31.12.05

Influences

Smoke gets into everything:
bitter honey,

autumn's distillation, bears
an aftertaste

of cats
and muscatel.

When privet
dominates, hives

disperse in sparks
through private darkness,

filling cells
with evidence of elsewhere:

spores of cockle,
rush, and dock;

contraband,
perfume, and punk.

Even you (asleep
and breathing deeply)

open from the core
to all that you are not.

Devin Johnston

Devin, as well as being a fine poet, also runs a fine publishing house called Flood Editions. Their latest release is a new translation of the Tao Te Ching.

Honour

I've been listening to poetry on the Internet lately, read by the poets themselves. Robert Creeley reads from the Introduction to his Selected Poems:

It was Ezra Pound who first impressed me with his emphasis, “Only emotion endures.” Just a few nights ago I heard a friend from college days, talking about artificial intelligence, his authority. He noted the banality, in some respects, of emotions, that is, how, neurologically, they are a familiar spectrum and shift almost crudely from one to another – whereas the intellectual acts which are so sponsored, what we think thus funded, are of extreme human interest and consequence. Again Williams: “The poet thinks with his poem, in that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity.” No doubt it is all a dream, humanly speaking, but how language thinks to say it, what it thus makes of its own mind and feeling, is to me ever provocative. “A new world is only a new mind, and the poem and the mind are all apiece.”

To write a poem there needs to be a general movement from the poet's deepest recesses where they are naturally connected to all, through their energy, feelings, emotions, mind, thoughts, words and into the written poem. At the deepest level there is only commonality – a moist togetherness – and with each rising level there is a retraction and a focusing in on the activity and the activator until finally we have the unique product – the poem. Creeley is suggesting that each rising level is more interesting and of more “consequence” than the preceding one. In a sense this is true but only because each rising level has more observable detail and texture – is more specific and more of the realm of language – more describable. In fact it seems pretty obvious that the direction we need to be going, as individual, race and species, is deeper. You can have immensely detailed and involved conversations with work colleagues about the work you have in common, but the unspoken communication you have with your loved one is far deeper and more of your humanity. The reason my teacher feels more connected to his cat than with any other living being is because it's the creature with whom he can communicate on the deepest levels. Whether each is consciously aware of these levels I don't know, but each is honourable enough to live a life which puts these levels first, and so each is moving gradually deeper with and through the other. This is the key really. In a sense it is a matter of relaxation – relax the body, quieten the mind, ignore your feelings, slip through your energy and reside and dwell in those deepest recesses where there is no distinction or separation. However, relaxation is just the technique and needs to come from the right place otherwise it wont be successful – it wont necessarily open you out and reconnect you. That place is the place of honour – of putting something far beyond yourself first and foremost. Sacrifice. The image of the man bidding his young family goodbye to lay down his life in battle for his country (“I could not love thee, dear, so much, / Loved I not honour more”). There is always something beyond, and to get there the heart must in some sense already be there. If this is the case then the general thrust of your life and energy will be to go deeper. Every so often this will engender creative acts which will express themselves as insights – sparks of understanding from those deep levels expressing themselves in the light of day. If you have the intelligence and heart to work with these insights – incorporate them into your practice – then eventually they will help you breakthrough whatever is holding you back from the next (deeper) level. This is the way of it. Each insight is like a stepping-stone across a vast river. If you don't work correctly the next wont appear, and if you don't work hard enough you wont be able to leap to it. A teaching is just the first few stones given to you for free. It is always possible to fail. This is the fear that keeps you working.

30.12.05

                   MATTENS

I cannot ope mine eyes
But thou art ready there to catch
My morning-soul and sacrifice:
Then we must needs for that day make a match.

My God, what is a heart?
Silver, or gold, or precious stone,
Or starre, or rainbow, or a part
Of all these things, or all of them in one?

My God, what is a heart,
That thou shouldst it so eye and wooe,
Powring upon it all thy art,
As if that thou hadst nothing els to do?

Indeed mans whole estate
Amounts (and richly) to serve thee:
He did not heav'n and earth create,
Yet studies them, not him by whom they be.

Teach me thy love to know;
That this new light, which now I see,
May both the work and workman show:
Then by a sunne-beam I will climbe to thee.

George Herbert

Natural

I told my teacher the famous story about Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder's visit to the Dalai Lama in India in the 60's. Much to Snyder's embarrassment Ginsberg started telling his Holiness about his drug experiences. The Dalai Lama listened and then commented that the experiences sounded like the sort of states experienced adepts get into during deep meditation, but added that what is important is to be able to get into those states with an act of will rather than by ingesting artificial and harmful substances. My teacher listened to this story and commented that in fact if one leads and has led the correct sort of life and has done the work required then these states will happen naturally and will will not come into it. “Natural way best way,” was one of Dr Chi's sayings. Any force or intent to gain quick results implies incorrect motivation. One does the work for the work's sake not for one's own.

Okinawan Proverbs

One who eats plain food is healthy.

The heart is the most essential human quality.

Even if you hide yourself from the world, don't lose sight of your real nature.

The first isn't immediately obvious but is very important. Kidney hygiene is an essential part of my teacher's teaching. This means no rich food, no animal fat, and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, particularly brassicas, and plenty of good water. Fasting for more than a day is not recommended.

