I am sitting beside him in La Veranda Osteria, when he seizes my left hand in both of his calling me, “Sweetheart” and gazing intently into my eyes. No wonder he has had women on several continents and the odd island falling for him. My brother has had this ability to charm ever since he ran away to Europe with a backpack at 17. At the moment, he is trying to convince me of something, some better way to live, perhaps, but I am too overcome by his undiluted attention to take it in.
Great to find this in a dinner date, even if he is your brother, but much more important in a doctor or medical practitioner. I remember sitting in a sound-proof third-floor office near LAX and being the focus of the undivided attention of my acupuncturist. She asked questions of such insight, listened with such concentration and considered me so deeply, that I felt entirely and absolutely loved. The interview itself was healing: there was no real need for needling. In fact, I have had a profound feeling of change for the better, just from talking to her on the phone. That was her goal – to be so present and available to her patients that they felt connected, not just to her but to the power that animates us. Having felt that connection and felt it repeatedly, it became easier for us to make it on our own.
Actors and self-proclaimed gurus, who project charisma, attract us because they make use of this kind of focus although not perhaps with such benevolence. I once met an actor unexpectedly on my way down to his wife’s yoga studio and almost suffered third-degree burns from the radiance of his projection. I was gobsmacked, but I did not feel better for it.
I do feel better when I can master the trick myself. The 108 moves in tai chi give me that opportunity especially when I find myself acting as Corner. (A Corner, as you might expect, is at the end of a line and so in a leadership role.) There is a lot of repetition in such a set, but repetition with variations. For example, there are 3 sets of “Wave Hands Like Clouds”, one of 5 of this sideways step with soft arm sweeps, one of 7 and one of 3. All of them begin from the position of “Single Whip” or “Whip to One Side”, but between the set of 5 and the set of 7, just when the sleepy Corner has zoned out, the move suddenly switches to “Fair Lady Works Shuttles” or “Four Corners”, an altogether more complicated move. I have often been embarrassed when I have missed that change, dissociated or planning dinner or gazing out the window. I was not in the now, not really present.
When I do hit that groove, I experience a mental rest, like a moving meditation from the one-pointedness. It is easier than meditation for me. The kind of meditation I practise when I am able is mindfulness, just being aware of what is going on, especially internally, observing without attachment, as my acupuncturist would say – letting each thing go -each thought, feeling or sensation.
It’s a useful technique when I am beset by anxiety or depression or pain. If I sit down, just sit, not cross-legged or full-lotus nor even necessarily straight-backed, but easily, and observe what is going on in me, I gain some distance. I am watching what my mind is doing and so I am now in the role of observer, not sufferer. I am no longer my discomfort. I can stop spinning. I have heard that the goal of meditation is to still the mind. I don’t aim that high. But if I pay attention to it, it stops screaming in agony, like a crying child when her mother holds her and gives her her attention. It may well be that there is no solution. The grief cannot be assuaged. A fearful situation cannot be resolved. A physical pain is intractable. No matter. All these things are more bearable when looked upon steadily.
It doesn’t even have to be a look of love. Did my acupuncturist actually loved each of the parade of people who sat before her? (Of course, she did me.) She became absorbed in them so that there was no longer a separation between her and other. No other in fact. In the same way, I can reclaim my anger and self-loathing, my fear of ageing and death, whatever negativity is plaguing me. Once reclaimed, these parts of me seem to shrug and get on with life.
It is these negative feelings that prevent us from focusing, both on others and on our own mental health.
Eckhart Tolle has written several books, including The Power of Now to extoll the virtues of focusing. Jon Kabat-Zinn has told us how to heal ourselves through mindfulness in Coming to Our Senses. I have read these and others and found them inspiring, but it is simple practice that gives results. Like tai chi. We don’t really need to read more. We just need to do it.
“Attention must be paid,” Arthur Miller said in Death of a Salesman. “Pay attention,” our parents and teachers admonished. Yet we seldom do. We need something like the little bell that Buddhists sound during meditation calling out, “Be here. Be now. Wake up”.
Love is just that: being conscious.
The Tao Te Ching begins by telling us that the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. That is true of many things, your love for your spouse or children, for example. Try putting that into words. And it is certainly true of tai chi.
Anthony left a request on my book Never Tell‘s Facebook page asking me to write about tai chi. I replied I would think about it. I have done, for several weeks and I still don’t know where to begin. So I’ve stolen the motto of an international tai chi organization and I’ll see what I can do.
If you follow my blog, you know I am ancient of days. (not The Ancient of Days note. That’s another dude, who, presumably is a tai chi master Himself.) But, TA DA, drum roll please, I can stand on one leg and luffa the other foot, I can lie down on the floor and get back up with no help, (shut up chair), I can get out of the car without lifting the outside leg with my hands and so much more. I have survived 2 malignancies, one for 13 years and the other, completely different one, for 10. So much for the score sheet.
It is also true that I am one of those lucky people who are earning their wings through suffering. My body thinks it’s amusing to be in one kind of discomfort or the other all the time. It scrolls through a punishing list of pains and aches on a regular basis: bowel spasm, back spasm, leg spasm, indigestion, dizziness, feeling faint, feeling faint while sleeping (!), fatigue, exhaustion and, my personal favourite, diaphragm spasm and weakness.
Now Body’s objecting that much of this is caused by me or Mind that keeps shoving stuff down into flesh and muscle and organ and bone INSTEAD OF PROCESSING IT IN A MENTALLY HEALTHY WAY. OK, stop shouting. I hear you.
And so I do tai chi.
I started 20 years ago, but I began serious study only 15 years ago. As late as 10 years ago as I was recovering from major surgery in So Cal, I still couldn’t do the whole set up in Kenneth Hahn park without a plastic-covered cheat-sheet on the picnic table. When I was more or less better and back in TO, I started going to class more often and ended up instructing beginners for 8 years.
Listen, you don’t want to start tai chi. It’ll take over your life. You’ll get addicted to all those endorphins. You muscles will ache at first and you’ll have to consult your teacher about whether you need to correct something to stop it. You’ll be in trouble at home for being out so much. Just when you think you’ve got it, your teacher will let you know you haven’t. Then you’ll feel as if you can’t do it at all. There is absolutely no end to it. I’ve heard people say it will take several lifetimes just to get one move at the end, call it “Turn to Sweep Lotus” down pat. Face it -there is no “down pat”. There is no perfection. Never. You can go on learning forever.
OMG, you actually like that last idea!
Well, you wouldn’t like that feeling of calm that settles on you during the set, once you have learned it enough to follow. You wouldn’t like the group energy that gets going when you follow each other well. You’re an individual aren’t you? You’re a North ‘Merican if not actually an ‘Merican. (No apology needed Ozzies as you know. You’re even more so. And that 1 German viewer same diff.) You don’t want some tai chi master correcting you. Good grief, all the instructors in my club are volunteers and we are supposed to maintain our own club building and run the damn place. “This is not an exercise club”, we are told. Charitable works, open hearts! Come on!
Of course, you may be able to find a tai chi club that espouses closed hearts, uncharitable works, etc. Good luck! Your club may just charge you a high fee and let you go your own way.
I have to confess that last Saturday, at the good old volunteer-based tai chi club, when 7 of us foregathered in a work party to lift and drill and clean and eat a delicious lunch that an someone had brought unbidden, then I was carried back to my childhood and the church hall with the women setting out the chicken pie supper. I loved that group co-operation and getting things done.
Doing a tai chi set later, a group of 6 just like doing it in a group of 35 or on occasion in a group of 700, has that same feeling, many-fold.
I hesitate to recommend tai chi to you. It’s a serious decision. You’ll be frustrated at first. You don’t want that. You may hurt sometimes. You’ll never actually know whether it’s the tai chi that making you limber and strong and keeping you alive. And all that peace that comes of a moving meditation, how’s that going to jack you up?
I went to the woods to see how the trilliums were doing.
It has been an exceptionally early spring here in Toronto after an unseasonably warm winter with very little snow. They say things are about a month ahead. The magnolias paid a price for early budding when the temperature suddenly fell below freezing, but many of them just marked time in the bud stage and opened up in pink glory, only a little brown at the edges, when things warmed up. Now light green leaves are feathering out on some trees, so the trilliums, I reasoned, should be blooming before the trees cut off their light.
Trilliums have a sort of magic about them. They are highly regarded here because they are Ontario’s floral symbol and school children are taught NEVER TO PICK THEM because they will not grow back.
I had walked down the paved bicycle path into the park but left it to cross a culvert over a brook and climb up into the woods. The woods grows on sand dunes left here by an ancient lake, so there are sunny hillsides under the trees and it was on one of those that I found the trilliums. The lily of the valley leaves had also pushed up and were waiting their turn to unfurl with their heady perfume and a few violets lined the path.
I followed a freshet on a rough path, climbing over tree trunks, which on a warmer day would have tempted me to sit and stare. I came to an open field, already mowed, where families like to come to picnic. Then I turned east and began the climb onto a high ridge. Here the trees were still bare, but the bushes were green and there were masses of white flowers, which I have yet to identify.
There has been a tidal wave of butterflies this spring, mostly red admirals. One report told of a backyard covered in 2000 of them (How did they figure that?) Some of them were sunning themselves on the ridge path and as I approached they flew up and chased each other in circles. I was still wearing a huge grin when I met a man and his dog.
On one side, I looked down into the woods and on the other out at the city -street, railway, freeway, high rises, and beyond them Lake Ontario, deep blue for the nonce.
The week had brought a weight of difficulty as weeks often do. There were unresolved problems and uncertain outcomes. There was negativity to be processed. But here there was a sanctuary in the woods. Here there was stillness that comforted. Here there was peace.
Have you found such a place lately? Perhaps it was not even external. Perhaps you found it within. Tell us about it.
Zazen just means sitting, but we usually think of it as sitting in meditation. The idea is to quiet the mind in order to be with a deeper part of self, to gain a measure of peace.
Eckhart Tolle in his book The Power of Now describes it as being in the now, not anticipating the future or regretting the past, not planning, worrying, or processing, just being. Here we contact eternity, which is not, after all, in the future. Here we can find ourselves in heaven, which is not, after all, in the sky.
No doubt it is possible and in the forty years I have been at it, I may have actually got there a few times. Nowadays, there’s stuff in the way – wasn’t there always? – obsessive thoughts, runaway feelings, aches and pains. So I begin with the journal to give the mind a free rein, let it think all it wants and report back. It does run on, usually for half an hour and 4 or 5 handwritten pages. Then it’s the body’s turn to do the jongs or exercises associated with tai chi. This takes 15 minutes or so and leaves me limber enough to sit, but not, alas, to sit in full lotus position. Only now do I find it possible to let go of the racing mind. For whole seconds at a time!
Spiritual practice is always an individual choice, don’t you think? Whatever we do on a regular basis with concentrated focus can lead to self cultivation.
In his book of daily meditations, 365 Tao, Deng Ming-Dao says “Followers of Tao frequently use writing, art and even poetry as tools for self-discovery By articulating their experiences, it helps them to understand the stages they are going through. Once they can do this, it satisfies and neutralizes their rational minds.” (p. 63)
Journaling can be a meditation.