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man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsThere’s a weird collective guilt taking hold on Instagram. Have you noticed? Everyone’s at pains to say the picture they took was within an hour’s walk of their doorstep. They were out exercising. Walking the dog. That pretty waterfall? The misty hill? The ferny dell? It was all legal. Honest. No one wants to be that idiot flouting the rules. No one wants to be accused of making unnecessary journeys, enjoying themselves for the sake of it.

Me? I’ve stuck to my garden. Aren’t I virtuous? I’ve done Qigong, I’ve weeded the borders and I’ve cleaned the car. And when it goes dark, I turn to the Internet as usual. Here my history catches up with me, directing me to a couple of gurus with advice on staying sane. The first is Eckhart Tolle. He speaks of approaching things from the ego-less perspective. He prefaces his talk with a line from Shakespeare:

“There is nothing either good or bad, only thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet)

Which is a fair point. This damned crisis is an event, no doubt about that. But then, there’s no sense adding to it by letting the mind run riot over all the negative possibilities. One day at a time. Breathe.

Okay, so Tolle’s not for everyone, but he certainly gives me pause.

The other guru is the artist David Hockney. He’s seeing out the crisis in rural France and suggests we don’t take photographs, that we draw instead. I know what he means. Photographs rarely capture what we see. Worse, we can manipulate them into something that was never there in the first place. But when you draw a thing, you establish a relationship with it and you remember it for ever. And everyone can draw. You never hear a kid say they can’t draw. So be a kid again, and draw. I’m drawing more, and since I started, I have begun to dream more. Weird. My dreams are seductive, mysterious. They are a place worth the sleeping for.

Some of my correspondents hope this pause in the frenetic pace of human affairs will act like a reset button. Perhaps afterwards, they say, things will not go back to normal. We’ll find time to catch our breath, find a better way of living. We are all agreed this is unlikely. Worse, I fear there is a danger my fellow Instagrammers will not venture from their doorsteps again without asking: is my journey necessary? What right have I to this moment in time? What right have I to seek the sublime in this beautiful view?

At present, our collective necessity revolves around work and food. But that’s a narrow measure of what it means to be alive. As we’re all discovering, so much of what defines us is intangible and completely beyond that which is materially essential, yet it’s there we find what is most valuable in ourselves.

So let’s stop with the guilt. It’s not our fault the health service is ruined. Not our fault there are no ventilators. Not our fault clinicians are working in infectious environments, without protective equipment. Or is it? It depends which way we’ve been voting this past ten years. In which case we’re getting everything we deserve, and we should think hard about that for when we return to the world as citizens instead of rabbits, hiding in our holes.

But for now let’s all remember how the truly necessary journeys we make in life may not be the ones we think they are.  And to my fellow Instagrammers I say rest easy and stop with the excuses. That picture of a hill? The waterfall? The ferny dell? It’s on your doorstep. Or you took it last year. I know. It’s beautiful. I trust you. Enjoy.

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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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Sigmund_Freud_1926_(cropped)I had a feeling in my water the government was going to issue a strict “stay at home” order last Friday. So, after work I swung through Rivington in the West Pennines – my local beauty spot. I was thinking to get a little open air social distancing, before the clamp-down. I was not the only one.

The Great House Barn at Rivington is a popular watering hole and a favourite of mine. But the advice was to avoid cafés, for risk of infection, so I drove by in search of a quiet pull-in, further up on the moors. I was amazed to see the Barn was packed out, the car-park full and spilling over onto the roadside. There were people, kids, dogs everywhere. Indeed, it reminded me of a Bank Holiday weekend, a time when Rivington is better avoided because of the crush.

Social distancing they were not, and I wondered why. The advice has been clear enough. It’s to save your life, or save you enduring a distressing bout of illness. Is it that we no longer believe a word we see or hear any more? Are the post-election utterings of politicians taken as the same vacuous nothingness? Are the hysterical headlines of the press all meaningless noise? (I mean who can blame us on either score) but what else explains the fact so few people are taking this seriously?

I found my quiet pull-in, managed a brief walk in the sun. It all looked spring-like, but there was a chill wind taking the sweetness out of it. Plus, the trails were thick with weekenders, and they walk so damned slow it’s like they’re barely alive. Their dogs were also loose and bounding up to sniff your balls. So much for social distancing.

“Aw, don’t worry, he’ll not hurt you, mate.”

It was not an enjoyable yomp, more like a turgid commute up the M6. I returned home frustrated, feeling unclean. It was as if the panic buyers were now hogging the countryside, greedy for the very air we breathe, hanging their bags of fido-turds as they went. Social distancing from now on means going no further than my garden gate.

