Archive for the ‘Zen-like stuff’ Category

The best technique is no technique.

January 12th, 2010 2 comments

Another squash lesson, another blog post. This time Barb was trying to teach me how to swing the racquet properly so I wouldn’t hit anybody. Haven’t done that yet, so this is a preemptive stroke, as it were.

Once Barb got my swing in the ballpark (or in the court), she basically asked me to relax, use a delicate touch, do less, and just chill. I thought I was relaxed. Go figure. But she was right of course, and the swing improved to the point where I got some nice, relaxed swings out of the lesson. It seems that I get stressed out over doing things right, and that makes me tighten up. So some technique needs to be applied to correct that and bring me back to a natural state. Once in the natural state, everything flows, and no technique is required. Now I don’t have to put my racquet back to a specific position, I should just get it back to a position where it would do some good. And that’s different for each shot, high, low, volley, whatever.

Once reaching that state, the reaction seems to be “oh, is that all? That’s not so hard.” But I need to apply technique to bring me to the state of no technique.

I think this is very “Yiquan”. And very “Alexander” … right, Caprice?

(update: The characters represent “wu wei”, or “non-doing”: an important concept of Taoism.)

Fun with the sun

November 2nd, 2009 1 comment

This looks interesting. Stick a pole in the ground, measure the length of its shadow over the year, and plot it on a chart. Fun.

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

Mindfulness, part 2

October 14th, 2009 No comments

My squash coach, Barb Cooper, recently shed new light on the concept of mindfulness. She told me that on the court, it’s more important to be mindless, rather than mindful. Of course, she’s right, and this led me to refine my understanding of the two concepts:

1. There are different levels of mindfulness. Depending on the task at hand, too much mindfulness can be detrimental. For example, on the squash court, we need to mindful of the flow of the game, not tonight’s supper. However, in the midst of a point, being mindful of every little detail (stroke, breathing, posture, foot position) can lead to a lousy game. So we need to add a certain amount of mindlessness, or “no-mind”, which is described in Japanese as mushin, or loosely in Chinese as wu-wei (non-doing).

2. We do need to be mindful when training, or when programming new habits. In a coaching, training, or practice session, we can be mindful of a detail on which we are working, such as proper foot position. In a tai chi context, we could choose to be mindful (gently!) of our breath while practicing. Or, if we wanted to create a new walking habit, we would be mindful of walking with our feet slightly closer together to avoid moving from side to side when we walk. Once these habits are ingrained, we don’t need to be mindful of them.

3. I think the general idea is to be mindful of what you are doing at the time. Given that while walking to work, we may be seeing, listening, walking, breathing, holding a coffee, anticipating traffic and so on, we might want to define what it is we’re doing. If “walking to work” is the task at hand (not “thinking about lunch”), then we can choose to be mindful of the group of tasks which come under “walking to work”. This would mean that we would assign different levels of mindfulness to the individual tasks within that group, choosing one as a priority: presumably we can walk pretty well, so being mindful of the direction and surroundings might be assigned the higher level of mindfulness.

The challenge comes whenever we want to change a habit. All of a sudden, we are asking ourselves to focus on something that we haven’t given much thought over the years — such as walking. Recently I realized I needed to change a few things about the way I walked, and wasn’t looking forward to it. I have to change the way I walk? Many people would balk at this, but I thought I’d give it a shot. It takes more work to apply some attention to something habitual, but it’s paying off.

4. As I mentioned, mindlessness is also important. That’s where an action has been programmed into our subconscious to the point where it has become quite natural or reflexive. When we catch a ball, do we think about every detail of how each joint of our arm moves, or how each finger opens then closes? No, we catch the ball. Does a jungle cat think about the details of catching its prey, worrying about proper form? No, it probably thinks “prey there, go now”.

5. One key to aim for  a state of “no-mind” regarding a task is to imagine that you’ve already mastered it and relax. Of course, if you really want to master it, you need to be mindful of it on occasion, but if a detail is distracting you from the task at hand, imagine you’ve mastered that detail for now.

