21ST CENTURY TAI CHI
Tools and Ideas for updating your practice
21ST CENTURY TAI CHI
Tools and Ideas for updating your practice
The teapotmOnk presents the totally-unsubstantiated, two-minute version of the History of Tai Chi Chuan. A version that takes into account a world suffering from attention deficiency and a world raised on a diet of social media updates and twitter length items. A slight familiarity with some of the characters and historical time-line of the martial arts may be of some assistance...
Stage 1: The Mongoose
Stage 2: The Pritt Stick
Stage 3: The Peeking
Stage 4: From Invincibility to Commercial Viability
(Read a Fly-On-The-Wall account of Yang Chen Fu's decision to drop the Invincibility tag and to take Tai Chi down the Internal Path - in One Last Thing - see below)
Stage 5: Shifting Sands
After this, the world shifts continues to evolve, and some practitioners decide to evolve with it, whilst others carry on bending spears with their necks and pretending they are still in the 18th century.
Some bits of Tai Chi flee political change by going West. Some bits stay in Asia. Everything changes, however, because it is in the nature of things to do so. In fact, some argue that Tai Chi is built on such foundations and is destined to effortlessly adapt to another time, language, culture and society.
Sadly, such evolution is then criticised for the next 50 years for having adapted from the Chen Lair, and stiff and unbending types all over the world fight to re-establish things the way they were, back before the time of the peeker, back before Mongooses were observed; with the aim of shielding us from the Weapons of Mass Information.
And thus ends the twitter history of Tai Chi Chuan.
What happens when a local martial arts instructor turns up at the teapot temple to challenge the teapotmonk? Will there be a battle of styles or a battle of wits? Read on.
A Challenge in the Teapot Temple
SIFU SIMON: "HEY, TEAPOT, I THINK YOUR TAI CHI IS NO GOOD."
TEAPOT: "GOOD, BAD..THESE ARE ALL SUBJECTIVE TERMS".
SIFU SIMON: "DON'T GO ALL MONK LIKE ON ME. YOUR TAI CHI IS NO GOOD BECAUSE IN MY STYLE WE PRACTICE FULL CONTACT CHI GONG FOR 17 HOURS EVERY DAY.
TEAPOT: "GO ON"
SIFU SIMON: "WELL, THATS WHAT MAKES US AUTHENTIC AND REAL - NOT JUST SPOUTING TEAPOT NONSENSE LIKE SOME..."
TEAPOT: "GO ON"
SIFU SIMON: "WE PRACTICE PROJECTING OUR CHI FROM OUR EYEBROWS TO STOP NINJAS, MODIFIED FOODS, NUCLEAR MISSILES OR EVEN A RAMPAGING RHINO - IF NECESSARY.
TEAPOT: "I SEE"
SIFU SIMON: "AND WE PRACTICE NO-HOLDS BARRED PUSH-HANDS COMPETITIONS.
TEAPOT: YOU MEAN YOU DO THAT SUMO THING?
SIFU SIMON: NO, IT'S PUSH HANDS. IT'S NOT ABOUT STRENGTH...
TEAPOT: BUT IT'S A BIT LIKE SUMO
SIFU SIMON: NO, IT'S PUSH HANDS BECAUSE WE DON'T WEAR THOSE CLOTHS AROUND YOUR GROIN OR PUT OUR HAIR IN A BUNCH ON TOP OF OUR HEADS..."
TEAPOT: OKAY I UNDERSTAND NOW.
SIFU SIMON: "OR THROW SAND ACROSS THE RING BEFORE WE START.
Sound familiar? This eternal debate between the martial and health sides of tai chi no longer really helps students understand or perceive the full range of skills tai chi can offer. At one point in history, it may have mades sense, as endurance, fighting advantages and the martial spirit would have been the sole reason someone sought out one school over another. But this was the era before guns, e-numbers and fake news. Nowadays, this narrowing of the agenda to suit the preferences of the teacher has had 3 negative consequences:
3 REASONS WHY THIS CONVERSATION IS NO LONGER RELEVANT
TIP FROM THE TEAPOT TEMPLE:
Arguing that Tai Chi is first and foremost a martial art, a mediations technique, an energy transfusion exercise, or a short cut to nirvana says more about the person saying it than the art itself.
If your school promotes tai chi as a system for learning how to hit people, then I can only hope there is equal emphasis somewhere in the curriculum for healing, for techniques of tension diffusion, for learning to turn away or turn the other cheek because these are the tools we need as 21st century warriors. Learning to simply strike back may not always be the most appropriate response.
So why is this aspect to tai chi so energetically marketed? Well, many argue that this is the way tai chi was meant to be taught. This is a debatable point, but even if we accept it, blindly reproducing the traditional practices and power structures of another era and culture without any further explanation is at best short-sighted, at worse, serving the narrow curriculum of schools that are unable to adapt to a changing world and population.
TRY ASKING IF IT IS RELEVANT?
Lets put tradition into perspective. Traditions are just old ideas, ideas that can still retain value if they remain relevant. Note I say relevant and not effective. A technique or practice may be effective (it could possibly be used in self defence, healing or communicating directly with Lao Tzu) but this does not mean it is relevant.
So ask yourself if what you are practicing is relevant? Does it relate to the times in which you live, resonating with principles of unity - bridging differences rather than highlighting them, does the practice encompass accountability, and transparency - how inter-active is your learning? Do you learn by repetition and rote or discussion and engagement?
If you are just unconditionally swallowing the traditions of the past, then they ought to be discarded, as one would discard an overgrown toenail.
Look for how much we share as opposed to how much we differ
So the next time you see someone pointing an accusatory finger, remember it says more about the person on the other end of the finger, than what they are pointing at.
We live in the 21st century, where warfare is conducted by technology and enemies are defined by governments and multinational arms corporations. We no longer live in a feudal society whereby the local warlord will call upon you and your farming implements to defend the village.
Today we have other priorities. Classes that do not prioritise health, classes that do not address regaining lost confidence, classes that do not know how to restore purpose or hope, but instead choose to focus on how to expel 'chi' through ones nose during a multiple ninja assault, frankly...says little about their teachers contact with reality.
Ask Yourself this one question
Perhaps the question is not whether you are learning tai chi as a martial art or a health art, but rather whether the art you are learning or teaching is rooted, grounded or inspired by the philosophical and spiritual practices that have shaped and given meaning to the art. Whatever the expression you chose - ask yourself - does your practice resonate with these fundamental principles and does it connect meaningfully with the lives of those practitioners today?
For whatever your emphasis, whatever your focus, whatever name you embrace - tai chi offers offers something more than this fragmentation of its parts. It offers us all something in common - a unique insight into the principles of relaxation under duress. It offers concrete breathing techniques for remaining soft rather than hard, and for remaining alert and focused. It offers a source of energy and strength that does not rely on muscle size, protein supplements or hours spent lifting weights. And it offers a healthy cocktail of physical balance, open and active listening, sticking, rooting and yielding skills.
Taken together, this collection of life skills doesn't just amount to a few interesting kicks and punches, but rather to a radical formulae for coping with the rigours of 21st century living. Don't limit your art.
HAVE YOU READ THE TAI CHI EXPANDED F.A.Q ?
There appears to be defined groups of sword thinkers these days. Those that believe that the sword is an anachronism. Its use and value belong to the past and that to learn Sword today is this just a distraction, an obsession with technique and application? They are obsessed size and want to know How big is your weapon?
These people only see value in applications. Tai Chi sword skills can be very useful, if, for example, the supermarket cheese-slicing machine has broken down and the assistant is asking if anyone should be carrying a large slicing implement on their person. At that moment, the trusty sword Tai Chi practitioner can step forward.
Then, there are those that claim swords are inherently offensive articles and should be banned from even blog posts, training halls or ever being spoken of. These people have obviously never attended a Teapotmonk sword class, in which all age groups wield wooden swords, mops, French baguettes, bamboo walking sticks or plastic Darth Vader light beams.
Tai Chi Sword Training today
Finally there are those that practice from a 21st century perspective. They argue that such weapons are actually metaphors fulfilling an interesting function at this crossroads in our Tai Chi evolution. Sword play takes us into other realms, outside the old dusty arena of martial monologues and into a new space where we learn once more about rhythm, adaptation and yielding.
Benefits of Learning Tai Chi Sword from a 21st century perspective.
Teapot Tai Chi practitioners are not a precious bunch and we tend to learn to use only what is at hand, for Sword play encourages the all important notion of "play". And it is precisely when we relax in "play" that we learn the important things in life.
Unlike the traditional Tai Chi Form applications - Forms that always spark off ludicrous arguments about martial prowess and street defence practicalities - Tai Chi Sword exercises side-step such nonsense, promoting a collective intrigue, experimentation and fresh approach to learning and acquiring new skills.
Rarely does the class degenerate into debates around energy projection from the tip of the blade, or best defence sword techniques against an oncoming tank, cruise missile or fighter jet. (Though I'm told some classes do).
And when we let go of the non-sense that engulfs many a Tai Chi class, this art really has the capacity to become a revolutionary practice: For when the teacher steps aside, and engages rather than directs, something new is born.
Out of this the art breathes not the dusty atmosphere of sweaty training halls from the 19th century, but fresh new air arising from the very place of practice and the very people that are practising.
This way of teaching a class creates its own agenda, and if this is something new to your martial background, then, in all honesty, it's time to let go of the control switch, put down the reins of power and watch what happens when we learn from one another, rather than from the dusty tomes of past decades.
Want to read more on Tai Chi Sword?
Due to recently released WikiLeaked snippets of a fragmented interview between Cheng Man Ching and an anonymous reporter, we can at last gain an insight into what the great master thought of the development of Tai Chi Chuan, the wholesale adoption of Eastern culture, and the wearing of satin suits by Western practitioners. Prepare yourself for the unexpected. Watch all the video animations here or explore learning his incredible 37 step Tai Chi form here.
1. The Form
2. The videos
"Yes, it’s true, I could push lots of big men over with just a twitch of my eyebrow but don't go all Kwai Chang Caine about that. If you study those YouTube videos closely, you'll see it has more to do with timing and body mechanics than Kryptonite powers. And like all instructors who give demos, you have to remember, who is telling who what to do. So, you want to do the same? The secret is in the detail. Patience, practice, stay soft. Get a willing partner and a good cameraman."
"Tai Chi as a martial art? I'm shocked you should even ask! Of course it is...well it was.
Street Defence? Today...21st Century and all that...well, that's another kettle of fish. All I'm saying is don't just limit yourself to perfecting 'Ward off Left.' It's a great posture and all that, but if you get jumped by a couple of types in a dark alley, applying Ward Off might just make you look a bit silly. You want to fight like Bruce Lee? Go learn some Wing Chun"
4. Don't just Copy and Paste
"Don't just breathe the Tai Chi stuff. Yeah, of course, study the classics and all that 5 Excellencies stuff... But don't forget who you are. Doesn't have to be calligraphy or herbal medicine either.
Start from where you are, be creative. Apply the flow to driving a taxi, filling shelves in a supermarket, listening to your customers without judgement...start from where you are. Look to see what unites people, not what separates them. That's just lazy and far too easy. Find the sweet spot where things fuse and melt. Think of all relationships as cheese on toast...."
"It's ok for you to borrow our stuff. We don't mind. We do the same to you, but...I've just got to say...about the silk tunics. Believe me, they just look silly on you.
Enter the Dragon shook the martial arts world in the early 1970's. Suddenly, Karate schools offered Kung Fu and the cliched karate chop was substituted by a series of Crouching Tigers and Hidden Dragons. But has there been another legacy than simply commercialising the East?
It's forty five years ago that I first sneaked into a cinema to watch my first 'X' rated film. Believe me, it took some sneaking. I was only 15 and looked about 11. But I got in with the help of my older brother convincing the ticket seller that I just had short legs.
I chose to sit at the front of the cinema, because, also accompanying me that evening was a smuggled portable tape player under my coat. I was determined to record the entire soundtrack on a C120 cassette tape. An early pirate you may rightly shout. But I had my reasons.
The Spirit of Bruce Lee
An Uncertain agenda
I could never settle for a single approach. Perhaps it was the weekly stomach-kicking sessions we received whilst kneeling on the floor during our Shotokan training. The aim - we were told - was to breathe out with the blow, somehow using the muscles of the stomach to protect the delicate contents within. It was a logic that eluded me then, as now. Worse, many karateka cannot aim an accurate blow at the abdomen, instead kicking wildly at the solar plexus or even the shoulder or hip of the unsuspecting target seated next to me.
Perhaps it was the drop-knuckle push ups on the concrete floor to develop the callouses that I found particularly anachronistic. In truth, all styles had their questionable elements. If we were sensible, we would have been more selective, and less devotional. It was a hard lesson to learn in the 1970's atmosphere of allegiance and confidentiality.
The Luxury of Looseness
The tendency for allegiance
To counter the tendency of allegiance, I learnt sword from a guy over from Hong Kong for a short stay in London. I learnt the Cane Form from a friend of a friend of a friend, and my push-hands is as derivative of Wu rather than that of Yang. I practice a home-spun version of Silk reeling from Chen and even (yes...I will openly admit) some of my warm-ups come from the years I worked as a fitness instructor at a martial arts centre in South London. Why? Funny you should ask....
Because there is no single path, we must ultimately walk our own. Each of us is a hybrid, a fusion and mesh-up of all we have known and experienced. If not, why not? And no, I am not talking about Yoga-Lates or Qi Jogging...please, give me some credit.
I teach Tai Chi - with a distinctive Teapot Flavour - using all the wisdom and advice received from all the teachers I have had the good fortune to train under. Teachers from all walks of life that is - inside and outside the dojo. teachers who wore their suits with pride, others who refused to don such silly garments. But I do not emulate them. I do not attempt to mirror their classes, their clothing or their haircuts. I do not reach out for the same stars as they did. Nor do I speak the same words they spoke.
The more honest you are with yourself, the more authentic will be your teaching. Ok, I'll admit this doesn't always equate with effectiveness, but thats another debate altogether.
Authenticity I had first tasted, sitting in that front row of that cinema 45 years ago. This is what I had tried to explain to my younger brother as we listened intensely to the crackle of the tape deck late into the evening back in 1973.
Yes the "fight with the guards was truly magnificent", but it was not the speed of Lee's footwork, nor the Ohara fight with the bottles, nor the nightmares that Bolo left me with, that held substance. It was the honesty and rawness of expression with all it's idiosyncrasies and traits leaking off the screen that I found had accompanied home that evening. Thanks for that Bruce.
More on Bruce Lee?
In this series of Interviews with 21st century warriors, I am indebted this week to a man who, through his inspirational writings and explorative publishing skills has managed to bring together a broad camp of thinkers, writers and teachers to the on-line journal Into Mountains Over Streams. (IMOS).
Together with a strong Twitter and FaceBook presence, IMOS has been steadily pushing back the barriers for the internal arts, drawing practitioners and theorists together to debate some of the most topical and undying debates about practice, about authenticity and about application.
This week I interview the man behind IMOS, the eclectic Anthony Guilbert: publisher, lecturer and writer. I ask him just 10 Questions. The answers...were thoughtful, provocative and...well, you´ll just have to read them for yourselves.
Grab a coffee, turn off the mobile and put your feet-up for 10 mins. Savour the moment.
1. Who is Anthony Guilbert?
When my grandmother was alive, every once in awhile, she would bring up the time I got lost on Easter Sunday. I was nine or maybe ten years old, just starting to understand myself as a writer and wandered off Easter Sunday to go for a hike.
The forest surrounding my grandparent’s home was considerably un-developed and I loved to get lost there, just wandering, imagining new worlds waiting beyond the next rise in the tree line.
This particular morning I made my way to cliffs that overlooked Long Island Sound. I sat there; my feet dangling off the edge, staring out at the sea, just jotting down ideas in a small spiral note pad. Getting up from the edge, I lost my balance and fell off the cliff. I remember the bouncing more than anything, trying to grab hold of branches and roots, and terribly cutting my hand on the way down. When I finally reached the beach, I think I was more shocked than afraid. My hands were bleeding; and I had lost one shoe on the way down.
I remember standing on that beach for quite awhile, not knowing how to get home. I’d never realized there was a difference between ‘getting lost’ and ‘being lost.’ My young mind seemed to think writing the word ‘lost’ in the sand was a good idea. Then with a broken pencil, I wrote the word ‘home’ in that small spiral notebook, drew an arrow next to it, and began walking. The rest of the morning I wandered down the beach making a map and notes about what I discovered, until I found a road. I walked up the road and ran into my grandparent’s neighbours who were out for a stroll with their dog. The neighbours walked me back to my grandparents house.
When I showed up at home four hours late, covered with dirt and bleeding, my family was not very interested in my adventures. I remember my grandmother crying and my grandfather gave a bottle of red wine to the neighbours.
I’m bring this up this anecdote because I’m not sure that the adult “Anthony Guilbert” is much different from that young man on the beach. Anthony Guilbert is a man, who stumbled and got lost in the world, with a notebook.
2. With something approaching 30,000 visits a month, IMOS has a considerable reach into the online internal arts community. Other sites promote forums "to cultivate a dialogue among the world’s practitioners.” Why has IMOS chosen the journal format and in what way do you see this format as more appropriate in cultivating such a dialogue?
I don’t know that IMOS’s format is more appropriate than any other site’s. When I got the idea for the journal, it was more about filling a void I found in the media. All I was trying to do was create a journal I would enjoy reading. Had there been a good journal online, had I found something to read the first time I went looking, I don’t think I would have ever started this project.
That said, I did consider building a forum into the structure of IMOS. But, there are so many good forums already that I felt I was trying to re-create the wheel. Forums like “Rum Soaked Fist,” “The Tao Bums,” “Empty Flower,” and “Tea House,” do such a great job, why compete?
What has started to happen is that these forums and IMOS have become symbiotic. Articles from IMOS have been discussed in these forums, and when possible IMOS links back to their threads.
The way I see it, communities form around many different things: teachers, traditions, goals, needs. Trying to create a global dialogue is really about trying to thread all of these different communities together. That’s not going to happen in any one format or through any one site. People are diverse, it will take a diversity of formats to connect us all.
3. Some people argue that Tai Chi and Qigong developed in response to the conditions and needs of a certain time and place. It is also argued that Qigong and Tai Chi are experiencing a renaissance right now. If we accept these statements, what questions are these disciplines attempting to answer in the 21st Century?
Well, I have some very specific beliefs about that.
First, lets talk about Qigong as the mother of Chinese internal arts. Almost all scholars will tell you that Qigong can be traced back to Neolithic Indo-Sino shamanism.
They refer to images found on clay vessels as “meditative practices and gymnastic exercises,” but because of its connection to shamanism they fail to put Qigong in its proper context as a transformative art.
Mircea Eliade’s classic text ‘Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy,’ sets in motion that common understanding of the shaman as not just healers, but magicians, travelers into the spirit world; and in some cultures the first warriors, sent to the Earth to defend humanity against demons.
To achieve these abilities, shaman underwent an initiation and apprenticeship where they were taught how to cultivate themselves. These early Chinese shaman were living Emerson’s adage: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Today we call the trail they left, Qigong.
All throughout the history of Qigong, you see that its primary function has been to transform a practitioner into something new. In the martial world, it has been about being a better warrior, in the medical world – about turning a person into a healer. Everywhere you look, people are using these arts to transform themselves. The pinnacle of this process is found in the ancient Taoist who sought immortality, the ultimate transformation.
So for me the question internal arts answer, is the same question they’ve always answered: “What can I become?”
4. In "This Longing", your fourth published work, you describe an ideal state as that of living fully in the world without becoming entangled in it. Some critics may say that IMOS reflects this by always walking a middle road, always keeping at an editorial distance from your contributors. Would this be a fair comment?
In the introduction to ‘This Longing,’ I expounded on my concept of “the world-lover” as being in the spirit of Chuang Tzu’s “Zhenren” –the true human. The full sentence read: “They celebrate life, live fully in the world, without becoming entangled in it, experience reality not as an anthology of experiences, but as an infinite web of experience.” Its intention is to illustrate a state of non-attachment, but not avoidance. The idea is to experience, to appreciate, to enjoy, and not possess the world.
This translates into IMOS as an appreciation of and respect for diversity. The Qigong/Taiji community is vast, and very, very, diverse. IMOS’s editorial policy doesn't acknowledge any one school, tradition, lineage, belief or idea as more authentic, or more valid than any other. Together, all these voices, differences of opinion, ways of knowing, create the tapestry that is ‘the world’ Qigong/Taiji community.
In this way, I have enfolded my practice into the production of the journal. I seek out differing opinions, and foster dialogue among opposing ideas. I am more interested in authentic voices asking enduring questions, then dogmas or politics.
IMOS’s growing collection of articles debating Taiji as a martial art or health art is a perfect example of this. My personal belief is that these are transformational arts that foster a true Emersonian sense of self-reliance, and in my classes, that’s how I teach them. Now, should that be IMOS’s position as well? I don’t think so. If IMOS is to achieve its goals, its position must be that of “no position.”
Let me get back to your original question: I think your assessment is true, I do maintain a distance from the editorial content of the journal, but I wouldn’t say the journal is walking the middle road. It aspires to objectivity. This is what makes IMOS a journal. If it was more subjective, it would be a blog.
5. IMOS is a digital Journal. It breathes and lives a digital world. To what extent do such digital communities embrace us as global citizens or simply trivialize our relationships, reducing them to anonymous comments, tweets or tagged photos, and how can editors leverage such content to move such communities in one or other direction?
My first response would be to insist that I am not trying to move the community in any direction . . . but that’s not exactly true.
So, I’d like to answer your question in terms of novelty theory.
Although it was psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna who first introduced me to the idea of ‘novelty’ as an area of study, it is Alfred North Whitehead who anchors my understanding. Whitehead perceived novelty (the state of being new & original) as the ingression of creativity into conformity. He believed everything that lives is creatively advancing into novelty, and that is why the progress of the world has given us such an incredible variety of species. Humanity consciously lives in the midst of a diversity and plurality that continually, creatively, advances into more diversity, plurality, and novelty.
‘Novelty Theory’ greatly informs my understanding of ‘global citizenry.’ The ‘global citizen’ is a point of novelty, it has never existed; it’s a completely new identity for humanity, the scope of which has not yet matured. Digital communities are the preschools of this new identity. The ubiquitous nature of the online community is what informs its ‘global’ element. That I can read an article from an Englishman living in Spain about elements of Chinese culture, and take that information, put it into use 8000 miles away in Boulder, Colorado, at the foothills of the US Rocky Mountains, gives new depth and power to the meaning of community.
Digital Qigong/Taiji communities, like the one developing around IMOS, can be either a source of inspiration, or completely trivial. When you are looking at the novelty of the thing, you have to realize both potentials are possible. Which possibility becomes manifest is a matter of the users intention, not the medium. If a person is in the habit of trivializing relationships, I don’t see how the context of the community would make a difference.
My advice to other editors, and those involved in facilitating online communities, would be leverage your energies toward creating novelty. If you really want to support your community; that is were you should focus your energy. The only codicil I would offer is to keep in mind that communities are organic. Don’t try to control the growth, just foster it. In the end, the heart of the community will always manifest itself.
6. Is IMOS´s content contributing or alleviating the tendency for Information Overload?
If you read everything IMOS publishes, plus whatever other journals you follow - and that’s all you do - then I’d say it won’t be long before you suffer from information overload. IMOS publishes eight good to exceptional articles a month. If you consume what you have an interest in, allow it to inform your practice, and come back when you have need; I’d say that is a healthy use of your time and mine.
Although, overload isn’t just connected to web-based information. There are practitioners who read book after book, take workshop after workshop, go on retreat after retreat, and never take any time to sit and be alone with their practice. Its one of the drawbacks to living in an information based culture; we tend to value the information over the experience.
Though I hate to say it; I would tell our readers to read less and practice more. What can be learned from an honest moment of practice could fill many more volumes.
7. In an age of cultural homegenisation, rampant consumerism and expiring natural resources, how can we aspire to live as authentic human beings...to live intimately in this world?
For me, being authentic is about having a sense of my potential outside of the confines of my social identity. Who am I, once I dispense with the social program.
The ‘social program’ is all about language and experience. Words like American, teacher, male, human, mammal, & so on . . . These are all descriptions; words that come with a predefined meanings. When we start to form our cultural identity, we nest, these and many other words in our psyche. They become the boundaries of who we believe we are. And, these beliefs limit our experience of ourselves.
Aspiring to an authentic humanity is about moving beyond the cultural programming. Getting to an experience of self that is beyond words, the ineffable self. Terrence McKenna refers to this as erasing the cultural operating system. I love that metaphor.
Qigong is a great practice for gently erasing our cultural programming. Yes, it improves health, reduces stress, and has a whole slew of other benefits, but those are just side effects of the transformative nature of the practice. When practiced as a mindfulness art it brings us into greater awareness of ourselves, of our bodies, and beyond. The body is our first awareness, a pre-cultural awareness, and the key to our authentic nature. Through it we can discover ourselves as emotions, perceptions, energy, and eventually as expressions of . . . I’ll stop there. It’s up to the individual to define that experience for themselves.
So, I’d say practice. I’m partial to Qigong, but that’s just a preference, any internal art that builds awareness of self will get you there. It’ll take time, but all the best things do. There are faster ways to cleanse your cultural programming. McKenna has a decade of lectures floating around the internet on boundary dissolution. He would suggest 6 hours and a “heroic dose” of psilocybin, or for a faster cleanse, you can go right for the DMT. I think getting there with Qigong practice allows me to own the experience. It’s a product of my own efforts, not an additive. I’m not so provincial that I don’t recognize that many cultures have effectively used these substances as tools. My argument is that in western culture there is something to be said for the sense of self-responsibility, and self-reliance transformative practices like Qigong afford their practitioner.
And intimacy . . . It has been my experience that authentic intimacy manifests from a deep sense self-reliance. If you think about it, our sense of intimacy is often distorted, and fouled, by our stresses, our fears, our insecurities; all manifesting in our need to control and possess. True intimacy requires us to give not take, to share, to be partners with the world, not consumers. We cannot be truly intimate until we take possession of ourselves: our minds, our bodies, our spirits. When we are in possession of our selves, the world is a very intimate place.
8. Outside your home, you see a social protest underway. People fighting for better conditions, rights and transparency in political and social institutions. You see clouds of tear gas, you hear the thud of batons on skulls and you wonder how you should respond. You are, after all, trained in peaceful ways and you feel an impulse to join with them, to add your energy to the universal shift in consciousness but . . . its also time for your meditation class to start, and tonight you remember there was a special session on spiral chanting for World Harmony, to be Skyped live over the internet. You also promised to pick up a new pack of Dove incense sticks on route. You grind your teeth and ponder. What to do?
All joking aside, you are asking a very difficult question.
If we wait until the police or armed forces are engaging citizens to get involved, then there will be very few options for us. We will either be openly fighting or tending to the injured. Although there is an opportunity for both Buddhist & Taoist practice in those situations, I think we will all be morally guilty if we let the current situation deteriorate into an all-out police action.
If we are practicing correctly, dedicating our hearts and minds to the problems, I think there are other less violent paths we can take.
Lets look at the problem like this: there exists, not a group of people, but a way of thinking that creates the suffering in the world. This ‘mindset’ is a very astute student of cause and effect. It can predict what a citizenry under pressure will do. We’re going to take to the streets and hope that our solidarity will somehow force the authorities to do what we want. But, they won’t. They posses a mindset, and a culture, that doesn’t have to. They have a solution in place for what they expect us to do. And, they are just waiting for us to fulfill their expectations. In this equation, we are not players; we are pawns.
The answer is to do what is unexpected, to do what hasn’t been accounted for. We need to solve the problems that face the world ourselves, not beg others to do it for us. That is the simple answer that avoids many of us. If you want to end starvation & hunger; simply feed someone. If you do this with clear intention, conviction, and purpose, you’ll become an example for others. If others follow your example, then you have an action.
By creating such actions, we achieve two things: we ease the problem of human suffering; and we make the ideas we stand against irrelevant. That is the battle we face, how to make these old ways of thinking about the world irrelevant. Because once we do, entropy will take over, and these unsustainable systems will collapse naturally.
...But what would you say to those that claim that all "participation in social struggle" is in contravention to the non-interventionist philosophy of the Tao?
You know, the ‘Western World’ has a bad habit of over romanticizing the ‘East.’ The idea that protest and rebellion are not part of Taoist tradition, and that historical Taoist were all wandering monks, or monastics is simply an ignorance of history.
During the Han Dynasty, the ‘Way of Supreme Peace’ Taoist sect lead the ‘Yellow Scarves Rebellion’ against the forces of the emperor. This sect “taught the principles of equal rights of all peoples and equal distribution of land.” They saw the harshness of the peasant’s life, who were “often abused by the local government, overburdened and hungry due to the heavy taxes that were levied upon them,” and were moved to act.
‘The Yellow Scarves’ was followed by the ‘Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion.’ This rebellion was lead by Zhang Lu, the grandson of Taoist healer Zhang Daoling, leader of the ‘Yellow Scarves.’ And these were followed by the more popular ‘Taping Rebellion’ of the 18th century, and the ‘Boxer’s Rebellion’ at the beginning on the 20th century.
As you can see, the Taoist involvement in social action actually precedes the popular Buddhist movements. Any non-interventionist beliefs held by modern practitioners are simply not supported by Taoist history or text. In the writings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu we find the inspiration for both self-cultivation and social action.
Having done the research on this, I could go on. But in the end it’s simply a matter of choice. It’s like that song by the ‘Isley Brothers’ says: “It's your thing . . . do what you wanna do . . . I can't tell you, who to sock it to.”
...So where do you stand when social injustice arises? Linked arm in arm with the protestors, or chanting for peace in the incense filled mediation class?
As I mentioned earlier, I am for creating situations that change the world, not ones that trigger people’s fears . . . especially people with guns. I’ve gone to protests, and I’m not sure they actually do anything.
Let me explain my position a bit. The last protest I went to was the 2002 World Economic Forum protest in New York City. It was amazing, there were over 10,000 people, and almost as many police. In the end it was very much like many other protests I’d been to, we marched, there were arrests, moving speeches by major activists and celebrities, and a few really great after parties. At the end of the night, I realized I had spent over $100 on transportation, food, books, and handouts to a few homeless. While I was riding the train back to my home on Long Island, starring at my empty wallet, I did a quick calculation. If everyone spent what I did, then the protesters just dumped at least $1,000,000 into the local economy, if not more.
Couldn’t that money have been spent directly engaging our issues? After that protest, I stopped asking for permission to be heard, for others to do my work for me, and I started trying to figure out how to generate energy that would directly engage the issues that touched me.
As for ‘sitting in incense filled meditation halls’ . . . I consider practice to be crucial, even more so during difficult times. Though, we shouldn’t forget that practice is only a tool. If you never use what you practice it will have no value. Your Tai Chi form has no inherent wisdom. Your experience of the form teaches you to be aware of the new possibilities it exposes. Wisdom comes from applying that awareness to the world.
So, I practice, and I seek to create change, that is my response to social injustice.
9. How do you find balance in the things you do? Poetry, writing, publishing, teaching....is this your secret to living a balanced life?
Visualize a child’s seesaw. One child is up in the air, and the other is squat on the ground. The child who is off the ground is anticipating the descent. The one who is squat is thinking about when to push off and send his friend toward the ground. The most boring thing these children can experience would be in a state of balance. If they were to get stuck in the middle, both with their feet barely reaching the ground, they would be miserable.
Life is never in balance. Life is dynamic, always flowing, changing direction, transforming from one moment to the next. When things are in balance, they stop being stop living. The idea that “life should be balanced” is a meme branded into western culture by New Age/Self Help personalities like Wayne Dyer. Its not natural!
What I understand from my practice of Qigong & Taiji, and what I seek in my life is to cultivate “a state of dynamic equilibrium.”
This may be among the most practical things I learned from Vince Clemente, my first writing mentor. I have files in my office for each of my on going projects. Things like publishing, web design, and teaching require schedules, most other things don’t. I don’t try to balance these projects. What I do is flow from one to another. During those times when I get writer’s block, or I am just uninspired, I move on to the next project ––always flowing, always dynamic.
This way if my energy isn’t flowing in one direction, it most likely will flow in another. Its a lot like push-hands practice, push when you need to push, relax when you need to relax, follow the flow of energy gently moving things to their intended places.
10. The ‘mountain’ is a refuge in difficult times. Where is your mountain? In Publishing, Writing, Teaching or...?
Living here in Boulder, my mountain or mountains, are never more than 15 minutes away. I’ve spent most of my life living by the ocean, so my past seven years here in the American west has been an adjustment. The energy of the mountains, is much different than the ocean. Although Master Ge Hung used the word refuge, when he wrote, “the ‘mountain’ is a refuge in difficult times,” I’d say the mountains are more a sanctuary. Their energy is stable, consistent; and I’d say cradling.
But maybe that’s a conversation for another day . . .
There was a time when I would have said “I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.” For all of my adolescence and at least half of my adult life, that was enough.
With nearly half a century under my belt, I’ve refined the idea of refuge to be less abstract. I take refuge in having purpose. Purpose gives all our philosophies, our dreams, and our creations, their meaning, and requires us to have a sense of individuality, a sense of intentionality, and to be relevant.
So my refuge, where I feel safest, is when I am involved in endeavors that have purpose. Cultivating a life with purpose, allows me to bring all of my beliefs and arts to bear on actual events.
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Become a Tai Chi Sifu via Instagram or WHATSAPP
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Oh, you really do want to learn on-line?
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Have you heard of the Yellow Turban Taoist Revolution? Or how about the Taoist Republic that lasted for 30 years? Did you know that Taoism has experienced a remarkable come-back from a poultry 400 priests in the 1960's to over 26.000 today? (Most make a living these days as Twitter Gurus). Read more on why Taoism tattoos are finally back in fashion...
Taoism is a much abused term in these culturally and socially confused times. It is thrown about in conversation, interchangeably with concepts such as "yield", "adaptation", "flow", "balance"and of course "yin and yang". East as it appears, not only met West, but got lost in the process. Meanings disappear as we apply our overly analytical minds to endless debates on spelling and pronunciation rather than practicality and purpose.
Me? Of Course I'm a Taoist. Haven't you seen my buttock?
Meanwhile, images and icons percolate down into popular culture: Who doesn't today sport a yin-yang tattoo on their shoulder or a portrait of Lao Tzu on their buttock? Who hasn't heard Bruce Lee's water flow speech and proudly shared it on their friends Facebook timeline? Who hasn't a copy of the Tao Te Ching sitting unread on the floor of their bathroom?
Yet for many of us, our culture has - and continues to - re-define these terms in the act of embracing them. So it can be useful for those of us interested in the original ideas to go back every now and then and look at what these terms meant and will mean in the future as our cultural reference points become increasingly blurred.
The Taoist Podcast
Taoism - perhaps the single most important body of thought behind many of the chinese martial arts - had its roots in another world altogether. Listen in to the podcast by Melvin Bragg from the BBC who is joined by Tim Barrett (Professor of East Asian History at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) Martin Palmer (Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture) and Hilde De Weerdt (Fellow and Tutor in Chinese History at Pembroke College, University of Oxford)
Many people ask: "How can I carry on practising the Tai Chi Form when it varies so little, day after day, month after month, year after year? Doesn't it ever get boring?"
There are some Sifu's that answer - with a raised eyebrow and a supercilious expression: "It is never boring" they insist, and then add that by asking the question you have disclosed how little you know about Tai Chi: "The Form is always different" they say, and "if you really focus on your breath, your posture, your energy then you will always be practising a different form. If YOU find it boring, then YOU are doing it wrong."
Does this sound familiar to you? Then read on.....
How to stop yawning in Ward-off Left.
Bruce Lee warned against placing too much emphasis on practising forms. He said they stilted a persons expressiveness, produced limited stylised movements that may look good, but rarely translated into real and effective moves. So why is it that teachers tend to squirm so much when confronted by questions of repetition or boredom? There is no denying that the Form is repetitive. Once you have mastered Ward-off Left, I defy anyone to practice the move exclusively for an hour without falling asleep..
If students ask, we should recognise that there is something to be answered. One answer, would be to vary the Form with location for example - doing the Form under a waterfall in a tropical jungle is not going to be the same as doing it in the kitchen next to a pile of washing up! But for most of us - the reality is that we WILL BE doing it next to the washing up.
But most importantly, to deal with the issue of repetition, we must not simply deny its existence. It must be welcomed as a question on the minds of students and not slapped down with condescending comments about lack of understanding or lack of genuine practice methods. We must grasp repetition - as something positive as well as potentially negative. For it is through repetition that we gain familiarity with the basic tools in our tool bag. Once familiarity is achieved, and slapped on the back like an old friend, then we can decide how best to move on.
2. The Evolutionary response - and a somewhat contested approach - is the: Play with the Form Approach - the Explore it and alter it approach.
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