Archive for April, 2010

I’m going to write this down before I forget it. I’ve just spent five hours doing a refresher course on the Yi Jin Jing, Damo’s legendary sixth century Shaolin Buddhist Qigong set, and I’m feeling very relaxed and qi-tingly as a result, but I’m also confused. This is normal for my qigong practice of course. The difference now though  is that I see a reason for my confusion and it’s this: there are two schools of Qigong: Physiological and Spiritual. For the past three years, I’ve been aspiring towards a greater understanding of the spiritual, while practicing what is essentially the physiological.

No wonder I’m confused!

The spiritual approach is characterised by its Taoist influence and is the one we’ve all come across in popular books, the one that talks about an “energy body”. Its proponents describe qi as a derivative of the Tao, a universal unknown, a fundamental energy which can be harvested by physical and psychological methods in order to produce effects within the gross body. These effects range from a sense of general well being, improved health, the healing of chronic ailments in both oneself and others,  the ability to sense, manipulate and project qi, right through to the acquisition of paranormal  abilities, including astral travel. Phew!

Taking the Taoist system to its extremes, practitioners work towards refining their energy body through internal alchemical methods, to such an extent they are able to achieve feats of super-human ability, as well as spiritual immortality. Those of us who do not practice such methods, it is said, will be unable to carrying our personality forwards upon death – we just fizzle out, unable to maintain our self-awareness on the energy plane – or so the theory goes.  Proper Taoist immortals are rare, and possibly mythological characters.

The important thing in this school is the acceptance of, or the belief in the human energy body and this mysterious stuff called qi.

The physiological school, on the other hand, which is the one I’m familiar with, on a working level, doesn’t talk about an energy body and it doesn’t mention qi either, except in very guarded terminology that wouldn’t offend a western physician. Significantly, on the course I’ve just done, qi wasn’t mentioned at all. Instead, the emphasis was on “energy” in terms of vascular and lymphatic kinetics – basically movement of the blood and lymph.

And that’s it.

The blood gets the good stuff into the body – the oxygen – and qigong sends the oxygen deep into the tissues, where it’s needed for regeneration, repair, or day to day function. Meanwhile the lymph gets the bad stuff out, the waste, the pathogens, the poison, all the stuff that’ll do us harm if it’s given the chance to settle in. Qigong methods stimulate the flow of the lymph by a mixture of deep breathing and movement. I know this. I’ve known it for a long time. I’ve even written about it – so why is it suddenly a revelation to me?

All of the health benefits of practising Qigong (or Tai Chi) from the physiological perspective then, are the result of preventing the stagnation of blood and lymph. There’s nothing spiritual or philosophical involved here, and all it boils down to is that if you want a healthy body you have to keep it moving. In other words it’s a purely biological thing, and for anyone looking for something more mysterious behind that qi-tingly feeling, it can be a bit of a let-down, like being told there’s no such thing as Father Christmas.

This is all very interesting, but while I apparently practice the the physiological style of Qigong, and its rather prosaic explanations do answer many of my questions regarding my experiences of it –  it doesn’t explain everything.

Even in the western-friendly physiological qigong school, we are taught an awareness of the meridian system and the vessels, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, derived from the Taoist tradition. We are taught to imagine the flow of “stuff” along specific channels while performing particular movements of a Qigong set. In the Yi Jin Jing, for example, when Weituo presents the first part of this pestle, he’s opening up his heart channel, and my understanding is that in physiological terms this works to the benefit of that particular organ. But when Weituo presents the second part of his pestle, it opens up his triple burner. Now, the triple burner  doesn’t exist as a physical entity within the body at all – more as a concept – more a part of that imaginary “energy body” of the Taoists, so what the blood and lymph’s doing when we open up the triple burner channel, where it’s flowing to or from in physiological terms, I’ve no idea.

I’m really not getting the whole story here! All of this is very confusing of course and of no interest whatsoever to anyone else, so I think we’ll end it there.

Just one more thing! (thank you uncle)

At a practical level, it doesn’t matter what your understanding of this process is, physiological or spiritual; you simply do the moves and you feel the results.

