Archive for the ‘Zen-like stuff’ Category

Concentration and meditation

January 28th, 2012 No comments

How do you concentrate?

Do you bear down, lower your gaze, furrow your brow, and pretend to pass a bowling ball?
Or do you relax, breathe, and simply look at the task, space or object right in front of you?

Yep, I like the second one. I think of successful concentration as a relaxed elimination of distractions instead of a brute-force effort applied to the object of concentration.

Language is important here. When one begins to mediate, one is often instructed to concentrate on something: a flame, a sound or one’s breathing. No wonder people have trouble with this: if they are bearing down on the problem, directing all their energy to it, they get stressed out and nervous, allowing all sorts of thoughts and judgements to flow in. It doesn’t work? You’re not concentrating hard enough! Shame on you!

To be fair, some teachers say “attend to your breath”, “watch your breath”, “listen to it” and so on. These are all good, but they may be less than successful if we believe that this practice is something new to be learned. It isn’t — it just needs to be recalled. Think about the times you were engrossed in a good book or a movie. You were watching what was happening, without thinking about yourself or how much effort you were using to watch the movie. Remember what that felt like. If the movie was stimulating, recall the same feeling you had during the quieter moments.

That’s the feeling you recall while watching a flame, an image or your breath.

Sure, thoughts will creep in, but if you just watch them creep in (“hm, a thought”), just watch them from a distance (don’t get involved), then watch them dissipate because of lack of oxygen (lack of involvement), they will eventually leave you be.

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Conversation Piece

October 18th, 2010 No comments

Sometimes music is more than just that. In the hands of skilled jazz improvisors, it’s more than melody, harmony and rhythm. It assumes its role as a language, a means of communicating ideas, even poetic ones.

Until recently, the first time I noticed this was at a concert by the Marsalis family, an immensely talented group of jazz musicians, the most famous being Wynton and Branford. They were joined by their brothers Delfayo and Jason as well as their elder statesman father, Ellis. We were extremely lucky to see the family live, and not just because of the high level of musicianship, but because of the depth and variation within that stratospheric level of talent. To clarify: although the brothers were top-notch pros, Wynton was out of their league. Next-level. Why? Because he wasn’t playing tunes any more — he was speaking to the audience through his horn. Just as we can convey ideas, statements, questions and emphasis through speech, he did it through music. It was incredible — he had such a command of the horn, he was so comfortable with expressing himself on it, he knew it as well as spoken English. Amazing.

Fast forward to earlier this month, when we had the good fortune to attend a concert by jazz pianist Chick Corea with Christian McBride and Brian Blade. This time, however, though the musicians were also top-drawer, this time there was something different: they were having a conversation.

Of course, this is generally only possible in the context of improvisation, since most conversations are improvised. If the musicians were playing a written piece, there can be interactions, but it would have been like seeing actors perform a script … with chemistry, yes, but a script nonetheless. However, in an improvisation, every moment is new, and each player has something to say. Believe ti or not, I felt I was party to a lively conversation between bass and drums, with piano agreeing, complementing and supporting the bass player’s point of view. Although it took some concentration to follow (I felt concerned for our poor companions), it was quite extraordinary.

Yet they made it seem quite common. Their comfort with the instruments and the basic harmony of the piece (the framework) made it all look too easy. So easy in fact, that it was possible to see a strong connection between the musicians. It was as if you were watching a conversation in a foreign language, but you could see the relationship between the speakers, and were transfixed.

So what does this have to do with anything?

Well … when you just get so good at something, when it becomes natural, you move to another level. You go from technique to communication to energy transfer. Maybe. I’m not talking about raybeams or heat … just something that’s powerful but hard to pin down.

Does that make sense?

Categories: inspiration, jazz, Zen-like stuff Tags:

A little martial philosophy

July 8th, 2010 No comments

Occasionally, I come across some martial philosophy that applies to more situations than an impending blow to the privates. For example, here’s a quote from Bruce Lee, who created the martial art Jeet Kune Do:

“Jeet Kune Do is just a name used, a boat to get one across, and once across it is to be discarded and not to be carried on one’s back.”

This next quote came from Bruce, Krishnamurti, the universal ether or was paraphrased from (or to) Twelve-Step programs:

“Research your experience, absorb what is useful, reject what is useless; add what is specifically your own.”

Finally, this comes from The Healing Art of Tai Chi:

“Relax, breathe, feel the ground, do nothing extra.”

