Human beings, as their intelligence ascends and their spirit declines, tread really dodgy ground. We are now in a situation where it is relatively easy for a reasonably good intellect to get the better of superior spirit. What this means is that reality, which is largely spirit, can no longer be relied upon for feedback or regulation. We really are on our own.
Upper heart (thymus) is important because it allows me to become a king and thereby govern my affairs with dignity, nobility and wisdom. Each of the three deep centres offers a throne upon which I sit depending upon the care and attention required.
Most of us on this crazy path yearn for shortcuts. But we are deluding ourselves. Not because they don't exist, but because the only reason we need all this work in the first place is because, deep down, in all honesty, we don't really want the terrible freedom and responsibility (loneliness) it promises. Only when we are totally convinced that there is no viable alternative will we embrace it. It's this that takes time.
If the legs secure the belly then the hips will get tense and energy will not pass between upper and lower body. It should be my sobriety and probity – my inner silence – my desire for peace – on the one hand, and my total fascination in the world around me – my passion – my desire for new connexion – on the other, that stabilizes and secures my base.
School, for most of us, was a tedious time: wrenching the mind and body out of the energetic reality of its immediate environment, and submerging (drowning) it in a confusing world of language, ideas and concepts. Taiji aims to reverse this process.
Sacrum is sanctum, and meditation is a long slow process of opening up this room – of locating and residing in this center. Only when I am pure, quiet and still will I ever sink low enough to gain access.
"Once one has made the turn onto this strange road, a world of difference opens up. What looks like a narrow passageway from the entrance, turns out to have all kinds of byways, pathways, way stations — it becomes a world of its own."
The elbows should feel as though they have weights hanging from them. This is because they are connected to the sacrum/dantien which is constantly pulled by the Earth. The knees should feel as though they have strings attached from above. This is because they are connected to the heart which, when unburdened of anxiety, lifts in joy and delight. These are the two expressions of love in our work: the love of Earth (gravity) and the love of God (spiritual connexion). We should endeavour to allow these two forces into every particle of our being.
In the old days, the days of masters and slaves, masters had a thymus – an upper heart – which directed bearing and action. It is a gland, which in most is now atrophied, where self-confidence, self-esteem and pride were centered. Slaves, on the otherhand, had no thymus – it was beaten out of them with subjugation and cruelty by the masters – and so they developed the slave equivalent: ego, which, effectively, is just a long catalogue of complaint and resentment. This is why the only way to subdue the ego is to develop warrior spirit: make yourself master, if only of yourself and your actions. Worthy of thymos.
A re-centering – out of mind and into body – out of the head and into the belly. Only one requirement: a willingness (indeed a desire) to smile (indeed to laugh) for joy. Then the heart and the energy open up.
Meditation finds/creates silence and gathers it in the belly/sacrum where it acts as ballast, lowering the center of gravity and stabilizing the body, thereby allowing the hips and legs to become free to engage the Earth in a relationship of delight and joy.
For most of us the Taiji Form is the trace of an articulated object moving through space: a flurry of arms and legs, with very little real internal transformation. This is what I mean by collapse: form without content: becoming habitual: an inversion of what Taiji is meant to be: creative energy flowing, indeed surging, through time. Making anew.
Taiji is an energetic art. It aims to make those points of contact with the world – particularly hands, feet and face – interfaces across which energy is always flowing, always in both directions at once. This is our mindfulness: simple and continual attention to this fact: a becoming energetic. A becoming energy.
A good student is essentially stubborn. That stubbornness serves them well in guaranteeing their continuing study, but serves them ill by making change particularly difficult to bear if not countenance.
Creativity has nothing to do with making things up. It's all to do with being swallowed up in a living process — being swallowed up by life. And practice (work) is the investigation of what it means to be alive, to be swallowed up.
When the attention lingers it builds up and becomes restless (assuming the mind doesn't wander and the energy dissipate). This is then intent: gathering, intensifying attent that wants to move, and is all too willing to follow a fiercely concentrated mind. This stage is characterized by an intensification of feeling which we call pain, and is why most of us shrink from intent, our own and that of others: it's generally too much to bear. But bear it we must. In fact we need to become immersed in its passional power if we ever want this work to lead us out of the mire of conventionality and into the magical.
The more stable and secure the dantien, the more the consciousness – heart & head – can, and will, in time, open and expand. To do this artificially, with drugs or therapy or group energy, is akin to using force and will eventually weaken both the body and the mind unless consolidated with real work, work that insistently brings me back to the humble reality of the intersection between here and now and my own limitations.