You feel great!

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Old grumpy at Rivington UK

I’m not sure how I stumbled onto this particular link (The Magus of Java) – I’m devouring anything on qigong I can find at the moment and I must have picked up on it during an internet search. Anyway, I ordered it from the Book Depository last week and it came yesterday. I sat down with a cup of coffee and devoured it in a couple of h0urs – there’s not that much in it I’m afraid. If you’re looking for proof of the existence of Chi you’re still going to be a victim of your western rationalism, so don’t expect this book to rock your boat more than any other you’ve probably read. You need to feel Chi in order to believe in it, so a book’s not going to do it.  I thought the book was  a little reminiscent of the iconic Carlos Castaneda series, though with the advantage of a guru who is evidently real and not fictitious – as many suspected in the case of Carlos’ enigmatic Don Juan. If you’re interested in learning more about the life of the so called Magus of Java (aka John Chang) this book is about as definitive as it gets, and fascinating stuff it is too. If  you’re interested in learning more about the nature of  Chi there are some potential insights here, but it’s not a technical book so don’t expect it to enlighten you very much.


Anyway, reading aside, I also pulled down my old worm riddled cabin, filled a skip, emptied my garage of trash and tore a nasty gash in the passenger seat of Old Grumpy with the spiked feet of a pair of speaker stands I was throwing out (curses). I know my seats are not really leather  now- just vinyl like they they were on my ’64 vintage Cortina (though admittedly textured to look leather-ish). This knowledge does little to impress me though and I’m still trying to figure out a way of repairing the damage.

Maybe it was the disappointment over the Magus of Java book, and what I felt was its ultimately empty promise, or maybe the incident with the car seat (double drat it), or something else I’m picking up on, but I feel a terrible sinking of my spirits, a terrible negativity about the world and the way we live it. The price of petrol also has something to do with it. This morning I paid £1.21 per litre to fill up Old Grumpy, which is the most I’ve ever paid. There are rumours the price of petrol will hit £1.50 per litre in the summer. I also heard a rumour that the Road Tax will be going up soon, and for my 1.8 litre Vauxhall Astra, I’ll be paying £425 a year.

All of this pushes things beyond the pale for me and I have the sense of  having my nose being rammed hard up against a crisis point that I am powerless to avoid. We’re coming up to an election and it might be time to vice my concerns at the ballot box but to be honest our politicians, of whatever brand, are unlikely to do anything about it. I rarely take the car on long journeys these days and when I have to I find myself factoring in the hight cost of fuel in doing so. For hauliers, farmers, reps – anyone who burns serious quantities of fuel as a prerequisite to making a living, things must be looking very bleak right now. It’s easy for the eco-facists to say it’s a good thing – higher prices = less fossil fuel burnt = less global warming, but while I respect their view I’m also a realist, and there has to be a means of transition to something else, something better, cheaper, cleaner – and I don’t see it –  Either that or a completely different way of life that requires no fuel to sustain it – a kind of de-centralised, rural Shangri-la kind of life, where we don’t commute any more and I’d be happy to embrace – but I don’t see that happening any time soon either.

If there was another way of doing things, believe me I’d do it, but the world is the way it is, and there’s no alternative.  So all I feel are  grubby hands grabbing at my pockets looking for my cash. I’m a middle of the road, middle earning kind of guy and I ‘m getting screwed left right and centre. My pockets are feeling pretty empty at the moment – go screw someone else. If I was about to retire, I’d dump the car and go back to my bike, become sixteen and happily naive again, reel in my horizons to a couple of miles around the village where I live. But I can’t do that. I have to work, I have to commute, I have to live in the way my society demands I live.

This is reality, and it makes the stuff I’m reading seem pretty useless – it makes it seem like escapism.

Anyway it was a lovely day today – sunny, warm, and I would have practiced my Tai Chi in the garden, but I had to paint the fence. Is there a moral in that?


Good night all.