We are united;
we make each other pregnant.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis

29.12.05

The Warrior Heart

The more time I spend with my teacher the more I realize that the strength he has developed through his work, which is considerable, is simply the strength to let go and become the connexions that inform and define him. In fact holding on isn't an option for him nowadays, and being a passionate Irishman I'm not sure it ever was. If ever there was a man ruled and directed by the heart it is he. What this means for his energy is that it is always out there interacting and interfering – involving. Nothing is held back. One of the tenets of his teaching is that if something is interesting and seems to work then do it all the time. This is why the energy he would use to strike a deadly blow is exactly the same energy he would use to heal another or even to stroke his beloved cats. As far as he is concerned there is only one thing – the connexion – and what passes along that connexion depends totally on heart. It's the difference between using heart and spirit to direct the energy. Spirit is the vital spark within – the Chinese call it spirit of vitality – which unifies and coordinates your faculties and allows you to operate effectively, potently and satisfyingly. However, it is still a tool of the self, and having a good strong spirit does not imply that you are any more egoless than the average person. The martial arts world is littered with masters with terrific and terrifying spirit. Their spirits have given them a reactive sensitivity which regards the other with respect but without compassion – without passion. The respectful distance. Consequently their martial spirit is not something they can really bring into the family home or practice at all times – there are many (most) situations in which it is inappropriate. Heart is about being open and vulnerable enough to broach and bridge the respectful distance – in fact not allowing it to develop in the first place. Having so much feeling for the other that they were never apart from you. This is something that can absolutely be practised everywhere, especially with family – your nearest and dearest. And like everything, the more you practice the better you get – the more refined and subtle become your interactions and the more you begin to become aware of those deeper levels which are all heart and which, given a chance, will work all the time for you. Satisfaction – which implies a withdrawal into self after the experience is over – doesn't really come into it. Partly because the experience is open ended – is never over – and partly because withdrawal is not an option. Rather like an Emily Dickinson poem which ends with an unresolved non-rhyme and a dash (—), leaving the heart even more open and aching than it was at the beginning.

The heart gushes. When it's working well it feels like it's more with the other than it is with you. It doesn't let up. There is no distance. Last time I was in Ireland I was introduced to someone who had cancer. Surprisingly (for me) I saw his illness as a black cloud hanging over him and I was fascinated by what I saw and felt. It was only after he left that I realized what my teacher would have done in such a situation. Being the consummate warrior he would have instantly engaged the blackness in battle – he would have leapt in, engaged the person in hearty and uplifting conversation and banished the blackness from his presence. For him healing has nothing to do with wanting to help people, or with doing good, but simply with not being able to tolerate any negativity in his presence because he knows that given half a chance it'll start to attack him and he knows from experience that the only way to deal with the enemy is to strike first. Certainly not to stand by and observe. The heart is overwhelmingly active, so much so that it cannot be resisted, by you least of all.

28.12.05

Christmas

Back home after the journey from hell yesterday. 11 hours to travel just over 200 miles. At one point the train in front “froze” to the tracks (it didn't feel that cold to me). “Due to adverse weather conditions . . .” started the announcement at which the old codger in front of me quipped, “Oh, an unexpected winter.”

Took the kids to see King Kong on Boxing Day and it was interesting to see their responses. My son was wowed by the special effects (which were relentless and eventually tedious) and the gruesome killings and munchings, whereas my daughter was totally affected by the romance – the movie is a love story – and the poignancy. My son said afterwards, “It was too long. If it was an hour shorter it would have been a better movie,” which is true enough. When I asked my daughter what she thought of it she just nodded her head, tears still streaming down her face. She was still immersed and her critical faculties hadn't kicked in. Hopefully they never will.

My son & daughter are like chalk & cheese, evidenced particularly when I try to photograph them. As soon as my daughter sees the camera she starts to beam and let her energy out and consequently it's impossible to take a bad picture of her, whereas my son pulls his energy back in in a desperate attempt to create the right image for the camera and in the process he ruins not only the photograph but also the situation.

On Christmas Day I helped each of them make their own little movie. I first gave my daughter the camera, and then my son, and told them to go around the house and shoot about 4 or 5 minutes of short clips which we would then edit together on the computer. My daughter just shot the things she liked – the cat, her hamster, her mother, etc – which we edited together in the order in which they were shot, with no trimming, added a soundtrack and had us a wonderful 4 minute short. My son took into consideration (worried about) plot, continuity, development, pacing etc, agonized over the soundtrack, and produced an equally wonderful but very different movie. When we watched the two in succession I was surprised (and delighted) that they both much preferred the other's attempt – they appreciated the qualities that their own lacked. Developing roundness and fullness of character is all about having the heart to see, appreciate and absorb qualities in others that you lack yourself.

26.12.05

We attend to each other
like birds

and eat

from one another's hands.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Heartwork in the dark whilst pointing the camera at the Christmas tree.

25.12.05

The Waltzing Heart

Reading poetry on the train yesterday, and being drawn into a beautiful energetic space by it (Rachel Blau DuPlessis was the poet), a space so soft and misty I could not, nor was inclined to cling to anything, I realized that objects are largely defined by our attachment to them or our disconnexion from them. I would say that attachment and disconnexion are functions of the mind and are largely fearful (needy), whereas connexion and detachment are functions of the heart and are largely compassionate (loving). When the heart opens, which it can only do really if activated by a wave of giving (love), then the needy clinging habitual mind – the part of you that takes things for what they are because that's the way they were yesterday or that's the way you've been taught that they are – relaxes and detaches. The things in your life thus detached from respond to this by opening up themselves, shrugging off the ill effects of your mean (reducing) mind. So the wave of love that opened the heart induces a similar wave in that part of the world your opening affects. When these two waves meet then we have the second function of the heart which is to join – to connect. Joining is an energetic mingling – a give and take – a conversation – a seepage – and its inevitable action (inter-action) commences the third function of the heart – transformation, or becoming – and changes all of you forever. Each of these actions – opening, joining and becoming – is like a wave of energy, so in fact there are three waves, so close together to appear or be felt as one, but actually three – beginning, middle and end – and the three together give a rounded satisfying completeness to the experience. Like an embrace – the opening being the arms moving apart and the heart leaping out its invitation, the joining being the first contact and the arms encircling, and the becoming being the arms hugging around the other's back and drawing them into your heart as you get drawn into theirs – enclosure. (This is how Ward Off should feel. It should have three distinct actions, felt crudely in the shoulder as back & out, forward and around.) When you involve the heart you effectively dance a waltz – a three-step – all the time.

