Watching movies, for me, is a sign that I'm getting unbearably lonely.
Spiritual work is all about breaking the spell of ego, of selfishness, of the cozy world. This always requires the falling under a different spell – that of a teacher and a teaching – for however long it takes. Eventually however that spell must also be broken so that you can enter the world as it is: a ground – a battle ground – of spirit.
The past decade, for me, has been informed, if not governed, by three quotes:
1. Every entity has feelings, including electrons (AN Whitehead)
2. In my past life I was a cloud, and I was very happy being a cloud (Thich Nhat Hanh)
3. I fell in love with Taiji (John Kells).
The first two stress my continuity with the rest of creation, in particular with a non-organic life independent of awareness and consciousness, and the third expresses just how all-consuming my passion and devotion to Taiji must become.
The first stage of Taiji is the development of a root. This is a protracted process of switching allegiance from unreliable modes of support such as family, State, culture, identity, ego, to the eminently reliable physical support of the Earth – the ground beneath one's feet and the all-embracing field of gravity. This work (and it is work – hard work) must become central to one's life otherwise it just won't happen. Without a daily practice regime that steadily becomes the focus and core of not only the day but a life, there may still be hope (attending weekly classes) but no progress beyond the superficial adoption of a Taiji veneer.
The external is known – captured – by naming. Giving and calling a name doesn't simply attach a label, though, it bestows an essence and permanence that then resists the energy from which the named emerge and immerge. Reality, or at least the world, the mind, is then a space littered with names, and, it would seem, by its very nature, language provides such spaces and little else. Our struggle is to clear the space of names and naming so that it can fill with flux and becoming. Poetry has always been a means of using language differently, stretching and twisting it, to transform the mind and evoke energy and spirit. When the poem is over the world is momentarily freed of my hardness, my discourse, and starts to hum. Taiji, of course, is also poetry, created from a language of movement and posture.
Beware the Taiji slump. It is only the lower dantien that connects and roots into the Earth so that the upper dantien can reach for the Heavens, leaving the middle dantien (heart) free to interact with whomever I'm facing. This means that I need to get used to splitting my mind three-ways so that I can work all three connexions at the same time all the time.
Try to remember the feeling of a heart rent by grief or rejection – lost love. The unbearable openness, the known world crumbling. The good student feels this as truth, and that gives her the courage to not only bear it but, through decades of practice, to eventually transform it to bliss. The poor student feels simply pain which they endeavor to avoid at all costs. The mediocre student also feels it as pain, a pain they pull away from only to realise that it was simply the pain of being intensely alive. They must then not only live with regret but also with the knowledge that, in all likelihood, they will always lack the courage.
If therapy aims to heal the wounds, or at least plaster them over, then spiritual work opens them up and encourages them to bleed. Wounds, traumas, are not negatives to be vanquished for the sake of an integrated ego – conformity, but gateways to the soul of creativity. Ask any artist worth their salt.
When the heart drops the belly rises, and when the belly sinks the heart lifts. This is the nature of relationship in Taiji – never locked, always equilibrating – elastic. A locked relationship is one ruled by anxiety. Equilibrium, founded on trust and relaxation, is always breathing, expanding and contracting, letting go only to return, differently.
Yielding is a joyful (affirmative) technique for transforming force into energy. It does this by playing with the equilibrium between active and reactive forces such that turning moments are introduced into the system. The play is creative – spontaneous and unconsidered – and is an attempt to restore equilibrium by creating new configurations. Ask any master of yielding what they do in the heat of the moment and the reply will always be: I have no idea.
Practice through repetition can take two forms: the repetitions generate gradual improvement – the case of learning a skill, or the repetitions create a series of events – this would be more like repeating a performance (or repeating a well-known Form) where success is measured not by accuracy but by the life and spirit invested in or generated by the performance. For example Miles Davis performed If I Were A Bell thousands of times in the 50's and 60's, yet each recorded instance, of which there are numerous, is a singularly beautiful event: each comes alive on its own terms.
Dedicated longtime students must, at some point (hopefully before it's too late), ask themselves if their devotion and loyalty is serving them or is it just a sign of dependence and fear of breaking a long corrupted relationship. It is really the teacher's responsibility to attend to such situations but they generally don't: a case of mistaking weakness for hope.
I suspect the reason children generally possess such a light carefree physicality is that their heads haven't yet learnt to lock onto their environment in order to force it to conform to their expectations of it. They are largely free of ideas and ideals, but with wonderful imaginations. They live in a world of make-believe, which, in a sense, is the best form of faith.
In order to house the crazy multiplicity of becomings and contradictions that is reality in all its glory, without losing one's mind (without actually becoming schizophrenic), requires a life devoted not to thought or creativity or expression, but to the opposite of these: no-mind. Only once one has achieved a level of control over the ego can the heart-mind, empty then of self, fill with the cosmos.
"Cease activity and return to stillness
And that stillness will be ever more active."
