Archive for January, 2010

I continue to change my views on what I believe Tai Chi is, and what it is not. It’s not simple, that’s for sure – but it’s not mysterious either. (which I suppose is the “busted” bit) Okay, there is a subtle level to it, but unless you’re willing to devote your whole life towards single-mindedly cultivating it, I suspect it’s unlikely you’ll ever attain it, whatever it is, and the rest of us would be better making do with more modest goals. It’s therefore better not to think beyond where you’re up to with your practice, otherwise, by trying too hard, you risk becoming attached from the outset to an egocentric goal that will ultimately subvert your progress.

Unfortunately, it’s the promise of attaining this subtle level, this superhuman status that has spawned a thousand myths, a million gurus (nine out of ten of whom are probably charlatans), and their books containing their “secret” teachings, and their expensive weekend seminars. But this isn’t Tai Chi, it’s consumerism: the art of convincing you to part with your money in exchange for something you can comfortably do without. This is not to say I’m immune from the seductive charms of an orientally flavoured book-cover and possess by now a shelf full of those secret teachings. I’ve also been on seminars, only to come away thinking that the essence of what I’ve learned over the course of a tedious day could have been amply disseminated in a ten minute chat or a single sided handout. You don’t learn Tai Chi from books, or blogs like this, or seminars. You learn it by practicing what you know – even if it’s only a few moves – over and over, and, in the practice, you learn what it feels like to be yourself, by feeling yourself from the inside out.

Practicing Tai Chi slowly and with a relaxed awareness lulls you into a psychological state called mindfulness – in other words, meditation, and meditation is the number one weapon in the stress buster’s armoury.  Meditation – however you achieve it – is good for you.
Excercise is good for you too: Running, swimming, cycling, aerobics, kick-boxing, dancing, walking,… anything that gets you moving: they all hit the spot – but what Tai Chi does is focus on the specifics of what it is that maintains your health. Okay, you can run marathons if you want to, or lift weights to build your muscles and make yourself really strong, but such extremes are not the essential thing if all you want to do is maintain a reasonably fit and healthy body that will preserve its vitality, flexibility and function into old age.

There are three components that keep us in good shape: The first is the blood. Our blood needs to contain plenty of oxygen, and to circulate the body efficiently. Tai Chi  encourages deep breathing, which gradually increases our lungs’ capacity. A greater lung capacity increases the amount of oxygen you can get into your blood with each breath, and this in turn reduces the need for the heart to beat faster when we exert ourselves. The result of all this is that, at times when we do have to move powerfully and over a sustained period of time, it puts less of a strain on the heart, (lower heart-rate) and we find ourselves no longer gasping for breath as much as we used to do. If you’re involved in any other form of sport, practicing Tai Chi on the side will do wonders for your stamina.

The second component in maintaining good health is the lymphatic system. Lymphatic fluids circulate the body, collecting waste and disease-causing agents, which are then filtered out by the lymph nodes. The lymphatic system relies entirely on normal body movements, including breathing, to drive the fluids around. Tai Chi movements and deep breathing, stimulate the system and get it working efficiently, expelling toxins, and optimising our natural immunity.

The third component is bioelectricity, what might sometimes be referred to loosely as “Chi”. This is controvertial, but from a practitioner’s point of view it is also interesting. Bioelectricity is  looked upon skeptically in mainstream western medical circles. The body generates an electromagnetic field – I don’t think there’s much of an argument there, but the traditional western view is that this is simply a by-product of the human body’s nervous system. The Traditional Chinese view however is based upon the premise that the electromagnetic field is structured, and instrumental in maintaining the body’s function. Also, even more contentious is the premise that it is possible not only to manipulate the structure of the electromagnetic field by such practices as acupuncture and Tai Chi, but that one can also access an energy potential from the natural environment, and store it in the body, in order to maintain and enhance its vitality.

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve used acupuncture to good effect. It felt weird, and it worked. I have also felt unusual tingling sensations during Tai Chi that are reminiscent of mild electric shocks. At this stage in my practice then I’m inclined to say there are more reasons for taking the idea of an electromagnetic component – what might also be called Chi – seriously, and working with it, rather than dismissing it.

The layout of the so called acupuncture channels, or meridians, as depicted by Chinese medicine have been verified by physical measurements – their presence identified as points of lowered electrical resistance (ref. Becker – the body electric). In the Chinese view, the meridians are of vital importance. Tension in the muscles, injury or persistent emotional problems, will increase the resistance of the meridians, thereby impeding the bioelectric current, upsetting the body’s balance, and ultimately our health.