I remember once attending a workshop in which it was demonstrated convincingly that the heart actually beats in three (BOOM boom boom BOOM boom boom etc) and music that beats similarly strengthens the heart whereas music with an even beat – in two or four – tends to make you want to march – is militaristic – and actually damages the heart by over-riding it. There's also an essay by Bob Brotzman kicking around on the Internet in which he argues that much of the appeal of early jazz and blues, and also I suspect much band music such as Sousa, is in the tension (torque) between the even beat and the swing (giving more weight to the first of each pair of eighth notes – effectively triplets the first two notes of which are tied). Broadly a march but internally a waltz. Skipping? Remember that beautiful scene in the The Tin Drum in which Oskar subverts and deranges the marching band at the Nazi rally by playing waltz rhythms on his drum under the band podium. The band members find his rhythms impossible to resist and gradually join in, causing the stern rally members to drop their rigid salutes and take partners and dance. Transformation.

Oh and by the way, Merry Christmas.
Try and do a little Tai Chi today even if it's only 5 minutes in the secrecy of the bathroom (away from closed minds). It's important.

24.12.05

Grace

Slip from heart to sacred soul.
John Kells

As the spirit intensifies and strengthens so it relaxes and takes the energy into all areas. In much the same way that an excess of physical strength is required before the body can be put to use loosely & fluidly. The residual needs to be worked as well. In a way we are just eradicating dead space - coming to some understanding of totality, because there needs to be an intense togetherness before those leaps into the unknown can even be attempted. How do you lift yourself by your own boot-laces? Not only must the mind stop resisting the teaching but the energy must join forces with it so that you start creating your own grace. Heart & soul.

Seep beneath as ally to the onslaught.
John Kells

23.12.05

Attacking

The reason partner work in Tai Chi is far more important than solo work is because the difficulty for most people is not developing energy but letting it out communicatively. Communication requires a connective passage – a conduit – to be established, and then for energy to be passed back and forth through that conduit. In a way the difficult part of the process is the beginning bit – creating the conduit – making the connexion. It is this that requires heart and the qualities that accompany and define heart such as openness, generosity and courage. To maintain a connexion and a communication requires stamina, patience, loyalty, concentration, and the ability to actively listen – to give energy with your listening so that the other person feels good about their giving. To finish and end a communication requires an incisive and decisive ruthlessness – the ability to be connected without being attached, and hence the ability to disconnect when the time is right in such a way that neither of you are left bleeding energy into a void that was the other. Heart is involved and required in each stage, beginning, middle and end, because it is the heart that governs connexion, even its correct severance.

The problem with pushing hands is its continuous nature – the fact that it tends to be all middle. It is important to practice the applications as well so that each of you has experience at making that initial bite into the other persons energy and spirit, and also the final deadly blow which shakes and explodes your energy into their visceral cavity. The postures gather energy during the yielding phase and then direct that energy during the attacking phase. Without a powerful attack the preceding yield lacks meaning and incentive. And without ensuring each of your postures, either in your solo practice or in the partner work, ends to some degree explosively and brutally (if only in the mind) then you wont develop power and your spirit wont be gradually shaking free from the shackles of mind and body.

Try practising an explosive Form every now and then. To do this stamp the foot down hard on the final attacking step of each posture and let the waist shudder into both leg and the attacking arm. Let out a sharp sound from the mouth at the same time – we often use Pah! with an explosive p, but any short shout will do (if you feel inclined to scream then you're probably overdoing it). The stamping foot shakes up and loosens your body energy, making more of it available for your attacks. If nothing else this approach is invigorating and nicely cuts through the deadly grind of Tai Chi.

22.12.05

Poet's work

Grandfather
advised me:
Learn a trade

I learned
to sit at desk
and condense

No layoff
from this
condensery

Lorine Niedecker
"The work is all that's there" says Joe Massey in a one line post on his blog.
It is the sort of insight people are meant to have this time of year.

What will be borne through
the stillness
and the emptiness?

Through the bourne?

"All Wise"

Footprint and eye fringe
Shake off snow -
All wise
Flinging.

Pupil and fingers
Draw the bow -
All wise
Singing.

Heartbeat and feathers
Sow birds so -
All wise
Ringing.


Louis Zukofsky
Only emotion endures.
Ezra Pound

21.12.05

Relaxation

John just told me about the time he stayed in the YMCA in Boston whilst studying with Liang in the early 70's. He made friends with a black guy from the South who was ultra relaxed and sweet-natured and always had a different beautiful white girl on his arm. John, being interested in relaxation, asked him how he was so relaxed. His friend thought for a while and then said, "Well Jahn, I just ain't got nuthin in mah head."
I remember hearing an interview with James Lovelock years ago. He did research during WWII on the treatment of burns. His work required him to develop salves and then test them on burnt skin. To obtain a sample of burnt skin he was told to take a Bunsun burner to a live rabbit which he did, once – he didn't have the stomach to inflict such suffering twice. So instead he burnt his own arm and tested the salves on that. “Didn't it hurt?” asked the incredulous interviewer. “Only the first time,” he cheerfully replied. There's heart for you.

Torque

Fighting spirit and community spirit. We clearly need both so yet again we have to strike a balance – an equilibrium, or what my teacher would call torque. By torque he means a state of power produced by the interaction of two twisting forces with opposite turning moments. The opposing turns don't cancel each other out, instead they twine around each other and squeeze and capture energy producing a charged and vibrant state. In a sense any living or lively situation is torqued – it manages to maintain a controlled high energy level without exploding or combusting, through a balance struck by the interaction of at least two different forces. In Tai Chi turning the waist to the right tends to produce clockwise twists in the limbs and turning the waist to the left produces counter-clockwise twists. It is possible for a limb to contain both twisting moments if the waist is working with left and right turns either simultaneously or in rapid succession (simultaneous should be a very quick alternation otherwise it becomes a grinding opposition, losing vibrancy and life). To turn the waist rapidly left right left right can be quite exhausting so instead of thinking in terms of using the waist to generate an energized state, think instead of using it to capture that state. The image of life, especially on this planet, is all around so if you tune into this vibrancy then the waist will want to do what it needs to do to make you similarly lively. To open to such possibilities requires heart and a real interest in something beyond yourself. Fighting spirit and community spirit don't oppose each other, they inform each other. You cannot be an effective and enduring fighter if your heart isn't big enough to contain the community from which you spring, and the community will not flourish or even survive if its members cannot or will not fight. The Mahayana don't insist on the bodhisattva vow because it's a worthy idea but because they have found from experience that it makes them better warriors. The environment in which you work needs to be open, vastly so, otherwise the heart will not fill with awe and wonder the way it should each time you enter your Tai Chi.
A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover . . . those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.
Albert Camus

