Taoism in the West – part 2

It would be easy to stop there and only consider the thematic similarities. What is more interesting, in my opinion, is to look at the underlying world-view of both Taoism and the Classical World. Simultaneously we must look at the often unspoken world-view that is the foundation of our modern life. Looking at one highlights the other, and in doing so reveals the driving forces of our age.
What Taoism and the Classical philosophers had in common was the implicit understanding that the Universe was not a thing, but a process. This becomes clearer when the religious traditions of the Classical Near-East are considered. The Greek creation myth is not one of a divine act which brought our world into being, but instead a generational conflict between old and new forces. The Greek King of the Gods, Zeus, killed his father, the Titan Cronus, who himself had castrated his father, the Sky-God Uranus. Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth) had emerged from the primordial Chaos at the beginning of Time.
There is a cascade of creation and metamorphosis that finally leads to the present moment. The Gods are just as much a part of creation as the Universe itself. The day-to-day interaction of the divine forces, of Nature, and of human beings could bring yet another transformation. The Universe is in a dynamic balance between these forces.
In contrast, modern Christianity, which provides the underlying world-view of the western world for believers and nonbelievers alike, describes a universe which is fixed.  The World was created as an act of will, and any change that was made to it was a further act of Divine Will. Indeed, some arguments today against the reality of Global Warming is that we humans are incapable of changing the weather, and only God could do such a thing. The Christian world is a self-contained and immutable.
These ideas have real-life repercussions. Even the most hard-nosed Western materialist atheist has to face the facts that most of our laws of physics today assume that the Christian viewpoint of a fixed universe is correct. For example, we assume that the laws of physics are the same throughout the universe, but that assumption relies on a theological argument that the Divine Creator made a single Universe at a single point in time with unified laws. There is no evidence of this unity, it is just assumed because of a logical leap of faith. Similarly, Einstein himself was quoted as saying that “God does not play dice with the Universe.” We could ask, why not? To a Classical Greek, if the universe was the result of the conflict between divine forces, how is a metaphorical game of dice any more improbable than any other conflict?
Closer to home, these two contrasting view-points shape our view of ourselves, and of our bodies. In a fixed universe guided by a Divine Will, our condition in life, and indeed our bodies themselves, are an expression of this same Divine Will. We view ourselves as a single point of creation (our soul, or Ego), trapped in a body of animated mud descended from Adam. Again, ask any atheist about how many souls he or she has. The answers will vary between one and none. Ask a Taoist, and the answer is five. We Westerners are trapped in a Mud Body that must be beaten and shaped through effort, a body that can break and betray us. That body is “our” body (a possession, which implies separation). But it is not “us.”
To Taoists and the Ancients of the Classical world, the body is the source of transformation. It is the gateway that leads to different states of being. By using various yogas and exercises, the Taoist transforms and purifies the Essence and Qi of the body in order to develop a stronger Spirit. Similarly, the body itself is the consecrated element in a ceremony, which is why sacrifice was so prevalent in Classical times. You can only sacrifice something of value to the Divine. You sacrificed bodies and meats and drinks because they were inherently expressions of a Divine creative urge. The body is the vessel of the spirit, not its prison.
To be fair, it must be noted that this body-soul conflict emerges out of the writings of Plato, who will have an enormous influence on the development of Christianity. But the Platonic view of the Soul was not shared by all, and is indeed undercut by the creation myths common to the Classical age.
This strict duality is the next flashpoint between the two world-views. Christian (and Platonic) duality is absolute. Good is the opposite of Evil, light is the opposite of dark. Theologically, what is not of God is therefore of the Devil. There is no middle ground, and no room for negotiation. This leads us to a stark place where we are allowed the bright, clear, masculine and physical part of the world (the parts belonging to God) but denied the dark, ambiguous, feminine and numinous aspects (those belonging to the Devil). A vast surplus of Yang energies with no Yin to tame it.