The clampdown came that same night. But it was not as severe as I’d expected, more a polite request for the pubs, clubs and café’s to shut. So then my local shop was at once cleared out of beer and wine. I suppose now the pleasure seekers are holding their gatherings indoors. In every country this plague has visited, the health services have collapsed, and medical staff have died saving the lives of others. Our lack of caution is blind, irrational and selfish. It puzzles me.

Since Friday, I’ve been thinking hard about this social distancing thing. We’re advised it’s fine to go out for some exercise, that fresh air and the countryside is good for you. But there is also a danger here, that there will be tens of thousands of people every weekend making a rush for the same open spaces. Then there will be the exodus of the caravanners, and the holiday-homers, off to the remoter places to hole up and wait the plague out. The risk there is resentment of the locals, on whom we descend as we overwhelm their modest health provision.

So we need to stay at home, walk round the block – at midnight if need be, to avoid each other, provided there is no curfew. 2020 is cancelled – well except for my garden, which will be very tidy indeed this year. And I will use the time to deepen my practice of Tai Chi.

Freudian psychoanalysts have a very pessimistic view of human beings. They tell us we are slaves to a thing called the id. This is an unconscious, primitive drive that craves simplistic gratification in whatever form it can get, a thing at odds with logic and reason. Then there’s the super-ego. This is unconscious too, but contains the balancing forces of guilt, shame and morality, preventing the id from destroying us in wild orgies. And then there’s the ego. This is the conscious bit which tries to reconcile the forces of the id, the super-ego and the demands of society. But generally speaking we’re a lost cause unless we can sublimate the resulting tension into some form of creative endeavour. Or we go mad trying, or more likely we succumb to the id, to its selfish and unthinking drive for pleasure. And we behave like idiots, like sheep in its siren pursuit.

I’ve never been a fan of Freud because he doesn’t offer us a way out, and that’s always frightened me. His work shines a light on our stupidity, our gullibility, on our neuroses and the reasons for them. But most of us, he says, are lost causes. We are irrational, unreasoning automatons. We are slaves to desire, and blind to the consequences of our actions. He saw right through us, shook his head.

And I see now, he was right.

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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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jackdaw

As the summer heat and the grass-fires fade into the fast scattering smoke of imperfect memory, I feel the usual September blues coming on. They are born of too long spent in the academic grind as a young man. Twenty five when I finished, and still, in my late middle age, am unable to shake off the jitters in anticipation of the fresh term ahead. And even though I’ve not set foot in a place of learning since, all it takes is that first deepening of the light and a return of dew upon the grass to set my nerves on edge. But added to that this year I sense a smouldering anger, an irritation rising from the collective unconsciousness, and it feeds an anxiety in me that is resistant to the various meditations I practise. And of course, what I feel, internally, the world provides confirmation of in the realm of daily experience.

There was a kid driving a car this morning, coming at me on the wrong side of the road, fast, around a bend, the small vehicle wobbling at the very limits of its stability. Fast, fast,… live it on the edge, for tomorrow we may all be dead! I don’t know how he missed me.

Later, on the motorway, an entire string of vehicles were cutting in, one after the other as I approached the exit slip. My assailants were reckless, hurried, impatient to get on and seemingly oblivious to my presence as I tried to moderate my speed, and judge my gap within the usual perhaps over-cautious parameters. But to hell with caution, no time for that now, to hell with everything! Zip, zip, zip,.. squeeze it in, ramp it up. Another moment may already be too late!

And money,… money is in your face everywhere on the roads. Have you noticed? And it’s greedy, bullying, intimidating. I had £50K’s worth of Porsche SUV, tailing aggressively close for long miles down a twisty road. The limit was forty – there have been sacrifices enough to the God of recklessness here – faded flowers by the roadside to mark the fallen – but the Porsche wanted more, wanted me out of the way, slow, lumbering old fart that I am.

Push, push, push,… faster, faster, faster.

And then there was the little boy this afternoon, dashing out between parked cars, right into my path, his mother screaming, both of us thinking it was too late. I stopped dead, stood the car on its nose. He was fine. I wasn’t. He got off with a scolding and wept, as I nearly wept. I pulled over a little further on and waited for the blood to stop roaring in my ears. The car is on the drive tonight and won’t be moving all weekend. There’s something in the air just now and I don’t like it.

