Saturday, January 30, 2010

Exploring Qigong

This is the first of in-depth series of entries exploring Qigong. For those of us practicing the Internal Martial Arts, Qigong serves as a foundation. However, I want to clarify what Qigong is, at least to some degree. Qigong is not Taiji. Although we often write Taiji as Tai Chi, that does not signify that Tai Chi is another form of Qigong. Taiji is translated as grand extreme. Therefore, Taijiquan is also known as grand extreme boxing, or grand extreme fist. The grand extreme of Taiji is yin and yang. Quan is translated as boxing or fist. So, Taijiquan is a martial art based on the extremes of slow and fast. The popular Yang styles of Taiji that are slow and meditative that most people are familiar with are fairly recent modifications of Taijiquan. True Taijiquan of the Chen variety, or the original Yang style of Yang Luchuan have a mix of slow meditative movements and rapid fast discharges of energy know as fajing. In its original intent the slow of Taijiquan compliments the fast, and vice versa. Taijiquan was primarily developed as a martial art. That being said, it is also a healing art and a meditative art, among many other things. But, my point here is that Tai Chi is not just another form of Qigong. It is much more. But given that, Qigong is a part of what Taiji is, and is not only a foundation for Taijiquan, but a foundation for many martial arts, and an art in and of itself.

Qigong may be the most complete natural healing art known to man. And while it may be mysterious to many, it is actually quite simple and very effective. The types and forms of Qigong range from static sitting and standing meditation to very intricate choreographed forms, and yes even Taiji when practiced with healing intention. Ironically, the simplest Qigong, standing meditation, can be the hardest, especially for beginners. But it can also be the most rewarding once one is comfortable with it. Conversely, the more complicated forms can also be very enjoyable to the more experienced practitioner, but are probably no more effective for healing than the simple movement forms. The key to Qigong is not necessarily in the complexity or simplicity of the various approaches as much as it is in the intention and deliberate practice.

While Qigong has been often presented as something mysterious, mystical, or possibly dubious, it is in reality a very practical and effective healing art grounded in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and subjected to Evidence Based Trials in the West that have proven its efficacy to the skeptical Western mind. Qigong is physical exercise, breath control, meditation, and Qi management techniques all rolled up in one system. Beyond the medical field of application, Qigong has spiritual applications or forms, practices that enhance martial training, and techniques that serve to assist the elderly and physically challenged with balance and coordination.

While Qigong is a part of a total training system for me and many others, it is a system in and of itself. There are people who only train in Qigong, who only practice Qigong, and people who daily use Qigong as a tool to heal others. It is a very broad and very deep system. And one that is worthy of serious attention and study

Friday, January 29, 2010

On the Injured Reserve

So I find myself on the bench. The injured reserve list. I pulled a muscle in my calf last week and it has sidelined me for a while at least. It is not bad enough that I need surgery, but it is bad enough that I can't walk normally without a lot of pain. I can't walk abnormally without a little pain. So after mentally wrestling with myself and subduing my ego, I have decided to take it easy, easy, easy lest I mess myself up good. This means no unnecessary movement, like Taiji. After the first couple of days I did try some simple Qigong, and very soft wave hands and repulse monkey. But it just isn't meant to be. I have more pain than I thought I would, which is a great indicator that it's time to sit for a while. So I am reduced to sitting meditation, homeopathics, grape juice and those martial arts books that I can't resist buying but never have time to read because I spend all my spare time practicing.

There is in this a lesson and a blessing in disguise, as in all things. And I have time to discern that. In the meantime I can catch up on some reading and practice sitting. Which are both things I need to do. I have been experiencing a lot of personal change over the last six months, and I'm sure that process is far from over. So I can use this time to reflect and consider where I want to take my training from here. Once I can start moving again I will be doing more Qigong, which is something else I feel I never get enough of. So, at the very least I have time to catch up on some reading, practice sitting, and begin more Qigong practices. Well, maybe this isn't so bad after all.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Impotence of Words

