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Posts Tagged ‘meditation’

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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great wave croppedI lost an evening writing because my laptop, which runs on Windows 10, decided to update itself. I’ve tried various ways of stopping it from doing this, but it’s smarter than me and it will have its updates when it wants them, whether I like it or not, even at the cost of periodically throttling my machine and rendering it useless. Then I have to spend another evening undoing the update.

I don’t suppose it matters – not in the great scheme of things, anyway. I mean it’s not like I’m up against any publisher’s deadlines or anything. I feel it more as an intrusion by an alien intelligence, adding another non-productive task to the list of other non-productive tasks of which my life largely consists these days.

No, in the great scheme of things it doesn’t matter if I write, or what I write, or how I write, because there’s this aphorism that says something to the effect that in spite of how we feel, virtually all the time, things can never be more perfect than they are right now, that attaining this glorious state of being is simply matter of removing the scales from our eyes, of seeing and feeling the world differently. From that perspective, blogging’s just a big box I dump my spleen into now and then and my novels, what I once thought of as my reason for being – struggles for plausibility, for meaning, authentically channelling the muse, desperately seeking the right ending and all that – I mean,… really, who cares? It’s just some stuff I made up.

As you can tell, I’m feeling very Zen at the moment. Either that or depressed. The difference between Zen and depression? Depression is to be oppressed by emptiness. Zen is to embrace it. It’s to do with the same existential conundrum, I think, just opposite ends of the scale.

The writing life is one of negotiating distraction. You hold the intention to write at the back of your mind while being diverted by all these other activities – making a meal, washing it up, You-tube, Instagram, mowing the grass, cleaning your shoes, scraping the squished remains of that chocolate bar from your car seat,…

Such tasks are not unavoidable. You could simply ignore them, flagellate yourself, force yourself to sit down and write, but sometimes if you’re too disciplined, you find the words won’t come anyway because the muse is slighted, or out to lunch or something. So you fiddle about, you meander your way around your distractions, all the while building pressure to get something out, to sit down when you find a bit of space and peace, usually late in the day when you’ve already promised yourself an early night, and you’re too tired to do anything about it anyway. And then you find Windows 10 is in the process of updating itself.

Damn!

So what is it with this technology anyway? Does a writer really need it to such an extent? I mean, computers seem to be assuming a sense of self importance way beyond their utility. I suppose I could go back to longhand, like when I was a schoolboy, pre-computer days, or for £20 I could go back to Bygone Times and pick up that old Silver Reed clatter bucket and eat trees with it again – do they still sell Tippex? Neither of these options appeal though, being far too retrograde. No, sadly, a writer needs a computer now, especially a writer like me who relies upon it as a portal to the online market – “market” being perhaps not the best choice of the word, implying as it does a place to sell goods when I don’t actually sell anything. What do you call a market where you give your stuff away? Answers on an e-postcard please. But really, it doesn’t matter, because remember: nothing could ever be more perfect than it is right now.

Except,… everything is weird. Have you noticed? America’s gone mad, and we Brits, finally wetting our pants with xenophobia, have sawn off the branch we’ve been sitting on for forty years, gone crashing down into the unknown. And if this is the best we can come up with after all our theorising and thinking, and our damned Windows 10 with its constant updates, it’s time we wiped the slate clean and started afresh with our ABC’s, and a better heart and a clearer head.

I don’t know,… if I actually I knew anything about Zen, it would be a good time to retreat into monkish seclusion, compose impenetrable Haiku, scratch the lines on pebbles with a rusty nail and toss them into the sea. We’ve had ten thousand years of the wisdom of sages and the world’s getting dumber by the day. How does that happen?