20.12.05

Tempering the Spirit

Relaxation is the freeing of your energy from worthless activity. Such activity may be worry, anger, fear, etc. My teacher is always at pains to point out that energy needs to be abstracted from activity. If not then it'll always be locked up and its purity and essential nature cannot be investigated. The activities of Tai Chi – the Forms, the Pushing, the Uprooting, the Firing, etc – are simply vehicles for the energy and the means for generating and developing the energy. There should come a point where the energy wants to break free of such structural shackles and start to simply be.

Spirit directs the energy. We've all met people with terrific spirit. They generally have terrific energy as well. And they're often heart-attacks waiting to happen. If the spirit is given too much of a free rein it'll damage the body, particularly the heart. The heart has to soften, contain, and keep in check the spirit – temper it. The heart is like a broad morality that pervades your being – something about it steps outside the closed system of self and sees and feels the broader picture which always contains the physical, emotional and energetic world you dwell in. When the heart contains and tempers the spirit then spirit can be expressed in the gentlest and subtlest of actions – it can be brought into everything you do and not just saved up for those dramatic occasions when you need to suddenly let out a large burst of energy (lose your temper).

Heart also directs the spirit – makes sure it's connected so that the energy it carries can be effective. Strong spirit without heart is just a bit aimless and pointless. Rather like a toddler's tantrums – impressive in their strength and intensity but laughable in their disconnectedness and self-absorption. When you control others with spirit you keep them in a dispirited state – a state of fear and trepidation – you effectively enslave them and you'll never receive their best energy. When you involve others with heart you encourage them and they'll be far more inclined to join with you and give you their best and take the two of you to places you could never have foreseen.

19.12.05

Great ideas originate in the muscles.
Thomas Edison

Heartful Spirit

Bringing energy to bear is a matter of intent or spirit. The idea of a Tai Chi posture is that spirit and waist combine forces to corral the incoming energy and the energy generated by our own movements and involvement, through a yielding action into the tightening and intensifying spiral of the attack. The yielding action gathers energy, not just from the imaginary opponent but from all around – from the environment, external and internal, from your own past, recent and ancestral, and from energetic realms you may never become aware of, and funnels this energy into the final attack of each posture. As the energy passes down the funnel of your spirit it speeds up both in velocity and rotation, as would water spiralling down a plastic funnel. Because of the way our body is constructed (limbs can't twist indefinitely in one direction – the spirals must always return), and probably also because of natural laws (of compassion) that haven't been elaborated yet, the spirals are themselves generated by figures of eight. This is a crucial fact and is responsible for the emotions stirred up by Tai Chi (and especially heartwork). The figure of eight is the action of the heart – it is the action of bringing together and unifying without combining or fusing – combustion is only ever partial, at least until death. Each entity joins and communicates yet retains its identity and integrity. It is crucial that your motivation comes from the heart – that it breathes and beats with the heart of life. If it doesn't then it'll either be idle – habitual action – or it'll come from the mind. This is why both Tai Chi and Heartwork are such physical disciplines – there is far more natural wisdom in the body and its actions than there is in the mind; and the body, when it is loose, relaxed and interacting, is far more of the heart than the mind. It is the mind that pulls us away from the natural order and the natural process; it is the heart that brings us back. Courage is of the heart. Fear is of the mind. The work is emotional and the strength is in the affection – in the tears that well up but are never shed. “Nothing matters but the quality / of the affection – / in the end – that has carved the / trace in the mind . . .” (Ezra Pound).

18.12.05

16 Definitions Constructed From Memory

for Lee Ann, Bernadette, and Brian

As a small south american squirrel
inhabiting mostly mountainous regions
would feed on lizards half-way between
poles of the tropics, I too would fall
heartbreaked in the settlement of feuds
or the fields of kentucky.

When the moss grows high between the
perennials and disordered mimmocks weep,
these dainty fastidious gestating mammals
break for leavened bread and sup between
the rows of trees, lifting like friars
some heavy books in sunlight's morning
windows where the mollusks row in scion's
quadragesimal phyla.

Lisa Jarnot

Levitation

Lisa Jarnot - another mad American with a big heart - writes about levitation today. Apparently Yang Chien-hou, Yang Cheng-fu's dad, when he heard of the death of his daughter was so grief stricken that he rose from the ground and hit the ceiling with his head. My teacher also told me once of an Italian monk who, whenever he heard the name Jesus, would rise gently from the ground - his friends would have to hold him down. I'm sure such things are possible, but to be so capable one's energy would have to be pretty good and so well focused: it would require a single-minded, undistracted, pure and total obsession with the work. It would have to be everything to you. No clinging vestige of self - all energy.

My teacher also once told me about some Tibetan mystics, I can't remember whether they were Buddhist or Bonpo, who would know when their death was impending and would ask a student to tie them up in a large sack, in a seated meditation posture, then to leave them and come back in a week or so. On returning only the hair, nails and teeth would remain in the sack. The living matter would have become so suffused with spirit through the years of correct meditation that it would transform into that realm on death. Strange what people get up to.

17.12.05

Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
Kahlil Gibran

16.12.05

"To Work Is to Contradict Contradictions,
to Do Violence to Natural Violence . . ."


To consummate
the inconsummate, and make of it

the unending. Work,
work, work.

Six days of the week you shall work,
on the seventh you shall think about it.

'Mary, pass the potatoes' becomes
division of subject & object.

Work, work, work.
Get them yourself.

Thought is a process of work,
joy is an issue of work.


