As the student progresses work becomes more a matter of quality than quantity. For the first thirty years though quantity is paramount. Each hour of practice is like a lottery ticket: the more you buy the greater the chance of winning. In thirty years the working student accrues in excess of ten thousand hours of practice. This should be enough to come to the realisation that reality is not what it seems, that the bourgeois dream is a con, and that the really simple things in life – the tears and laughter – are what matter, not how big and secure is my empire.
Practice helps me see what a snivelling little shit I really am. Indeed a bitter pill. But without it there is no real incentive to change. Even with the best will in the world real change is well-nigh impossible so we need all the help we can get, even if that means learning a few beastly home truths.
Mastery of an art such as Taiji is the paltry but necessary first step on the path to real mastery, which is always mastery of the self. Self is mastered by cleansing the mind of resentment: a process which takes years to even begin, years of preparation becoming humble enough to see ego for what it is, and then finding an alternative. Resentment is purely optional – it doesn't need to be a permanent fixture defining my character, or lack of it, and will, in time, with work, shake loose and fall away. But such work must be guided by a tough teacher who can see through my whinging – can see potential – a destiny.
Working with a student, this morning, whose mind was elsewhere – distracted as usual. I attempted to seduce her into the session by explaining that peace of mind is an absolute requisite for listening to we-don't-know-what. The words appeared to fall on deaf ears, but just as I finished speaking a neighbour's child started practising his trumpet, warming up with the Star Wars theme. At this she grinned and said: "Ah, the Force is with us!" We then had a great session.
Sit, or stand, with vertical spine and peaceful mind, and, in time, you will become aware of Mother Earth hugging you to her breast, and Father Sky calling and drawing your heart upward. It is our fate to be torn – to be caught in the middle – the veritable go-between. And it is our destiny to yield to this fate: to stop resisting (forgetting) and become energised by awareness. Our other deeds, driven by internal or social forces, then acquire, and thereby contribute, a wise grace.
One of the benefits of living in a warm clime is bare feet. When you spend the day without shoes then the toes spread apart and actively extend, penetrate and grip the Earth. This, surprisingly, encourages the heart, or maybe it's just the chest, to work similarly. The devil – spirit – is in the details: the pinkies, of hands, feet and heart.
Behind each mental formation is the faint echo of a primal cry from the wilderness – a plaintive Woe Is Me – a backdrop of depression. If you listen hard enough you'll catch it. It is the cost of a life lived in and from the head: victimhood and slavery to a set of values that invert those of the heart, largely out of spite and self-loathing.
A while ago a Buddhist friend of mine visited with his 3 year old son. At one point he denied the boy a request and the brat threw a spectacular tantrum. My friend looked to me with compassionate but passionless eyes and said: "It's terrible isn't it – they start suffering so young." I strongly objected pointing out that the boy was not suffering at all but simply letting out energy – expressing himself. My friend didn't really listen because he was already reasoning with the child – trying to teach him the awful habit of overruling heart with head. The child listened and his temper subsided. "Now he's suffering," I said.
Reality is fluid, is process. It seethes and teems with energy, with change: with possibility and unpredictability. Ego, and its ally the thinking mind, cannot function here, so they invent enduring well-behaved models to stand in for reality. These can be as elaborate as scientific or philosophic theory or as crude as simple muscular tension. So our principal method for dealing with ego, for reducing man to the obedience of God, is to work to relax the body of its chronic physical tensions, and the mind of its outmoded models. This is largely a matter of relinquishing control and letting go – allowing one's constricted world-view to open up and expand – and this, after the first flush of excitement, is always terrifying and difficult to bear. In the end it always comes down to faith, sincerity and courage. In other words: heart.
The victim spends every spare moment moaning, criticising, complaining because what they are victim to, above all, is their own incessant internal chatter. The warrior, on the other hand, spends every moment hunting, engaging and gathering power because that is what one does, naturally, when the mind is quiet and alert.
