One to Wash, One to Wear

My earliest trips to China were classic studies in embarrassing American excess. Each had me wrangling a huge suitcase, an unattractive 29-incher tipping the scale at just 50 lbs.  I drug it through airports, hefted it up onto buses, and stuffed it into tiny automobiles. I felt chronically disgraced by the stealth travelers around me skirting adeptly to and fro with just one tiny bag. I was utterly humiliated by the looks of the drivers having to wait for me to navigate my excess. Each year I was under the delusion I could do it better. Each year I thought I did. Each year it was the same bulging canvas and impossible attempts at hiding my overage.  I never quite saw myself as one of “those American travelers,” but there I was, a shining example for all to see of just that.

Shame is a great teacher. Over time I and the luggage actually have become better. Together we became lighter and easier to manage. Over the past 2 years I realized I was easily competing in the Lite Travel Game with the other Grand Masters and even found myself a bit nose down at times when I saw those dear inept souls dragging their baggage through long check-in lines. Secretly though I had to accept I might actually still be a bit of a faker. Every time that tiny little  well-designed suitcase hit the scales at weigh-in it came in may kilos underweight, but it still tipped heavier than I knew I needed. My mind was busy going through its contents, wishing I could dump something out, even as it rolled down the conveyor to the belly of the 747. Soon I will be at those scales again as I head back to China, for my 12th trip. As always, I am determined to make this the lightest packing event yet. And as you may suspect I’m not just talking about leaving behind that extra pair of undies. 

Ever since I was a child I have had a mixed relationship with stuff. Growing up moderately affluent there was always a lot of it around. I learned a great deal about things. Their look, their smell, their feel. At first Barbie Dolls, Fancy Couches, Shoes. And then Dresses, Face Cream and Cars. I learned there was always a season to shop: Easter, Back to School, Christmas.  I learned about places to display and store and how to clean and how to carry from one location to the next. I also learned I craved the space between the things but didn’t know how to find it. For me, space was like a ghost or a story that was told by some ancient Zen master or Taoist Sage. I think my drive for studies of the body/mind interior was perhaps initially fueled by my craving for Space. I must have been driven to find a method not just for sweat and muscle but one to escape the claustrophobia of my exterior life. It’s taken a long time for me to identify, sort and toss the inside and outside excess. It’s an ongoing project. 

I reviewed my packing list today. It looks pretty good. For clothing, I’ve easily chanted the “one to wash, one to wear” mantra. The fact that it is 40c in China right now helps! Sure, there are a few things whose space taking burden I intentionally accept: Ipad, Hotspot, Face cream. And a few ounces of things I have yet to use but will always still carry: anti-biotics, epi-pen, duct tape. I know I will be competing with a couple of my travelling companions who will likely still beat me at weigh in. At that moment, I’ll think about the things I might have left behind. There is something about travelling to Asia, and especially to China that invites this constant paring down of external stuff, to be light, nimble and pliant. This constant weaving of what is needed and what is not. And there is something about travelling to Chenjiagou to study with Chen Xiao Xing that demands the same of the internal stuff as well: what is needed and what is not. 

 

 

 

 

We Know

(Ode to Women's World Cup Soccer Champions 2019)

I know you know
it was not just a game
played in France 
and watched all over 
the world 
In pubs and 
Living rooms

I know you know
it was not just a stunning display of 
Athleticism
Team work
Brilliance
Love
Respect for each other

I know you know our screams
and hoarse voices we'll have
for a day or so
are not just because 
of fuchsia hair
and sweat dripping
and hips kicking

For that yes 
But not just for that
Our screams are 
From all of us who remember
when Title Nine was not
And we could not
But we kept on, regardless 

I know you know 
We scream because 
We pushed past all the no's
We stayed visible we defied 
Being invisible and bullied and ignored. We still
Sweated and were Brilliant and Loved and Respected each other. 

And we know Title Nine 
is not just about kicking a ball
But about defeating the real
Enemy: Being Silenced, Remaining Silent 
Hiding our Fierce Grace and Being Afraid
#metoo
Never again. 

I know you know
They grabbed the torch we passed
Thrown forward with our generations of battered bodies and
Our determined souls and our bursting hearts
We did our part. 
Today we know
They know.

For The Ages

When Moon student Margaret dropped this article, Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think in my inbox my first instinct was to dump it into the e-trash bin. I am a 62-year-old woman who uses her body to make a living. Her aging body. I dab increasing layers of blush on my receding check bones before I show them in front of a class. I have to plan my mornings a bit differently because my innate early bird requires a bit longer to flap her wings. A certain ferocious athleticism I relied on to own my floor as a teacher, one that was built on years of flying through the air, easily landing on grass, concrete or tatami and bouncing back up again, or sitting my rump parallel to the ground and waiting anyone out before I stood up, has receded more into the stories I tell about those times rather than active daily occurrences. The last thing I needed to do is read about my obvious decline! It is only because I have known Margaret for ten years: her mindfulness, intention and her consistent practice, that I thought there must be something here for me or she would not have bothered even reading it herself much less forwarding it to me.

In the era of “2-minute reads” this piece is not. It takes at least a cup of tea to stay with its raw, authentic and uncomfortable journey that starts out unabashedly reminding the reader of the trade-offs of aging. “Decline” however unfolds into an insightful, powerful and very well written essay of the author, Arthur C. Brooks’s experience and research who, as you will see, takes his own advice. Of particular note is the distinction he draws between Fluid and Crystallized intelligence. Youth has the former in spades, but age gets to claim the latter. This for me was an ego saving balm, since teaching is one of the activities that certainly requires the crystallization of experience and learning over time. The older we get, the better we become at conveying our history gained through experience and study. Brooks states, "That older people, with their stores of wisdom, should be the most successful teachers seems almost cosmically right." What a relief.

Brooks mentions that whereas the average age of retirement is 61, teachers usually retire well after the age of 65 and even after 80. My career is a fine example of this. It is full of aging teachers using their bodies to make a contribution. Most of them have or are living well into their 70’s-90’s, continuing to practice and teach on a regular basis. They are even better teachers, physically and otherwise, than when I first met them. They are superior examples of sharing their crystalized wisdom, which includes how to navigate age within martial athleticism. Their examples are wholly inspiring to me as I also enter this phase. He continues to state, "No matter what our profession, as we age we can dedicate ourselves to sharing knowledge in some meaningful way.”

It’s true, I’ve bartered my own youthful athletic body/mind for an aging one. Every day I feel the clock ticking. And yet as I read I recognized I could not be more grateful to have the well-honed tools of my practice to support this process. Perhaps I can’t tax my muscles or my determination the way I used to, but I also care less about doing it. It is much more important to me to increasingly finesse my body and especially my intention, on the floor and off it. Because there are so many more aspects to our practices than the physical, as I age, I see even more the robust wellspring from which to draw satisfaction. The trade-off of muscular depth for deeper insight and wisdom is worth it.

Brooks says, “no matter what mix of intelligence your field requires, you can always endeavor to weight your career away from innovation and toward the strengths that persist, or even increase, later in life.” And indeed as I begin the transition into the elder phase of my art and my career, this article ended up affirming to me that my chosen way, the way of Tai Chi & Qigong, does about as much as anything to give the body and mind a special type of accompanied resilience, longevity and meaning for this process.

It’s been one year since I let my big studio go. It’s been a big transition for me and honestly, it has been unsettling to feel more space in my life. But, my practices have supported me wholly through this phase shift as well. I can tell I'm finding a new center, some more solid ground to be present anew. It's been great to train in a new location and integrate new people with the ongoing "old timers." If there is one piece of shared knowledge we who have been with it for a bit can share with you newer folks, it would be this: “Stay with it.” Stay with your practice. We all encounter many detours in the process of cultivating one. Some of them derail us for a time and even tempt us to quit, but do not quit. Always come back. Breathe in, breath out. One step at a time. I guarantee you, it is worth it.

By the way, I have changed our school tag line from, “Find your Flow” to Taijiquan and Qigong, “A Practice for the Ages.”

Respect, Salute.

下课

Closing poem: Xià Kè, Class is over

The air is cold at the Well.
Together we lower our buckets down
Water rushes in and then
we alone must lift ours up.

Muscle, Bone, Determination.

We drink and
Legs shake, doubt rattles
Tears fall. We become
Emptier and emptier.

Our thirst grows.
Together we lower ourselves down
Water rushes in and then
We drink again. And then we alone must stay.

Blood, sweat, spirit.

