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Archive for the ‘alternative therapies’ Category

inner work

Robert A Johnson (1921-2018] was a pioneering Jungian Analyst and a respected figure in the international psychoanalytical community. A student of Jiddu Krishnamurti and the Sri Aurobindo school in Pondicherry, he was also an author of many insightful works on human nature and self development.

In “Inner Work” he deals with dreams and active imagination as ways of communicating with the unconscious mind. The unconscious, while largely unknown, holds great influence over us. If we can meet it half way, it can be a powerful ally. It will fill our lives with enthusiasm, colour and meaning. But if we ignore it, our world becomes grey and meaningless. Worse, the unconscious will come back at us as depression and neuroses. On the world’s stage, those neuroses manifest as chaos, authoritarianism, and war.

To pre-modern cultures, unhindered by materialist prejudice, dream-work comes naturally. We all dream, but moderns tend to explain them away as an artefact of neural processing – in other words, garbage. But we have only to spend a little time with our dreams to see this is not so. Dreams provide us with an abstract picture of the flow of our inner psychical energies. They also provide a channel for making those energies conscious, and they challenge us to accept them as part of our waking lives. We feel better, more relaxed and motivated, and the world becomes once more a magical place of infinite possibility.

Serious dream work is not about looking up the images in a dream dictionary. Dreams are personal, the images in the dream being for us alone, and that’s how they must be interpreted. But dream-work isn’t easy. Its imagery is at times beyond bizarre. It can be by turns seductive and horrifying, and all too often incomprehensible.

A more direct way of engaging the unconscious is through active imagination. Here we seek dialogue with the personifications of whatever imaginary energies we can summon. We close our eyes, relax, a figure appears in our mind’s eye, and we talk to it.

Active imagination is risky because it can get out of control. Most authors advise against it unless you’re under the supervision of an analyst. That’s fine, but reading this book, I realize I’ve been doing it all my life. Also, writing fiction, we talk with the archetypal energies who take shape as characters in our stories. If you’re a writer you know what I mean, and this is probably safe territory for you. If you’re not, then best leave it alone.

Both techniques, as described here, come straight out of the Jungian tradition. In dream analysis, we write the dream down, then work through each dream-image. We list all the associations we can think of, returning each time to the image. Then we ask what dynamic, what mood, what emotion it might represent. Having done the groundwork then, the actual interpretation of the dream – the message – drops out more easily and the energies are released as a powerful “aha!”. Johnson then advises us to honour the dream by acting out an appropriate real-world ritual.

Dreams sometimes recur, but for most of us they last just the one night. In that single set piece they present us with an allegory of our inner psychical disposition. Active imagination is different and can go on for days, weeks, years. This is a difficult thing to describe, because it’s easy to say we’re just making stuff up, and it might indeed start out that way as we set the opening scene with our characters. But then we must prepare for the dialogue to go off script very quickly as the unconscious becomes an equal partner in the conversation. It can tell you things you did not know you knew. But it can also dominate the conversation and is therefore dangerous.

Dealing with archetypal energies, Johnson advises us to be mindful of the moral sense that comes with human consciousness. The archetypes are instinctive drives. They are often insightful and numinous, but they are also amoral and ill equipped for life in the conscious realm. A vulnerable individual might all too easily subordinate themselves to an archetype and become possessed by it. Then they act out its amoral tendencies in real life. It’s crucial therefore the ego uses its discernment, and brings to bear its moral sensibilities.

This touches on Jungian metaphysics which describes the universe as an idealist realm of pure mentation. The archetypal energies pour forth as collective or personal myths. The purpose of the human being then, is to use the gift of consciousness to shepherd these raw drives as best it can into something more compassionate and moral. Without that intervention, nature remains red in tooth and claw, and our evolution towards something higher is stalled.

Inner work can sound self-indulgent and new-agey. But unless enough of us attempt to awaken to these powerful energies, and deal with them positively, they will possess us in negative ways, possess the world too and run amok. They’ve done it before – just pick your century. The difference between past generations and ours though is we have the power to destroy ourselves several times over. Meanwhile, the doomsday clock approaches midnight, and right now it’s touch-and-go if we’re going to make it.

The book is very approachable, and clarifies for me some of Jung’s more difficult concepts. It features several fascinating dreams and examples of active imagination from Johnson’s work as an analyst. It’s a valuable guide for anyone undertaking serious inner work, but it will also appeal to anyone simply interested in dreams, the imagination, and the fascinating conundrum that is human nature.

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Dreaming.*oil on canvas.*128,5 x 201,2 cm.*1860.*signed b.r.: J. Israels

Dreaming – Jozef Israels 1860

The way of the West does not suit the dreaming life. Indeed, we do everything we can to suppress any intrusion of unconscious influence into waking experience. Instead, we work, we party, we spend long hours in front of our devices, numbing our minds with junk images, junk tasks, and junk narratives. When a dream does pierce the blank wall of our materialism, we dismiss it. It was just a dream, we tell ourselves. But what if that dream could tell us something useful we didn’t already know? It would make sense to listen, wouldn’t it?

