Saturday, March 27, 2010

Flowing days and awkward days

Some days practice flows. Some days practice is awkward.

Today was very awkward. Not at all in balance. Nothing felt right.

If I was in Star Wars, I would say, "There is a disturbance in the force, Master."

Of course, it could just be that some days are better than others (period). No need for further explanation. But I am prone to introspection and notice that yesterday there were a number of professional and personal issues playing on my mind. Also, I have a mild tummy upset. All set to make me "out of balance."

So, what is the deal with "balance."

I am thinking not only of physical balance, though that was off today, but the whole balance of life. When I am balanced I feel better about myself, about life, about everything. When I am out of balance I am not my best for others. And being my best for others is very important to me.

Tai chi is helping in two ways:

  1. When I am out of balance, my tai chi is off. It is a clear sign for me that something is not right and that I need to find the source of the imbalance.
  2. Tai chi helps immensely in giving a greater sense of balance and restoring it when it goes askew. There is a particular chi kung practice, "opening chi," that I have found very helpful. Basically, it is a flowing, circular movement with the arms, as the waist rotates from side to side. Very restorative. I will eventually post some videos to reference the practice I talk about.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

A threefold cord

With tai chi, as with other activities, some folk try for a while and soon give up. Many of us start with good intentions! I suspect that not a few folk feel a little "cheated" by the advertising byline, "Tai chi chuan—easy, gentle, a breeze, works miracles. Try it!"

It looks so beautiful—effortless—when you see a master practice. But, then you try it and your body feels like it doesn't belong to you. The simplest of things become extraordinarily hard. You fall over your feet. And your muscles hurt. It's enough to put anyone off.

But then, it grabs you and you start to get serious. A once a week class becomes a few days a week practice. Then a more or less daily practice. Then an indispensable part of life.

If you do get serious, there is a threefold cord to help your practice develop.

Wu chi: meditation, stillness.

Tai chi chuan: movement, change, Forms.

The Tao: the Way, philosophy, study, including the mystery and wisdom of the I Ching.

The three belong together, but it's likely that you will start with one and that one will lead to the others. I arrived at tai chi through philosophy and meditation. I have been practicing sitting and walking meditation for about 11 years, with greater or lesser commitment and intensity. For the last several years, I have begun all my philosophy classes at the university with breathing meditation. My meditation practice arose out of my work as a philosopher. I am deeply intrigued by the question, "How should we live?" The Tao (and philosophy generally) is one way of beginning to answer the question. Meditation helps immensely in making philosophy more than merely a mental exercise. Tai chi is meditation in motion. Tai chi is the unity of mind and body through chi.

If your exploration turns to a serious seeking, the threefold cord becomes very important. Each strengthens the other. A threefold cord, who can break?

I will look at each of the three as time allows.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

What not to wear?

Clothes that restrict movement or high heals. Seems to be about it really. More or less anything goes, then.

Practicing tai chi at home, loose "lounge wear" is quite suitable, though you probably wouldn't want to go out in it. (Not necessarily. Some of my students turn up for class looking like they have just rolled out of bed!) Sweat pants are also fine.

Martial arts pants and tops are quite ideal. Tai chi/king fu uniforms are readily available and start at about $20. The tops are chinese style tops, "frog buttons" and all, and the pants often have elastic ankles. The good thing about the pants is they have a deep gusset at the crotch. That makes for a lot of freedom when bending, stretching etc. Karate/aikido/judo pants perform the same function. Cotton or poly/cotton are very serviceable and throw in the washer. If you want to look like the folk on the tai chi videos you will have to buy a silk suit and it will cost you more like $80+. (Dry clean only!)