Centuries pass
Sparrows sing. Dogs Bark. Roosters crow.
A drone flies overhead 
Seeing
us being seen. 

Many thanks to David Gaffney and Davidine Sim for organizing another deeply rewarding experience. And to my teammates for sharing the training floor and their hearts: Kathy, Richard, Viki, Yvonne, Robert, Ninja Dave as well as our training friends from China. To Chen Zi Jun for his assistance in class, to Chen Zi Qiang for going out of his way to make sure we were taken care of and to Grandmaster Chen Xiao Xing…for everything. Xie Xie! Chenjiagou Zai Jian!

Woven

Though classes begin at 9 we all show up about 15 minutes early. Everyday CXX arrives early too and so we always begin early. No one in our group is ever late. For 25-35 minutes depending, we receive three strong corrections to our standing. After our short break we begin the session’s lesson on Xinjia, 3-5 movements, depending. We all have been studying Xinjia for many years so Grandmaster focuses almost exclusively on the internal mechanics that generate and integrate our movements. Our bodies are primed for this material from the deep standing corrections we receive. He clearly demonstrates Qi movement and intention, clarifies weight change and waist power, how it all manifests arm and hand rotations, and more, in each and every movement. It is generous, it is a lot to take in, and even more to take in that each time he shows something, it is a new tip of a much bigger iceberg.

During a break CXX introduced me to a visitor from L.A., himself a Chinese man and Taijiquan practitioner. He was visiting Chenjiagou for the day. I do think it takes the Chinese a little adjustment to see non-Chinese here studying with the Grandmaster like we are. I could see the gentleman’s wheels turning when I said I have known Grandmaster for 15 years, hosting him in Seattle and studying with him here. It is not prejudice by any means, it is, I believe, a greater awakening to the vastness not just of the art form but its reach into humanity. Sometimes when I think about my life, the twists and turns, the ambition and luck, the hard work and the “Yuan Fen,” the “fateful coincidence” that has brought me here, in all ways here, I am overwhelmed with emotion.

Occasionally my ego thinks, “all this time, all this training with the best in the world, and such little improvement!” Progress is so gradual in this art, all the teachers say this. And all teachers say it all comes down to practice. Sometimes I grasp some little nugget that has been fed me for many many years. Sometimes I see something for the first time and a cascade of understanding floods in. Sometimes what I know vanishes and here I am again, completely naked, undone, dissolved. “You have to trust in the method,” David Gaffney said as we walked back to the rooms after our morning session. Yes. At lunch we all joked that we came here as beginners and this trip has affirmed that fact. Yes. 

After Grandmaster instructs in the session’s movements, root, principles and nuances we practice over and over again together. We practice over and over on our own. Then we weave the new material into what has been conveyed in prior sessions. Over and over again. Each day the weave becomes longer as we progress through our form. Each thread carries today’s new material integrated into the prior. Each thread carries messages that go back several hundred years into Taijiquan and several thousand into Chinese thought and history. The tapestry and us, we become part of each other. 

Today is the last day of our training here in Chenjiagou. Down coats and hats have been replaced by light training shirts and pants. I cannot say it has been easy by any means. To some degree this has been the most challenging trip to date for me. It is ironic since the conditions are so vastly improved. With the exception of the one 1/2 day where we blew the grid, we have had power, internet, great VPN and as many hot showers we could ever want to take. The toilets flush perfectly each time. The food has been simple but clean and nourishing. No one got hurt, no one complained, it is an extremely harmonious and fun group. And its been just wonderful to hang out with the shop owners we have known now for years. The Chen’s are extremely friendly, CZQ has gone out of his way for us. And as you have read, CXX’s classes have been superlative. 

I do not know what has been so challenging then. I would like to blame my age but I can’t do that. I have been corrected like a teenager and my body has remained in tact. My psyche has remained in tact too. In fact, I feel this trip has been a bit of a redemption run for me after the past year, clearing out all the pain of my mother’s death and all that meant for me. I feel at once unwoven and renewed.  I guess, like the art form I love, if we go for what we love in this life as robustly as we can muster, life is simply challenging. Perhaps along with some old body holding patterns I have simply let go of any belief it is otherwise. Its not easy to wake up everyday and show up on the floor, be it life’s floor or the training floor. The tile is hard, the air is cold, the lessons are not simply given, they have to be intentionally grasped. Somehow I think this must be at the root of joy, though. And what a joy it all is. 

Thank you all for reading my blogs for the first time or as yet again. They are an adjunct practice for me when I am here and I am grateful for your audience. I’ll drop in one more time later tonight after completion. The rooster calls. Time for a hot shower before Day Ten begins. 

Banner Photo is taken in the Gou, the Ditch. It, along with everything else is in the process of complete renovation. Its closed at the time, but thanks to CZQ we were able to get in yesterday and have a look.







The Colours of China

Keep your eyes open for a documentary called, “The Colours Of China” due to be completed at the end of this year. The filmmakers have been in Chenjiagou for 2 days filming for the color “black,” - black/white, yin/yang, north, water/flow, and more aspects of how this color plays out and integrates within Chinese culture. They are super folks and it has been interesting watching them work. They are interviewing Chen Zi Qiang, Chen Xiao Xing and taking loads of film and photos. The kids (and us too) were fascinated with the drone buzzing high ahead over the training fields yesterday afternoon. They filmed our morning session yesterday with Grandmaster, which was admittedly rattling! The last thing one wants is to be the person who gets to be shown all over the world in several languages jumping up out of Standing while being corrected or having your rump stick out while practicing form. There is only so much editing that can be done after all.

Those who know Grandmaster and my relationship know I’ve never been shy about question time with him. During one session this week I had no questions. We all laughed when he said, “that’s unusual!” The film crew was still filming during question time yesterday. CXX asked if we had any questions and he looked right at me, piercing and direct. I knew I’d better ask. I walked up to him and began my movement sequence. His hands landed on me and the correction cycle began. Lucky for all of us it was one of the movements I understand the least: “Jade maiden works the shuttles” Xinjia version. He had plenty to correct. Flying my mistakes into the camera was a wholly unnerving experience but it was simply one of those times I had to rely on my training, doing my best to represent.

After the filming and class was over I was preparing my get-a-way when one of the film crew approached me. He asked, “Do you get a lot out of coming here?” I was glad to see I was not being filmed. I told him oh yes I do. Chenjiagou is a very compelling place, it is the heart of Taijiquan and this place holds the heart of that heart for me.  I added that even so, the real reason I come all this way is very specifically for this teacher and the long intensives I get to experience here. He seemed a bit surprised at this so I added, you saw what happened, all the hands on we get. This type of learning and transmission is very traditional and is becoming less and less common. Grandmaster is the best I’ve encountered; it is of great value to me to receive it. They said, yes, they know most of the Grandmasters about are retiring. “Not Chen Xiao Xing,” I added, “as you can see, he is a working man!”

I asked more about the film and its intent. I was happy to learn they are avoiding political and economic issues and focusing wholly on culture. I noted it must be interesting for them to film a group of foreigners practicing in the traditional way. They said actually they were hoping for a group of Chinese to film but indeed this worked out very well. The reality we noted is true: Chinese traditional culture, apart from the machinations of politicians and economists, is very interesting and valuable to people all over the world. Even as an American, I thought, I get so much out of my small experiential slice of it, it good to be able to represent and as China and the world go on in their modernization, to do my small part to keeping a bit of it alive. 

Today is day nine of our training. We are all physically tired but our team is holding together very very well. It is an excellent group of mature practitioners, both physically and emotionally. There is no tension or drama, everyone knows how to take care of themselves. I’ve taken a couple of mornings off from group breakfast just to have a longer shower and some personal time. Everyone is sharing their creams, tapes, rollers and stories. We have loads of fun walking around the streets at night and especially enjoy shopping. They have really upped their style game in the Village this year. I have a whole new wardrobe! Still, these next two last days are really when it counts. It is not so much pain now, it is fatigue of body and mind to manage. The advantage though is the body is malleable and receptive; my first teacher used to say this is the time real training begins. So even though we are thinking of home, of our regular food and beds and family, we all must continue to stay present, to soak in all we can. To remember every move, every correction, every rooster call. Day nine begins shortly. 


Banner photo of morning practice at the school.