When the analytical psychologist, Carl Jung visited Africa in 1925, he was interested in studying the dreams of isolated tribesmen, but to his surprise he was told by a medicine man he didn’t dream any more. After the Colonial powers came, he said, everything changed, “that dreams were no longer needed, because the English knew everything.”*

That a people could use their dreams to guide their lives seems primitive to the rational mind. Yet anyone who has sat down with a big dream, say the morning after they have dreamed it, cannot help but be affected by it. A big dream can colour the entire day and provide an emotional undertone that’s hard to shake. Some dreams we remember all our lives. That they can be so powerful suggests that to dismiss them is to lose our connection with important aspect of living.

The art of dreaming is not taught. You have to listen to other dreamers, read their books, sort the wheat from the chaff, and just do the best you can. But it’s inevitable, when we do stumble into a dream, we no longer have the sophistication we once had to deal with them properly. It is difficult to accept for a start we did not create the dream ourselves, that we are the dream’s guest, that the dream is the landscape on which we walk, its characters the fragmentary but autonomous denizens who can help or hinder us on our way. Only by accepting this can we play our proper part as pilgrim and, come morning, reflect usefully on the experience.

It’s natural for one interested in dreaming to want to push the boundaries. To whit, the Rolls Royce of dreaming is said to be the lucid dream where we enter the night-land fully conscious. Then we can make of it a playground, and all the characters we meet there our play-things. But my intuitions warn against the lucid path, and I consider myself fortunate I have never been able to dream lucidly.

Enthusiastic reports from lucid dreamers tell us we can take the dream over and have a hell of a time, flying about and having the best sex ever with whomever we can dream up. But that’s like colonizing the dream world, and then, like the bushmen in Jung’s day, our dreams become mere husks and psychologically useless, because the Ego, like the Englishman, knows everything.

Still, that the lucid dreamers have established such doors are open to human experience suggests a greater role for the dream than we give credit for, but we should tread carefully. The dream is no place for the crass, hedonistic tourist. But if we have lost our way with dreaming, or worse, if we have lost our way with sleeping, the techniques of the lucid dreamers can help enormously.

We close our eyes. What do we see? Do we see nothing? Look again.

The darkness behind closed eyes is not complete. It is grainy, speckled with colour. There are pale areas, like clouds, and they drift in the midnight blue. Deprived of visual stimulation, the mind idles with pattern. But if we can focus the inner eye upon them, the patterns will take on more recognizable forms. We do not willingly imagine these forms into being. They are entirely spontaneous and will show themselves if we allow it. They will be indistinct at first but, with practice, we can develop an inner vision that is capable of staggering clarity and detail.

At some point, say the lucid dreamers, the entire field of vision becomes active and detailed, and we can simply step into it at the point consciousness falls away. This has never worked for me. I am asleep long before this happens, and that’s fine. I prefer to lose my self-awareness and be of the dream rather than consciously in it. But as a way into sleep when the mind is otherwise resistant, this is a powerful method. I also find the dreams more vivid, and more easily remembered on waking.

We are alive at a time of deepening world crises. Without the counsel of dreams our mental well-being depends upon whether we really do trust the English to know everything. And if not, then where do we turn? We each have access to a wise, inner voice, through our dreams, but it’s been forgotten, and it’s rusty. It has forgotten how to speak to us, as we have forgotten how to listen. Few are interested anyway, and willingly join the downward spiral of our culture, presided over by the joker archetypes, and all the strutting demi-gods of chaos.

Chaos is inevitable, but it’s also a bad place to be. It is an indeterminate period of transition, and with no guarantee it’s leading us to a better place. When the ground is shifting daily, and reality is frozen out in a blizzard of lies, the rational mind is of no use to us any more. Only a keen native instinct, born of the dreaming life can tell us where best to place our feet, so we’re not constantly unbalanced by whatever damned thing is coming next.

*Jung – Memories, dreams, reflections (Kenya and Uganda)

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warrendale 1

Farewell, you northern hills, you mountains all goodbye.
Moorland and stony ridges, crags and peaks, goodbye.
Glyder Fach farewell, Cul Beig, Scafell, cloud-bearing Suilven.
Sun-warmed rocks and the cold of Bleaklow’s frozen sea.
The snow and the wind and the rain of hills and mountains.
Days in the sun and the tempered wind and the air like wine,
And you drink and you drink till you’re drunk on the joy of living

Ewan MacColl – The Joy of Living

The scenes of massed hikers flooding Snowdonia at the weekend prove we must keep our exercise local from now on, and for the duration of this crisis. Local means whatever you can do on foot, or bike from your own doorstep, and at a good distance from others. It means an hour round the block. It does not mean travelling to Wales or the Lakes, or the Dales to find a hill and get away from things like we used to do. Chances are you’ll end up in a traffic jam.