In contrast, since the Classical age was patterned on Nature and therefore cyclical, the natural condition was one of flow back and forth between two opposite but complimentary states. Opposite states were seen as mirror-images of each other, complementing each other. A clear example of this is the Egyptian goddess Nut, whose body forms the dome of the sky above our heads. But she is also the link between Earth and Heaven since the land of the dead, the Duat, is in her belly. She is simultaneously the goddess of the Above-world and the Under-world, as her body becomes the place where the souls of the dead reside, and the place where the sun goes at night.. She is both above and below us.
Similarly, the god Apollo has a surprising dual nature. Often thought of as the god of the Sun, he represents light, order and knowledge. But one of the main ways to become acquainted with His divine knowledge was by going into a cave and resting quietly in the dark. The Sun God was found in the dark places of the Earth[1]. Similarly, when the Greek heroes needed wisdom, it was to the Underworld that they would travel. There they would meet Persephone, the Goddess of Death whose touch would cure you, not kill you. Again, opposites in balance. Indeed both Apollo and Persephone point at the main characteristic of the useful Gods: action. Persephone was the Goddess of Death by marriage. Her husband, Hades, was the lord of the Underworld. He embodied the order that existed in the afterlife, and was therefore fairly useless. Persephone moved back and forth between the Underworld and the Earth (thus bringing Spring every year). Apollo as the sun, appeared and disappeared every day. It was his coming and goings that granted him wisdom and knowledge. He was the god of prophesy and art as well as intellect, his brightness counteracted by the numinous and intuitive. It was Apollo’s and Persephone’s transitions that made them powerful, not their fixed state.
This leads to far healthier states of mind, in my opinion. The birth of psychology in the West was based on the analysis of the conflict between the repressed aspects of ourselves and our inherent nature. Freud called it the Id, Jung called it the Shadow. Whatever the term, by not acknowledging this buried and dark aspect of ourselves we created neurosis. Yet both Freud and Jung saw how these dark aspects were also the home of Eros, of the urge to create, the urge to love. They were essential to our well-being. In Taoism, there is no good or bad emotions, they simply are. We can be rule by them, or rule them and use them to our advantage. There is no need for shame, no reason to view our impulses as inherently wrong, or bad, or sinful. They simply are, part of the turning and churning of our internal world.
Both Taoism and the Classical Near East share a world-view which embraces duality as complimentary and necessary forces. They are changing and changeable. The universe itself, and everything within it, is changing, part of a process of creation, destruction and transformation that continues and which we are part of.
In the West these ideas were carried on by the Hermetic tradition. This tradition was always hidden from the Church authorities because of the radically different world-view it represented. These ideas were almost lost to history with the destruction of the library of Alexandria and the fall of Rome. Thankfully the Arabic scholars saved and translated these ancient Greek texts.
This wisdom re-emerges throughout history, influencing scientists like Newton (who was an alchemist) and even the political movements that lead to the Enlightenment, and both the French and American Revolutions. Hermeticism is not some obscure and forgotten philosophy. It is the thread in Western history that connects the intellectuals, scientists and revolutionaries that brought us kicking and screaming into the modern age. It is the force that stood against the closed minds of the Inquisition and the darkest impulses of the medieval Catholic Church.
At the core of all these traditions is that there exists an underlying unity to the Universe, and that we are part of it. We are more than our physical bodies. We are connected to each other and to the rest of the material world through the bonds of consciousness, through which we can witness the grand movements of a Living Universe.
These common ideas, found in ancient Egypt and an emerging China, are part of our common human heritage. The philosophies of Taoism, Hermeticism and Parmenides are not some cultural or historical curiosity. They are the closest thing we have to a truly Universal Philosophy, a philosophy of freedom of the self, of freedom of the mind, while giving us a profound connection to the Universe itself and all of it’s inhabitants. It allows us to be truly ourselves and truly divine at the same time. It demands that we question our laws, our leaders and our institutions and recalibrate ourselves according to natural laws. This is why these traditions are not part of mainstream culture. They are profoundly dangerous to whoever is in power at the time and the proponents of this philosophy have been persecuted tirelessly, whether by the Inquisition or the Chinese Communists.

