Recent Comments

Weakness With A Twist 

A place for qi-jocks & qi-nerds to explore internal martial arts, Daoism, health, performance, shaolin, and inner cultivation.

Sunday
Oct192014

Shadow Yoga

 

Shandor Remete, Shadow Yoga, Chaya Yoga : The Principles of Hatha Yoga. North Atlantic Books, 2011.

I'm taking a greater interest in yoga lately, especially since I started my, Daoist Circus Yoga for Kids, the funnest yoga class for kids ever. (Scroll to the bottom of the link.)

This book is small, elegant and I got a lot out of it.  That surprised me because frankly, most books are just personal spin, and reiteration, especially books about movement and spirituality.

This quote in the introductions shows his commitment:

“I have also studied other disciplines: martial arts and the ancient Kathakali and Bharatanatyam dance forms of southern India.  What has become apparent to me is that there is a common basis in the  preparatory forms of all of these disciplines.” 

Zander (as his students call him) often recommends his students study martial arts because they are too WEAK!  And as irony would have it, quite a few talented and dedicated students of his have come to me to study or exchange ideas.  I really should have read this book a few years ago, but better late than never.

On the primary goal of yoga he has this to say:

“Yoga is a spiritual system that deals practically with the process of enlightenment.  The final goal is to differentiate the soul from everything that is not the soul.  The method of yoga teaches the individual to discriminate, or to see the differences between these two things.”

I find that a bit troubling, mostly because he doesn't define soul and the word is so loaded with meaning in English.  He doesn't even translate it back into Sanskrit as atman, although I think that is what he means.  After thinking more deeply about the totality of the text, I started to think that when he says soul he means what we call in Chinese the three Hun, and this would be differentiated from the seven .  But more on that below.

He explains the the process is about skillfully reducing fixed patterns, and that if this end goal is kept in mind, the steps on the path will be self-revealing.  

This was probably my favorite quote from the book:

“It is little understood that flexibility of the whole body can be achieved through the proper manipulation of the ankles, wrists, and neck.  When these five regions are flexible the entire system softens and gains elasticity.”

By stating this he is suggesting that flexibility is always available and that mostly people practicing yoga are profoundly misunderstanding the subject.  His biggest complaint is that people do not practice, nor do they comprehend the importance of, the preliminaries.

He has quite a bit of stuff about out-side the body perception and practice.  This seems a bit rigid and formulaic to me, but else where he explains that the order and content of learning is not inherent and can be skipped by some people.  Micro-macrocosm stuff like this planet is connected to your liver, can be read as jindan (golden elixir) instructions, but in the modern era I think we can skip right to talking about these visualizations as having a function in the perception action chain of motivations for movement.  We agree on the importance of this kind of content but disagree on how to present it.

Zander describes a three body system which is like the Chinese one:  the Causal Body karana sharira, the Subtle Body sukshama sharira, the Gross/Physical Body sthula sharira. I think this corrisponds to shen, qi and jing.

He describes kosha which are traps (or perhaps cavities?) which interweave the three bodies together, there are 7 of them according to a yoga text he references.  These are what hold the 7 shadow bodies together.

Zander explains the very complex relationship between breathing and posture, but then says that all of this is preliminary to breathing without any fixed pattern.  

There is a chapter on Nauli kriya which was outside my knowledge base. On further consideration I noticed it looks a lot like the chair pose in Paulie Zink's daoyin, and a lot like one of the basic movements of Tibetan trulkhor. I hadn't considered this type of yoga before but it might prove very useful for people differentiating the dantian from the kua.  

The title of the book comes from this quote:

"The appearance of the body is nothing but frozen shadows.” --  Allama Prabhudeva.

“The shadows are seven in number: the shadow of joy, the shadow of the intellect, the shadow of the mundane mind, the power of principle, the gross structure, the luster of the skin, and the shadow on the ground.  Each shadow is a blockage of light.”  

Elsewhere he describes them differently, so I don’t think he intended this list to pin it down.  They are all obstacles, but they are the obstacles we happen to have to work with.  I could plumb these further: luster of the skin is probably radiance, shadow on the ground is probably pure earth power, the power of principle is probably bio-mechanics and jin or ground-path power, intellect is probably having preferences, the shadow of joy has me a bit stumped but I'm guessing it is unconsciously obscuring our animal nature with nice-ness.

I thought of hun and pö as a translation of soul and shadow bodies into ChineseIn Chinese cosmology, the hun and pö exist as a form of polarity holding us together during our life, and they disperse at death.  The hun are said to disperse within the first three days (they go up!), but even in a normal death the pö can take up to seven years to disperse (they go down!).  This is why proper funerals are so important in Chinese culture, there is a danger of creating a ghost if the  don't fully disperse.  In a sense we can think of the pö as unresolved conflicting emotions and weak or desperate desires.  If a grandparent dies really wanting a cigarette, there is a chance they can pass on that conflicted emotion to a child as some quirky behavior.  That is a psychological "ghost" but there are other types.  A desire for power or revenge would tend to be more demonic than ghostly, but essentially made of the same ephemeral stuff.

An immoral, or xian, in Daoist cosmology is a person who has a complete death at the moment of death. That is, their hun and pö completely disperse instantly because they have already completely differentiated them (like Zander is suggesting is the goal of yoga: to differentiate the souls from the shadow bodies).  Thus great immortals like Zhang Daoling rose up in broad daylight with their dogs and chickens at the moment of death.  