The first quote was new to me, and I shall reflect upon it. The second quote has worked for me given my desire to learn from many sources and determine the elements common to those sources. As for the third quote, although I think it’s one of the best to recall while practicing Tai Chi, it often requires some reflection to determine what is … “extra”. However, after some practice, what is “extra” becomes easier to separate from what is essential, or of the essence.

Categories: philosophy, Tai Chi, Zen-like stuff Tags:

A manifesto?

May 10th, 2010 No comments

My high school English teacher attempted to drill into us the importance of clarifying meaning whenever a disagreement popped up. Clarifying our meaning and intent can often lead us to realize we’re actually in agreement, and if not, hopefully we can agree to disagree, possibly until some new information comes to light. To that end, here’s what could be called my “small “m” manifesto”, which you may or may not find interesting in light of your own point of view:

Goals: when describing them or using the phrase “my goal is”, I’m not usually describing the traditional Cartesian (as I see it) goal-setting approach of “I’m here now, and I want to be there later”, where “here” is a specific point or state, and “there” is another specific point or state. Even if it seems that I’ve done that in the past, as was the case with my desire to learn to squat, the intention was to reach a door and open it to a new beginning, not reach a terminus and wonder what to do next. No, my usual approach is more like a Euclidean vector, where I choose to apply a certain amount of energy in a particular direction and see what happens along the way. It’s intention-focused, not destination-focused. This approach allows for variation in the magnitude (energy) and direction of the intention, rendering the eventual destination uncertain.

Here’s a running example: Cartesian: “I’m training so I can run and finish the ScotiaBank marathon in under 3 hours.” Euclidean: “I’m increasing my running mileage a little bit each week.”  (up to 10 percent, of course) One is close-ended with the goal being the marathon, the other is open-ended with the intention being increasing the cardio. If it turns out to be too much, I’ll back off. This differs from the mindset of “keep your eyes on the prize”.

Also, I generally avoid the Cartesian goal-setting approach because at the outset, my impression of the end state is an illusion. Since I haven’t been there yet, I don’t know what that state looks like or feels like, so mapping it as a destination is imprecise. Once I get there, I’ll be different, and it will be different from what I thought. So it’s a mug’s game, a fool’s errand and so on. I also believe that the real goal isn’t the stated goal in many cases. In the case of the marathon, the real goal is often “to feel good about myself”. Isn’t it?

Of course, life has deadlines, so the Cartesian approach is useful on occasion.

My intention: After doing the stuff that I’ve done over the last ten years or so, my current intention is to move toward “natural action”, or “natural being”. By that, I mean that I want to continue to discover a more efficient or natural way of standing, moving and living. This way would be in accordance with the laws of physics and how the structure of my body interacts with those laws. When I imagine natural action, I imagine a jungle cat stalking its prey with no concern over how it’s balancing its weight, whether it’s keeping its shoulders down or whether it’s landing on it’s forepaws or mid-paws when it runs. It studies its prey, senses the reactions of its prey, senses the reaction of nature to the cat’s approach (snap!), then when it feels the time is right, moves: “go”.

Natural does not mean habitual, by the way.

How to achieve this: I am taking a roughly four-step process, which is cyclical or spiral if you add some sort of improvement measure as a third axis. 1) observe an issue with the body. 2) relax the body at the point of notice 3) align the body to distribute the forces (e.g. gravity) to another part of the body until I notice nothing special any more and 4) listen some more. Maybe 5) get back to whatever I was doing, this time more naturally. For example, if my lower back feels a bit funny, I’ll listen to it, align myself and usually transfer my weight to my lower body. Keep in mind that I’ve been doing this for years, and expect to do so for a while longer. Actually, the lower back is no longer a problem, probably due to the way I’ve changed how I stand and sit.

I expect to keep doing this for a long time, but I don’t expect to keep doing it in the same place for a long time. I expect to fix most things and move on, but for other things, I suppose I’ll accept them.

Correction and maintenance: I believe that these sort of actions and techniques are corrective, to restore natural being when it has been upset by outside events or by reversion to unnatural habits. I don’t believe that it will be necessary to constantly apply these techniques (as I’ve applied them) for the rest of my life. In some cases, I’ve applied the technique, and I’ve eventually “gotten it”, so I no longer need to apply the technique … as long as I don’t go back to old habits. If I’ve instilled good habits and avoid injury, I’ll never need to apply the technique again in that way. After all, we can learn, we do grow, we do change and we do move on. For example, my left arm/shoulder no longer hurts because I no longer “wing out” as a matter of habit,  so I no longer need to consciously apply a technique to change that habit (thanks, Caprice!). If, I happen to revert under stress, I’ll correct it again, but it’s not a given that I’ll revert. Herein lies the importance of sensitivity, awareness, and stress management.

