the body’s interference subsided and my mind began to calm and I came closer and closer to meditating. Then one day, it all came together and suddenly one of those light bulbs appeared in the air over my head, and I knew that I was meditating. Except, of course, by knowing I was meditating, I was no longer meditating, but it got easier and easier.

 To sit down with anxiety and calm the mind and quell the body and have time cease to exist until sometime later you stop meditating and what seemed like one second was one hour and all the fear and anger and worry has been washed out of your system–that is meditating. There are many higher levels of meditation, but this tale is about patience.

Legend tells us that Bodhidharma, an Indian monk called Da Mo in China, the monk who brought Ch’an Buddhism to China and founded Shaolin Temple, and began the Shaolin martial arts, yeah, that Bodhidharma, anyway legend says he sat in meditation for nine years. Now that is patience. But, sigh, even old Da Mo had his faults.

According to that same legend, he fell asleep in his meditation and when he awoke he was so angry with himself, he ripped off his eyelids and flung them to the ground! That is not patience. The good thing of course, is that from those eyelids grew the first tea plant.

My next step up the patience ladder was when I managed a small computer business. The owner was out all day selling and installing CAD systems while I answered the phone, did paperwork, and built computers from scratch. Or from little bitty pieces, anyway. So, lots of things can go wrong when constructing a computer. And you don’t know that anything is wrong until all the little bits reach a certain level of assembly. Then you hit the power switch and see if anything appears on the screen. Now this was the old days. RAM wasn’t just a SIMM or DIMM or two slapped into a slot, this was the days when each individual chip was inserted onto the motherboard. Lots more things could go wrong, like a bent pin.

So, I very quickly learned that if I hurriedly put the computer together, I would, most likely, have to slowly take it apart again, testing each section as I went, to find out why the darned thing didn’t work. And this led to an increase in patience. Take your time! Go slow, get it right the first time.

The other day at a tea show in Seattle I watched a Korean tea ceremony. It has a lot in common with the Japanese tea ceremony, Chanoyu. This is ritual personified. Every movement is precise and always the same and the movements are slow and there is no hurry. Please the eyes with subtle beauty, please the ears with music, please the nose with aroma, and please the palate with cha–tea. Take your time, there is no time, there is only the sound of the bubbling water and the whisk as it whips the tea powder into a lovely green froth. Patience.

 Now, I am not claiming to possess any great reservoir of patience, but merely saying that I have a lot more than I used to. And saying that there are ways to cultivate patience until, when it appears, you greet it like an old friend.

One of my favorite sayings is “When the time is right for the student to learn, a teacher will appear.” Be patient and that teacher will come.

Sun-Tzu said something to the effect, “He who must take action has lost the battle.” This does not mean action cannot be taken, but choose your time, choose your place and the battle will already be half won. Be patient.

Blaise Pascal said “All the troubles of the world stem from Man’s inability to sit quietly in his room.” Boy was he onto something.

The point here being, take your time, relax, breathe, notice what is around you, learn to un-notice what is around you, slow and steady does win the race. “I serve others according to their needs.”