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Another posterior vitriol detachment, this one in the right eye, leaves me with a horseshoe shaped floater in centre vision to match the one in the left eye which appeared after a retinal firework display, a few years ago. I can’t blame this latest one on weeks of close work under the kosh of earning a living, so I must simply put it down to age. I mention this only as a metaphorical illustration of how one’s view of life can change suddenly, after a shift in the mode of vision.

Meanwhile, the horseshoes dance across the white of the computer screen, disrupting the flow. They have me closing my eyes from time to time, taking refuge in darkness, and in thought. Reading books is also suddenly tiresome as they drift across the text, obscuring it and causing it to ripple. I can still walk around and drive without interference. It’s focusing close that renders their presence more brutishly real, and I like to focus. The fresh one will fade a little over time, and having one in each eye has me hoping I’m done exploring posterior vitriol detachments forever. Then again, old age never comes alone. I’m looking at the next twenty years, and hoping my travelling companion into senescence will not be blindness.

We are never just the one thing. This struck me while reading of Ouspensky’s encounter with the magician Gurdjieff, in a Moscow Café in 1915. Gurdjieff – as near as I can understand him – describes people as automatic machines, reacting to inputs, and that they are never the same person, even two days in a row. He has a point. Reading back over the Rivendale Review, I have lost count of the number of people I am, or have been. While being a distinctly human characteristic, apparently, this is not a good thing when it comes to blogging.

Blogging, I’ve read, is about setting yourself up as just the one thing, as an expert at that thing, then readers know what to expect from you, and where to come for ideas. I suppose I’m off to a bad start in that respect, then, never having considered myself knowledgeable about anything, at least not to the level of expertise. Indeed, I’ve always fought shy of it, the level of expertise being where the shouting starts, as other experts vie for eminence. No, I’m far too reticent a character to set myself up as an expert.

I have written about tinnitus, which was once a defining thing for me, and, though all of that is old material, now, it’s still a piece that’s read a lot. However, those readers hoping to find more up-to-date material on the topic, will discover I am no longer that person at all. Of late, I am a writer of mostly local adventures in the English countryside, with occasional thoughts about writing.

Writing what? Well,… fiction and ,… stuff.

I have been a writer on spiritual matters, and still am occasionally, but spiritual seekers don’t know what to make of me, as the Rivendale Review is too eclectic to tune in regularly and expect things of a similar theme on a regular basis. One week I might be blundering through Advaita Vedanta, or Zen, and the next I am scrambling down a hillside to photograph an orchid, or setting up a camera to capture an interesting sky, talking about aperture and shutter speed and focal length because I like technical things as well.

And photographers, encountering such talk, might bookmark me, only to find me writing about the demise of Hen Harriers in the Forest of Bowland next. And bird people intrigued by those avian interests will then discover me uttering dark curses over the price of fuel and butter, as if I can make a difference. I have opined on politics, but no longer have the steam to make a thing of it. Political pundit, then, I no longer am.

I have written about Chinese martial arts, about traditional Chinese medicine, and its western medical correlates, but anyone looking for my current thoughts on the subject will be confused to find I am no longer that man at all. I have explored that world, found much in it that was good, absorbed it, made peace with it, and moved on. So yes, I am pretty well aware of the shortcomings of the Rivendale Review as it glides ever so slowly into deeper levels of obscurity. However, I find I cannot let it go, or change it to more closely resemble what I’m told a blog should be. That would not be me. The Rivendale Review, should be, is, and always will be – obscure.

Gurdjieff was saying this mechanical trait in people is unconscious. We do not know who we are at any particular time, and his route to awakening was a process of stopping the flow, and remembering. That I am writing about Gurdjeff illustrates only another person in me, a man who is interested in the history of ideas, and certainly not one who is a reliable expert on Gurdjieff. Next week I will be writing about something else entirely, while hopefully remembering all these different people inhabiting my psyche are connected by a single thread, and that it is the binding thread that is the important thing.

The world is just so awesomely big. There are two ways we can deal with its daunting dimensions. We can focus down on one thing, and ignore the rest. Or we can follow the ideas of the world wherever they lead. I think the world of ideas was meant to be explored, the universe itself being one’s personal guide with its whispers and its serendipitous segues. That in itself is a kind of stopping and remembering, that while we are indeed many people, knowing that to be the case, doesn’t put us far from the wrong path. While we are none of us anybody in particular, and none of us are actually going anywhere, it does not mean we should ignore the call to journey wherever the mind takes us, and to enjoy the scenery along the way.

The Rivendale Review is just an old-fashioned blog about nothing in particular. And if it must offer anything, I suppose I would like to think that someone reading about the various eccentricities of this one obscure life, might grant permission for other obscure lives to embrace their own eccentricities, and their obscurity too. We have all of us been many people, even in the same lifetime, and none of them are who we really are. Who we are, is the thread that binds them.