Great teaching shakes every student to their very core. Even poor students, who must then mock and laugh to extricate themselves from its grip. And, as the Daodejing points out, if they don't laugh then it wasn't great teaching. Which is why, when you've been at this game for any length of time, you learn to take the mockery of others as confirmation. Or, as my dear old grandfather used to say: "When a cunt calls you a cunt, take it as a compliment."
A gift economy is one where you give more than necessary in the hope that the relationship will develop. A modern economy is one where you take more than is reasonable knowing that you'll never see the sucker again.
Relaxation is, first and foremost, a coming back to my energy. This is the Buddhist present moment. Not the state of affairs, but my own energy: the connectedness I bring to that state of affairs. And this is the level at which I must love myself. I don't love my ego, my opinions, my cleverness, my chiseled good looks, I simply love dwelling in my energy — there is nowhere else I would rather be.
The good student is a delicate soul. Quite content to get on with the work under her own steam and with minimal supervision, she must be treated with the utmost care and respect by the teacher who may mistake her talent and enthusiasm for mastery. Too much exposure to the teaching and she will retreat behind a wall of stubbornness and effectively become a poor student. The only person to blame for such a tragedy is the teacher. Imagine the karma attached to that.
Consider an army platoon, at ease. Thirty odd comrades chatting, milling about, messing around. Suddenly the lieutenant calls them to attention and they stop what they're doing and stand in formation awaiting orders. Orders are given and the platoon is mobilized. These three states: at ease, attention, mobilization, are analogous to the three states of a Taiji mind: relaxation, attention, intention. Relaxation is chaotic energy, contained but undirected. Attention is a marshalling of energy and awareness: a mind gathered and present, bristling with expectation. Intention is a command for that attentive energy to move, to become active. These three states are also the three stages of Taiji training. The beginning stage (learning the Form) aims to relax and release the body, the second stage trains the mind to be quiet and attentive (perfecting the Form), the third is using the mind to direct energy through the postures (using the Form): intending rather than thinking form.
Most of us seem to subsist as overfed yet undernourished automata: chronically exhausted and periodically frazzled. Both safe and sorry, we have traded in the edge of our warrior spirit for a cozy comfortable existence. We are the worst form of slaves: willing slaves, without even the energy to imagine an alternative. And this is the tragedy: our imagination is now refuge rather than forge: a place to flee rather than a place from which to create vibrant viable alternatives.
Tense shoulders effectively shorten the arms and make the hands more easily controlled by the manipulating mind. The hands then become excellent tools for moving things around but lose their true function which is to transmit energy through touch. When the shoulders relax the hands will feel distant and alien – as though they don't belong. And in fact they no longer do, not to the same mind anyway.
Back in 1980, against the advice of all who knew me well, I started a PhD. After doing all the necessary work I got bored and, like many research students, struggled to write the thesis. By 1984 I had pretty much resigned myself to not completing. Then I got a bossy girlfriend who convinced me that if I didn't finish I would spend the rest of my life regretting it, so I buckled down and wrote up. About ten years later my teacher took me aside and we had a little chat:
"Finishing that PhD was one of the worst decisions you ever made."
"Because it's put you on top of something you may never climb down from."
The desire for new connections. This is what keeps us young. Not so much new things to connect to, which would require an expansion of territory, but new ways of connecting, which requires an intensification, an improvement in my energy, a deeper understanding.
Meditation struggles to retrieve and develop the prelinguistic mind: the mind before words, before mediation. In fact, it is a mind devoid of any signification. Such a mind does not think in the normal way but it does work, largely through intention, by intending energy into a vector, a direction, a flow. So, for example, the lowly amoeba does not think, not in the way we do anyway, but it does intend otherwise it would not move or envelop.
Mindfulness is about becoming more aware, about seeing connexions. Heartfulness is about filling those connections with feeling, energy, love through touch. Mind aims for clarity and wisdom: enlightenment. Heart for life and passion: transformation.
Traditionally, the Samurai warrior meditates on death, his own death, especially before battle. In fact he enters battle firmly convinced that he is already dead. He does this for purely practical reasons: it makes him unafraid of death and therefore better able to take life-threatening risks. He understands that in face-to-face combat, the only honorable way to fight, he can only threaten life by putting his own equally at risk. It is impossible for us to even imagine the level of liveliness, the pitch of intensity, the absolute death and therefore life in such a warrior. And this is my point: only when death looms large and impending, if not inevitable, do I become truly alive.
Step like a cat. This famous instruction is itself worthy of a lifetime's study. Stepping like a cat requires me to become a cat, at least in the way I relate to my immediate surroundings: gently stalking with stealth and curiosity; fascinated by everything whilst remaining imperiously aloof.