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The recent deepening of psychological shadows has had me reaching for the I Ching again. The I Ching is a book, the so called Book of Changes. Few have heard of it, and of those even fewer understand what it’s really about. Those of a New Age bent will blithely sit down and tell their fortunes with it, or charge money in order to tell the fortunes of others. But this is not what it’s for at all.

What the I Ching possesses is the curious ability to help you see what it is that’s coming at you and to understand why it is you feel the way you do, why you can be calm and magnanimous in the face of things one day, only to wake up the next morning with your guts aching at the hollowness of it all. This is not fortune telling. It’s not skipping ahead in the movie of your life in order to get a preview of what’s in store. What it is is understanding the nature of the times as they are now, and what you can do about them.

This has a way of putting you back in the Zen-zone. You realise you’re caught up in things that don’t matter, you’re becoming attached, egotistical and working against the grain of your own nature.

This is human.

We get muddled up easily, and it can take us a while to get back on track. We live in a world where secular values hold sway and it’s easy to be swept along by them. But it’s important to understand that the secular way is a superficial one; it has no intrinsic meaning, and its most cherished values, things like social status and material wealth are meaningless.

These are old lessons, we all know them, but sometimes we forget.

We forget because we need balance, and the balance within us has been tipped too much towards the material. We are not altogether material beings, you see? We exist a great deal inside our own heads, and what goes on in there is a spiritual matter. I don’t mean this in a religious sense – only that it is of the spirit, the soul, the piece of you that no one else can ever truly touch, or take away or even comprehend.

Forays by materialism into the confines of the head lead only to disaster and dehumanization.

I’d use the term psycho-spiritual here in order to introduce the psychological nature of spiritual study, but it’s ugly and off-putting. However, you cannot come to terms with your psychological nature without addressing your spiritual nature as well, and your spiritual nature is far too important a thing to be left in the hands of a one-size-fits-all religious model.

For me, our spiritual nature is best defined by the old Chinese idea of Dao, viewed – because I am a western man – through the western, Jungian prism of a personal journey towards individuation, or wholeness. This is a personal view, interpreted through the further prism of my own nature, including all my shortcomings and considerable ignorance. The way I see it though, certain actions bring us a step nearer the goal of wholeness, while others take us further way. Individuation, or oneness with Dao is not something that can be achieved by swallowing a pill, or reading a line of wisdom in a book. It’s a life-long journey and it doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not, so long as you remain mindful of your own path.

This is not to say we become selfish or self-seeking, because any action that knowingly subverts the path of others is always going to subvert your own in the end. Therefore you can’t go around standing on the heads of other people in order to get what you want. It might get you the big house and the six figure bonus on top of your five figure salary, but it won’t make you a decent person, a wise person, a loving person,… or a happy one.

The I Ching came out of the Daoist tradition, and was adopted by Jungian schools of psychoanalysis from around the 1930’s onwards. It’s a psychological tool. Think of it as a compass. The I Ching is a means of navigating your personal Dao.

I don’t know how the I Ching works. I’ve puzzled over it for years, but really, it’s best to simply let it be. You ask it a question, frame it precisely, pull an answer from the book, and then think on it. The curious thing is that the answers it gives are always pertinent to your query. They are searching, insightful, and wise, even though the process of generating that answer is simply the random toss of some coins.

For an intelligent, rationally minded person who has not used the book, the explanation is blindingly obvious: the I Ching is worded in so vague a manner that anything it says can be twisted by a credulous and needy mind into something meaningful. Rational and intelligent people who have used the book however, are not so quick to offer that explanation any more. They go underground. By day they are rational, intelligent people, but by night they explore the tunnels of their unconscious minds by the light of this mysterious device. The I Ching becomes for them like a darkly exotic mistress. She takes them to the giddiest of psychological heights, holds up a mirror to their own inner being, enlightens and enlivens their lives. But they do not like to be seen out with her in public.

You can use the book in a trivial, playful way if you want and it’ll come back at you in a trivial, playful manner. But get serious with it and the window on your mind is flung wide open. It’s like stepping up to the edge of a precipice, and preparing to absiel down into pitch darkness. How deep you go depends entirely on your own courage. The I Ching is as deep as your mind, and for any of us, that’s a very long way down indeed.