Thanks for listening

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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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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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Hartsop old wayThe source of our creative energies is a mystery. All I know for sure is it’s not a physical thing. Provided we have sufficient strength at least to draw breath, stay awake and sit down at the work desk, it’s simply a question of opening the valve inside our heads for the creative steam to come gushing out with a vigour untempered even by age and infirmity.

But we can weaken it,…

I’m weakening it now by talking about it. It builds pressure over time and we can either nurture it, then let it out in a sustained, calculated burst and achieve something significant with it – a novel say, or a painting, or an epic poem, or we can be constantly leaking it off in short squeaks until there’s nothing left and we are reduced to a state of creative barrenness.

Bear in mind, once upon a time, words like these would have had no outlet beyond the private diary. In so keeping them within the bounds of a closed personal awareness, they would not deplete the source. Indeed quite the opposite, for maintaining an intimacy with one’s self is both to respect one’s self and also the daemonic forces within us. But now our heads are stuck inside this box and we’re venting words the hyperspatial vacuum, which does nothing but empty us of our creativity.

Listen, we can either do a thing, or we can explain to an imagined audience why we’re doing it – explain it through our blogs, our tweets, our Instagrams. But in explaining it, in chattering about it, and self justifying, we lose the point, the point being the thing itself, rather than the describing of it.

I have talked a lot about Tai Chi on this blog, why I do it, only lately to realise, actually, I don’t do it any more. Meditation – ditto. I talk about it, but I don’t do it. And if I’m talking about writing, I’m not writing. So I guess what I’m thinking about at the moment, what I’m exploring tonight, is the perennial problem of self-justification, of explaining ourselves to the imaginary “other”, when what we’re really doing is comforting our own egos.

We cannot help our insecurities. It’s human nature, this feeling some of us have of being pulled away from the tit too soon, and we assume the other person wasn’t. We assume the other person has no insecurities at all, that they are not the same lost child we feel ourselves to be when we close the door at night and face our selves, alone. Well guess what? They do. The problem then is one of self assurance, of reassurance that what we are is all right, that we need not explain ourselves, nor less try to impress others with how successful, interesting, cool, sexy or even just how extra-specially normal we are. To this end we wear a mask.

Everyone born has ample reason to simply be. It’s just that we aspire to be more than we are. More than what? Well, more than anyone else, perhaps – more cool, more insightful, more intelligent,… and just well,… more! This is what the mask conveys. But if we forget the mask, forget the usual external appearances, the difference between me and you is nothing much. We both arise from the same collective milieu of unconscious potential, like periscopes, each to pierce the surface of this, a somewhat denser and less yielding reality. Our uniqueness lies only in this individual perspective, our singular view of the world.

Knowing what that view is, is one thing, sharing it with others is only useful to point. We are all of us on a personal voyage of discovery, and it’s ultimately our own vision, our own private view that is the essential thing. It is the picture postcard we gift back to the consciousness from which we arise. It’s not important then to capture every thought we’ve ever had, to write it down and self publish it – just because we can do it now, doesn’t mean we should. The importance of the moment has already been captured by the inner eye.

It’s more important then we notice when the sun is shining, important we do not feel the need to take its picture all the time. It’s beautiful, yes, but there’s a limit to the intimacy with which the essence of such beauty can be shared, because beauty is a thing with our unique perception at the centre of it. The urge to share it is the writer’s bane of course, but one should always be mindful that in sharing anything, the essence is always lost, and no matter what our skill with words, no one can ever truly know or see the world the way we do.

So go easy on the media. Take a break from the Blog now and then, don’t feel the need to post on Instagram every day, and don’t you ever go tweeting to the world what you had for breakfast.

Save a little something for yourself. And keep it safe.

Think outside the box from time to time.

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renoir-nude

The unadorned body is something of a rarity these days. Even the male of the species is lately prone to the over-elaborate decoration of the birthday suit. We pierce our ears, pierce our noses, our nipples and even the ends of our willys. And secured within these self inflicted orifices we find an endless variety of  tribal metalwork: hoops, loops, barbs, bars and bells. Some of us progressively disfigure our ear-lobes too, with plastic bobbins. The sight of the latter makes me feel queasy, even more than the thought of a pierced willy, but I’m told it’s all the rage among certain hip males these days. And of course there is an entire industry devoted to the inking of one’s skin. Even undressed, male or female, few of us are truly nude any more.

Defacing, or enhancing? Edgy or just misguided? What are we trying to say with all this self labelling?

As for my own adornments, I restrict myself to just a watch and a wedding ring.  I am far too straight edged for a tat or a nose-stud.

citizen-and-banglesNow, to be honest I did try to wear some wrist bangles once – starting with a copper bracelet – common enough among men of a certain age, then a silver torq, and then a leather – well – bracelet. But after a while I saw this as a form of consumerism, nothing satisfying for very long – also, what with a chunky watch and everything, I must have been carrying two hundred and fifty grams on my wrist.