Robert Creeley

Softness and Spirit

I was struck by the thought that came out of the writing process the other night (Teaching below) – stimulated no doubt by the softness of the sleeping cat I was cradling in my left arm (forcing a one-handed deliberation to the typing) – that attributes and abilities such as intelligence, talent, softness, application, can all be developed if that is what the student really wants. We all have energy – the ability to get things done – so if we don't do the work, or if we do it wrong, then it's because somewhere along the line we've made a conscious decision that our way is best – certainly superior to the teacher's. Of course this decision is being made all the time – it's called not listening, or not connecting – and it expresses itself in a multitude of different ways which agglutinate into what we call self. The marvel of human beings is their shear inventiveness – the seemingly infinite number of ways they've found of getting it wrong. It's the problem with Tai Chi, Heartwork, or any other teaching, that unless the student is correctly motivated – moving from the correct place and towards the correct place – they'll find a way of getting it wrong, that is their work will entrench them more firmly in the mire of self rather than working towards liberation. A correctly motivated person will tend to get things right – they have that secret pliant drift towards reality. So what is correct motivation? It's moving with the thrust of our basic humanity towards connectedness, and away from isolated selfishness. There are two qualities absolutely imperative: softness and spirit, the female and the male. Spirit, or focus, is the ability to husband your energies and bring them to bear solely on the task at hand – it tends to drift towards hardness, and softness is stripping yourself bare so that you have at least a chance of connecting to what's there rather than ignorantly and coarsely besmirching everything with you – it tends to drift towards dissipation. Softness and spirit stimulate and regulate each other – they need each other – and in a sense your work should be a healthy and garrulous conversation between the two. This is what I mean by dynamic equilibrium – the lively balance that's struck between male and female. When these interact then there is no end to the softening or enlivening process – the softer we become the stronger the spirit, and our vitality – our essential energy – is measured by the strength of each – the space between these two extremes. To progress correctly the student must bring these two qualities to bear and must become consumed by an interest in each and in their consequence – connectedness. Real progress will only happen when this interest consumes their own self-interest. It's like striving for an ideal – the image of the gallant knight battling the dragon (his own demons) to win the hand of the unimaginably soft maiden. Or perhaps a more interesting interpretation would be the gallant knight using the dragon (his energetic body) and his softness (the purity at his core) to attain the holy grail – divine connexion.

15.12.05

Prayer

For the past 2 or 3 months my teacher has been writing a prayer. “When it's finished it'll contain everything I know.” A beautiful idea – everything he knows in one fell swoop. There is one image in the present version which I particularly like – the work as febrifuge:

Sweep my courage down the face and fever-front of fear, its mourning for a facile dynasty, a ministry that turns aside, avoiding care.

And another:

connexions secret pliant drift towards reality

I remember he once told me that if your words come from the heart then each thing you say contains everything – has that feeling of completeness.
      SNOW FALL IN FOG


hard
to
see
either

through
both


John Phillips

14.12.05

Softness

As always when teaching I'm struck by the importance of softness. And its scarcity. With a class of advanced students you can be pretty sure that softness, or the magic of softness – the tingle and life of softness – will be absent. Everyone knows that softness is important, but few worship it and place it at the core of their being – an ideal they are constantly striving and failing to attain, and yet touching regularly, if only in others. On Monday night in Mallow there was one soft person in the room and she was probably the least visible and least recognized (certainly the least assuming) there, and yet when she entered the room it was as though she entered with an entourage or equipage of magical creatures, dancing attendance. When I put my hands on her during the application work I was lost despite the fact that she did everything 'wrong' – another confirmation of the triviality of technique. I can still feel the hole her softness created for me, and if I stay true it'll stay with me for the rest of my life. Experiences like these grow on you and increase in intensity with the passage of time – beacons of light shining through the darkness of self. What marked this person out, or set her apart from others, was the fact that she vibrated, or trembled, with something other than self – a nervousness and acute awareness of her own insignificance in the face of reality. Relaxation, if it is taken to mean sinking more deeply into self which it generally is, is deadly and repulsive. Real relaxation is the removal of tension so that you can feel and connect to what's really there, which is always totally awe-inspiring and just this side of overwhelming, especially this time of year. The verge (all three meanings – edge, wand and inclination) of life and death.

13.12.05



The swirling mists of Mallow. Responsible for a 4 hour detour to Shannon on my way into Ireland.

Teaching

Teaching in Mallow last night, and being quizzed by students who couldn't quite understand, I remembered that when I first started teaching, the advanced students would often tell me afterwards that I had given too much information. It really all depends on whether the teacher wants to create a space and experience dominated by words, rational explication and technicalities, or one oozing and dripping with energy, softness and mystery. Of course to create the latter the teacher much possess these qualities herself and must be strong and confident enough to draw these qualities (which are inherent in everybody and everything) out in/of their students. There's always the temptation to say a lot, partly because as a teacher you're often on a roll – the stimulation and stress of the teaching experience has forced you to a new and clearer understanding yourself which, being a generous person you are inclined to share, knowing as you do that sharing brings things together. The problem with this is that what's generated by the session may be particular to that session and may not be deep enough to have any relevance after the session has finished. The rational process is beautifully but dangerously generative – it extrapolates and interpolates into all sorts of areas and arenas it's not really qualified to go and can give a feeling of knowing to the ignorant. But this is only ever tinkering or scratching a surface, and will never lead to significant change or ego reduction (softening), it'll simply clutter the mind with clear shiny objects. Clarity is as much a curse as a blessing.

The teacher is also tempted to over-teach because she knows that a reasonably high proportion of those present are either not going to practice at all or are sufficiently stupid to practice the wrong thing given half a chance, and so whilst the teacher has their company and attention she struggles to make things as clear and straightforward as possible. Again, clarity is a curse.

My teacher always used to say to me, “I can't do the work for you, and even if I could, I wouldn't.”

