Archive for October, 2009

Longquan Practice JianI don’t know about other styles of Tai Chi, or indeed other schools of the same style I practice –  namely Chen, but I guess they’re all slightly different. It’s a human thing, dictated by the character and experience of your teacher, by the character and nature of the group you’re a part of, and by your own nature as well – but one thing I noticed when I began practicing the long sword form was that I began to lose touch with the fundamentals of Tai Chi more or less right away.

It was clear to me that the moves I was learning had a martial application. We practiced slowly, but the intent was obvious and you’d only to speed it up a little, call your sword green destiny and you were no longer this middle aged geezer with a cheap Lonquan practice jian – you were a  ninja –  or at least an overgrown kid, pretending to be a ninja.

The long sword form is the first of the long forms one encounters in Chen, after the shorter, introductory eleven or eighteen open-handed forms. There are forty nine moves. At first it seems impossible anyone could remember that many moves, and if you watch it on your instructional DVD, it seems to go on for ever, but if I can pick it up, anyone can, and it really doesn’t seem as long in the actual doing of the form as it does in the watching of it. But the danger in picking up a long form is that one begins to concentrate on the form itself and not on the feeling of the form.

When I began Chen style, I seemed to progress very slowly. It took me three months to learn the first five moves. I would repeat them over and over, and I would drive home afterwards bathed in sweat, and in a state of supernatural calm that drew me back week after week, hungry for more of the same. But once I began on the forty nine, I think I forgot what I was doing Tai Chi for.

I forgot the basics.

I still drove home bathed in sweat afterwards – but somehow, I was no longer quite as supernaturally calm as I had once been.

I do not do Tai Chi to learn how to fight people  or break bones. However, with Chen, the application of the moves become more obvious as one progresses. It’s an energetic, and occasionally explosive form that’s a joy to practice, but as a beginner, like me, I think it’s easy to lose your way with it, and it’s probably fair to say the sword form threw me off completely.

In the I Ching, Hexagram 22 talks about Adornment. When I read the Wilhelm translation of this ancient book, I fancy I detect the hand of Confucius here, more than Lau Tzu. To my possibly ill-informed, western mind, Confucianism seems concerned with correctness of form, of order, of etiquette – and the idea that such things should reflect or give expression to the underlying beauty of things. However, the I Ching also tells us that these things are essentially adornments, and not the underlying essence – that sometimes they can disguise a hollow sham, and it’s important to be able to recognise the difference. Likewise, forget the basics of Tai Chi, and no matter how well you know the form, it’ll look ridiculous.

I once filmed myself doing the sword form – for the sake of self correction, but I looked so silly, I deleted it. There was nothing worth correcting. It lacked something so fundamental and completely beyond the moves I was performing it wasn’t even worth adjusting. Adjustment was not the issue. Essence was the issue, and you cannot practice essence – you must discover it, tap into it, feel it.  I’ve watched many a westerner on You Tube doing the form, and they all look ridiculous.

Only the Chinese masters seem to have it.

What is it?

I think I understood it once, vaguely, in the early days, when things were simpler, but have since lost it. It’s something to do with breathing and intention, I think. This is easier to maintain when you’re doing a  short form, or a Qigong set, but the longer forms require the support of one’s ego simply in order to persevere with the practice long enough, month after month, year after year to complete them and remember them. In the struggle for it we forget the idea of intention, because intention is a ridiculous concept to one’s ego, as is energy or Qi.

Things only became worse for me after the sword form. I moved on to the Chen Old Frame, the Lao Jia, seventy two movements, then the Broadsword form – and before I  knew it the Pau Chui or Cannon Fist. My instructor tells me I’m coming to the end of the course, now, and if that’s true then I feel like I’m further away from knowing what Tai Chi is at the end of it than I was at the beginning.

At the moment I’m trying to slow down to the point where my imagination and my concept of reality meet, to the point where I can feel the resistance of the air as I move. I don’t know if this is correct, but it feels right at the moment.  I close my eyes. I try to feel it. I try to remember the form and practice it deliberately. I try to develop an awareness of my body and the feel of the sword – its minute vibrations, its weight, its coolness in my hand. I put my mind into my arms, my fingers, my torso, my legs. It’s an imaginary thing, but I try to read myself, concentrate on what I’m feeling, what my nerves are telling me  – and I try to remember that what I’m doing is trying to achieve a state of moving meditation.

I understand meditation.

In meditation we close ourselves down and hang our mind upon the feel of our breaths. Mostly we breathe in a coarse way. If we focus, we can hear our breath – this is coarseness. But if we can slow down,  there eventually comes a point where we cannot hear our breaths any more. This is the sound of the silent breath. We are breathing, but only in our imaginations, and it is also through our imaginations we become aware of the movements of our body, and the movement of this imaginary stuff called Qi.

I read somewhere recently – I wish I could remember where – about a student who turned in exasperation to his teacher and said: this is all in my mind – it’s just imaginary, and the teacher said: Well,  tell me what is not imaginary! Tell me what is not all in the mind!