It’s a grim prospect for me since it means I won’t have a hill under my feet again until this thing is over, and that could be next spring. So it is indeed farewell to my northern hills and mountains for the time being. But needs must, and it’s not all bad news; there are other things we can do.

Social distancing is nothing new to me. Indeed, I’ve been doing it all my life, and as I get older I make less apology for it. Others pester for Skype connections and I’m thinking: what the hell? Can’t folk manage for a minute on their own without moithering others? And then if everyone in my locale takes their exercise around what dreary bit of green I’ve got on my doorstep, it’s going to be unbearably busy. So I’m looking at my garden now and seeing it with fresh eyes. I’m seeing it as my sanctuary of solitude and, as March goes out like a lamb and the blossom swells, it’s also the ideal place for a bit of Tai Chi and Qigong.

I began Tai Chi fifteen years ago. I practise Chen style, which led to Kung Fu for a while, but for the last few years I’ve been doing Qigong. Qigong is a technique with a focus on the breath and mindful movement that’s well suited to our turbulent times. I tried to do a bit in my garden today, but found myself assailed by the noise of my socially retarded, self-entitled neighbours’ beatboxes. So, yes, there are still challenges, but we’ll make do, and I have ear defenders.

Distractions aside, how to do you begin Qigong if you’ve never done it before? Well you can go look on YouTube. There are gurus on there as thick as hikers on the Watkin Path right now. But you can do no better than to find somewhere quiet and stand for a bit. Breathe slow and deep, not with your lungs, but with your belly. Then raise your hands and close your eyes.

How do you know your hands are still there? Well, if you focus, you can feel them. Now, on the out breath, try to induce a feeling of relaxation, and breathe into your hands. I don’t mean by blowing on them. I mean mentally. As you breathe out, breathe into them with your mind. Notice how the feeling intensifies. Weird, isn’t it? Do that for a bit until you get bored. And then do this:

Thank you, Master Lam. You’re a legend.

This method is the most impressive Qigong technique I know. It looks simple but is the hardest in practice. Standing for just ten minutes takes a monumental effort at first, so try it for five. It also raises a buzz in your hands faster than any other practice. What is that buzz? I don’t know – I’m not going to use the Chi word here. It could be vascular. It could be the nervous system. All I know is if you hang your mind onto that feeling, it gets stronger, and it’s deeply relaxing. And if the mind is relaxed, it’s not thinking about anything other than how relaxed you’re feeling.

And that’s a good thing in trying times.

However you manage your social distancing,…

Be well.

Graeme out.

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on the beda fell ridgeIn our closing Qigong set last night we did a thing called “open the curtains”. You do the actions slowly, mindfully, in rhythm with the breath; you open the curtains wide and you imagine something or someone of great beauty that makes you smile. It’s a powerful exercise, just smiling, something to do with endorphins. Endorphins are good for us.

Normally I imagine one of the heroines from my various novels – most recently Maggs Cooper from “Saving Grace” who I suspect is just a slightly older version of Helena Aynslea from the Sea View Cafe. Over the years I’ve come to imagine her in great detail, including her cheeky grin in response. But last night, instead, a scene popped into my head from a climb I did in 2015, when I paused to look back along the Beda Fell Ridge towards Hallin Fell, in the Lake District. It was just a flash, but stunning in its detail and the mood of soft light as it played upon the sunny uplands. Coming to me on a wet and windy night in December, it was a powerful reminder that it won’t always be dark at tea-time.

The run down to the solstice always knocks me flat. Suddenly the light has gone and we’re commuting in the dark again, mornings and evenings, driving up and down the motorway – long sections with no cats eyes now, and the white lane-markers grubbed off. Yet still the traffic rushes headlong, streaking past me as I maintain a steady pedestrian fifty-six mph while squinting mole-like into the gloom,  intermittently blinded by super-bright-luxury headlights coming at me the other way.

And then there are the trivial challenges. Things fall apart at this time of year. Things like the boiler, awakened from its summer repose, and the way it suddenly begins to make unfamiliar noises as it picks up the load for winter, and there are drips from inside the conservatory which may be a leak forced through by the hammering onslaught of extraordinarily heavy rains, or it may just be condensation – the difference is about three hundred quid. Then there are the not-so-small things like how my good lady narrowly avoided injury in a coach crash in Derbyshire this week, and how for a moment my own life hung in balance as I waited for news.

Meanwhile number two son struggles gamely out each bloodshot morn to a job that expects CEO levels of commitment for minimum pay, taking the shine somewhat from his first degree. His boss is a caricature of incivility, on whom I shall have my revenge by immortalising him as an arsehole delivered a spectacular comeuppance in a future novel. Then number one son struggles gamely to find any work at all and I wish the world would just open it’s door a crack and let him in – I mean he’s a bright lad, keen to work, and works hard, so just cut him some slack damn you! And then there’s a good writer friend of mine who’s lost his mind, and now inhabits a dream-like world where sometimes he recognises friends and family, but is generally unable to tell them apart from other characters that are entirely imagined.