Concentrating too much on postures and techniques will intimidate some and satisfy others in the wrong way. If anything give too little rather than too much (stay connected to your energy and resist the mind's temptations) – that way you allow the student to go away and find out for themselves through their own work and practice – discovery being an empowering experience. If the students don't do the work or do it wrong then you have to understand that that is their choice – they actually choose to be lazy or stupid – usually by being distracted by something else. These choices have been made very early in life – certainly before Tai Chi. To change this in students is well-nigh impossible. I've seen my teacher try every trick in the book to wake people up and still fail. That is one of the reasons he stopped teaching publicly – he realized students were using him as a spiritual crutch rather than a stimulus to deeper work. For the student to change they must really want to (with every particle of their being) – even then it's difficult. That change will then happen through grace, which the teacher encourages through their own work and dedication and consequent ability to draw energy and connectedness into which ever space they inhabit. What's important is that you have done the work yourself, as teacher and student, and are well prepared for the teaching – that is, connected and energized.

11.12.05



    I was suddenly
required to be
like my soul:

Slippage

Slipping is a mysterious business. When someone slips you it feels that having known precisely where they are, suddenly they are gone, only to appear somewhere else almost instantly. It’s as though they have leapt through space and time. I suspect that this ability stems from working on other levels than the obvious one. A rough and simplistic depth line would be body, energy, spirit, heart, soul. Each underpins its predecessor and flowers from its successor. Mind can stem from any really – it depends how deeply you feel. I remember dear old Chris Brown – so uneducated that the rational process, which lets face it is quite unnatural, used to fill him with such anxiety and stress that it would feel that someone was moving the furniture around the room whenever he tried to think. However, when he was left to his own devices his mind would erupt from his other faculties quite beautifully and appropriately. If the person you are working with is operating on a deeper level, then their presence, on the operational level you are working, will feel ephemeral and misty and will be constantly slipping. Relaxation is simply slipping down a level on the depth line. So we relax the body to connect with our energy, etc. So if your partner is constantly slipping you it may feel that they are being clever and evasive, but really they are challenging you to their level which just requires you to relax. Unfortunately, working with a more advanced person can be disconcerting and the last thing on your mind is relaxation, especially when working with your teacher, who will always toy effortlessly with you. However, if you manage to suppress your natural fear in such a situation and relax just a little then the other will draw you into their space. It’s the nature of communication to want to happen, so to avoid it or miscommunicate (not hear) actually requires a lot of effort and always comes from not taking the other for what they are; projecting aspects of yourself onto the situation. We always create our own reality, so it’s entirely up to you whether it’s a beautiful one or an ugly one.

10.12.05


Emily is 175 today.
God bless her - she's the greatest.

Could mortal lip divine
The undeveloped Freight
Of a delivered syllable
'Twould crumble with the weight.

9.12.05

To Ireland later today (back Tuesday) so there may be less activity here than usual.

Multifacetedness

A point/object in space, when observed has a left and right, a top and bottom, and a front and back. When we regard these dual aspects we effectively cleave the point, first in two, then into four and then into eight. The space between the parts is the energy of cleavage, or the energy of bondage, depending on how you look at it. When you see and feel an object as a play of opposing extremes, even in a simplistic spatial manner like this, then you turn the object into energy – your regarding works the object and transforms both it, and yourself in the process. Take your hand as the object. It has a front and back. It also has a top and bottom – finger tips and wrist, and it has a left and right edge – little finger edge and thumb/forefinger edge respectively. When you consider one of these pairs – say the last of the three – the left and right edges, and you allow these two edges/aspects to come apart and have some separate identity, then the space between – the hand – becomes charged. It's difficult to know why this happens. It may be because the mind finds it difficult to regard two things at once and so to give an impression of duality flits at great speed between the two, energizing the space between, but I suspect it has more to do with the heart. The heart is always wanting to open and to fill and be filled. When you open a door you pull or push it away from its jam – you separate two edges. Effectively the same with the heart – as it opens it expands – its boundaries move apart and the space between fills. The action of the heart is to fill, and so to fill an object it naturally and playfully considers these dual aspects – it cleaves and separates and fills the spaces it creates – it permeates the whole object rather than concentrating on only its central part. No dead space. The mind fixes, pointedly and singularly. The heart shares. It gives and takes, from one to the other, and part of its nature is to be softly aware of the two or more relating parts. To think of oneness or unity as a congealing of separate entities is wrong. Oneness is the dancing heart energy between the two – either the coming together of two discrete entities in the act of communication, or the separation of the dual aspects of the single entity. The space between. It is a weird and wonderful fact that the way you regard something changes both the thing you're regarding and yourself. When you become interested in the multifacetdness of things and the interrelatedness of things, rather than simply registering their physical presence, then your heart is naturally involved, and when your heart is naturally involved in everything you do then you are working with love – you are in love. Love should be blind - impartial and unconditional. When you are in love then everything sings with your love and everything confirms your love.

8.12.05


If you cannot be a poet, be the poem.
David Carradine, who is 69 today.

7.12.05



Honeysuckle
scent like
an open vowel

wrung out
in the rain's
gloss-

olalia.

Joseph Massey

Time

My teacher has pointed out on more than one occasion that his best students have often been musicians. The obvious reason for this is that such students know what it means to practice. Learning to play a musical instrument well is probably the most difficult task a person can set themselves. It requires the humble taking of instruction along with tens of thousands of hours of solitary practice, and develops an intimacy with the learning process that few other endeavors will supply. However, I suspect the main reason is that when playing music you are actually working in real time which requires you to be able to feel, create, ride and slip time. You can only do this if your technique is so sound that you forget it – if you're worrying about the right notes or the correct phrasing then the music you're creating wont be buoyant. Riding time is not a matter of establishing a beat or a groove and then using that to thrust you forwards, but more to do with establishing a sustained and sustaining creative process by letting your energy out in a disciplined (playing the right notes) but abandoned (letting it fly) manner. You are doing two things at once – your fingers are involved in an immensely complicated and controlled sequence of movements and yet your spirit is riding high, intensely involved in the process of communication. Together these establish a space sufficiently attractive to seduce listeners in. Once this starts anything can happen – in the sense that what comes out of the occasion is not necessarily bound by the limitations of those involved. It's almost as though your expertise and training trap time, or distract it, so that your spirit can slip through it and start to operate outside of its boundaries. This is precisely what happens whenever you engage another entity. There is generally a structure to the exchange, whether the give and take of pushing hands or just the words of a conversation, but there is always something happening under, above and beyond this, energetically and spiritedly (spiritually), and it's these level that are important because they are not constrained by time – they don't stop when the exchange finishes. Softness is really just the ability to operate on these subliminal levels, outside of the hard spatial and temporal confines of the engagement. This is why a soft person (or animal – think of kittens or puppies), although often weak of energy, can be so effectively disarming and affecting – something about them slips through your defences and transforms.