I made substantial progress in my training this past week. I should leave it at that and end this post right here. Because the progress I made is not very explicable. The progress was internal, and like all things internal, external words never do justice. Specifically Monday night's Aikido class and Wednesday morning Taiji were instructive. I crossed a point, hit a new plateau. Although in each case the point was different, it essentially is the same thing. At least part of the process was in my ability to leave my self, my ego, at home and give in to the movement. Of course that is what we strive for, and I can say I have made progress over the years. But this week was different. The change was substantial and noticeable. Rather than being me moving, I felt I transcended dualism and became the movement. And it stayed with me. It was noticeable Thursday as I plowed through the general insanity of the work-day-world. It was noticeable last night in Aikido class and when I did my Chen 48 form this morning. It is noticeable right now as I pull words together and try to explain the inexplicable. The change was arrived at through training and it applies to my art as I continue to train. But further, it carries over into my world. And that is the benefit we strive for: not only to be more in tune with our art, but to be more in tune with our world. If the nature of the godhead is change, then perhaps it is therefore divine to change. As we change our world changes to accommodate us and so follows our further experiences till we are no longer who we once were. And that is just the beginning of the path.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ordinary Moments

The extraordinary moments of life are what make up our existence as we are doing other things and waiting for "enlightenment". I had a rather routine doctor's appointment the other day, just a quick check, in and out--or so I thought. It was in the mid-afternoon of a typically busy day. Not that I mind busy days. Busy is good for me. Busy works for my personality. I strive on movement and action.

Anyway, on this particular busy day I had a deadline to meet with my accountant, and customers and vendors who insisted on lighting up my phone lines. As I was driving to my appointment I got two calls on my cell phone about issues that needed immediate attention. I started the process over the phone and promised each of them that I wouldn't be long at my appointment and would get right back to them as soon as I was back in my office.

I checked in as usual and was led back to a treatment room in typical fashion. What wasn't typical was that my doctor was also having a busy day and I had to wait a bit before he saw me. He is usually very punctual. As I was sitting alone in this treatment room with no reading material besides Teen Life and Dermatology Today, I started going over in my head all the things personal and professional that were happening in my life. I noticed a very cheap painting on the wall opposite me of a small pond with lilly pads and what appeared to be lotus flowers. Then it hit me. That was my mindfulness bell.

For a little perspective you need to realize that twenty plus years ago I would have been crawling the walls by this point. I would have likely been pacing the floor, impatiently asking nobody in particular: "Where the hell is he?...Don't you realize I need to be___(fill in the blank)...I don't have time for this...etc, etc, etc...." In my self-important, professional, careerist world, I didn't have time for meaningless distractions, and (God forbid) downtime. Thankfully I have grown, if but only a little. My mindfulness bell--in this case a cheap painting in a doctor's office--brought me back to my center, or somewhere in that general vicinity. Anyway, I took the hint, closed my eyes, and took full advantage of this (once meaningless) distraction and God-given downtime. It wasn't necessarily a Satori moment, or earth-shattering by any means; but then again, maybe it was and I missed it.

The mindfulness bell is used in the Zen tradition as a random reminder to re-focus, to bring our minds away from our fanciful thoughts, worries, and mental fantasies and back to the moment of existence. Thich Nhat Hanh recommends that we use everyday items and events as mindfulness bells. Things such as traffic lights. So every time you stop at a traffic light use it as a reminder to shift your thoughts to now, and away from whatever fantasy or worry you may have been engaging. Mindfulness is more than what we practice in our moments of silent meditation. The process, the act of being present, can be brought out of meditation and into all our activities. As Thay says, when you wash dishes, wash dishes.