So,.. what I’m trying to say, as a beginner, as we rush on with our practice of the form, we should try not to forget our first lesson: the position of Wu Wei, of nothingness, nor the way the breath measures every move – breathing in as we draw in, breathing out as we push out, or strike. The form that can be described, like Dao, is not the real form. The real form comes from within and cannot be described – only experienced. For now I’ve completely lost it – just like Dao and life in general – but with patience and practice, I hope I can regain it.

* One more thing! Uncle’s delightfully annoying verbal tick from the 2000 animated cartoon series: The Adventures of Jackie Chan.

Michael Graeme


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Sunset Lancashire Oct 28th 2009I wrote in an earlier post about how I’d managed to break my wristwatch – rather an old Rolex, it turns out, one I bought in 1981 as a 21st birthday present to myself. I remember paying £270 for it, which was rather a lot of money in those days – but as a young and single man, a final year engineering apprentice, I’d nothing else to spend my money on except cars and girls – so what the hell? The trouble with your Rolex though is that only an authorised Rolex dealer will touch it when it goes wrong, and they seem to have a standard charge for putting things right whether you’ve simply scratched the glass and want it polishing out or you’ve had it run over by a Sherman tank.

So, anyway, I took it into town and the rather glamorous lady assistant in the jewlers asked me how old the watch was, and I said 1981, and she said: “Gosh I’d only just been born then,”  and I thought – am I really that old ? She was tall and blonde and and lovely and though she didn’t mean me to, I suddenly felt ancient, bald and crumpled. I mean, I’m married and everything and wouldn’t even think about it, but let’s just say under other circumstances I would definitely have fancied the pants off her  – but clearly I would just have been an old fool making an ass of himself, on account of being old enough to be her father. But that’s life, and just one of the interesting conundrums it throws at us older chaps – like what use is it feeling like a teenager, when the skin you’re wearing looks like it could do with a good ironing, and glamourous women no longer even look twice at you? (not that they ever did in the first place, but you know what I mean)

But I digress. Back to the Rolex: It has to go away for an estimate but it looks like it could cost me somewhere in the order of what I originally paid for it to get it going again, and I’m wondering: is it worth it? I could buy a lot of watch for £270 these days – admittedly not a Rolex, but does the Rolex mean that much to me now?

DSCF5004The young  guy who bought it in 1981 – my younger self – doesn’t exist any more, does he? So what does it matter what he would think about this older and supposedly wiser self saying stuff it and burying the thing in a bottom drawer somewhere? I mean – it’s not like I wear it every day is it? And I seem as fond of my current Timex as I am of the old Rolex. But we’re clearly talking about more than a wristwatch here, aren’t we? We’re talking about something that’s symbolic of a defining era in my past. We’re talking about the things I thought, the hopes I had, the hopeless loves I had by then already lost, to say nothing of the desires and the aspirations of that young man just setting out, finding his feet in the world. I think back and I really like that young guy, he was okay,  he meant well. I hope he’d feel the same way about me if he could look forward upon me from my past, as I can look back upon him from his future. And I think he would be hoping I wouldn’t give up on it – whatever “it” is, this symbol, this mysterious thing I feel when think back upon those times – this thing we share.

So I’ll bite the bullet and I’ll get it fixed.

In Buddhism this would not make sense of course. It would be like trying to hold on to something from the past – a classic case of attachment. We evolve. We are are never the same person from one moment to the next. Our consciousness changes, it’s an illusion of sorts, a compendium of memory, emotion and instinct. We should let it go, lose our sense of the flow of life and time, and seek to live only in the present moment – because that is the only useful reality – everything else is either memory or anticipation and we can change the contents of neither. That’s all well and good, but I think as long as we can maintain a moderate perspective on the past, it can serve us well to delve into it occasionally – not out of a desire for nostalgic self indulgence, but to understand better who we are now by reminding us of who we once were.

It’s no coincidence that this question of getting a time-piece fixed causes me to think more deeply on questions regarding the nature of time itself. Many of my stories in recent years have played hard and fast with the conventional notionsof time, blurring the present into the past and the future into the present, all of them somehow adding up to inform each other in meaningful ways. The Rolex has measured the linear time of my life for the past twenty eight years, but I’m no longer sure the deeper part of who I think I am exists in linear time at all. Getting on for a decade ago now, I stood before  a mountain and felt myself slip into an eerie state of mind where the notion of time seemed rather a fuzzy concept, and where this bag of bones standing up in his boots was as much a part of his experience of life as  the mountain he was looking at – that reality and time were not physical at all, that physicality itself was somehow negotiable, that the only reality was essentially psychological, the only reality was mind .

I still do not understand that experience, but it suggests to me now that youngster’s as alive and well and as fully a part of my experience of life as he ever was, as I am a part of his. From his frame of reference he can have no concept of me, his older self looking back upon him and promising, hand on heart to get his watch fixed, just as I can have no concept of my future self looking back upon these words and wondering what the hell I thought I was blathering on about. But there is a connection.

I’m sure of it.

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Swara Yoga – balancing the mind?