The quality of my relationship with the Earth sets the ground, and ultimately determines, the quality of all my relationships. And it's all in the footfall: do I plant my foot by banging down my heel and thereby pushing the ground away from me – a careless action that unknowingly encourages an "us & them" attitude to everything else – or do I caress the ground with the front of my foot and draw the Earth up into me – a dance that as well as creating compassion also seduces spirit to rise and embed me in the midst of the event.
Most people sacrifice their spirit and their destiny for the sake of a comfortable well-to-do life – the Bourgeois Dream; and they are well aware of what they're doing. We, impeccable warriors, sacrifice everything else for the sake of our spirit: a daunting, near impossible task. My teacher used to say that the most important thing for the warrior is companionship: a network of like-minded souls always willing to give a positive boost of energy to a comrade who finds himself dragged down by the claws of convention. Without such help on hand there is always the risk of being sucked down instead by your own negative responses to the tawdriness of conventionality.
All social and political action, designed to shift the balance of power, will eventually play into the hands of the powers on high. This is because, ultimately, those powers are not the few mega-rich families that rule the world, and certainly not the governments, but the very powers of evil – what used to be called the devil – that sap not just our time and hard earned cash but our spirits and ultimately our souls. The only way to resist such evil is to eradicate it from ourselves by becoming impeccable warriors: shore up collapse and leakage, harbour personal energy, and polish the spirit until that inevitable time when the enemy must be faced head on.
The savage has no need for disconnected thoughts, elevated or otherwise, because he has his body and he has the Earth. A thinker has neither, but thinks he has both, and so fills the hole of his disaffection with a new invention: God.
Love governs being, passion generates becoming. Love is continuous and extensive, passion is transient and intense. Passion is high energy – destructive and creative, love is relatively low energy – soft and enduring. It is easy to see that the quickness of passion brings about a new state which the patience of love then nurtures to endure. More difficult to comprehend is how love manages to intensify into passion in order not to settle into the hardness of habit. This is where ethics enters. Ethics – the conceptual container of my being – offers an unleaking vessel within which the energy of love can build in intensity sufficient for passion to be available when destiny requires it. Here, and hopefully everywhere, ethics and discipline are the same: a set of behavioural restrictions designed to gather, harbour and intensify my energy. If you limit the external intelligently then the internal will grow and develop; if you indulge the external then the internal will weaken and dribble away.
Tense shoulders mean I don't have the Earth, and therefore neither do I have my body – expectations are too high. I come down to Earth when I know my limits and limitations – the borders of my being. This is where I must lodge my awareness. Then energy can flow relatively unimpeded up the centre.
Our fundamental responsibility, as ethical creatures, is to move beyond the mentality of "us & them." Or, as Nitsan Michaeli said to me when I first moved to Israel: "Relationships are easy: just stop thinking in terms of me and start thinking in terms of we."
Each action yields consequences, and, karmically at least, I am responsible for all of them, even those unforeseen and unacknowledged. Even those I remain ignorant of, because that sort of ignorance is always a choice. Hence the phrase that consistently returns in the I Ching: No blame.
With the advent of set theory it became clear that mathematics is more about classification than about numbers: before a thing can be counted it must be given a name or a label. What a weight of responsibility!
During the 1950's the Australian (British) government carried out a census in the desert prior to proposed nuclear testing. It couldn't be decided how to class the Aborigines. Eventually they were classed with livestock. This story, probably apocryphal, was told me whilst in Sydney in 1985.
My daughter's little cousin Amalia is just beginning to get a grip of speaking. It's cute, but also heart-wrenchingly tragic, to see the rational process installing itself and eradicating innocence forever.
When I was ten I got into bird-watching, largely because it was my best friend's hobby. Looking back I can see that it was all about getting terribly anxious over identification, and very little about the birds. Somehow, being able to give something a name meant that I was better than someone who could not. My whole schooling never got more profound than this.
Yet, looking back, it was those birds I couldn't identify, those that eventually escaped the clutches of my anxiety – my system – that I remember. For me they will always stand sentinel to a reality unbesmirched by the human mind.
Reality is a function of what we believe. Abandon the notion that it happens with or without you. Nothing, ultimately, is external. Truth is created, not revealed, and at the core of every truth is a lie. We make it all up, and we always have; and we always will.
Touch is the sense to be trusted. It is the one that effects a true becoming by first bringing both touching parties to a beautiful place of willing commonality, and then allowing each to become the other. True sharing. This is also, of course, healing.
Why meditate? To find a little inner peace so that you can be more successful in the life you find yourself living? Or because you have a deep suspicion that this isn't life at all but a sedated state that you've been seduced into by the forces of conformity.