Yes, the world can take on an air of threat and hopelessness at this time of year, laying bare our vulnerability to its whims, and our powerlessness to make any lasting positive change. Thus disillusioned, we tumble down the disorientating vortex to the Solstice, and on through the stupefaction of Yule, finally to skitter out onto the thin, frigid ice of January and February where anything could happen, and our naked souls are least prepared for it.

I’m sure the ancients had a way of dealing with all of this, a way of conditioning the mind into harmony with the seasons, of creating myths of meaning and ritual that protect the head and the heart, so the spirit might still thrive. And perhaps the myth said something like: when there’s no light, stay indoors and sleep.

But that’s all gone now, obliterated by this 24/7 online world where the only thing that matters is buying stuff for next year’s landfill, and where the only way to climb the ladder is to be nastier than everyone else. If all of that’s true then we are indeed inhabiting a hell of our own making. But it isn’t true, and help is at hand if we can only think ourselves sideways a bit, and find the inner smile.

I’ve noticed my own habitual response to past tragedies, the loss of loved ones and the near misses is a kind of defiance. It’s as if there is a dark power in the world that would have us throw up our hands in despair, that would have us believe there is only suffering and hardship, that we’re all ultimately alone, that there are no rich, sunny uplands to be gained after the long climb. But while this may seem to be the case – at least on the basis of the available evidence – there is no sense in abandoning one’s optimism.

Holding to optimism in the face of mischance, so far as I can tell, is not a delusion. A delusion is something ultimately harmful while optimism, though it might seem unfounded, grants us strength and the ability still to smile, to keep a light heart. Better to welcome the sun at each rising, than to lament its setting, and to trust we shall all regain the sunny uplands again, come spring.

It’s not as daft as it sounds then, so go on: open those curtains, regard the beautiful scene.

And smile.

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person eye

Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

William H Bates (1860-1931) was an Ophthalmologist with an unconventional view on the workings of the eye. He was also unique among his colleagues in advocating a method of vision-training he claimed would cure problems with sight that are normally corrected by spectacles. However, Wikipediea, as ever a bastion of orthodoxy, dismisses the method in its opening paragraph as “ineffective”, as do many others who take the established scientific view.

A more positive advocate was the writer and visionary Aldous Huxley. Huxley was born with very poor sight and wrote about his experience of the Bates method in his book, “The Art of Seeing” (1942). In it he explained that while his vision remained far from normal throughout his life, Bates’ training helped him to progress from being functionally blind, to being able to manage reasonably well and for a time the Bates Method was all the rage.

So, is it any good or not?

Well, in 1950, Huxley got up to read an address at a Hollywood banquet. The lighting was poor, and he struggled to read his script. In front of many witnesses, he had to resort to a magnifying glass to make out the words. Critics of the Bates method leaped upon this as evidence he’d memorised his script, the implication being he couldn’t really see it and had only been pretending to read it, therefore all Bates method teachers were charlatans, and that Huxley had misrepresented claims of his improved vision. Orthodox ophthalmologists breathed a sigh of relief and went back to business as usual, selling spectacles.

Curiously though there are still plenty of Bates teachers around, and they are not short of positive testimonials. It’s possible that in some cases, having spent a fortune on such a method you’re more likely to praise it for even small gains because you look like less of an idiot that way. But surely not everyone falls into this category, and I wonder if there’s not more to it, that, as with all things, the story is more complex than the shrill headlines and the naysayers allow. Huxley’s case is particularly interesting. As a public intellectual, he had a lot at stake, and it seems unlikely to me he would risk his reputation on such a blatant, elaborate and pointless deception.

So what about my own experience? Well, when my own eyesight began to drift off into myopia in my early teens, I took to practicing the Bates method with enthusiasm. This involved various exercises, all of which, by the way, can be nowadays be found for free online. They include switching focus from near to far distance (tromboning), sitting with your palms over your eyes (palming) and letting the sunlight play upon your closed lids (sunning). I hasten to add none of this had any effect on my vision whatsoever. Indeed my eyesight continued to deteriorate until my middle twenties when, somewhat ironically, I merely accepted the need for spectacles, and things stabilised. So, not much of a testimonial then, except,…

I’ve not troubled myself with the Bates method again until recently. I’m in late middle age now, and for the past few years, although I’m 20-20 with my specs on, I felt that at night, I was becoming less able to discern details in dark shadow. I could no longer see the fainter stars, and had become particularly sensitive to oncoming car headlights, which made night-driving stressful. I don’t know why I picked up on Bates again but, out of interest, I began a regime of alternately sunning, and then palming my eyes – just twenty minutes a day.  The effect on my night vision was immediate and very noticeable, vastly improving what I’d call the dynamic range, and therefore my perception of detail in low light, the night sky once more replete with countless stars, and those pesky ultra-bright headlight beams no longer as much of a nuance.