Being Seen

Two Starlings chirp and dart freely around the training hall while our bodies sweat and our legs shake.  Outside a chorus of “Yi Er San Su” - “One Two Three Four” rings throughout the quad while teachers coach their kids to chant it as they practice different cadences of military lock steps. A fan snaps open, a spear cracks on the ground. A German film crew moves around capturing video of Chen Zi Qiang’s students jumping up on giant tires pulled from 18 wheeler semi’s and practicing grappling and throws on the concrete. The school bell rings, classes shift. The office phone rings, echoing across the training fields. The school’s new black pup, Bai Tou, “white” head, whines and barks and then falls sound asleep. 

All this passes through me while I Stand and breathe. My mind is more quiet today. What was pain just a couple of days ago is now familiar and even comfortable. I have passed through the first round of corrections. I can identify that place where my teacher keeps putting me without succumbing to the urge to jump out, at least for now. It is always a threshold to cross and re-cross. Hips back and down, shoulders down, chin in, chest soft, back open, dantien settled. The check list is the same but always feels a bit new. I do my best to listen to what he is telling me with each gesture. I do my best to stay put when he moves his knee away from my hips. I do my best to open to the flood of sensation and feel my feet sink into the earth below the tile. 

I suppose when I packed for this trip back in Seattle, knowing it would be cold here, I may have entertained a wisp of delusion that I could hide under layers of long underwear and puffy down. Of course I knew my teacher would always see what needs to be found. I feel naked on the floor really, the ex-ray vision of my teacher piercing illusions I have about my form and comprehension of this vast and fathomless art. Its a vulnerable place for the ego, a threshold one must make their mind up to intentionally cross. This is the agreement, though. I show up, avail all my imperfections for the microscope of the master, and I am seen. If I keep showing up, the layers continue to be shed. And I keep being seen. 

I think perhaps this is why so many people who begin this process have a difficult time continuing over time. The marketing of Taijiquan does not say, “Show up on the floor and be seen.” It does not say, “You will feel naked, you will feel vulnerable. You will feel challenged.” The flyers do not say, “You will have to study how you hold yourself in this life. You will have to investigate not just your physical tension but all that created it.” They do not say, “And you will have to trust someone to see what you do not.” No, these marketing methods say, “This is easy!” This is not easy. 

When my mother was alive she could never understand why I wanted to continually subject myself to this way of life. She saw it as my continually subjecting myself to suffering. I saw it as a Way I wanted to follow, a Way I could find something more to this life than easy, the rough edges of my hidden areas staying shrouded. I understand more now how a mother would want her child to be comfortable, but for me, comfort has not really ever been my goal. I’ve always looked to be slightly uncomfortable, to see what I can see beyond that gate, and to be seen beyond that gate. For our life as mother and daughter it was a split in how we understood each other, a limit to our intimate bond. When she was dying and suffering so much I spent a lot of time with her in her bed, my belly to her back, breathing with her. I was able to comfort her and she was able to receive it. Shortly before she died she said, “maybe there is something to all this Chinese stuff.” We had a roaring laugh about that. 

It is getting light now. The morning vendors call hungry break fasters to their eggs, buns and noodles. The street sweepers clean up from the night before. The kids run through the streets chanting, “Yi, Er, San, Su.” Bai Tou is barking louder than the roosters are crowing. It is a tradition to take the pups from their moms at four weeks, eyes barely open. He was on our floor that first night away from home and cried and cried all night long. It was upsetting and hard to understand. But just two days later he is receiving constant petting and love from the school. He is warm and well fed. He made it through his suffering and is embraced here, fully seen and loved, this little black pooch with the name, “White head.” 

Day eight ensues shortly. 

Banner photo of GMCXX after correcting my Dan Bian. Many thanks to Robert Steenkamp for this and other photos this trip.



The Same Thing, Once Again

We made it across the 1/2 way mark of our training yesterday and our team is doing really well. Our ages range from 35-mid sixties. We are sleeping on beds made for teenage boys, eating very simply, and training five hours a day on hard slick tile. It is chilly. We are taped up, creamed up, Advil-ed up. Viki whacked my shoulder yesterday and said, “I read your blog today, the one on Pain, “its not true!” We had a good laugh at that. But thankfully the only casualties so far are a cold, a tweak and some cravings for a nice juicy steak and a beer. All things considered we are staying healthy and representing well. 

I asked Moon student Richard how it was going for him, his first time here. Back in Seattle I do my best to prep people for this experience but aside from a smart packing list there is nothing that can truly prepare one. “You’ll never be the same” I said to him at the onset of our journey. I check in with him but aside from some encouragement to ask Grandmaster for as much hands on has he can, “Its why you came all this way, after all,” I don’t say much. I used to try to control what people would experience, worrying about it too much. Over the years of bringing people here I have learned folks will have their own experiences, which will have nothing to do with what I may or may not think they will have. Richard is doing great. As I suspected his capacity to say present and inquisitive is solid. He knows how to train. He knows when to divvy chocolate and buy sesame balls for the group. He is definitely a team asset. 

I asked him what he is learning. He is deep in the absorbing it all phase and made some excellent observations. He ask me the same question. I took a minute to answer because I really wanted to think about it. I suggest to my students to learn one thing in a local workshop and if they travel for training, learn three things. For me I’m really learning so much more than that. I am learning about the hips, the method for sinking the Qi, my alignment, where I am solid and where I am not, choreographic nuances and how my body responds when it is put under this amount of physical and mental stress. But these are not new things. I’ve been here many times before. So I said to Richard, “really what I am learning are the same things over again.”

It is an utter privilege it is to be doing so, to be seeing and researching the same moves and rhythms and nuances I have been seeing and researching for years, once again. It happens no matter where the workshops and trainings are but here in Chenjiagou the experience is amplified.  It is clarifying. Over the years I have learned it can deepen a person’s practice or it can kick them out of it all together. “One and done” as it were. Its understandable on the one hand. Being here we see the levels of training that begin when the students are kids: the weight training, the running around the Village, the myriad weapons and forms. We see the mastery that grows over decades: the subtleties and patience and power of our teachers. We encounter Taijiquan in a way that is much different than the weekend certifications and the “easy exercise” it is sold and touted in modern culture. For some the chasm between what they see here and what they believe about their own potential is to vast.  One and done and on to the next new thing.

Here, the old ways are very much alive. The same methods, the same forms, the same corrections, the same discipline, the same over and over and overs again and again. It is not for everyone. This place does not toss out new food for our egos to gorge upon. It does not provide warm fuzzy accolades to soothe us. There is no, “Wow! You have really improved!” There is simply the disassembling again and again and the guiding deeper into what we do not know even if we have seen it ten thousand times before. Yes it is difficult. Yes we have to make up our minds over and over again to stay with it. “I’m having so much fun!” I said to Davidine as we walked across the dirt road into the Hutongs and over to our lunch place. “You keep telling yourself that!” She replied. We both had a good laugh. But truly, and I truly believe this and I am learning it once again: no matter our age, our fitness level, our station in life, if we can surrender to digging into what we know and see it anew, over and over again we can access more than Taijiquan. We can access our infinite potential. What a privilege. 

Today is Sunday in the Gou, a day of rest. It is a half-day of training for our group. We all, student and teacher appreciate it right now. We’ll prowl around, shop (again), perhaps go to dinner in Wenxian. Its supposed to be warm and sunny and then the rest of the time here warmer and warmer. The roosters wake us for day six. It goes very fast from here. 






Pain

When my mother was dying she experienced a great deal of pain. Her lung cancer had migrated to her bones.  It was an excruciating experience to witness. No amount of pain medication from dilaudid to oxy to fentanyl patches to morphine drips seemed to ease her suffering. In my personal and professional career I have encountered many people who are in relationship with the spectrum of pain: cancer pain, back pain, neurological pain. One friend I have who had several joint replacements referred to himself as a “connoisseur” of pain. 

When we Stand or are brought down into a deeper and more correct alignment by our teachers  we often say of our experience, “OH MY GOD THAT WAS PAINFUL!” And then we laugh, rub our thighs, shake our legs and get on with it.  A few minutes pass and we are back trying to replicate the experience for ourselves or approaching our teacher for another correction like a puppy wanting another treat. Those experiences are huge bundles of sensation but are they really pain? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but at first the mind interprets them as just that. 

One of the advantages of these ten day trainings is we have a great deal of time to investigate this topic of pain. There are no distractions from it. There is no hot bath, no binge watching, no regularly scheduled intentional ease of perceived sufferings of daily life. It takes 2 days to get home and back to all that, regular life is very far away. This environment is set up intentionally so there is nothing to do but eat, sleep and get into your practice. Over and over again. In ten days we have 19 sessions to focus exclusively with what our bodies and minds are experiencing. 