The first stage is quietening the mind. The second is awakening spirit. Most never get beyond the first stage: they either endlessly struggle with a seemingly unpacifiable mind or they become lulled by the refuge of inner peace, and stubbornly refuse to even countenance that the intense activity, and the attendant responsibility, of spirit may actually be where they should be heading.
Why do we so stubbornly refuse to change, even when that change is obviously for the best? Because we hold onto a childish conviction that the world has a responsibility to love us as we are, and when it so clearly doesn't we become resentful and indignant, and hold on all the more strongly to a misguided sense of right that comes to dominate and control every aspect of life and being. To break through this barrier takes years and years of carefully directed work, most of which can only be done alone.
The mistake most mediators make is to forget that meditation is as much a physical exercise as a mental one. The lower spine must be held strongly and the sitting bones pushed firmly into the cushion otherwise energy will not rise up the spine and wash away the head-mind.
The bourgeoisie (ego) will always find itself trapped between an underclass (unconscious) that it represses and exploits, and an overclass (superego) that it exalts and obeys. Guilty of being both bully and victim. And resenting everything: the poor for the dignity of their suffering, the rich for their callous inability to empathise, and themselves for their puerile prejudices.
In Taiji we do something because we mean to. Initially this meaning comes from the mind: I perform a physical action because my mind tells my body what to do. Then the Taiji Form takes on an exactitude – an incision and precision – that is obviously from a mind in clear control. Eventually this becomes boring, not just to perform but to be in the presence of too. It is clear and exact but lacks passion, feeling and heart. The next stage though is only possible on completion of this first stage, which conditions the body – makes it ready – for energetic flow. The next stage introduces the heart, unifies heart and mind, heart and intent. It goes something like this: the mind relaxes down into the root in order to produce an upward flow of energy which is released and directed outwards by a joyful heart. The difficulty here, and this takes years to master, is for the mind to leave the energy alone, in the far more capable hands of the heart. The mind, ever the control freak, wants to direct everything, but by so doing ruins the flow of energy.
Heart-mind is the organ of intent: the part that makes things happen and gets things done. Two components: cooperating and contesting, decongesting, without which there is no energy, no spirit. Mind releases into a source of energy: a muscle, a root, the core, ancestors, memory, beliefs, traditions – effectively anything that has power, and the heart releases into the task at hand: the work, the lover, the enemy, the other, the future. Then energy will flow in the direction of heart. The difficulty is in preventing the mind from following the energy. If it does then I lose the source and energy dies. I must be mindful of origin and heartful of destiny.
'Reality' is the energetic continuum. 'World' is a set of external relations. The function of the ego is to extract me from reality and embed me in a world. The function of spirit is to tear open the world and momentarily leap into reality.
Emotion is feeling that has become strong enough to be held onto, to have left the real world of transient flows, intensities and continuity, and entered the fantasy realm of opinion. Emotion has become a thing in itself.
World peace. The only arena where this is neither tautology nor oxymoron is the internal. This is the first principle of spiritual work: external springs from internal; external peace is a consequence of internal peace. My first responsibility is to attend to my own peace of mind, and then, if only by example, the world – my world – has a chance.
A mind made up is a hard mind, fit only to be used as a coarse weapon – a battering ram. It will never uncover or arrive at truth. Truth can never be known, only intuited or felt, for brief moments. It is like a faint scent on the breeze, a whisper in a tongue unknown. Its touch is the touch of grace, destined to leave my heart enriched but my mind empty at best, confused at worst. This is why discipline is so important: I meditate not because I have decided to but because I don't allow myself a choice. A subtle but crucial distinction. I must become a man capable of keeping promises. A man of his word.
Suffering is inevitable. So we choose our suffering: we either suffer to change or we suffer to resist change and remain the same. And the only real change, we propose, is a change of heart, a change to heart, towards heart. In this sense, heart is the vast ocean of wisdom and compassion awaiting the world beneath the jealous, petulant, fearful guard of my selfishness.
The more the prospect of meditation fills me with trepidation, the more good it will do if I manage to find the courage to sit. Meditation is a space where time, energy and courage (heart) come together to create a possibility for change.
This, when you consider it carefully, is the main spiritual directive: to turn away from ego with its universal will to power (always at the other's expense) and start operating instead from the heart (the only viable alternative) with its aching desire to exchange sameness for otherness.
Meditation is the alignment of an erect spine with the field of gravity for a certain duration, for the sole purpose of generating an awakening. External resistance – the refusal to practise – we call laziness. Internal resistance – the mind's resentment – we call stubbornness. It takes time – an age/ing – for the mind to dissociate from itself and realise that ego is not, in reality, of itself, is, in fact, something entirely foreign, alien, which has been keeping the true mind prisoner inside its own house. This is the awakening we are patiently awaiting. Then the mind can return to the heart and life can begin.