As for my actual vision, my prescription is unchanged, so the spectacles remain indispensable, but at my age I lack the necessary vanity to wish them gone anyway. On the upside though the eyes are generally healthy and, thanks to Bates and his much maligned method, I no longer worry about commuting in the dark over the coming winter months. Okay, so perhaps the Bates method’s not all it’s cracked up to be, but neither should we dismiss it entirely, because a lot of people have positive things to say about it.

And I’m one of them.

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Most of the practice has fallen away, leaving only Qigong. It’s been there from the beginning of course, learned along with a decade’s worth of Tai Chi, then Kung Fu. I still watch the masters, admire the fluidity of their forms, but these days experience in my self only a resistance to it, as if in the absence of attaining such perfection myself, I would sooner shun the effort. This is not skillful thinking.

Through Qigong, I’m hanging on, but only by my fingernails.

It’s a meditation of sorts, a medley of mindful moves, synchronised to the rhythm of one’s breath. But when your head’s so far outside the box as mine is now, the moves become automatic while the mind roams, sifts through the fetid entrails of the day, or ruminates on what may or may not yet be. There is too much past and future, not enough presence. We catch ourselves half way through an hour’s session still thinking back upon the day. We have yet to settle in, yet to still the mind, to become,… mindful of what we’re doing, and where we are, and why.

We close with ten minutes of simple meditation, thighs aching from a fading familiarity with the lotus. We count with each breath silently from one to ten, then down again. If we lose our way, lose focus, if the mind wanders, we start from the beginning. I  can barely make it past four. I have one eye half open, then I can see the teacher’s temple bell, alert for the move that will ring an end to yet another half-assed  session, spill me back out into the dark of night.

It’s been a long day, a rushed day, one problem after another, one damned fool question after another to be answered, demands for ever more pieces of me, when all that’s left feels like this fragile husk, ragged, frayed,  head zig zagging like a stray hound in the forest chasing rabbits.

But driving home, gone nine pm now, I realise I’m feeling better than when I set out into my day at seven a.m., out into the rain streaked murk of a January predawn. Yes, it’s an evil night, cold, black, and lashing with hail. Idiots are flashing past on the dual carriageway, doing a hundred miles an hour. I’m on cruise control, keeping to just below the limit, listening to  Smooth radio.

ABBA are singing, “Knowing me, Knowing you”.

1977, I think. It was the year I first set out on that long commute, out into those first days of manhood. Back then I rode a dodgy moped of dubious reliability, little knowing how long that road would be, that I would still be travelling it forty years later, though fortunately not on a moped. But as I listen, I’m not nostalgic for any of that,  nor regretful, my head slipping free of the myriad snares of the past. All of that simply was, and as for the future none of it might ever be. Instead, I catch myself for once in a state of relaxed attention. It still happens. Sometimes.

Practice in martial arts, in Yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, whatever, is not about success, not about perfection or grace or power in forms. It’s not about feeling the chi or entering the zone. Sometimes it’s more about simply recognising the imperfections in oneself, of not minding them, and turning up anyway.

 

[The opening video is a breathtaking demonstration of the twenty four form Chen style Tai Chi by JoJo Hua]

 

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singing bowlApologies for the tacky title. I’m speaking metaphorically of course. What I mean is you don’t need anything to meditate, other than the stuff you were born with. But if you buy a book on it, particularly a western one, it’s inevitable they’re going to try to sell you some junk, after all, they sold you the book for starters, so why stop there? There are all those guided meditation tapes, incense sticks, various “sacred objects”, special clothing, crystals, mats, gongs, and then there’s all that cool traditional Tibetan stuff as well – the beads the bangles and the singing bowls.

Yes, there are bowls that sing!

I bought one, which isn’t exactly setting a good example for what I have to say, but I was curious about them. Mine’s pictured above, a pretty little thing, made in Nepal from an alloy of copper, tin and zinc and iron. It’s called panchalonga and it has curious properties, but nothing mysterious. Humans have been making bells with it for a long time, because it rings and sustains vibration really well.

When you rub a stick around the outside of the bowl, the tiny vibrations become amplified, building up to the resonant frequency of the bowl. It’s the same effect as rubbing a wet finger around the rim of a wine glass, but fortunately a lot easier to produce. The sound can be quite loud, and fluctuates between two distinct tones as the bowl changes shape and flips from one node to the other.

To use a singing bowl you get comfy and, as with any meditation, focus down on the breath. You hold the bowl in one hand and find a position where you can comfortably make it sing with the stick in the other. Focusing on the pressure and the speed needed to get it to sing nicely is an excellent way of shutting out other thoughts. Too much pressure, and the sound is too loud, the vibrations make the stick chatter and screech around the outside, too little and the sound fades to nothing.