I also wore a necklace for a while – or at least a piece of silk chord on which I’d strung a couple of pendants – a pair of yin and yang, and a tree of life. I’d gone all mystical shaman, I suppose, but these weren’t really me either. What was I trying to say through these adornments, and to whom was I trying to say it? Was it to myself? But really I should have needed no reminder, unless actually, deep down I was trying to persuade my self of something.

tree of life and yin yangWe all develop fascinations, interests, identities, but we’re not static in our fancies. What we held dear ten years ago we are unlikely to be as enamoured of now. Like the man who has a girl’s name tattooed on his bottom, are we really, all of us, prepared for the implications of such an indelible commitment?

So yes, I’ve gone back to basics: watch and wedding ring. The bangles and beads are consigned to the drawer of experience. But I’m not entirely without affectation  – far from it – because in the mean time something weird has happened to the watch.

A man’s watch is never purely functional, it’s also a statement -like a tattoo, I suppose, but not as permanent. Modern watches are more noticeably narcissistic than they were forty years ago. Telling the time has become only a secondary function, since our telephones do the same job  nowadays. They are more a statement of the kind of man we think, or want others to believe, we are. So what kind of man are you? He-man, fashionista, cool dude, retro, or simply loaded. Me? I was tending towards the outdoor man, expressed through various incarnations of pseudo rugged adventure watch, the watch that would still tell the time at the bottom of the Marinas Trench. And I liked to be technical – lots of dials and buttons,… Look at me: I am a technical, outdoor man!

avia-peseusBut recently my watches have been getting smaller, lighter, simpler – what this says about me, I don’t know but it started with a fifty year old Smith’s Astral I’d undertaken to repair – somewhat recklessly as I’d only cursory knowledge and few tools. But a cautious clean up and re-lubrication did the trick. Also, significant for me, while testing the reliability of this venerable old ticker, I realised it felt good on the wrist: lightweight, small, and above all ticking.

It was the start of an obsession.

I now own several small, inexpensive pieces – gold plated, tending to plainness, and all of them at least forty years old. They arrive from Ebay, mostly still working, still telling the time reliably, accurately, even after having been stashed in a drawer since the advent of Quartz mechanisms. Others are doggedly unreliable even after stripping and cleaning and endless tinkering. These latter I consign to the bit-box of experience. Of the more successful purchases, I’ve noticed it is the Swiss movement that seems the more reliable, the more capable of longevity. In particular I’m favouring AVIA at the moment, an old British import brand with Swiss movements. I have several, including one from the very early sixties, which is my most treasured piece – costing all of fifteen pounds.

avia-olympicMy most recent addition is another AVIA, the Olympic, this one with a black dial, uncommon for the period, and gold markings. A new glass and strap and this is restored immediately to the status of an understated classic – very seventies, but without being too heavy on the funk. Again though: what am I doing here? Because with all adornments we are doing something, saying something. It’s like the psychology of advertising – what attracts us is not the stated function – it tells the time. What really attracts us is the life-style the device, or at least the “style” of it suggests. An old fashioned wind up dress watch is no more “authentic” in this regard than a grand’s worth of designer faux he-man bling. Both tell the time, but each tell also a different story, a different fiction about the wearer.

Am I rejecting the adventure vibe? If so I am embracing a more delicate oeuvre with tickers so leaky you have to take them off before you dare wash your hands. They’re not exactly what I’d want to trust on a mountain in a rain-storm, but I have another watch I can wear for that, and for a more authentic reason. Nor do I seem to need all those dials and clickers any more.

Perhaps with me it’s a hankering after a slower time. We all wore watches like this forty years ago, back when an hour was an ample measure of anything, and a minute’s error by the end of the week was no big deal, unlike now when even a year is the blink of an eye and we are convinced the second must be split in order to cram in everything our Outlook scheduler tells us we need to accomplish by the end of the day. It’s an age thing perhaps. I see the falseness and I call it out. But even this is just a story, and a self crafted one at that – like the salty Sam tattoo, or a ring through the end of your willy.

What am I trying to say?

I have mined this metaphor before. I have observed myself during the scroll of Ebay’s listings, and find the pieces that attract me most are of a period that marks my own beginning. Each new piece acquired is possibly then an attempt at the restoration of an earlier part of myself, a quest for the youth I once was. Or then again perhaps I’m trying to keep myself ticking, trying to associate myself with something that has endured long beyond expectation, in the hope that I shall too. Or like all collecting, is it about not wanting what we’ve got, and instead hankering after that one thing we lack, and which we imagine will complete us? But alas, that thing does not exist.

jldIf we would truly restore our selves to our selves, I’ve a feeling we should be easier in our skins, unmarked and unadorned, and thus more profoundly nude than we seem comfortable being these days. But who among us has the courage to do that?

Here I am we say: we are no more than this, and the rest is just for fancy.

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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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