Zander offers a translation of the term samadhi as “absorption."  I think that is exactly the way to translate it if we are talking about a movement tradition like daoyin, theater, or martial arts.

Anyway it is a small elegant book and I recommend it!

 

Tuesday
Sep302014

Song 鬆 May Not Mean Relax or Sink

Recently in a debate about martial arts someone said I must not know what I’m talking about because I do not speak or read Chinese fluently.  While most people would not say that, they might think it, and certainly there is a prejudice for giving higher regard to someone who does speak the language fluently.  

I have a lot of counter arguments I could make but this is really a form of bullying, so naturally I followed my Bullying Protocol:  Over admit to everything and concede that the bully owns the space.  “Thank you for sharing your great culture with me.  Not only do I not speak Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) but I don’t speak any of the many Fujianise dialects, I don’t speak the languages of the Hui minority, or the languages of Shanxi or Henan, or any other the other, by some estimates, 300 mutually incomprehensible languages of the Chinese mainland.”

A hundred and fifty years ago,  the hundreds of Chinese martial arts styles out there were taught exclusively in local languages.  What I sometimes refer to as theater and sometimes as opera, covers a vast array of professional low-caste performers, and amateur lineages of processional fighting dances, family opera, physical storytelling, circus, and hundreds of traditions which are simply undocumented.  The languages used in these performance traditions were often local, but they could also be archaic like Shakespeare, or from another region, or from a formal poetic or vocal tradition.  

Regardless of whether one accepts my thesis that theater, martial arts, and religion were a single subject, it is hard to argue that the language of teaching and transmitting martial arts was mutually coherent to people from different regions.  

Unless, of course, one thinks the arts can be transmitted with either minimal language, or with minimal language supported by key terms that can be translated and explicated.  

Just as an aside, no one actually knows how much of the Chinese population was literate two hundred years ago.  I’ve yet to meet a scholar who was willing to come down clean on the issue.  It is widely believed that China was historically the most literate society on earth, other than Jews.  But what constituted literacy is a tough nut to crack.  Being able to read 500 characters might have been very useful, but it probably wouldn’t have made someone literate.  In any event the important issue here is that there was one common written Chinese language and all official decrees (from 1644 to 1910) were written and read aloud in Mandarin, Mongolian and Tibetan, all which would have been largely incomprehensible to the majority of people.

The common written language was usually used for what is called “classical Chinese,”  but it was sometimes used to transliterate local languages for the purpose of writing down plays or rituals.  

The current authoritarian government in China tries to censors discussions about the diversity of Chinese languages, it would prefer that they be thought of as minor dialects, the issue is highly contested.  

But back to the main argument about martial arts, learning Modern Standard Mandarin is probably helpful for learning martial arts, heck, it opens up the possibility of talking freely to more people.  But a dozen times I’ve been talking through a translator to an older Chinese martial arts master or a Daoist adept who was speaking a local dialect and because I was familiar with the context and content I ended up explaining to the translator what the adept was talking about.  That is not a trivial or single anecdote experience, if you’ve spent many years training martial arts you can communicate heart to heart.  

During the early part of the 20th Century when martial arts were being ‘purified,’ a key element of the purification movement (Jingwu 精武) was the idea that all martial arts had to be explainable in plain language.  In effect, we can morn the loss of a great deal of the subtlety, of local linguistic associations, and highly specific meanings, that were embedded in local languages over generations for transmitting complex martial arts concepts.  

I’m not trying to be romantic here about all the stuff that has been lost, what is gone is gone, but if you truly believe lack of language is an obstacle, then the same obstacle applies to people who only speak Modern Standard Mandarin.  And the possibility exists that thinking one has the right translation for a key term can actually work to effectively hide or obscure other meanings.  

That brings me to the concept of song 鬆, as in fangsong 放鬆.  It has most often been translated as ‘relax,’ which is a word that has been so over used and abused in English I can not even tell you what the driving metaphors of it are.  The other common translation of song is ‘to sink.’  That, at least, has a driving metaphor which is easy to visualize: sinking in mud.  

The character for song represents a person pulling out their hair pin.  Which is super cool because the expression, ‘let your hair down’ is easily understood in English.  But the meaning in Chinese is more complex.  All officials of the government going back a couple thousand years, had regulation hairstyles that displayed their rank.  So pulling out the hair pin meant dropping in rank, or giving up rank, or refusing rank.  Thus by inference song can mean to sink in status, and thus simply ‘to sink.‘  

But the issue can get even more complex.  To give up one’s status, can mean to let go of social obligations, social stresses, and social conventions.  Thus it can mean to transcend the physical rigidities and emotional tensions that tend to define character and identity.  Song can mean to forget your Self.

The theater nudges itself into the conversation here because acting is in effect, to forget your Self, and become someone else.  But theater is central to understanding the cultural context of the term song in another way too.  Most Opera performance that we know about, both amateur and professional used the hair styles and costumes of the Ming Dynasty.  This was an implicit act of visual rebellion because all ethnically Chinese (Han) men from 1644 to 1911 (the Qing Dynasty) were required to wear their hair in a queue under penalty of death.  So no ethnically Chinese men would have actually had the experience of pulling out the pin other than through watching or participating in theater!  

(Side note:  There were street performing groups that specialized in doing tricks with their queues.)