I'm not saying that I believe musicians are generally superior people – I have known many and can safely say that they are not, they have been just as stiff and stale, just as locked into self-image as the average person. This is because their learning has often stopped – they continue to practice but only to maintain a level of proficiency (their self-image) which they acquired quite young, rather than to stretch their boundaries and break through their limitations: their technique becomes another acquisition (a hardening) rather than a liberation. It is important to take instruction long enough for your progress (destiny) to be assured, otherwise, spiritually at least, it's all a waste of time.

6.12.05

waves
clutch

almost
the shore

almost

let go

John Phillips

5.12.05

Balance

Assi sent me this link to online video footage of Kyuzo Mifune (1883-1965), the great judo master, strutting his stuff. My teacher used to cite him as one of the only non-Tai Chi masters to appear to have a rudimentary understanding of uprooting. David Knight recently sent me footage of Ueshiba in action and I was quite surprised at how coarse his energy is - certainly no uprooting in evidence there, or indeed any short energy (or yielding for that matter). He has great spirit but his students don't, so that vital between-energy (heart-energy) never gets a chance to operate. It is so important for a teacher to try his utmost to drag his students up to his level. It is only by doing so that he will continue to advance. There is always stuff inside that hasn't yet surfaced, but it needs stimulation to reveal itself, and for a master whose own teachers have passed on, that stimulation generally comes from his advanced students.

Another thing that struck me about the Ueshiba footage is the complete absence of female energy. Over 30 of John's students went to visit Dr Chi in the 1980's for Tai Chi instruction and Dr Chi said that without exception all the women were better than all the men. Softness is a feminine quality - it comes natural to the female; softness is a woman's strength and power. Male softness is very different. For a man his softness is his weakness and fragility and vulnerability. His aloneness. In a natural world the male is a tiny speck in a sea of female energy – a thin line of Y-chromosomes stretching back into a mass of X's. This is why men have created a predominantly masculine world – a world of tall buildings, straight lines, right angles, and technology, where the natural power of the female is suppressed – it helps him feel secure, and strong in that security. However, in his stupidity he has failed to realize that it is precisely his aloneness in the predominantly female universe that keeps him forever vigilant and on his mettle and sufficiently pressured and stimulated to express his natural masculine power which has nothing to do with muscles or brains or hardness and everything to do with keeping alive a vision or a dream of the connected beyond – the perfect woman, or what my teacher calls perfection's soul, and communion and union with that perfection. Olson was right to stress the importance of mythology – the story – the energetic environment rather than the physical one. If we had done this then the world certainly wouldn't be as filthy as we've made it. It's time to remythologise – to breath life and soul back into the mundane – to reanimate the universe and place the male and female back in their rightful place. This is what the Tai Chi class should be: a model of the natural world. The only other place I've found it is in poetry.

4.12.05

The Garment of Beyond

Dr Chi Chiang-Tao, my master's most significant Tai Chi teacher, translated the first sentence of the Tai Chi Classics as “Light and nimble – like a monkey.” It is by far the best translation I've seen and it's a great shame he didn't bother with the rest of the Ching – he may possibly have managed to breathe a bit of life into it. Light/nimble comes from spirit. Spirit is expressed in the eyes. Softness however comes from heart and soul, and we're beginning to realize that it is a far more fundamental and important quality than either lightness or spirit. Spirit dances, it's playful and mischievous, you need to rouse it to get the most out of whatever situation you're in. Quick wits. You can also buy it in bottles. Just take a swig and almost instantly your spirits rise and hey presto you're able and inclined to communicate and interact. Heart and soul aren't so shallow. Soul is deeper than deep. It resides in the sacrum. It's misty and damp to spirit's fire. The holy ghost. It is already connected and cannot be contained or separated. It receives its nourishment from the earth and from the common soul and it feeds the heart. Heart is like the living expression of soul. It's warm, it beats, it opens, embraces and gives. It's what life is all about. Without it there is no life. John once asked Dr Chi the highest level of Tai Chi. Dr Chi thought for a while and then said just one word – Nothing. Softness is the expression of Nothing. It just means there's nothing in the way – the path is clear – heart to heart, the mingling soul. Mind is firstly the awareness of heart, and secondly the awareness of things. One bite of the apple and the mist clears and things are seen in their discrete glory. (Apples do have this effect – I use them to clear and lighten the mind – they cleanse.) Our original sin isn't that we take that bite but that we so willingly allow the mind to run away with itself and become a separate entity – we put it on a pedestal it doesn't deserve. When you're correctly stacked the sacrum resides in the earth, the heart in the sacrum and the mind in the heart. Then you are correctly coordinated and the mind is just a door back into the mists of your being rather than the creator of constructs and conceits to impress and intimidate. We've all known soulful people – I think of John and Assi and Roberto and Pip – old souls – you feel you've known them for thousands of years and will continue to know them for thousands of years. Timeless relationships. They're shrouded in what my teacher calls the garment of beyond – "a raiment bedecked with jewels" – you always have the feeling you can't get that close to them but you don't need to because they're already inside.