It seems, on the surface, that knowledge increases the world – reveals its detail, its provenance, its destiny – but in actual fact it reduces reality by drawing the knower into a world dominated by mind and largely bereft of compassion. This is the arrogance of mind, the weight of mind, which we endeavour to erode, whittle away, little by little, revealing the glimmer of a humble heart. When that weight has gone then the heart will, of its own, or rather with God's help, mercy, arise, bloom and flourish and take over the life. Heart is simply a shard of the divine which yearns, above all, for union. This is the truth we all struggle to avoid facing and living up to.
A fortnight ago two students returned from their respective summer holidays. One had been on a meditation retreat with Adyashanti (along with 300 others) in Holland; the other on a small organised trek in the Pyrenees. The meditator came back looking suitably serene and smug, obviously having worked long hours developing the spiritual ego but leaving the actual spirit completely unscathed. The trekker, on the other hand, returned as sick as a dog having endured a very difficult and challenging daily regime of grueling walks and terrifying climbs. Now, having had two weeks to recover, the meditator is back to normal – the same as ever – whereas the trekker is transformed – softer, braver, deeper. Let's hope it sticks.
Taijiquan is a Taoist art, and Taiji is the principle at the heart of Taoism. The Taiji yin/yang symbol illustrates that two fundamental polar principles interact to produce all there is – the myriad creatures. It also shows that at the core of one principle is a kernel of its opposite: at the heart of darkness is a glimmer of light, and vice versa. This must be so otherwise there would be no return – no becoming – no change. We need the other – otherness – otherwise there can be no life. In fact the quality of life – its intensity and spirit – depends upon the otherness it yields to and contains.
Lack of compassion simply means that the heart has hardened. A heart only ever hardens out of fear, often expressed as a puerile desire for revenge masquerading as justice. This is why we value softness so highly – it is a requisite for compassion. Unfortunately, for the future of the human race, a hard heart can usually win short term battles over a soft heart. But on the long term softness always comes through.
Take a good long look at the above picture. What you feel is compassion. This is proof, for me, that God exists. God is simply the omniscient field of compassion, here there and everywhere, constantly calling us to open our hearts and partake of the party. The quality of a life has then nothing to do with duration or acquisition but with how totally one has managed to surrender into this field.
Once you get the measly mind around the simple fact that we humans are limited finite creatures in the extreme, and accept that we can never possibly know anything ultimate or infinite or even inherently true, then belief becomes a matter of expediency – what belief system makes life most meaningful and fulfilling? A teaching is a developed belief system designed to take you beyond yourself and into realms you could never in a thousand years possibly imagine or contemplate or discover for yourself. All spiritual cultures consider great teaching to be the most valuable of treasures, the squandering of which yields maximal karmic discredit.
Therapy will never wake you up. It merely institutes a more comfortable dream, making the possibility of awakening even less likely. But, of course, most of us don't really want to wake up: we're quite happy grafting or drifting through life in a bubble of comfort or stress, it makes little difference. If you are interested in awakening, passionately so, then you need to develop spirit, or put yourself in the way of spirit. And pray.
The mind, despite its high opinion of itself, is heavy handed and clumsy. So, when it comes to heart and spirit, it is better to get it out of the way – let it and its influence recede into the background – and wait patiently for more subtle natural forces to come into play. Hence meditation. If the mind attempts to mimic the effect of such forces then the result is laughably bad to the point of embarrassing.
A good teacher presents you with an effective vehicle, channel, vessel into which to pour your passion. A great teacher however does something else – they awaken that passion with such force that it refuses to go back to sleep as long as you live. The combination of both: initial awakening and efficacious teaching allows you to slowly accrue enough energy for full breakthrough – complete awakening.
Forgiveness is the most beautiful of acts. It means remembering, reclaiming and embracing your past, and the makers of your past, your past self most of all, with arms of compassion, acceptance and understanding. Without it the face can never smile and the heart will never soar, except momentarily – when you happen to forget.
Run before you can walk and you'll either tumble over and hurt yourself or spend the rest of your life running. But maybe, if you're lucky, you'll have a realisation before the end and choose to learn to walk. This will require the painful undoing of bad habits. It's why so many of the simplest things we end up learning last of all.