Then there is the sound of the word song 鬆, which is a homonym with the word pine tree!  Were it a different tree, this might not be a big deal, but the pine tree is a symbol of long-life.  No, that is too weak a statement, the pine tree is an icon of the cosmic force of long-life.  The pine tree is practically a deity.  

So this is all background to a fight I started about the meaning of the word song 鬆 during a workshop George Xu was teaching a couple of years ago.  I don’t remember exactly how it started but George was trying to transmit a subtle idea and the word song 鬆 came up, it was translated, and I contested the translation.  Everybody got mad at me and told me to shut up, but I didn’t.  In addition to George there were two other native Chinese speakers there. George speaks both Shanghainese and Modern Standard Mandarin, the other two each spoke two additional Chinese languages, so there was a total of six Chinese languages contesting and attempting to explicate the meaning of the word song.  The discussion I forced started by examining song 鬆 as a compound with various other characters, because as most linguists have argued, most Chinese words are two characters long.  The conversation then moved toward trying to find appropriate English words or expressions to match up.  George Xu ended the conversation by offering a metaphor no one else had conceived.  He said that song 鬆 in the sense he was using it meant to open up like a pine cone releasing its seeds.  

What a shock! After years of thinking song 鬆 meant relax, or sink, or any of the other possibilities we just went over, it may in fact mean something profoundly different, it may mean to physically, mentally and metaphorically open up like a pine cone. 

Sunday
Sep282014

Hitting the Road

I'm headed to the University of Connecticut to deliver a paper on Daoyin.  It compares Tibetan, Orthodox Daoist, and Animal Role Specialist Opera styles of Daoyin, exploring the commonalities in view, method and fruition.

I'm then headed up to Vermont to work with Paulie Zink's youngest advanced student, Damon Honeycutt.  

Then I'm going to Montreal for fun.

And then I'm goign to be teaching for a week in Ottawa with Daniel Mroz.  

As usual if there is someone you want me to meet, beat, or have intellectual intercourse with drop me a line!  I'm much nicer and more dangerous in person than I seem on the blog.  

Here is my schedule 2014:  

  • Connecticut Oct 4th
  • Vermont Oct 6th
  • Montreal Oct 10th
  • Ottawa Oct 13th
  • Back in Boulder Oct 19th

And then I'm going to Chicago to teach Daoyin and Internal Martial Arts in a graduate level Shiatsu Progarm, followed by a week in Traverse City for some workshops.

  • Chicago Nov 6th
  • Traverse City Nov 11th
  • Back in Boulder Colorado Nov 17th

 

Sunday
Sep282014

I Bought an iPad Mini

I bought an iPad Mini with a case that has handles, a tripod attachment, two lenses, and a directional microphone.  I took these four videos and then I took it back to the store so I could get more Gigabits.  The new one is on order and I should get it in a couple of days.  It is pretty fun. Getting good video is likely to be key to running a martial arts business, so I'm upping my game.  Let me know if you want me to video anything specific, you know me fighting a bunch of ninjas with nunchucks or whatever.  

If you add comments at the bottom that is great, it is also great if you put comments on the Youtube channel because that seems to spread the videos faster.  You can also subscribe to my Youtube channel, I'm trying to bust 500 subscriptions and I'm at around 450.  And of course if you share one on Tumblr or Facebook, or Google Plus or your own blog, that is probably even better.  More to come.  

 

Thursday
Sep182014

Qi 氣 into Jing 精 or Jing 精 into Qi 氣?

The terms jing 精 and qi 氣 are widely used in the teaching of Chinese martial arts.  Qi translated into Japanese is ki 氣.  

These terms are used to describe physiological experiences, but they are better understood as terms for describing cosmology, and in that role they often have much broader meanings then we are going to address here.

Jing is both the physical body and the mechanisms which reproduce it.  As cosmology it is never completely separate from qi; however, fully conceptualized jing is both purity and a purified, uncorruptable essence.   

This cuts across normative categorizations in modern thinking, and many English speakers may find it awkward or discomforting.

For instance, jing is simply the entire material aspects of the physical body.  It is also the reproductive mechanism which creates scabs for healing wounds, and semen/eggs which reproduces new life.  

Extra jing is said to be stored up in the kidneys, and then drawn out when the body experiences trauma or stress.  

The term qi has been examined and pontificated on extensively by hundreds if not thousands of experts, so I'll keep my comments brief.  Qi is breath of which there are three main types:

 

  1. Normal breathing of air in and out of the lungs.
  2. Whole body breathing, shrinking and expanding all aspects of the physical body, especially joints, and soft tissues.
  3. Whole mind breathing, accessing one's spatial perception mechanisms as a dynamic way of animating movement.

 

Qi is both patterns of movement and the qualities with which those patterns are animated.  Qi is never completely distinct from jing; however, fully conceptualized qi is both time and the absence of memory.  

Again, these are super weird categories for English speakers to grapple with.  

Qi is often categorized as a form of energy, but jing is too.  For instance, when we eat food, our body extracts the necessary nutrients from it, those nutrients can be categorized as either jing or qi or both, because all food is a mix of jing and qi.  If the nutrients go to heal something, we could say the food is more jing-like, if they go into exercise we could say they are more qi-like.

Alright, I just needed to get all that out of the way.  