[1] “In the dark places of wisdom”, Peter Kingsley, pg 82

Taoism in the West – part 1

Taoism is one of the lesser known philosophies of the East. Buddhism and Hinduism are much better know, mostly because of the mainstreaming of Yoga and public figures like the Dali Lama. Taoism remains this rather obscure and mysterious philosophy anchored in the mountains of China. Of all the Eastern philosophies, it is the most alien to us.

Despite their comparative obscurity, the ideas of Taoism are remarkably similar to the earliest philosophies of the West. Go back far enough in time, past some of the greats like Plato and Socrates, and the threads of a similar philosophy start to appear. Indeed the man who is credited with inventing philosophy itself, Parmenides, is the major proponent of these ideas.

What Parmenides was saying, back in 600 BC, was that the world was ruled by two major forces; the forces of attraction and the force of repulsion, the force of Love and the power of Strife.  Love draws together the elements, mixing them and creating new ones in an endlessly creative process. Strife on the other hand separates these same elements, returning them to their isolated but pure constituent parts. These forces were embodied in the Goddesses Aphrodite and Persephone, the Goddess of Love and the Goddess of Death. And he, Parmenides, was on the side of Death.

In terms strikingly reminiscent of the Taoist alchemist, he talks of Death, or Strife, as being the power that purifies, the power which separates the elements into their purest essence. Similarly, Taoist alchemy is dedicated to the idea of finding the purest possible elements, leading the alchemist to the powers of creation, to the purest expression of Yin and Yang. And it does so by fire and reduction, by burning away what is un-pure and mixed.

In his writings Parmenides goes one step further and reminds us that ultimately both Aphrodite and Persephone are two sides of the same coin, that each engender the other. Strife leads to a state of purity which is devoid of life, and therefore collapses onto itself, traveling back towards Love, towards a new mixing of all things. But Chaos emerges out of Love because of its promiscuous bonding, which then collapses upon itself, engendering a move towards separation, towards Strife. A perfect cycle of balanced forces, exactly like the Taiji. And again like Taoism, Parmenides hints at the singular Universe, the Wuji of the Taoists, within which the forces of Love and Strife generate life.

As Peter Kingsley says in his “In the Dark Places of Wisdom” ( pg 125) : “Each single thing that exists is being reduced to a small part of the pattern created by the interplay of night and day, of light and darkness. For those are the fundamental opposites that, as Parmenides will explain later on, repeat themselves endlessly in different combinations to produce the Universe we think we live in.” You can’t get much more Taoist than that.

Even more interesting is the concept of metis which is central to Parmenides’ approach to life. The word loosely translates as “wisdom”, but it points more to the ability to pay attention to the moment, and act accordingly. It is symbolically tied to the chariot racer, able to weave through his competitors while traveling at high speed. The mindset of the chariot driver is the mindset we are supposed to bring to life. This metis is closely related to the Chinese Ji, which also has the dual meaning or “wisdom” and “acting at the right moment with the right action”. Ji, like metis, is a core value in a Taoist’s well-lived life. Both words point towards an attention to the present, which is also the core idea behind meditation.

This link between Taoism and ancient Greek philosophy goes both ways. In the Tao Te Ching we find:

“The valley spirit, undying
 is called the Mystic Female
The gate of the Mystic Female
 is called the root of Heaven and Earth”
Verse 6

Here we have the Mystic Female paired with the Earth, just as Aphrodite is the female personification of Earth itself (Aphrodite is not just the Goddess of Love. She is the Goddess of creation, the Earth Mother).

The connections continue in time and space. We can jump to Egypt and to the God Thoth, later known as Hermes Trismegistus, the fountainhead of the Western esoteric tradition, better known as Hermeticism. This tradition is first documented in 200BC in the writing of an Egyptian alchemist and initiate in the Mysteries (an esoteric religious cult).
Hermeticism has had an incredible impact on the West. It is the source of most (if not all) of the scientific traditions we still enjoy today, including medicine, anatomy, chemistry (through alchemy), and the study of natural laws which lead to physics. But Hermeticism was also a philosophy which believed in an ensouled Universe, and a force reaching through to everything. We read in “The Emerald Tablet”, a text dating back at least to the 2nd Century AD:

What is above, is equal to what is below,
And such that is below, is equal to what is above,
To penetrate the wonders of the One;
And so as all things originate from the One,
By conquest of the One,
So all things were created by adaptation of the One
It rises from the Earth to the Heaven,
And descends back to Earth,
And receives the energy of all energies
Which will control every volatile substance
And which will penetrate all solid matter.