The practice of Tai Chi is said to relax the areas in which the meridians run,  “opening them up”, keeping resistance to a minimum and ensuring an optimum state of balance, so the body is given the best fighting chance of maintaining its own health.

The student must make of this what he will. The meridians that run up the arms and terminate in the fingertips are said to be the most sensitive, and regular practice of Tai Chi does eventually result in physical sensations in the arms and specific fingers. I don’t know what these sensations are exactly, but as to whether or not they exist, if you practice, you can feel them and they are unlike anything else you will have experienced. This has the effect of tempering one’s skepticism and keeping the mind open to the possibilities. For the student, it’s perhaps best not to bother  too much with what might or might not be going on here except to know that it feels good when it happens, that it’s a sign the body is correctly aligned, relaxed, and that we are performing the movements properly.

That’s all there is to it then.

If you’re thinking you should be getting more exercise but don’t fancy killing yourself in a gym, I suggest you stop thinking about it, and stop reading about it, except to scour your local directory for a class and then give Tai Chi a try!

Practicing Tai Chi is the only way to learn it.

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The true nature of reality?

Human reality may be exactly what it appears to be: a fragile existence on a rock in space, a speck of life born out of a biological accident, with all our self-conscious ramblings on the meaning of it amounting to nothing when the bag of bones we think of as our body finally quits on us. I may be wrong, but I imagine few of us are comfortable with this idea. Speaking for myself, if that’s the point of it, then it might as well be done with now as at some point in the future and I’d rather my genetic material found some other way of furthering its greedy existence without dragging me along after it and making me think I’m important when I’m not.

Fortunately I’ve come to believe there’s more to things than this, and my voyages into the greyer areas of reality have led to a more positive and optimistic outlook, rather than a negative one. And that’s without getting into religion.

A certain kind of psychologist will smile sagely at all our fanciful musings and tell us we are unconsciously afraid of death and would rather not face the pointlessness of life, so we invent scenarios in which “magic” becomes a part of our reality, thereby granting us the deluded notion of an escape route – reincarnation, heavenly realms, or some other form of personal psychical continuation of life after death. Magical, mysterious mysticism is thus demoted to the level of a childish coping-mechanism.

In my case,  there’s nothing unconscious about it – of course I fear death and I agree speculation on the magical or mysterious aspects of reality may be a coping-mechanism. If so, they are a very effective one  because I feel better about myself and my place in the universe when I explore these things.  I’m also convinced there’s more to them than wishful thinking.

There’s more to my conviction than deluded zeal, as anyone of an open and enquiring mind can surely testify. There are many clues that suggest the nature of reality isn’t so hard and cold as the materialists tell us. In fact its edges are fuzzy, and you don’t need to be religious to find them. I might even go so far as to say a religious perspective is the last thing that’s going to help you. In religion we say our lines, we conform to the group-speak, consider ourselves holier than the Jones’ if we go to church more often than they do, or we feel guilty if they go more than we. As for belief, well,  we trust the vicar knows what he’s talking about and leave it at that. That’s religion. But, if you want to know, really know then you have to blow the dust off the history of the world and you have to examine the experiences of ordinary people.

A certain kind of biologist will tell you the mind – the thing that makes you think you are you – is  confined to that lumpen grey organ called the brain and when the brain stops working, the illusion of you vanishes without a trace. This is the conventional view. It’s a safe position to hold, but when you start to dig you realise the truth is more complicated. A century of study has yielded a tidal wave of evidence that tells us the mind extends beyond the brain, that it can sometimes see around corners. It seems there really is such a thing as ESP, and people sometimes really do experience moments of precognition, and moments of heightened awareness in which time dissolves and all things become one  – like the mystics tell us.

But nothing in this fuzzy realm is certain. ESP can only be demonstrated as a general effect in a large group of people, but when it comes to specific individuals, ESP is difficult to reproduce on demand. It exists, but it cannot be reliably demonstrated in front of a body of hardened skeptics aiming at the gold standard of a peer reviewed publication. The same goes for precognition and so called mystical experiences: they cannot be dialled up, nor paraded for inspection.

What use is it then? We know these things exist, but for all practical purposes, they might as well not.