Many schools of Daoist inspired martial arts and meditation will explain that we are cultivating qi, as a general description of many different methods.  They will also refer to storing qi in the dantian 丹田.  This is confusing because if we think of the dantian as being somewhere around the belly area, it is hard to distinguish from fat.  The confusion arises because 150 years ago hardly anyone had enough food, so if you could store up some fat, you were doing great.  The two meanings of dantian became conflated.  Dantian in the Daoist and martial arts sense is not a location on the body, it is the center of a form of awareness.  So cultivating qi actually meant cultivating a type of awareness of available resources--resources which are actually intrinsic to being human.  The simplest one of those resources, the easiest one to understand, is balance;  For example, the ability to spontaneously recover a feeling of central equilibrium when someone gives us a sudden and unexpected shove from behind.  But there are many other intrinsic resources in this category.

So getting back to the title of this post, can we transform qi into jing, or jing into qi, and is either one more or less desirable than the other?  

The way we move, any type of action, has an effect on our physical body.  So moving with a specific type of awareness of what or how that movement will change our physical body, is transforming qi into jing. But consider that two people doing what may appear to be the exact same exercise routines do not necessarily get the same changes in their bodies.  The concept of transforming qi into jing implies the exact totality and specificity of the complete mental, physical and emotional processes by which movement changes our physical bodies.  

So what about the other half of the equation, transforming jing into qi?  In order to be good at jumping, for instance, one needs to have the right underlying structures established in the body.  With an injured knee or back, one's jumping capacity can be severely limited.  We have already established that it is jing which heals us.  Modern people might say that blood transports new cells and carries away old ones, but the truth is the process of healing is intensely complex.  So using the term jing to refer to the totality of the healing mechanisms and substances is not so difficult for a modern person to grasp.  Once the body structures are established (via "qi" training) or repaired (via healing) we spontaneously have the ability to jump!  Our jing, our physical structure, simply has the capacity to manifest as new movement patterns, also called qi.  

So jing transforms into qi effortlessly, it is a spontaneous process.  The same is true for meditation practices.  In stillness jing transforms into subtle forms of qi.  Subtle movement simply arises. It is generally invisible to an outside observer, because that movement (qi) is happening either inside the body or is perceived by the meditator as happening outside the body.  

Now you know the answer to the question in the title of this post!

While modern people often find ways to discard these terms, the unique categorical lines they implicitly create open up ways of thinking about body and awareness that may not be directly accessible through conventional notions of physiology.  

_____________

After I wrote everything above I did a google search for "transforming jing into qi" and at the top was this rather poorly informed debate, so I hope this post clears things up a bit.

_____________

Readers might also be interesting in this post I did on the difference between jing  and jin

Sunday
Sep072014

Physique

My father took his motorcycle to a local mechanic with a good reputation.  The mechanic, Bill, looked at his motorcycle and said, "Your bike is dirty and grimy. If you don't care about your bike, why should I?  Take it home and clean it first, and then I'll consider working on it."  My father, the guru of hippy business, was delighted by the brilliance of Bill's novel marketing technique.  He did as he was instructed and of course Bill was happy to become his mechanic.  

What does this story tell us about martial arts?

Part of the beauty of getting into Chinese martial arts has always been that it was a counter to the dominant Western* notions of fitness. Think: sculpted muscular bodies, big smiles with lots of shiny teeth. Some of the critiques that have developed to counter Western notions of the beautiful physique have come from within Western cultures.  For instance, the notion that there are many different body types which can be healthy, strong, agile, and dynamic. This view is probably a natural out growth of the popularity of  diverse types of sports training. 

There are other types of beauty, like tall, dark and brooding, which have little to offer a conversation about physique.  That's because physique is all about what you do with what you have.  

Back in my twenties, when I got in a lot of discussions about social change, some of us radically minded dancers hit on the idea of offering to society the cultivated image of a holy body.  This was appealing partly because all I had to do in order to effect social change was simply keep doing what I was doing.  People would see my body and be consciously or unconsciously motivated to make society more humane, more body centric, more about things that mattered! (to us). 

There is a name for that view in scholarly circles, it is called romanticism, and it is a dead-end intellectually.

As I dropped the romantic ideal, my ideas about movement became far more concerned with functionality, expressivity, and the inner-workings of secret (hidden) techniques.  The types of embodiment I was cultivating tended to ignore notions of physique.  But anything one does effects physique so this was a mistake.  Examining the physique one is developing is a powerful feedback tool.  

Endemic to martial arts schools are instructions like, "Sink the shoulders, sink the elbows, relax the chest." This is a particularly bad set of instructions but there are long lists of these types of physique altering protocols.  If a logical explanation for sinking the shoulders and the elbows is offered, it is perhaps that they should be relaxed, or perhaps that they should connect to the large muscles on the back.  That's good logic, it might even have limited functionality.  But it is wrong.  What one wants functionally is maximum mobility combined with complete unity of movement.

Complete unity of movement means that if one part of the body moves all other parts move in a unified integrated way; however, there is more than one way to do this.  The results measured by the resulting physique can be a powerful mechanism for distinguishing between them.  

The instruction to "sink the chest" is a whole additional package of bad.  Again, what one wants is maximum mobility of the ribs, sternum and upper spine combined with complete unity of movement.  

