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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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I watched “Fight Club” recently, at the recommendation of number two son. It’s a film I’ve avoided for years because, as a strictly non-macho kind of guy, I didn’t think I’d be able to make any connection with it. I was wrong though, and I enjoyed it very much. The premise of the film is that we’re sleepwalking, being fed a junk diet of consumerist crap, that we’re slaves of a deliberately engineered paradigm of debt, and victims of a society that systematically humiliates each and every one of us. For the male of the species this is like being castrated. It damages us, psychologically, turns us into neutered Toms, into lazy, purposeless zombies, our only respite being dangerous opiates like drink, drugs or mindless sedatives like TV soaps.

Fight Club however, restores a man to his essential being by providing a forum where men can simply go and beat the stuffings out of each other. Paradoxically in doing so, according to the story, you regain your self respect, and also respect (where respect is due) for your fellow men. It also opens your eyes to those places, situations and characters where respect is not due, and where your outspoken contempt is morally, if not always legally, justified. The message of the film is thus highly subversive. It was made in 1999, but if anything its message is even more relevant today.

I can’t boast much in the way of testosterone, perhaps even less now than I had in 1999, but I wondered if the film really did have something significant to say about the emasculation of men in the modern age, and what the suppression of our natural energies can do to us in the longer term. I also wondered if we weren’t all a little more grown up than the film suggested, that we men had moved on, embraced our feminine sides and rejected our Martian cave-man roots. It’s a question that was partly answered for me today, by virtue of the fact that last night, incredibly, I managed to get myself into a fight of my own and, though I can hardly say I came off the best, this morning I was feeling rather good about it.

Let me explain.

I’ve been learning Kung Fu for a little over a year. Now, an hour a week’s not going to turn me into the next Bruce Lee, especially at my age, but I’m okay with that. It’s not everyone’s idea of fun, but I enjoy it, and it gets me out of the house. At the club I attend, we do a bit of soft sparring – all pretty tame, slow motion stuff to demonstrate the basic principles. We have a laugh and a joke, also a damned good sweat, and rule number one of our little fight club is nobody ever gets hurt.

Enter Jack. (not his real name)

Jack is an eastern European émigré and recent recruit. He’s short, powerfully built and I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy, but we’re all scared poopless of him because he doesn’t seem able to follow basic instructions, and he doesn’t know how to spar gently. Nor does he understand key language concepts like “go easy Jack”, “Okay, you win” or just plain old: “Stop!”

He only knows how to fight.

By contrast I suspect he thinks by now we English fight like a bunch of cissy-girls, that is if our little Kung Fu club is anything to go by. Hopefully he’ll move on soon to find some bigger, rougher boys to play with, perhaps down on Liverpool docks, or teasing the bouncers in Manchester on a Saturday night.

We’re not supposed to be fighting, Jack. We’re only playing, all right?

Pairing up for sparring these days is like watching a game of musical chairs – everyone trying to avoid Jack. Okay, I suspect you already know where this is going.

After an unexpected mid-sparring reshuffle last night, I found myself making the covered fist gesture to Jack. We were about to play a game called tee-shirt tag. You try to “tag” your partner on his upper body with the flat of your hand. He tries to block you and vice versa. Bear in mind we’re not youngsters here – we’re mostly middle aged guys with saggy bellies and creaky bones, and we take our mature conditions into account, never taking things too seriously, or too far. There are no egos here. This is Kung Fu. Not Karate.

However, there are no half measures with Jack.

I knew this was going to end badly when I spied the guy he’d partnered previously. He’d ducked out and was  by now looking on from the sidelines, seemingly a little worse for wear. I swallowed hard but otherwise didn’t have much time to consider my fate because Jack was already coming at me like Rocky Balboa. He obviously doesn’t understand the word “tee-shirt” either, otherwise how come I was suddenly having fists landed on my face?

What the!….

“For @&*$ sake Jack, go easy, mate.”

Jack grins back – something evil in that grin, I’m thinking. I can see him in a grungy bar with a broken bottle in one hand and a chair leg in the other. Anyway, I land a palm on his shoulder, you know – tag his tee-shirt with a quick, playful slap, and he looks at me with an expression as if to say: “Yea, like that hurt.”

“But this is what we’re supposed to be doing Jack. Come on, play the game, man!”

But then he’s coming at me like Rocky again, or like Popeye on steroids, and I’ve just ravished his Olive Oil. I manage to keep his fists off me this time, which I’m quite proud of, but he’s such a bulldozer, I run out space and he has me pinned up against the wall.

He blinks and I manage to land a cheeky tag on on his side. I’m fast, and quite pleased by this, but even though I suspect the dear man believes he’s pulling his punches, I’m thinking by now he’s got a screw loose, and I’m in danger of a black eye, or busted specs, and that the good lady Graeme won’t let me out to play again if I come home with blood on my shirt from a broken nose or a fat lip. I’m also, let’s face it, a breathless beginner trying to defend myself against a powerful opponent who really knows how to fight. I decide the guy needs to be shown this isn’t how we do things. So, when he’s coming at me again, I hold my hand out and lower myself like a cissy on one knee, eyes down in total disengagement, but bugger me if he doesn’t take the opportunity to land several more “playful” punches around my ears.

So much for unilateral disarmament!

“Tee shirt, Jack. Remember? TEE SHIRT! Play the game,  old man.”

The instructor calls time. Everyone peels away, gasping for breath and looking for a swig of water. I’m unable to hold my hands steady enough to drink just yet and end up dribbling it all down my front where it disappears into the pool of sweat on my chest. (Bruce Lee, forgive me). When I’ve gathered my wits, I seek Jack out, press him lightly on the shoulder to get his attention. I’m still in bit of a daze . “You meant that, Jack,” I tell him, finger raised in polite warning, trying to convey the impression that he wasn’t supposed to pretend to mean it quite so realistically. I sense the subtlety is lost on him. He replies with a goofy grin and he mutters something back in his mother tongue. He could be calling me a big girl’s blouse for all I know, but I’m sure he’s not. He’s laughing – good naturedly – at least I think he is.

And me? I don’t know.

I’ve meditated for years, thinking the discipline of it would sharpen my mind, but as those years have passed, my mind feels more and more like mush. For a moment last night though, I was as focussed as I’ve ever been in my life, because there’s nothing like avoiding a fist in the face for sharpening you up, and dispelling all useless distractions. There’s just you and him and nothing but skill and focus in deciding whose blood will be on the floor – and all right this time it was mine, though not literally, thank God.

I’ve had more energy today, more than I’ve had all year, in fact, and I’ve found myself dealing with people I normally avoid, dealing with them confidently, even assertively – which isn’t like me at all. Thinking back, Jack didn’t actually hurt me last night, but he definitely took my breath away, and I need to be more careful in avoiding  him next week – but I’m tempted to say,…. I’m not sure I want to.

I think that movie really has something.

Graeme out

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