Many times during Standing I encounter the thought, I can’t take this anymore, I’m in so much pain, I have to get out of this. I’ve created strategies to get through: counting to one hundred over and over again, focusing on the cold air in the training hall, feeling my body sweat under my down vest, focusing on my ego’s belief in how determined and tough I am. Of course none of those work. My mind says I am in pain. Yesterday afternoon when I encountered my thought I decided to ask, “is this really pain?” I went into my legs for the answer and was surprise to hear, “no.” No, this is not pain. This is muscle loading, this is tendons gently stretching. This is good alignment, this is my body holding me strongly in place. Yes. This is hot. Yes, this takes discipline to stay put, but no, this is not pain. Eventually I did have to raise my body up and stretch before going into it again, but I was able to hold the experience a bit longer.

Later I thought about my mother suffering during her dying and I wondered what her experience of pain truly was. We can’t know another person’s perception of this, it is not our place to assume we do. Our only job in those times is to be present with them, meet them on their own terms and offer soothing as best we can. For ourselves though we do have a choice to seek out controlled circumstances where we can intentionally study and learn about our own relationship to pain and other uncomfortable encounters. It’s a compelling notion to consider we are perhaps training for our own potentially painful death and how we might meet that experience. 

Each time I visit the Village I am reminded one of my favorite parts of being here is the culture of learning and teaching. Everywhere you look, people are thusly engaged with each other. Chen Xiao Xing is particularly rigorous this time. I’ve been training with him for over 15 years: here, in the states and abroad. This is a more advanced training than I have experienced before. Part of it is training with him at his school, in his home. He is very happy. Part of it is our group. We have all, for the most part been training with him, and in many cases with each other, for many years. And part of it is my approach to my own practice. I came with the intention of visiting and revisiting my own limits to my body and my perception and mindfully stretching both. I never know what I will get with that intention, but its great being on the floor with a teacher I trust to guide me and others who are investigating themselves too. 

Day Three

Everyone who really knows me knows my hair is my thing. I love to get it cut in sassy styles and color it in ways where natural is not even a question. I have a great hair stylist, Lyndon. He has been getting me ready for trips for 25 years. This time was no exception. I got on that plane highlighted and sassy. I bring a blow dryer too. Yep. I do. And this hair that looks so great? It was a topic of conversation at breakfast the other day when I was reminded it has been under a hat the whole time! Still, one must have their rituals, seen or unseen. I have other’s too: tea, Earl Grey in the morning and Floating Leaves Pu’er and Ooling throughout the day. I bring creams and salves for my face and knees. A pack of dried Mangos.  Over the years I have honed these comfort rituals to the bare essentials; they all help smooth body and soul through this rarified experience of Village Training.

Yesterday was Day Three. Day Three has a sacred place in the ritual of our Ten Day trainings. It is the day where the rhythms of wake, eat, train, eat, rest, train, eat walk around, get a snack, do laundry, fall asleep while reading or taking notes, set it. It is the day where our group’s sense of humor goes hilariously dark and a bit, as the Brits might say, dodgy. Its the day where swearing is easier. Its the day when the pain really sets in: shoes can never have enough padding to give comfort as Grandmaster sinks you deep onto and then far below the hard tile. Day Three is when every thigh cell explodes and screams for mercy and the only comfort ritual is to count to one hundred over and over again, digging deeper into discipline and determination to stay bent that low. Its the day the mind considers again why it is putting the body through what it is going through and decides if it will never or always bring that body back to this floor in this place to do this again. And its just over half way through to the halfway point. 

Day Three can come anytime. There have been years where it has been the third day. Others where is has been the sixth day. This year my Day Three was Day Two. For who knows why things were just not clicking. I was feeling uninspired, uncomfortable and dejected about my practice. It was the day where I thought I hadn’t been practicing enough or not making enough progress or I’ll never get this so why bother. It was the day I was sure my teacher had given up on me. It was the day I thought about the many other things I could be doing with my time. I worried about my school, my family, my house, my money, my cat. And to top if off, my hair is in a hat!  So when I entered the practice hall on Day Three, I had some choices to make.

As I set my body in position for Standing I decided. I decided if I was to make it through day three I needed to very intentionally let go of all that chatter. No matter what happens, no matter what corrections I receive or do not receive, no matter how I feel about myself, my future, my past, my skill and lack of it, no matter what is going on, will or will not go on out there, I had to let all of it go. And I had to do it over and over again for as long as it took to be inside of my practice and not somewhere else. Chen Xiao Xing arrived behind me and the correction process began. It was brutal. The myriad corrections I received throughout the day were similarly brutal. I stayed with it. I kept looking for that place in my body where my mind had nothing to say. I found it once or twice. It evaporated. Chatter began. I decided to let it go, over and over again. The chatter, the lack of chatter came and went many times on Day Three. I kept deciding to let it go. I had one of the best days of training I have had in my life. 

I know people wonder why we do this. It has to be a strange thing to read about friends and teachers and family coming all this way to be cold, eat simply, sleep in hard beds and be in such a high level of discomfort for so many days without relief. We wonder why we do this. Why we take ourselves out of our fluffy down comforters, stocked refrigerators and closets full comfortable shoes. So many choices to be at ease in an easy life. Why be so uncomfortable? Why be so challenged? For years I have been writing about this same question, looking for answers. They are always the same:  I want to find my personal Taijiquan as deeply as possible in my body. I want to eat at the table with the rarified community of others who ask this same question of themselves.  In any number of circumstances over my 60+ years, I have learned I will endure a great deal of discomfort to glimpse that place between the duality my mind is addicted to. I don’t know if the duality or doubt or questioning ever leaves, it hasn’t yet, but I will live ten thousand Day Threes for just one of those glimpses where it might. 

Over the past couple days I continue to wander around the Village during our breaks, taking in the changes. I get lost in the mazes of new and still relatively uninhabited Hutongs. In one wandering I was so turned around I had no idea how to get back. Fortunately one of the residents was outside eating her noodles for lunch. The green puffy-clad foreigner must have looked forlorn! I simply said: Chen Xiao Xing! She laughed and strongly pointed the way. I found my way back to the school and the dorms, relieved. How I could get lost in Chenjiagou was beyond me. But, I found my way back. It is a unique place, this place. No matter what external changes rise and fall, for hundreds of years children and adults train and train and train. Are they looking for their glimpses I wonder? Or perhaps even better, they have found the answer I have not yet found: they have ceased looking for them at all. 

***

As it turns out I have created a bit of a mythology about Day Three in my earlier reports of these Village Adventures. Robert from Reading, one of the newbies here, writes about it and his personal adventure in his very fine blog.

The image on this post is from the mural along the street. It represents the Well from which we drink the water of Chenjiagou. Upon drinking, it is said, our legs shake.




Ambition

After our first day of training here I read an email from a man who had tried our one month pass for new students. He was very appreciative and complementary of the experience but also said it was not for him at this time of his life. “Its too ambitious for me.”  Of course that is fine and exactly why I offer this one month trial pass. What we offer and how we offer it is not for everyone. I only want people on the floor who actually make up their minds there is something of value for them there. At the same time I thought about that feedback off an on during training and wandering. It was the word “ambitious” that caught my attention. It’s not the first time of late I have heard this from a new person trying our program. 

To be honest I never looked at our school and what I offer as ambitious. There is a part of me that feels a bit bad that this perception exists at all. I have gone out of my way during my career to offer a program in a way that is accessible across the board to as many people as possible, be they 8 or 80, be they the highest end athlete or those working with life altering illnesses. For the most part I feel I have successfully figured out how to do just this because what drives me is not money but my love of service and my chosen Way.  The thought that it all may have alienated someone was jarring.

At the same time over the past couple of years I know my intention for my work has clarified and narrowed. As I age I have to make my own choices about how I train and teach and they are different choices than the ones I made 10 or 20 years ago. I do recognize what drives me more and more is not what I might offer others but how I intentionally nurture myself. If I don’t have a nurtured self, then I have nothing to offer. It has been a hard shift to make because I have such a powerful urge to serve. I had to accept however that serving can put a person in a vulnerable place too, as I began to learn with my own aging process and health. Letting go of my studio last year was a threshold that was brutal to cross but now that I have, I have more time to reconfigure my training and work life to provide me with more energy. One would think one in my position might have less ambition than more.