There’s also the effect of the sound itself, which, if you can go with it, coaxes the frequency of the “brain waves” into the alpha range. This is the same as REM sleep, where the brain goes for rest and repair. That’s the idea anyway, and well worth experimenting with. My own experience however has been that the sound is like a beacon to those who would disturb your meditation by bursting in and asking what the Hell’s that weird noise? or oh that’s cool, and can I have a go? If you’re seeking an Alpha trip you’re better with a binaural beats app or a tape of shamanic drumming – through earpieces of course. But that’s more paraphernalia.

My objection to paraphernalia is this: there’s a danger of developing a dependence upon it. What if you want to meditate when you’ve not got your singing bowl handy? Props are useful for putting you into a relaxed frame of mind, but one of the outcomes of the Western malaise – that toxic blend of stress, anxiety and depression, is the manifestation of obsessive tendencies, so we’re setting ourselves up from the outset with the means of our own defeat: I want to meditate, but I can’t because everything has to be just so,… and it isn’t.

I still like my singing bowl, and look forward to using it more often.

But mediation is still best done naked!

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So,… There’s a dampness to the air now, not as rich in oxygen, not as energising, and the light of a morning is limping to catch up with the days whose demands of course remain the same as always, regardless of the season. This is Autumn in the already dystopic closing years of the second decade, of the twenty first century.

I take a breath, long and deep, arms rising from my sides to form an arch above my head, legs tense, then relax. Breathe out,…

What?

My arms sink in front of me, as if compressing air, feeling for its springiness with the imagination, and as the body relaxes, there’s a rush to the brain, a moment of light-headedness, a tingle in the shoulders, the forearms, the palms. Don’t panic: it’s blood, and nerve energy, and “stuff”, and beyond this vague rationalisation, I try not to give it much thought.

Qigong is like the I Ching: you sleep better when, as Carl Jung said, you do not bother yourself, with how it works.

Repeat. Four times.

All right,  traditionally it’s eight.

Eight is a lucky number in Chinese, deep stuff, rising from mythology, from numerology. I don’t understand it, but I respect it’s contribution to the global zeitgeist, to which I admit not everyone may be attuned. Anyway, at the weekends, when time’s abundant, sure, it’s eight, but on a workaday morning at seven a.m. we’re conscious the traffic’s already backing up exponentially with respect to time, that the seconds later we are in joining it, the tens of minutes longer we spend sitting in it. Therefore, we make concessions. Four repeats. Obsession is, after all, the mother of pointlessness, while compromise is the father of mutual understanding. (No sexism implied)

Where were we?

Gathering energy from the heavens.

Okay., so,… it’s a flowery term, but then the Chinese, both ancient and modern, are like that. They are admirably fond of their flowery aphorisms. They called their first space station Tiangong – the Heavenly Palace – and why not? It’s due to burn up and crash to earth any time now, by the way. Unhelpful tangent Others, equally well named are planned.

Sorry, where we again?

Heavenly energy?

Right, it’s an opening move to most of the traditional Shaolin Qigong forms I know – or rather knew. I’ve had a long break from this stuff, distracted by the harder aspects of Kung Fu. What’s that? Where to begin? It’s how to dislocate an arm, a finger, break the calivical bone, where the critically debilitating pressure points are, what strike to use for best effect  – Panda or Phoenix Eye – how to release energy with a blow to make it really sting, how to parry, how to handle a sword. How to kill stone dead, and without compromise, or Marquess of Queensbury rules and all that.

Hmm,…

I don’t know how I got into all of that because it’s not my scene at all. It was younger sons, I suppose, for whom Chen style Tai Chi (my first love) was not macho enough. And I enjoyed their company, enjoyed watching them grow and connect with an eclectic miscellany of men, all pretending to be Ninjas, and from there make their own paths.

Don’t get me wrong, the stretching effect of ritual Kung Fu forms upon the body are a tonic, they keep you young and limber, and I am in awe of the Kung Fu greats, but in the end the rigours were becoming too much for a maturing frame, and even in the soft sparring of my little fight club, I was beginning to fear injury.

So, I’m starting from the beginning again, with foundation Qigong forms – breathing, rhythm, visualisation. It’s different for everyone this stuff, and no one can explain how it works. You get the traditionalists all tangled up in their esotericisms and the puzzled rationalists who do it because it feels good – but look blank at the meridian diagrams. And then there are those like me who fell into the esoteric, once, nearly drowned in its nonsense, but are coming back to a point where they can at least tread water.

Qigong isn’t something you can just do, say for an hour a week at a class. That’s where you learn the basics, sure, but it has to be established as part of a daily routine as well, a ritual part of your life. It cured my tinnitus, a decade ago, but the tinnitus is creeping back as the energy fades into late middle age, and the practice has fallen away. So I’m picking up the discipline again, and as I do, the tinnitus fades once more. I’m getting older, but there’s still much to do, much life to be lived, and I have an inkling the secret is simply to keep it moving. Use it or lose it, mate.