Not to be discouraged, I bought a copy of Windows XP for a fiver off Ebay. It’s as obsolete as you can get these days while remaining useful. Indeed, it’s still probably controlling all the world’s nuclear power stations – except for those still relying on DOS – so I should manage okay with it. I have it on an old laptop, permanently isolated from the Internet, so the bad guys can’t hack it, and it can’t update itself. It responds like greased lightning. Okay, I know I still need Windows 10 to actually publish stuff, but at least I have a machine I can rely on for the basics of just writing now.

But did I ever tell you I don’t like writing about writing? Well, here I am doing it again aren’t I? But have you noticed, if you search WordPress for “writers”, or “writing”, that’s what tends to pop up, all of us writers writing about writing, when what I really want to read is their actual stuff, what they think about – you know, things, what the world looks like from their part of, well, the world, and through their eyes and their idiosyncrasies, and all that, which is what I thought writers were supposed to do. Or maybe that’s it these days and, like Windows 10 we’ve been updated beyond the point to which we make sense any more, become instead a massive circular reference in the spreadsheet of life, destined soon to disappear up our own posteriors.

Okay, we’ve tripped the thousand word warning now, when five hundred is considered a long piece these days – just enough to sound quirky and cool, while saying nothing at all.

Brevity, Michael! No one likes a smart-arse,… especially a long winded one.

Graeme out.

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philosophersWhat do we really know for sure? When it comes to defining the nature of reality there’s actually very little we can be sure of at all. I can even view my surroundings right now, and my presence in them as a dream, indeed I might as well for it’s impossible to prove things are otherwise. Even when I suffer I might be dreaming my suffering, and in the presence of others, I might be dreaming their presence. And the facts of the world, the laws by which it is governed may simply be the facts as I have invented them in the dream of the world, from the rising and the setting of the sun, to the swirl of atoms. As for the laws of physics not yet discovered, perhaps I merely invent them as I go along.

We learn from dreaming how malleable facts can be. The preposterous becomes true, not merely because we allow ourselves to believe it is so, but because the entire dream paradigm endorses it as such and so it becomes, at least within the bounding conditions of the dream, a verifiable fact. Often I will dream I have dreamed a dream before and only on waking realise the deceit, that I have not dreamed it before, that it was only a fact of the dream and only upon attaining an external perspective, by waking, do I realise the dream’s false nature.

Similarly in order to realise our false perceptions of the waking world, we must gain an external perspective, for only then might we know it for the illusion it either is, or is not. You might think this is impossible, that we are too firmly embedded in life in order to see our life in the third person. However, by a process of contemplation we can loosen our grip and achieve a somewhat abstract focus upon the world, sufficient to realise the only thing we can be certain of is the fact of our consciousness.

We are conscious.

There,… it’s a start.

And having realised it, there is a stage further we can go, already implied by the realisation, and this involves the realisation we are conscious of our consciousness, that we are self aware, and self reflective, and then it is only one more step to the realisation we can observe our thoughts as we think them, that we can become aware of ourselves thinking, that we are not in fact our thoughts, that another presence altogether is responsible for that sense of self awareness.

And this is who we really are.

This is a pivotal realisation for a human being, one that marks a separation of the true self, this sense of self awareness, from the thinking or the false self.

That we are not our thoughts.

Thinking does not reveal the underlying truth of anything. On those occasions when the mind approaches an axiomatic truth, it is noted how sophistication falls away, that insight is achieved
more by observation without judgement, and in stillness. In such moments truth is revealed as plain as a key, and truth is what lies behind the door it spontaneously unlocks, and is felt in the feeling tones of the experience.

In this way we come to realise there can be more truth in the fall of light upon a pebble than in the liturgy of all religions, and in the whole of poetry; it depends how you view it and where your heart is at the time. At all other times it’s just a pebble. Purple prose will not convey its essence, for the longer a name and the more adjectives and metaphor we deploy in its description, the less resemblance it bears to any truth we might have felt. Nor does the truth bear with it any sense of urgency. It does not hurry us along to some imagined goal. It does not speak of time running out. It does not measure or judge, but possess instead a spaciousness and a love in which to rest, unquestioning in the peacefulness of true insight.