As for maintenance, it’s a series of minor corrections in my opinion, necessary to correct what could be called minor injuries, or minor lapses in healthy behavior. Improvement is another story, but I also believe that restoring to a natural state is “improvement”.

Habits: habits can be changed. If they couldn’t be changed, we’d still be acting as children do. I believe that part of natural action is acting through good habits. Now I sense that mindfulness advocates might be getting their backs up, and that’s fine, but maybe they should be mindful of why they’re gotten their backs up before we go on. …….. Mindfulness is great and necessary, but I believe that it should be applied to that which is most important at the time: to that which can be corrected through mindfulness, or to that which is nourishing, such as mindful eating. We can be mindful of the nourishing things as long as we live, but I expect that once something (which needs correcting) of which we are mindful is corrected (such as posture) to a more natural state then we can let it slip away, so we can be mindful of the nourishing things, such as how nice a day it is.

Now some may say that it is natural for the body to correct a habit (such as compensating for a dropped shoulder by tightening somewhere else), but I believe that the original shoulder-dropping is not natural. It could be said that everything is natural since it is made up of components from nature, but not everything is healthy. So then, to me, natural means “healthy”.

Mindful and no-mind: By “no-mind”, I do not mean “mindless”, I mean 1) a state of natural action, and 2) a state of high, but relaxed awareness, not hooked or attached to any one thing. I also do not mean “free of intention”. If we imagine an elite athlete “in the Zone”, that athlete surely has an intention, yet is not hooked on or attached to an external outcome while in the Zone. To do so would distract the athlete with thoughts, words, and so on. The intention is simple, and as I can only extrapolate based on my moments in the Zone (not being an elite athlete), the intention is explainable in simple terms such as “smooth”, “there”, “go”, “connect” or whatever works for the athlete. The details have been taken care of by practice and the cultivation of good habits and natural action. If the athlete were mindful of every detail, he would be lost. In the example of martial arts, the saying is “the best technique is no-technique”, meaning that in the heat of a contest, the fighter must be in a state of no-mind, acting on practiced habits and trained instinct, not  carefully considering every possible response to a given attack. Of course, the fighter must study, practice and learn techniques in a state of mindfulness, but the preferred state in a contest is the fully-aware, yet unhooked, unattached no-mind state. Mindful in training, no-mind in execution.

Internal vs. External direction: As an example of external direction, one might say “touch your toes”, with the internal direction being “stretch your back — how does that feel?”. In physical matters, I believe a balance is necessary, but the instructor must know which is which and when to apply one or the other. It seems that most of the time, to get in the ballpark, external directions are needed, since our chronic uncorrected habits may have led us to perceive our bodies inaccurately, believing that we may be standing straight when we are leaning to one side, for example. The Alexander Technique seems to be based on correcting such perceptions, assuming (correctly) that in most cases, our body image isn’t very accurate when it comes to balance, alignment and positioning. However, I believe that once a student has successfully used an external source such as a mirror or instructor for feedback, it’s time to look inward, for the student to use proprioception to determine his or her level of balance and alignment at a very fine level. This requires sensitivity, developed over time. Refine and Repeat. My concerns are that many instructors have not been able to direct their students to this point, or that instructors do not want to teach the students to take charge of their own health, because that would make the instructor redundant. I’ve had two chiropractors in my time: one who wants me to keep coming back for regular maintenance regardless of how I feel, and one who gives me exercises and trusts me to do them. One is right for one kind of patient, and one is right for another, I suppose. However, I believe that we are all responsible for our own health, and that the path probably lies in the external directions first, then internal directions for refinement.

This is how I feel at this time. Any questions?

Gotta run …

May 6th, 2010 2 comments

I had a nice conversation with my friend Sava (the longtime runner) at the gym the other day. We spoke of running, fitness, heel striking, bad shoes and old favorites such as the Nike Oregon Waffle. We also discussed ways of determining the best shoe for someone, and what their optimum gait might be. Sava, who sells running shoes, just tells people to go run away and come back, then she analyzes their gait.

At first, the zen-like simplicity of this appealed to me. To a certain extent, it still does, and here’s why: my goal in all of this blogging business is to find a natural way of doing things, or a sort of unified fitness theory. I’ve found, and it may be true for everyone, that when I really need to peel rubber, when I need to get somewhere fast, I run rather well. (I noticed this while peeling down a hall at school recently.) It may then be true that when the purpose of the running is to get there fast, to go run away, we run naturally. This can be extended to other pursuits, but more on that later. From a Chinese martial arts perspective, it could be said that we’re running from our dan tien, or our center of mass, rather than our feet, legs, arms or whatever. It means we’re just running to get somewhere. Fine with me.