Also, we read in Asclepius, another Hermetic text:

“…humans think things show great differences, since human observes them separately. But if human observes the connection between them, they are actually one.”

Again, this is a profoundly Taoist idea.

The Body, connections, and the Dantians

Before we can focus on the world around us, we must focus on the world within us.

The Body is a collection of moving parts, held together by the interaction of bones, muscles, sinews, ligaments and fascia.  As we move one part of the body we pull and tug at every other part as this web of tissue is deformed by our movement. Every motion we generate is actually anchored far deeper inside of the body than we are generally conscious of. If you look at your hand and move your fingers, you’ll notice that the muscles moving your fingers actually reach all the way to the elbow.

Tai Chi invites us to look at these deep connections.

Furthermore, the Yin aspect of the body is not just physical, but mental as well. The body has it’s own structure, the way it wants to be and move. Our mental state influences and warps our bodies into unnatural shapes. For example, an emotional wound can be expressed as stooped shoulders, or a muscle tension that will simply never go away. By looking closely at the physical structure of the body we can infer this emotional baggage which we are carrying around. We can look at how the body WANTS to move, and how it actually moves. The difference is the emotional weight that it is holding on to. By identifying this emotional weight, we can learn to simply drop it.

Before we can recognize the ways that stored emotions can deform our bodies, we need to determine what the natural position of the body is. To do this we can focus on three main areas:
– The Foot-Knee-Hip connection
– The Shoulders- Elbow -Wrist connection
– The spine an head connection

When all three of these connections are seen together, they describe the body as a whole.

1. The Foot-Knee-Hip connection – “The Waist is the Commander”

The connection between the foot and the hips is literally at the root of all the other components of the body. The foot is the point of contact between ourselves and the world underneath us. The legs (and therefore the knee joints) connect the foot to the hips (and therefore the waist). The waist is where the core of the body sits. The legs are therefore the way our core connects to the Earth.

Not only does the waist support the core of the body, but it also connects to the spine and, through it, connects to the upper body as well. This is why the Tai Chi Classics say that “the Waist is the Commander.” The waist is the point where the downward push of gravity on the body meets the upward push of the legs. From there it directs the flow of energies through the body, determining their directions.

The waist, through the hips, also controls motion. All stepping comes from the waist. It is the rotation of the femur as it rotates inside the hip joint that creates the swing of the leg forward and back. That rotation is at the core of the act of stepping. All movement starts in the waist, flows through the leg and ends at the foot. This simple idea is not, however, how most of us move.

The waist connection is often blurred by two entrenched ideas that we have about ourselves; our focus on extremities and our aversion to our hips.

We tend to have a vision of ourselves as begin a tiny person living behind our eyeballs, interacting with the world around us through our hands and feet. We therefore often cut ourselves off from the neck down, forgetting that our hands and feet are connected to the rest of the body. And that the rest of the body is a actually MORE real than the illusion of the self residing behind the eyes. When it comes to moving around in space, we tend to think that it comes from the foot shooting forward and pulling the rest of the body with it. We walk foot first, forgetting that in reality the movement comes from the hip. This is our outwards-directed (or Yang) view of ourselves.

On top of this outwards directed view is the Western prohibition towards fully engaging the waist. There are a lot of emotionally sensitive areas around the hips, from genitals and anus to love handles and clenched buttocks. We are told that everything “down there” is dirty, or is the source of our failings. The waist, in the West, is a weak point. In fact, the waist is the source of our strength. This is where you can find the core muscles and, through the hips, connect to the power of the leg muscles. But in order to access this strength, we must learn to engage the waist and open the hips. It is therefore extremely important to pay attention to the waist and hips as we move around. Are the legs turned inwards, closing off the waist? Are the feet landing close together when you step due to an inward turn of the hips? Are they too far out? Pay attention to the hips first in order to discover what physical tension is deforming the act of stepping.

Once the hip joint is engaged, the knees and feet have to be looked at too.

The knee is a joint which can only work one way. It opens and closes the leg, but cannot rotate side to side without causing stress on the ligaments that surround it. It is therefore enormously important that the knees are always in line with the hips. This means that a turn of the knee should really be a turn of the waist. When knee and hip are not aligned it is usually because the hip is not being engaged in the movement.

