Nitsan sent me this painting by a student of his called Boris Kravits. I find it very perceptive. Ward-off (rounded shoulders, hollow chest) gives the feeling of a shell or scab of energy on the upper back. This shell is an avenue to higher aspects of connectedness. The tail digs down into the ground and your ancestry. The feet splay, the head cranes, the eyes flare and the face and heart smile. Even the patterning on the shell, its rim, the seeming hole in the centre and the fact that it looks like a shield, all resonate.


This is the fundamental quality we all need to develop. It is the basic thrust that gives your life meaning, beyond yourself. It simply means putting giving above and beyond anything else, especially receiving. It is this that Hugo and Pip and Roberto possess, and it is this that gives them the magical quality of having joined with each and every situation in such a way that they have prior knowledge. This is the real meaning of forget self and become one with the Tao. It is the opposite of the measured and careful approach. People who have it have learnt at some point in their life that the only way forward is to give unconditionally from the heart to each and every moment as it unfolds. (The feast is forwards.) They have then put that principle into practice long enough for it to have become internal - for it to have seeped into their soul. It has then become part of them - they do it all the time with their energy regardless of how they feel. These are the magical beings, super human if you like, truly soft. I learnt quite early in life that if I studied hard then the subject of study became really interesting and engrossing and infectious at which point study no longer became a bind - when I gave whole-heartedly to the study then it gave back enormously and I achieved academic accolades in abundance. However, I didn't have the humanity to realise that I had discovered a principle that could and should be applied to everything in life, not just bookish study. It did though bring me to Tai Chi and my teacher who introduced me to the concept of principle ("If something works then do it all the time") and in particular to the principle of unconditionality: shaking your energy loose and casting it carelessly and willingly into whatever it is that you're doing. This is what you (should) do each time you practice your Tai Chi, and the more regular and frequent your practice the better you become at it. At this point the student begins to glow with the energy of Tai Chi - the bloom of health - and they feel empowered. This is a crucial point. If they have it in them then the teacher will help them direct this energy into deeper and more difficult aspects of the work, to do with eradicating self and establishing raw and tender connectivity as the constant of life instead. If not then these students go on their way, often using their new found energy and insights to positively change their lives in astonishing ways. Those that stick at the Tai Chi are in for a difficult time. The next 10 years or so will feel like laboriously and painfully digging a deep hole in which to eventually bury themselves. However, they are in fact sinking a well down to the source of it all, which when tapped floods their life with light and meaning. This is the point at which they have become forever unconditional: they have become the source, and their energy is no longer limited in any way. If this energy is used to feed the source rather than dissipate into worldy affairs then these students become truly divine. If this isn't enlightenment then I don't know what is.

On Samoa Peninsula

– left edge
a gray sliver
where the jetty

propped up
by a stiff tuft
of beach grass.

You awake
within the poem.

Joseph Massey


T T Liang

It is well known that when a Chinese teacher praises you they are generally being somewhat dismissive and sarcastic and when they are firm and scolding it is because they really care for you. T T Liang was the perfect example. JK told me of one occasion when a proud student picked up some posture quickly, "Ah, you genius!", said Liang enthusiastically. He then turned aside and muttered, "Learn quick, forget quick."

A Rant

Kevin Grey quizzed me further about chi kung yesterday (he's studying it as part of a course in TCM). This is my reply, for what it's worth. Like he said in his response to me: "Can't say I fully understand everything you say, but the challenging stuff is part of the attraction." I'm pleased to find a fellow soul who values challenge above understanding.

As you've picked up I have little sympathy for Chi Kung. I also have little sympathy for Tai Chi, the way it is generally taught and presented anyway. You only need to plug Tai Chi into Google Images and see all the shite out there to realise it doesn't amount to much. I sincerely and strongly believe they miss the point. The point is to forget self and become one with the Tao: to become a person better able to connect with other energies. To become a better person. Our researches have revealed, firstly, that connecting energy comes from the heart - or rather, is heart. It is not chi. Chi can connect but only by invading (making an effort), not by becoming - it isn't naturally connected or connecting. (This is why we value softness so highly.) Secondly the only rule is to always go forwards. The feast is forwards as JK so beautifully put it. All those Chinese terms like adhering, sticking, joining, are there to confuse the issue. The fact is that there is you and there is the other and you either get it right or you don't. Getting it right does not depend on technique, it depends on heart. A complete beginner can do it immediately if they are encouraged to do so. Years of Tai Chi or Chi Kung or any other training often simply gets in the way. Worse than a beginner. This is what I mean by spirit cutting thru everything: when the spirit is up you can achieve miracles.

The Chinese and Western approaches are very similar: thru concerted effort and study to develop and accumulate in the hope that it will all lead to a place of enlightenment and natural connexion. Unfortunately this rarely happens. John says he's met so many martial artists who have spent their life accumulating strength and energy only to eventually realise that it is all in fact a hindrance to real progress which is always spiritual. Think of Dr Chi who gave up Tai Chi as a bad job and devoted his day and energy to Jesus. Jesus had saved his life, had given him life, once the Tai Chi had brought him to the brink of death. He later revived it all but only to earn a living.

Stuff like Chi Kung or Tai Chi, which involve daily repetition of the same thing, is inevitably going to create a shell around you. The name of our game is an almost unbearable rawness that comes from daily entering an unfolding and enheartening process that John calls the natural process. At present John is dragging Charles permanently into this world of rawness, where his only true response is to weep, it is that unbearable. But like he says afterwards, never has he felt so alive and so connected.

I don't suppose any of this helps. My advice would be to do what you do, develop a deep suspicion of intellectual structures (which is what the 5 element theory is), all created to protect from reality rather join with it, and trust your own good energy and instincts.

Chen Wei-ming

After studying the picture of the 109 year old yesterday, John suggested that he may have been a student of Chen Wei-ming who was the same age as, and a student of, Yang Cheng-fu (born 1882), and lived well into his 80's. Years ago I really enjoyed Chen Wei-ming's Questions and Answers book, although the only thing I can remember now are his five requirements for the successful study of Tai Chi: faith, respect, perseverance, patience and humility. Apparently he was a terrific fighter with athletic long and deep postures; and a devoted buddhist.