"Anybody can help being a coward. Cowardice is just thinking of your own miserable skin instead of somebody else’s. Why, even little Anne is more worried about us than she is about herself and that makes her brave. She couldn’t be a coward if she tried."
The poor student doesn't listen. They may hear but what they hear is something that has already formed in their mind before real listening has taken place: they hear their own reactions, their own opinions.
The mediocre student listens, is momentarily inspired and enthused, and then quickly forgets. The impetus of his enthusiasm does not have the energy to escape the gravity of habit. He then needs to be told again, ad nauseum.
The good student listens, hears, recognises a line of flight – an opportunity for transformation – leaps onto it never to go back, and is changed forever.
Why are happy people generally so obnoxious? It's because, on average, happiness is being full of oneself. People are happy when they are getting their own way: when their body is largely free of pain, when they have all they want, and when they have successfully turned away from the needs of the Other.
Ethics is all about doing difficult things in order to make the world a better place for others. The quality and depth of your ethics then depends upon how you define difficult, world, better and others.
Glass to keep out the weather and dust. Louvres to keep out the light. Net to keep out mosquitoes. Bars to keep out intruders. Chicken wire to keep out cats. Palms to keep off the sun. These are the physical layers of protection I enjoy as I meditate. How many more are there inside my mind?
When I show compassion for others then my suffering is alleviated. This is the real secret of compassion: my responsibility as a sufferer is to demonstrate compassion rather than receive it. The cure for passivity is action.
There are two vital places we lose touch with as we become more and more imprisoned in ugliness, in ego. These are: the centre of gravity (the dantien) and our skin – that beautifully sensitive interface between us and the other. When the centre of gravity becomes a reality, rather than just another mathematical concept, then the person takes on a definition, an incision, an acuity, distinction and simplicity that lends their actions a power and clarity which most lack because of flabby indecisiveness. But developing the dantien doesn't come easy. It requires an inner tension, a ruthless detachment, a constant contraction into solitude. And yet it is only through such work that my skin has the support to relax and become effectively porous, giving and receiving, communucating, with the world beyond it. Only by being ruthlessly cool and centred can I enter into truly compassionate action and become something other than the selfish nonentity my ego constantly strives to make me.
Most of what passes for activity is an excuse to escape the pain of the present moment. When I do I am in the doing rather than in the space that doing occupies – I can no longer effectively listen. Taiji attempts to strike a better balance between active and passive by wresting activity away from the clutches of ego and handing it back to pure spirit. This, again, is Central Equilibrium.
Remember when you were a kid, waiting for some treat, and time would pass so slowly, causing your impatience to rise and rise until it was almost unbearable? You were effectively being forced to witness the passage of time, to count the seconds; a passive subject. And this is meditation: the counting of seconds; but without the impatience.
I have a neighbour who practices really good yoga on the lawn outside. I saw him on his bike yesterday, and hailed him:
Hi, where are you off?
To my yoga class.
Are you the teacher?
No! I've only been doing it a year.
Well you look very professional.
Oh, yoga, it's all style – looking good – you know, fake it till you make it...
The head is ever standing back in order to discern, judge and categorize. The world then becomes sorted and ordered; segregated into numerous hierarchies. But the real world, always beyond such vanity, retreats and hides as soon as the mind flairs into activity. The real world, the heart world, needs to be seduced before it comes out to play.
"I am being forced in this direction, not because my invention or technique is inadequate, but because I am obeying an inner compulsion, which is stronger than any upbringing. I am obeying the formative process which, being the one natural to me, is stronger than my artistic education."
Everything is connected, continuous – without discretion. Yet, at the same time, in itself, singular, unique – out of the ordinary. But only when its relationship to time is both eager and expectant. Like the hunter or the prey. In the intensity of the hunt they both sense a witness to their interaction. The intensity and quality of their relationship calls forth a usually hidden (hiding) pitch of reality, which we call death.
Our struggle is to reconnect: to our own energy through increased awareness, to the Earth by releasing hips and sacrum, and to the Other by opening the heart. None of this is ever achieved with force. It is a simple matter of putting in the hours of practice, day by day, year in, year out. A practice based on faith, respect, perseverance, patience and humility.
We know from mathematics that the negative of a negative is positive, so when a negative person or group is negative about you, or your spiritual endeavours, take it as affirmation and confirmation that you are probably on the right path. And, believe me, there is nothing quite so negative, in this respect, as modern bourgeois society, with its inverted values and its absolute inability or refusal to see beyond itself.