For me it’s enough we are given the occasional glimpse behind the curtain, for the reassurance it grants us that the cold, hard, physical reality we see is not everything there is. Personally I’d rather not live in a world where magical things are the stuff of every day experience. I don’t want others to know routinely what is inside my head because, like the contents of my diary, I would fear their misinterpretation. Similarly, I would not like the ability to see inside of yours, for fear your thoughts might be hurtful to me.

The most I think we can say for certain is that there is more to the mind than the brain. If we go one step further, we could also speculate, with some justification, that the mind’s ability to exceed it’s apparent biological boundaries suggests it might also capable of some form of psychical existence independent of them. What that tells us about the nature of reality, or the survival of the personality after death is anyone’s guess. Beyond this point the speculation becomes ever more tenuous, and we risk falling over the fuzzy edge of reality into a void that is impregnable to the human intellect – and where our only recourse is to invent stories.

So far as our personal, tangible, non-fuzzy reality is concerned, it seems to be defined by the choices we make. Whether those choices will lead us to happiness or to misery is very much dependent upon what our motives are when we make the choices. A certain kind of thinking will lead us towards a happier and more contented kind of life. Material circumstances are irrelevant: we might be rich, we might be poor, but material wealth is not a goal in itself, and story books are full of moral tales that teach us how its pursuit can lead to personal ruin if we’re not in firm control of ourselves in other ways first. So, while the true nature of reality remains largely hidden from us, there is a feeling the best way of approaching it is to discover what that “certain kind of thinking is”, and to practice it.

Like many of my generation, I’ve come at this down a long, rocky road, through the distilled essence of three thousand years of eastern philosophy, dimly grasped but enough I think to shine a light into my own little corner of the world. I can hazard a guess then at what that certain kind of thinking is, and when I’m struggling I have the eccentric option of consulting the I Ching – which usually puts me straight. For many of course this will seem barking mad. It’s just my way though, and you must find your own. But however we come at it, you can take all the words that were ever written on this subject and disregard them because a lady called Beatrix Potter summed it up long ago in this delightful quote:

“All outward forms of religion are almost useless and are the causes of endless strife. Believe there is a great power silently working all things for good, behave yourself and never mind the rest.”

You heard the lady. Just be congnisant of the fact that there’s something there.  It’s intentions are benign, and beyond that you don’t need to think about it much at all. Just behave yourself and never mind the rest. Behaving yourself is the tricky part of course, and working out what it means is possibly the one thing you were were born to do.

Graeme out.

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The cold spell continues here in the UK and it’s been giving the press something to write about and not without justification: we’ve just had the heaviest snowfall in thirty years. Even the main roads were barely passable and I’ve been getting up very early, so that I can get to the day-job on time and get paid. It’s been a wild ride, negotiating compacted snow and black ice with ordinary tyres. The only way to do this is to go really slow and never put yourself so close to the car in front you’ll ever have to use your brakes, because you’ll just slide right into the back of it. And you roll down to the junction letting the engine slow the car in time because a dab on the brakes will have you sliding out into the middle of it. And you set off in snow-mode on an automatic box, or in second gear on a manual – or you’ll get nowhere at all. Cars these days are so easy to drive you barely have to think about it, but a winter like this changes everything. You really have to focus.

Some areas here have touched minus 20 C, which is more typical of a Scandinavian winter than the UK. A few mornings last week, I was setting out to work in the pitch dark with temperatures down to minus 15, which is the coldest I think I’ve ever experienced. There was a dryness to it, and a clear skied, green dawned stillness. The washer bottle on old grumpy froze solid, the fuse on the washer pumps blew and the heater’s been struggling. I’ve had such a bad ride with this vehicle so far everything I touch on it now I expect is going break down and land me with a major repair bill. At least I know the ABS works – but your ABS can grind away all it likes, it’s not going to help much on a road so icy it looks like it’s been varnished.

This morning it was 2.5 degrees so, technically, there’s been a bit of a thaw. The skies were grey and there’s a slight wind making that 2.5 degrees feel a lot colder than -15 did last week. At least we’ll be able to look back in a few months time and say the run of 2009 into 2010 was one of those rare occasions when we had a real winter in the UK!

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I’ve just put this one up on Lulu.com. It’s a collection of short stories, originally published on the Rivendale Review, and more recently on Feedbooks. I’m not sure about the title, nor even why I wanted to collect the stories together. I suppose I just felt they belonged together, and that it would be good to have them under one cover on my bookshelf.