Believe it or not, this old codger was 109 when this photo was taken in 2001. Great posture as well - real authentic Yang Style. Note that the wrists don't extend beyond the front toes, neither does the front knee, the back leg is slightly bent, the front foot is slightly turned in, the angle of the spine extends in a straight line from the thigh, the waist is working to the right, and both wrists are bent. Given his age he could easily have studied with Yang Chien-hou.


Before we left London for the bliss of country living, John taught a 10 week course in Kentish Town. This was the first public teaching he had done for about 4 years. The classes were a great success, in my eyes, mainly because Mark was generous enough to drag his students along, all of whom were eager and excited to study with the great man. It gave us diehards the opportunity to meet and work with Hamid and James, Duncan and Alex, Ross and Anne, and all the others who swept through like a breath of fresh air. The master took us through simple Yang style postures, energy circuits and the beginnings of what we now know as heart energy - entering interaction. What struck me was just how much his energy and teaching had diverted from the Chinese approach, how open and vulnerable he was (not something you associate with a martial arts teacher), how much softer he was, but particularly how completely he was what he was, a strange energy being connected to a line peculiarly Irish, that is to say, of these isles and definitely not Chinese. This really struck home when he mentioned the Tiger's Mouth to me - the back of the fleshy webbing between thumb and index finger - a well-known energy point of Chinese medicine. This is the point we were struggling to connect with the other person's pushing hand as we yielded in single-hand pushing. I suggested that this point, being on the large intestine meridian, would be connected to the bowel whereas the middle of the palm was on the pericardium meridian, hence one pushes from the heart and yields from (or to) the gut. He listened with barely veiled impatience and then said, "Yes, I feel it as a deep pool above which a mist is rising." I was instantly bowled over by how much more vivid, lively and evocative his imagery was than mine and it immediately conjured pictures of Glendalough where St Kevin had lived. That simple statement of his had brought alive a soft seeping connecting energy and atmosphere that invaded every pore of my being, unlike the Chinese imagery of acupunture points and meridians which I now realise is intellectual and of little use to someone wanting to open up and connect to others.

The teaching is a complete package. That is to say, everything about it is important and vital, and it does not require padding out with extraneous 'teachings' from elsewhere, either from other teachers or from books. John has always said that if a student comes to him having already studied TaiChi with another teacher, then that student needs to drop everything they have learnt before they can take on board new instruction. This is what we call respect: the willingness and ability to drop your baggage whilst in the presence of the teacher so that the teaching has a place to reside within you. This is difficult to do and the first requirement is complete honesty with yourself and with the teacher. If there is anything not quite right about the teaching environment then no matter how hard the teacher tries and no matter how willing the student, the teaching just will not be able to express itself in a way that the student can grasp. The teaching resides in the teacher but it is the sincerity and honest need of the student that stimulates it to come out. I'm always amused when disgruntled former students grumble that my teacher never taught them anything, as if that was his fault. I've even been in classes where certain good students have stimulated my teacher to open up and teach and still the poor students cannot hear - somehow it didn't quite reach them. The good student is suspicious. Suspicious that the teaching may reside in any and every aspect of the teacher, even in the obnoxious parts of his character and personality. When you're with your teacher you have to operate from the simple premise that everything is important and everything is to be emulated. I'm also amused when people complain that I've just become a carbon copy of my teacher, spouting his words with little originality. For God's sake, I've immersed myself in his energy and teaching for the last 20 years, sacrificing career and family to do so: what do they expect? My main worry about maintaining this folly of a blog is that I'm either being heretical (too original) or giving too much away.


To be alive is to become your destiny and to burn everyone you come across with a stronger and stronger light.
John Kells

Chi Kung

This is an exchange between Kevin Grey and myself in the comments of the Frederick Leboyer post below.

Are you implying that Chi Kung and drastic water fasts are in any way related?
The poor fellow may well have stopped his Tai Chi practice of forms/push hands etc., but surely Chi Kung was there from the beginning in the warm ups and postures?

No I'm not implying that chi kung was responsible for his death, although I'm certain that if he was still studying with John Kells he'd still be alive. I'm not even sure he was still studying with his chi kung teacher - I suspect not. The last time I saw him was in 1993 - he phoned me out of the blue (I hadn't seen him for at least 3 years) and said he wanted to see me so I invited him around for a meal. When he arrived I was struck by just how much weaker he was than when he was (heavily) into his Tai Chi. I also sussed that he had come to resolve our relationship in his favour and prove to himself the superiority of his chi kung over my Tai Chi. Unfortunately for him I was then at the height of my weight-training, plus I'd been pushing-hands daily with my teacher for at least a year, so my energy was far stronger and better than his and his attempts were futile - I inadvertently kept him on the back foot and he eventually left somewhat disappointed and bemused. At the time I remember thinking it had been a victory of iron over chi kung. Two years previously I had asked my teacher how I could get stronger and had intimated that chi kung may be the answer. He had scoffed and directed me towards the weights (he had a room at the back full of weights machines). He had never had much sympathy or patience for chi. He had always claimed that it is not important, a conclusion he had come to after studying and working on it for years with Chinese and Tibetan teachers of the highest quality: a figment of Chinese culture not really relevant or useful for a Westerner whose natural energy is far more immediate and engaging than chi anyway. The warm-up exercises we always did simply to warm-up and never as chi kung. I'm not even convinced that they are chi kung. And they were always dropped as soon as the student got through the Short Form anyway. Whenever students used to say how much they enjoyed the warm-up exercises John would always stress that they are not really that important and it was far better to concentrate on the Tai Chi which was all about interacting with others (which of course was precisely why many students preferred the warm-ups). The Tai Chi was certainly never taught as chi kung, the emphasis was always on active yielding, softness, and putting the other first - all concepts alien to the development of chi. In the classes my teacher was always at pains to point out that the energy that's important is spirit and not chi. And for John it was spirit and not shen - his concept of spirit is quite different from the Chinese as well. The thing about spirit is that it cuts through everything immediately to the quick. Concepts and theories are frazzled by it, including chi. In fact there is something so immediate about spirit that it is previous. Now John doesn't even mention spirit. For him it is all heart now. The most important qualities of heart energy are softness and lightness. Softness is an entering acceptance, it is the quality that allows the truth of the statement Everything Touches. Lightness is just the humour of the situation: a delightful and playful irreverence that stimulates the world to dance with you.