There is a woman here in the Village who is in her 80s. She had learned some Taiji before and three years ago came to Chenjiagou to check it out. She is retired, her husband is dead. Davidine said she came for the healing this place offers. She never left.  During our break a few of us watched one of the much younger teachers instruct her in Mace, a double stick weapon. He taught her just like he taught anyone. With detail, corrections and repetition. Her practice was just great and the interaction between her and her teacher was sparky and loving. After our session she was still practicing on her own, this time with a different weapon. She moved precisely, with attention to both detail and flow. Watching her learn and practice was beautiful, powerful and inspirational. 

I thought to myself, perhaps I am ambitious. I am ambitious to be the woman in her 80s who is learning new forms, moving fluidly, and laughing with my much younger teachers. Perhaps I am utterly driven to quench the thirst for experiences and perspectives of an art I love and life itself. Quite possibly I am the person who chooses to be fundamentally with people whose ambition is also exactly this: to not be defined by age either by society or by one’s own mind but to be defined by learning and improving day by day, moment by moment.

The training experience here and that email invite me to come to terms with myself on a deeper level. Long ago I made my mind up to stay alive and the rest of my life unfolded from that one choice. It has been ambitious. I have come to appreciate that part of me very much and all it as allowed me to participate in. How I direct that ambition is changing, it is more for me now. Who I am, what I offer and how i offer it won’t be for everyone. Perhaps as time goes on, less and less. But if this path gets me anywhere close to this woman’s spark and beauty, I’m all in. If my walk on it inspires just one person, I have done my job.

The roosters have been crowing for hours now. Spring is coming. 




Old School

We arrive at the practice hall at least 15 minutes early to stretch out, warm up, and say good morning.   It is chilly, we all wear layers, hats and gloves. The training hall has been renovated like everything else: tile replaced the carpet, all the windows are fixed, there is a new sliding door at the entry, even the ceiling has been renovated. Even so many years of memories remain in tact as they were, it is precious to encounter them and feel the mark they have left on my heart and mind, how coming here over the past 13 years has shaped not just my training but my life.  Chen Xiao Xing enters the room and we all move into our Standing practice. There is no formal beginning per se, we’ve all studied with him for many years and whether we are in Seattle, Manchester or Chenjiagou, we know exactly how to begin. Feet hip width apart, adjust our hips and chest as best we can, close our eyes, regulate our breathing and relax into what will be the next thirty minutes. 

Soon Grandmaster is there with you. Hands on hips. Back and down. Shift alignment right and forward. Subtle, profound. Everyone who has felt his corrections knows the feeling. Gentle but direct and clear. You are captivated in the conversation, listening without interrupting his speaking until he is done making his case. The somatic conversation continues: shoulders down. Chest settles. Back opens. Body connects: feet, the tile, root. It is painful. It is exquisite. “Why so many layers,” you wonder. You dare not move to take one off, however. Sweat. Sear every detail, down and in. This process happens two more times for everyone in the room. After we break for five minutes or so to rub out our thighs and stretch our hamstrings. We glance at each other, nod and laugh. There is nothing quite like the bonding amongst friends who Stand together on Chen Xiao Xing’s floor. 

Our topic this week is the Xinjia, the New Frame. As always his teaching is clear, generous and detailed. He repeats a movement sequence several times for us to watch. He points out essential biomechanics and energetics.  We follow him over and over watching carefully. He steps aside. His second son, Chen Zi Jun takes the lead while CXX watches and moves around the room correcting us. Chen Zi Jun moves at a glacial pace. We burn as much detail into our bodies as we can, CXX corrects the most minute error in our flow. Hands on hips moving them back and forth and down and down. It is painful. It is exquisite. We practice on our own, ask questions and then practice again, this time linking the movement sequences together. It is paradise.

“It is so much fun to be a beginner!” Yvonne said to me during our one break.  “Yes, it is!” I agreed. “Why bother being anything else?” We mused.  “We all know people who don’t enjoy being a beginner,” Yvonne continued. “That’s for sure!” I replied. Indeed, being a beginner it is a state of being.  It is a Way that is not just for once or twice a year, it must be practiced every day. Coming to the Well as an empty cup can be much harder that Standing on CXX’s floor.  The ego doesn’t listen in the way we have trained our bodies to listen to our teacher’s corrections. It likes to fight to keep itself alive by attending to all it knows. It is a choice, to surrender all that and take up the mantle of Not Knowing. Doing so can be painful but the more we practice, the more exquisite it becomes.

The group enjoys prowling around a bit after classes and dinner.  We all change our shoes to give our feet a different experience than in training shoes and walking gives our legs a different experience than loading muscle onto bone onto tile.  The Village is quiet at night. After about 8 or so there are barriers in place now that close off the few main streets to all but those who live here. Its a nice change from the raucous activity in the bars that used to be here. Between the quiet and sheer exhaustion we all seem to be sleeping fairly well. The rooster calls, Day two begins soon. 

The Old and New

Its about 5:30am in the Gou. I slept fairly well after unpacking and fussing around, just waking up a few times mid-dream stream to read about the Oscars and Spike Lee. Waking and writing is a ritual I look forward to when I am here. I make my tea and have a snack - this morning it is a scone I stuffed in my bag from the Starbucks at Zheng Zhou train station. It’s a bit stale but offers me one last familiar tether to the tastes of home. I’m not hearing any roosters yet. I don’t know if they still live here or if it’s still too dark. It’s cold but not nearly as cold as we all expected. Still, we slept with hats and socks on. The dorms we are in are recently renovated. They are clean, spacious, and have hot showers.

The drive from Zheng Zhou to the Village always has some bit of a harrowing nature to it. Over the years it has varied: sometimes the roads were lined with 3-wheeled vehicles and bikes with families and chickens. One year we were late for something so a drive that should have take two hours took one and included using the sidewalks as passing lanes. This year it took three hours. The expansion of China is exponential in ways one cannot fully grasp until one experiences it. This year there was so much endless construction along our route even our driver, Wang Yan, who has lived and trained in the Village for almost 2 decades, got lost several times, sometimes having to pull over to the side of the freeway to check the GPS, which seemed to be inconsistent. More than once he had to create a wide turn through dicey traffic, go back and take another exit.

Wang was visibly relieved when he made it through. He said, “15 minutes Chenjiagou!” And then turned to me and said, “do you like cats?” I showed him Boots’s picture on my phone to the consternation of my car mates. “You’ll get us killed!” We all laughed-if it would have happened…! Its always the first lesson here: you go with the flow when you get off the plane and land in China and it usually works out just fine. Richard learned that lesson very quickly when our small mini-van’s side door slid open during a couple of Wang turns. Richard’s reflexes are quite good!

It was great to get to the Village (in tact!) again. The dynamic changes continue: more shops, more small eateries, longer roads lined with grass and trees and more upscale residences. There are new statues, new murals, the clothing lines are more creative with new logos, fur lined training shoes and newly designed trinkets. There will always be those who lament the dusty roads of yore and I’m grateful I had a piece of that myself. It is a history that is gone now forever. Yet the same wide smiles and the natural generosity pouring out from the sparkly eyes of people who recognize you year after year are still here. The sheep herds still line the streets even though they are asphalt. The kids still run and huff along the way. The Village remains under renovation and expansion just like everywhere else in China, and in the world really. But here, everywhere you look Taijiquan is happening. No matter dirt, brick, tile or concrete, that footfall will always be the same, here. It is still The Village.

One might be tempted to think at 61 one might be too old to suffer the 2 day trip and all that goes with it to get here. One might be tempted to allow trepidation to flood in about the condition of one’s body for what lies ahead. One might be tempted to wish for a soft bed and a hot bath this early in the experience, but those silly thoughts dissolve when one arrives here, meets up with one’s old friends, sees the glee and awe in the eyes of people here for the first time and sits with their teacher for jasmine tea in his home while surveying the new dorms that should be ready by August.

I asked Viki why she personally keeps coming back for these trainings with Grandmaster Chen Xiao Xing. “Because it is a part of history that once is gone, will be gone.” I think we all feel like that, really. She continued, “it is an honor to be here.” Yes, it is an honor to be here and be a part of the woven web of the art we love and its evolution. We have all become part of the shift of Taijiquan from the old ways to the new, from the hidden to the global. We have become those who simultaneously shape and witness this transformation.

Just as as I am ready to post this, I hear the rooster’s call. It’s so nice to be home. Day one training ensues shortly.