I’m coming up to my sixties. But that’s nothing. I’m assured by those who have gone before me there are still rich decades ahead.

Qigong.

It looks weird, but I’ve been here before, and people no longer take the piss when I’m doing it in my PJ’s in the kitchen while the kettle boils. What’s more I no longer care if they do because I find I have more confidence in it, and in myself when I’m doing it than I once did, which is progress of a sort. What does it do? It clears a space in your head, restores calm, extends one’s magnanimity far out into the tempestuousness of the day. If you’re up against a killer like Twister, it gives you a chance. If Twister is your day, it gets you through.

Noon.

It gets me to about noon before the stresses start caving me in, but what the stresses cannot do is take away the core insight that protects the soul, and Ip Man is the protector of my soul – at least when my Kung Fu is strong.

You can probably simulate this feeling with something out of a blister pack but, trust me,  it’s not the real thing. The thing out of the blister pack drugs the soul so it doesn’t mind the insult of the way we live, it doesn’t mind being flattened by the insult of Twister’s blows. Qigong provides the safe space, the stillness, in which the soul remembers itself, and can observe the life we live with a compassionate detachment. Life, as personified by the belligerent, Egoistic, taunting, daunting, Twister,  does not change, rather we remember who we are, and we do not mind the challenge so much any more. Indeed, we disregard it as irrelevant.

Okay, so we’ve gathered the heavenly stuff, so what’s next? Oh,.. right,… it’s that little twisty finger thing.

Breathe, tense the legs,… relax,..

Whoosh!…

Wow!

Okay,… Not sure how long that  header clip will remain on Youtube – hope you found it entertaining. Ip Man 2 is second only to the original Ip Man as my favourite martial art’s movie.

My humble respects to Sifu, Donnie Yen (Ip Man) and Sifu Darren Majian Shahlavi, the magnificently malign whirlwind of a boxer, Twister!
 

 

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meridian systemI was lying on a table in the back room of a two up two down terraced former mill-house in Chorley, pins sticking out of my arms, my legs and my face, and I felt weird, but in a good way. No, this isn’t the opening of a piece of fiction. This was 2007 and the beginning of my journey into the world of Traditional Chinese Medicine, my first consultation with an acupuncturist – though my experience and subsequent journey into the esoteric, did go a long way in informing my romantic story “Push Hands”.

I’d felt I had no choice in trying acupuncture, being afflicted with a ringing ear that western medicine could do nothing about. And you know what? It worked – of a fashion. Over a period my ringing ear didn’t ring so much any more. And the sessions made me feel different in other ways. I was suddenly more relaxed, more clear headed and energetic. In short, I felt better and a good ten years younger.

Acupuncture’s not available on the NHS, and at thirty quid a session, and with anything up to a dozen sessions or more being required, depending on what ails you, you have to be sure you want to use it. But then I found you could maintain that calmness, that clear headed, relaxed feeling by practising Tai Chi and Qigong. And eventually as we practice, we feel unfamiliar sensations in the hands and the arms, and we wonder: is it Qi?

I began, years ago thinking to nail this mysterious business of Qi, because without it, I believed, TCM and all that mind-body stuff didn’t make sense. But I’ve ended with a more pragmatic view, and a greater understanding of western physiology which explains things well enough if you can only be bothered getting to the bottom of it. I still hear Qi talked about in classes, and it grates a little now, but you can approach it from different angles, both from the traditional, and the practical and the secret is not to get hung up on either. Just do the exercises, the meditation; visualise, rationalise it however you want. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is it works.

One of my biggest frustrations with the traditional path is there has never been a consensus among so called masters about what Qi is, at least nothing one can glean from reading their books. With medical science, the more you read, the clearer things become. With Qi, however, the more you read, the less you understand anything at all. I’ve come to the conclusion the whole business is more of a misunderstanding, born partly out of a rejection of science in the west among those largely resistant to or ignorant of it, and in the east a willingness to present concepts in terms of what we apparently want to believe. And what we want to believe in is Qi.

In that acupuncturist’s consulting room there was a dummy with all the acupuncture points indicated as dots, with lines joining them like the map of a railway system. The lines indicate the so called meridians along which Qi is said to flow, an idea that can be traced back to a book by George Soulie de Morant, an early translator of oriental philosophy. But the strange thing is even the most revered founding oriental work on acupuncture, the Yellow Emperor’s Handbook doesn’t mention meridians. The meridian theory appears to have been an early twentieth century, and largely western, invention. It caught on and we’ve been talking rubbish ever since.