– train mindfully, execute with no-mind. Refine and Repeat.
– be mindful when changing a habit, eventually to perform in a state of no-mind.
– determine the key task at hand, be mindful of it, and enjoy the fruits of it.
– try imagining you’ve mastered a detail (for the time being) if it’s distracting you from the task at hand.

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

Up (or down) the yin-yang

October 6th, 2009 No comments

(content added at end, 10/20/09) Here’s some more to chew on regarding such an old Taoist cosmic concept: the taiji or yin/yang. Hopefully it makes sense, although it is my opinion.

taiji1. It’s a metaphor: a means of attempting to explain or find a pattern to what’s “out there” in the real world. 

2. The dot represents the presence of the opposite quality: a bit of yin within yang. The seeds of the opposite are contained within. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a natural, living system. The seeds of death are within life, but the seeds of life are within death. The exact same thing won’t spring up again, but something else will. Regarding tai chi, when you’re doing it, you should be relaxed, yet keeping a bit of alertness within your relaxation.

3. As far as I can tell, this model only applies to natural processes, not abstract concepts. Natural processes involve animals, weather, people, and so on. For example, the seeds of a civilization’s death are contained in its birth since it’s made up of people. Now, don’t worry: reinvention is a kind of death, and not that big a deal …

4. The yin/yang of something can occur at different scales. Many sub-processes within an system may be in or out of balance, and that system may be seen as in balance or out of balance in its entirety. For example, civilization can be seen to be out of balance because one component, its citizens’ health, may be out of balance. Can one component be too yang, while another is too yin, restoring balance? I don’t think so — the overall organism is still out of balance. 

5. In this context, qi (ch’i) can be viewed very generally, as the driving force behind any processes in a system. It can also be viewed as the force behind any changes in a system. Qi is like any force: intangible, though with tangible effects. I hope that makes sense.

6. In a system, things are always changing at some level. The diagram shows this if you imagine traveling around the circle. You change from yin to yang, with the yin diminishing and yang increasing. When Yang reaches its maximum, the dot of yin appears, beginning the increase of yin, which can be seen creeping around the corners of yang.

7. It’s not useful to attempt to categorize half the universe as yin, and half as yang. For example, grouping feminine, negative and down together doesn’t make any sense, since they do not relate to each other and have no effect on each other. Instead, each pair of qualities (e.g. masculine/feminine, or positive/negative) is only relevant in its own context. One is the opposite of the other, and bears no relation to any quality in another context.

8. Although … there are some common qualities to yin and yang forces as generally defined: yin is stop, contracting, inward, static, while yang is go, expanding, outward, dynamic. This is best applied in a Tai Chi context. For example, you need root (yin) to express force (yang).

9. This model is very useful in reducing stress, believe it or not. If we imagine that change is inevitable, we will avoid attaching ourselves too much to any outcome. Also, once we become aware of the patterns of change inherent in a system, we can better prepare ourselves for the upcoming changes. And if we are truly a student of change, we won’t attach ourselves too much to those patterns either, since they are likely to change at some point.

10. Change is hard-wired into living systems. All living things are born and die, but they’re also constantly changing at some level, even when standing still. Movement within stillness.

10. The diagram can be oriented as “rotating” clockwise or counter-clockwise. I don’t know if the concept of “clockwise as normal” was around when the symbol was created.

11. Nature seeks balance. So it’s possible that a system can move toward balance and remain there, without needing to satisfy this metaphor and change to a state of imbalance. 

12. Taoist cosmology states that this state of taiji (“grand opposites”) was born from the state of wuji: “no opposites”. The diagram for wuji is a plain circle. One of the goals of Taoism, as I understand it, is to restore a system to a state of complete balance, equanimity or equilibrium. This would be the wuji state, where there is no longer any need for changes to occur to restore balance. Maybe to return to wuji, if the practitioner keeps aiming for balance, the changes required (amplitude?) grow smaller and smaller until balance is achieved.

13. Now … sometimes these shifts from one state to another can be stimulating, especially to those who love drama, so I can see how achieving complete balance may not be very appealing to many. Although … maybe most of us might benefit from actually trying to determine what we are seeking: it may be balance, and we may not know it.

I hope that makes sense. Thoughts?