The Water of Chenjiagou

By now most of the students at the Moon know Richard Allgaier, myself and Kathy Albret from Portland are heading to Chenjiagou (The Chen Village) this Saturday.  We are nic-named the USA3. We will meet the Manchester4: David Gaffney, Davidine Sim, Yvonne Hall and “Ninja Dave,” as well as the Reading2: Viki Lloyd and Robert. For all of us the trip takes 2 days. It includes Planes, Trains and Automobiles and for the USA3, 15 hours of time change. It’s a brutal trip in that regard on the one hand, but as with all pilgrimages, a sacrifice must be made. Jet lag is a small price to pay to spend 10 days in Birthplace of Taiijquan. 

The training with our teacher Chen Xiao Xing is rigorous. For the first day it is as though you are practicing in your sleep. Except when that alarm bell in your thighs wakes you straight up! The experience is intimate: we practice with our small group and perhaps another group of his local Chinese students. Our training is 5+ hours a day of Standing Meditation, Silk Reeling and form. There is deep instruction, lots of repetition and a great deal of hands on correction. Anyone who has trained with Grandmaster Chen knows his hands-on corrections are magnificent. Here in the Village this experience is amplified. Those corrections are a truth serum for my hungry, curious soul.

The food is simple, the beds are hard. Eat, sleep, train. That’s it. And because that’s it, within that first day the world one leaves behind dissolves in a way I’ve never quite experienced before. When people say, “Oh! How lucky!” Yes, it is true. How very lucky I am. It is a lot of fun in a strange way. It is also hard, training in the Village like this, living there for 10 days so far away. Life is instantly pared down, to sweat and breath. To muscle and bone. After the first few trips I used to say, that was good; I’ll never go back. My analytical mind would say, “it’s such process! The transportation! Arranging the school! My house. My body. My psyche!” And yet, it is said once you drink the water from Chenjiagou you will always thirst for it. And so, I always do go back.

This is my eighth trip to the Village, the last time I was there was in 2016. Each year I return to dynamic and dramatic changes. Taijiquan is quite popular now, in the culture of China, in the world. It has rightly returned to its regal place after the dark hidden years of the Cultural Revolution. Because this place is the foundation place of this magnificent art, lots of money has been spent to spruce up The “Gou.” Dirt paths on the outskirts of the Village are now zippy highways. What used to take 45 minutes now takes 15. Muddy strips along the road are greened with grass and trees. Failing houses have been renovated and tout shiny red doors. There is Stadium. There is a 5-star hotel. There is a big grocery store. Many lament the “old days” but the new is not all bad. There is an ease that was not there before.

On this side of the world a great deal has happened in my life too, since I was in the Village a little over two years ago. My mother died. I turned 60. I closed my studio. I stood mouth agape in front of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. I travelled 2 days through two typhoons to get to Japan and hike the sacred Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage.  I turned 61. I opened my studio anew in a shared space. The zippy highways of my body have become a bit more like the Village’s long ago dirt roads, slower and more meandering. It’s not all bad either. There is an ease that was not there before. Through all these changes, the Gou’s and my own, I remain grateful my thirst for the water of the Village is still strong and that I am called to the well again.

Soon we meet again soon, Chenjiagou. To Eat. To Sleep. To Train. One can never predict what conversations of body, breath and spirit we will have in this wellspring of history and knowledge. Its best to keep those expectations at bay. It is best to simply pack light and go. After all, the only thing that is really needed is a good pair of training shoes and an empty cup for the drinking. 

Here we will be:

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Follow this blog for reports on our adventures.

Scroll to the archives for past reports.  (scroll to the bottom for the titles)

What are you looking for?

Beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
-Rumi

Last week a new student shared with me that she felt a bit silly. It was not from looking like a newbie in class, it was about how she had answered a question on her intake form: What are you looking to gain from your practice? She had written, Peace. “Does anyone else answer like that?” she asked. I had indeed noted her response at the time and now assured her about 95% of people answer that question this same way. In fact, over the past 25 years of teaching, this is more and more its singular reply – outweighing answers such as pain relief, arthritis, balance. Given the general polarized state of our country right, the continued horrific incidents of gun violence and our tense election cycle, I decided to concentrate the classes this week on how we can use our practices to find equanimity in our bodies, minds and hearts. How to approach this “peace.”

So how do we use these practices to achieve a sense of serenity? There are several techniques – breathing diaphragmatically, slowing down and concentrating on our inner body’s flow of blood and energy, the feel of our muscles supporting us. Applying the principle of “fang song” – lengthening and loosening our tendons throughout our movements. Opening our joint spaces. Elongating our extensions, softening our contractions. We concentrate our thoughts not on the next social media post but on what we are learning. We turn our attention to feeling our feet, ground our mental energy into the earth. There are many interesting ‘serenity skills,’ as it were, embedded in the principles and techniques of our practices, no matter what form or style you choose to learn.

Practicing serenity, peace, equanimity however is more than just learning a technique or a skill. It is developing a more conscious relationship with our very complex nervous system. Indeed our practices are known for their capacity to “relax” us. “Breathe!” “Calm down!” I have lost count the number of time these cues have make me want to scream! I just wanted to DO something. It has taken me a long time to penetrate the meaning of “doing” the techniques and following cues in a way they could be useful for me and not just something to “achieve” in the “hope” they would lead me to an illusive result.

In the process I have come to understand tension is not a bad thing, nor is stress. It is not something to banish from myself so I can relax and find peace and equanimity. These aspects of our nervous system are deeply embedded in all of us. They kept us going on the evolutionary path and keep us going now. This is a good thing! I am no longer afraid of them. I see them as natural. The issue then, I have come to realize, it is not stress or tension per se, it is habituating our tension and stress beyond where they are useful for us. Our “on” switch gets stuck. This is when we go awry physically, mentally and emotionally.

Somewhere we have to widen our spectrum. Look to nature - everything is a cycle. Too much sun and heat eventually harms the flowers, too much dark and wet eventually rots the bulb. In the case of being human, with so much stimulation, expectation, information, it is easy to get overwhelmed and stuck – either with too much activity or too much self-absorption. We can flame out or rot! Our practices help us to widen our spectrum. They give us very pragmatic methods to help us to remember, look for and actively cultivate and support all the varied and compelling cycles within us. The flower thrives with the right weather. That weather is varied and sometimes unpredictable. Somehow the flower adapts. Our techniques are ways to more conscious, intentional relationships with ourselves. Like the flower, we learn to draw on our natural resiliency, to adapt, and in our humanity, to try out different thoughts and actions. In short, we learn to recall and activate the deeply embedded and evolutionarily apt part of our nervous system where everything is flexible, even right with the world, not just the part where we go on unconsciously living feeling tigers are going to eat us.

I’m remembering a lovely Zen/Taoist saying, “between the opposites lies the path.”

When I get frustrated with my own progress, when I get stuck running from tigers and forget to sit in the lodge by the fire with my friends, it helps me to remember the challenges to this territory are not just now, in 2018 with the world as insane as it is. For millennium humans have been actively finding ways to deal with themselves and to understand cycles around them; we have been practicing meditation, yoga, qigong, and so on for a very long time. It seems to me finding and cultivating practices to have a useful relationship with our nervous system, to find health and skill but moreover to find peace and equanimity, is very much a part of our human legacy.

I always want to remember that any technique  I learn is simply a method for connecting to something bigger than myself. If I learn how to breathe more deeply to balance my nervous system, that is one thing, and a useful thing, but if in that balance I can then become aware of my larger place in the world, and all that I am connected with, the huge cycles of the Tao, this is something much more interesting. Compassion, understanding, listening all emerge naturally. I have a better relationship with my nervous system and in doing so with how I engage with my world. What do we want from our practices? Peace. To set this down as a conscious intention is very powerful.

There is a lot going on right now. Find refuge in your practice. Cultivate your connection to and your relationships with something bigger. Remember everything changes. Cycles go far beyond right and wrong, far beyond righteousness and vilification.  

 

"If I can just make it to the next one."

Classes do seem to be different during times of social unrest and tragedy. I've noticed this for 41 years. Earthquakes, Floods, Stock Market crashes, 9/11, the Tree of Life Synagogue. Usually the classes are much bigger. I think people appreciate a place they can just be with others, to feel positive about themselves, their community and their Way. These types of environments offer that. Breathe in breathe out. Move. Grieve. Transform rage and confusion. Even laugh. 

During Luohan last night I was remembering a particularly brutal hike along the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage. I didn't expect it; I thought the day before was the hardest, but this one was much more difficult. On this particular hike, there are 33 Bodhisattvas spaced at various intervals along the 10 miles. At first they are fun and historically interesting but as the day progressed and difficulty increased, they became touchstones. "If I can just make it to the next one." I would say to myself. And then I would. They were little saviors, really, true to their namesake. It was powerful to realize they have been their for centuries, motivating and saving all manner and number of Pilgrims. 