The man on the left is in control of the situation because he is into his opponent rather than into himself. See how the ground rises up into him rather than him bending his legs to get closer to the ground. Also his bum is in which kicks his heart out all over the other.


Good for the body is the work of the body, good for the soul the work of the soul, and good for either the work of the other.
Henry David Thoreau

Frederick Leboyer

The only famous person I've ever taught has been the obstetrician Dr Frederick Leboyer. I was teaching a class in Putney in 1987 and one of the students, a refined and well-educated young man, asked if a friend of his could attend the classes as an observer. I agreed and from then on there was a nice old French man sitting unobtrusively in the corner, watching us intently and every so often furiously scribbling notes. A few weeks in the young man told me who the French gentleman was. Being an ignoramus I had never heard of him, but I insisted he join in with the class rather than just sit and watch, which he was delighted to do (Leboyer spoke no English and the young man was in fact his translator and interpreter). What struck me about him was his good strong energy, soft and of French peasant stock I would say, his absolute enthusiasm for the Tai Chi (he thought the world of me for some reason), and the immensity of his heart which filled the room even when he was sitting out of the way in the corner. When I demonstrated a posture he would sometimes break into applause, and if ever I did an application on Bill Challis, who was my assistant, and uprooted him, Dr Leboyer would be beside himself. He put the rest of the students (average insipid English middle-class) to shame. It was only later, whilst browsing in a bookshop, that I came across Birth Without Violence, which by the way is a beautiful book.

Yes, hell exists. It is not a fairy tale. One indeed burns there. This hell is not at the end of life. It is here. At the beginning. Hell is what the infant must experience before he gets to us.
Frederick Leboyer

I recently learnt that Bill Challis, who left Tai Chi and took up Chi Kung, died after going on a drastic water fast. He leaves a wife and two children.


Various realities are simultaneously present, interacting and interfering to produce the explosion which is now. The important thing is to find someone who can point out the less obvious ones and then apply yourself to becoming permanently aware and involved with them. Or better still, someone who can teach you a method for finding out for yourself.

Computer failing

This computer's on its last legs: the hard-drive is gradually corrupting (it's 10 years old). I can no longer post pictures and dare not click any links because the thing can't open new windows and crashes if I try. If anyone out there has an old laptop they can donate to the cause or sell cheaply then I'd be grateful. Or any other ideas. Email address at top of page.
The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.
Emily Dickinson


The figure of eight as a path to freedom

The figure of eight, which we describe with various parts of our body - hands, fingers, feet, shoulders, hips, sacrum, head, eyes, tongue, etc. - is, in fact, a three dimensional object - an hour-glass shape - an 8 revolved about its vertical axis of symmetry. If when practising the simple figure 8 exercise (alternate vertical 8's with the two hands) you allow a light mischieveous activity to come into play (what my teacher calls delight) then you may feel that both the top and the bottom of the eight have a double aspect to their roundness. Rather like a backside which looks like a simple round protruberance from a distance only to reveal itself as two buttocks on closer inspection. The figure of eight is buttocked, very gently so, so that both the top and the bottom of the 8 look rather like the popular image of the heart. Whichever part of the body is being used to trace the figure of eight, that part is rooted in another part of the body. So the hand is rooted in the shoulder, and if that root is allowed to get involved in the figure of eighting as well then two figures of eight are described, one by the hand and the other by the shoulder, the shoulder lagging the hand, giving two slightly out of phase 8's, hence the double 'buttocked' feel. The hand can equally be thought to be rooted in the wrist, which is rooted in the elbow, which is rooted in the shoulder, which is rooted in the heart. With work it is possible to get all five parts figure of eighting together, producing five figures of eight all out of phase, wobbling and interacting in a complex of energy and movement. Bring in the five fingers and their joints and you have a consuming madness impossible to analyse but, if you get into it, impossible to resist. So, the lightness we try to cultivate in Tai Chi can be thought of as finding the unmoving root of our movements and getting that involved in the activity as well, rather like dragging grandpa onto the dance floor at the xmas party. In Tai Chi the root is in the feet and lightness is distinguished by a fleetness of foot. However, the root is also in the ground, can you be so active and light that that moves with you as well? Of course, anything is possible energetically. Where is the heart rooted, can that be released? Lightness comes from being brave enough not to cling onto anything for support. Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.
oft, oft, softly

Letter to a colleague

My time in the monastery has been spent trying to change the way I work. This has meant that each session is spent softening and reordering the focus of my mind to heart rather than head. This involves many sitting downs, bringing myself back to my new way when I feel myself slipping into that dreaded mould, which after all I created for myself (my responses to environmental pressure are my business and my choice) and which I am now endeavouring to change. This means that a 3 hour session may only involve 30 minutes of physical exercise, but at least I know that this 30 minutes is well intentioned. This was all stimulated by John saying to me, "If you carry on the way you are then I never want to see you again". Brutal but necessary. To start with I hated this new regime. My ethical sense (the mould itself) was constantly insisting I carry on the same as usual - hard work (we think / the hard / in). Now (after 4 years) it has been largely dropped and I really look forward to practice: the freshness and newness I find exciting and enheartening, unlike my old regime which would leave me physically exhausted and empty because it hadn't been coming from, and was neither going to, a place of health, heart and life.