The I Ching describes a method of generating any one of sixty four so-called hexagrams – arrangements of six lines, the lines being either whole or divided, representing Yang or Yin respectively. This is the archaic core of the book, which archeological evidence tells us dates back to the overthrow of the Shang dynasty by  the Zhou, around 1000 B.C – though the book’s actual origins certainly pre-date this.

The I Ching has been interpreted and re-interpreted by scholars for roughly threehexagrams thousand years, and each of them have added to it their own particular slant on what  those sixty four hexagrams actually mean. But each of these scholars did this within  the social and political contexts of their own times, so the earliest interpretations can seem a little esoteric to more modern readers. Each generation has therefore sought to reinterpret the book within the context of their own times.

There are by now many interpretations and I probably own most of them. Because I like writing, it was inevitable I should have a go at interpreting the thing myself, the result of which was “The Hexagrams of the I Ching” which you can get a copy of for free from the margin of this blog.

So, anyway,…

What’s this all about then?

I settle down in the quiet of my study and I toss some coins,…

Michael Graeme


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Why standing still is sometimes the only way to make progress.

It’s strange – I’ve learned such a great deal from books : science, maths, engineering, gardening, keeping goldfish, house repairs, analytical psychology, all sorts of stuff really from the sublime to the ridiculous, but when it comes to qigong, I seem to be struggling. The thing is this: if I want to learn about the structure of the atom, I can pick up any science book and expect there to be a decent amount of agreement. I mean the information ought to be the same because facts are facts aren’t they? The only difference between one book and the next should be in the style of presentation.

This isn’t the case with qigong. Indeed, with qigong there seems to be very little cross-correlation at all. I’m finding the terms used by one author are completely different to those used by another – the impression being that qigong is whatever each author wants it to be. I know there are many different styles of qigong, and different ways of translating the terminology from the original Chinese, but they’re all working with the same basic stuff (this mysterious qi stuff) aren’t they? And they’re applying it to the same basic thing (a human body). But how does it get in? How does it move? Where does it go? Where does it come from? Does it come in through your feet and out through your hands? Up your perineum and out the top of your head? Or does it come in at all points at the same time? Does it come in at all?  You’d think one of those books would have made it clear by now, but they haven’t and I’m getting myself in to a right muddle.

This leads me to suspect either all these qigong authors have a great deal of genuine knowledge but are incapable of expressing it – or they actually know nothing at all of any real substance and are simply pedalling myths. Of the many qigong books I own, all purchased after reading the glowing reviews on Amazon, very few can hold my attention and I generally end up tossing them aside with the feeling that I’ve been conned. One or two have even found their way into the recycling bin.

But hold on: I practice qigong, don’t I? Well, yes, but the qigong I do bears no resemblance to the stuff in the books with all the fancy titles. These titles sound so seductive it makes me wonder if I’m really doing qigong at all. But that’s the trick I suppose – you make the programme sound special, you hint at  “secret” teachings, and you claim to have been taught by a wise old man whose name you mention in reverential tones. You call yourself his deciple. You talk of his lineage like he’s some kind of royalty.

And you sell books.

And credulous idiots like me buy them.

It all seems so complicated though, and I’m struggling with this because I have it in my head that all true things usually turn out to be very simple. I also have it my head that qigong is an important life-skill, like swimming or riding a bike, and none of these shysters will deflect me from that belief. We should all have a working knowledge of it. Understanding what qigong is and how it works has become something of a personal quest, but although I practice it diligently I’m nowhere nearer an understanding of it than I was when I began, some three years ago.

I do the Eight Brocades and a thing called Zhan Zhuang (pronounced Jam Jong), which is also known as post standing or standing meditation. I do this every day – well most days. Sometimes I fancy a change and I do a set called the Shibashi instead, or sometimes another one called the Yi Jin Ching, but the latter two aren’t as easy to remember, so mostly I stick with the Eight Brocades, and Zhan Zhuang. I learned these at my local Tai Chi class,  where the word Chi, incidentally, is rarely mentioned, and where we call our instructor by his first name, rather than Sifu or Sensei, like they do in fancier places that charge the earth and make you dress up in silk pyjamas.