The sunny side of strange reflects my preference for the positive side of life. Speculative stories seem so often laden with doom and gloom, or there’s this sense that strangeness must always be threatening. It’s not a view I share. It’s the intriguing nature of strangeness that interests me, and its potential to expand one’s horizons, to enlighten, to redeem, to transform our awareness from the every day to the extraordinary. So, while my stories might venture into some dark and mysterious labyrinths from time to time, there’s usually sunshine at the end of it.

You can download the book from Lulu.com for free. The text is illustrated with line-drawings and photoshopped artwork. The price for a printed copy is about £6.27. I’ve set my revenues to zero so all the fee goes to the printer. I’ve explained why I do this elsewhere.

The cover design was produced from a simple Bryce 5 render, with further processing in Photoshop.

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I have a lot of Tai Chi books and Qigong books and Yoga books. You start to read them, grow bored with them, or maybe something in the style of writing makes you think they’re fake, or maybe the promised benefits don’t materialise for you quickly enough and you start to feel stupid doing these weird exercises. So you set the book aside, then buy another book because you think this might just be the one, but it never is. The self-help industry isn’t about helping you to help yourself, it’s like anything else that’s up for sale – it’s about making money for someone else out of you.

I think books can generate unrealistic expectations, and the more extraordinary the claims they make, the greater circumspection they should be treated with. Of all the books I have, I guess only one in ten has been useful, and the ones that end on the promise of paranormal prowess, perhaps not surprisingly, have been the least use of all.

I’ve practised Eight Brocades Qigong now nearly every day for two years and it hasn’t turned me in to a physical superman. Nor has it endowed me with psychic abilities, nor the ability to cure aches and pains by the touch of my magic finger – but then I wasn’t expecting it to and was happy to settle for feeling calmer and a little more energetic. Touch wood, I’ve not had a day of sickness since I started practicing, so maybe it does work after all? Whatever it is. And whatever it is, you don’t get it from a book, you get it by practice, by running through the moves, every day. Not for days, weeks or months, but for years. I’m know my practice isn’t perfect, but even imperfect practice as to be better than no practice at all.

Practicing a qigong set involves a physical and a mental component. The physical movements cause the blood and lymph to circulate, as well as stretching the tendons and gently toning the muscles. The movements also stimulate the body’s so-called meridian system,  and you do eventually begin to feel this in your arms and your fingers – like the tightening of a chord, or as a mild electric shock. Sensation in the body, and in the legs have yet to materialise, but I’m told I will feel them eventually.

The mental component is harder, but if you can introduce it into your practice, the physical sensations become stronger, yet paradoxically harder to define.

As we move, we coordinate the breath, usually breathing out as we push out, breathing in as we draw in. Breathing out, we imagine resistance as we push, or we imagine ourselves becoming bottom heavy, all the weight sinking to our legs and rooting us into the ground. As we draw in, we imagine ourselves becoming lighter. As we move our hand through the air, we put our mind into our hand and we feel the air tingle, we feel our hands slightly numbed by the touch of the air – except it isn’t air but something else, in-between the molecules, something funny and tingly and warm, and when you really put your mind into it, it feels more like moving your hand through warm water.

Really, I’ve found books of little use. It’s better to get someone just to show you the basic moves, get you going, and then you do them over and over. You must be calm and relaxed when you’re doing them, or at least do the moves long enough so they calm and relax you. Just going through the motions flop-handedly while the weight of the world is still on your shoulders, isn’t of much use, so the sooner you can relax the better, and for this I did find one gem of advice in a book, by Mantak Chia. It’s called the secret of the inner smile.

Mantak Chia is the founder of the Universal Healing Tao movement, and author of many books on the deeper aspects of Qigong – all of which I find too difficult to get a handle on, venturing as they do into areas of Taoist shamanism. But the idea of the inner smile is quite simple to grasp and to apply.

Before you start your practice, you stand in the Wu Chi position – legs slightly more than shoulder width apart, knees bent, shoulders relaxed, arms loose and hanging by your sides. Then you focus for a moment on the spot between your eyebrows. You imagine a smile forming there, a calm, loving smile, as if bestowed upon you by your most perfect lover. Imagine it strongly enough and you’ll feel your own lips instinctively wanting to return it. When this happens, you know it’s working. Then you bring the smile into your head, and then you let it sink into the depths of your body.

I know of no other method that can so quickly and so effectively put you in the right frame of mind for doing Qigong.