Categories: philosophy, Zen-like stuff Tags:

A bucket list

June 15th, 2009 No comments

The other day, I was invited to fill out a “bucket list” by a friend on Facebook. For those who don’t know, a bucket list is a list of things to do before you die, or kick the bucket, as it were. This list wasn’t written by my friend, so she deserves no blame for its relatively superficial nature. Many of its items were travel-related for Americans, such as “have you ever been to Canada? Have you ever walked on the Great Wall? Seen the Statue of Liberty?” so they didn’t seem like such a big deal to me.

While those are all nice places, they’re all accessible to someone with enough money to get there. Also, it’s not a given that travel-related experiences leave a lasting impression on you, or drive you to make the world a better place. Now, staying for a year in a foreign country teaching English … that would be an experience. However, experiences like that aren’t available to everyone, so I left them out of my list.

I also left out “tasting a 12-year-old single malt”, “sat in the pits at the Monaco Grand Prix”, and “seeing your baby smile at you for the first time”, since those activities may not appeal to everyone, or may disappoint those who are incapable of performing them.

So with the previous rambling in mind, here’s my list. Hopefully, if you’ve done these things, you’ll feel pretty good when you think about them. If you’ve done them all, well then, feel free to feel good some more. Or if you’ve done them once, feel free to do them again.

Have you ever …

… been comfortably, calmly, confidently in love?
… enjoyed a live show that you still remember fondly?
… made a little kid laugh?
… studied a foreign language out of interest?
… taught a class or workshop where you cared about the outcome?
… pulled an all-nighter and seen the sun come up?
… held someone’s hand during their last moments of life?
… gone for a brisk walk on a beautiful morning?
… broken a bad habit for good?
… made yourself useful to a grieving person?
… meditated for longer than fifteen minutes in one sitting?
… changed a flat tire?
… successfully built a simple piece of furniture?  (IKEA doesn’t count)
… ridden a tandem bicycle?
… moved a friend out of a house or apartment?
… been awed by a work of nature?
… eaten from your own garden?
… baked a batch of cookies?
… learned to play a musical instrument?
… done something you thought you couldn’t?
… recovered a physical ability you’d thought you’d lost?
… stopped to smell some flowers? (and it was your idea, not your companion’s)
… gone out of your way to attend a Remembrance Day (or Memorial Day) service?
… whistled a tune in public?

Categories: modern life, Zen-like stuff Tags:


May 26th, 2009 No comments

On the way to work, I once saw a guy on a bicycle texting on his cellphone. With both hands…

… which brings us to the topic of mindfulness. The word “mindful” is one of those words that only gains meaning after some experience with it. For example, to some, it can mean “thinking too much”. In a meditation class, the master can ask us to be mindful, and we can say “… okaaay…”, expecting to discover the meaning after some reflection. I’d like to help define it here.

It’s like “mind the gap” or “mind your manners”. It also means “be aware of”, but I find it useful to think of it as “pay attention to”. Pay attention to the road. Pay attention to what you’re eating.

Being mindful of the moment means to pay attention to what we’re doing at the moment, or what’s happening at that moment. If we’re driving, pay attention to the road, don’t let the mind wander, don’t talk on the cellphone, don’t eat. Pay attention. Being mindful of eating means to pay attention to each bite as we chew it then swallow it. Don’t wolf it down, watch TV, read, or talk while eating. Put the fork down more often. As a result, we start to realize that either a) our food tastes like cardboard or b) it really tastes good. At any rate, we start to become aware of what we’re doing and the consequences of it.

It doesn’t mean to have a mind full of thoughts. There’s the paradox: in my opinion, to be mindful means to have our mind empty of thoughts, those thoughts that come flying into our head like a torrent of quick-fix junk food. Some of those thoughts are useful, but unless we can recall them and make use if them, they are gone and thus, useless. To be empty of thoughts doesn’t mean to be in a catatonic state, it actually means to have a clean desk, one that is ready to accept what it senses from the real world around it. To use driving as an example, if we’re being mindful of driving, we are aware of all the cars, pedestrians and such around you, ready to react to things that may appear out of nowhere. If, however, we’re texting while driving, those texting thoughts take up mind space that needs to be available to react to the real world outside. The same is true of thoughts of the past or future. They’re not out there now, so it’s not a good idea to be aware of them.