The ability to see and evaluate precise refinements of practice by looking at one's physique is a master level skill.  But bad physique is pretty darn obvious.  If a person's stomach is pooching out, or their head and shoulders are hunched over, or they are walking around on legs that look like rigid sticks, there is something wrong.  If a person spends hours everyday staring at a smart-phone, it shows in their physique.  

I've walked into martial arts schools where not one person has a good physique.  It is especially shocking how many martial arts teachers get away with having crumby physiques.  Why do students bother with teachers who have bad physiques?  Well, the answer is probably complicated but I think it should stop.  

Like Bill the motorcycle mechanic, if the teacher doesn't care about her body how is she going to inspire you to care?  And speaking as a teacher now, how can a student expect me to care about their body development if they themselves don't care?

I like the idea of the Old Kungfu Shifu who says to the new prospective student who is begging to be taught, "Go home and do this exercise 1000 times a day for one month and then come back. If you come back and you haven't done it, Shifu will know, and Shifu will kill you."

____________

*Modern? Scientific? Heroic? Whatever...

Thursday
Aug282014

Mindfulness

I teach movement and stillness.  I want my students to gain access to increasing amounts of perceptual and spatial awareness so that they also have access to the profound tools of improvisation and whole body expression.

I've been following the development of mindfulness curricula over the past ten years with rather tepid interest. Growing up Zen, I've met a lot of gentle mindless Buddhists, in a word: boring. I've also met a lot of people who practice non-reactiveness which creates an illusion of calm. That seems fine at first glance, but a facade of calm based on not-reacting is not very robust. When the calm breaks under spontaneous pressures it tends to either become wimpy and impotent, or extremely aggressive.  The bumper-sticker version: Beware of nice people.

But what if the limited goal of mindfulness training is the creation of available awareness as a conditioned habit?  Now that is a much more interesting goal.

To get at the questions of, what is available awareness? and how does one condition it? We first have to deal with the twin stress responses:  Distraction and disassociation.

Distraction and disassociation are opposite sides of the same coin. Distraction in an educational environment is often called difficulty focusing (meiyou jingshen, in Mandarin). But more generally it is the mind's tendency to be sucked into one input after another.  Think of it as lots of little focuses. Distraction is clearly not available awareness.

Disassociation on the other hand is highly valued in most educational environments. Disassociation is a powerful focusing tool. Disassociation is the ability to put one's mind to a task and disregard all other needs, interests, or inputs. People with strong tendencies for disassociation can learn languages without visiting a country where that language is spoken, can learn to play a musical instrument with minimal guidance, they can read and assimilate vast swaths of knowledge. We as a society may value it, but it isn't available awareness. It might better be called mind training (samatha in Sanskrit) or skillful trance.

I'm not confident that I have a convincing definition of available awareness.  It is sort of like enlightenment, I know it when I see it.  More importantly, I notice when it isn't there in other people.  It is the fashion these days to talk about how cool it is to think outside the box, but frankly I'm delighted when I meet someone who can think inside the box.  That ability is rare enough.  

The most powerful teaching tool I know of is called taking responsibility. Giving someone responsibility and supporting them in making decisions and taking actions might be a good strategy for conditioning the habit of creating available awareness.

I would think that anyone trying to teach mindfulness would want to create a list of all the intermediate steps one might utilize in attempting to create a nourishing environment for getting others to take responsibility.  I would like to see that list.

This may or may not be funny, but people with available awareness tend to love criticism.  "What the #@$% is wrong with you SCOTT?"  "Wow, yeah? cool. WHAT THE #@$% IS WRONG WITH ME???"  

Perhaps available awareness is knowing that one has blind-spots and wanting other people to point them out.  Perhaps available awareness is simply a recognition of the human tendency to firmly assign the causes of failures (and successes) or obstacles (and opportunities) to discrete actions.  There is obvious utilitarian value in making these firm assignments of causation, but the unconscious habit creates blind-spots.

There may be some relationship between available awareness and what is called in the commercial world multi-area competence, being good a many things. 

There are almost certainly a wide array of sensory-motor and perception-action stimuli that help establish available awareness. And perhaps even more key, a person needs enough time and an appropriate environment to process those experiences. People need rest, safety, alone time, nutrition, to be listened to, group bonding, and most profoundly: opportunities to fail and enjoy it.  Without all of those things humans tend to be highly reactive, or over-reactive.  Stressed out people may be distracted, or they may be focussed, but they are unlikely to have available awareness.  

People often find comfort and safety in established hierarchies, we are social animals after all.  Architecture can help with this.  Knowing one's place, having a role and fulfilling that role, may be an important first step to establishing available awareness.   

Available awareness is the potential to respond to multiple inputs with full access to one's emotions, intellect, and physicality. It sometimes manifests as comfort with ambiguity, and a dynamic relationships to chaotic forces or complex influences.

I'm all for including meditation tools in schools, businesses, government, hospitals, any institutions which might benefit. I do worry a bit that we might be applying a band-aid to a gaping wound, but a serious meditation practice can produce real insight.  Yet I think it is important to keep in mind that the ultimate fruition is not to make people less reactive, nor it is not to make them better at focusing. It is to give them the option of creating available awareness. Without it we will have a hard time ever having political discussions of any consequence, developing any real freedom in movement traditions, or experiencing intimacy.

Trying to teach movement, experience intimacy, or have a political discussion of any consequence, without having first fostered or discovered some available awareness is like trying to start a fire by hoping lightning will strike at one's feet.  

"How long has it been since normal seemed normal?"  