There is a double aspect to this work: standing back to see and change the process of the process, and stepping right in, deeper and deeper, to become the living heart of the process. Eventually both happen naturally and together. It requires real maturity and equanimity to manage this. This is what I mean by intelligence. I remember Jeremy telling me that his piano teacher at the RCM, Yonty Solomon, in their first lesson together, started to work on his posture at the piano. "I've had a bad posture all these years", he said, "why has it taken until now for someone to tell me?" Because he wouldn't have had the maturity to either take it or work on it correctly any earlier I suspect. The fact is that there is constant instruction there all the time and we're either too dull or too busy or too frightened to feel it. The temptation is always to see the world through the fog of your own conditioning. Stepping out of this just long enough to catch a glimpe of the way things really are is all that is necessary. As my teacher once said, "My life has been a life of glimmers."
He had written the
fog as it billowed

before everything
made it new

free from
dreams and

exalted surges.
I feel I am truly a

great man.
I have been asleep.


In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Ezra Pound, 1913
When you practice slowly you learn fast.
Louis Jourdan to Richard Chamberlain in The Man in the Iron Mask

Krusty the Clown

Each time I travel to London to teach I stay with an old friend with a burgeoning teenage son and I'm reminded of that time when each day you wake up feeling strange because you've either grown overnight or the hormones have shifted and you're a little more awkward and irritable. The day is then spent getting to know this new state only for the whole process to be repeated the next day. Practising Tai Chi one expects this to be reversed: each day I practice hard, become a little more knowledgeable and expert in my movements and use of energy, sleep and wake up a more refined and capable human being. If only this were so. If your Tai Chi involves a lot of partner work, and you really open up during those sessions, then the only thing you can guarantee is that those interactions will stretch you and take you to strange places (nowt so strange as folk), leaving you feeling tender, unsettled and a little wretched the next day. (Sign of progress.) Just like being a teenager again. One could say that this is the secret of life, or the secret of 'awakeness' anyway, that the process of openness, which if managed intelligently involves growth and change, should be the constant that keeps you young, fresh, excited, exciting, interested, interesting, for the rest of your days. As long as you've got the balls for it (and it is balls - they need to be full in this game just to face the day). I suppose most people slip into the slow death of conformity, their eyes glaze over slightly and the crust of self gradually hardens around them. This is the crust you let drop when you open to another in pushing-hands or especially in intense Heartwork exchanges. To willingly live a life without that protection is asking a lot but like my teacher says, if there was an easier way I'd be doing it.
Do exactly what you would do if you felt most secure.
Meister Eckhart


A visit

Richard Druitt and his lady Andrea (Andy), who is Canadian, visited yesterday. Richard is an old student of John's - I think he started Tai Chi pretty much the same time as me - and lives in Puerto Rico where he teaches Tai Chi and Chi Kung. He is in England to spend time with his ailing parents and teach workshops. It was good to see the two of them. Richard is the sweetest and most well-mannered man you could meet with one of those beautiful public school accents that caresses as it talks; you get the feeling he has never thought ill of anyone. We tried to impart some of the basics of Heartwork to him, and it was remarkable how after just 20 minutes he was connecting far better than he had been. I was struck by the unfortunate fact that Tai Chi makes no effort at all to connect to others: it simply assumes that the other is connecting to you and slyly and rather meanly makes use of that to gain an advantage. No open heart: no vulnerability. However, that winge aside, what I really wanted to say was that as John was taking Richard through the simple figure of eight exercise, Andy, who was sitting watching, started to make the same movements and as she did I could feel my own heart energy begin to heave and stir in sympathy. This doesn't usually happen when I watch others do their stuff so I was instantly alerted to her natural talent. John then asked me to do a little partner work with her and within 10 seconds she was throwing me around like a ragdoll. She was able to do this not because she was expert in technique but because she naturally connected to me with her heart. I had the feeling that she knew all about me before our bodies met - her compassion had reached out sufficiently to find out. After all, that sort of information is hardly secret and is available to all with the heart to be interested. I was delighted. Delighted for her but also delighted that yet again I had been shown that prowess in Heartwork has nothing to do with physical strength or expertise and eveything to do with one's ability to open up and connect to others. Andy was a quiet and soft woman with a relaxed and natural demeanour: she made no ostensible effort to get to know me, she only said hello and smiled, and yet she knew, instantly.
In Blakean words, our predicament is that we can exist and still not be, for being requires an awakeness from the dream of custom and of ourselves. The self is by nature turned outward to connect with the harmony of things. The eyes cannot see themselves, but something other. The strange and paradoxical rule of nature is that we are fullest in our being by forgetting our being. . . Behind the mask of custom there is a natural life, our poets have always said; inside history, light.
Guy Davenport in Afterword to Ronald Johnson’s Radi os


Email from Mark Raudva

Hi Steven:

Did you see the short documentary on Clive Wearing ITV Monday night?
He's the chap who 20 years ago had the herpes simplex virus destroy virtually all of his memory capabilities. His memory span can now be measured in seconds.
The documentary was crap - everyone asking him stupid questions over and over again which just stirred him up or upset him. But I found the footage of him really moving - it was something about him being outside time, stripped naked of his 'story'. In the early years of his condition he was in a kind of hell but in the recent footage he seemed quite settled and had found a kind of peace - so something had been learned even though, to him, he had only just 'woken up'. I can't quite put into words what I feel - it touched something very deep inside. The way his energy leapt out towards his wife each time she visited him brought tears to my eyes - he didn't recognise her but there was such love. The words that keep coming to mind are - raw essence outside time - blah blah blah - don't really know what I'm trying to say - just felt the urge to mail you!


P.S. Wearing had been a renowned conductor and musician specialising in early music, and he now has auditory hallucinations - he would regularly comment that he could hear faint and distant music. Other regular comments would be, "You are the first human beings I've seen," and, "There is no day or night, there are no dreams or thoughts."
How can I recommend that students do less than I when I know that what I do is barely enough?
John Kells

Breaking the mould

The biggest struggle we will ever have is to break out of the mould. Whenever I teach I am always struck by the truth of this statement and the enormity of the task. Society tends to demand as subscription all an individuals energy, leaving none or little over at the end of the day to work on breaking out of its, and our own, suffocating strictures.