Smile into the sacrum. If the work doesn't improve your humour then you're doing it wrong. Key here are the knees. When the hips and sacroiliacs release and allow the pelvis to float then the knees take on a life of their own. This is why, in seated meditation, the knees are so prominent, and why, in Taiji, we lead with the knees. The knees of the heart. It all hinges on how I use the ground: is it merely a solid base from which to project myself up and out, or is it something I have a developing, sensitive, delicate, and above all loving, relationship with?
If you have stomach and heart for the work – if you have it in you to be a good student – then, for me, the greatest tragedy is to succumb instead to being a good citizen or good parent or good teacher, because whatever you do you're going to do well. Why not be all? I hear you ask. Because, believe me, a single life contains neither the time nor the energy.
The mediocre student is plagued by forgetfulness: they need constant reminding. The good student is simply a mediocre student who has learnt to heed the light of grace, who has learnt the value and power of respect. In this sense goodness stems from heartfelt gratitude.
If I told you a tragic story of how gullible innocence was ruthlessly robbed of its most precious resource and given worthless trinkets and baubles in return then you would think I was talking about primitive natives encountering the white man in the nineteenth century. But, in actual fact, I'm talking about my students who are consistently conned into giving up their time and vitality for the sake of gadgets, comforts and a pathetic feeling of self-worth based on nothing deeper than spending-power.
Reality is not independent of me but is rather that intense interface between me and the other. And here intensity has nothing to do with energy or even spirit, but proximity: just how close can I let the world get, how raw dare I become?
Meditation is a time for turning aside from worries, and practising a happy heart. A Stoic practice: it operates from the basic assumption that the world, as it appears to me, is largely a reflection of my own heart and mind. It is my making and my responsibility.
Go with the gut. Head and heart are unreliable if they exceed their authority. Head should simply receive information, and the heart embraces the work space, blesses the workplace. The gut digests, processes and acts.
Allow time to express itself through you. This is what we mean by expression. It has little to do with letting out your energy: with telling the world who you are or what you think; nothing to do with you, as such. Instead become a channeller and purveyor of secrets. A purely creative, and therefore natural, process.
The big breakthrough for the Taiji student is learning how to connect to, or turn on, energy. Most of us experience energy occasionally: when elated, grief-stricken, exhausted or terrified, but those experiences are usually so intense with emotion that the energy is overshadowed or disregarded. Energy, in this context, is not the stuff of work or movement or power, it is a quite separate though adjacent world of pure filigree refinement and delight, a world that, for me, is best described by the famous phrase: The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And it is unbearable – too intense, too alive – yet it must be borne, or entered into, regularly, though sparingly, and then, in time, the student gradually becomes bored with the mundane, becomes more and more reclusive, more self-sufficient, more enamored of solitude, as they slowly fall into that beloved lake, to eventually become immersed, then submerged, then drowned in energy. And it will be the death of you, if you are destined to be chosen by energy. But a sweet death. A homecoming.
The idea of a Taiji class (a group of people gathered together to learn the same thing) is that each student is present not only for himself, but for all his classmates too. Then the class develops an energy of its own, and takes each participant beyond their wildest dreams.
Spiritual work starts when the mind stops. The mind will only stop of its own when it has found its true centre. What keeps it from the centre are bad habits, lack of energy and lack of imagination. These limitations are therefore our prime concern. So we need a practice that breaks habits, increases energy (not so much in quantity as quality) and frees the spirit to search out possibilities beyond present circumstances.
The lower body relaxes down by releasing the hips, an action that also releases the heart out into the space before it. In that moment it becomes clear that the function of the body is to carry around an open heart.
The true man of God doesn't pray to have his suffering alleviated – that would be weak and selfish. He prays for the strength to bear his suffering. And the strength comes because the act of prayer has changed the nature of his relationship with the world.
The work – the task at hand – is akin to building the pyramids: monumentally huge, and so excruciatingly slow that, on the day to day, there is no progress. Or maybe it's more like dismantling the pyramids, block by block? What sustains the work – keeps it going in the face of the enormous odds stacked against it ever being completed with any degree of success – is the nagging suspicion that I don't really have a choice. And it does get easier as you get older: as your energy naturally quietens, mellows, wanes: as the devil inside – the resistance – stops being taken seriously.
Taji hinges, literally, on the hips. Without relaxed and open hips the legs will tend to push the sacrum out of alignment, and energy will not rise up the spine. Releasing the hips has a lot to do with desensitizing and desexualizing the groin.
Taiji is the art of marking time. Marking as opposed to making. At our worst we invariably hover outside the flow of time by indulging thoughts and feelings: circulating within heart and head. In Taiji we endeavor to create an unbroken flow or surge of energy from the ground, up the body and out of the heart. We become an expressive machine, expressing and reveling in the pure flow of energy, the pure passage of time. As soon as we attempt to lay claim to what passes through us we break that vital connexion to life, and spirit dribbles away.