The ankle is more flexible than the knee so the foot has a greater range of motion. But the foot is also the way the body indicates your intent. Feet that are pointed inwards show a closed off, conflicted intent.  Feet pointed out tend to show a diffused, unfocussed intent. The feet should point in the same direction as the hips. As the hip move, so do the feet. In order to keep a connected Foot-Knee-Hip connection, a turn of the foot should really start in the hip. A turn of the hip pulls the knee to the inside or the outside, which in turn turns the foot in that direction. When this does not happen it is often because the intent of the motion is unclear, or stunted in some way. Maybe you would like to step forward, but fear or anxiety hold you back. The step itself will reflect that conflict; the foot will not point in the direction of travel but curve in or out instead, pulled by the opposing emotions.

By examining the simple act of stepping , you can discover the ways in which ingrained emotional baggage is deforming the natural functions of the body.

2. The Shoulder-Elbow-Wrist connection – “Hollow the chest”

The shoulders are the mirror image of the hips; they too are connected to the spine, and from them extend two limbs. In the same way that the hips connect us to the ground through the legs, the shoulders connect us to the outside world though the arms. The main difference is one of direction of force; the hips receive the weight of the body through the spine, but the shoulders hang from the spine.

The connection between the shoulders and the spine is crucial. Without it, the arms are floating in space with no way to push or receive a push. The spine needs to be engaged to transfer the energy from the arms through the spine, through the waist, through the legs and into the ground. To connect the shoulders to the spine is to “Hollow the chest”. This means to round the chest so that the shoulder blades lay flat against the back. This is done by hollowing the chest (NOT slumping the shoulders!); the sternum is brought inwards as the shoulders roll forward slightly, rounding the back.

The connection of the elbows to the shoulders is similar to the one between the hips and knees. Like the knees, the elbows can only rotate in one direction. In order to move the elbow up or down, you have to engage the shoulders. If the shoulders are relaxed, the elbows sink down. Elbows that “float up” are an indication of tension in the shoulders.

The wrist, like the ankle, has a great range of motion. The hand, like the foot, indicates intent. For this reason the wrists should never be limp, but instead the hands should be “alive” with intent. The turn of the palm (either up or down) is connected through the elbow to the shoulder, and through the shoulder to the back. The hand can therefore be connected to the entire body instead of being simply that floating thing you use to touch the world.

3. The Spine- Head connection – “the head as if pulled up by a string”

The connection between the head and the spine is really the connection between the sacrum and the cervical vertebra connecting the skull to the spine. The spine is the spring that connects these two points. It can be either stiffened, allowing force to be transmitted up and down,  or relaxed, allowing the spine to twist and turn. For the spine to be effective, it must connect the body together. It connects the body to the vertical, keeping us upright, and connects the body to itself. The shoulders and hips can work together because the spine is there to transmit the power generated by one to the other. The spine is a both a conduit and a support.

In order to be effective in these two functions, the spine needs to be straightened. The spine has three curves in it, curving out at the shoulders and in at the waist, as well as the natural curve of the neck. Making as if “the head is pulled by a string” is to tilt the head slightly forward in order to release the pinch where the skull meets the spine. This is down by lengthening the neck, flattening it slightly. That slight tilt opens up that joint. Do not overdo it or you’ll over-extend the neck instead of opening it.

The upper back remains rounded, but the lower back needs to curve in the opposite direction. The curve of the lower back is under tremendous pressure. The weight of the upper body compresses that area. To solve this problem, we tuck in the tailbone, tilting the hips forward just enough to straightened the lower back. Too much and you are creating a curve in the opposite direction, so beware of over doing it. The buttocks should be able to relax and not clench. The knees bend slightly in order to allow for the hips to pivot. This allows for the waist to connect to the lower back instead of the back simply resting on top of the waist. The sheet of muscles going across the lower back can expand and support the body instead of being pinched.

The head indicates intent (and especially the eyes within the head). It should face the direction is which energy is being projected. It is important that the intent is expressed through the eyes, and that they not become “dead”. If you forget the head and let it sit like a rock on top of the neck, the energy will not rise up along the spine and the movements of the body will be without spring. The body is relaxed but the intent is vibrant.