Traipsing around Brighton with the kids on Saturday, shopping for new shoes which they both wanted but didn't really need, watching with distaste the immense enthusiasm and energy the average person has for shopping, and being struck by the architectural magnificence of the vast malls, which (along with television) seem to have replaced the cathedral and the church as the main means of controlling the populace, I imagined the spiritual progress people would make if their energies were redirected; but to redirect one would have to live outside. The taint of ego is difficult to wash away, especially when it is institutionalised.

Our approach, instead of thinking negatively in terms of removing or eradicating something, instead works on filling everything with heart. The giving, loving heart has to become master, at least when we practice, rather than the ravening, energetically disconnected mind which so readily burns everything it touches to a crisp. To make this switch (even to realise that it is necessary) requires real effort and determination (energy): it is rather like slipping into a different world. Religious practices often involve ritual, incense, incantation as a means of evoking the right mood of quiet and respect for communion with God. We need something similar: a few minutes of seated meditation (peace and quiet) or a simple energy exercise which you find useful, simply to relax, bring a smile to your face, and get you into heart mode, before you approach the impossibility of Tai Chi. Your whole practice session then becomes a revolutionary act, an act of subversion, your thrust against the real enemy which is not the powers that be or the moronic masses or the muslim hordes, but the tension of the busy domineering mind. In theory, as the heart wakens the student falls in love with it and within no time at all everything in the student's life is bursting with heart and they live happily ever after. This can happen but only if the student courageously takes on board the teaching and the implications of their own practice: that each day is the start of a new life, a life more full of heart. This is the process of heart: growth rather than steady state, indeed exponential growth. Heart needs to grow otherwise it dies, and love becomes polite affection rather than the generous, overflowing gush that it should be. Standing still is the same as going backwards. "All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses".


Nitsan's Cat

Photo by Prema

In Brighton at the weekend with my 8 year old daughter who was delighted to find a postcard with the caption "Dogs think they are human. Cats think they are God".

Ezra Pound wrote in 1912 of "our kinship to the vital universe, to the tree and the living rock," having "about us the universe of fluid force, and below us the germinal universe of wood alive, of stone alive": man being "chemically speaking . . . a few buckets of water, tied up in a complicated sort of fig-leaf," but capable of having his thoughts in him "as the thought of the tree is in the seed."
Hugh Kenner


Learn by heart.

startled into life like fire

in grievous deity my cat
walks around
he walks around and around
electric tail and

he is
alive and
plush and
final as a plum tree

neither of us understands
cathedrals or
the man outside
watering his

if I were all the man
that he is
cat -
if there were man
like this
the world could

he leaps up on the couch
and walks through
porticoes of my

Charles Bukowski, 1920-1994



Courage is not just the ability to face fear when it crops up but the willingness to create it.

In a way you do this each time you start to practice: what makes a student reluctant to practice is the fear of the shift in awareness the practice brings about. It is important that familiarity with practice doesn't just mean that you slip into a well-trodden Tai Chi groove. Each practice session should vibrate with the danger of the unknown at some point, and each should raise the hackles. Maybe not life-threatening but certainly life-changing (so threatening enough). Always be suspicious and never be content. It always irritates me when a student says they're trying their best: as if they have any idea what their best is. There is always a beyond. Having said that, little by little.

The courage required is the courage to be a different person, or to be more fully yourself. This is probably what listening is.
Corpses should be thrown out quicker than dung.
Heraclitus, 535-475BC

Hugo Vanneck

Hugo has kindly posted his Tai Chi story. John always cites him as the student, from amongst the 10,000 or so that John has taught, with the very best heart, so quite a person. If you're reading this Hugo I'd like to hear the story of how you met Issey Miyaki and the consequent change in your life. The version I heard has been a constant inspiration to me.


Courage & Softness

I am little interested in whether a student shows courage in anything other than the only fight I consider worthwhile which is the one with the ego, the one with what it is that prevents the heart from manifesting in every particle of that person. People who practice their courage through dangerous activities are as far from this as anyone, their courage is so often just a hard skin they have erected around their fundamental fear: the fear of being connected to others: the fear of heart; and their false courage is actually an impediment to their ability to connect and show compassion. Take a look at the average US soldier to see evidence of this. If the courage you are practising doesn't make you softer to the touch then it is false courage.

The fundamental problem in Tai Chi and Heartwork - the thing that unifies these two quite different disciplines - is yielding. How do you respond to energy coming towards you in such a way that you do not inhibit it and do not get knocked off balance by it? How do you join with it and use it to thrust you more energetically into your life and destiny? What interests me about thunder for example is the fact that all children are frightened by it, as I was, and that the more Tai Chi I do the more I am becoming yet again frightened by it, I just realise now that the fear I feel is an aspect of my energy waking up. A scientific, religious or other explanation of what thunder is simply helps me ignore my energetic responses - it encourages me to cut off from what is actually happening, energetically, between me and the thunder. Fear cannot really be rationalised away.

The more Tai Chi I do and the more time I spend with my teacher the more I am convinced that the only way forwards in life (real yielding) comes through compassionate (unselfish) interactions with others, from putting others first. This is not easy: by all accounts Mother Teresa was as hard as nails to the touch - a sure indication that she got it wrong; to go out of your way to do good is just as much an ego-trip as anything else.

Softness and compassion are very similar. A soft touch is one that lingers and enters, with an opening, welcoming, searching and gracious heart (John Kells). If this doesn't manifest in the quality of the touch then it isn't happening.

Tai Chi and Heartwork are in fact simple and straightforward. You just need the intelligence to start and the courage to continue. You learn to love and admire your teacher and you learn to love and assist your companions. All of you have something to offer and all of you progress. The communal heart. The living heart.