Does Swara Yoga prove a link between human biological cycles and the cycles of the sun and the moon?

I’m amazed I’ve managed to live as long as I have while only recently noticing that there is something very interesting about my nose – not just my nose, but everyone’s nose. If you don’t know what I’m on about, may I suggest you try a simple experiment? Close your mouth and breathe in through your nose. So far so good? Now, lightly press a finger against the side of one nostril, sealing it off, then breathe in gently. Okay? Now, release the blocked nostril, seal up the other one and breathe in again. Notice anything odd? The chances are you will find that while one nostril feels relatively clear, the other will seem a bit congested, requiring more effort to get the air through. If they both feel about the same , then try again in another thirty minutes. Keep checking throughout the day.

What I’m driving at here is that at certain times of day you’ll notice one nostril will feel clearer than the other.

And they alternate.

This phenomenon has been known about for a long time of course. It forms the basis of an ancient technique called Swara Yoga – swara meaning “flow of air”. It was developed to a sophisticated degree in India, and reputedly goes back to the pre-Vedic era, which would make it over four thousand years old. What these early scholars proposed was that the switch from one nostril to the other was also accompanied by a change in humour, or mood. Taking this a step further, they surmised that the timing of these cycles was linked to the lunar and solar cycles as well the cycle of the then known planets. From these ideas, they developed a complex system which placed the individual’s natural rhythms in the context of the greater rhythms of the earth and the universe.

As well as paying heed to the rhythmic alternations between right and left nostril breathing, it was discovered that the cycle could be adjusted, so that if you found yourself running out of sync with the natural world, so to speak, you could bring yourself back in line – or you could temporarily change your mode of breathing in order to suit whatever it was that you were doing. Early paintings of swamis and gurus sometimes show them with a crutch-like stick under one armpit as they sit meditating. Leaning on the stick, known as a “danda”, applies pressure to the armpit, and this was said to change the dominant nostril. There was no point meditating, they believed, if one nostril was more dominant than the other and the aim of these early swamis was to achieve a state of balance – a special condition where neither nostril is dominant.

The Two Hemispheres

Support for at least for some of the observations of Swara Yoga, comes from recent medical studies of the brain. The brain is divided into two halves – the left and right hemispheres, and it is known that each hemisphere tends to specialise in a particular mode of thinking. The left hemisphere shows greater levels of activity when we are presented with puzzles that require a rational, calculating, analytical or a linguistic approach. On the other hand when we’re engaged in artistic activities such as painting, drawing, writing, or anything else that demands a creative, abstract, fuzzy or intuitive approach, the right hemisphere becomes more active.

As individuals, we all have a particular preference for either left brain or right brain thinking. This is simply a part of who we are and how we approach life. However, studies have shown that the brain switches dominance between hemispheres several times during the day, alternating between left brain thinking and right brain thinking. Obviously, the whole brain is available to us regardless of the time of day, but there is a suggestion that we are better at tackling rational, logical problems at a time when the left hemisphere is dominant, or to put it simply, when our brains are in the correct mode.

Returning to the subject of Swara Yoga then, and the idea of an alternating, dominant nostril, it’s interesting to note that the same medical studies of the brain have also identified a direct link between brain mode and breathing. When the dominant nostril is the left hand one, it is the right hemisphere of the brain that is dominant, conversely, Right nostril: Left brain. This seems to suggest that the early pioneers of Swara Yoga were correct in their observations and that there was indeed a link between the flowing nostril and the humor or mood of the individual. For a start, Swara Yoga seems to grant us a reliable indicator for judging which brain mode we’re in, a claim backed up by respectable scientific studies:

Left Nostril Clear = Right Brain mode: Creative, intuitive.

Right Nostril Clear = Left Brain mode: Rational, analytical.

But we can go further.

If we’ve been particularly diligent with our experiments, we might have noticed that during the switch-over from one nostril to the next there was a period when both nostrils felt about the same. This period corresponds to an exchange of energy between the two brain hemispheres: one is powering down while the other is ramping up. It’s during this hiatus that it is believed we are more prone to making errors or to lapses of concentration. If we can be aware of these crucial change-over periods, we can use them to time our natural breaks in the working day and to avoid pursuing any definite goals. Creative problem solving can be reserved for our right brain periods and tricky analytical problems for the left. Remaining in tune with our own rhythms in this way we can stay fresher throughout the day and feel less drained at the end of it

Or so the theory goes.

Astrological Cycles

Delving more deeply into Swara Yoga, we learn that, according to the theory, our body’s rhythms do not remain fixed but vary, according to the time of the month and the year. Also we are told that it is inadvisable to carry out certain types of action at particular times of the lunar and solar cycle, also the cycle of the major planets. This sounds like Astrology, and indeed it is.