Of course this takes massive discipline and much intentional practice. In my case, I was focused for a bit and that moment of silence provided much needed balance in the middle of a hectic day. But typically I was back in my head and slaying all kinds of mental dragons before I made it back to my office. But at least I am aware of the process and am able to occasionally catch myself and take advantage of a break in the action. And I know I have truly grown. What was once a neurotic inconvenience is now an opportunity to transform the ordinary into extraordinary. My work, my growth, has just begun.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


"If one tries to befriend an enemy for a moment, he becomes your friend.
The same thing occurs when one treats a friend as an enemy.
Therefore, by understanding the impermanence of temporal relations,
Wise ones are never attached to food, clothing or reputation, nor to friends or enemies."
The Buddha

In an earlier post, I discussed to some degree our moral responsibilities as martial artists. Later I came across similar discussions here, and again here on Ikigaiway. All of this has led me to further thinking on this subject specifically in relation to the execution of the arts I am studying. If we follow our arts far enough we can learn plenty of techniques useful in the task of defending ourselves, and/or neutralizing a given attacker or opponent. And, as I noted, some of these techniques can not only immobilize but possibly cause serious harm and even death to a potential attacker. While this may be something that must happen to protect oneself or the life of others, it certainly isn't something any balanced person should ever desire and something we should strive to prevent. On the other hand, I have found numerous references to peace in the writings of O'Sensei, and in the various thoughts of Taiji practitioners and writers. But the actual practice of peace in the face of conflict is a very illusive subject.

In his very first entry in The Art of Peace, O'Sensei says to "Work on yourself and your appointed task in the Art of Peace." But he doesn't say how. I mean, sure he goes on to recommend that one should "Foster peace in your own life and then apply the Art to all that you encounter." But again, how? The sticky point here is not in how to live a peaceful life per se, but how our training as martial artists lends itself to that. Jesus and The Buddha, among others, taught to love one's enemy. But how does that happen, especially in a martial context? From what well of inspiration is that strength brought forth? In Buddhism with an Attitude, B. Alan Wallace writes that loving one's enemy doesn't mean to love the person you hate, but to love those who hate you. In what may at first appear ironic to those outside, the practice of Budo can lead the practitioner to just this attitude.

O'Sensei says the purpose of training is to "tighten up the slack, toughen the body, and polish the spirit." And it is this polishing of the spirit that we are addressing. Following the teaching of Grandmaster Feng, Yang Yang recommends that our foremost intention in the practice of Taijiquan is nurturing. In his book, Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power, Yang states that Grandmaster's Feng's first principle of Taijiquan practice is xujing: empty and tranquil mind and spirit. Grandmaster Feng teaches that xujing is the essence and ultimate goal of Taijiquan. Xujing leads to tranquility and heightened awareness. Xujing can obviously be arrived at through meditation and form practice. The key, as in all mindfulness practice, is to take it further into the larger world. In this case we do that through training. If we follow Grandmaster Feng's example and make xujing the essence and ultimate goal of our practice it will eventually become a part of our beings. Xujing can and should lead one to a state of equanimity. In Buddhist terminology, equanimity means the ability to remain balanced and centered in the middle of whatever may be happening. This in turn can lead to a compassionate state of mind, and discernment in dangerous or potentially dangerous situations.

The practice of push hands can be very instrumental in developing equanimity. One of the hardest things to overcome for newcomers to push hands practice is the tendency to stiffen up and resist the violation of their personal space. And rightfully so. We have a natural inborn tendency to protect ourselves, and the violation of our personal space sets this in motion. Overcoming this discomfort is a major breakthrough in training. In order to relax, to abandon oneself, and to apply the techniques of sticking, following, and listening, one needs a tranquil state of mind. The practice of our various forms or katas, Wuji and Zhan Zhuang meditation practices, Qigong, and various Ki exercises help to develop, or nurture xujing. And it is an ongoing process. This is why we train, why we constantly train, why we continue to train, and if we are true to our intentions, why we will always train.

Of course we need to be comfortable and confident as well. Which is why we need to go beyond form and push hands training. Even with a tranquil mind we need to know that within us we have the ability to defend ourselves. Equanimity implies balance, equal parts Yin and Yang. Knowing how to deliver a well-timed Dim Mak knock out punch is incomplete knowledge without the peace of mind to also know when to not. Accordingly, being well-versed in slow meditative and healthy Taiji forms, or the dance of interactive Budo techniques and knowing little or nothing about the martial applications behind them, much less having the ability to use them, or the intention to fully carry them out is equally incomplete. Equanimity is balance, equal parts Yin and Yang, and an appropriate goal of training.