. . . poetry is in fact enchantment; it has the form it does because that very form casts a spell . . .
Philip Pullman

Faith Courage Sincerity

Liang Tung Tsai, my teacher's first great Chinese Master, had many catch-phrases. Perhaps the most perfect of them is the one he used once to describe a student who claimed to know when he didn't: "Worse than a beginner". Akin to Pope's "A little learning is a dangerous thing", it is perhaps the most damning thing a teacher can say about a student. It implies that the student is closed to new instruction because they feel they already know; it also implies that the knowledge the student has acquired has been misinterpretted and has remained shallowly in the head and failed to transfer to body and energy. This can only be the case if the student has failed to do sincere practice. Sincere practice is the struggle to do precisely what the teacher has instructed, solely to become better connected to the lineage and teaching. If the student's practice is not sincere then it is up to the teacher to point out where the insincerity lies: the student may not be listening on the level required, may be incorrectly motivated, or may simply be a bit stupid, all of which can be corrected. My teacher has often said to me that sincere and earnest are not the same. An earnest student is one who engages in good honest hard work through which there runs a streak of sincerity, but who isn't quite connected to the source of it all; along with that streak there is also a swath of anxiety and blindness,and therefore weakness. Wynton Marsalis once described John Coltrane as earnest, which is a perfect description. Sincere implies that the purity runs through and through. This can only be the case if the student is, at core, relaxed and connected to a well of purity. This is faith. Courage is what allows it all to develop and pan out into a life of significance and meaning.
Then with a sweep
blindly eradicate
perception itself
afire with egress

Ronald Johnson


The single most important thing I've ever said to anyone is keep your bum in.
John Kells



The whole idea of this weblog is that it gradually build up a picture of what it means to study, research and live, full-time, a great ancient lineage under a great master with whom I live (albeit in separate quarters). Such a situation is very rare nowadays, and is a great privilege and luxury (I must have done something right in a past life to deserve it), and I figure my experiences and thoughts may therefore be of interest to those studying the same or similar paths part-time with only occasional exposure to their teacher. The organic blog format is ideal since it allows me to jot down things as they come up, rather than having to somehow weave them all together into a unified finished article. I intended this to simply be a little inspiration to my students and comrades: through sharing to somehow put the work into the broader context of the teaching, highlighting areas where a modern mind can go astray. Very little of what I say comes from the place of ratiocination and any clumsiness or imprecision is the product of my irresolute, though gradually resolving, heart and my somewhat vain attempts to elucidate aspects of energy we have no adequate language for. There is no room or time for idle questions or argument. If that part of the mind surfaces then one has momentarily slipped out of the river of knowledge and it's time to get back in. The students I value and admire most, those like Ann and Ray, wear their fear and suffering on their sleeves yet still have the courage and conviction to put themselves in the way of the teaching, no matter the intense discomfort (terror) it induces. They know they have no choice. They also know that the only way forward is through belief, which, if you like, is the heart knowing rather than the head. When the teaching opens up before a good student they feel terror because the whole thing is impossible: to step into that would be madness, and yet they do, and because they do, because they find the courage despite their feelings, they receive the grace to continue. One must fear God to receive his grace. The fear or terror is simply a sincere response to openness. If you don't feel the fear then you're not open, not to the abyss the teaching presents anyway. With experience one grows to love the terror, after all it's the feedback one needs. It's the stimulus that kick-starts those aspects of your energy required to take the plunge. It's what makes you a warrior.


Going deeper

When I was a kid I spent much of my time ill with asthma and consequent secondary infections such as bronchitis, laryngitis, etc. On one occasion, when I was about 12, my father came into the bedroom and told me he was going to the library and did I want any books. I said to just get something that looks interesting. He came back with three books, all mongraphs, on Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Karlheinz Stockhausen. I remember leafing through them and marvelling that there were whole worlds out there I had no notion of. Reading the Stockhausen book, the author kept referring to the trinity of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, all names new to me. I turned on Radio 3 and playing was Schoenberg's Opus 31. "This is meant to be", I thought.

Yesterday my teacher showed me an energy I had no idea even existed. It required a relaxation I had never touched before. "Your soul must relax, into your destiny", he said. I had that same awestruck sensation I had at 12: there are whole worlds out there I am not party to. The feeling was that at some level (in the mind) I stopped clinging on and slipped into a larger world, a world that contains the one I'm used to but is far vaster. I know I have drifted in and out of this energetic reality before but it required someone who knows to point out certain landmarks in its environment, and a means of entry, for me to register it as a place to reside. Experience has shown me that there is always a world beyond the one you're in and that the work at hand, rather than consolidating your gains, should be unsettling you sufficiently to be disatisfied with where you are and building up the grace to allow entry into the next.

In one sense we are all equal, in God's eyes anyway, however we are not all at the same level. Some people are spiritually more advanced than others, i.e. they exist within a higher (larger) energetic space than others. As a smaller space is nested within a larger one, so a spiritually advanced person naturally allows a less advanced person into their larger heart - this is compassion. In the presence of a master it is important to relax into their presence and allow yourself to nestle into their heart otherwise you will learn nothing. This may be a terrifying prospect and, if you are master and teacher yourself it may take some time to slot into, but it will only be difficult if your own work is not taking you deeper. The work is not about fortifying your enclosure but about becoming more open and more vulnerable.



What gives my teacher his uncompromising intensity is his fascination with principle. A principle is a piece of knowledge that applies everywhere and that should therefore be internalised through practice. The practice aims to embed the principles so firmly within your being that they become natural to you. The principle that has been uniquely my teacher's focus and which I believe has led him to Heartwork via the figure of eight is cross-energy. Cross-energy is all about connexion: left foot to right hand, right foot to left hand. If you need to use one hand and then quickly the other you must use each root in turn which means your feet can't be too far apart: the feet need to be engaged with each other as well as with the ground. Cross-energy is all about translating energy from one place to another through interaction: communication. There are two crossing lines - X - the double aspect of things. There are four limbs - the double aspect of the double aspect: doubling-up: binary proliferation. If the top two limbs curl to touch each other and similarly the bottom two limbs then X becomes 8 and we have a figure of eight: unity with a twist. Where the two stems of the X touch we have a heart. When the limbs begin to curl we have ward-off. Ward-off is the simultaneous acceptance and issuance of energy: the hollow chest (or groin) receiving energy and the spreading shoulders (or hips) issuing energy down the embracing limbs: yielding contains attack. Ward-off is also in the hand and foot, the middle accepting and the rim (particularly heel and digits) issuing. Ward-off is the way you approach everything, your loved ones, your enemies, strangers, daunting prospects: accepting but gripping. The energy that issues comes from behind, from that strange place, and can instantly engulf distance and time. When the situation is dangerous just show a little more teeth.