A good teacher is someone who shows you where you are failing. They are, and will always be, the least popular people on the planet. There is a Taiji adage: the best teachers have the fewest students. If a good teacher wants to earn a respectable living by teaching then he has to learn to constantly bite his tongue.
The combination of relaxed movement and a quiet mind allows active affects to emerge from the energy, the unconscious, the depths. These feelings become pointers, embryo thoughts, inklings, that affect, correct, my life. It then truly becomes my life. And this is the responsibility, the destiny, of all of us – to use life to investigate life so that life can draw us to live a better life – one less conditioned and less conditional – one that realises a humanity and then rejects it as yet another snare, another distraction.
Meditation teachers are very fond of imagery. One popular image used to promote the notion of stillness is that of cloudy water being allowed to settle so that it becomes clear and transparent – see-through (like most images, it privileges the sense of seeing over the other senses). If we take the image further we can see that the settled sediment becomes a thick sticky mud and there is always the possibility that our refined stillness will cause us to become entrapped in that sludge – stuck in the mud. Taiji turning stirs up the sediment, causing it to rise and swirl around us. As the turning becomes more vigorous turbulence sets in and the swirling (energy) takes on a life of its own. Now the image illustrates that creativity requires a shift from the passive extensive realm with its neurotic concern with what's out there, to an active intensive realm where visibility is reduced to zero but life springs spontaneously and unpredictably forth from our own power.
Turning, perhaps the most important principle in Taiji, is not just a technique but a philosophy and a way of life. Greeting the becoming present, fresh and open, without the advantage of an extrapolated past. Turning my back on the past, the has been, which doesn't mean ignoring it but storing that energy in the back and developing hindsight. Returning with the light expectation, the hope, of change.
Taiji is a Taoist art and as such its fundamental principle is that of balance. In particular the balance or equilibrium of yin and yang. Neither choosing one over the other nor allowing them to fuse into a deathly stillness but keeping them always distinct (clearly distinguish full and empty) and always moving (suddenly appear, suddenly disappear). The mind eventually becomes mature and understanding enough to hold both together, and then one's whole being resonates with the hum of their oscillation.
The sinking associated with relaxation isn't just a release to gravity, it is also a sinking into time – back into time. A revitalisation of one's energetic past – a pure past that was never quite present – aswim with all that was and all that could have been – a tense language fails. Such a time is total – nonlinear, non-sequential – containing future(s) as well as past(s); an energetic continuum where life and death have neither relevance nor dominion.
Whenever the teacher says something that the student finds threatening, either to their ego or their world order, the first response is always fear, we can't help it. This fear expresses itself in incredulity and protest – this is natural. It's what happens next that is all important. The good student will go home, clear their mind, relax and dwell on what has been said until they at least feel, if not totally understand, the truth behind it. They then act upon it. The mediocre student will almost immediately appeal to rational argument in their defence – they will build a case for their own position and create all sorts of rational but incorrect reasons for the teacher having uttered what they did. They resist. The poor student resorts to ridicule, mockery and laughter – they are so terrified that they cannot countenance any part of what was said – they basically have no idea.
The thing that no philosopher has fully appreciated, not since the Greeks, is that to think the unthinkable – namely difference – requires an athlete's body and a warrior's spirit. Something has to hold you together and stop you from being destroyed by the tornado unleashed by true freedom. So, instead of the physical world offering a multitude of possibilities and the calculating mind anxiously making choices, the quiet mind creates a virtual ground which the body navigates, without thinking, with the aid of spirit.
It doesn't matter how advanced I think I am, how much work I think I've done, if I can't listen and take correction whenever it's offered (which is all the time — every second) then I'm useless. Remember, the work reduces us to the obedience of God, or Spirit, or Whatever; it doesn't, or shouldn't, puff us up.
Meditation and fighting represent two temporal extremes. Meditation slow and passive, the gap between stimulus and response so stretched that effectively there is no response – only quiet acceptance or disinterest. Fighting struggles for a sensitivity that is so quick and immediate that effectively there is no gap between stimulus and response. Two extreme solutions to the problem of clearing the mind sufficient for spirit to manifest.
"Art has this strange prophetic function: it is made in the present, from the materials at hand, but calls out to something else. This is its future orientation." And this is the nature of progress: never a linear trudge from past to future through a passing present, but a call from/to a possible future (the lyrical dream), which, when heeded, vitalizes the present and brings new meaning to the past.
I cannot fight ego because 'I' is ego. The only things I can usefully fight are those parts of me that the ego has installed as impediments to spirit, namely fear and laziness. When spirit is strong and pure (detached from subjectivity) it will eventually subdue the ego until it is little more than an embarrassment. Fighting fear and laziness is a lifelong campaign. And remember: the worst form of laziness is working hard at the wrong thing: working in the service of ego.
There is always something rather pathetic and inconsequential about domesticated animals. We naturally sense that by robbing them of their wildness and spirit, and making them dependent upon us, they have been reduced to mere shadows of what they would be in the wild – in their natural state and habitat. This must be how the powers that be, all the more insidious and dangerous for being largely invisible, feel when they look at us.