The problem with saying “just go run and come back” is that the natural mindset (or non-mindset) of that exercise needs to be maintained by the runner while he or she runs for fitness. Otherwise, the runner may be outfitted with ideal shoes, but out on the road, the runner may revert to old, injurious habits. When we’re out for a run, are we thinking the same way that we do when we’re running for the bus? Aren’t we a little more self-conscious when we’re out for a run? Maybe thinking about form? Maybe we’re bouncing up and down and jogging? Maybe we adopt a different motion, one that we believe is easier to sustain over a period longer than the short duration of the average emergency run? Maybe we get bored, unable to sustain the “gotta get there” mindset of the emergency run?

I wonder. You know, when was the last time you had to run somewhere for real? Were you late? Were you in a long enough space that allowed room for it? When you weren’t carrying a briefcase, Starbucks, whatever that prevented you from really running? As I sit here at my computer, expecting to drive home, work out … I can only recall the run in the hall, and possibly a sprint for the streetcar a few months ago. This might explain the great disconnect between the idea that running should be natural and the preponderance of running injuries out there: we don’t have enough opportunities to run for its own sake … instead, we just run for fitness or sport, if that.

I think I’ll try the “gotta get there” mindset next time I’m out for a run. I’ll get back to you.

Categories: East meets West, running, Zen-like stuff Tags:

It’s easier than you think

March 29th, 2010 No comments

Just about every physical-sport-discipline direction I’ve gotten involves some kind of relaxation, letting go, or exhortation to some kind of natural absence of effort. “Relax”, “be soft”, “chill”, “let it drop”, “it’s easy”.

But the thing is, they’re right. It is easy. Once you get it.

Let me elaborate. Each time I’ve “found” something, my reaction has been “oh, is that it?” It feels easy to “get it”. It makes sense. It’s often surprisingly easy, so much so that I feel a temptation to believe it isn’t the right method. Where’s the stress and strain? Where’s the effort?

Do not doubt this: there is effort, but not where we expect it: it lies in the repetition of the simple act. It lies in seeking the extraneous, that which must be removed. The effort also lies in challenging our assumptions and doing the things that we don’t want to do …

… such as “let go”.

I’ve said to my students that Tai Chi is less about “making things happen” and more about “letting things happen”. We have so much baggage associated with making things happen. We want to be in control, we want to show the teacher that we’re making effort, and we want to balance the pleasure of success with the pain of effort, since success without effort just doesn’t feel right. Maybe we feel guilty about it. However, strangely enough, many of us want the success without effort — we want to be given the secret and find success right away. Without doing … what?

… without doing something we don’t want to do.

If you took someone who wanted the success that comes from natural, relaxed non-effort right away, theoretically you could tell them to relax, chill, and let it happen, and they would then achieve natural, non-doing, relaxed success right away. But they don’t, most of the time. Why not?

I think that if they want things right away, they want to be in control. They are afraid of delays that result from being patient. They are nervous and stressed. Impatient. Given that nature has its own pace, being impatient isn’t likely to invite natural results. So, paradoxically, the impatient person delays his own success, by attempting to control the pace of events, by attempting to make things happen.

Anyway, I’ll stick with the idea of “less making things happen, more letting things happen.”

Another Jedi mind trick

March 25th, 2010 No comments

In J.P. Lau’s Yiquan Beginner’s Guide, he mentions a technique to use when learning:

“…do not be conscious of meeting the requirements of the posture; assume you have mastered them.”

At first, I only applied this to standing practice. I found that it calms me down, it takes away any baggage about where I should be in my training and basically makes me less self-conscious. It lets me get down to business and do the exercise.

Then I applied it to squash. The same thing happened: basically, I thought “hm.” Some of the things that I had been told to do started to come, where I didn’t think too much about how I should be applying them, I just applied them. Oh, yeah, let’s try turning more to the side. Hm. It works. In effect, the feeling was somewhat like that of the beginner’s mind, where we just do things without thinking how we’re not supposed to do that because we’re not at that stage yet (I’m not talking about safety, just stages of progress).

We’re not meant to think “I am the great master, and all should bow before me”. No. It’s more like the feeling we get when doing something quite familiar, such as walking, brushing our teeth, or doing something at our work that we do well. It’s more than that, actually. The feeling I get when I apply this technique is that I have nothing to worry about, but there’s still polishing to do. Maybe that’s what mastery feels like: you have no worries about your performance, but you enjoy the process and enjoy improving. And you have no concerns about someone’s being better than you, since you believe there will always be someone better than you. And that doesn’t matter.