-Laozi

Thursday
Aug282014

Unarmed

This is just a quick post for all the news media people who might find themselves reading my blog.

The term "unarmed" gets used a lot by news organizations.  There may be some contexts when it is useful and meaningful.  For instance if the primary consideration is military, such as the expression "unarmed soldiers." But even here there are potential problems because to report on the interactions between soldiers and other soldiers or soldiers and civilians it is important to give a complete legal framework for readers to understand specifically what relevance those terms have to the given context.  Because without the legal framework those terms are at best irrelevant, and at worse misleading.  

Another context when "unarmed" might be relevant is in the context of Second Amendment Constitutional rights.  For instance when pointing out that someone has the right to be armed, but happens to be unarmed by choice.

But in the vast majority of cases when news reporters and organizations use the term "unarmed" they are referring to a person in conflict with another civilian or with an authority figure like a police officer.  This term is completely inappropriate for these situations.  It is also profoundly misleading.  The relevant terms are well established by statute and case law in the United States.  Those terms are "intent," "means," and "opportunity."  Those are the key terms we as readers need to know about and consider.  

Why? because whether a person is unarmed is only relevant after having considered those three terms.  If a threat has the intent to harm, but no means, and no opportunity to harm, then obviously there is no basis for a police officer or a civilian to use force to neutralize that threat.  And again, if a threat has intent and opportunity, but no means; or intent and means but no opportunity, then there is no basis for using force to neutralize the threat.

Which brings us to a third term which probably should be used in news reports more often so that people become familiar with it, that term is preclusion.  Preclusion is the discussion about what a reasonable person would have done having had similar training under similar circumstances.  It is also the discussion about what other alternative actions were available to the parties in question and why they weren't taken.  

Please update your vocabulary accordingly. 

And thank you for your service!

Tuesday
Aug262014

Curriculum Vitae 2014

In case my readers want to check out my entire work history and education, my Curriculum Vitae 2014 is now available for download here on my website and also for viewing at academia.edu.

It is a brave new world (again). 

Friday
Aug222014

On Boxing: Joyce Carol Oats

I just finished reading On Boxing , by Joyce Carol Oats.  It is a fun read.  She normally writes fiction, but this is a tribute to her life long love of boxing.  Her love of boxing is in a sense a tribute to her bond with her father, who initiated her into its beauty.  

The book jumps right into philosophy and has great stuff like this:

The old boxing adage--a truism surely untrue-- that you cannot be knocked out if you see the blow coming, and if you will yourself not to be knocked out, has its subtler, more daunting significance: nothing that happens to the boxer in the ring, including death--"his" death--is not of his own will or failure of will.  The suggestion is of a world-model in which we are humanly responsible not only for our own acts but for those performed against us.

And here, after pointing out how often boxing fights were illegal in times passed, and thus happened in-between states, in outlaw territory, or on islands with performers and spectators both risking arrest:

And boxers have frequently displayed themselves, inside the ring and out, as characters in the literary sense of the word.  Extravagant fictions without a structure to contain them.

She has much to say about notions of "primitive" and the intensity of emotions:

Those whose aggression is masked, or oblique or unsuccessful, will always condemn it in others.

After putting both feet forward into philosophy she wanders around into the lives of boxers, and major events in boxing history.  Some of the essays in this book are informative, in depth reportage, but they are also languid, timeless; as a reader one gets the sense that she deeply savors hanging out in the world of boxing.  

I couldn't help thinking of Elaine Scary's comment in On Beauty and Being Just  that one of the errors about beauty she made in her youth was thinking that boxing was not beautiful.  I wonder if Joyce Carol Oats helped change her mind?  

On Boxing includes a number of enticing and complex book reviews (more books added to my reading list) and she is not at all shy about discussing racism and, in the final essay, fascism.  Check it out.

Tuesday
Aug192014

What is the Kua?

I first heard the term kua 胯 explained by Kumar Franzis in the early 1990's.  He said something to the effect of, it is the functional space in and around the hip socket that continues up into the torso to just below the ribs.

Chen Zhonghua has a detailed explanation of the kua here.  One thing I like about it is that he explains that the definition of what the kua is, will keep changing as your skill and understanding improve.  The implication is that we are making a categorical error if we are satisfied with a definition of the kua as either anatomy or physiology.  

Sam Masich also has a detailed explanation of the kua, it focuses on understanding the ways we misunderstand culture and language.

Here is my take on it.

The kua is really a list of different exercises and types of awareness.  But I would caution the reader, this isn't the sort of list that one can go straight down from one thing to the next.  Each of these exercises is a link in a much larger chain of exercises, ideas, concepts, and forms of awareness.  I have collected here all the ideas about the kua in one place so that we might have a global or comprehensive discussion about the larger subject.

First off, there are a whole bunch of mobility exercises that need to be learned.  The hip region needs to be differentiated from the legs and the torso through various types of folding and spiraling.  There are probably ten essential exercises here, which can be expressed with infinite variety since the kua is involved with all movement.

These exercises are important for two primary reasons. First, the differentiation of the kua allows the student to make small physical adjustments that dramatically improve ones position relative to a threat or an opponent.  That has an enormous effect on the range of physical strategies one can employ.  Second, without the differentiation of the kua the student has movement vulnerabilities that manifest because certain weaker parts of the body are taking strain (like knees or lower back). At the same time stronger parts of the body move in blocks, the intrinsic power of which can not be accessed without differentiation.