Astrology, as opposed to Astronomy, has rather a bad press in these rational times. There are many types of astrology, but they are all based upon the same premise – that the position of the major heavenly bodies at a given time can influence both world events and the lives of individuals. The most obvious mechanism by which the heavenly bodies achieve this, according to some astrologers, is by virtue of their gravitational field. However, the rational arguments against astrology also tend to hinge upon gravitational forces, saying that, for the major planets at least, the effects of their gravity, as felt upon earth, are far too weak to have any conceivable effect, that, in fact, the computer I’m typing these words into is exerting by far the greater gravitation pull upon my brain than, say, the planet mars. But what about the sun and the moon? It’s obvious that they exert a significant gravitational force on the earth – enough for example to raise the tides by twenty feet or more, twice a day! But are these tidal forces also sufficient to raise psychological or physiological tides in living things? There is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that they do, but scientific studies seem divided on the issue – some saying “no, don’t be stupid”, others saying “maybe – but we need to do another study to be sure because we dare not come right out and say that it does”. These studies have looked at things like fluctuations of the stock-market, accident and emergency admissions, also plant growth and other agricultural phenomenon. Perhaps the most obvious monthly cycle that all women – and married men – are aware of is the female menstruation cycle, or the dreaded “time of the month”. As its name suggests, this seems timed perfectly to a lunar cycle, all be it a personal one, but again the scientific evidence tells us there is no proven link, and that it’s just as likely to be a coincidence.

Now, personally, I have always been open to the idea that at least the solar and lunar components that raise tides on earth, could have an effect on human behaviour, for no other reason than that they appear to have a very large effect upon the earth. I have long been intrigued by the anecdotal evidence that supports this notion, and equally puzzled by the scientific studies that refute it, but a quick reminder of how gravity actually works makes it easier to see why it seems unlikely that gravity can be having any effect at all.

Tidal ranges vary with the phase of the moon. For example, at the full and New Moon periods, the tides are notably higher than at other times of the month, so it might, at first glance, seem unreasonable to deny that there could be a similar effect occurring in living organisms. However, the actual forces involved are still very small. It’s also wrong to imagine the moon as somehow “pulling” the earth’s oceans up into great bulges in order to form the tides, rather like a giant magnet. The mechanism is actually quite different, with the oceans “shearing”, or flowing sideways by a tiny amount which, although small, when taken taken overall adds up to large fluctuations around our coastlines. It is only by virtue of the almost unimaginably uninterrupted vastness of the earth’s oceans that the moon and sun can have any effect at all. The world’s substantially enclosed seas – the Caspian and the Black sea for example exhibit virtually no tidal variation.

When we try to get a feel for the actual force involved, we learn that it can only be detected by the most sensitive of instruments. How small is it? Well, if we imagine a butterfly resting on the back of our hand, the force it exerts upon us is many thousands of times times greater than the force exterted by the moon. Given this understanding then, a link between lunar phase and any human biological or psychological rhythms begins to seem seem less probable.

There is, however, another mechanism by which the sun and the moon might affect all living organisms, giving rise to cyclical variations in physical and psychological states: Geomagnetism.

Before going on to look at this in more depth, let’s see if Swara Yoga can point to any evidence of such a cyclical pattern in a human being – i.e. me!

A Personal Study

Swara yoga recognises the following three modes of breathing:

i) Left Nostril (called Ida)

ii) Right Nostril(called Pingala),

iii) Both nostrils (called Shushumna)

The left nostril is associated with right brain activities: inner, mental, feminine, intuitive, abstract. It’s associated with the nightime, and the moon. The right Nostril is associated with left brain activities: logical, masculine, analytical. It’s associated with daytime and the sun. Breathing through both nostrils is said to be associated with spiritual activities: meditation, peace, equilibrium, oneness. It’s time is one of transisiton between dark and light ie at sunset or dawn.

According to the theory the active nostril should flow for 60-90 mins, then 1-4 mins Shushumna (both nostrils), before the other nostril becomes active, again for 60-90 mins etc

In Swara Yoga, both the sun and moon are said to have an influence on our breathing pattern. The lunar month is divided into thirty lunar days (in accordance with the Hindu calendar). The month is split into two halves, either side of the full moon, each half consisting of fifteen lunations, or “tithis”. The first half of the month is called the bright half, a fifteen “tithi” period during which the moon waxes progressively brighter. The second half, as the moon wanes is called the dark half.

It’s important to note that we are not talking about ordinary calendar days here but degrees of lunar separation with respect to the sun – a “tithi” or lunar day in the Hindu calender being a value in multiples of 12 degrees of separation. It’s duration in actual clock time will vary and in order to accurately relate this lunar day to the calendar day it’s best to use a special calculator such as the Panchang Calculator at http://www.swarayoga.org.

These fifteen days are split into consecutive periods consisting of 3 days each and, according to Swara Yoga, during the bright half of the lunar month, the left nostril should become active at sunrise on days 1-3, 7-9, and 13-15. On these days, the natural cycle will then involve an alternation between left and right nostril, and the rhythm should adjust itself so that the right nostril becomes active at sunset. On days 4-6, and 10-12, during the bright half of the month, the right nostril becomes active at sunrise, the alternating cycle of left to right nostril adjusting itself so that the left nostril takes over at sunset.