News headlines assail me every day. I would ignore them but I’m fixed in their glare like a rabbit, unable to look away. Yet there is so much noise in them now, and so slickly delivered, the delivery of news has become news itself, feeding back on itself until the last thing we hear is this almighty squeal before the very tissue of our skins rupture, and then we no longer see, or hear, or feel, or trust in anything any more. Vulnerable. Invisible, my presence, thinning like moorland smoke. Dissipating into nothingness.

How about a bit of gallows humour: To save money, the light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off! It’s an old saying. I remember it from the downsizing, de-industrialising nineties. But there is no tunnel and there never was a light at the end of it, just darkness of varying shades, a blank wall upon which to project our various and individual fantasies of what we believe our lives to be. And none of it was or is or ever will be true.

A little Zen wisdom for you. It pops up unexpectedly in my Instagram feed, the universe perhaps delivering the teaching I most need right now: You must meditate for at least ten minutes every day, unless you feel you’re too busy, in which case you must meditate for an hour.

Nice one. Don’t you just love Zen?

I understand. Break the cycle, don’t read the news. Its infernally discordant noise will shatter the crystal vision of your soul. And we must mind our souls above all else, examine more closely the present moment and find ways of sinking ourselves into it. It doesn’t mean the world will go away, but we will find ourselves more firmly anchored in it, so its storms can be weathered with greater magnanimity.

And then the world will no longer seem quite so dangerous a place to be.

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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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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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chattertonUnlike a head-cold there’s no working with influenza. It’s not without irony my last post should have been on the health conscious practice of Qigong – more useless talk and insufficient action I’m afraid. And the next thing I know I’m sicker than I have been in years. The universe is not without a sense of humour, but neither is sickness without its purpose.

I’m conscious of viewing the world differently just now, not so much as a firm reality any more but as a half truth, one we can render malleable through the active medium of imagination. Or we can become passive while that truth is more shaped for us by external images beamed from myriad sources: TV, computer, phone. I can watch the national news, update myself hourly on a selected slice of the world as it is presented “now”, or I can allow a different kind of prejudice – my own – to choose a path through the plethora of alternate views on the video channels of the world wide web.

And viewed through the lens of my sickness, all of these images have taken on something of the grotesque, like a circus sideshow viewed at night, under the leaping glare of an unfamiliar light. And there is a sound, like the snort and bray of caged animals and their top-hatted masters. There are donkeys preening with two tails, giraffes with two heads, snakes with two tongues. The images compete, each for a slice of momentary meaning, but only in sickness and delirium does the mind allow safe passage for these chimera into consciousness – not as the truths they purport to tell, but more as the ravings of drunks and loons. Why only in sickness are we capable of seeing that the world is not that?

For the duration of my illness at least, the world is my bed, my pillow. It is the soft press of the covers upon my chest. And it is the sound of heavy rain, falling day after day. There are no other certainties. Any other story of reality is a flexible concept. And there is no end to the stories of the world I can choose to believe in. But are any of them even remotely true?

What is it safe to believe in any more? Our only guide is to ask this: What does not go away when we stop believing in it? What does not go away when we switch off the info-screens? This is the only safe guide to personal reality, that our reality is not concocted from the lies and the grotesqueries of others with a view only to power and self aggrandisement. The only sure reality then is intrinsically local. Distance from the centre will inevitably blur it.

My sickness fades, leaves me emptied of energy. And what doesn’t go away as I surface from these thoughts is only the world that butts up against my weary senses. There is no meaning to be found in anything beyond that. I have by now tired of the news, tired of You Tube. So many images, so many voices, so many versions of a possible reality. And there is something of the intellectual demand, too, that we keep up with current affairs. But current affairs are like soap opera. It does not matter if we watch or not, keep up or not, for there is no story, no vital plot twist that will leave us behind in the reality stakes, even if we close our eyes.

Part of this meditation may be that I no longer possess the energy to deal with the world that lies much beyond my bedroom window. The winter thus far has drawn a forbidding veil.

I take a deep bellied breath, let it out slow, feel for the stirring of the Dantien.

There is nothing.

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girl meditatingIt’s a cold winter’s morning in a semi-derelict mill. A small group of middle agers lie silent on their backs on gym mats, their breath vapour rising in the unheated void of the makeshift training hall. They wear overcoats and hats against the chill. This is Qigong, western style, November, somewhere in the North West of England, and the group is exploring a variation on an esoteric Oriental technique called Microcosmic Orbit Meditation.

In the warmth of more conducive surroundings I can raise a tingle from my tummy by imagining I am breathing into it. Here in the mill though I’m getting nothing. It’s just too cold, and I can’t relax. Afterwards, discussion with my fellow adepts reveals I am not alone in this. Even our teacher is unable to claim success. There is also doubt about the precise nature of what it is we’re supposed to be doing.