After mobility and differentiation are established.  The next stage would be transferring force through the kua, from the legs to the torso, and from the torso to the legs.

That can be followed by generating force from the kua. I count seven ways to do this.  They are all fairly simple, but they need to be taught because they tend to be counter intuitive.

Next is liquid movement.  There are two parts to it.  The first is practicing moving fluid from one part of the body to another until it is easy to generate whole body liquid movement.  The second is working with a partner to test ones ability to stay liquid under all sorts of pressure.  This is actually true for every part of the body, not just the kua, but it is essential for discovering the higher order functioning of the kua.

The next concept on our list is very important to martial artists but it is better known by its theatrical name, "monkey doesn't want to go to school."  It is a way of sinking in response to another person pulling on ones arms, such that, one cannot be pulled forward off of ones feet or base.  It does not involve leaning backwards.    It is also characterized by complete relaxation of the legs, there is no tightening of the thighs nor of the feet muscles.  It is most certainly not a form of "rooting."  This skill is often kept secret by martial arts teachers, and children often do it naturally without being taught.  

Building on "monkey doesn't want to go to school," we finally come to opening the kua.  I charge $10,000 dollars for this teaching.  But I guarantee you will learn it in ten years or you get your money back.  

I'm tempted to say that the ability to open ones kua is rare.  But it isn't that rare, lots of ballet dancers do it.  And there are all kinds of situations where people open their kua without naming it, perhaps you do this when you stick your toe into the river to test the temperature before making a full plunge.  But what is rare is the ability to keep the kua opening in response to complex forces.  

To accomplish this last step requires a cascade of discrete skills, executed in the right order, and practiced, not just until they are natural and spontaneous, but to the point where they re-form and re-shape ones body.

This is unequivocally a daoist art form, and requires direct daoist transmission.  Scholars are still uncomfortable with the idea that there is a form of authentic daoism that doesn't have a textual lineage, they generally refer to people like me as a "practitioner." That's okay, but there is a categorical problem with this term; namely that people who receive daoist transmissions prioritize view and fruition over methods.  Methods tend to be disheveled, flexible, expressive and spontaneous.  In that sense, I'm not a "practitioner," it is a mistake to point to what I practice. I'm actually a daoist because of my view of the human relationship to nature, and the experience and expression of the fruition of that view.

Anyway back to methods, sort of.  The non-conceptual experience of sitting and forgetting (zuowang 坐忘), by definition can not be expressed in words.  This same view is foundational for practicing zhanzhuang  站桩 (standing still), daoyin 導引 (pulling and guiding), jindan 金丹 (golden elixir).  If I had to name it, I'd say it is an experience of limitless space, a stage if you will, wuwei 無為, an agenda-less openness of not knowing. Once that is irreversibly established, then these methods can dance around on the stage as: emptiness, stillness, movement, bubbling, flowing, fire and water, mercury and gold, or the magical and the mundane.  

Opening the kua is a form of emptiness.  This type of emptiness arises spontaneously when we drop all intention within the body--also giving rise to a visualized qi body out in the space around us.  But that isn't enough.  Because simply having qi and emptiness is not stable under the pressure of complex movement and outside forces.  This 'event' must take place in a larger experience of limitless space.  The space can then be moved using the imagination.  But that only works if the qi body is simultaneously felt and imagined.  

So the whole thing is actually pretty easy.  Like I said, for $10,000... guaranteed.  Opening the kua can also be awesome for ones health, but since that idea is associated with Tai Chi and is so cliché and problematic, I will deal with it in a future post.  

Warning:  The information in this post has previously been top secret, anyone attempting to practice it without the proper initiations will surely shorten their lives.  

 

 

 

Monday
Aug042014

Rigor Mortis

A review of the film Rigor Mortis (2013) "Geung si" (original title), Director: Juno Mak Writers: Lai-yin Leung (script), Philip Yung (script) Stars: Anthony Chan, Siu-Ho Chin, Fat Chung

I watched Rigor Mortis on the airplane on the way back from Boston last month. This film was dropped in my lap by a scholar I met at the conference named Sean Allen (His abstract is write at the top of this link).  He gave a wonderful presentation on Daoism in horror films.  Talking afterwards we had lots of ideas to share and I left with a list of films to see!  The next day he dropped Rigor Mortis in my lap, extracting a promise that I would review it.   

I think we can understand Rigor Mortis as an assertion of cultural archeology. My sense of traditional theater/opera going back 200 years or more, is that the horror-ghost-supernatural genre was very widespread, it may have even been the dominant genre. But like horror today, it isn't the art form that inspires a lot of literary intelligence. To the contrary, if it is written about at all it is often to say, "that was a scary waste of time." But some of us consider it the most creative genre in terms of costumes, props, music and sets, not to mention the most forgiving of bad acting.  The horror genre is the most willing to utilize improvisation and ultimately the most willing to risk offending concerned mothers, government officials, and just about everyone else. I suspect this was true in historic China as well.  

The makers of Rigor Mortis obviously had a broad knowledge of popular religion, as there are 100's of cultural artifacts in there, actually it would be fun to watch it again and count them. The whole thing can be framed as and example of the land of Millet dreams. The notion of a millet dream world is key to the cosmology of Chinese religion, it comes from a story first written down about 1500 years ago about a scholar who is struggling to start his career, he happens to meet an old Daoist in a café and falls asleep over his millet.  He dreams his whole life, apparently in real time, and then wakes up with his millet still warm.  You can read about it in this wonderful new complete and concise history of Chinese Literature  by Sabina Knight.