Each of these three connections have a center, a point from which movement emerges. These are the waist, the chest, and the head. We will be talking of these three points as the three Dantians, a Chinese term which is usually applied to energetic centers during Taoist meditation. We will talk about this energy, or Qi, later on. The three Dantians are called Lower, Middle and Upper Dantians, linked to the wait, chest and head respectively.

The important idea here is that these Dantians represent not just a specific point, but a center of motion, the place where physical energies are transformed. So for example the Lower Dantian is centerers around the hips, but is really the area of the waist where the hip joints, lower back and crotch work together to transform and direct the energy provided by the legs.

Similarly, the Middle Dantian is centered roughly around the sternum, but is really the connection between the upper back, the shoulder joints and the chest. The physical motion of the legs is directed by the Lower Dantian and transmitted through the spine to the Middle Dantian. The Middle Dantian then directs that motion, this kinetic energy, and transforms and directs it.

The Upper Dantian is centered behind the eyes, and in this physical aspect controls the direction in which we look. It prevents the head from being whipped to-and-for by the spine as we move around. Instead the Upper Dantian, the head, is an independent agent, capable of turning in different directions than the body ( by looking to the side, etc..)

We will later see these three Dantians as the central points of the energetic body. At this point what is important to remember is that they are points of focus, not necessarily physical points in the body. But they are crucial elements in the correct practice of Tai Chi.

Life and the Tao

My wife is pregnant and soon to give birth to our baby girl. This has included many doctors visits and recently a class covering the birth process. Thankfully many things have changed in the last few decades, and giving birth is no longer seen as a medical procedure, but as a natural act that needs medical supervision. At least, as long as the doctor is willing to give up control and let Nature guide the process.

Three issues keep coming up that reminded me of the lessons of the Tao; movement is life, Nature is wise, and the vertical as the central axis of our lives.

The birthing process is all about the fetus moving into position. The baby is active within the womb. In fact, she guides the whole process by the position that she gets herself into. Even the birth itself is an act of will on the part of the new-born. She tucks her head under the pubic bone to “dive” under and out of the birthing canal. At no point is she not moving and active.

Similarly, the mother gains by being as active as possible. Despite decades of misinformation and forced bed-rest, women are now starting to reconnect with the natural impulse to move during the birthing process. There are astonishing stories of women having easy, almost pain-free births and what they all shared in common was a history of movement, of dancing. Women with belly dancing training did the best. Some women  even spontaneously started dancing and shimmying in the hours before birth because movement was the only thing that relieved the pain. Movement is literally life; it is what distinguishes the living from the dead, and is the engine that propels all the natural processes around us and in us.

Nature, in her wisdom, has provided us with most of the answers we need. We often get into trouble wen we add a layer of Ego to our lives. In the birthing process, doctors decided that they should be in charge. They positioned the mothers-to-be in unnatural position because it allowed the doctors to be comfortably seated, no matter the added discomfort to the mothers. They made the rhythms of birth change to fit their schedules. In the doing this they made birth longer, more painful and more traumatic than it needed to be.

But Nature had her own way of doing things, where one step led to the other, where the movement of the baby led to a quicker birth, where the body knew what and when to do its thing. All we have to do is be guided by the natural rhythms of our own bodies and Nature’s logic is revealed. It is awe-inspiring and humbling to see the intricate mechanism of life as it proceeds apace, our ego an upetty guest in the whole process.

And finally the whole process is a search for the vertical. The baby aligns herself for a dive out of the womb into the air. The birth itself is greatly eased if gravity is allowed to help, and yet we fight it. We tell mother to lie down. We recommend bed rest, immobility, horizontality when life around us says move and stand up.

Gravity is the vertical line going through our life. It defines our bodies – they are built around that vertical. It defines our movements – we move forward by falling from foot to foot. It defines our mental world – above is good, light, Divine; down is bad, dark and Infernal. In ancient Babylon they built ziggurats to rise up to the Heavens. The Egyptians built pyramids, the Buddhist stupas, the Christians their cathedrals. Everyone looks up to find the Divine.