Our knowledge of Qigong comes from similar sources: books, private practice, personal speculation and of course endless foraging among the online dross. We’re also drawn from a range of rational, technical professions, and we’re struggling to come up with a plausible psychological model for a technique that has for centuries been described in an arcane and very flowery language. On the plus side, I discover I am not such a beginner, that my knowledge is as comprehensive as my fellows’, if not my practice, but this does not alter the fact that none us really knows what we’re doing, and most of our combined knowledge is probably rubbish anyway. Oddly though, groups like this, scattered across the mills and church halls of England, are as good as it gets. This is not to demean such groups – indeed I would never trust a group incapable of doubt, nor a teacher who talks like he knows it all.

The drive home is sluggish with traffic, and there is a sluicing rain that overwhelms the wipers. I have plenty of time to ponder my doubts. Sure, I have always struggled to marry the esoteric language of Qigong with anatomical knowledge. Nor do I believe in “Qi” as a mystical universal energy. But without a rational explanation for the observed effects of Qigong practice I don’t see how there can be any way forward in bringing Qigong – especially the more esoteric forms like the Microcosmic – to a wider audience, let alone establishing any kind of regulation among teachers. And without that we will for ever be at the mercy of charlatans and poseurs.

In the course of a morning then the whole thing unravels and years of study, of practise, of speculation, goes back to square one. It goes back in fact to the dantien. You hear that word a lot in martial arts circles. They call it the centre of being, a powerhouse, a generator of Chi or energy, even a kind of reservoir that one can charge up for future use. It lies a couple of fingers widths below the navel, in the gut. But again most of what we read of the dantien is unsubstantiated nonsense. And yet,…

In Microcosmic Orbit meditation we begin with the dantien. Gentle breathing and focus upon this region in the lower abdomen does indeed give rise to powerful sensations – tingling, fluttering, vibration. What are they? What is their origin? With the effort of imagination one then leads these sensations through various sensitive connections up the spine, to the brain, then back down the chest to the dantien. The full circuit is a difficult thing to achieve, mentally. It requires a relaxed focus, but since the sensations aroused are entirely subjective it’s hard to say if one isn’t merely deluding oneself that something is happening when it isn’t.

Is the dantien real then, or imaginary? Well, recent medical discoveries tell us of a highly energetic nerve centre located in the region of the lower gut – a thing that might indeed be the source of sensation attributed to the dantien. This is the so called Enteric Brain, the centre of a nervous system with a very brain like nexus of neurons. Just as the brain in the head regulates the autonomic nervous system, so the Enteric brain seems to regulate its own processes in the gut. There is also an energetic connection between the two systems, an exchange of information that is not fully understood but appears rooted in the body’s digestive processes.

It’s logical then to work on the premise that it is the nervous activity of the enteric brain we’re feeling when we focus on the Dantien, that such focus may heighten its activity, stimulate it or at the very least relax it into a state where it might function properly. But this is as far as one can state with anything approaching certainty.

Progress in the martial arts – or at least in so far as they have been adapted as health systems in the west – is hard won against an ill wind of misdirection and utter tripe, especially in the popular literature. Sometimes the best we have to go on is that it seems to work, alleviating the symptoms of a variety of otherwise chronic conditions. The western scientist, however, can be scathing in his skepticism, throwing away the cure – not because it does not work, but because he cannot explain it. Thus anyone who tries to take these methods seriously carries also the mantle of being a bit “alternative”.

What brought me to Qigong was stress. Without it I would by now have been a Prozac junkie for the past twenty years. As it was I managed only a few weeks in that selective seratonin uptake inhibited twilight of a world before choosing the path of “alternative” quackery. The body is built to handle short periods of extreme stress. It can generate on demand huge quantities of energy, enabling us to fight or to flee. But the modern lifestyle puts us under stress all the time, while simultaneously denying us any escape. Eventually we forget how to return to a state of relaxed homeostasis, a state in which to carry out repair and recuperation. Mind-body techniques like Qigong are important in reminding the body what it feels like to be relaxed, and, once reminded, it seems capable of returning there of its own accord.

This alone makes lying on my back in a derelict mill in the middle of winter worth the effort, that and discussion with like-minded individuals. As for explaining the Microcosmic Orbit in rational terms, my instinct says the two brain theory is definitely a good starting point. By the time I reach home I realise my morning wasn’t wasted after all. Sometimes in order to find the answer, you have to be asking the right questions.

And two brains are clearly better than one.

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