In the film, an old apartment building becomes the location of the millet dream, which doesn't actually involve any millet, they use stir-fry instead, and begins at the end of a career not the beginning.  It works well because the notion of another reality as a metaphor for where we are living our lives is ultimately and traditionally conceptualize spatially. That is, the unseen-world of ghosts, spirits, ancestors, gods, and demons is ever present, all around us, below us, above us, inside us, beside us, manoeuvring around in chaotic time tunnels. Like and old apartment building.

The basic tentative working hypotheses of Chinese exorcists when dealing with ghostly and demonic forces is that upright conduct has the capacity to lead to the complete resolution of chaotic forces.  On the other hand, sex, blood, pain, and other yin substances and actions tend to draw out chaotic forces and even feed them. Thus, in this film an exorcist has to walk this line between drawing out chaotic evil and resolving it.  He does this while managing another not-so-well-behaved exorcist who would like to harness some of that slimy red yin power.  There are some scary monsters and basically the whole thing is about the undead, conceptualized as conflicting emotions which live on fear, lust and pain, endless loops of suffering.  You know, a real family film.  

Rigor Mortis doesn't actually let us know for sure whether it is a dream world imposing itself on reality or whether reality is just an illusory aspect of a dream world. Thus it posits the basic traditional-- Zhuangzi is dreaming he is a butterfly, and the butterfly is dreaming he is  Zhuangzi-- Operatic framework of illusion vs. disillusion (See Sophie Volpp ).

At this moment in history this sort of illusion vs. disillusion art work strikes me as a comic attack on modernity and rationality.  Truth isn't knowable so it isn't that important, lighten up already, it's just fake blood and special effects!  When it is all over we can get back to the important work of friending and unfriending people on Facebook.   

At the Daoist Conference in Boston the issue was raised that in popular film there is often label confusion between tangki or other ritual experts and Daoshi (literally: Officails of the Dao).  I would suggest that this may actually reflect real anxiety about the difficulty lay people have in knowing which types of ritual experts to trust.  Popular culture, documented in written plays and more recently by anthropologists of village level ritual, sometimes portrays Daoshi as wild warriors and liminal exorcists with amoral magical powers.  As we learned at the conference, some groups of elite literati were comfortable using spirit writing to create new forms of Daoism.  I think we are headed toward more expansive definitions of Daoism which may include illiterate but theatrically intelligent forms of Daoism.

Still there is good reason for caution about changing our definitions of Daosim.  I hope the discussion continues to be framed by Clifford Gertz's ideas that we try to be a form of literature which is expert at relating what people say about themselves, and each other.

Anyway, it is a fun movie, plenty of crows blood, creepy rituals and powerful talisman--check it out!

__________________

The Natan Sharansky  definition of democracy is that you can go into a public square and say what ever you want without fear of violent retribution. He specifically pointed out that an election does not signify democracy if this basic right is not being met. That perspective led to the Phillips measure of democracy (that's me), namely that one can make a horror movie. Horror movies require the freedom to express ones greatest fears and the social networks capable of bringing together economic resources and expert skills. If it hasn't made a horror movie, it isn't a democracy. For great swaths of the world it is a decent measure. There are a few exceptions that prove the rule, in the early days of film technology, governments hadn't yet figured out that horror movies could be a threat so there are a few horror movies that got under the wire in the 20's and 30's. Then there is India which simply does not make horror movies (perhaps this is because images of horror are sacred in India?). The other big exception to the Phillips rule has been Hong Kong, which has made a lot of horror movies over the years.

Hong Kong was not a democracy, but under British rule the rights of self-defense, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to a lawyer, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances were pretty much intact. But now Hong Kong has been handed over to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). So naturally I asked Sean Allen (who later gave me my copy of Rigor Mortis and who is an expert on Hyper Masculinity in Asian Horror), "Has Hong Kong made a horror movie since the PRC took over?" He answered that there was indeed a lull, for a few years the masters of horror were holding their breath, but in the last 3 years a number of very serious horror movies have been produced.

This is a real source of optimism for me. I am an American, I believe strongly in Democracy, but societies that protect basic contract rights, rights like self-defense, and freedom of speech can exist alongside democracies. I don't know what the future holds, but the PRC is allowing Hong Kong to make horror films and that is a reason to be optimistic. I now have a list of new horror films to see and review for my readers, as well as some older horror films that deal with Daoist priests.  There is no way of knowing whether or not we are in some sort of millet dream, but as long as the horror movies keep coming, I'll pretend that we are.

 

Monday
Aug042014

Northampton, MA

I'm going to be in Northampton teaching some private lessons and working on a paper for a week starting tomorrow.  If anyone lives around there and wants to get together, or you know someone in the area you think I'd like to meet, drop me a line.  

 

Wednesday
Jul302014

Beer as a Path to Enlightenment

This a very funny read, about an important part of Tibetan History.  The commentary is already excellent so I'm not going to add anything, but if you think all those famous enlightened Masters of the past were well behaved you probably haven't read the Beer Sutra.  

Saturday
Jul262014

Shanghai 1903 or 1933?