Anything else is just the noise of the world.

So, what do we know for sure? Not much. But then we don’t need to know much to be certain of the single most important thing in the world. Indeed for that we don’t need to know anything at all.

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girl meditatingIt’s with a mixture of surprise and confusion I note the term Mindfulness cropping up in the Corporate literature these days. This is rather like coming across Mary Poppins in a brothel. Originally an ancient meditative technique for releasing the mind from self destructive thinking, Mindfulness saw eventual escape into the so called new age, then a growing acceptance among mental health professionals as a way of easing stress and anxiety. But more latterly, the scientific management gurus have been hyping it as a way of rendering employees more efficient – though I’m not sure how this is supposed to work. Indeed the term Corporate Mindfulness is something of an oxymoron, each term neatly cancelling out the other.

Mindfulness, it seems, has become a highly marketable brand to the extent that even I am becoming sick of the word. Now, after your fourteen hour day of spreadsheet gazing, video-conferencing, and boardroom jousting, you can drive your showy, rented, BMW to the gym, display your expensively honed, Lycra clad body to your fellow narcissists, then drive to your mindfulness class and show off your expensively reconstructed mind. Then, come work-a-day morn, refreshed, pecks and abs hard as iron beneath your clean white shirt, mind simmering, cat-like in its predatory stillness, you become the master of all you survey, a steely eyed corporate warrior!

I wonder if we’re in danger of losing our way here. Perhaps we need to call it something else? Or perhaps it’s just that I feel myself slipping out of the world, no longer enamoured of its constructs, nor trusting of its players, that when I see Mindfulness advertised in corporate magazines, I am instinctively uneasy.

The dilemma for the corporate world is that the practice of Mindfulness will inevitably reveal the corporate world itself to be insane, indeed so sick it infects us all, has us eating each other, like a mad dog chewing at its own paws. So the idea of practising mindfulness, all the better to rape the earth and further dispossess the poor of their already meagre incomes seems the ultimate irony.

Do we even know what mindfulness is?

It’s mediation, right?

When I began to meditate it was because I had difficulty fitting in with the world. Meditation was an attempt to stop thinking, to plug the channel from which there issued an endless stream of debilitating and largely self critical thought. But you cannot stop thinking by thinking about it, nor less by hiding from one’s thoughts, nor combating them by the force of other thoughts. You need to give the mind something else to do.

Hanging it on the breath is a better approach. Listening to the breath, feeling the breath, experiencing the breath with every fibre of one’s being eventually renders thought as an observable phenomenon and from here it is but a small step to the realisation we are not our thoughts, that there is an awareness beyond our thoughts, a silent watcher that is not in itself a thought, and finally the realisation this silent watcher is actually who we really are. Carrying an awareness of this awareness, as we go about our lives, living with sufficient space in our heads for this awareness to be, is the essence of mindful living.

This is where the way becomes strange. We imagine that without our thoughts, our memories, our hopes, our dreams, we could not be said to exist at all, that without them we would have no personality, no sense of self. But this is the illusion of thinking. It is why we are vulnerable to our thoughts and so often fall into the trap of trying to think our way out of our worries, into a better, happier, more peaceful way of living. We can’t. The self constructed sense of self is an illusion, and actually the source of all our problems. The more we try to build this illusion up, the flimsier and more troublesome it becomes.

Similarly the corporate world is something we have merely thought up. It is not how the world really is. Mindfulness therefore does not prepare us for lives as a corporate raiders. Indeed quite the opposite. It should make us wish there was another way to live, another way to earn money and provide for our families, even if there isn’t. Beware then – mindfulness will seriously hamper your prospects for promotion, because it makes you all the more mindful of what it is you are doing. This is the point of departure then, where the meditative tradition reveals the unsuspected nature of the world.