Taijiquan, we propose, is not just a martial art or a moving meditation or a callisthenics, it is a way of life. It offers a simple principle that always works, both as a means of solving problems, and as a way of forging forward. That principle, simply stated, is: Always put spirit first.
The sacrum is a hard nut which we endeavour to crack open with the work, if only to discover why on earth it's called the sacred bone. The weight of the upper body (gravity) drives the sacrum down into the jaws of the pelvis so that the legs – the handles of our nut-cracker – can apply a pumping pressure. The function of the mind is to remain still and open so that this precarious structure maintains its alignment, and to focus in on the job at hand – to remain mindful of what it is trying to achieve. The mind needs an image, a concept, an idea of what's happening, otherwise it becomes anxious or bored. But such images are only ever pacifiers, and we must always be ready to drop them and find new ones when they stop working.
"God is dead." If this statement has any value it is in debunking the notion of external authority. But only so that internal authority, the voice of our internal gods, our unconscious, our passion, our deep wild self, can surface, lead life, and fulfil destiny.
There's more to destiny than breeding brats in our own image. Destiny is to become free, not to enslave those we love most. The most precious thing you can give a child is a taste, a thirst, for freedom. This can only come from example.
Progress comes when the student learns to abandon positions of strength: wealth, health, reputation, etc. Such positions, whilst they can be springboards, are more generally shelters concealing weakness and infantility, and so, if they are used to embolden, the ensuing courage is short lived and liable to result in injury to body or soul. To gain freedom of spirit I must first lose everything else. Who nowadays is ready to even countenance such sacrifice?
There are things, structures, and there is energy, communication. Two different worlds. Things are made of smaller things, and, ultimately, they too are energy, but energy frozen rather than energy flowing and free. If there were no things then there would still be energy. Things represent a drastic slowing down of energy. Without things energy would travel infinitely fast and there would be no time as such…
The masculine mind (what the philosophers call logocentric and the feminists call phallogocentric) cannot exist in and for itself. Instead it searches for the high ground from which to observe and judge, constantly comparing, endlessly measuring, with a neurotic febrility that its rationality vainly struggles to conceal...
The sole purpose of the masculine principle is to fertilise – to complete with spirit, to animate, and then withdraw, and die, leaving the feminine to parturition and nurture. It is operant: it fights and fucks; or, at the most, flees, to fight another day...
The difficulty for men is then, once the kids have fled, to justify their continuing existence. And this is why life traditionally starts at fifty. A new life free of the imperative to do one's masculine duty. A spiritual life, a life working to dissolve the folly of masculine hardness, and recover, re-discover, the feminine ground/mind...
Spiritual work struggles to find, clean, and nurture spirit, only then to let it go in a final act of sacrifice.
Endeavours to dismantle ego very quickly become another ego trip. This is why it must take time, a lifetime, indeed, modestly chipping away the granitic block until at least some of it (hopefully enough) is rubble and dust. The conflagration, the ashes, must await the end. Until then it is spirit that smoulders as it patiently attends each rendition, each dance to death.
Sink into your energy. Relax your mind. Relax into your energy. These are phrases I'd hear all the time from my teacher. He always felt I was a particularly lost case when it came to the strangling dominance of my logocentric mind: a mind centred on the word, the law, the acute observation, the sharp reflection, the skewed refraction. The trouble is that when you've passed through the system, especially the education system, with flying colours, then it is next to impossible to even conceive that the mind can simply be in and for itself instead of fearfully grasping for points of view outside itself from which to launch its scathing critiques. The required turn is from the masculine mind, with its irreparable insecurities, to the natural feminine mind, which, assuming it hasn't been repressed, corrupted or weakened by the masculine, is simply a sea of energy.
As soon as you say (or write, or create) something there should become apparent a subtle force or energy that is undermining what has been said. For me, this is the only reason to write: not to utter the truth but to unleash this energy, because this is the energy that will take me forward into the unknown, if I let it, whereas the uttered statement will start holding me back as soon as it is voiced. It is a difficult process – what Castaneda called Controlled Folly.
Until you let down that front (which first requires letting go of the fears that keep it up) the internal will never rise, the heart will never fill, except under exceptional circumstances, and the spirit will never be truly free. You will remain soulless.
Whenever I mention the word 'destiny' to a student, the question usually thrown back at me is: "What is my destiny?" (we are all fundamentally self-centered, after all). In a sense, our destiny is simply to spend a life repeating the same mistakes. Not to become the fool, but, through determined repetition, to gradually see ourselves for what we are rather than what we would like to be.