Maybe this ties in with the idea that mastery isn’t an end, but a state of mind? In karate, the idea of achieving black belt status has been corrupted to mean that the wearer has finished something and is now a master. However, to the old-schooler, a black belt is just the beginning. It’s the beginning of learning, maybe as if the karateka has cleansed himself of the fears that preclude learning, or they have merely finished a preliminary stage. I don’t know karate, but J.P. Lau’s idea of mastery helps my squash.

But here’s the caveat: I think this can only be applied after you’ve received some instruction or are in the process of receiving instruction. It’s for those who know what to do, but just haven’t done it. I wouldn’t recommend it for the raw beginner on the first day. Although … believing that you’ve already mastered something else outside this new venture, and this new venture is building on your existing life knowledge, then maybe the mastery idea can be applied at the beginning of a new venture. Next time I try something completely new, I’ll try that.

It is said that the new student should empty his cup, and not bring a lot of old knowledge and previous status to a new discipline, and this is true. But if we are truly masters of this particular Jedi mind trick, we would only use it to open the blockages to learning, not to solidify our previously-attained knowledge and hide behind it.

So that’s it: this technique is, above all, a learning technique.

Hey, try it when you get a chance. I have nothing to worry about, but there’s still polishing to do.

Categories: East meets West, Zen-like stuff Tags:

To qi or not to qi?

March 20th, 2010 No comments

Our Yiquan class had just done our force-testing exercises, one of which involves raising one arm and lowering the other, palms down, while standing. One of the students approached me after the exercise and asked me to interpret what she felt during the exercise: a feeling as if she were gently pulling rubber with her hands.

I thought I’d give it a shot, at least until I could ask for a translation through Master Chau. Here’s my take on it:

Our body has a memory of things it has done. We’ve all pulled stretchy things at some point or another, so we have a memory of what that feels like. I believe that the student was connected enough, using the right degree of muscles and tendons in concert to  reproduce the feeling of pulling something stretchy. In fact, the visualization for this exercise is either to pull rubber bands or move in molasses. In other words, I believe she was doing the exercise well enough to get the sensation of connection.

Now … she had to leave, so there wasn’t time to determine if she was asking about qi (ch’i, or energy). Was she pulling energy from heaven and earth? Was she connected to the qi in the room and manipulating it? I don’t know, and it would have been irresponsible of me to say so, since I’d only be guessing. So I gave her the best explanation I could.

I won’t discount the existence of an energy flowing outside of our bodies, but I haven’t yet experienced the subtle sensations of that outside energy. I also am wary of interpreting internal signals passed through the fascia as a sensation of something outside. If I feel the air as I move my hands, I feel it at the skin, not in the fascia.

However, if I feel something inside my arms as I move, my current level of experience leads me to interpret it as connective signals through the fascia rather than pushing against flowing energy that’s outside my body. So are the internal signals actually qi? Well, I believe that qi, or just “energy” drives our bodily functions, and we sense that in many ways, such as heat, tingling and so on.

But do I believe that we can sense energy directly? I don’t think I can, yet. I can sense energy through my body from time to time, but I believe I’m experiencing physical sensations, since I’m experiencing them through my body. But since those sensations are driven by energy, I believe I’m sensing energy indirectly.

And that’s the best I can do right now. More practice? More practice.

Categories: East meets West, Yiquan, Zen-like stuff Tags:

Mind to no-mind

March 13th, 2010 No comments

After a month away from Sudoku, I thought I’d give it a try on Tuesday.

For some reason, my mind was clear, with no expectations of performance. Although I had my little Sudoku tricks and techniques, I thought I’d just dive into it. Interesting. There was no self-consciousness, no narrowing of focus to one particular technique, and most importantly, no stress. I scanned the puzzle, and as I saw each solution present itself through a recognition of a technique, I acted on it, then returned to non-prejudicial scanning, as it were. This was a departure from the previous method of thinking “now I will use this technique” and scanning the puzzle looking for places to apply the technique.

But of course, I had to learn the techniques first,  in order to apply them when opportunities presented themselves. It seems to be another example of “train with mind, execute with no-mind”.

(Of course, Tuesday’s Sudoku puzzles are the easy ones. Maybe I’ll try this on a Friday.)

Categories: philosophy, Zen-like stuff Tags:

Leadership lessons from a shirtless dancing guy

March 2nd, 2010 1 comment

This from Peter Kurpis, via Facebook:

Leadership lessons from a shirtless dancing guy.

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