The world as we have thought it is an illusion and it’s only by recognising our true nature do we perceive the world as it really is, how stunningly beautiful and alive. It is at the root of mindfulness we therefore find the ethics of life itself, at the root of mindfulness we discover peace, free from the imagined monsters of the past and the present.

Where mindfulness fits in to the structure of the man-constructed thought up world illusion I don’t know, since whichever power base we examine – be it political or corporate, I see no ethical dimension to it at all. It is a machine, not a mind, so there is a fundamental incompatibility of terminology here, and I conclude the corporate world has either changed the practice of mindfulness beyond all recognition into something faddish and useless, or nullified it by presenting it merely as a brand to be marketed and sold at a profit. Either way this is not the mindfulness I know.

Beware then where you buy your mindfulness from.

Mindfulness is free.

You don’t even have to think about it.

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hubberholme churchReligion is a big thing in human affairs. Unfortunately much of what we hear about it in the media dwells upon the negative – the violent, the bigoted and the perverse. Religion indeed, for all but those who practice it, can seem uncompromisingly repulsive, and at times a very dangerous thing indeed.

My own repulsion from village church going as a child was more on account of bum-aching boredom and a failure of religious language to connect with the affinity children have for the magical dimension. Any potential I might have had for awakening to the more traditional forms of religious expression was blunted, and though I remain sympathetic to its aims, I remain also, at least thus, far immune to evangelism. What I see of religion then will always be from the perspective of an external observer, and the first thing one notices from the outside looking in is that there is a clear dichotomy between matters of spirit and religion.

Those who break with religion scatter into a number of camps. There are those who rail against it aggressively for the rest of their lives, while others don’t think much about it at all, residing contentedly instead in the rational ephemera of the material world. Others set out to roundly disprove the claims of the religious life, only to conclude from their deeper studies on the matter there’s perhaps something in it after all. Thus they are drawn back, supercharged, into the fold, often to number amongst religion’s stoutest champions.

And there are others who spin off into the eclectic and mystical avenues of the so called New Age. This is a potentially dangerous field of study, but there is ground to be made from it. Of course the term “New Age” is a misleading one. We might think it started in the Sixties, with flower-power, LSD and fornicating hippies and all that, but its origins and its underlying philosophies go back much further, to the encounters of western minds with eastern thought in the nineteenth century, also further still to the European Romantic movement, and further, along the trail to where our written accounts peter out on the edge of the impenetrable, into folk religion, into paganism and myth.

The “New Age” is often dismissed as a childish aberration, invention of decadent, spoiled westerners, purloining from the world’s faith traditions the things they like, while ignoring the things they don’t. This may be so, but in its defence I would add what the New Age seeks above all is connection, it seeks the metaphors, the symbols that would translate the words of all spiritual traditions into a single, inclusive and coherent story of life.

MinotaurusBut is such a thing possible? It might seem unlikely with so many stories now purporting to be the word of God, but the work does enable us to pare away the obfuscating trimmings of culture and power politics, to reveal the underlying spiritual ideas. And religions, when mined deep this way, do reveal themselves as essentially the same at root, no matter how different in the flowering of their liturgies – at least if interpreted with a broadly sympathetic and impartial mind. And from such analysis comes a thread, like the thread of Theseus, laid to lead him safe from the labyrinth of the beast man. This thread is the Perennial philosophy, written of with such eloquence by Huxley, a philosophy first taught to us at the knees of Thoth in the days of ancient Egypt, and an enduring idea in the philosophies of the east throughout history.

But while all these things might seek to explain the world, and with diligence we might uncover them and learn them and quote their tenets by rote, the one thing they possess that is exactly the same in each case, is that the philosophy, the thought, the state of mind, the belief, if you will, must be lived for it to mean anything.

Belief is a difficult and a dangerous word. We must have a reason to believe that goes beyond fear – fear that if we do not say we believe, we will be punished until we say we do; fear that if we do not say we believe, we will be ostracised, that we will not be accepted into the group, that we will be stoned to death, our heads cut off, our living bodies set on fire. True belief is about seeing, it is about feeling, it is about an innate knowing.