In class last night I recognized that our practices are like this for us too, touchstones and salvation Kannons, especially in times of deep strife and confusion, when the hike of living is much harder than we expected. When it is, we come to the practice hall. We see our companions. We breathe in and breathe out. We feel the centuries of others and the Bodhisattvas along the Way, we become those others will feel centuries from now.

The Three Treasures

When I encounter multi-layered concepts in Taijiquan and Qigong I seek to find the most simple ways of understanding them. Nature and daily life are great resources for metaphors and examples to help me understand these concepts and principles. After all, all of our practices, nature and daily life are all entwined, all are simply various manifestations of these core principles: Wuij, Yin & Yang, and 10,000 things.  The Chinese really had it figured out long ago!

This past week we focused on The Three Treasures and the Center Line. For this blog, I will talk about the The Three Treasures: Jing, Qi and Shen.

The Three Treasures is a big study in Chinese medicine but they can each, separately and together, be comprehended simply if we look  to nature. Take a flowering bulb, for example. We understand if we have a good bulb and plant it correctly in the right soil, it will grow into a lovely flower, delightful for the eye to see. Metaphorically speaking, our physical bodies are that bulb, full of potential. Our body bulb gets created at conception, formed for nine months or so in mama, and then pushed in the world. Our body bulb, like a flowering bulb, is filled with innate potential with genetic coding. For that genetic coding to manifest, it must be activated upon by correct nutrition. The bulb, from the soil and the atmosphere, our bodies from food and air. As we know, everything alive needs food, oxygen and water to grow. With the right nutrition, innate potential manifests, both flower and body become bright. It is enchanting to be in the presence of such beauty and grace. 

The concept of “Jing” in Chinese medicine (of which our practices are a part), can be seen as our body bulb. We have genetic & historic coding we are born with, our essence, our innate potential. “Qi” can be looked at as both what we are born with and what what we need to activate our potential. We know there is the energy of life in our body bulb, but for our life to sustain and develop, we also need the energy of food and air. The better, the better! “Shen,” then, is the flowering of our spirit, our consciousness, our innate intelligence that will manifest through the combination of the genetic material we are borne with and the nutrition we seek and are exposed to. When we practice our Qigong & Taijiquan we are intentionally enhancing this natural alchemy of life. We exercise our body, which needs to move for health, we breathe more deeply, increasing oxygenation, digestion and blood flow. All of this make more efficient the processes of our body that distribute nutrition through our system and separates the useful from the spent. We who practice know that through these intentional practices we become brighter, happier and more able to interact in the world in delightful and beautiful ways. Jing, Qi & Shen, The Three Treasures!  

These Three Treasures and their layered concepts are a rich study. Here are some accessible books on this topic and on the larger scope of Chinese Medicine.

The Root of Chinese Qigong by Yang Zwing Ming 

The Spark in the Machine by Dr. Daniel Keown 

Between Heaven and Earth by Harriet Beinfield & Efrem Korngold

I found a couple of short online posts that are pretty good:

https://medium.com/a-beginners-guide-to-chinese-medicine/three-treasures-jing-qi-and-shen-173bca0e6308

https://www.thoughtco.com/the-three-treasures-3182922

Additional Thoughts:

We are fully in fall now! In fact, Chinese thought and medicine split this time of the year into 2 parts, early & late fall. Here in the PNW, it is easy to feel this distinction. Though we feel the shift out of summer, late August – September even into early October it is still warm and light. We are still quite active and outward in our presence. Now, its late October. It is darker, wetter and even snow is coming. We are tucking in the garden, getting our polar fleece out, checking our fireplaces to make sure they are ready for the cold days ahead. Winter is not quite here, but it is definitely coming! We can complete our Three Treasures metaphoric exploration by adding one more piece. All that energy of the bulb manifesting? This is the season where those flowers die back and their energy returns to the bulb.  The garden may look scraggly but this is a very important time to allow those saggy leaves and stems to send their energy back to the source to replenish the bulb for next spring. The coming winter is not an outwardly active time, but there is a lot going on under the soil and inside the bulb. Storage, rest and renewal! Just like us, we want to rest more, stay inside more and be cozy. Eat root veggies and stews. It’s all part of how we restore our body bulb. Enjoy the darker more inward days ahead. We and the Dahlias will return in full flower soon enough! 

Here are some words of wisdom for this very important time of the year from Eric Hartmann, L.Ac., M. Ac.

STAYING HEALTHY WITH THE SEASON
By Eric Hartmann, L.Ac., M.Ac. 

 We are in the depths of Fall. This season is associated with and informs the energy of the Metal Element. The organs associated with the Metal element are the Lung and the Large Intestine. The Lungs are a direct connection to the ‘outside’ of our body and thus, susceptible to ‘attacks’ or as we say in Chinese medicine, ‘invasions’.  In Western culture, we refer to these invasions as a cold. So, protect and nourish your Lungs! 

-Keep the back of the neck covered with a scarf
-Support your immune system
-Drink plenty of water
-Go to bed ½ an hour earlier
- Practice rhythmic breathing like meditation or Tai Chi/Qigong
-Go for a walk and get fresh Chi energy to your Lungs

The Large intestine is the organ that lets go of waste products, the things we don’t need or can’t utilize. There are things you can do to help your Large intestine stay healthy:

-Drink plenty of water
-Eat leafy vegetables, good quality, fiber containing foods
-Go for a walk and breath in on a count of 4 and exhale on a count of 6
-Clean out a closet or give away those books you’ve been meaning to take to Goodwill

***


KimSight

I'm one month in to my new routine. And I am just now starting to get used to working one day less a week and not running myself ragged maintaining $72000/year rent and utilities and the pressure of running the Market Street Shop. Sharing space at Shift is working out really well. Still, it is a shift for me, that's for sure, a really big one. My nervous system needs some time to get off the bullet train. I have noticed that my practice and my teaching is transforming. Because I am more rested and my stress level is much less, this seems to be positively affecting my overall practice and life. I knew I had to change because my health was at risk, which seemed very counterproductive to someone who has made a career out of teaching people to be healthy! My transformation is a very interesting process. I was so scared to let go, but pressed on. Now I'm fascinated. (And have enough energy to be so!)

The Dantien, The External Harmonies & Dui-la

Last week and this week we are focusing on three important concepts for both Qigong & Taijiquan: The Dantien, The External Harmonies and Dui-La. All of these concepts/principles relate to each other, all working together to help us create a body structure that is integrated and whole. When we think about these three notions, we can easily train ourselves to feel the body not as individual parts or units but as the whole and interconnected animal body we are. When thinking about the “dantien,” think about your center of gravity, slightly below your navel and inside of your body as the center point in a ball. When thinking of the “external harmonies,” think about how each body part: the shoulders and hips, the elbows and knees and the hands and feet, relate to the center part of the ball and to each other. Perceive these relationships in multidimensional planes: vertical, horizontal, diagonal, circular. When thinking about “dui-la,” think about how the harmonies and their different planes of motion emanate from and return to the dantien - like a rubber band opens and closes in your hands. Practice a movement or two with this in mind. See where it is easy and intuitive, where tension and stiffness make it less accessible. When you raise your arms up, for example, think about your feet going down and rooting. At first, this may seem to be an overly physical approach to practice, but we must address our body “container” and these ideas. Over time the process becomes less mechanical and more intuitive. These basics and this process of inquiry is good for both health & martial arts skill building.

Oftentimes we come to a practice such as Taijiquan or Qigong to “fix” something or “improve” something in ourselves. In doing so we can also overly focus on the part that needs “fixing” or “improving.” We feel we need to breath more deeply or get our shoulders more relaxed, for example, so we try to shove our shoulders down or force air into our lungs. The result is oftentimes that we create more tension and we feel worse. If we think about our body as an interconnected whole, we expand our capacities. For example, when thinking about relaxing the shoulders, perhaps forget about the shoulders and think about opening the feet more, move up your “chain” from there. You may find tension or an old injury that is actually the root of you keeping your shoulders tense. Perhaps it is an ankle or a hip problem that is the root of the shoulder tension. You may notice an unresolved discussion that is the root of shallow breathing and begin to explore possibilities for balancing that stress. We can explore shifting our focus to see if we can discover the root of an issue and see if this helps. 