So,… yes,… it seems I know a bit about qigong after all – perhaps more the doing of it than the understanding, but still,… at least I know something, don’t I?

Has it changed my life though? Has it made me psychic? Have I ever gone off on a mind blowing astral journey? Can I project Chi out of my hands and knock people over with it?  Do I possess super-human strength? Can I launch someone across the room by the slightest touch of my hand? Can I set fire to balls of newspaper, hurl pins through glass plate, push chopsticks through tables or bend a spear with its point to my throat?…

Erm,… don’t be stupid

Why do you persist with it then? You’re clearly wasting your time. Well, I do it because I feel  better when I’ve done it. It’s that simple. And I feel good enough to want to do it again, tomorrow.

Oh,… I don’t know. The universe is an infinitely big place, and our minds seem to want to expand to encompass the whole complex mess of it – whilst actually being tethered by a very mundane reality that we’ve invented along the way: decades of commuting, day-job, supermarkets, leaking gutters, mowing grass, getting the car serviced and MOT’d, dealing with computer viruses, computer crashes, chocolate stains on the sofa, cup rings on the hearth,… blah di blah di blah.

This leads to tension – all of it self inflicted because if  we could maybe throttle back and dissolve both ends of this polarity of attachment we could simply enjoy living a bit more. You can’t throttle back? The world feels like sandpaper against your skin all the time? Sure, you’re in a bad way, but then aren’t we all? It feels like there’s something missing? Yes,… I think there’s a name for this condition: it’s called being human.

So maybe you turn to alcohol, drugs, sex,… whatever lightens the load for a more than a millisecond. If you’re lucky you turn to mind-body techniques – like  meditation, before the other three have had the chance to get a hold on you and ruin your life. And sure enough meditation works well. Slowly you start to see the world differently – you achieve a kind of detachment – but sometimes you don’t have the time or the privacy to meditate because unless you choose to live like a hermit you’re always going to be disturbed by someone.

So then you discover qigong. You can do it anywhere, if you don’t mind the funny looks or the wisecracks from your family. But qigong doesn’t need a zen like calmness to get going with it. You just do the moves, get into the feeling of them, and the Zen-like calmness comes on its own. It’s easy. And it works every time. You sit down afterwards and you feel a tingly kind of calm, a tingly kind of warmth suffusing your entire being, and the drip-drip-drip of that leaking gutter suddenly seems so trivial you wonder why you were ever bothered about it. And the most important thing is sitting quietly while you enjoy this feeling. And sometimes, just for a moment, you catch a glimpse of something moving shadow-like through the back of your mind,…

That’s yourself. Remember that person?

The Eight Brocades is just a set of moves, coupled with a kind of synchronised breathing, and the Zhan Zhuang? Well that’s literally standing still with your arms curved up in front of you as if you were holding a giant ball. You breathe deeply while you’re doing it, breathe down into the Dantien. I still can’t do this for more than ten minutes, though I’m supposed to be aiming for twenty. At the end of it you feel warm and calm and tingly. You feel like you’ve gone from being a lump of stone to a soft cushion and you can sink down into yourself for a while instead of ricocheting off like before.

So is that it then? Well, I think so. It’s good enough for me anyway. I guess you don’t have to understand a thing in order to simply use it. Sometime the google box draws me over to the qigong forums and I read all the stuff these kids are talking about, like how it would be “kewl  to nok sumon over with chi”, and you want to say oh, for heaven’s sake young-un, grow up. I’m going to forget all the fancy qigong books with all the fancy titles for a bit, maybe even sling a few more of them into the recycling bin, because they’re leading me on a merry dance, while explaining nothing at all – and I’m going to do the simple stuff – the eight brocades and the standing meditation.

If in doubt – if the world seems to be moving too fast and, it’s making no sense, just stand still for a bit and everything will be all right again.

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