Shoes? I read that the shaolin monks, for training, wear a simple cotton and rubber "Feiyue" shoe. I found some for $15 and bought them and used them for a while. They are very light and quite comfortable. My problem with them is that the sole is rounded rather than flat. This makes them a little unstable. I know that sounds silly because they have barely any sole at all. That is just how it feels to me. After wearing them for several weeks of daily practice, I tried my Converse "Chucks." They seem just right for tai chi. The sole is perfectly flat and, for me, they provide more stability than the Feiyue. Either shoes are vegan friendly, which is a good thing.

I have since realized that the $15 Feiyue shoes sold by many martial arts stores in the US are fakes. You get the real deal for 50 euros from Feiyue shoes web site. Well I never!


Friday, March 19, 2010

Aha! Moments

One of the things I have loved about learning tai chi are those lovely "Aha! moments."

It is has happened a number of times when I have been practicing a difficult move, getting it half right, but not "feeling" right. Then it happens. It just works.

It happened today. I was in the back yard with the pugs. Nice sunny day, enjoying a cold drink. I was not really thinking about anything in particular and it came to me.

One of the first things in tai chi is to learn is how to walk. Seems simple enough. I've been doing it since about 12 months old. But, tai chi walking is different. It is conscious. It follows the same principle of substantial/insubstantial as all else. My tai chi walking just didn't feel right. It was nearly there, but not quite.

"Front leg toes point forward," popped into my head. It all suddenly just made sense. Walking is in the bow stance. To walk forward weight is first placed on the rear leg, toes about 45 degree away from the body. With weight there front toes swivel outward, about 45 degrees from front. Waist turns toward toe, weight shifts to front leg. Rear leg comes forward, past the ankle of front leg, and lands heel first, toes pointing straight., weight shifts to front leg (actually about 70% front, 30% rear). Bow stance to bow stance! Solid, rooted, stable.

I'm sure I must have read that over and over again in different books and seen it demonstrated and described. I just didn't get it. Got it now. (I think!)


Why would a nonviolentist study a martial art?

Has Fitz-Gibbon suddenly taken up violence?

Not at all. I am still working this through, but here are a few thoughts.

Tai chi is an "internal" art. In other words, it is focussed more on the mind-body relationship than on merely physical conditioning. It's main emphasis is on "chi" or breath or energy. Like all the internal meditative arts it is a way of self-knowledge and a way of dealing with your own inner violence. In this way, tai chi is a way of peace, a way of resolving conflicts nonviolently.

In some popular literature at present, tai chi is put forward merely as a gentle way of exercising. Hence, it is often associated with the elderly. I asked a good friend if he had ever thought of practicing tai chi. His response was something to the effect that when he "gets old" and can't do other sports he might try it. I think that is often the way tai chi is perceived in the popular imagination. From all I have read, tai chi an exercise that will be available to practitioners until the end—unlike most other forms of exercise. But not only so.

Tai chi is a martial art. It is a very powerful form of "self-defense" for those skilled in its application.

I am ambivalent to the idea of "self-defense," despite it being an unchallenged assumption of our culture. A quick google search will reveal that much "self-defense" is about how to inflict violence. There is much flexing of muscles, and many discussions about which is the best martial art. Would a karate expert defeat an aikido expert? Is kung fu more lethal than tai kwan do? All such talk leaves me cold! Violence is what is wrong with the world.

My work in moral philosophy has led me to join with those who say that love is the way we should live. In any situation we should seek to do that which is most loving. What, then, of love and "self-defense." There are times when we face an aggressor. Surely, we have a right to defend ourselves? I prefer to ask the question: when faced with an aggressor, what is the loving thing to do? It is a criticism of nonviolence that the nonviolentist would let the aggressor walk all over them, without putting up a fight. I think that is a misunderstanding of nonviolence. Nonviolence is love. To allow an aggressor to inflict violence would not be loving toward the aggressor. Nor would it always be loving to receive the aggressors violence (though at times it may be). But, it may be loving to disarm the aggressor without causing harm. Tai chi, like aikido, is a form of "self-defense" that does not seek to harm the aggressor, but to use the aggressor's own force to disarm him/her—to become one with the aggressor and so turn an enemy into a friend. Of course, the true aim is never even having to resort to physical force at all.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Some things I have learned

This is all subject to revision, but here are some things I have learned over the last three months:

1. I became aware that much of the body's movements are not conscious. When we introduce consciousness, it becomes apparent quickly that the mind and body do not always work together. I read that tai chi is conscious movement; that there is to be no bodily movement without the mind. The mind directs the body. Easier said (or read) than done! Besides my daily tai chi practice I have been co-teaching a course, Somaesthetics on body consciousness. It has been an enlightening experience.