3.12.05



    the natural
    so complex
    but

Tender Times

Wonderful though strange time of year this. A tender time. A time of introspection – a looking inside, right inside, into genes. The first week of December always feels like a turning point, turning into a different energetic space where the coarse activity of generation – growth and decay – have quietened sufficiently for what's really there to reveal itself. This feeling stays until well into January, and the year's energy doesn't really pick up until the beginning of February. The important thing is to acknowledge this time as special and allow yourself to work differently – sensitively and softly with less of a physical grind (if you carry on the way you were you'll get ill). The year's momentum has stopped so there is no longer that drive and continuity, giving you a wonderful opportunity to sink into aspects of your ancestry and whatever ancient teachings reside within. This will happen naturally – it wants to happen, and it will happen if you manage to resist the social pressures this time of year to overindulge and stupify. Back in the Wimpole Street days of the BTCCA my teacher would have his centre open over the Christmas break (often including Christmas day) for daily 4-6 hour pushing-hands sessions. Add to that my own 4-5 hours of solo practice and it made for quite perfect days, and he always used to say that if you managed to make each session you'd be a different person at the end of the week. He was always right. The rest of the year was spent realizing and coming to terms with what came up during this special week. The same way that the rest of your life is spent coming to terms with important transmissions in your past – especially from childhood. My strongest memories – and they're getting stronger – are of my grandfather – my dad's dad – who died in 64 when I was just 5. He was a real formative influence, energetically, and it's strange – I see him as though he's in front of me, or at my side, although I feel him behind me, as though he's becoming, or has been all along, my guardian self – the energy mass that resides behind. He was such a gentle man – the only one who really understood.
the white page darkens
with the soup of dusk

a world of no distinction
and unreflected presence

cool eyes lost
the body wakens

to feel the looming evocation
and hear the quiet incantation

of life’s
gentle passage

time suspended
night’s quiet intensity

dispels the clarity
that blinds me

to the essence
of the whole world here

at this tender time
of love and feeling

2.12.05



Joseph Massey's latest book of poems – Bramble – arrived at the weekend, from the man himself in Arcata, California. It is a stunningly beautiful book, not too small, with sewn left edge and rich smooth paper (every experience is tactile – reading no less so), in a short print run of 250. All the poems are lunes of 13 syllables, 5-3-5, shorter than the haiku, a form invented by Robert Kelly: "all the English haiku I found or tried to write seemed flabby or slack. Maybe 17 were too many syllables for English, which is much more monosyllabic than Japanese. I tried trimming, and got finally to a 5-3-5 pattern, concave rather than convex, 13 syllables, number of the lunar months. I called the form a lune, and wrote many. In older English, lune also means madness."

These are wonderful poems - they extend with long gentle fingers, seeping and insinuating, opening up your energy, but staying with you all the way. Poems from, of and to the heart. Working hard at Tai Chi the body and the energy take a bit of a battering – the legs get sore and the energy opens up and you feel raw and vulnerable. The problem then with resting and recovering is that the energy tends to curl up and close in on itself in reaction. I use poetry to help that energy horizon – that tingling edge – stay extended and open – to keep part of me reaching out and vibrating with the common soul whilst I'm relaxing and recuperating. Massey's poems are ideal for this because they don't dictate or demand, they just give – they yield. When reading his work I'm always reminded of what William Carlos Williams said about Charles Olson: “he has a feeling for his fellow man which staggers me.” If you'd like a copy email Hot Whiskey Press first to ask for airmail postal rate. Wherever you live it's going to cost less than £10 which for such a treasure is nothing.
          there's a metaphor
behind each
breath your life lets go
Ron Silliman reviews this book today on his blog. Obviously great minds do think alike.

1.12.05

The Energy Horizon

The thing about the Tai Chi class is that it encourages you to relax and as you do so it draws your energy out into the group. Your extensive possibilities begin to manifest: your energy gets out there and starts to take instruction from the energy of the group, led and directed by the teacher. Such instruction is always on a level you can't really feel, or let's say there are levels of instruction far beyond whatever you do feel. There is no real substitute for this and those students who learn privately from a teacher without the opportunity for group interaction never quite get it. The teacher's close company is as much a barrage as anything and whilst it will alter your energy quite dramatically it will not really encourage you to relax wholesomely the way the class will. The relaxation and support you receive and give by working in the group of peers is very similar to what happens when you finally start to relax and settle correctly into your life. It's not a matter of finding a niche or a rut into which to slot, or staying true to a vision or a dream or a feeling of specialness – these are all limiting and confined. It's about spreading out and getting your energy – your better part – out there into the world (of energy) and having it work for you, and having it worked on (for you). Beyond the imagination. Part of you is always in and with the unknown and so you are always picking up things and feeling things you have no idea about. This can be overwhelming or it can be exciting – it depends on how you choose to take it – as a victim or as a warrior. And this is a matter of choice, although once you have a taste for the warrior way you realize that the life of the victim is no life at all. As your energy starts to extend you begin to bristle and vibrate with nervousness and vigilance (this is what the teacher will encourage) – you know something is going on but have no way of knowing what it is. This bristling is a subtle tension which balances your developing relaxation, keeping some limit to your extensibility, but also, through the law of dynamic equilibrium, keeping your edges frayed, tender, and above all, open. When the feelings get too much, or your energy's down, or your confidence has taken a knock, then this tingling horizon will contract through over-stimulation. Then is the time to work on relaxing – gentle, slow sweeping movements – as simple and with as little muscle contraction as possible. When you feel happy and relaxed and willing, then is the time to investigate the subtle micro-movements and tensions in the Form – to get your energy singing. It's all a matter of regulation: having the maturity and the discipline to do what's required rather than what you want. The difficult one to learn is the nervousness – the taste for danger. For that you need to be prepared to take many blows. And you need a damned good teacher. And you need to be a damned good student – one prepared to take those blows from the teacher without fleeing for the hills.
To look for God
look like God.
To find water in the earth
cut your dowsing fork
from one of water's trees
(hazel, willow, cottonwood)
& hold it as if backwards
turned in your hands
so that the lawfulness
of hidden water
deep below the earth
will act upon the fork
to make it flow straight
as water does
always obedient
to its one possibility.


Robert Kelly