Belief, in its broadest terms, is an inner knowledge that while the Cosmos will remain for ever pretty much a mystery to us, it is not indifferent to our lives, and it is benign. It is at least well meaning in the general thrust of its direction. Also there are ways we as individuals can make representations to it, and in return receive wisdom, guidance and comfort, like a lamp in the darkness. If we can accept such a thing, if we can go with the flow of it, then we align ourselves with the Cosmic will  and are rewarded with a sense of peace that is rooted in the soul.

This means living a life in one sense always at least partially through the eyes of the Cosmos and measuring our actions accordingly. It makes a difference to the feel of life, to live that way, but it is not essential to life, and even once found and enjoyed, it is easy also to fall away from it, if not exactly to lose faith, but to forget its power to heal in times of personal crisis. The science fiction writer PK Dick was once asked if he could define the nature of reality, and he replied that reality is simply the bit that’s left when you stop believing in it. Stop believing in the spiritual dimension, the physical life, reality, goes on pretty much the same. So who cares?

durleston wood cover smallBut the spiritual life does add immeasurably to the nature of reality, to the way it is seen and felt and experienced.  In my story “Durleston Wood” the protagonist is an agnostic teacher working at a Church School, and to maintain appearances he attends church every Sunday. If all it takes to be a Christian is an hour a week, he tells us, then even he can do it. But our hero has a secret, is cohabiting in the depths of Durleston wood with a dark skinned girl called Lillian, a thing that would upset his largely irreligious, bigoted, and racist fellow church goers. Religion has done little to educate them in the ways of spirit, or even basic decency towards others. But then as Lillian says, the religious life is easy, it is spiritual matters that are much more difficult.

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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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aylesburyI took the conveyor of the living dead, the M6, south, picked it up from the East Lancs road, let it carry me down to the M5 intersection, a run of about ninety miles. It took three hours, an hour longer than it took in 1985. Goods wagons formed a fairly solid convoy, swelling both the inner and the middle lanes, all the way. Only a fast car in the outside lane, and a driver with no imagination could have reduced the journey time, but only then by a smidgen and it did not seem worth it to me.

Road works and the sheer heaviness of traffic joining at various junctions slows progress to a clutch-foot killing stop-start. The last ten miles to the M5 were like that. It’s always like that now, seems a little worse each time.

Things picked up from the M5, finally managing a decent cruise speed on adequate roads – the M42, and the M40 to Bicester. Then it was the arrow straight line of the old A41 to Aylesbury for the night – all told, another hundred miles, which, by contrast with the conveyor of the living dead, took just a couple of hours. I conclude the North is being crushed under a weight of rubber, and heavy goods in transit.

I was driving a hired car, one of those suddenly controversial Volkswagens, an iced white 2.0 L diesel Passat. Its generous proportions kept me sane in heavy traffic, and it went like a rocket on those finally open stretches of the M40. I set the Satnav to ping me if we went over 70, and 70 felt as sedate as 30. It is a beautiful machine, state of the art in automotive design, responded to the pedal with an assertive rush and a growl of the turbo, yet barely consumed a quarter of a tank of fuel.

Still, I do not envy the company rep who drives these sorts of distances every day, though I suppose one must get used to them. I am certainly less fatigued by a six hour drive now than when I was young – although I remember journeys like this taking much less time twenty years ago. My average speed was 38. It used to be 45.

council offices aylesburyI saw little of Aylesbury, rolled in at rush hour and with the sun just setting. The civic building, the so called Frank’s Fort rose, an ambitious 200 feet, an early 60’s dour grey monolith, illumined by its multitudinous windows. The last rays of the sun picked out the glass and lent it a fantastical appearance, dominating the town in the gathering dusk.