During the dark half of the lunar month, the process is said to be reversed – the right nostril taking over at sunrise on days 1-3, 7-9 and 13-15, the cycle adjusting itself over the course of the day so that the left nostril talkes over at sunset, while on days 4-6 and 10-12, the left nostril takes over at sunrise and the cycle adjusts itself so that the right nostril takes over at sunset.

Swara Yoga then suggests that we should be able to detect the effects of both the time of day (solar) and month (lunar) on our breathing patterns, simply by observing the air coming in and out of our nostrils.

The trials

Checking for the dominant nostril should only take a moment. You press lightly on the side of the nose, gently closing off one nostril, and you try to breathe normally through the open one. Repeat on the opposite side. Usually, the difference between them will be distinct. However, sometimes it will be hard tell and you end up guessing. If you have the time you can check throughout the day at regular intervals say every thirty minutes, check also if you wake up before dawn, and try to remember which nostril was flowing, so you can make a note of this also.

All of this might be difficult, depending on your lifestyle, but it only takes a second and if you’re discrete, it can be done in the company of other people without them realising what you’re up to.

Initial results

I managed to maintain a fairly close eye on my breathing for a period of two weeks, either side of the full moon, which occurred on November 15th 2008. The first thing I noticed was that my own rhythms were nowhere near so neat and regular as Swara Yoga says they should have been. Far from having a regular left to right rhythm lasting ninety minutes per side, with a thirty minute changeover, one side would dominate for most of the day, with only brief periods of change of an hour or so, before reverting back to the dominant nostril, which was the right nostril (left brain thinking), during both the run up to the full moon, and after it.

There was however a noticeable changeover from one nostril to the other at dawn, the left nostril(right brain) usually operating before sunrise, before the right one took over and largely dominated throughout the day. There was no noticeable change-over around sunset. Unfortunately then, I could not say that the lunar phase had any bearing at all upon the results of this, admittedly, rather brief study. As for the sun, I was intrigued by the changeover at dawn from left to right breathing – However, the fact that there was not a corresponding switch back from right to left breathing at sunset suggested there might be something else going on here. I can only speculate on this, and believe it might have something to do with light. At the time of the study, dawn coincided with my normal get-up time, while at sunset, the darkness was rendered ineffective by the use of electric lights until I finally went to bed – in other words the normal daylight cycles had been substantially interfered with by artificial light, and this could have explained why my breathing didn’t exhibit a changeover at sunset. Another explanation could have been simply down to which side I was lying while sleeping. Pressure applied to one armpit is said to cause the nostril on the opposite side of the body to become more open – therefore it could be that my sleeping habits determine which nostril is dominant when I wake, rather than any environmental factors.

Another pattern I noticed was that when my left nostril was flowing, (right brain) I was often writing or engaged in some other “artistic” activity, though I cannot say for certain if I was drawn to these activities by the brain mode, or that by sitting down to carry out these activities, the brain mode was forced to switch over to suit what I wanted to do. I did try to deliberately change the flow of the breath by physical means – applying pressure under the armpit as though with a yoga danda, but without success, though this could simply have been due to my lack of skill in this area. Further experiments in simply lying on my side, did reveal a seemingly reliable correlation – lying on my left side would cause the right nostril to open and vice versa.


I found no convincing evidence of a lunar or solar rhythm affecting the patterns of my breathing. However, there were a number of curious observations that suggest at least a practical, physiological basis – if not an astrological one – for the practice of Swara Yoga.

(1) I found it was possible to change which nostril is dominant by lying on your side – the higher nostril being the one that would dominate – so if you lay on the left side for a while the right nostril will dominate and vice versa.

(2) I found that when most absorbed in right brain type activities – writing, drawing, the brain mode was correctly indicated by the more dominant nostril. Therefore, either the brain mode lured me into carrying out those activities, or persevering in them caused the brain to switch over to suit the situation in hand.

This has certainly been an interesting subject to play around with. Though I was unable to confirm the effect of the full moon on my breathing patterns, there is a clear link with the dominant nostril and the dominant brain hemisphere. Also, as the Yogis have been telling us for thousands of years, it would seem we can change the dominant nostril. Techniques for doing this vary – the most reliable one for me being simply lying on one side. Whichever nostril is the higher – i.e. furthest away from the ground will become dominant. This has possible applications in mediation and overcoming writer’s block. The Yogis aim for the balance point – neither left or right brain dominant. My own meditation comes nowhere near the level of sophistication achieved by more dedicated adepts, so I’m happy to accept their greater knowledge of these things for now. But if you do meditate, it might be worth considering this aspect and experimenting with it. However, for me, meditation is about letting go and it’s perhaps not wise to become distracted over the presence or the absence of a dominant nostril

For writing, things are a little clearer: you need a right brain bias. That’s when I find it flows best of all – the words I mean. So if you’re a writer and you’ve hit one of those dark periods when you’re really struggling with it, perhaps the best thing you can do is go and have a lie down on your right side for a bit, check the left nostril – and therefore the right brain – is dominant, then sit down and try to write some more.*


Swara Yoga, the Tantric Science of Brain Breathing: Swami Muktibodhananda, Bihar, India

*errata – I’ve had my left and right brains muddled up in this paragraph. Apologies for any confusion. Right brain thinking is of course associated with artistic activities like writing and drawing – not left brain as I have been showing here for a while.