We must engage the vertical in ourselves because it is the only way to know we are engaged correctly with our bodies and our lives. Think of the ways we express dark emotions, how we are warped and bent by guilt, fear, trauma. We are upstanding citizens when we can stand tall and keep our chins up. We can deal with our fears, our shyness, when we pull the shoulders back, when we realign with the natural vertical of the spine. Drop the tension we carry and the shoulders drop, the hands fall and rest by our sides.

We are fully ourselves when we express the vertical line that connects our head to our feet. The old Taoist masters would say that we ARE the ziggurat, the pyramid and the cathedral. We stand along the vertical line that connects Heaven and Earth because we stand as the connection between them.

So pull those shoulders back and help keep up the roof of Heaven above our heads.

Self defense for the introverted

Tai Chi, like any other group activity, suffers from a certain attrition. People come to class, try it out for a bit, and then leave. Other students immediately “get it” and stay for years. There is no clear rhyme or reason to this. Some get it , and some don’t. Such is life.

But a conversation with a student brought this fact into sharper focus. The real distinction is between people who are committed and enjoy introspection, and those who don’t. Tai Chi requires the student to spend long periods of silent self-analysis, with low stimulus and a slow rhythm. In short, paradise for the introverts.

Extroverts, not so much.

We could stop the discussion right here; Tai Chi and most Chinese internal martial arts are for introverts. The rest is for the extroverts. Since the health benefits of Tai Chi are recognized by the Western doctors, a few elderly extroverts are usually sprinkled among the quiet crowds of introverted Tai Chi players.  But there is something else.

Tai Chi becomes a practice of self-defense for introverts. Not just in the physical sense, but in a broader full-life approach. By this I mean that in the relentlessly extroverted modern life we are pushed into, Tai Chi teaches us life skills to deal with the life-draining frantic energies that surrounds us.

The core idea in Tai Chi is that we have a center, or more precisely an axis, which remains still and stable no matter what life throws at us. The meditative aspects of doing the form train the mind to remain still as the body moves through space. When we progress to Push Hands, the training becomes more intense. We now have to remain still and calm as we are physically moved by someone else. Finally on a spiritual level we discover an eternal and productive Stillness, the Tao, to which we can remain connected at all times.

Tai Chi becomes both a safe haven and a training ground for the introverted among us, and the extroverts who might need a little mental space from time to time.

Can studying Tai Chi turn you into a Jedi?

George Lucas’ STAR WARS movies were obviously influenced by basic Taoist ideas. Luke’s training by Yoda reveals what used to be the ideas behind the Force: an omnipresent force underlying the existence of all living things, connecting all living things in a vast network. That network is accessible to certain people who train in the proper way. And you get a light saber.
Then the nerd-rage sets in when Lucas wrecks the whole thing and makes it just some blood-related phenomenon, creating an elitist class of super-people whose abilities ( and therefore wisdom!) is inaccessible to the masses. The whole point of Taoism ( and the previous definition of the Force) is that it is accessible to ALL, and all it requires is the dedication and the training.
Tai Chi training is the closest thing to Jedi training you can get on Earth without the help of a diminutive alien with bad grammar. You learn to calm the mind and to connect with the Tao, but you also train your body and learn an ancient and mysterious martial art. And people will definetely call it an obsolete religion, but it’s illegal to Force-strangle them. But you can rest in the knowledge of the value of studying a body of knowledge that has inspired 3000 years of philosophers and martial artists simultaneously.
And you get a sword
How cool is that?!


The Steps of Yu

I recently discovered the Steps of Yu.
Yu was a man in the prehistory of China, a man tied to its shamanic roots. He could transform into a bear, predict the weather and change the course of rivers. He is also considered one of the first Taoist saint.
Yu also danced the patterns of the stars, especially the Big Dipper which was considered sacred. The pattern he traced with his dancing was an invocation launched to the gods of the Heavens.
I’m charmed by the thought of a modern Tai Chi practitioner and Yu, separated by 4000 years of history, both slowly moving though divine patterns, in search of some cosmic connection.