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The 2009/2010 transition was marked by a return to the lovely little village of Chipping, scene also of last year’s transition walk. This time the objective was Longridge fell. The closing of 2009 had left me feeling exhausted, frankly – and my moods had been increasingly dark. I wasn’t even sure I had it in me to make much of an effort this year, but I went anyway, and as usual the day was a psychological turning point. I came back energised and inwardly transformed.

The cold snap here, in the North West of England is lingering longer than its done in thirty years, with many of the minor roads  rural Lancashire still snow-bound after three weeks of persistently wintry weather. A glitch in navigation had me facing a 1 in 5 downhill section, slick with ice and snow that was frozen into hard ruts. The ABS cut in  as I nudged the Astra over the precipice, so to speak, and it continued to judder and whine for fifty yards, all the way to the bottom. The car handled brilliantly though. It was smooth, steady, nicely balanced, and sure footed. But it would never have got back up that hill!

We’re not used to winters settling in here. It usually only snows one or two days a year, causing misery and chaos during the morning’s commute but then it’s gone by tea time. Our cars slip and slide all over the place, but it’s never worth taking precautions, like putting snow tyres on because  – well – it never lasts long enough does it? At least our Nordic cousins are more certain of the timing, and can say with confidence that winter comes at the same time every year. Here in in the UK though, we never know. This year though, our trains have packed in, our airports have closed and our roads have been impassable, giving the impression of a country that’s incompetent and technically incapable. But just for the record, we’re not incompetent – merely pragmatic: no sense in gearing up for the next ice age, until it happens.

The area around Chipping is about as rural at it gets in Lancashire, very pretty villages built of old stone, and there’s a sturdiness about them that you don’t get in the south of the country. There are also isolated farms and a vast patchwork of meadows. But this doesn’t help navigation for the hiker. Fell-top paths change little, but rural footpaths change all the time. They get re-routed when old farms and barns are transformed into posh houses and the owners no longer want the woolly hat brigade marching past their front doors. Footpath markers mysteriously disappear, leaving the incomer puzzled and – well – lost. So, the hike up Longridge from Chipping proved to be a bit of a trial and what was supposed to be an eight miler turned into ten.

It was a friend of mine who introduced me, years ago, to the idea of not “bagging the peak”. Peak bagging is where one must achieve the objective at any cost, and actually touch the summit cairn of the chosen hill with one’s boots, otherwise you can’t really say you’ve been there, and you can’t cross it off in your little book of peaks to bag. But there’s something very egotistical in this, and my friend’s view was that it was a greater test of character to be within striking distance of the top of a hill, and then to deliberately turn away from it – to forgo it. On the one hand, this seems mad: you’ve done the work, yet deliberately fail to take up the reward, but I believe it was this eccentric little idea that was just one of the things that got me thinking about ego, and the idea of disentanglement- long before I’d ever delved into Taoism or Buddhism, or read a copy of the I Ching. Both my friend and I have strong Celtic roots, and it’s not the first time I’ve noted a similarity between the Celtic and the Eastern view.

Longridge Fell was still deep with a softish snow, and a long raking path brought me up within less than half a kilometre of the summit  at Spire Hill. I could clearly see the white trig point to my left, and the homeward path, snaking off to my right. I thought of my friend, and had little difficulty turning right. I’d come five miles, and had another five to go, but I couldn’t be bothered with the summit. There was nothing philosophical about this. I was simply cold, and the light was going.

I must have bagged hundreds of peaks in the last thirty years and each of them seemed terribly important at the time – important to say I had actually been there, but of course, looking back, there are very few walks where the memory of the peak still means that much to me. The greater transformations are not brought about by a single event, like the climbing of a mountain. They happen slowly. You lean your mind in a certain direction and, over time, things happen. The most meaningful transformations are internal, like looking out at the world through a different pair of eyes.

I came down from the snow and the cold via Jeffrey Hill, then picked my way through the disjointed footpaths back to Chipping, where I dispersed the beginnings of frostbite in the Cobbled Corner Cafe, and as day turned to night, and the frost began to sparkle, I fired up old grumpy (the Astra), and braved the snowy roads back home.

I’m not sure if New Year resolutions are worth much. They never seem to last long, and a year’s not that long anyway if you want to see a real transformation in your life. I’m just going to keep leaning my head in the same direction,… and we’ll see what happens.

A happy New Year to all my readers.

Graeme out.

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