2. Go slowly. I became aware that I like things to happen quickly. I want to be at the end. The slowness of tai chi form has been good for me. Also, I wanted to know the form quickly. I have realized that that is not the aim. To practice one movement well is better than a whole multi-movement form performed badly. Go slowly.

3. I have learned what it means to "sink chi." To be rooted firmly and deeply in the ground is quite an extraordinary experience. All tai chi begins with wu chi. Wu chi is stillness, emptiness, nothingness. In Chinese foundation myths before everything else there was wu chi. All begins in stillness and returns to stillness.

4. Substantial-insubstantial, yang-yin. In tai chi all is based on this principle. All is flow. Substantial becomes insubstantial becomes substantial. As yin ends, yang begins.

5. The tan tien (roughly the waist/pelvic area) controls everything. All movement begins at the tan tien. This too is quite a neat experience, as much of our movement begins in the arms or legs and not form the waist. To move from the dan tien makes for a very different way of moving. Feels much more balanced.

6. That which looks the easiest is the most difficult to master.

7. Though tai chi is exercise or martial art it is really about self-understanding.


Finding a good teacher

Much can be learned from a good teacher. But how to find one? The internet has changed much. When I was looking for a tai chi teacher I searched the web and read as much as I could. I found Master Jesse Tsao in San Diego and registered with his school. Master Jesse has wonderful form and a gentle, winsome spirit. Here is a little of his Yang style. There is a link to Jesse's website on the sidebar.

I have read in different places that, though a good teacher is essential, you learn most through daily practice as you begin to open chi and your body learns and changes. It is said that it takes ten years of daily practice to become proficient in the basic form. So ... not a quick fix. More a lifestyle change.


Why tai chi?

I suppose the answers are as varied as those who practice. For me, tai chi is part of a larger world—the direction of a life. At 52 you have the luxury of being able to look back and find patterns. The thread running though my life, personal and professional, has been a quest to become a certain kind of person. I was asked by a colleague a few years ago what I wanted in life. I replied that I want to be a person of peace. My writing—books, articles, blogs and sermons—have focussed most on nonviolence and peacemaking and increasingly on love. A person of peace. A person who loves.

To become such a person is to see life as a practice: the practice of peace, the practice of love. A practice is rooted in a long historical tradition, and to become adept at a practice requires the daily learning of virtues that make up the practice.

For many years I had assumed that this was mostly about the life of the mind or spirit. More recently, I have realized that the life of the mind needs to be in harmony with the body. Mind and body harmonized through spirit, chi, ki, energy, the divine.

In eastern traditions there is a greater sense of the unity of mind and body than in the west, where we have generally denigrated bodily experiences. So, some eleven years ago I began an exploration of eastern philosophies, the practice of breathing meditation, and walking meditation. The journey led me a few years ago to tai chi. I practiced for a while, but then left it. In 2010, I returned with more seriousness. Meditation in motion. Conscious movement. Unity of body, mind and spirit. Bodily virtue of the life practice of nonviolence.


A beginning

I am a beginner. I think most of us are beginners. Those who think they have arrived are probably further back than most.

At this point I have about 60 hours tai chi practice and many hours studying. It occurred to me that much that I have learned I have lost, and so decided to write a blog of what I learn. I can then return to it later. The things I learn may be helpful to others.

So, take a walk on the slow side with me ...