We don't feel the energy, the energy feels us.
John Kells


The Other Body I talked about below (03/09/05) is very important. John has likened it to a guardian angel. It is an aspect of your energy that resides behind you, looking over you protectively and engagingly, connecting and guarding. Ward-Off is simply a posture that stimulates and activates this guardian. In a true Ward-Off the arm should stem roundly and firmly from the back heart, the inside shoulder (around the clavicle) should be soft and empty, the mid-palm should face your sternal notch and the hand should be torqued, i.e. should feel as though it is twisting palm upwards to counter its natural inclination to turn palm downwards. Your head should crouch slightly between your shoulders with the feeling that the hump of the upper-back rises very slightly. This should make the hairs on the back of your neck bristle and bring a tingle to the crown of the head: sure signs that the energy behind is activated. As you retrieve Ward-Off at the beginning of every posture of the Form, the rounding and stretching shoulders should bring some of this behind-energy around and into the action. The crouching, tingling head brings some of the energy over the top and the sinking and hooking coccyx brings some under and up. You have thereby pincered the opponent on the horizontal and vertical planes. With practice this Ward-Off engagement becomes so familiar that a little of it is with you at all times, and its full intensity can be activated at the drop of a hat. When you get to this stage then your practice, your life of Tai Chi, engages with the real enemy which my teacher has always said is time. Not just ageing (though it is essential to tackle that if you wish to finish your work) but the linear, plodding, inexorable grip that time has us in, or rather, which we have conditioned time to be. Your daily practice gradually builds up an energy which relaxes into time as you relax into the energy and temporal events begin to bleed into each other just as much as spatial ones do. A Tai Chi life is one yielding to time.
Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than time: and not only time but temporalities, not only temporal things but temporal affections, not only temporal affections but the very taint and smell of time.
Meister Eckhart


Healing Rain

There’s an old exercise of John’s I resuscitated the other day. I think he called it Raindrops. The two of you should stand opposite each other, one with their eyes closed (‘the yielder’) and the other (‘the attacker’) with eyes open. (It helps if you're both naked though it's not essential.) The idea is that the attacker gently and lightly touches the yielder anywhere on their body (as lightly as a raindrop). The yielder should then rush their mind and energy to that point. If the attacker keeps contact then she should be able to feel this rush, or should certainly be able to feel a change taking place in the quality of the touching interface as the yielder’s energy gathers there. If the energy is strong and the attacker is sensitive then this rush may even uproot the attacker. A Heartwork elaboration of this exercise would be to send the energy to the spot with the heart rather than the mind. If this happens the energy will travel as a stretching and clawing ‘hand’ to embrace and engulf the touching spot rather than simply bounce into it. This exercise will develop the compassionate heart which will eventually become nimble enough to rush anywhere it is required. This is especially useful if you, or a loved one, has any niggling injuries, pains, bad memories, etc. Let your heart energy reside in the injured spot with its characteristic pumping (embracing and consuming) and the healing process will quicken.


Foot and hand

Pat asked me about the action of the foot in the walking exercise I outlined below. It is crucial to the whole exercise, and to the whole of Heartwork really (every part of Heartworld mirrors every other part and so all are crucial - all are alive and all are connected). The foot and the hand are really six pronged instruments, the five toes/fingers and the heel. As the foot stretches these stretch away from each other and as the foot curls up they curl towards each other, but not by collapsing but by stretching further (as though the foot or hand is trying to stretch around a largish globe or ball). It is easy to feel in the toes/fingers and not quite so obvious in the heel, which is consequently where we need to concentrate most. As the stretching foot hits the ground the heel should dig in and claw forwards by sinking the coccyx down into it (this keeps the bum in) and this action should feel that it triggers the clawing in the toes which stretch further as their tips pull towards the hook of the heel. The coccyx should feel alive and want to wriggle down the leg into the heel. Always struggle to make each part of your body, and each aspect of yourself, alive: i.e. with heart (which manifests in pumping movement) and a degree of independence from other parts. You whole being is a society or ecology of interdependent living entities, coordinated by your heart, which echoes through the hearts of all your parts. You obviously work best as a coordinated being when the parts cooperate towards the same end, however what gives you texture and magic is when you have the courage to allow all these parts and aspects the freedom to follow their own heartfelt agendas. Destiny rather than ambition.



Busy this weekend with teaching so I'll post an email I got from Pat earlier today. She's one of the few truly educated people I know.

Leafing through Blake to check something, I found, as I always do, quotes that encapsulate Tai Chi Heartwork concepts. Nature's cruel holiness reminds me of what you wrote about the difficulty of being ruthless. At the last Intensive you were saying you should have said what you meant to Gillian, and to me that seems part of what Blake was getting at when he constantly warned of the dangers of splitting contraries. It takes you by surprise at first when you read that Satan had too much pity, but his sin was trying to have only the pity, without the accompanying wrath:
And Satan not having the Science of Wrath, but only of Pity,
Rent them asunder, and wrath was left to wrath, & pity to pity.
The Separation was terrible.
The opposite of this is Beulah. (For Blake, the spiritual qualities manifest themselves in time and space, as places, individuals, nations etc., sometimes with the same name, sometimes not - confusing until you get the hang of it.) So
There is a place where
Contraries are equally True;
This place is called Beulah
Beulah is a kind of Garden of Eden, the next spiritual stage up from everyday life, which we reach sometimes, I believe he meant.