When looking for a photo for the banner of this blog I realized I loved this picture of my one and only surfing lesson. I failed miserably! However, in falling off the surfboard (in only 2’ of water, mind you), I did it quite well! This falling posture beautifully illustrates how harmonized and elastic my body was, the fall emanating quite nicely from the dantien!

Here are some handouts that might be useful for you. For a visceral understanding of dui-la, get a rubber band, wrap it around both hands and play with expanding and relaxing it. Imagine your whole body is like this.

The Dantien (c Embrace The Moon)
External Harmonies (Thank you to Chen Taijiquan Brisbane for your great public material)

Suggested Reading:
Chen Taijiquan: Masters & Methods, Chapter 4

Coming attractions: The Center Line, The Three Treasures

***

KimSights

These days of such political strife and social acrimony give us all an opportunity to practice mental & emotional “dui-la.” We may not want to, but as a challenging practice it is interesting to really try to see the opposite side of a charged argument or position. It does not mean we have to agree but the very process of attempting to see across the horizon to a different shore expands us. It is interesting to see if the tension created by holding so tight to our position might ease a bit through this practice. I tried this last week and it was really hard, but I actually found myself able to somewhat understand where the other person was coming from and he, me. He asked what we might do to solve the problems we were discussing and I thought, this is it, staying with opposing viewpoints long enough to simply hear the other person. After all, we are all connected to this same planetary/universal center, we are all related to each other’s hands and feet.

I heard this poem yesterday and it resonated for me:

“Mankind owns four things
that are no good at sea. 
Anchor, rudder, oars, 
and the fear of going down.”
-Antonio Machado

Starting Anew

Fall Session Begins!

This week was the first week of classes after our long break and move to a new studio. It was great to be back into a class routine, to meet new students and to feel the softer, quieter energy of the new digs. In all classes, we focused on new entrance and exit procedures, grounding our energy in the new space and getting reacquainted with our practice and each other. Both Qigong and Taijiquan also focused on Standing Meditation, alignment and rooting. Qigong classes further highlighted regaining our flow individually and as a group and acquainting our new students with the movement patterns. In addition to our forms we practiced self-massage techniques. Taijiquan classes further highlighted weight change (move from behind) and waist turn (turn from the front) and how this is applied to each individual movement.  Please spend a few minutes on a regular basis reviewing these principles within the movements that you know as well as observing how they play out in your daily life.  It is as important to take one or two movements and study them as it is to memorize choreography. It is also important to observe your movements in your day to day life, how your alignment is, your relaxation and tension patterns, your state of mind, and so on. All these approaches will bear fruit in your study of Qigong & Taijiquan.

Recommended reading: 

Qigong as a Portal To Presence
The Root of Chinese Qigong, Chapter 3 

The Five Levels of Skill in Taijiquan
The Essence of Taijiquan, pages 96-103

Coming attractions: The Dantien, External Harmonies; Dui-la


KimSights

One of our students asked how my recent Pilgrimage along the Kumano Kodo might spill out into my teachings. I don't know yet really; I'm actually just beginning to digest the experience. I was however recently sparked by a discussion on a Face Book page I'm connected with regarding the KK. A couple people mentioned they found it somewhat "touristy." I found that really odd; that was not my experience at all. I rarely saw others, all the Innkeepers and other Pilgrims really contributed to the sacredness of the experience, but really, the trail itself defined my experience. It was so difficult I just don't see how anyone can think it is for tourism. It is true, I and others I met had serious obstacles to overcome to even get on the trail: Typhoons, Earthquakes, Pouring Rain, Injuries, along with the slick thousand year old steep stone and gnarled thick tree root paths we had to walk up and down most of the time in strong rain, sometimes 1/2” an hour downpours. Perhaps there are times when the weather and all circumstances would be "perfect" and I suppose then a "tourist" would be happy. At the same time, it is a Pilgrimage, and for over 1000 years, defined as such. And so.... it is about obstacles, not tourism. And also, this was my intention. To have a Pilgrimage, not a tourist experience. 

It occurs to me that our life, our practices are like that too. The "Trail" (whatever it is) & One's Intention define one's experience. What do we want? To be a Tourist or a Pilgrim?

This musing reminds me of something our Taijiquan teacher Chen Xiao Xing said one time to a student, asking of the Laojia Yilu (Mother Form), "How long will it take me to learn this form?" CXX replied, "I can teach it to you in an hour, is that what you want?"

Intentional Gratitude

I'm finishing up the last few work details this weekend before I officially embark on my sabbatical. Next Tuesday I leave for Europe where my first stop is Berlin, a city I've always wanted to see. Then I meet several other Moonites in the the Soca Valley of Slovenia for Grandmaster Chen Xiao Xing’s final seminar outside of China. 10 different countries will represent! I’m really looking forward to six strong days of training with my good friends from Great Britain, Russia, Norway, China and more, many of whom I have known for years. Taijiquan, Qigong and the Martial Arts in general attract the best of humanity and international training experiences offer all of us a chance to connect our deepest passion with each other, we from all over the world. My life and how I interpret the world has been shaped and transformed by these extraordinary experiences. I’ll finish my trip with a few days in Amsterdam before heading back to Seattle. 

This in and of itself is quite a full meal. However, with all the profound changes of this past year I really felt I needed something else – something introspective, something quiet, reflective and solitary. Since my mother died last year and I decided to let go of the Market Street space, I have noticed a deep craving to walk. What does one do at 10 pm at night to research such a craving? Google “long walks” of course! The Kumano Kodo in Japan popped up. I knew instantly this was what I wanted and signed on the next day for a "self-guided" experience. And so, September 3 sees me back to Sea Tac on board an Air Canada flight heading for the Land of the Rising Sun. I chose the longest accessible option of the Kumano Kodo, the Nakahechi and Kohechi routes, both, like the Camino De Santiago, are UNESCO designated walks, the only walks in the world with this designation. I will be 11 days along this thousand-year old sacred Pilgrim Trek with bookends in Kyoto & Nara.  I lived in Japan for one year in the early 90’s and knew I’d make my way back someday. Japan met and shaped my heart and my psyche more than any other culture in the world and I’m so grateful to be able to return at this time of my life. 

A student asked me, “What are your hopes and expectations for your walk?” I answered, “nothing at all.” The Ceremony and Celebration of our Market Street dojo (Dojo: Japanese for “A Hall for Training the Way”) continues to resonate with me in ways that eradicated all cravings for “hoping" or "expecting.”  It was a completion of a cycle, we all knew it, but it was much more. How many of us have an opportunity to stand in a room of 150 people and receive such profound appreciation? How many of us have a chance to look at so many people and tell them what they have meant to their life? How many people have a chance to watch stunning demonstrations of work shared and absorbed? How many people have a chance to witness a community gather and share with each other their deep gratitude? In these weeks following our celebration I recognize the great gifts that evening bestowed on me and more, on all of us; I recognize there is nothing more to want, hope for, or expect. 

I believe this evening manifested as it did because this was our intention. We intended to celebrate, to express gratitude, to be with each other with our full selves at this sacred completion of a very meaningful cycle that has touched each of us. We did it perfectly. Starting with the weeks coming up to the event itself we moved ourselves to this completion. The final classes we shared together were among the richest we have ever shared, full of presence, tears and laughter. Full of joy and beauty. The party planning and demo practice and secret surprise for Teacher Kim were all impeccable expressions of the heart. We did this transition together and I cannot help but think this experience will be one of the touchstones we visit over and over again for the rest of our lives. Impermanence is the only thing we know is for sure in this life and to so fully acknowledge and celebrate it is a tremendous act of love. Perhaps this is what my first teacher was pointing to when he said, “one of the most important things you can ever do is leave correctly.” 

In my speech I mentioned a dream I had a few days before the event. I had been spending days putting together the photo collages. My psyche was filled with everyone I had ever encountered in this space. In my dream, everyone was with me. I felt everyone’s presence and remembered the details of our lives together. And then, the dream expounded from there: concentric circles of our connection spiraled outward into the universe. At that moment, I felt to my core how completely and absolutely our lives interconnect, how we all touch each other in ways we know but also in so many more ways we will never know. It seems to me the access code to this realization must be gratitude. Every day now I wake up with one singular intention: to be grateful. 

Thank you all very much for the Grand Salute to Market Street. Thank you for being a part of my life and thank you for allowing me to be a part of yours. 

Respect, Salute, 10,000 Thank You’s. See you in the fall. 

Kim

Ceremony Long Form (1 hour, 20 min)
Demos only (35 min)