Face The Wind [it’s Chicken Marsala Monday]

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Saul taught me to look beyond the obstacle and, instead, place my focus in the field of possibilities. How I experience my life is largely a matter of where I decide to focus, what I choose to see.

Life, I’ve learned (or finally accepted), never stops throwing new things at me – challenges & opportunities. And, when looking in the rear view mirror of my life , I am generally hard-pressed to distinguish between what was a challenge and what was an  opportunity. The challenges became opportunities, the opportunities brought a basket of challenges.

The winds of change blow all the time. As Chicken, like Saul, reminds me on this Chicken Marsala Monday, the winds of change are never an obstacle. They are a constant force (called life) moving you, moving all of us, to learn, to grow. They are an invitation to turn our faces into the wind, look to the horizon and appreciate the ride.

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Accept The Gift

This morning in Tai Chi Saul spoke of his teacher and his teacher’s teacher and soon we students were aware that we are the burning point of a tradition that reaches back thousands of years. We were suddenly alive in a moment that rippled into an unknown future and a distant past. Our study was revealed as a link in a chain. Our weekly meeting dropped into a greater context and mattered in a grander scheme of things. Our practice was no longer about the perfection of a sequence of moves; it became an orientation to life. We realized that we are participants in a tradition in service to the vitality of life as it flows through us and expresses in the world.

I’ve written often about my lessons during this remarkable year, primarily about the release of control. I can control my thoughts. I can control where I place my focus. That’s about it. I can intend (a process of thought). I can control my action (also a process that begins with thought). My work (and I hope my growth) has been about getting out of my way. My lesson over and over has been about listening and letting go. I’ve been amazed how letting go always brings riches unimaginable. Holding on, forcing, resisting, pushing, trying to make things happen always diminishes me – and everyone around me. It has brought great heartache and even greater harm to people I love.

My tai chi practice now extends beyond the studio. Saul tells me to empty. He teaches me to listen. I have become a monk in my studio cell and I spend my days listening and drawing. This morning he led me into a deeper practice when he asked me, “What is your concern?” He showed me how I was orienting myself according to my opponents need. “Address your concern,” he said looking beyond me before adding, “Look into the vast space before you and place your focus on the horizon. Put your energy on a point on the horizon and move to it. Your opponent is incidental. Your opponent gives you their energy, their resistance. Accept the gift and do not give away your energy. Address your concern. You are your concern.”

His lesson: do not engage with the resistance. Do not invest in the obstacle. Place your focus on a point beyond all of the mind games and move your chi in the direction of your chosen point. Move your chi, and yours alone. Others will move their chi as they will. Stop giving your chi away. In this way, you will drop into your present moment. You will drop into your eternal moment and the masters of the tradition will join you there.

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Begin With A Charge

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Given my post yesterday I laughed out loud this morning when Saul-The-Chi-Lantern started talking about the cult of exhaustion that is sweeping the nation. He said, “Have you noticed how many people start their morning by saying, ‘I’m exhausted?’ Why would someone choose to start their day exhausted?”

Now, isn’t that a world-class question? The choice of exhaustion comes to those who believe they have no choice. After Megan hammered my thick noggin yesterday, I’ve been looking at my choices.

Saul led us through a section of the form before picking up the thought. “People talk of tai chi as some kind of cult but given the choice of starting your day with a vital charge or starting your day exhausted, why wouldn’t you choose to begin each day with a vital charge?” He laughed and continued, “I want to get things done when I get up in the morning. A vital charge is useful. I guess I belong to the cult of people who desire to feel good.”

A month ago I was in Holland with an international group of coaches. They were talking about their health care and the number of weeks of paid vacation they get every year. One of the participants asked me why Americans were dedicated to working so hard. Essentially her question was about why we are so dedicated to exhausting ourselves. Balance is not high on our priority list. Scratch the paint and look beneath her question and find a deeper inquiry: she wanted to know how I explained the gap between our identity as free people and our national dedication to servitude. We work for health care. We work more hours by far with less time off. We seem okay with the every increasing gap between the haves and have-nots. Sequestration is the best we can do because the other options would require us to take a look at the gap and its drivers. I had no answer. Denial didn’t seem satisfactory. I didn’t want to say, “We think we have no choice.”

And then I flew home and promptly exhausted myself. The universe has never been subtle with me when I need to pay attention to something. Saul’s question followed Megan’s admonition. Stillness, listening, and choice.

Saul returned to the practice saying, “Exhaustion makes no sense to me especially if I can avoid it.”

Begin And Begin Again

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Today, one and a half years since I started my tai chi practice, we learned the 37th move of the Cheng Man Ch’ing’s 37 posture T’ai Chi Ch’uan form. It is incorrect to suggest that we finished anything. In truth, we have only just begun. This type of practice is never finished. It is like a fine art form. There is no end to the study. It is an infinite game. The actual sequence of movements is merely the armature upon which the real learning of the practice is constructed. I’ve learned the sequence and now am ready to learn.

After the session we went across the street to celebrate completing the cycle at the teahouse. Saul-The-Chi-Lantern told us his daughter scolded his choice for celebration. She thought cupcakes or chocolate cake was more appropriate for celebrating. She told Saul that tea was no way to celebrate anything! The notion of a tai chi celebration makes me laugh. It seems like a paradox or perhaps fodder for a cartoon that might be found in the New Yorker.

During our tea celebration I talked with the other David who has been a student of Saul’s for over thirteen years. David is a life long meditator and sought Saul when his meditation practice plateaued. He told me that meditation is not something that happens in your head. Meditation is embodiment, dropping into the body. It made sense to me as meditation often begins with a focus on the breath. Years ago he felt stuck in his sitting meditation and happened upon Saul. He told me that this tai chi practice has changed his life. It restored and invigorated his meditation practice (another paradox). To David, there is no separation of spiritual and the every day. “It is all a spiritual practice,” he said.

I can’t explain it and would have a hard time providing details but this practice has changed me, too. I am more grounded. I am less stressed. I am easier in the world and feel more clear about what is really important and what is not. I’m less apt to rush. I don’t keep lists anymore. I’ve stopped watching the news or any television for that matter. I don’t want to be distracted from living. Rather than fill it up with stuff I want to open it, taste it, touch it, and feel it.

Earlier in class Saul talked of emptying ourselves. “When you empty yourself it will be as if you catch a current of energy or air and it will carry you along,” he said. “Ride the air.” He told us that it often happens after practicing for a few hours that he thinks the world has gone mad. “I go into the world or go home and there is so much stress to get things done. There is always a list, a bulb to be changed or a hole to be dug. I feel as if I just returned from the monastery to a frantic world lost in preoccupation.”

Get Almost Naked

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Saul-The-Chi-Lantern shared two bits of wisdom this morning. The first was his secret for remaining free of the chaos of domestic life. When he returns home and finds the vacuum is running, all three televisions are blaring and there is an implied list of things for him to do, in his words, “I get almost naked. I take off most of my clothes because it will appear as if I am about to take a bath.” He suggested running a little bit of bath water just to support the illusion. He said, “In this way, you remain aloof of the confusion. People will leave you alone.”

Once, while exiting the freeway on my way to the Polyclinic, I saw a fully naked man walking leisurely down the sidewalk and, as proof of Saul’s theory, no one bothered this man. Most, if not all pedestrians and motorists alike steered clear of the fully-naked-man. Though a true scientist would argue that my assertion is false. Had the sidewalk man been nearly naked instead of fully naked he would prove a better sample case.

The second bit concerned intentional party behavior wisdom. Saul told us that as a young man he had the reputation for never sitting down at parties. People assumed that his capacity to stand for hours at a time came from stamina developed from his tai chi practice. Saul said, “This was not the case. I was dedicated to continued sampling of the appetizers on the table but had to mask my repeated visits to the table. Too many visits to the food table is not polite. My stamina had nothing to do with tai chi and everything to do with my dedication to food.”

There you have it. Pearls of wisdom for living a good life: 1) Get almost naked to remain free of the chaos. 2) Make several trips to the appetizers but do so in a subtle if not polite manner.

In case it slipped by unnoticed, be aware that both pearls are essentially studies in the fine art of creating illusion. 1) Pretend you are taking a bath. 2) Weave an illusion of stamina so you might graze the snacks without calling attention to your real intention.

Saying, “There you go! 70 years of wisdom reduced to two essential pearls,” Saul spun around and led us into a silent practice of the form.

Receive The Gift

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Push hands is a core practice in Tai-Chi. It is a done facing a partner, forearm-to-forearm, feet rooted to the floor, moving to sense the center of balance of the other person. If it were a game, the objective of push hands would be to knock the other person off balance.

I am a novice and am learning that the skill is to not assert force, which seems counterintuitive. In my western mind, if I am to knock my partner off balance, I need to push; I need to assert. It’s called push hands, after all! But that is not the case. As Saul-the Chi-Lantern says, push hands is a “listening energy.” Pushing with force knocks you off balance, not your partner. Listen. Feel. Stay rooted in your center. The skill is to feel my partner’s center and the moment they move off their center, I help them, no force necessary. I use my partner’s energy, helping them move further off center, moving them in the direction they are already going – off balance.

There are life metaphors a-go-go in push hands. Today there were two in particular: first, it is too easy for me, the novice, to focus on the moving hands and forget about the still center. The power is not in the moving hands, the power is maintained in the still center. A powerful person is not distracted by the moving pieces – we live in fast-river world with no end of rapidly moving pieces – it is easy to lose center with so much pulling at our attention. A variation on lesson one: a powerful person does not push with their arms (that is to assert force, thus throwing myself off center); a powerful person pays attention to and operates from their center. They sense. They feel. They listen. They move from their center, not from their extremities. The mind wants to assert, to force, to achieve; the mind is all about moving from the extremities. Power is in process. To force is an attempt to control; the moment I attempt to control, my partner supports my attempt and launches me across the room.

The second lesson was even more potent for me: power doesn’t feel powerful. It feels like helping. Push hands is a great exercise in creating power-with; there is no defeat, no winner and loser, there is a greater and greater capacity to listen, to embody a potent center, to support your partner in occupying their center. As Saul-the-Chi-Lantern often says, “Learn to receive the gift.” Translation: occupy your center; stop trying to make things happen; surrender your need to resist: Listen. Participate. Use what is right in front of you and amplify the energy. Help your partner stay in their center is the best way for you to learn to inhabit your own.