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Castell Henllys - August 2009Back in the summer, I spent a week by the coast, in Pembrokeshire. This proved to be  an interesting break in a beautiful part of the UK. Pembrokeshire is an area of southern Wales, perhaps best known for its outstanding coastal scenery, but in common with the rest of this region, there is also a wealth of well preserved archeological remains. In particular I was struck by two locations – Castell Henllys, and the cromlech at Pentre Ifan.

Castell Henllys is an ongoing archeological dig, a training centre for budding archeologists, and a unique tourist attraction, lying just off the main A487 coast road, a few miles out of Newport. The main interest here for the tourist is the reconstruction of an iron age settlement, pretty much as the invading Roman legions might have found it two thousand years ago. It’s based upon the original underlying archeology – and consists of several pointed, thatched huts, recreated upon the exact spot of the real thing, as identified by ancient post holes, and even the rainwater drip channels formed by the diameters of the original huts.

For the visitor this is a magical experience in a convincingly recreated environment. I remember in particular, a few moments alone in one of these massive huts with a great fire burning in the centre, the scent of woodsmoke sharp in my nostrils and making my eyes want to water – the reproductions of celtic art upon the wattle and daub walls of the hut, the flickering shadows and a mysterious sense of place – the feeling that I had been here before – a very long time ago – all fanciful, I know, and romantic, but also curiously palpable, even though I presume everything from the ground up here is pure speculation.

In another hut, I was surprised by two Celtic-costumed ladies, who were dying  wool by the boiling of various natural substances – all contemporary with the iron age period, all in keeping with the world and its rhythms. The colours were soft, even the iconic blue woad was subdued, and in perfect keeping with the soft rainwashed greens and earthy hues of the hillcountry and the woodland hereabouts – not at all like the gaudy purple of those Phoenician chaps from hotter climes!

It was rather a wet day and cool – in the fashion of an English summer – but no matter how hard the rain pitter pattered on the thatched roofs of those curiously shaped huts, it was rather cosy inside – though perhaps such massive log burning was a luxury reserved only for the ruling classes of this lost society, and in reality us serfs would have had to bear a much humbler fate.

It was brighter day when I set off, in my slightly dodgy Astra, along the impossibly narrow little Welsh lanes, in search of  Pentre Pentre “>Pentre “>Ifan, basically a  triangle of megaliths supporting a capstone. Pentre Ifan is often quoted as being the finest example of this type of cromlech and I wouldn’t argue with that, though the journey to it by car is not for the faint hearted, it being along a single track road of some several miles, with very few passing places.

pentre ifan

Wikipedia tells me the cap-stone of Pentre Ifan weighs 16 tonnes. This would have required a great deal of ingenuity and brute force to place it just so – also a very good reason for wanting to do it in the first place. But I’m reminded we’re in the Preseli hills now, and not very far from the fabled Carn Menyn, the  supposed source of the massive Bluestones, the Preseli Spotted Dolerite, that were somehow  transported hundreds of  miles to that other mysterious old ruin, Stonehenge, in Wiltshire. How you would organise such a thing I’ve no idea – and it seems no one else has either, as the mystery of the Stonehenge Blues is still very much a talking point among archeologists.

The slightly more prosaic explanation is that the dolerite was merely scraped off the Preselis and various other parts of southern Wales and shunted across to Wiltshire by a glacier, then dumped more or less on site as the glacier retreated, to be picked up and dropped into place by the Stonehenge masons . Proponents of this theory tell us that the idea there was one specific source for the stones is entirely unsupported by the evidence, also that men simply couldn’t have done it – where have I heard that one before? On the other hand, proponents who argue for the human transport theory say there is no evidence to support the glacial theory, that there is evidence pinpointing the Stonehenge bluestones to a small number of very specific outcrops in the Preseli hills, that there are even broken megaliths of similar proportion to the Stonehenge bluestones lying in an ancient quarry below the summit of Carn Menyn itself.

So, you pick which side of the argument you prefer and dig yourself in.

Now, if men did go to all the trouble of moving the stones from Preseli, the question one must ask is why? What was so important about Preseli spotted dolerite? In it’s natural state, it’s rather an ordinary looking material. Well, a recent theory proposes an ancient belief in the healing properties of the stone – as evidenced by the presence of chippings  among the grave goods of ancient burials around Stonehenge. The healing properties of the Stonehenge bluestones are also mentioned in the writings of the twelfth century monk Geoffrey of Monmouth – though Geoffrey is considered to be one of the more fanciful and least reliable of our early historians. Also,  it’s strange there seems to be no corresponding lore surrounding the healing properties of dolerite in the Preseli region itself. There’s a great deal of new age neo-celtic interest in it nowadays of course, as evidenced by the number of New Age online emporea selling the stuff, but forgive me if I’m wrong here, but this seems to be of fairly recent origin, having bubbled up to the surface only after the publicity surrounding these most recent archeological ideas.