“Practise what you preach” department: I just got a speeding ticket for doing 70 in a 50 zone on a route I take almost every day. The nice (really) constable suggested I might have been daydreaming. Indeed. Not being mindful cost me 40 bucks. Good thing that’s all it cost.

Categories: modern life, Zen-like stuff Tags:

A Jedi mind trick

March 27th, 2009 1 comment

When I was with the 48th Highlanders of Canada Military Band, I was occasionally called upon to perform the Act of Remembrance on trumpet. The Act consists of playing The Last Post, observing silence (or listening to a piper play a lament), then playing Reveille, or Rouse.

(here’s the sheet music, for those interested)

It can be a high-pressure gig, since a) it’s a solo, b) everybody in the crowd knows it, c) all around you is silent, and d) it’s only played at solemn occasions. So naturally, I had to get it right.

Once I didn’t get it right and oh, I got such a dirty look from an elderly woman. To whom I apologize. Sure, on that occasion, I had the chops, I could play the right notes in the right order, but my mind got the better of me. After that, I suppose I got it right just through practice and sheer concentration — which doesn’t make for a very artistic performance, but a technically accurate one.

However, near the end of my tenure with the band (of course), after some more practice and refinement, I finally hit upon a way to make sure I got the notes right every time:

Focus on a playing with beautiful tone.

Yep, once I focused on making the horn sound smooth, clear and pretty, the notes were right there. It wasn’t an issue any more.

Now for this to work, I had to have the chops, the foundation, and the practice before this little Jedi mind trick would work. But it did, and still does when I pick up the horn for less-solemn occasions.

How can this apply to Tai Chi and such things? It seems as if this trick releases the mind in some way and allows it to focus on something simpler, more … “heartful” seems to be the word that comes to mind. “Spiritual” or “engaging” might do. There’s more to it than just that, since practice is a spiral path, where the student needs to go back and forth between technique and “heart”. That would mean refining Tai Chi technique, then simply relaxing and enjoying the ride, then refining technique, and so on. In other words, it’s good to just enjoy it every now and then.

More practice?
More practice.

P.S. Apparently, The Last Post has words. I did not know that. Here they are, arranged in the cadence of the tune. The words are rather poignant, when you sing them with the melody:

Come home!
Come home!
The last post is sounding for you to hear.
All good soldiers know very well there is nothing to fear …
… while they do what is right, and forget all the worries they have met
in their duties through the year.
A soldier cannot always be great,
but he can be a gentleman and he can be a right good pal to his comrades in his squad.
So all you soldiers listen to this:
Deal fair by all and you’ll never be amiss.
Be Brave!
Be Just!
Be Honest and True … Men!

Categories: interdisciplinary, Zen-like stuff Tags:

Stop thinking or your brain will freeze like that!

March 13th, 2009 2 comments

I think too much.
(Maybe I also say “I think too much” too much.)

In classes past, while teaching me a move, Ben would say that I should stop thinking so much. Part of that admonishment stuck with me, but i also pushed back a bit, because I have this attachment to being clever … or to this image of myself as a clever person. But, in an attempt to follow Ben’s direction I would think less (and practise more), but only when doing that move. That class. Then I’d get all clever again, thinking of clever ways to find the “key” to another move, to discover the pattern linking it with other moves, the best way to describe it to someone else, and so on.

Then last night, on a visit to Doug’s class, we were discussing another student. Doug said to me “he’s too much in his head. Like you.”


Now we weren’t working on a move, we were just talking. So I had no alternative but to apply Doug’s statement (echoing Ben’s admonishments) to my entire Tai Chi and Lok Hup practice. Hey, probably my squash, too. So without an exit strategy where I could continue to be clever about whatever move we weren’t discussing, I had to actually consider the statement and reflect upon it more deeply.

Hopefully, with one of my last thoughts on the matter, here’s what came out of that:

Being clever won’t help me with Tai Chi.