To get further than our natural talent could ever take us. For this we need a means of gathering energy. Taijiquan. Each Form performed catches a little energy, imperceptible in itself, but sometimes felt as a deepened understanding. This energy should be harbored in the heart, not the body. For this I must be, above all, respectful and honorable: I must be engaged in the practice for something higher than selfish reasons.
Spontaneity in Taiji has nothing to do with the indulgence of childish impulsive whims: suddenly desiring some goodie and then having the audacity to rush out and acquire it. It is more the constant availability of spirit: a readiness to pounce. The ability to always act decisively and incisively.
"Electroshock reduces me to despair, it takes away my memory, dulls my mind and my heart, it turns me into someone who is absent and knows himself to be absent, and sees himself chasing after his own being for weeks, like a dead man next to the living man he no longer is." (Antonin Artaud writing to his psychiatrist about the effects of the electroshock treatment forced upon him in the late 1930's.)
I suspect that any exposure to electricity causes the same symptoms, but in a milder form. The electronic gadgetry we spend our lives twiddling with effectively turns us into pacified, sedated slaves. Technological advancement, which is generally perceived by the masses as a path away from State and religious control and towards some sort of freedom, actually makes us more and more dependent upon, and slave to, those hidden powers that run the show by syphoning our energy.
Thích Nhất Hạnh recommends that once a month we spend a whole day in absolute solitude: no people, no books, no TV, no phone, no computer. I would go further and suggest that all eletrical circuitry is turned off, including the power for the house. Better still: take a tent into the desert. You will certainly notice the difference.
Heartwork, of which Taji is a subset when it is done well, is all about waking up and retraining the heart to desire and intend maximal connectivity. Intent – the expression of the joy of life – shifts from head to heart, and my actions become eminently affirmative rather than conditional.
Slowly, evenly, effortlessly. This is the surface effect of Taiji, its external manifestation, concealing a very different internal reality. (An automobile extends smoothly from A to B because it has an engine able to generate, harness and transform the energy from a series of combustive explosions.) The extended practice of Taiji gradually accrues a degree of awareness and control of its internal workings, not only to do better Taiji but to learn (internalize) some general principles of life.
The work is all about liberating desire from the object of desire. A process we call relaxation, and a state we call peace. Liberated desire is simply free energy: magic, illusion – possibilities destined never to actualize. If I am attached to the world then these become hopes and dreams. If I am unattached – always relaxing – then these proliferate until they envelop and consume me. I then exist equally as external and internal: a balance we call Central Equilibrium.
The good student doesn't get bored; not with the work anyway. She takes delight in the most inane and repetitive of exercises because experience has taught her that with lightness of spirit the work will always open up and begin to blossom.
Life is really very simple, or it can be, should be. It is just a matter of perception and affection. The more I slow down this process and intersperse my own thoughts, the more I distance myself from life, and the more trouble I ultimately create for myself. The problem with civilized society: a society that endeavours to create polite space by slowing down or inhibiting responses, is that honest feedback, preverbal feedback, is also repressed. As students of Tajij we strive to read (or listen to) the faintest and most fleeting of signs, signs that appear and disappear far too quickly for the mind to register. This is why the most important part of us is the part that feels: the heart, the obvious seat of the affections but also the organ that senses (perceives) pure energy. If the breath is the bridge between the body and the mind then the heart is the bridge into energy. Or maybe we should just call it feeling.
The work is to intensify my position – my point of view – without in any way casting judgement upon any aspect of the world I am viewing. Judgement both belittles and hardens: carves in stone and casts in stone. It always does the world a disservice. Ultimately, though, it is me who suffers most because my heart becomes similarly set: in a stone of stubbornness.
The more intense (internal) I become the more the immediate world grows and looms until I am surrounded by giants. And this is the paradox of spirit: the more intense and powerful I become, the more imperceptible, and not just because I contract, but because I no longer constrict that world with my habits of thought and expectation. We chose the world we live in. It can either be controlled and safe, in which case we suffer depression and boredom, or it can be magical and dangerous, in which case there is always the possibility of death. The difference is purely one of spirit.
The physical body is a machine which, when fueled by spirit, generates internal (intense, intensive) life appropriate to destiny. In time, and always with spirit (key and secret), this becomes the coherent though ever-changing energy-body of a warrior, true to destiny and nothing else. This is the only individuality worth considering. Anything else is subservience to ego and collaboration with the forces of subjection.
Listen to the rhythms of the heart, its beat being only the most obvious, rather than the prosaic garbage in the head. And yes I am disturbed by the endless irony in that statement; deeply in fact (but obviously not deeply enough).