But to get back to Pentre Ifan, the most disappointing thing in viewing such ruins as these is that they are all that is left to us, and we must weave what vague fancies we can out of them. Britain’s early indigenous culture was not literate and we will never unearth a manuscript which will simply explain to us how and why Pentre Ifan was used, or for that matter, how the Bluestones got to Stonehenge. And that’s a great pity because if we could understand these early peoples, we might also understand a good deal more about ourselves.

Michael Graeme


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Healing with Magnets

magnet I’m aware of straying in to areas I know nothing about here, but since the medical profession also steers well clear of it, I feel as competent as anyone else in commenting. Still, I would only ever do this from the perspective of my own experience, so it’s up to the reader to judge whether (a) I’m simply a liar (b) the effects I describe are attributable to something else I’ve missed and am therefore merely deluding myself and thereby misleading you, or (c) this sounds interesting enough to make you want to dabble a little yourself.*

The story.

In spite of previous essays on how to get rid of your Tinnitus, Michael Graeme’s not a hypochondriac, nor a particularly clumsy git, but he’s clocking up nearly fifty years now and it’s only reasonable for him to accept that he’s going to start getting the odd grumbly ache and pain now and then. Also, if he pulls a muscle doing something stupid, it’s going to take him a little longer to get over it than he  might have done when he was twenty five. But he’s also a little less sceptical than he was at 25 as well, and more willing to try out the so called old-wives’ remedies – if only because he has more need of them them now than he did before.

Anyway, groping his way along the hallway at dead of night – not wanting to put the lights on in case it woke everyone up, he forgot about the boxes of junk that were waiting to go into the attic. He didn’t see them in the pitch dark, tripped up over them and measured his length on the hall carpet. On the way down, he caught his little finger in a corner of one of the boxes and bent it back further than it’s supposed to go.

It hurt.

A lot.

I could still wiggle it so I reckoned I’d managed to avoid breaking it, which was good of course. It was probably going to be stiff and achy for a while, but I was confident it would mend perfectly well on its own. Six months later though, it was still stiff and achy, and didn’t seem to be getting any better at all – I mean it worked okay, and you tend not to need your little fingers for much anyway, except for making chords on your guitar, and I don’t do much of that anyway these days.

See the doctor? Well, I suppose you should always go to the doctor if you’re in doubt  over anything that’s ailing you, but I could imagine his expression: nothing to point at, everything working – just a bit of niggly pain in my finger. I pictured a shrug by way of saying what do you expect me to do about it? I might have got some pain killers I suppose, but it wasn’t bad enough to need them, and we’ve all got better things to do than waste time sitting for ages in a doctor’s surgery if we’re not sure we’re going to get anything out of it at the end.


What do you do?

I decided to try magnets.

You can buy magnetic bracelets from the herb shop for relatively little, but the precise mechanism by which they’re supposed to work is unclear to me – even in the esoteric terminology of the alternative healing community. You basically wear some magnets on your wrist and they’re supposed to cure any aches and pains you have just about anywhere in your body. I was curious about this, but I was reluctant to buy one because I’m a straight up and down kind of guy, who works in a shirt and tie kind of environment, and it felt a bit girly to be wearing a bangle – even one I could argue was a “man-bangle” – and anyway: the only thing that could possibly be having an effect was the magnetic flux creating a highly localised distortion in the earth’s geomagnetic field, close to one’s body – so why wouldn’t it work the same way, then, if you just carried a magnet in your pocket?

Well, that’s what I did.

I tried carrying a piece of hematite around  – this is a highly magnetic kind of iron ore, that you can buy from new-age trinket shops. They’re usually highly polished and possess a dark lustre that’s very pretty and probably worth the cost in it’s own right. It didn’t seem to have any effect though, other than sticking together bits of my loose change and magnetising my keys.

Undeterred, I decided to try a different approach and obtained instead a pair of small button magnets, which I hacked out of one of my children’s discarded toys (Hint: Geomag). I taped these button magnets on either side of the painful area, using sticking plaster, making sure the north pole of one magnet lined up with the south pole of the other, so there was a flow of magnetic flux from one magnet to the other, through the painful area. The magnets were therefore attracting each other, rather than repelling. I’ve no information for basing this approach on, other than that it sounded intuitively correct.

Within half an hour the aching that had been present for six months, had simply gone. My finger felt great, and my senses told me I was really onto something. Out of curiosity, I turned one of the magnets over, so they were in repelling mode, and the finger became achy again. So, I turned the magnet back, so they were both attracting again, taped it securely and left both of them in place for about a week – day and night, and just enjoyed the relief. Then I took them off and the pain did not return. It’s been six months now and my finger’s still fine.

Had the magnets provided some palliative relief alone, it would still have been worthwhile doing, but it seems they went further and encouraged some actual healing to take place as well. Make of this what you will. I don’t know how it works, and I’m not sure I can believe half of the explanations I’ve read on the internet, but neither can I believe now that it is reasonable to entirely dismiss the curative properties of magnets either.