An interesting take on the Tao Te Ching


From “The Archdruid Report” blog:

“The Tao Te Ching has been translated into English more often than any other book, and the title has received nearly an equal diversity of renderings. I’m convinced that most of this diversity comes out of our own culture’s stupidity about systems, for when it’s approached from a systems perspective the title – and indeed the book – becomes immediately clear. Tao comes from a verb meaning “to lead forth,” and in ancient times took on a range of related meanings – “path,” “method,” “teaching,” “art.” The word that most closely captures its meaning, and not incidentally comes from a similar root, is “process.” Te is used for the character, nature, or “insistent particularity” of any given thing; “wholeness” or “integrity” are good English equivalents. Ching is “authoritative text,” perhaps equivalent to “classic” or “scripture” in English, though the capitalized “Book” captures the flavor as well as anything. “The Book of Integral Process” is a good translation of the title.

Replace the early Chinese philosophical terminology with equivalent terms from systems theory and the point of the text becomes equally clear. Here’s chapter I:

A process as described is not the process as it exists;
The terms used to describe it are not the things they describe.
That which evades description is the wholeness of the system;
The act of description is merely a listing of its parts.
Without intentionality, you can experience the whole system;
With intentionality, you can comprehend its effects.
These two approach the same reality in different ways,
And the result appears confusing;
But accepting the apparent confusion
Gives access to the whole system.”

This is applicable to our Tai Chi practice, especially when considering the intentionality aspect of seeing the effects (application) versus the whole system (form).

For the full article (most of it is less relevant to Tai Chi) see: http://www.thearchdruidreport.blogspot.ca/2011/02/overcoming-systems-stupidity.html



• Tai Chi and the Art of war

When discussing the Taoist roots of Tai Chi, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching is usually brought up. It’s seen as the defining document of Taoism and the source of the philosophy underlying the principles of Tai Chi. The imagery of flowing water, and softness overcoming the hard, comes from the Tao Te Ching.

But there was another document that came out of the same time period.  Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, like the Tao Te Ching, was first brought to light around the Warring State Period, around 500 BC.

Both Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu might not have existed. Some researchers claim that both are simply the names assigned to compilations of older texts, edited and assembled around the same time. And both texts are aimed at an educated and elite readership.  The Tao Te Ching was written for a prince, as a guide to good leadership. The Art of War was written for generals.

Both texts seem to be drawing from a common pool of wisdom, an oral tradition that predates both texts by possibly a millennia. The I ching, which is commonly attributed to the 2nd millennia BC, first introduced concepts such as yin and yang, trigrams, Bagua , and the basic nature of reality being change and balance.

Both make morality a cornerstone of their work, and adherence to the Way as the most efficient means of achieving one’s goals. They both describe the wise man as someone who has transcended his ego, whose actions are in synch with the natural ways of Nature.

In essence, they both describe how a Taoist “physics” is applied in their respective field, statesmanship and war craft, a sort of unified set of rules that can be applied equally to internal conflicts and external ones, to politics or to enlightenment.

Both authors see these rules as practical guidelines to be applied in daily life. Both describe an inherently virtuous world which has been corrupted by Man’s ignorance of the Way. And here the Way, the Tao, is adherence to the rules of Nature. The lesson is simple; live in accord with the laws of Nature, and Nature will provide you with a life of peace and equity.

It must be remembered that both books were written during the Warring State period, when war and conflict raged across the land. There must have been a strong desire for peace and order, and for a way to understand the events unfolding across the Chinese landscape. But the Warring States demanded a hard-nosed accounting of all facts, of Nature’s bounty and Man’s potential for cruelty.

Thus the tiles of the books: The Tao Te Ching can be translated as “ The Classic of the Way and Power”, and SunTzu’s work can also translated as “The Art of Conflict”. These are not books describing castles in the clouds.

If we turn to Tung Ying-chieh’s  Secret Method we see:

In Tai Chi Chuan the ability to cultivate oneself physically and spiritually, but not to defend oneself, is civil accomplishment. The ability to defend oneself, but not to cultivate oneself, is martial accomplishment. The soft Tai Chi method is the true Tai Chi method. The ability to teach people the art of self-cultivation and self-defense, both cultivation and application, is complete civil and martial Tai Chi.

Here we see the teachings of the Tao Te Ching and the Art of War married together in Tai Chi. Both aspects need to be present in order for the practice to be complete.