Changing the subject - I did a Yang style this morning, chanting hungalilihung rhythmically throughout, and making the movements fit the sound. It slowed me down, and changed the way I did the postures. Interesting.


The Other Self

When practising Tai Chi or Heartwork always try to be aware that as well as training in a new way of doing things, you should be trying to wake up to the fact that this new way is the natural way: it's the way your body and energy wants to do things when tensions are removed.

I was thinking in particular of the walking exercise below. Victoria has just gone on an 8 day walking holiday and I suggested she practice this exercise. She pointed out that her feet were really tired from the half hour we'd done together last Thursday (I must admit, so were mine) and that 6 to 8 hours a day of it would be impossible. Physically impossible I agree but energetically and internally I'm not so sure. This was something my teacher had to contend with very early on since he was driven to practice all hours of the day, most of which was time of absolute physical and mental exhaustion. So if you don't have the physical energy or the mental energy to do something then how do you do it? There is a larger part of you, operating in a different world of energy and connectedness, that can and will take over if it's given the opportunity. Relaxation is just the state you need to be in to connect with this larger part of yourself, it has nothing to do really with a lack of physical tension, it is more a resigned willingness to acknowledge that intelligence and knowledge reside somewhere other than the mind and body. So to practice 8 hours straight of anything one will need to relax, settle and open to this other self and allow it to take over. Your body and mind then ride it like a horse. This is why at Intensives we would do 2 hours without a break of Form: to try and reach that stage of the other body taking over. Those of us with a feeling for this were reluctant to stop because there is an inexorable choiceless quality to this other reality which is difficult to resist. A good teacher, by hook or by crook, will make you connect to this aspect of yourself - by encouragement, persuasion or bullying (I've known my teacher slap students quite hard across the face to bring it about). Without being connected to this the postures of Tai Chi are pretty meaningless and concentrating on technical niceties will simply avoid the issue. The Tai Chi should wake you up to this larger part of yourself. It will only do so when the mind empties not just of idle thoughts but also of the Tai Chi itself. This is not accomplished by numbing the mind (sinking into a stupor) but by entering the spirit of the postures and allowing them to breath life and enthusiasm into your slumbering higher self. Your practice then informs not just your Tai Chi but all aspects of your energy and life.
Heart us invisibly thyme time
round rose bud fire downland
bird tread quagmire dry gill-over-the-ground
stem-square leaves-cordate earth race horsethyme
breath neighbors a mace nays
sorrow of harness pulses pent
thus fruit pod split four
one-fourth ripens unwithering gaping
Louis Zukofsky, 1904-78

Added resistance

For about 10 years now we have been wearing hand, wrist and ankle weights when we work, plus a weighted belt. These add a little resistance to our movements and develop strength and sobriety. The belt is particularly useful; we use the Reebok Ironwear one since it can be adjusted at the back so that much of the weight bears down on the sacrum, encouraging it to stay in and down. The weight of the belt can also be adjusted - it's possible to start light and work up over months and years to the full 10lbs. The German company linked to above I've found very good; if the order is over £70 (I think) the postage is free. If you give it a try then start light. Even half a pound added to each wrist makes quite a difference.


If you seek the kernel, then you must break the shell. And likewise, if you would know the reality of Nature, you must destroy the appearance, and the farther you go beyond the appearance, the nearer you will be to the essence.
Meister Eckhart



Whenever we walk (or run) we have the chance to practice yielding because every time a foot hits the ground we effectively are being struck by the ground, which after all is a source of immense power.
If the feet clump ignorantly as you move forwards then firstly your sacrum will tend to tense up and poke out behind you, and secondly your mind will gradually become numbed by the constant impacts and will cut off from the reality of the energetic interaction you have with the ground (and everything else) and will retreat into its own fantasy world (the incessant mind-chatter). Yang style Tai Chi softens these impacts by keeping the centre of gravity over the supporting leg until the stepping foot is completely on the ground, and then transferring weight across by pushing from the supporting leg. We were always taught to round the knee of the stepping leg out as the weight is transferred to encourage the weight to move predominantly into the outside edge of the foot, and bring the energy of the ground up the instep and the inside of the leg to fill the round space between the legs. This is the first stage to bringing life and activity into the feet.

The second stage is to start working the feet to encourage them to develop a little of the pliability and dexterity of the hands. A simple exercise is to stand in a comfortable short posture with one foot forwards, and move the weight from foot to foot by working the feet rather than the legs. The empty foot spreads out as much as it can, each toe stretching forwards, and then the toes are curled into the ground and towards the heel. This action pulls the weight into the foot and should strengthen the instep. There are two waist turns for each stretch/curl action: towards the stretching foot (to the left as the left foot stretches) and away from the curling foot (to the right as the left foot curls and grips). The feeling should be that the feet are responsible for turning the waist, and that whilst the left foot is active the left side of the waist turns, and whilst the right foot is active the right side of the waist turns. If you work both feet simultaneously then you'll feel the two sides of the waist turning away from each other as the feet stretch, and then towards each other as the feet curl to grip the ground. An alternating action - left foot followed by the right - effectively draws the weight in a figure of eight around the feet. If the feet really are responsible for turning the waist and pulling the body then the weight will tend to move forwards around the outside of each foot, i.e. clockwise around the left foot and anticlockwise around the right. This stretch/curl breathing action is fundamental to everything we do in heartwork and is our basic building block. The feet become two lungs or hearts, activating and breathing in the energy/blood of the ground.

We then use this same action in our walking (or stepping in the Form). As a foot steps out it stretches and as it descends to the ground the foot curls to suck the ground up into it. The curling action, which is responsible for both pulling your energy forwards and plucking the other foot off the ground, starts just before the foot impacts the ground: you effectively yield to the ground by sucking it up into the leg (the calf to be precise). To be effective the relationship between the two feet needs to remain strong at all times which means you cannot afford to step too long or wide. If you find deep stances useful then reserve the stepping I've described for walking and for fast, lively Forms.