* Naturally, if you’re in pain or you’re ill and in any doubt, go and see your doctor. Michael Graeme’s philosophy of only bothering the sawbones with symptoms he can physically point to is not a good one.

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DSCF3061So, the sun goes down on another Sunday evening. The week has passed quickly, speeded along perhaps by the excitement of spending Tuesday evening in the casualty department. So far all seems well with number 2 son (previous post for details) – no harm done, other than a manly scar above his hair line, which, if he takes after his father he won’t have to worry about until he hits his forties and his hair line decides to make for the back of his neck.  All that remains is  to coax him onto his bicycle again, when he’s ready. Other news: moving on in Tai Chi – Broadsword now pretty much explored – to be practiced in private for the rest of my life, along with the Jian and the Old Frame. Begun Pau Chui, otherwise known as Cannon Fist. Watched a video on You Tube showing the way Master Jesse Chan does it, and I’ve had to remind myself I’m pushing fifty years old and I must be mad for even thinking I can do this without putting my back out.  (Actually I may already have ut my back out) There are slower versions, such the one I’ve seen performed in such a sublime manner by Master Chen Zheng Lei, and this gives me some hope. Either way I’m looking forward to having a laugh over the autumn and the winter as I go through it.

Michael Graeme now has two short stories out in the field, so to speak, languishing in an editor’s intray – one of them since April. As for my satirical short story “A Moth on the Moon”, response has been immediate and gratifying. It seems to be doing well on Feedbooks, and one kind soul has even listed it as his favourite. I feel another short story coming on, which I hope to flesh out over the coming weeks. In addition I’m currently muddling my way through three novels, and I have a couple of essays coming up to the boil on the subjects of meditation, Swara Yoga and, well the mystical path in general.

In addition to all of this, I’ve been looking around for a portable hard drive – which finally brings me to the heading of this post. It might sound mundane, but with so much of my life on the other side of this computer screen, I can’t afford to run the risk of not having things backed up. Indeed, past experience has led me to make a point of never keeping anything solely on a computer, be it writing, photographs or mp3’s. This isn’t paranoia:  Computers get dropped, stolen and occasionally eaten by a virus. These things really  do happen, and it’s best to be prepared.

I was reading the blog of an amusingly paranoid conspiracy theorist recently who’d lost all his important data from his computer – his conclusion being that some sinister government agency had hacked in and trashed his hard-drive because he was getting too close to the truth of whatever it was he was ranting on about. More likely, though, his hard drive had been knocked, or simply died or his anti-virus software wasn’t up to date and some nasty code managed to wriggle through. I wish I had the self belief that my own work was  of as much interest to other parties, but it really isn’t. This is not to say I wouldn’t be devastated though, if I were to lose any of it.

So, I keep hardly anything solely on the computer at all. My writings, and in particular my works in progress are on SD memory cards, and these memory cards are backed up to a pen drive, and as a last resort, all of it is then further backed up to the computer itself. If I lose the computer, all I lose is the back-up data.  Photographs are burned regularly to CD, and, in case the CD’s get scratched these are now backed up to my brand new Western Digital Passport, which gives me 250 Gigabytes of portable space, and all for the sum of just £50.00.  For good measure I’ve backed up my writings onto this beast as well, in addition to keeping a copy of my iTunes library on it too. I can’t imagine ever filling 250 Gig! But I probably will.

The problem now though is what if the Passport gets dropped?

Should I get another as a backup?

I was talking to a salesman in the well known highstreet electrical retailer where I got my portable drive from. He was young, fresh out of university, and was explaining to me how he’d just dropped his portable drive and lost five year’s of his life. He was pretty calm about it, I thought – I was gutted for him, imagining pictures from his gap year, and hundreds of student parties, girlfriends, mates, places he’d been, old course notes, a copy of his thesis maybe – all gone! He said he’d just put it to a corner of his mind, and tried not to dwell on it. I  thought I had a philosophical outlook – but this young man was a veritable Lao Tzu! He now runs two portables, each a mirror image of the other.  I’m sure Lao Tzu would have done the same.

It’s a very modern anxiety, this business of data security. It’s also a personal thing. My few thousand photographs and my writings aren’t really of any interest to anyone but me. In a recent post, I spoke about the Buddhist notion of non-attachment. Were I a  proper  Buddhist, I should be able to take everything I’ve ever written, published or not, and simply delete it. But I don’t think I could ever bring myself do to that. My writings are my delusion of immortality, and to detach myself from that is a test I would never pass.

Perhaps a writer can never be a good Buddhist?

Anyway, on a slightly less philosopical note, if you’re reading this, you have a computer, and the chances are you’ve got stuff on it you wouldn’t ever want to lose – those  holiday pictures? The snatch of video you got of your child taking it’s first steps, or saying its first words?  If you haven’t already done so, you need to be thinking about backing it up. I read one advert for a portable hard drive that urged you to “put your life on it” – well maybe you should, but take some advice from an old hacker like me, and make sure you’ve got it backed up somewhere else as well. Just in case.

Don’t wait until you’ve lost it in order to discover how valuable that data is to you!

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