Although this was my first visit to the town, I’d already driven in the day before, in virtual mode at least, looking for the hotel on Google’s marvellous Streetview thing-a-ma-bob. It lent an eerie sense of deja vu, seeing those junctions, the roundabouts and the skyline once more, when I drove in for real. I found the turning for the hotel with the combined help of Google’s preview andmy “CoPilate’s” Satnav precision, and there I pulled in safe at last to rest. I remember we used to manage such navigational dead reckoning with nothing more than a sketch map and a bit of common sense. I wouldn’t like to try that now. Is the world more complicated, or am I just older and slower?

The hotel was new, parking on the roof. Steel-lined elevators took me down to the newly refurbished waterfront of the Grand Union Canal, all clean lines and crapless. Barges gurgled in anachronistic contentment at their moorings, looking out across a wide paved piazza, to the clean white edifice of new office blocks – citadel of the homogeneous modern workplace, potential of a thousand souls sitting behind computer screens in open plan.

The hotel was quiet and comfortable. I did not venture out, but ate in the  somewhat Spartan cafe. I was one of perhaps twenty diners that evening, and the only one not peering at a hand-held screen, because I’d left mine in the room and felt conspicuous without it now, as if sitting there without trousers. The wall mounted TV was tuned to Heart radio which jarred somewhat. I counted only two staff. My meal was an hour in coming, industrially bland but adequate. They did their best, were smiling, friendly, outnumbered.

Corporate efficiencies are often times impressive in their attentions to the removal of detail. The bathrooms no longer furnish little blocks of soap. Besides the cost of them, there’s the time penalty in servicing the room. Much more efficient is the foam dispenser, but as a guest I do not like to wash my face with it. Instead, I subvert the system by foreknowledge, and bring my own soap.

The room rocks, vibrates to the beat of my heart. In fact it is my heart, a slow pulse that travels the length of my body. Fatigue of the road, I suppose. I write a little. Update the journal, run through another draft of the Sea View Cafe, in so far as I have it down to date. Fin and Min are becoming much loved companions now. Then I channel-zap the wall mounted television. Entertainment ranges from the banal to the grotesque. I find little to linger upon except a curious episode of Stargate Atlantis.

This holds my attention for a while, partly because I realise it has a female lead at the upper end of what Hollywood would consider a permissibly attractive age. Any older and it might become confusing for the audience. Women any older than this struggle to find parts in movie drama unless they are playing the stereotypically annoying old person/grandmother, and certainly not as a potentially romanceable lead. It is as if the writers of visual fiction consider a woman to lose her power when she is no longer capable of Galatean transformation.

I was never a Stargate Atlantis fan, but like much of TV drama aired any time between now and 1975, I have probably seen it before, soaked it all in to the subliminal zone from where a passive suggestibility arises. Sci-Fi, Kitchen Sink, Police drama, Soapy Suds – all are interchangeable, each derived from the other in an incestuous orgy of diminishing returns.

When I think of my own stories I am as guilty of this as anyone, my unconscious suggestibility raising the age of romantic leads as I have aged myself until, I note, I broke the half century, when I time-locked the male at 45, and the female at around 38, thus exposing my own inadequacy and prejudice at the same time. I apologise to women who are older, plead only that it may be I am considering myself no longer substantially active in this way, that I must rely on imagination and memory from here on in.

By lunch time the following day I am on the M5 again, approaching Birmingham, heading north. Home by tea time – another two hundred miles of nose to tail, a round trip of four hundred miles.

Eleven hours in a car.

It is a strange meditation to be on the road for so long. One cannot switch off, obviously, since driverless cars are as yet only a promise of the near future, but neither can we allow ourselves to become coiled tight in readiness for a collision or we would not last an hour on the roads as they are now. Relaxed focus is the key. The company rep must have it in oodles. My mind wanders, thinks, channel zaps strange things.

I wonder if I have thought them all before.

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