The acupuncture points are real enough. They are what we would now call neuro-vascular nodes, areas dense in fine veins and nerves, situated along the routes of the major arteries. These are referred to in early Chinese texts, a link having been found between them and the function of the organs of the body, that stimulating them can bring about certain healing effects – reducing inflammation, pain, sickness. The precise mechanism is complex and not well understood, but appears to be a result of the stimulation of the body’s natural healing mechanisms. In short, TCM works and is very effective, but the meridian theory, the model underpinning it, as presented to the west, and all its talk of Qi, is misleading at best, at worst, plain wrong.

But having said that it’s sometimes still useful to think in terms of Qi, more as a metaphor of physical effects. In practical terms, Qi has two components. One is oxygen, the other is glucose. The oxygen we get by breathing air, while glucose comes from the food in our stomachs. Both are carried by the blood to every part of the body where they combine to produce chemical energy, either for motion, or for healing and regeneration of tissue. Practices like Tai Chi and Qigong encourage deep breathing, boosting the amount of oxygen in the blood – you also get hot and you sweat because the by product of the body’s chemical equation is heat and water. Heat and water are a good sign. The movements during practice stimulate the neuro-vascular nodes, drive the lymph, and the relaxed, mindful attitude encourages a return to homeostasis, a neutral chemical balance essential for a healthy body. To practice Tai Chi or Qigong for an hour a day is to experience a dramatic change in the way you see and feel your body and the world about you.

The problem for westerners has been the gradual erosion of any romantic notions regarding one’s existence. Medical science has reduced life to a series of mechanical functions, an approach that, while advancing our understanding to miraculous levels, has ironically sucked the life out of being, and what we crave is a return to the mysterious. Perhaps in Qi we have been seeking to put the soul back into the machinery, and to revivify belief in the reality of our selves. But the path of the soul is something else, a somewhat longer journey of which the mind-body stuff can be a part, but only in the sense that in calming the mind, in freeing it from the debilitating distractions of the material life, it can then, in quieter times, return more readily to a deeper contemplation of other things.

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watchwordThe Watchword technique is method of self analysis. Its origins are obscure, but find themselves formalised in this 1990’s title by Michael Daniels, senior lecturer in what was then Liverpool Polytechnic’s Department of Psychology. The book has a very Jungian grounding, and aims to give the reader a clear picture of the forces at play in the currents of the psyche – where we’re going, what’s holding us back, what are the dominant forces driving us, what areas we need to work on, to let go of and so on.

If you’re of a New Agey, self analysis, Jung-fan bent, you probably already have a number of methods for getting inside your head. Tarot cards are popular, as are Runes. For a long time I favoured the I Ching but, like all oracular devices it can be misunderstood and, like the Tarot and Runes, is somewhat tainted by an occultish aura which does not appeal to everyone.

Oracles do not foretell tell the future. It’s a common misconception. Instead, they read the psychical landscape and make projections from it. They grant us a look inside our heads, revealing what might otherwise be hidden. All methods have their attractions and drawbacks and we should feel free to take them up and set them aside as and when the mood takes us, never adhering to them too slavishly, but rather listening to our own instincts for what’s right at the time. In this way the Watchword technique can be looked upon as another thing to try, perhaps when answers are failing you elsewhere. The method is direct, and carries none of the occult baggage associated with other methods, though this is not to say its intuitions are both startling and mysterious.

The technique involves writing down sixteen words – whatever comes into one’s head – then pairing them off and looking for an association with the linked words, then pairing these off. Reminiscent of a Jungian word association test, and dream amplification, what we end up with is a grid of highly charged words which, like dream symbols, represent the archetypal forces, or a kind of psychical weather forecast. As a method I find it very powerful, though as Daniels cautions in the book, it is not something to be read too literally or follow too slavishly.

So, our sixteen seed words are boiled down by a process of association into a square matrix which we then interpret using a form of directional symbolism. In short, the up and down directions indicate progressive and regressive tendencies, the left and the right involve the more subtle interpretation of inner (left) and outer (right) psychological urges. The overall balance of the square therefore comes to represent a map of the forces within us and the complex dynamical churn between them. A further pattern of three words emerges in the centre of the matrix, the middle one of these being taken as the ultimate direction implied from the interplay of all the other forces in the mix.

While this may sound dubious to anyone not versed in symbolic or archetypal thinking, I find the method has an uncanny way of homing in on the key dynamics. The answers arise from our own thought processes, it’s just that some of them are normally hidden from view and the method tries to tease them out. At its most basic level the Watchword technique can be treated as a word game, as a bit of fun, and when beginning with it, it’s perhaps best to treat it as such. But at its deepest level it can aid us in coming up with some profound insights into our own strengths and failings.

A more individual analysis of the words we’ve chosen can also reveal our Myers Briggs type, and the book goes into this in some depth, but I’ve found the technique less reliable in that respect, probably due to my own failings in grasping the symbolic significance of the words we use, better to use the Myers Briggs method itself, but in all other respects this is a valuable tool for anyone on the path towards self discovery.

 

 

 

 

 

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