In fact, it’s detrimental. For a number of reasons. When I think I’ve solved a problem through reason (“good for me!”), I don’t practice it to make it internal and natural, I move on to the next problem. Alternately, if a problem is difficult to solve through reason, I keep at it … using reason. “There must be a way to solve this!” Bottom line: I’m getting in the way. I’m slowing things down. Believe it or not, the natural pace of things may be faster than the pace when we intervene! So in my impatience, I’m actually making things more difficult.

Not very Zen. Nor Dao.

So, naturally, I felt chuffed when I figured this out. Oops. Bad Steve.

So what to do? Nothing? Ehhrrmmm … maybe not. How about: watch, listen, enjoy the activity, whether I improve or not. Listen to the body because I enjoy listening, not because it will help me improve. And I shouldn’t do this non-doing because I want to improve. That’s faking it, and is just propagating the original situation.

I have to really, really not care so much. Maybe that’s it. Take a holiday from thinking. Don’t use words. Don’t compare. Don’t try to make sense of it. Just sense. Maybe relax the jaw. Drool. Okay, no drool.


Categories: Lok Hup, repetition, Tai Chi, Zen-like stuff Tags:

How to play bass, by Ron Carter

March 7th, 2009 1 comment

I heard a great little story on JAZZ-FM this morning about Ron Carter, the great jazz bassist.

Apparently he was good friends with Bill Cosby, himself a jazz fan. During a visit to Cosby’s house, the comedian noticed Carter’s fingers and remarked, “all the bass players I know are always sanding their fingers to remove the calluses, but you have no calluses. How come?”

Carter replied, “that’s easy. I play correctly.”

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

What about Qi?

February 26th, 2009 1 comment

I’ve developed a bit of an aversion to the idea that Qi (ch’i) or Qigong (ch’i kung) is magic. I think that something as old as Qigong, or as natural as Qi, is no more magical than life itself. Now it’s nice to be in awe of life and nature, but I find it more useful to be grateful and respectful.  To me, something real can be magical only as long as it’s a novelty. Yes, childbirth is a miracle, magical, but you might get two different opinions from a first-time pregnant mom-to-be and a mother giving birth to her seventh child.

Also, being in awe of something distances us from it. Along those lines, a friend of mine once referred to specific artists and writers as “gods”. Given that my friend is extremely intelligent, dynamic and creative, I felt that he was selling himself short, and if I recall, I told him so. As long as he thinks of these men as gods, he’ll never be as good as them. However, if he sees that they are just men, possessing talent and perseverance in some measure, he’ll see that their accomplishments are possible, given an adequate mix of talent, perseverance and luck.

If you’ve ever gained new abilities such as those that derive from an increased level of fitness, you’ve found that tasks that might have seemed beyond your reach are now possible, or even trivial. You probably don’t feel like a super-being — things are just easier, as if that ability were always there. Those stairs don’t seem so high. The walk seems shorter.

And Qi is like that. If we think it’s magic, we might never embrace it, and if we do encounter Qi, we might not believe it. If we think it’s a natural part of life, we’re more likely to embrace it and learn to use it. And it will seem quite natural, as if it were always there.

So what do I think Qi is?

I think it’s the thing that drives natural processes, such as blood circulation or muscular movement. We see it by studying those processes, not unlike the way we study wind forces by measuring the movement of air.

(In fact, I’d venture to say that we never measure the forces of the universe, we only measure their effects. Then we calculate the forces.  Physicists, please feel free to comment.)

The Chinese say that the Yi leads the Qi. This means that by concentrating the mind (Yi), we can increase the amount of energy (Qi) in a part of the body. It is the mind that moves the limbs, but also the mind that makes us sick or dizzy. Imagine your greatest fear, and check in with your physical response. Me, I imagine standing on the edge of a great precipice, and my body often reacts the same way whether I’m there or not.

Now … can we send Qi across a room? Does it flow down streets and stagnate in a bathroom with bad Feng Shui? I don’t know. One thing at a time. If, under favorable conditions, I can turn my hands pink by concentrating my mind, I’m happy for now.

Categories: Lok Hup, Tai Chi, Yiquan, Zen-like stuff Tags: