21ST CENTURY TAI CHI
The merging of creativity, passion and technology in the movement arts
21ST CENTURY TAI CHI
The merging of creativity, passion and technology in the movement arts
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.
You can follow Anthony Guilbert on Twitter @IMOS_Journal
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